I feel like we were just here a matter of months ago, another aimless Melissa McCarthy comedy vehicle written and directed by her husband and chief enabler, Ben Falcone. With Thunder Force, McCarthy becomes an accidental superhero and that premise should be enough with this star to power a silly and amusing 90 minutes of entertainment. Once again it’s a dispiriting comedy that feels like it’s just sitting around and waiting for the performers to find something funny in their scenes and family-friendly improv ramblings. The energy of this movie is completely slack, and scenes feel adrift, lacking proper direction or purpose. The whole movie feels gassed and grasping. It takes 45 minutes for McCarthy to train to be a hero and sometimes there just aren’t jokes. Take one instance where McCarthy literally throws a bus, a point strangely referred to multiple times earlier as a setup for this long-desired moment, and then under Falcone’s uninspired direction we don’t even see the messy results. We don’t even see the bus crashing into, like, an orphanage or something that would provide an actual punchline. The comedy malpractice can be staggering. It’s the kind of movie that resorts to characterization where everything is clumsily reported to us, like, “You’ve always been this way since…” The chemistry between McCarthy and Octavia Spencer (The Witches) is lukewarm at best for these longtime friends. The buddy comedy doesn’t even seem like it was developed beyond its initial pitch. The shining light of this movie is easily Jason Bateman (Ozark), who plays a crab-armed mutant criminal that becomes an improbable romantic suitor for McCarthy’s character. If there is anything that made me laugh, it was related to this character (and an ordinary henchman named Andrew who may or may not be targeted as the next to get killed by his evil boss played by Bobby Cannavale). I even loved the simple image of Bateman crab walking off screen with his arms in the air. The sheer weirdness is enough to make you realize what potential could have been tapped with this super premise and with McCarthy, who can be so charming and disarming when she gives into her odd impulses. Just give me a full movie where a middle-aged superwoman tries to make a relationship with a crab-man super villain work. I wish that Thunder Force had more courage to chase its weird rather than settle, time and again, as an action comedy that is middling with its action and middling with its comedy. I think I had more fun with 2020’s Super Intelligence, another mediocre Falcone collaboration.
Nate’s Grade: C
Luc Besson sci-fi opera by way of South Korea, the unfortunately named Space Sweepers is a wonderful surprise of a movie that could unfairly get lost amid the glut of Netflix. It’s immediately engaging and filled with intriguing world-building. In 2093, Earth is a garbage dump and the rich (and primarily white people) have migrated to an orbiting space station that needs protecting from space debris. That’s where the space sweepers come into play, ragtag teams competing to claim space junk to sell back to The Company, though never able to escape their crushing debt. The Company is looking to colonize Mars and put more effort into making it habitable than salvaging Earth. A little girl might be the key to a flourishing Mars or resurgent Earth. She finds her way into the custody of a colorful group of malcontents, each with a clearly defined personality, motivation, and character arc, including the snippy robot who likes to harpoon ships in space. Spending time with this world and these characters is such an enjoyable experience because it just uncovers more and more layers to the hefty world-building and history. The story itself isn’t revolutionary, and the villain is a megalomaniacal CEO (Richard Armitage), and you’ll fully anticipate that the same space scrappers that want to sell off this little girl will eventually grow close to her and will be willing to die for her. The plot itself, at least in broad strokes, might be familiar, but it’s the level of detail and imagination and especially execution that sets Space Sweepers apart. I enjoyed how diverse the depiction of this future was, where people from different languages would simply speak their native tongues and be perfectly understood thanks to in-ear translators. The action sequences are exiting and visually immersive. I’ve never seen a harpoon in space battles before. It feels like a living anime moment. The special effects are consistently impressive. The set designs are large and lived-in. The small details all manage to add up, and small character moments still resonate, like one character’s constant loss of his shoes for greater sacrifices or a robot that feels seen for the first time as they are. A late twist had me nearly applauding for the emotional impact it altered with a big standard doomsday scenario. It’s a supremely fun and imaginative setting, enough that I thought it would have sustained a whole series on Netflix. I was happy it was a movie, though, because then I got all the payoffs and climaxes in one slightly two-hour setting. I’m impressed every year at the sheer high quality of the genre movies that South Korean filmmakers have been delivering. I highly advise fans of frothy, fun sci-fi like The Fifth Element to find this movie on Netflix and give it a watch. It’s a surprise treat and proof positive that old concepts can still shine with the right effort and careful development.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary but it’s a hard movie to describe because, at its core, it’s the use of art to memorialize a man, to process grief on personal terms, and as a love letter from a daughter to a father. Kirsten Johnston (Cameraperson) records her life caring for her ailing 85-year-old father. Dick is a former therapist, a widower, and starting to go through the early stages of Alzheimer’s and coming to terms with his new limitations. Kirsten is a camera operator who has worked on documentaries for over thirty years, so she turns the lens on her father and the two of them enact a series of wacky fake deaths, starring Dick himself (until the stuntmen take over), as father and daughter work to make a movie celebrating life while they still can together.
First things first, Dick Johnson is just the sweetest man. Spending time with him is a treat and watching him smile with like his whole face just made me feel happy. I enjoyed learning just what a good person he was and what he’s meant to his friends, family, and colleagues, but he’s just so pleasant and nice and compassionate that you feel the love his daughter intends you to understand. That’s the overwhelming feeling from this quirky documentary. Dick has such love for his daughter and is willing to humor her silly morbid scenarios confronting his death. Kirsten has loved this man for so long and already lost one parent to Alzheimer’s and now must go through it again. She’s using the medium she feels most capable and comfortable with, photography and moviemaking, to celebrate her father and his unheralded life of being a good man coming to an end. My heart ached for him when he breaks into tears articulating what relinquishing his ability to drive means for him and his sense of independence, looking ahead. Kirsten highlights some of the more unusual details about her father for this movie-within-a-movie, creating sequences that shed light on his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist and his insecurity over how his feet appear. It’s insightful aspects that better round out this man, like his ability to start conversations with strangers, or his knack of being able to fall asleep anywhere as long as he can prop his feet up. For Kirsten, recording these moments while her father is still lucid is a matter of documenting him while he can still recognize himself. She laments the minuscule amount of footage she has of her mother before her death. She doesn’t want to make the same mistake with her father, so why not also make him a movie star if she can? Watching Dick Johnson is Dead is to feel overcome with her adoration for this remarkably ordinary and good man.
The movie also serves as a strange way to take control over something inevitable yet unknowable. Dick Johnson is going to die, as we all will, but he will very likely die before his physical body expires. His mind will deteriorate, and he’ll stop being Dick Johnson. I wondered early why the movie kept resorting to slapstick with the many possible deaths of Dick onscreen. It’s more than a bit morbid for a daughter to direct her own father dying again and again in a variety of wild and bloody and violent accidents. I can understand many viewers being put off by this, worrying that Dick is being exploited, and at least finding it all to be in bad taste. I tried to assess why this element was so essential to the production. I suppose it functions as a gimmick that can help it get more attention and a larger audience considering the film lacks a hard-charging topic, unique insider access, or a headline-grabbing name or artistic approach. However, as I continued with the movie, I concluded that Kirsten Johnson is inflicting all manner of over-the-top goofy deaths and violent mayhem upon her beloved father as a means of processing her looming grief. She’s trying to reclaim a sense of control and offering that same ownership to her father. They aren’t running from his death but are embracing it, laughing at it, and doing it their way. The documentary is an artifact of love and a filmmaker using art to comprehend her grief.
