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Bowling for Columbine (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released October 11, 2002:

Documentary filmmaker, political activist and corporate pot-stirrer Michael Moore prefaces his latest film Bowling for Columbine by admitting his lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association (NRA). He even received a marksmanship award as a teenager in his hometown of Flint, Michigan. Bowling for Columbine is Moore’s sprawling and hilarious search for answers among America’s zealous gun culture and alarmingly high number of homicides. It’s the tangents Moore just can’t help but take along the ride that add some of the more fun moments.

He opens a checking account at a Michigan bank that’s offering a gun for new customer accounts. Moore astutely asks an employee, “Do you think it’s a good idea handing out guns in a bank?” Moore travels to Canada to find out what reasons exist that make our cultures so different when it comes to crime. After hearing from citizens about how they don’t lock their doors, Moore decides to go door-to-door and see for himself. Sure enough, he walks into half-a-dozen homes.

Moore is better at pointing the finger than fathoming real answers. He touches media sensationalism, our nation’s bloody history, corporate greed, past military involvement, and an environment of fear being developed by those who profit from such actions. The sobering truth is that there are no easy answers to be debunked. The film’s climax involves an impromptu sit-down with NRA president Charlton Heston. Moore questions the sensitivity of the NRA after it held support rallies days after the school shootings in Littleton and Flint. Heston becomes weary and walks out of the interview after five minutes.

The film demands to be seen. It’s complex, challenging, and thought-provoking. Not only is Bowling for Columbine the most important film of 2002, it’s also one of the best.

Nate’s Grade: A

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I was a junior in high school when the horrific massacre at Columbine happened in April of 1999. I remember the shock that washed over the country. I remember the daze and sorrow. I remember students not coming back to school for days, some because they feared that our Ohio school could be the next site of the next tragedy because of how upending the Columbine school shooting had been for the general sense of security. “How could this happen?’ we solemnly asked. I remember exasperated politicians wringing their hands, grasping for solutions and scapegoats alike, and I most remember just the overall gravity of the whole situation, the sense of loss, and the sense that this meant something significant. Flash forward twenty years, and the Columbine school shootings, which snuffed out 15 lives that fateful morning, is now ranked fifth on the list of deadliest school shootings in the United States, having been gut-wrenchingly eclipsed by the 18 at Parkland in 2018, the 22 in Uvalde in 2022, the 28 in Sandy Hook in 2012, and the 33 in Virginia Tech in 2007. Since then, mass shootings and spree killers have become so common that the satirical news website The Onion keeps recycling the same condemning headline with the latest mass shooting: “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” (this damning headline has been repeated 22 times in eight years time, and it’s only a matter of months at most before it gets repeated yet again if history is anything).

After each new tragedy, we’ve been inured to the reality of anything of merit being done in the way of reform; we move from “thoughts and prayers” to, “let’s not politicize this now,” to, “you’ll never solve every problem,” and then finally to a litany of social issues that conveniently are the real culprits, and never the guns mind you, of course. It’s easy to be cynical that, in our current day and age, no gun tragedy will ever move politicians to make real changes. After Sandy Hook, the most watered down of reforms, increasing background checks, was met with stonewalling from Republicans and those funded by the formidable National Rifle Association (NRA) lobby. After 60 people were slaughtered during a music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, the next hopeful reform was eliminating bump stocks. That didn’t happen. The patterns emerge and become their own tragic parody of performative action masquerading as meaningful action.

When people argue, “Well criminals will just ignore the new laws we pass anyway,” I’m dumbfounded by this logic, as if that is reason enough to cancel all attempts at law and governance. The oft-quoted axiom of a “good guy with a gun” being the only real solution to a “bad guy with a gun” is equally nonsensical to me. If that’s the case, then the rising presence of guns would better police these matters, mitigating their deadliness, and that is definitely not the case. The good guys with the guns aren’t working. The challenge is determining who is a good guy with a gun or a bad guy with a gun. This reflexive thinking never applies to other tragedies: “The only way to battle a bad drunk driver is with a good drunk driver.” It’s maddening for any citizen genuinely seeking common sense gun reform that’s supported by a far majority of voters.

America’s fixation with our gun culture was already a potent issue in 2002 when political muckraker Michael Moore elevated himself to new commercial and critical heights, and it’s only become even more essential to unpacking twenty years later. Moore had restyled documentary filmmaking with his searing and tragic-comic 1989 Roger and Me, his documentation of the fall of the American auto industry in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, where my mother grew up, and his search for answers with General Motors’ CEO, Roger B. Smith. Moore put himself front and center in his films, the schlubby everyman trying to hold truth to power, though he himself would have a slippery hold on it as well. Moore directed two more features in the 1990s, The Big One and Canadian Bacon, his only non-documentary film. But Moore catapulted into a new stratosphere of media attention and derision in the George W. Bush era, first with 2002’s Bowling for Columbine, which won him his first Oscar and set doc box-office records, and then in 2004 for Fahrenheit 9/11, which obliterated the box-office records Moore had just set and would have likely won him another Oscar but he refused to submit in Documentary and only wanted to submit for Best Picture (Born into Brothels won that year instead, so thanks I guess).

Bowling for Columbine is an aggravating movie by design and through Moore’s tactics. The issue of guns and violence in America has only become more central to American lives. Moore’s thesis is messy because it’s hard to find a single cause for the root of America’s gun violence, ignoring, of course, the sheer number of guns, though he even says Canada has a high guns-per-resident ratio from their culture of hunting but lacks our murder rate. The section on the media sensationalism driving gun sales is potent, as a nation constantly in fear will reach for protection that is abundant supply and access. As the murder rate has gone down over the 1990s and 2000s, the network news’ reporting over violent crime has increased, as well as gun ownership. It’s a brew of paranoia that benefits politicians, media, and especially gun manufacturers. Gun sales soared once Barack Obama swept into office, not because he said he would take people’s guns, but a section sure trumpeted those fears for monetary gain. The extended anecdote on the mother of the youngest school shooter, a six-year-old, is a powerful indictment on welfare-to-work and a system that forces people into unlivable choices. I wish Moore had touched more upon the mental health aspect of the gun violence equation, as the far majority of gun violence are suicides and not homicides. Many were quick to deduce that the Columbine killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, were victims of bullying, but millions are victims of bullying and do not shoot up their schools. In a 2017 TED Talk, Dylan Klebold’s mother, Sue, discussed her personal process of coming to terms with her son’s actions and realizing how essential his desire to die was to his infamous actions. When people make irrational, impassioned, split-second decisions, and guns are readily available, then bad things can be made even worse. Moore doesn’t explore this angle, unfortunately. Some of his larger connections can seem very reaching, like when he tries to say that kids knowing their parents work for Lockheed Martin, a military weapons manufacturer, would be less likely to value human life.