The Seventh Day Adventist adherence presents an interesting dynamic to explore when discussing a spiritual afterlife. This smaller Christian denomination believes that the worthy will return to heaven but only after Jesus returns to Earth to kick-start the whole Armageddon deal. Until that fateful day, the dead will lay in their graves and wait for however long it takes. I had never heard about this before. Many religions are about delayed gratification, the reward coming upon the conclusion of Earthly existence, and these people believe the wait extends even beyond death. A lifetime and then some of waiting would shape very patient people like Dick. The great fear of an Adventist, we’re told, is to be one of the ones left behind, and it’s easy to see the parallels with losing one’s sense of identity through the creeping fog of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, strict Adventists also don’t approve of dancing. In a fantasy sequence engineered by Kirsten, Dick gets to dance in heaven with his wife again and knowing all these details gives the moment, which can be immediately silly on a surface-level, its own sense of poignancy and reverence.
The only thing that holds the movie back is that late into its 90 minutes I feel like it gets too manipulative and meta for its own good. There’s an emotional climax and then the movie reveals some key details that can make you feel a little bamboozled. It’s not enough to sacrifice all the emotional investment and artistic gains that came before but it’s just a few steps too far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m genuinely happy with the overall ending, but I didn’t care for being jerked around.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a peculiar, funny, heartwarming, and experimental documentary. It reminded me in some ways of 2012’s The Act of Killing where filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer finds old men who participated in Indonesian genocide in the 1960s to re-enact their crimes but playing their victims and through the surreal prism of a film production. Except this movie is far more personal and far more affirming; it’s very much a love letter to a wonderful man. You feel the intimacy of this family relationship and I felt privileged just to be let in and share these moments, the ordinary ones, the reflective ones, the emotional ones, the silly ones. This is an affecting documentary using its very form and function to use art to make sense of pain. It’s currently available on Netflix streaming and I would highly encourage you to relax, kick your feet up like Dick, and watch one of the best and strangest movies of 2020.
Nate’s Grade: A-
More an acting exercise than a fully developed movie, Pieces of a Woman is a punishing experience for the audience as much as the actors onscreen. The entire first 30 minutes is comprised of watching a home birth in an extended long take, which doesn’t so much immerse you in the situation as beg the question of, “How’d they do that?” The sequence concludes with a rushed delivery and an asphyxiated child, and then we cut to the title screen. From there, it’s 90 minutes of what agonizing grief does to this family. Vanessa Kirby (The Crown) plays the mother and she doesn’t want to let go but also feels uncomfortable that their flustered midwife is being charged with negligent homicide. Her boyfriend (Shia LaBeouf) is struggling to maintain their relationship and move past their shared tragedy. Her mother (Ellen Burstyn) is a domineering presence and wants the boyfriend gone and the midwife in jail. It’s all very well acted and Kirby does a fine job dredging up pure emotional devastation. The problem is that Pieces of a Woman has seemed to confuse drama with plot. There are many dramatic moments that occur but they don’t really provide greater insight into the main characters who are, at their core from that half-hour mark onward, broken people coming to terms with their response to the unimaginable. It seems paradoxical because the concept of a grieving family, angry and looking to blame someone, a relationship splintered where each party is potentially having an affair to feel something diverting, mother-daughter head-butting, it all seems like foundational elements of compelling drama. The problem is that we don’t ever get progression with the characters and their emotional states from these very dramatic events. They’re suffering, they’re unhappy, they’re numb to the pain yet carrying on, but are they interesting? Are we getting more of a sense over who they are or how they’ve changed? I would argue no. The movie feels locked into stagnation. I think a major stumbling block was spending so much time establishing a realistic birthing sequence opening, aided by a roving and unblinking camera, when the same information could have been covered in the first ten minutes and not first 30. It’s excessive and repetitive, but then so are the 90 minutes that follow that wallow in unchecked misery. It’s an approach that can take some of the devastation out of the horrific. Pieces of a Woman will be available on Netflix streaming starting tomorrow and despite its artistic merits and good acting I can’t exactly argue that it’s worth enduring the pain over.
Nate’s Grade: C+
I knew by the end of 2020, as I was trying to assess the highest highs and lowest lows of cinema, that I was destined to come back around to Netflix’s The Wrong Missy. The Adam Sandler-produced sex comedy looked quite abysmal from its trailer so I knew I’d have to watch this eventually. I tried putting it off for months, and I used it as an incentive for me to try and watch Kelly Reichardt’s well-regarded indie, First Cow. I have disliked every ponderous, monotonous, meandering Reichardt movie I have watched, and despite the critical acclaim, I knew I needed more motivation to keep me going. I told myself if I couldn’t last 30 minutes into First Cow, I’d punish myself and finally watch The Wrong Missy. Well, my feelings for Kelly Reichardt movies proved to be the same and I left First Cow after 30 plot-less, boring minutes. The Wrong Missy is a special kind of bad where it feels like an endurance test to punish you for expecting anything beyond having an unpleasant person screaming in your face for an hour. This isn’t just an obnoxious comedy but an aggressively obnoxious comedy, one that wants to push the envelope with edgy situations and crazy characters but instead just wholly depresses.
Tim (David Spade) is an insurance adjuster still reeling from his former fiancé (Sarah Chalke) abruptly dumping him for a work colleague. Tim goes out on a blind date with Missy (Lauren Lapkus) and it’s a complete disaster. He then encounters Melissa (Molly Sims) at the airport and they share a meet-cute and seem to have the start of something romantic sparking. Tim has a work retreat in Hawaii and he intends to invite Melissa but, instead, invited the infamous Missy. Now Tim has to pretend Missy is the desirable Melissa he’s been bragging about and to tame her wilder impulsive behavior so that he can make a better impression with the big boss.
The Wrong Missy teeters into offensively bad with its questionable content but its biggest artistic miscalculation is that it dials the Missy character up into a horrifying cartoon psychopath that nobody would want to send a second with, and then it tries to say we should fall in love with her like Spade’s character eventually does for some inexplicable reason beyond Stockholm syndrome. The difficulty with making the oddball character lovable is knowing how odd to make them, to establish a baseline of what is normal and what is beyond the pale. The Wrong Missy goes wrong almost immediately with the introductory first date. It’s not just a bad date or one where Missy is too weird; she is categorically insane and truly scary. At one point she brandishes a machete and follows Tim into the bathroom. There’s also so much yelling. So much. Some people don’t have off switches but Missy doesn’t even have a dial to turn down. From the very start, Missy is repellent. There is no salvation here. Any person who encounters her should run for their lives in the other direction. People should be alerting the police. She already is brandishing a knife and has threatened others onscreen. She is a danger to all.
The key problem with the screenplay’s conceit of its mix-up is that Missy is so repellent, and the first date not just bad but legendarily mortifying, that it makes no sense whatsoever that Tim would still have Missy’s contact information in his phone. He would have deleted her completely to try and forget that night ever happened. I too have been lax about getting around to trimming my social media friends and phone contacts, but if I underwent the first date that Tim had, the first thing I would do with a woman that ensured a hospital visit was delete her very presence on my phone and block any means of her contacting me again. This is the fallout of the broad miscalculation in intensity. By making Missy so powerfully obnoxious and the date so horrendous, the next part plot-wise becomes harder to believe. It’s harder to believe Tim would even attempt to go along with this ruse rather than tell Missy to go back home on her own. If he considers her such a liability, what does he have to gain from prolonging the risk by keeping her around? I know the reason is to eventually fall in love with her, but what did he have to lose by immediately jettisoning her once he discovered she was, in fact, the wrong Missy? Nothing.
Much of the humor is just patently gross. I expect a sex comedy to feature bad taste but it’s another matter when the movie feels like it’s trying to so hard to make you uncomfortable, and failing that, The Wrong Missy will just resort to being obnoxious and loud. Take for instance when Tim wakes up on the plane ride to find Missy furiously jerking him off below a blanket. He did not consent to this while conscious let alone when he was unconscious. Imagine if the genders were reversed and a woman woke up with a man’s hand under her pants and he had been doing something without consent while she was asleep or unconscious? We would be horrified and we should still be, and yet this scene is played for laughs. Missy also hypnotizes Tim’s boss into retching whenever he hears a co-worker’s name, so there’s even more questionable consent issues with Missy wreaking havoc on the lives of others. There’s also a sequence late in the film where Missy suggests a threesome between her, Tim, and Tim’s former fiancé. This moment is meant to convey the growing connection between Tim and Missy, and emphasize him moving on from his lingering breakup. This is covered by the fiancé character getting repeatedly hit in her head while Tim and Missy are oblivious to her very existence. It’s just uncomfortable and not funny, especially since it’s the same bad joke over and over. It’s the same with Missy, who often just blurts out something profane, crude, and loathsome. She has a screechy voice she calls “Hellstar” that is neither charming nor funny. I feel like the filmmakers were trying to test an audience into what they might accept under the false pretense of tolerance because Missy is a woman (“Would you not laugh at an obnoxious dude, huh?”) and therefore it would be sexist to call her out for her bad behavior. The problem is that Missy is barely a recognizable human.
Spade (The Do Over) just seems far too old for this kind of movie. He’s 56 years old now and this part is better suited for someone twenty years younger. He’s on smarm autopilot, which is hard to distinguish between playing to his deadpan strengths and him just being bored. Lapkus (Jurassic World) is a comedian I’ve enjoyed from her many TV appearances from Orange is the New Black to Crashing. The only reason for this movie to exist is as a comedy vehicle for her, and she is fully unrestrained and in your face. It’s hard for me to fathom enjoying her character but I suppose there can be points of entertainment just watching the actress go full-out for the majority of the movie. It’s a big, broad, physical performance, though the energy level peters out in the second half as the movie attempts to make her a more acceptable romantic option. I don’t fault Lapkus but I couldn’t stand her grating performance played to the hilt and stuck on repeat.
I think the fact that Sandler’s wife Jackie plays a prominent supporting character (consistently in a bikini) likely tells you all that you need to know about The Wrong Missy’s production. It’s another one of the Happy Madison excuses for Sandler and his pals to have an extended vacation, this time in Hawaii. Sandler’s kids even make cameos as tourists that Missy, naturally, screams at. When you’re using a movie production as a glorified vacation, things like story and character and emotional investment and payoffs tend to fall by the wayside. The director, Tyler Spindel, served as a second-unit director on several Sandler productions from the 2010s. I doubt without the intervention of Sandler that David Spade would still be top-lining romantic comedies in 2020. Lauren Lapkus deserves better and a real star-making vehicle for her to display her physical comedy talents. The Wrong Missy is wrong in about every way a comedy can go and it’s, easily, one of the worst films of 2020.
Nate’s Grade: D
Two new movies are poised for major awards consideration, both based on plays by black authors, and both providing insights into the injustices and experiences of different black Americans from the past. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is available on Netflix streaming and One Night in Miami will soon be available through Amazon Prime in January, and both movies are observant, reflective, unsparing, hard-hitting, and provide some of the best acting you’ll see in movies this year.
In 1930s Chicago, Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) is assembling a team of musicians to record her latest blues single “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Cutler (Colman Domingo) will play trombone, Slow Drag (Michael Potts) will play the bass, old man Toledo (Glynn Turman) will play piano, and Levee (Chadwick Boseman) will play the trumpet. Levee has big ideas about what he can offer, and the rest of the band is happy to simply play their parts. Ma Rainey has her own demands for the record, some of which run counter to Levee and her own manager, and the many personalities will come into direct conflict on one very hot summer day.
The big reason to see Ma Rainey, beyond the fact that it’s an amazing adaption of a great August Wilson play, is because it’s the final film performance from the late Chadwick Boseman. The world was stunned when the Black Panther actor suddenly died in August in the prime of his career. He had been hiding a years-long battle with colon cancer that only made his work ethic more astonishing. This man knew his life could very likely be cut short, but he wanted to make a difference by using his celebrity status to portray a gallery of historical heroes like Thurgood Marshall and James Brown. Of course, it also raises the question why waste your valuable time on something as mediocre as 21 Bridges. Regardless, with this new knowledge, it’s impossible not to find extra layers of meaning with Boseman’s final remarkable performance. Immediately you notice how thin he is, lanky, and now we know why. The character feels like someone just stringing along on the faintest of threads, a hope for a better tomorrow, and Boseman’s gaunt physical form reinforces that desperate impression. There’s also a moving moment where Levee is monologuing about his disdain for God’s lack of intervention in his life, during his mother’s assault by a team of white men, during the entire experience of every African American. It’s hard not to read the actor’s own personal struggle into this confrontational moment, lashing out at the unfairness of a life denied too early, and it just makes a tragic figure even more wearingly tragic. The final image is so summative of Levee’s tragedy and the music industry profiting off the entrenched exploitation of black musicians, that it feels so dispiriting even without further explanation.