But it’s the needless sleight-of-hand tactics with the truth that confound me with Moore, and these inevitably blunt the power of his message and ability to convert thinkers. This habit infuriates and flabbergasts me. Moore has so many good points already at his disposal, so many meaningful data points and heart-tugging anecdotes that he doesn’t need to stretch the truth to convey his message. I’ve since used Bowling for Columbine as an example in teaching credibility gaps and the concept of ethos with public speaking. This is epitomized in the handling of NRA president Charlton Heston. Shortly after the events of Columbine are replayed for us, including frantic 911 calls and security camera footage, Moore cuts to Heston defiantly declaring, “With my cold dead hands,” and informs the viewer that within ten days that the NRA held their annual conference in Denver, despite pleas from local leaders for distance and sensitivity. “Don’t come here? We’re already here,” Heston replies to applause. The problem is that Moore has stitched together two separate Heston speeches to seem as one, including the “From my cold dead hands” intro, which was given an entire year after the Columbine shooting. He also excludes pertinent details like the fact that the meeting in Denver was scheduled a year in advance, the NRA was required by law to notify all four million of its members ten days before a location change, and all other NRA events were canceled except for the meeting required by corporate law. When you look at the parts of Heston’s speech Moore picked from, anyone could follow the same approach and edit the speech to say whatever message they desired. The climax of the movie is Moore sitting down with Heston, but when he peppers him with questions about his speech days after Columbine, and Heston has no idea what he’s talking about, it’s because Moore isn’t playing fair. Then also take into account the aged actor likely going through the Althzeimer’s that caused him to step down from acting and the NRA in 2002. Look, I’m no fan of the NRA, and I personally believe their self-serving actions perform a genuine harm to the country, but this is just self-righteously badgering an ailing old man.

Moore is not the only documentary filmmaker to make use of selective editing, anecdotal evidence extrapolated, and narrative cheats for manipulative emotional purposes, but when you’re being provocative, you’re going to get push back, and when you use deceitful storytelling methods with your facts, you are a disservice to your cause and your message. There’s so much on this topic that Moore can effectively criticize, like the handy media scapegoats, the failings of zero tolerance and school resource officers, the obvious hypocrisy of do-nothing elected officials, the fear-mongering news seeking out consistent sensationalism, a deference to the military industrial complex, and the fact that the rest of the world watches the same movies, listens to the same music, plays the same violent video games, and yet, to paraphrase The Onion, we’re the only country where this happens all the time. Sadly, no place is safe in the U.S. from a possible mass shooting, and yet a good portion of this country will shrug and say that’s just the price we have to pay for living our freedoms. There are so many fallible arguments to poke apart, and that’s why I’m so frustrated with Moore’s misuse of his platform, giving his opponents the ammunition to dismiss his points.

Moore’s career has fallen quite a bit from his meteoric height in 2002 and 2004, last releasing Fahrenheit 11/9 in 2018 to warn about the lasting dangers of an inactive voting public and Donald Trump as president (it grossed $6.3 million, approximately five percent of the gargantuan $119 million gross of Fahrenheit 9/11). It feels like Moore’s style, once so revolutionary, prankish, and urgent, has now become stale. As I wrote in 2018: “If our country ever needed Moore, it would be now, but his time might have already passed as an influencer. The last time Moore was breaking through into the cultural conversation was with Sicko in 2007, years before the formation of the ACA. Since then we’ve seen the rise of social media, YouTube, and the instant commentaries of media old and new, all trying to one-up one another in expediency and exclusivity. Is Moore just another member of the old guard he laments has become obsolete?” It’s not uncommon for a filmmaker to lose their edge or passion after 30 years. It’s also not uncommon for the envelope-pushers to become part of an establishment that a younger public starts tuning out for lack of relevance. I don’t know if Moore has a real audience any more.

Re-reading my old 2002 review, I’m sure glad I kept a paper copy of each of my published film reviews for my college newspaper because it was the only surviving copy I could find. I could not find my review for Bowling for Columbine on any of the websites and blogs I’ve used over the years, so in 2022, I literally sat with my twenty-year-old newspaper and retyped my relatively brief review from 2002. Thank you, me, for stubbornly holding onto these yellowing papers. I remember being more taken with the film in 2002, so much so that I would brush aside criticisms from my other friends who made valid points about Moore’s larger thesis (they just “didn’t get it,” I’m sure I incredulously scoffed). My apologies, my put-upon and sensible friends.

In the scheme of Moore’s catalog of films, I still think Roger and Me is his finest work and much of this is because it’s the most personal of his movies, chronicling the decline of his hometown with his special access. It’s the one that feels most essential for him to be the face of the movie. Bowling for Columbine is a messy movie but all Moore’s films are scattershot entertainments in retrospect, each deserving of reflection but also outside verification. As a result, the movies never become more than the sum of their parts and floating ideas and interviews and stunts and his loose thesis statements rarely coalesce into anything definitive, like an Alex Gibney documentary. Moore can be hectoring and disingenuous, especially during his interviews, and most of all aggravatingly short-sighted in his techniques, but he is a documentary industry unto himself and with good reason. Bowling for Columbine is the start of a conversation, with many asides both illuminating and diversionary, and it’s still worth watching twenty years later, as gun violence has only gotten worse. I think it’s likely Moore’s third best film, after 2007’s Sicko, but maybe I’ll change my mind in 2027. Until then, I’m lowering the film grade from an A to a B.

Re-Review Grade: B

Blonde (2022)

After receiving such blistering and excoriating responses, I went into writer/director Andrew Dominik’s Blonde with great trepidation. The near-three-hour biopic on the iconic Marilyn Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, is the first movie to earn an NC-17 rating since 2011’s Killer Joe, and as such, there’s a natural curiosity factor to any movie receiving such hostile reactions. Fans and critics have called the movie exploitative, navel-gazing, misogynistic, and redundant misery porn. One critic even said Blonde was “the worst movie Netflix has ever made.” I was a major fan of Dominik’s verbosely titled 2007 film, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and less so 2012’s Killing Them Softly, though I recognized sparing artistic merit. It’s been ten years since Dominik has directed a movie, so surely Blonde, based upon the novel by Joyce Carol Oates, had to have some merit beyond all its hype and criticism, right? Well, no. I processed my general disgust for Dominik’s three-hour slow-mo car crash. This movie is so stupendously misguided and cruel and filled with bizarre, outlandish, and maddening artistic decisions. For my movie review, I felt I needed to break my standard formula, so I decided to give voice to my analysis and criticisms by writing a pretend conversation between Dominik and a stand-in for the Netflix production. Enjoy, dear reader, and beware.

Andrew Dominick sits in front of the desk of a very concerned Netflix Producer, who fidgets uncomfortably in his seat and shuffles papers in his hands. 

Netflix Producer: So, thanks, Andrew for making time for this meeting. We’ve seen your full movie and we have some… well, concerns.

Andrew Dominik: That’s life, man. You can’t tell stories without risk. Break a few eggs.

Netflix Producer: Yes, sure, but, well, I guess one of our biggest questions is why did you need almost three hours to devote entirely to the lengthy suffering of Marilyn Monroe? This is supposed to be a biopic, but all we get, scene after scene, to a fault, is a moment of Marilyn being abused, or crying, or being generally exploited. It’s… a lot to take in, Andrew.

Andrew Dominik: Hey man, that was her life. She was this glamorous star, but behind the glamor is a lot more dirt and grime. Everyone wanted to be her, and I wanted to show the world how wrong that would be. This is a woman who was desired by the world and she was still a victim in the Old Hollywood system, which was a rape factory. I was just being honest, man.

Netflix Producer: I get that principle, but it really feels like the only version of Marilyn we get in this movie is the role of a long-suffering victim. It’s practically a passion play: The Passion of Marilyn Monroe. You’re cheapening her real-life suffering by making it so redundant to the point of self-parody, and also, if you were so concerned about creating an honest portrayal of what this woman went through, then why are you also making things up to add to her legitimate suffering?

Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean? I adapted the book.

Netflix Producer: Yes, but you do know that Oates’ book is explicitly fictitious, right? It’s made up. Marilyn never had a throuple relationship with Charlie Chaplain Jr. and Edward G Robinson Jr. Marilyn had a positive relationship with her mother. Even worse, you’re adding fictitious suffering, like her relationship with her mother, or Marilyn being raped during an audition.

Andrew Dominik: Yeah, that might never have happened, but the rape represents the-

Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there. You should refrain from sentences that include the phrase, “The rape represents [blank].” We don’t need literal sexual violence, of which we return to time and again, to stand in for a larger thematic message. Also, it’s quite disingenuous to add extra traumatic experiences when you’re purporting to tell this woman’s real trauma and conflict. 

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, then.

Netflix Producer: No, not really, but, okay, Andrew, can you tell me any personable impression you get of Marilyn from this movie? And-and you cannot say “victim.” 

Andrew Dominik: She was…….

Netflix Producer: …Yes?

Andrew Dominik: Sexy?

Netflix Producer: Okay, sex symbol for nearly 60 years after her death, sure. What else?

Andrew Dominik: She was…. Um…. Uh… Can I look this up on my phone?

Netflix Producer: See, Andrew, this is our problem-

Andrew Dominik: Oh, she has daddy issues! There. That. 

Netflix Producer: And for an hour you have her referring to all the men in her life as “daddy,” which is very uncomfortable especially when those men are literally abusing her.

Andrew Dominik: But, y’see, she calls ‘em all “daddy” because she has-

Netflix Producer: Oh, we get it. Thank you. You have 160 minutes and you keep hitting the same point over and over, bludgeoning the viewer into submission. It’s more than a bit gratuitous, especially when you factor that you’re adding even more trauma. 

Andrew Dominik: What d’ya mean by “gratuitous?” 

Netflix Producer: I have prepared several examples. For starters, it might be a bit much within the first twenty minutes of your movie to subject your audience to a mother trying to drown her child in the bathtub and Marilyn being sexually assaulted at one of her first auditions. 

Andrew Dominik: Okay. Okay. I get that.

Netflix Producer: Then there’s the ghastly POV shot from inside Marilyn’s vagina, which by God happens twice, and both times it’s during forced abortions. Did we really need that queasy angle that is literally invading her body against her will to accomplish what exactly?

Andrew Dominik: The purpose of any true artist is to go deeper-

Netflix Producer: I’m gonna stop you there again. It’s just bad taste, Andrew. Also, speaking of bad taste, maybe we don’t need the entire sequence where JFK rapes her and then hires government goons to abduct her and force Marilyn into an abortion. And then, on top of all that, she hears the pleas of her first aborted fetus calling back to her. Yikes. Can you at any point step outside of your position, Andrew, and realize how shockingly gratuitous all of that can be?

Andrew Dominik: It’s all designed to separate the person from the icon. Marilyn Monroe never really existed beyond the fantasies of the public, man. It’s about bringing back her humanity.

Netflix Producer: Separating the legend from the person would be a natural artistic angle, but that means spending time establishing the person, building her up through multiple dimensions, multiple opportunities to flesh her out. You only spend time seeing her as a victim, that is when we’re not meant to partake in the same sexualization of her that you seem to be criticizing. I mean the 1996 HBO TV movie managed by having two different actresses portray her, with Naomi Judd as Norma Jean and Mira Sorvino as Marilyn. That literalized the differences and even had Marilyn converse with her former persona as a plot device. You have none of that. 

Andrew Dominik: I might not have that, but my movie has a cross dissolve that goes from Marilyn getting banged to the literal crest line of Niagara Falls. 

Netflix Producer: I don’t think that really makes up for a lack of character substance.

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.

Netflix Producer: You really can’t keep using that as a defense. 

Andrew Dominik: Agree to disagree, man.

Netflix Producer: Your horror show of relentless trauma and bad taste might undercut your stated goal of humanizing this woman. She’s not a character but a symbol of abject suffering, a martyr, and you increase her suffering, and sometimes in grating, absurdly grotesque ways. Do you even care about this woman? You’ve devoted three hours to reanimating her as a powerless punching bag. 

Andrew Dominik: Well, I did say Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is about “well-dressed whores” and that Blonde is “just another movie about Marilyn Monroe. And there will be others.” I also said that the most important part of her life was that she killed herself. 

Netflix Producer: Exactly. That makes us question whether you have the passion and sensitivity for this project. Why does this movie even have to be NC-17? Will your three hour torture chamber be bereft of meaning if the audience doesn’t see two inner vaginal camera angles?

Andrew Dominik: How dare you even question my artistic integrity. If you remove those shots, you might as well be removing the soul of this movie. Why even tell this story?

Netflix Producer: Yes, why indeed?

Andrew Dominik: It’s meant to be disorienting.