The entire time I was relishing Boseman’s performance like one final meal, and the man makes a feast of it. Another critic compared Boseman’s performance to an athlete “leaving it all on the field,” and I couldn’t agree more. The man gives you everything he has. It’s not a subdued and subtle performance, though Wilson’s plays don’t tend to settle for subdued characters speaking with pronounced subtlety (see: Fences). The playwright’s gift is for crafting big characters with big personalities and big problems, and that’s the way we like it. Levee is a character with more than chip on his shoulder, he has the whole block. He’s bursting with nervous energy, masked as excitement, and eager to finally hit those last few hurdles and get the fame he feels is destined. The other members of the accompaniment are older, settled in their ways and comfortably pessimistic about The Way the World Works. They know the deck is stacked against them and they have accepted this injustice (“Be happy with what you can get,” they argue). Levee is still fighting, still hoping he can break through on the merits of his talents and perseverance, and we can all suspect the hard reality that will come crashing down later. Boseman is captivating from start to finish. It’s his greatest performance of his all-too short career and one I fully expect to sweep come the delayed awards season. It’s the best male acting I’ve seen for all of 2020. As I kept watching, a sadness washed over me, much like watching Heath Ledger during the end of 2008’s The Dark Knight, a melancholy realization that this is it, it’s almost over, and this is all we’ll ever get from an actor who was just beginning to make substantial waves and leave their mark on the industry.
While Boseman’s lead is the biggest draw, Ma Rainey has plenty other aspects deserving of praise. Every character gets time to be fleshed out into feeling like real, complicated people with complicated pasts worth illuminating. Most of the play’s characters are black musicians during a very racist period in American history (you could readily argue that this description applies to all periods). They know they’re being exploited, and they know that these smiling white men with money are only being polite as long as they have something to offer that these men want. Even Ma is aware of her leverage. She’s a successful singer who sells plenty of records, but fame can be fleeting, and her records aren’t selling like they used to, and she knows time is short. She’ll be cast off and replaced by another singer/performer who doesn’t have the wherewithal to push back. Davis (Widows) is a force in this movie, flinty and proud and no-nonsense. She’s great even if she has less screen time than any of the male musicians. It feels like more could be had from exploring her character, her passions, her lesbianism, her sense of self, but Davis still makes quite a presence.
The injustice of the circumstances of the musicians are emblematic of the black experience with America a hundred years hence. Levee has a monologue about his father having to sell his own land to his wife’s attackers. Cutler has a monologue about a preacher who got off on the wrong train stop in Florida and was harassed and threatened by an unruly crowd, his vestments serving him no mercy from a racist mob. Wilson’s wonderful words are brought to sterling life from these seasoned performers and their digressions and reflections better paint a thematic mosaic of shared communal pain. The way the movie holds your attention even when Boseman isn’t on screen is a testament to how engaging and well-realized Wilson’s characters can be no matter how small.
With One Night in Miami, based upon the play by Kemp Powers (co-director of Soul), we follow big names of sports and politics that improbably convened together one night in 1964. Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) has just become heavyweight champion of boxing and is poised to announce his conversion to Islam under the tutelage of Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir). NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge) has crossed over into movies and is starting to think about life after football. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) is riding high off his recording fame but wondering how much more of himself and his artistic voice he should insert. Over the course of this long night, the four men will converse, bond, butt heads, and make changes with their responsibilities.
The movie, adapted by Kemp as well, establishes each participant before bringing them together for that fateful night (inspired by true events, meaning it’s entirely fictionalized). This first act does a fine job of establishing each character but especially a point of insecurity for them that we’ll watch later become raw and, hopefully, reconciled or re-examined. Jim Brown worries that no matter his level of success, he’ll never be legitimate to a section of America. He’s looking at movies as his inroad but even someone of his fame is still the black character killed first. Cassius Clay is hesitant about making his announcement to Mohammad Ali and Islam, second-guessing the commitment he’s signing up for. Sam Cooke is known for his fluffy pop songs and feels like a sellout, needing the credibility of making music that matters. Malcolm X is preparing to break away from the Nation of Islam after his distaste for the hypocrisy of its leadership. He’s positioning Cassius Clay’s announcement as his big pivot point to make a name for his own break-off movement and hopeful that the media attention will translate into new converts.
The combustibility of this night makes for plenty of compelling drama. Malcolm X is an instigator with the others, spurring them to use their privileged platforms to enact change that can be useful for the Civil Rights movement. He squares his attention on Sam, calling him out for being a tool of white moneymen and even plays him Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and asks why this white man is writing more politically active music than Cooke. The singer pushes back, saying he allowed the Rolling Stones to sample his song because it brings more money into his pocket and his songwriters that he can use to profit black businesses. He proclaims he recognizes the system and is playing it to his advantage. They have very different perspectives that clash, making fine drama that spills over. It’s a purity versus pragmatism argument, one that Cooke raises to flout the indulgences he sees in the leadership of the Nation of Islam, a fact we know Malcolm X is aware of and also cannot stomach. It’s also a version of Malcolm X that is more vulnerable than we’re accustomed to seeing. We’re used the strident, righteous Malcolm X, and here he’s much more indecisive and struggling with making some big personal decisions. Leaving his religious organization is verboten, and he’s looking to reform what he views as sinful failings from his peers, and much rests on the publicity of Clay coming forward. This puts Clay in a tough position especially as he feels uncertain about this commitment. The continual push and pull of these four men lead to several interesting discussions, many that become heated, that allow each to open up as a real and complex person, not just a picture in a textbook.
The ensemble is overall quite solid, though the two biggest performers are the ones at the widest ideological divide. Odom Jr. (Hamilton) brings a distinct charisma and has a silky singing voice you wish you got to hear more often, but he’s also hiding a clear disdain. Whether it’s pride or whether it’s shame, it’s there, and Odom harnesses it to make his character feel like a cat ready to strike, wound up from being dismissed by too many others. Ben-Adir (The OA) nails the intonations of Malcolm X but also adds extra layers of doubt and awkwardness. He tries to parry concerns from the other guys that a “party” in this one motel room will be lame by promoting the power of ice cream (only flavor available: vanilla). This is a humbled and scared Malcolm X, one on the precipice of potentially losing his movement and standing to his ethics, and some may argue his ego. Ben-Adir is soulful and presents a fully formed performance more than lazy imitation (he also played President Obama in the recent Comey Rule miniseries for Showtime).