Netflix Producer: Congrats. 

The Netflix producer leans back in his chair and releases an extended, wearying sigh.

Andrew Dominik: So… after everything…. Are you going to make me cut anything?

Netflix Producer: Please. We’re so hungry for Oscar recognition, we don’t care. Go for it.

I want to cite de Armas’ (The Gray Man) performance as one of the few attributes to the movie. It’s hard to watch this woman suffer and cry in literally every scene, but I also just felt so sad for not just her character but for de Armas as an actress herself. She shouldn’t have to endure everything that she does to play this character. She is undercut by Dominik’s artistic antics and avarice at every turn, like the story jumping around incoherently so every scene fails to build upon one another. There is no genuine character exploration to be found here. It’s a cycle of suffering, and the movie wants to rub your nose in the exploitation of Monroe while simultaneously exploiting her. De Armas deserves better. Marilyn Monroe deserves better. Every viewer deserves better. Spare yourself three awful hours of pointless suffering in the name of misapplied art. 

Nate’s Grade: D-

Licorice Pizza (2021)

It took me many months but I’ve finally watched the last of the 2021 Best Picture nominees, and now I can safely say, I just don’t understand all the love for Licorice Pizza. It’s writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s (Phantom Thread, Boogie Nights) nostalgic L.A. hangout movie, but the axiom of hangout movies is that they only really work if you actually want to hang out with the participants. I’m not certain I needed or wanted to watch either of our lead characters navigate the curious bounds of their possible romantic entanglement. Alana Haim plays Alana, an under-achieving 25-year-old looking to better define herself, and Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who appeared in five prior PTA movies, plays an over-achieving 15-year-old that is in a hurry to grow up and conquer the adult world. He’s crushing on her, she’s flattered but says it’s not appropriate, and over two hours we watch a series of meandering episodic adventures that test their will-they-won’t-they determination. I found Haim’s character to be generally unlikable and, worse, uninteresting. She’s petulant, needling, prone to jealousy but also clearly likes the attention but doesn’t know how far to test it. Hoffman’s character, based in part on Tom Hanks’ childhood friend and producing partner Gary Goetzman, is like a human puppy dog, so overwhelming and sunny and anxious to be liked, but I can’t see any more depth to him or her. They’re just kind of annoying and maybe that’s the point about looking back. I don’t see the larger thesis or theme in many of Anderson’s small and unfunny asides. He’s trying so delicately to recreate a feeling of time and place of early 1970s Los Angeles, but the movie doesn’t succeed in answering why anyone else should really care about this personal PTA slice of nostalgia. The best part of the movie, by far, is the segment where Bradley Cooper plays the lascivious and self-absorbed hairdresser-turned-producer John Peters. Too many of the other misadventures feel like table anecdotes brought to overextended life with technical pizazz and minimal emotional accessibility. Licorice Pizza left me cold and unfulfilled.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Elvis (2022)

Elvis the movie is exactly what I would have hoped for from a Baz Luhrmann film, which is an experience that no one else can provide, a messy, chaotic, crazy, sometimes tin-eared yet audacious and immersive kaleidoscope of sight and sound that feels like a theme park ride. As with all Luhrmann films, the first 20 minutes is a rush of tones, characters, and near constant frenetic movement; it’s so much to process before the movie eventually settles down, at least marginally, or the viewer becomes better acclimated to the madcap storytelling style of this mad Aussie. I feel completely certain that people will call Elvis brilliant, and people will deem Elvis to be ridiculous and campy, and I would say it defiantly manages to be all of these identities at once. It is ridiculous, it is campy, it is emotional and sincere, it is, at points, even brilliant, and in a way, this shambolic style perfectly symbolizes Elvis himself, a performer that seems to be anything that the viewer projects onto him, a trailblazer who suffered for his art before becoming an irreplaceable industry and edifice of pop-culture obsession unto himself.

We chart the rise of Elvis Presley (Austin Butler) from a young crooner in the 1950s to the best-selling solo artist in recording history. Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks) discovers Presley, granted after he’s been a chart-topping local hit in the South, and sees a grand opportunity. With Elvis, there is no limit to where they both can go, and so Parker becomes Elvis’ manager for over twenty years for better and worse, engineering Elvis’ tour of duty in the military to take him away from negative headlines, only for him to meet and marry Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge), to locking him into a Vegas headlining gig to erase the mystery man’s heavy debts to the mob. Under Luhrmann’s guidance, you’ll experience it all and then some in the frenzied 160 minutes.

Elvis was many things for many people. He was a smooth crooner, he was an electric live performer, he was the benefactor of being a white vessel for music that was built upon the less heralded work of black performers, he was a victim, he was selfish, he was devoted to his fans and the stage, he was… America. In 2022, I would have asked if contemporary culture even cared about Elvis anymore, a man who died over 40 years ago, and whether we even have a lens to appreciate the man. Was he simply coasting off the hard work of other black performers? Did he groom his eventual bride considering her age upon their meeting? Was Elvis too old fashioned to even be anything other than a musical touchstone that other artists have surpassed? Is he just a joke? Luhrmann does a fine job of re-contextualizing Elvis, what made him unique for his era, and what made him still captivating to watch to this day. Even the archival footage the closes the movie is a reminder of the unmitigated power the man put into his singing.

It wouldn’t be a Luhrmann movie without a narrator, and this time we get the story’s main antagonist as our prism to view Elvis, marking him chiefly as victim. Tom Parker is a cartoon of a character especially as portrayed by Hanks. I love me some Tom Hanks, the man is an American treasure, and I appreciate that the man is definitely going for broke, but I don’t know at all what he was going for with this performance (the makeup does him no favors also). Hanks is fascinating because he is playing a villainous character that is constantly trying to re-frame their villainy, telling his side of the story but being careful, though not that careful, to always have an answer for an accusation. It feels like Hanks has stepped off the wacky Moulin Rouge! stage and everyone else in the movie is playing things completely straight. The entire acting troupe is all playing under one direction, and then there’s Hanks in his fat suit, who is breaking through the fourth wall, compulsively narrating our story, and acting like a loquacious Loony Tunes figure any second away from his own song and dance. His repeated use of the term “snow job” and “snowman,” which he dubbed himself as a showman, is overused to the point of being a verbal crutch, reminiscent of how often Jay Gatsby had to say some variation of “ole sport” in the 2013 movie or else he might irrevocably burst into glitter (or so I assume). It’s such a bizarre performance of wild choices that I can subjectively say it might be Hanks’ worst and yet it also feels like Hanks is giving Luhrmann exactly what he wants. It’s such a bold move to essentially cede your famous biopic to the most ridiculous character to tell from their ridiculous perspective. Imagine I, Tonya being told from Paul Walter Hauser’s character or House of Gucci being told from Jared Leto’s character, and that’s what we have here. I almost kind of love it, and in doing so, we see from the manipulator how he worked his magic to keep financial control over Elvis. Even Elvis’ later years are provided with a perspective that re-frames the man as a victim of a moneymaking machine that wouldn’t stop until it had drained every last drop of blood from this hard-working man.