The biggest question with play adaptations is the challenge of making them feel bigger and more cinematic than contained conversations. Nobody wants to feel trapped in a broom closet. First time film director Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) gets the most from her performers and handling of the subject matter, though the various rooms inside and outside the Miami motel provide little in the way of variance. The men go to the roof to watch the fireworks. A couple leave to go get some liquor. The focus is on the men, so the background of the setting isn’t a huge deal to the entertainment. King’s direction is more felt in the performances, as most actors-turned-directors tend to be, and with that she’s aces. With Ma Rainey, director George C. Wolfe (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) does an excellent job of opening the spaces visually but also making the spaces reflective of mood. The ashy rundown basement where the band practices, the sweat-glistening off the performers with the hot, daub lighting, the peeling paint and broken doors leading to symbolic dead-ends. Wolfe has a stronger command of visuals, not just making his pictures pretty, but also making his play-turned-film feel less confined by its original stage bound limitations.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami are both deserving of your attention. I found Ma Rainey to be the more engaging movie with the higher artistic peaks, anchored by an amazing and career-defining performance from Chadwick Boseman. One Night in Miami is consistently probing and generous and thoughtful and superbly acted as well. Both movies are great tools for empathy and interesting to take together considering they churn with experiences of black characters fighting for equality from a broken system several decades apart. There have been gains made from the time period of Ma Rainey but Malcolm X’s complaints are extremely valid, and many resonate today in the face of systematic racism and police brutality. Watch both movies when available and welcome more black-penned plays making the big screen leap.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: A-
One Night in Miami: B+
It’s full of big feelings, declarations of self-identity, an unabashed love of the transformative power of theater, and its power of positivity can be a balm to many during this holiday season. The Prom is based on a short-lived Broadway musical about a girl in Indiana who wants to bring her girlfriend to the school prom and the ensuing media controversy that erupts. A team of out-of-work theater actors (Meryl Streep, Anthony Rannels, Nicole Kidman, James Corden) see publicity value in rallying to her cause, so they decamp to Indiana and challenge the homophobic PTA leader (Kerry Washington) who refuses to hold an inclusive prom. Director Ryan Murphy’s style and sensibilities work well within the realm of musical theater; a decade of television curation for FX and now Netflix has made him an expert on camp and flash. The man loves applying slick gloss to trash. His camera is constantly, uncontrollably moving during the numerous musical numbers, attempting to compensate for the generic quality of the majority of them. There are two standouts. The first is when Corden’s character takes our lesbian teen to the mall for a makeover. It’s got a catchy hook and one that becomes a reoccurring theme for the show. The second is when Rannels’ character is pointing out the hypocrisy of local Christians decrying homosexuality but falling short of other Biblical teachings. The story is sweet but un-challenging. The plot exhausts so quickly that I was amazed at one point to discover there was still an hour left in the over two-hour production. Each member of the squad gets a signature number to varying degree of success. The happy ending is affirming and heartfelt but also quite easy and kind of unearned. The amount of catharsis and reconciliation doesn’t gel with the emotional investment and development of these characters. They’re nice but relatively dull, and the industry satire only goes so far to chide the out-of-touch Broadway elites for their own prejudices of Midwest life. The Prom is disposable fluff that will pacify an afternoon.
Nate’s Grade: C+
The Midnight Sky is really two sci-fi survival movies in one. In 2040, the world is experiencing a planet-killing ecological disaster. A team of astronauts, lead by a pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones), is returning from a multi-year mission to check if a moon of Jupiter is habitable. On Earth, Augustine (George Clooney with a Santa beard) is the lone scientist left at an Arctic research station. He has cancer and sees his life as having run its course, that is, until he finds a small girl (Caoilinn Springall) who missed being evacuated. They band together to brave the wintry, poisonous elements to travel to another outpost to better communicate with the returning astronauts and possibly secure an escape from this dying world. It sounds like it should be a very exciting and interesting movie. There are even sinking ice floes, space walks amidst deadly asteroids, and Augustine having to stop at points lest he overtax his frail body. In practice, the movie isn’t so much exciting as it is ponderous, grasping for a larger philosophy and existential meaning that seems entirely elusive. We’re treated to several flashbacks of a young Augustine (different actor but still voiced by Clooney) that seem superfluous until a grand reveal that made me audibly groan so loud I thought my neighbors would complain. I kept waiting for the relevancy between the stories to be demonstrated, and when it happened it was not worth the two-hour wait. The realization was so hokey that it retroactively made me dislike the movie’s moments that had been working earlier. As far as direction, this might be one of Clooney’s strongest turns as a visual storyteller, even if he borrows liberally from other recent sci-fi movies, notably Gravity, The Martian, and Interstellar. There are moments of stark beauty and terror. Ultimately, the whole movie amounts to a sad man taking stock of his life and legacy (is he a metaphor for the Earth? Is the Earth a metaphor for him?), and I’m still wondering how something this glum could also be so maudlin. The pacing is another issue. I was always eager to jump to the other storyline to see what they were doing (a cinematic “grass is greener” mindset). The acting is fine and I wish I could have spent more time getting to know the crew of this space mission (including Kyle Chandler, Demian Bichir, David Oyelowo, and Tiffany Boone) or conversely gotten to feel more of bond between Augustine and his near-mute charge that felt like it was providing insight into this man. Looking back, there’s a reason for some of the stilted characterization, but having an excuse for why your characters aren’t better developed is like preparing an excuse why you did something self-sabotaging. The rest of The Midnight Sky doesn’t better compensate for this storytelling choice, and so the movie feels too dull, frustrating, opaque, and overly manipulative, aided and abetted by Alexandre Desplat’s sappy score. No more than the sum of its parts, you can soon watch The Midnight Sky on Netflix and fall asleep to it on your own couch.
Nate’s Grade: C+
In 2003, director Peyton Reed (Ant-Man, Bring it On) recreated the “no-sex sex comedies” of the 1960s starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, with Down with Love. It recreated not just that era in time but also the hokey filmmaking techniques of its time, including green screen for rear projection as the characters drive. It was a big homage to older Hollywood and a celebration of its outdated filmmaking and storytelling. But was the movie ever more than one elaborate homage? Did the film have any other reason for being than imitation? What about Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho? This is what I thought of as I watched David Fincher’s highly anticipated new movie, Mank, a surefire awards contender about Herman Mankiewicz as he writes early drafts of his career masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Fincher goes to a lot of trouble to recreate the look, feel, and sound of Mank’s creative era, but by the end I had one clear summation in mind: Mank is David Fincher’s Down with Love.
Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is washed up and he knows it. It’s 1940 and he’s worn out his welcome at the movie studios he used to be a screenwriting titan, heading story departments and adding witty, sardonic patter to dozens of studio pictures. He was a favored guest of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and a friend to his wife Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), an actress who got a boost from her high-profile marriage. Now he’s on the outs of the industry that has grown tired of his antics. Enter 24-year-old radio wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who personally wants to work with Mank. Welles has been given full creative control for his feature film debut and wants to make something big. He tasks Mank with writing the first draft and Mank turns to the people he knows best to skewer.
I was not expecting my blasé reaction to a Fincher film. It’s his first movie in 6 years (Gone Girl) and I think maybe his least compelling movie of his career. I’m not going to say that The Game or Panic Room are more artistic movies than Mank, steeped in the Hollywood studio system and lovingly recreating a faded era of bigwigs and big mouths. However, I will resolutely claim that either The Game or Panic Room are more entertaining. I doubt I’ll ever watch Mank again in my life. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix streaming, I watched the 130-minute movie over the course of two days but I was starting and stopping throughout. At one point I found myself zoning out and realized I had missed the importance of the scene and had to rewind to watch again. Dear reader, this was not my expected response at all. Why did I find the movie so lackluster? I think it comes down to the fact that it doesn’t really give you any more insight into Mank, the old studio bosses, the life and allure of filmmaking, the ascending industry of motion pictures and their prevailing cultural dominance, or even on Hearst or intriguing behind the scenes struggles with Kane. You’re just witness to history and not actively digesting and assessing it. In all honesty, you would be better off watching the Oscar-winning documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane or the underseen 1999 HBO TV movie RKO 281 (starring Liev Schireber as Welles and John Malkovich as Mank). Either of those two other movies would give you better intrigue and insight into the men and their legacies.