I think this is smart because, on the surface, Elvis might not be the most complicated person to devote two hours to unpacking his character dimensions. He liked to sing, as it touched something deep inside him, and he wanted to be true to himself, but this framework isn’t any different from any number of famous musician biopics we’ve become more than accustomed to. He dealt with drug addiction and erratic behavior but, again, even this is musical biopic basics. Even his doomed relationship with Priscilla is familiar stuff, as she could rarely compete with the demands and the allure of the stage. I think Luhrmann and his co-writers wisely saw that the best storytelling avenue with Elvis is through the lesser-known Colonel, a bizarre and calculating figure cackling in the shadows. There are significant questions over who this proud huckster really is and what he did to bully and cajole Elvis into his favor. There’s inherent conflict there as well as an angle that I would argue most are unfamiliar with. I didn’t know much about the history of Elvis the man but I knew even less about this would-be Colonel.

The most Luhrmann of sequences is Elvis’ breakthrough live performance where it feels like every woman in attendance is catching a fever of combustible hormonal fury. The way the man shook his hips, moved his body, his gyrations that so many adults felt were dangerously subversive, were part and parcel of the younger Elvis. He really was a born performer, and even says he can’t sing if he isn’t allowed to move how he feels he must with the music. During this crazy sequence, Luhrmann’s camera is trained on the emotional response of the audience experiencing a sensation that cannot be contained, bubbling to the surface into tears, shrieks, and convulsions, and it moves through the crowd like waves. It’s such an enthusiastic experience that plays right into the stylistic and tonal wheelhouse of Luhrmann. It’s also an unsubtle reminder, not that much is subtle in a Luhrmann movie, that part of the man’s appeal was his raw sexual magnetism.

In a modern era, the condemnation of Elvis as a corrupting influence on the youth feels comically quaint, until you remember that all of this was also filtered through a very racist paranoia. Elvis was deemed a danger because he was an accessible introduction to music and culture that was associated with black people. The accusations of Elvis corrupting the youth are all tinged with racial implications about his source of inspiration, never mind that Elvis was also influenced by a religious revivalism. The movie doesn’t say that Elvis was a sham, only succeeding off the work of other esteemed yet unfairly unheralded black artists. With the many onscreen performances, he is clearly talented, and offers his own versions of others’ songs, but he’s also deferential to the people he grew up with and the music he clearly loves and wants to be a part of to the detriment of whatever Tom Parker and his handlers believe is commercially viable. B. B. King (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) even remarks about Elvis’ own privilege when he thinks about bucking politicians demanding that he perform safe songs without his signature dancing (“They’ll arrest me for just crossing the street. You are a famous white boy who makes them too much money.”).

I’ve purposely delayed from discussing the best reason to go see all 160 ungainly minutes, and that is Butler’s glorious performance. The young man simply dissolves into the role and makes you forget you’re watching an actor. The way he captures the cadence, the drawl, the presence of Elvis, and not just his jerky movements, is phenomenal, and then you remember that it’s Butler doing all his own singing as well, and the spell is near complete. He is Elvis. It’s a performance guaranteed to win as many plaudits as awards season has to offer. Through Butler’s performance, a younger generation can understand what all the hubbub was about. The man brings the character to life but he especially brings Elvis the performer to startling life. Even if you hate Luhrmann’s other movies, and he is definitely divisive, and even if you couldn’t care less about Elvis in the year 2022, this movie is well worth watching for the sheer brilliance of Butler alone.

In some ways, Elvis the movie feels like a perfect assignment for director Baz Luhrmann. His unconventional stylistic approach livens up an otherwise conventional rise-and-fall tale, broadening the appeal of Elvis for an audience that might have otherwise shrugged at a movie chronicling the man’s exploits. The subject matter is also the squarest for Luhrmann, which makes it also the safest movie of his career, which is truly saying something considering some of the imaginative highs of this movie. There will be just as many people put off by the excessive, in-your-face style of the movie as drawn in by that Luhrmann razzle dazzle. Watching Elvis feels like you’re watching two movies simultaneously atop one another. Luhrmann can be exhausting even at his best but he’s also one of the few filmmakers that makes watching a movie such a textual experience, where sight and sound are layered in such meaningful and granular details to better immerse the viewer. The way even the sound designs ebbs and flows, braids musical notes and themes and older selections of influential resources as it all composes a wonderful soundscape. Few put this kind of thought into every nanosecond that Luhrmann does, himself a natural showman who cannot help himself. While plenty will wish for restraint, I say, much as others asked for restraint from Elvis’ gyrations, to let Baz be Baz, and he lets Elvis be Elvis to the giddy entertainment of the audience.

Nate’s Grade: B

Drive My Car (2021)