The character of Mank comes across so superficially like he’s just a catty, booze-soaked genius who is only good for a cutting retort and vomiting on your floor. I cannot state enough how uninteresting the character of Herman Mankiewicz comes across during this movie. He’s exactly the same from beginning to end and it gets rather tiresome. Even his first moments, where every dialogue response has to be pithy or setting up a later pithy remarks, can grow tiresome. It’s as if Fincher has made Mank one of his own characters in one of his own movies. He’s certainly not an unblemished protagonist. He has all manner of self-control problems, from his drinking to his mouth to his gambling to his general impulsivity. There should be drama here especially as he composes what every character tells him is “the best thing you’ve ever written.” I think part of the reason that I never really warmed to this character is that it never feels like anything really matters to him. Sure, he has his liberal values and trumpets causes and spats but I didn’t feel like I ever really knew Mank as an actual person. He’s too flippant, too passing, and too pleased to remain that way that spending an entire movie with this portrayal becomes exasperating.
The screenplay by Jack Fincher (the late father of the director) jumps back and forth between the framing device of Mank being cooped up in 1940 and writing Kane and his earlier experiences in Tinseltown through the 1930s. The framing device is unnecessary and boring. Mank’s relationship with the personal secretary (Lily Collins) tasked to write his dictation is just a dull storytelling device, another person in the room to give Mank a foil to launch his wit, and also, naturally, to remind him just how great a writer he can be. The 1940 Mank doesn’t feel like he’s gained any more wisdom or remorse. The flashbacks, accompanied by typewriter screenplay headlines, never fully coalesce into a clearer picture of the times. There is a lengthy subplot involving muckraking writer Upton Sinclair (literally played by Bill Nye “The Science Guy”) running for California governor, but all it does is establish that the studio heads are on one side of the ideological spectrum and Mank is on the other. There’s some conflict, yes, for him to continue working with these fat cats, the antithesis of his socialist politics, but it’s such a lengthy segment that I kept waiting for more relevance or life lessons. Then there’s a guy who might or might not kill himself and I’m supposed to care. The screenplay feels more like a series of anecdotes that jumps around a bit too much to really offer an insightful portrait of its star.
It also doesn’t help matters that Fincher’s film is part revisionist fantasy about the creation of Kane. This discredited theory stems from film critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 book, Raising Kane, where she proposed that it was solely Markiewicz and not Welles who wrote Citizen Kane. That is true… for the first two drafts. There were five drafts afterwards leading to production. It’s very true that much of the sturdy foundations were laid in place from Mank and his connections to Hearst and Davies (though Mank swore his portrayal of Davies was not intended to be her but the media version of her). It’s also true that Welles would shape and revise what Mank had begun and improve upon an already great start. There are plenty of articles to be read to better educate on the subject, or you can watch The Battle Over Citizen Kane, but the idea that Welles wanted to steal unearned credit and that Mank is some artistic martyr has not held up to decades of re-evaluation after Kael’s initial publication. There really is an interesting story how many ground-breaking rules Welles and Mank and cinematographer Gregg Tolland broke to tell their great American movie, and how revolutionary the movie was and continues to be so modern. You don’t have to resort to revisionist fantasy to tell the story of Mank and Kane, especially when the portrayal of Mankiewicz isn’t exactly notable to engender my passionate outrage.
Another bizarre choice is that Mank sidesteps the real blowback from Citizen Kane. Hearst was a powerful man and using his considerable influence to sabotage the movie. RKO Pictures was offered a sum to sell the film and bury it so it would never be seen. Hearst used his newspaper empire to discredit and defame Welles and his collaborators, but the genius of their work was too much to ignore and was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1941 including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It lost to How Green Was My Valley (the Crash of its day) and only won a single category, Best Original Screenplay. To turn the opposition against Hearst and the powerful mechanisms of capitalism into a squabble with Welles over sole ownership of a collaborative work just seems petty and insulting. Again, there is real drama and real backlash to Kane’s domestic release. Welles was never given complete control again and Mankiewicz faded back into alcoholic obscurity and eventually died in 1953 at age 55. There was much more that Mank could have gone into as a film and yet it just dragged through scene after scene of characters entering rooms, saying pithy remarks, and exiting rooms. More was required.
Oldman (Darkest Hour) is a reliable actor and can be enjoyable as Mank but he’s also victim to the overall tone and limited characterization. His performance is too smirky and self-satisfied, like the character knows he’s going to serve up the perfect one-liner waiting in his mouth at every turn. It’s also a little weird that Oldman is even older than Mank was after he died but Mank’s wife (Tuppence Middleton), who was the exact same age of Mank, is played by a woman almost 30 years younger than Oldman. I see some things from the old system still remain. I thought the two best actors in the movie were Dance (HBO’s Game of Thrones) as Hearst and Seyfried (First Reformed) as his wife, Marion Davies. Dance very much is modeling Hearst like a living king holding court, and Mank is his favorite jester, and the malevolent authority just under the surface is always noticeable, always on the cusp, a powerful man ready to act upon his power. Seyfried gets to reclaim Davies as a character and showcase her not just as a smart actress, who would act “dumb and silly” when she got ahead of herself with Hearst, but as a loving and supportive spouse. She’s goofy, humble, loyal, but also multi-dimensional, far more than the low-class, lonely wannabe opera singer Charles Foster Kane destroys his marriage over that she represented. If anyone deserves to be nominated for an Oscar for Mank, it’s Seyfried and the way she can breathe depth and life so brightly into her role.
Give the tremendous filmmaking pedigree of Fincher, there are obvious technical pleasures to admire. Mank is a stunning recreation of the old studio system, and there is an enjoyment simply watching this world come back to vivid life. The costumes and lavish production design are impressive. Knowing how mercurial Fincher can be as an artist, whenever you’re watching a crowd scene, I think about how long it took to stage every specific element. Fincher is rarely rivaled as a big screen visual stylist with his compositions and camera movements. There’s a gorgeous montage where Mank awaits the gubernatorial election returns and the imagery comes together like a Renaissance painting, reminding the viewer why Fincher made such a name for himself as a music video director in the 80s and 90s. Fincher also adopts much of the technical style of Mank’s era including a sound design that sounds like it’s crackling and humming constantly and “cigarette burns” in the top corner to denote reel changes. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor produce a score that is jaunty, jazzy, and period appropriate, a big detour from their ominous, fuzzy, electronic-heavy scores we associate with them. It’s a whole lot of effort to make a painstaking homage of an older era but what does the movie offer outside of this homage? I don’t think much. If you’re a fan of Old Hollywood and Citizen Kane, you may get more out of Mank, but if you’re looking for insight and entertainment into the men and the movies beyond stylistic imitation, retreat to the real deal.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Hillbilly Elegy is based upon the memoir by JD Vance and in 2016 it became a hot commodity in the wake of Trump’s surprising electoral ascent, with liberals seeing it as a Rosetta Stone to understanding just how so many working-class white people could vote for a billionaire with a gold toilet. The movie, directed by Ron Howard (Apollo 13) and currently available on Netflix, follows an adult JD (Gabriel Basso). He’s a Yale law candidate forced to go back home to Middletown, Ohio after his mother Bev (Amy Adams) lands in the hospital for a heroin overdose. It’s 2011, and Bev has been fighting a losing battle with opioids for over a decade, costing her a string of boyfriends and jobs. JD’s homecoming isn’t quite so rosy. While he can take comfort in fried bologna sandwiches and his sister (Haley Bennett), the town is not what it once was. The factory has closed, poverty is generational, and his mother is one of many struggling to stay clean. In flashback, we watch MeeMaw (Glenn Close) take in the young JD (Owen Asztalos) and raise him on the right path. JD must decide how far the bonds of family go and how much he may be willing to forgive his mother even if she can never ask for help.
The subtitle of Vance’s novel was “A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis,” and it’s that latter part that got the most attention for the book and critical examination. Many a think piece was born from Vance’s best-selling expose on the hardscrabble beginnings of his personal story along the hills of Kentucky and the Ohio River Valley and his recipe for success. Given his libertarian political leanings, it’s not a surprise that his solutions don’t involve a more interventionist government and social safety nets. According to Vance’s book, he saw poverty as self-perpetuating and conquerable. It was the “learned helplessness” of his fellow Rust Belt inhabitants that Vance saw as their downfall. For me, this seems quite lacking in basic empathy. You see these people aren’t poor because they’ve been betrayed by greedy corporations, indifferent politicians, a gutted infrastructure and educational system in rural America, pill mills flooding Appalachia with cheap opioids, and a prison system that incentivizes incarceration over rehabilitation. For Vance and his like-minded fellows, upward mobility is a matter of mind over matter, and these working-class folks have just given up or won’t work as hard as before.
Now, as should be evident, I strongly disagree with this cultural diagnosis, but at least Vance is trying to use his own story as a launching point to address larger points about a portion of America that feels forgotten. The movie strips all of this away. Screenwriter Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water) juggles multiple timelines and flashbacks within flashbacks as Vance follows the formula of prodigal son returning back to his home. The entire draw of the book, its purported insights into a culture too removed from the coastal elites, is replaced with a standard formula about a boy rediscovering his roots and assessing his dysfunctional family. At this rate, I’m surprised they didn’t even time it so that Vance was returning home for Thanksgiving.
Removed of relevant social commentary, Hillbilly Elegy becomes little more than a gauzy, awards-bait entry meant to uplift but instead can’t help itself from being overwrought poverty porn. If we’re not looking at the bigger picture of how Appalachia got to be this way, then Vance becomes less our entry point into a world and more just an escaped prisoner. Except the movie doesn’t raise Vance up as exceptional and instead just a regular guy who pulled himself up by his bootstraps through will and family support. I’m not saying he is exceptional, I don’t know the man, but this approach then ignores the reality of why so many others just aren’t following his footsteps of simply trying harder. Without granting a more empathetic and careful understanding of the circumstances of poverty, Howard has made his movie the equivalent of a higher-caliber Running with Scissors, a memoir about a young man persevering through his “quirky, messed up family” to make something of himself on the outside. This reductive approach is meant to avoid the trappings of social commentary, and yet in trying to make his film studiously apolitical to be safer and more appealing, Howard has stumbled into making Hillbilly Elegy more insulting to its Appalachia roots. Systemic poverty is seen as a choice, as people that just aren’t trying as hard, that have given up and accepted their diminished fates. Never mind mitigating economic, psychotropic, and educational circumstances. I imagine Howard wanted to deliver something along the lines of Winter’s Bone, unsparing but deeply aware of its culture, but instead the movie is far more akin to a sloppy compilation of Hallmark movies and catchy self-deprecating bumper sticker slogans. Seriously, about every other line of dialogue feels like it was meant to be on a T-shirt, from “Where we come from is who we are, but we choose every day who we become,” to, “There are three types of people in this world: good Terminators, bad Terminators, and neutral.” Well, maybe not that last one. The insights are fleeting and surface-level, with vague patronizing along the fringes.
The personal story of J.D. Vance takes the center stage and yet he’s the biggest blank of characters, and what we do get isn’t exactly that encouraging. I think we’re meant to engage with his triumph over adversity, but he has such disdain for his background while clinging to it as an identity, and this intriguing dichotomy is never explored. Vance as a character is merely there. His awkward experiences relating to the rich elites are just silly. He calls his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) in a panic over what fork to use at a fancy dinner table, as if this perceived social faux pau would be the difference between getting a law firm gig. He’s supposed to feel like an outsider, both at home and away, unable to escape his past that defines him, but the movie doesn’t even make Vance feel alive in the present. Most of the movie he is just there while big acting takes place around him. He listens to the life lessons bestowed upon him, good and bad, and it makes him the kind of man that when he grows up will join Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm, so hooray? I sighed when the movie established the stakes as he needs to get back in time for his big lawyer job interview, a literal family vs. future crossroads. The movie treats its frustrating main character as a witness to history rather than an active participant, and his personal growth is what? Coming to terms with the limitations of his mother? Accepting himself? Leaving them all behind to survive? I don’t know. There is literally a montage where he gets his life back on track, starts getting better grades, ditches his no-good friends, and heads out into the world. This could have been a better articulated character study but instead Vance comes across as much a tourist to this downtrodden world and eager to return to safer confines as any morbidly curious viewer at home.
I simply felt bad for the actors. This is the kind of movie where subtlety isn’t exactly on the agenda, so I expected big showcases of big acting with all capitals and exclamation marks, and even that didn’t prepare me. I watched as Amy Adams (Vice) worked her mouth around an accent that always seemed elusive, with a character that veered wildly depending upon the timing of a scene. Almost every moment with Bev ends in some alarming escalation or outburst, like when a new puppy ends with Bev declaring she will “kill that dog in front of you,” or a ride back home descends into a high-speed promise of killing herself and child out of spite. This woman is troubled, to say the least, and her addictions and mental illness are what defines the character. With that guiding her, Adams is left unrestrained and usually screaming. There’s just so much screaming and wailing and crying and shouting. It’s an off-the-mark performance that reminded me of Julianne Moore in 2006’s Freedomland, where a usually bulletproof actress is left on her own in the deep end, and the resulting struggle leans upon histrionics. Was I supposed to feel sympathy for Bev at some point? Does the movie ever feel sympathy for this woman who terrorizes and beats her child? The broad portrayal lacks humanizing nuance, so Bev feels less like a symbolic victim of a larger rot of a society abandoned and betrayed and more a TV movie villain.