Here comes my shocking cinematic admission that lowers my standing with my critical brethren: I don’t see what the big fuss is with Drive My Car. The three-hour Japanese movie has bewitched most critics, won several Best Film of the Year designations, and was nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, something only ten or so films have achieved in the Academy’s history. It’s a guaranteed winner for Best International Film, something only one other Japanese film has earned, and no, not anything from legendary Akira Kurosawa. All this is a protracted way of saying this is a very well regarded movie across the globe… and I just couldn’t get into it. Part of this is that the length is overly indulgent and meandering. The three hours feel far too leisurely, and structurally, the entire opening 45 minutes could have been cut and begun with our grieving actor/theater professional restarting his life two years after the sudden death of his wife. Everything you would need to know in that pre-credit beginning is covered later in the movie, which made me wonder why not leave some of the elements as mysteries to be filled in later such as the character’s complicated relationship to his unfaithful wife, what he knew or didn’t know, who is the voice on the tape he’s listening to running lines for the Chekov play Uncle Vanya in his car, and his personal connection to the leading man in the play he’s directing. A whole hour of this movie might be listening to actors say lines from Uncle Vanya, or just hear lines from Uncle Vanya, and then applying the 1898 Russian play to these modern characters and their lives. It’s clever but this kind of stuff works better as subtext. With Drive My Car, it’s the text, the literal text of the story for long portions, and that comes across as frustrating because it’s setting up characters, having them read a famous play, and then telling the audience, “Well, you find the connections.” Again, this works as layered subtext and metaphor in addition to a compelling story, but so much of Drive My Car is at this level of artistic interpretation. Did we need a dozen subdued scenes of them practicing the play in order for the ending to have its impact? That’s the power of art, a tool we can use to relate our fears, hopes, and identities with, sympathizing with the struggles and triumphs of people from other times and places. The core of this movie, for me, was the relationship between the main character and his younger driver assigned to him by the university. This character unfortunately doesn’t get her due until much later. Drive My Car has some beautiful moments, like a graceful family dinner, like the trip to the garbage site in Hiroshima, like a backseat monologue about, what else, decoding a story for meaning as it applies to character insight. This isn’t a bad movie. I can certainly appreciate the big swings at big ideas about grief, the human condition, and the reflective power of art. It’s just structured in a way that doesn’t allow those core elements to shine. Eliminate  many scenes of play rehearsals, eliminate many scenes of driving, and even eliminate the opening 45 minutes, and you have a better paced, better emphasized human drama, at least to my mind. There are plenty of people who have fallen in love with all three hours, but I found myself more listless than lovelorn. I really wanted to like Drive My Car better but I found too much of it to be meandering, redundant, and frustratingly cold and opaque. In the end, after three dragging hours, I could at least say, yes, that woman certainly did drive that man’s car.

Nate’s Grade: B-

CODA (2021)

Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) falls under the category of CODA, a Child Of a Deaf Adult. Her mother (Marlee Matlin) and father (Tony Kotsur) and her older brother (Daniel Durant) are all deaf, and she is the only member of her household with the ability to hear. She’s balancing working for her family on their fishing trawler, maintaining good grades in school, and possibly pursuing scholarships to enroll at a music and fine arts college for singing. Ruby’s music teacher agrees to train her because he believes in her potential, but Ruby has to worry that her dream is something that cannot be shared with the people she loves most, and how would they all get on without her?

The framework of CODA is familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age story or family drama, but it’s the conviction and strength of character and sheer force of empathy that makes this movie a standout film for 2021. It’s based upon a 2014 French film, The Family Beller, and follows many of the same beats from other sentimental family dramas about sticking out in your family and society, chasing your dream, often in conflict with your family’s expectations, gaining that sense of inner strength and resolve, and mending differences in perspective with hard-fought and well-earned wisdom. It’s familiar, but that doesn’t mean under the right set of hands that it cannot still be resonant and emotionally gratifying. I do not hold the familiar formula against CODA, even as the family’s goal and her personal goal come into direct conflict in sometimes forced manners. That’s because the movie does an excellent job of establishing these people as characters, establishing the family dynamic as fraught but loving, and establishing a conflict that is direct and clear as far a major point of separation.

Ruby isn’t just the only member of her family who can hear, she’s also their vital lifeline to the outside world. She’s looked upon as the family interpreter, a position they cannot afford to pay for someone else’s services so the duties and responsibilities fall upon her. That’s so much pressure to bear for one teenage girl, knowing that she’s the link between her family’s poverty-treading existence and possibly breaking free into a larger hearing community. She feels ostracized and awkward within her own family and outside of her own family. To the rest of the school, she’s that “deaf family girl,” and it’s remarked that when she began high school she had an accent reminiscent of what deaf people can sound like, a point that her peers cruelly imitate. She worries she will forever be defined by her family’s disability even if she doesn’t share it. However, within her family, she feels ostracized because she’s different. She wonders if her mother wishes that she too were deaf, and during a heartfelt late-night talk, mom actually admits that upon her daughter’s birth she did feel disappointment when Ruby had hearing. While she knows sign language and has grown up with these loving figures, she’ll still always be the one who’s different, the one who hears the insults her family cannot.

The film does a remarkable effort about contextualizing Ruby’s fears and frustrations of being held captive in two different worlds, neither feeling fully accepted or whole, and that’s why her embarking on a personal dream that her family can never fully appreciate feels so significant. Part of Ruby might feel that singing is selfish, especially if it means limiting her family’s upward mobility by eliminating their unpaid interpreter, but it’s the thing that makes her most happy, a special gift that her family will be excluded from. There’s a wonderful moment toward the end of the movie where Ruby’s father asks her to sing to him, and he puts his hands along her shoulders and neck to feel the vibrations, and his awed and tear-stricken face is so moving, as he so desperately wants to indulge too in the beauty of his daughter’s voice. While occasionally the film goes overboard pounding these two conflicting paths into forced collision (family vs. self), the movie is personal with its big problems and personal with its big triumphs, making it transcend the trappings of formula.

Writer/director Sian Heder got her start on Orange is the New Black, and that TV series’ hallmark has been its enormous sense of empathy for its diverse characters. This is evident in Heder’s screenplay and her observational, detail-rich simple storytelling that immerses you in this world, so even while you recognize more familiar made-for-TV plot turns, the genuine authenticity makes the movie feel like its own unique story. Heder’s direction is delicate and places the attention squarely on her performers. There is one stylistic move late in the film when Ruby’s family comes to her choir recital in support. They look around for cues when to applaud, and their minds wander as they sign about other menial topics like grocery lists, and you understand why once Heder drops you into their perspective. For a minute, the sound disappears, and you’re left studying facial expressions for cues like them. While we can imagine being deaf, it’s another matter to experience it and try and understand.

The acting is another laudable merit for CODA. I personally want three Oscar nominations for this clan, Jones (Locke & Key) for Best Actress, Matlin (Children of a Lesser God) for Best Supporting Actress, and Kotsur (Wild Prairie Rose) for Best Supporting Actor. Over the course of nine months, Jones learned American Sign Language and how to sing, which is surprising because I would have said she has a natural talent with singing. Her performance, as well as Matlin and Kotsur, feel so real, so nuanced, and so natural, like we’ve plucked these people from real life and given them this platform. It’s the best credit you can give an actor, when they seemingly disappear into the character, and the character feels like a fully breathing, flesh-and-blood person. Even the small supporting roles are well cast, well acted, and contribute to the overall authenticity of the movie. Unlike the 2014 French original movie, all of the deaf members of the family are portrayed by actual deaf actors as well.

CODA was a sensation at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, with Apple Films buying the rights for $25 million dollars, and it’s easy to see why because it’s such a satisfying, enriching crowd-pleaser and legit tear-jerker. There were several points that had me tearing up, and then fully crying, because I was so emotionally engaged with the family, their struggles, and their triumphs and outpouring of love. You might be able to see where the movie is headed because its template is familiar and formulaic, but it’s the execution, the attention to detail, and the level of observational attention that elevates CODA and makes it so winning and so heartwarming.

Nate’s Grade: A

Monster’s Ball (2001) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 26, 2001:

Monster’s Ball has already garnered two Oscar nominations, including one for the lovely Halle Berry for Best Actress, and received numerous end of the year accolades. Is Monster’s Ball the startling ruminations on race that you’re being told? Well… yes and no.

Set in the South, Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and his son Sonny (Heath Ledger) are prison guards at the state penitentiary and preparing for an execution. The man to die is Lawrence Musgrove (Sean Combs) who will be leaving behind an young son and making a widow out of Leticia (Halle Berry). The tension in the Grotowski home escalates especially as Hank has chosen to care for his own ailing father (Peter Boyle), who still finds the time to spout out racist rhetoric through an oxygen mask. One last confrontation leaves a permanent mark of emptiness on the family.

Leticia is struggling to just make ends meet and fight an impending eviction. Her car keeps breaking down on her, she’s been let go from her job as a waitress and she has to raise a son by herself all the while trying to encourage him to lose weight. Leticia is breaking down and her world around her is crumbling. One night Leticia gets into an accident walking home along the roadside and needs assistance badly. The one who pulls the car aside to help is actually Hank. As time goes by he helps Leticia however he can whether its giving her a ride home from the diner or just staying with her so she won’t be alone.

Hank and Leticia come together out of mutual need and grief. They are two people entirely wrong for each other that kindle a passion that seems to transcend race. Leticia needs someone to take care of her, after having a husband on death row and fighting to stay above the poverty line. Hank needs someone to take care of, out of a mixture of compounded loneliness and grief.

Thornton reprises the repressed protagonist of The Man Who Wasn’t There with his portrayal of Hank. His lips are pursed, looking a tad like Mr. Limpet, and he expresses more with a furrowed brow and stare than words could manage. Thornton’s performance is good, and the audience does really end up rooting for Hank, but the performance doesn’t resonate, possibly because of the writing for the character. I guess one could say Monster’s Ball is Halle Berry’s legitimization as an actress. Berry gives the performance of her career and has moments where she’s on the verge of ripping your heart out.

Monster’s Ball is not exactly the scorching portrait of race relations that it has been hyped to be. It’s really more of a story about two characters with race being underscored except for a convenient occasion where it can become the catalyst to a fight.

The film also takes some of its metaphors rather simply. The connection between father and son includes Hank and Sonny using the same prostitute. Hank eats every night in the same diner and always orders a bowl of chocolate ice cream (get it?) and black coffee (get it?).

All the ballyhoo over the explicit sex scene (thank you so much news-fluff) is undeserving. The sex scene is no different than a hundred seen before and many on Showtime during the late hours. The scene serves its purpose thematically in the story for its characters but it really isn’t “hot and steamy” as it’s been dubbed to be. Move along, folks.

Besides the acting Monster’s Ball has some other accomplishments up its sleeve. The cinematography is gorgeous and uses lights and darks to an incredibly effective degree. There are many scenes where you might be paying more attention to how the scene looks than the scene itself. The music is also commendable for the simple task of not becoming intrusive and actually enhancing the story. This is what scores are intended to do.

Monster’s Ball may be the biggest suck-in-air-uncomfortably movie to come out in a long time. I found myself enacting this measure every time someone did something horrible, said something racist or surprisingly died. This may be because I had the entire theater to myself for my own amusement. Monster’s Ball is certainly a well-written and well-acted film. It’s just not up to snuff when it comes to Best Picture speculation.

Nate’s Grade: B

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

Monster’s Ball was Lee Daniels’ first movie as a producer and years before his first directing effort, 2005’s Shadowboxer, but it’s clear as ever in 2021 that his influence is all over this movie. The elements that would come to define Daniels’ later movies, like Precious and The Paperboy and The United States vs. Billie Holiday, are here, and that’s the awkward and sometimes jarring discordant elements of the serious and the soapy, of camp and sincerity (the movies are also so unabashedly horny). A Lee Daniels’ movie is trying to say something, sometimes poorly, often too many things and too spread out, and Monster’s Ball is one of those statement movies, or at least it was upon release. It was a screenplay developed in the mid 1990s by actors Milo Aaddica and Will Rokos, and while it attracted talent at points it didn’t really gain traction until Daniels came onboard as its shepherd. You can see what would be so attractive to Daniels, with the mixture of odd elements as its own eclectic brew. It’s a romance that should not work. It’s life lessons about racism that seem heavy-handed. It’s a thrust-heavy sex scene that goes on for four uncomfortable minutes. I think there’s a recognizable argument to be had that this romance doesn’t quite work. It’s more out of necessity than connection, but maybe that’s even the point. These are two wounded people finding solace in one another, and maybe that’s enough in a world of pain and uncertainty, just finding someone who, in Leticia’s words, “makes you feel good.” Monster’s Ball isn’t as wild and campy as other Daniels’ joints, but you can see the DNA of his other movies, the seeds of artistic flowers that would bloom into his style. It’s got a bit more of an arty, indie sheen here, but Monster’s Ball might as well be Lee Daniels’ Monster’s Ball as far as its key influence, certainly more than director Marc Forster.

Re-watching this movie many years later, it’s clear to me that it is not a movie about race relations, though this is an implicit subject as well, but much more an examination on generational toxic masculinity. This makes much more sense for me with the prominence given to Hank’s (Billy Bob Thornton) perspective over Leticia (Halle Berry). It’s about him learning to break free of his racial prejudices, yes, but that’s more one sign of him learning to break free of the tyranny of his father’s influence, and his father (Peter Boyle) is an infirm cartoon of toxic masculinity. This is a man who brags about his wife dying and how many women he cheated on her with. This is a man who calls his grandson Sonny (Heath Ledger) weak because he displayed empathy for an inmate on death row. It’s his close-minded, harmful definition of what constitutes a “real man” that has become the lingering poison infecting the Grotowski family tree. It’s not subtle in the slightest, but Monster’s Ball is effective in communicating cycles of abuse. Hank carries many of his father’s tendencies and views his own son with contempt for not being able to meet these same restrictive definitions of manliness that his father imposed on him. When his son needs him the most, in his cry for help, is where Hank fails him, telling him he does in fact hate him, and that’s when he loses him forever. The rest of the movie is tracing Hank’s journey to breaking free from the vile influence of a decrepit old man.