Close (The Wife) disappears into the heavy prosthetics and baggy T-shirts of MeeMaw, but you could have convinced me the character was a pile of coats come to life. Truthfully, MeeMaw is, by far, the most interesting character and the story would have greatly benefited from being re-calibrated from her painful perspective. She’s the one who bears witness to just how far Middletown has fallen since her and PawPaw ventured as young adults with the promise of a secure new life thanks to the thriving factory. She’s the one symbolizing the past and its grip as the present withers. She’s the one who has a history of abuse only to watch her daughter fall into similar patterns. Think of the guilt and torment and desire to rescue her grandson for a better life and save her family. That’s an inherently interesting perspective, but with JD Vance as our mundane lead, MeeMaw is more a slow-walking curmudgeon taken to doling out profane one-liners and grumpy life lessons. Close is easily the best part of Hillbilly Elegy and deserved more attention and consideration. A moment where she clings to JD’s high-scoring math test like a life raft is heartfelt and earned, more so than anything with JD.
Another slice of America that feels forgotten and angry is on display with the documentary Feels Good Man, a.k.a. the Pepe the Frog documentary. Who is Pepe? He’s a cartoon frog created by Matt Furie as part of a comic series of post-college ennui between four friends. The character was adopted by the commenters on the message board 4Chan as their own symbol, and as their memes spread and became more popular with mainstream suers, and that’s when the 4Chan warriors had to do something drastic to save their favorite frog. They began transforming Pepe into a symbol of hate in order to make him toxic for outside use, and then the irony of their attempts at reclamation faded away and Pepe became a real symbol for Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. The character is currently listed on the Anti-Defamation League’s list of symbols of hate. The movie explores this evolution and de-evolution of Matt Furie’s creation and serves as a cautionary tale about the scary shadows of Internet culture and the nature of reclaiming meaning and intent with art.
Firstly, is there enough material here for a full-fledged documentary? We’re talking about a cartoon frog filling up the memes of Internet trolls. Is that enough? I think so, though I wish the movie shed even more critical scrutiny upon the 4Chan fringes of the Internet that have become a toxic cesspool of alienation and recrimination. These are people that self-identify and celebrate their social isolationism. The acronym N.E.E.T. stands for NOT Employed, Educated, or Trained and is adopted by many as an odd badge of honor. We even see home video footage of people sharing their personal lives in cluttered, trash-strewn basements. These are people electing not to engage with a larger functioning society and yet also feeling hostile to those that choose otherwise. Maybe it’s all a big joke to them, so why even bother; maybe it’s a defeatist mentality that plays upon social anxiety and learned helplessness. Maybe it’s just a noisy, nihilistic club that doesn’t want anything for themselves other than to disrupt others. The interview subjects from the 4Chan community are few but offer chilling peeks into this subculture. They see the world in terms of a very high school-level of social hierarchy, and the people who are pretty, successful, and having sexual relationships are the “popular kids” keeping them down. I think in terms of a Venn diagram, that incels and these NEET freaks are a flat circle. It almost feels like Vance’s cultural critiques of his poor Appalachia roots syncs up with the disenchanted 4Chan kids. This self-imposed isolation and self-persecution stews into a hateful mess of resentment. It’s not a surprise that several mass shooters have partaken in 4Chan and 8Chan communities.
This scary subsection of Internet culture has been left to fester and it went next level for the 2016 presidential election. The trolls recognized their own sensibilities in Donald Trump, a candidate whose entire presidency seemed on the precipice of being a bad joke. The alt-right celebrated the man and used Pepe as a symbol for Trump’s trolling of norms and decorum, and the 4Chan message boards became an army of meme makers to steer Internet chatter. It’s hard to say what exactly the cumulative effect of these memes and trolling efforts achieved, in addition to the successful efforts of Russian hackers and a media environment that gave Trump billions of dollars in free airtime, but the 4Chan crowd celebrated their victory. “We memed him to the White House,” they declared. From there, Pepe became a synonymous symbol of a newly emboldened white supremacist coalition and any pretenses of ironic detachment dissolved away.
The rise and mutation of Pepe makes up most of the movie, and it’s certainly the most fascinating and scary part of Feels Good Man. However, there is a larger question about the ownership of art and interpretation that the movie presents without conclusive answers. Symbols are a tricky thing. They’re not permanent. The swastika wasn’t always associated with Hitler and Nazis. A pentagram has significantly different meanings depending upon a Wiccan and conservative Christian audience. Feels Good Man examines Furie as a humble albeit slightly naïve creator. He’s a nice guy who just can’t get his head around what has happened to his creation. How far does the artist’s intent go when it comes to credible meaning? At one point, Furie tried stemming the negativity by killing off Pepe in a limited comic, but it didn’t matter. The 4Chan followers simply remade him as they desired because at that point Pepe was their own. He has been built and rebuilt over and over again, that no one person can claim interpretative supremacy. Furie’s version of Pepe might be gone but there are millions of others alive and well. This gets into the nature of art and how every creator in some regard must make amends with letting go of their creation. Once it enters the larger world for consumption, they can steer conversations but art can take on its own life. The last third of the movie follows Furie taking action to enforce his copyright law to push back against the more outlandish uses of Pepe the frog, including from InfoWars’ Alex Jones, the same man who told us the government was making frogs gay for some unexplained conspiracy. Jones makes for a pretty easy villain to enjoy seeing defeated, and the conclusion of the movie involves dueling taped depositions between Furie and Jones over intellectual trademarks and free speech. It makes for an easy to navigate victory for Furie to end the movie upon, but is this larger war winnable? I have my doubts and I don’t think the trolls of the darker reaches of the Internet are going away.
I also want to single out the beautiful animation that appears throughout Feels Good Man, giving a visual representation to Pepe in a manner that’s like trying to give him a say in his own intent.
So, dear reader, why did I pair both of these movies for a joint review? I found both of them as investigations into a sliver of America that feels forgotten, left behind, stuck in ruts outside their control, and resentful of a changing culture they see as exclusive to their hard-hit communities. I thought both Hillbilly Elegy and Feels Good Man could provide me, and others, greater insight into these subcultures and perhaps solutions that can make them feel more seen and heard. The problem is that Elegy doesn’t provide solutions other than “pull up your bootstraps” and Feels Good Man involves a destructive coalition that I don’t want better seen and heard. Both movies in their own ways deal with the nature of how very human it can be to retreat to their safe confines of people who too feel ostracized, hurt, and overwhelmed. I have pity for the people of the Rust Belt, the hillbillies experiencing generational poverty and hardships, though “economic anxiety” is not simply a regional or whites-only worry. I have less pity for the basement trolls of 4Chan trying to celebrate school shooters because it’s somehow funny. I’m amazed that so many talented people were part of Hillbilly Elegy and had such high hopes. For all of its full-tilt screaming, the movie is thoroughly boring and formulaic. Given the nature of an elegy, I was expecting Howard’s movie would be more considerate of its people, but their humanity is lost in this pared-down characterization, and the tragedy of society failing its own becomes an inauthentic Horatio Alger story of the plucky kid who went to Yale and became a real somebody. Feels Good Man might not be the best documentary but it feels more authentic and owns up to its inability to answer larger questions about human behavior, art, and interpretation. Both of these movies will prove horrifying to watch but only one is intentionally so.
Hillbilly Elegy: C-
Feels Good Man: B