To that end, the story structure of Monster’s Ball works better. In the span of 110 minutes, Hank has to reflect on what the negative influences of his life are and to break free of them. When he finally decides to put his father in a nursing home, the lady in charge smiles and says, “You must love your father.” Hank is quick to reply, “No, I don’t. But he’s my father.” There is no love between these men because love was most likely viewed as weakness. It’s the last thing Sonny says before killing himself, after his father says he hates him: “Well I’ve always loved you.” When Leticia looks at a picture of Sonny, something that Hank doesn’t share until late in the film, she remarks that Sonny doesn’t look like Hank. He replies that Sonny has his mother in him, implying the things that made him better came from her. This is a character journey that literally culminates in a man performing oral sex on a woman as a sign of his personal growth. Taken by itself, it sounds laughable, but it mostly works in the context of the movie. Surely his father would view the giving of pleasure to another as a waste of energy and time, so his desire to give rather than receive ends up being his character’s defining push away from the negativity of his father.

My issue is that Leticia feels less like a fully-fleshed out person and more like an infantilized victim. She’s a single mother struggling to keep her job, keep her home, and keep her son’s weight in check. Her husband is on death row. She’s got a lot of opportunities to be given dimension and insight. However, the movie never seems to deem her ready for that attention until the very very end, literally the last scene of the movie. Beforehand, she’s more a prop to the development of others, someone to gauge Hank’s personal growth and someone to be inflicted with all manners of indignities and abuses. When she interacts with Hank’s father, and he’s as awful as you would expect, her residual pain and outrage is the final straw for Hank who then moves the old man out. Her entire relationship with her son feels awkwardly handled. Fiction can illuminate the lives of complicated people, people with flaws that don’t always make the best decisions, but her single-minded obsession with her son’s weight, and her subsequent beating of him, feels like another chain of abuse but without the explanation. Otherwise, it’s just a woman in pain berating her son, and then the boy has to die, and it feels excessive. I know that Hank and Leticia bond over their mutual grief over having lost a son, but it feels like Leticia is more a martyr for Hank’s growth. During their protracted sex scene, her voice cracks and sounds uncomfortably childish. At the end, she asks Hank to take care of her because she needs it. She comes across like an infantilized version of a woman who is there to cry and be pretty.

That’s why the final moment of the movie rings so curious for me. After Hank puts his father away, what is the conflict here? Leticia agrees to move in with Hank after being evicted, and it all seems to be going well. Then while he’s out retrieving his favorite ice cream, she discovers that Hank has drawings by her late husband, reshaping her understanding of Hank. But what is that reshaping? Before he was a guy she served at a diner who happened to help her during the most trying time in her life. Does she think he was seeking her out to take advantage of her? How? She got the diner job because she lost her previous job, and it’s not like he sought her out, but she might not be privy to any of that context. It feels like an artificial conflict that’s meant to boil over and possibly spell doom between these two. Can this budding relationship survive this revelation? But I’m still unclear what exactly the revelation is. He worked at the prison? He was involved in the execution of her husband in a way, walking him to the chair? This seems artificially inflated to me. And yet it is only here that the movie gives her the final say, allowing Berry to wordlessly process this new information and whether or not it dramatically changes anything between her and Hank. She never comments to him about it. You just have to study her face, and it’s here where the movie at long last treats Leticia with the courtesy of nuance.

Monster’s Ball was made famous for two reasons: the extended sex scene between Berry and Thornton and her Best Actress Oscar victory, the first ever for a woman of color (and still the only one twenty years later). Let’s start with Berry’s performance, which was definitely a leap above what she had been demonstrating with trashy thrillers and lame comedies. Berry is good here but the Lee Daniels of it all makes it feel like her performance is being pulled into less subtle, more overtly soapy directions against her better judgements. When she gets into a whiny space, I kind of winced, not because her character was undeserving of complaint, but because the movie was shifting her into that infantilized victim box. Berry is good here, but after re-watching Sissy Spacek’s In the Bedroom performance and Nicole Kidman’s Moulin Rouge! performance, I’d rate her third of the chief 2001 Best Actress nominees. Berry is an actress I had mixed feelings about early in my critical career (2004’s Catwoman did not help), but I’ve come around to appreciate her more. I greatly enjoyed her varied performances in 2012’s Cloud Atlas. She recently directed her first movie where she plays a middle-aged kick boxer, and that sounds punishing and possibly eye-opening.

I’m not the only one that seems to come back to the infamous sex scene; it constitutes almost all of the trivia about the film on IMDB (interesting not-sex-scene fact: Wes Bentley was going to play Sonny but mysteriously dropped out –he admitted to struggling with heroin addiction later– and the studio gave the production 48 hours to find a replacement, and that’s how Heath Ledger got it). Also, I had to revise this paragraph several times to remove any phrases that might come across as unintended innuendos. You could argue the sex scene is a turning point. It happens at the halfway point of Monster’s Ball and beforehand Leticia and Hank have expressed no romantic interest. Afterwards, it becomes about their possible odd-couple romance, if that’s what it can even be called. The scene is played raw and desperate, which is why it made me feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t because I was watching two actors pretend to physically go at it for an extended period, it’s because these characters were so sad and reaching out in desperation to feel anything fleeting. The attention given to the scene just feels thematically wrong. It’s not offensively gross but it feels a little too prurient, a little too salacious for what the characters are going through emotionally. Thornton has even said in interviews that this movie might have contributed to his eventual divorce from Angelina Jolie, which seems strange to me considering she was also filming steamy scenes with Antonio Banderas at about the same time (2001’s Original Sin).

Director Marc Forster has had an interesting career since helming this four-million dollar indie. He’s done Oscar-bait dramas (Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner) and quirky indies (Stranger Than Fiction, Stay) and big Hollywood action movies (Quantum of Solace, World War Z). He was hand-selected by producer Brad Pitt to direct World War Z. Forster has no distinct, visible style to him but effectively alters to the genre and story he’s directing. In some ways, this is what a director should be, and yet Forster has never gotten credit for his versatility. Nobody is going to say Quantum of Solace is their favorite James Bond movie, or even the best of Daniel Craig’s run, but it’s not really Forster’s fault that movie didn’t work. His last two movies were smaller dramas, 2016’s All I See is You and 2018’s misguided Christopher Robin, and he’s attached to movies about the Holocaust, a downed World War II pilot, the formation of Greenpeace, and Thomas the Tank Engine, so the man’s versatility continues to go undervalued.

This is my final re-review of the 2001 film slate, and my original review I think mostly holds up. I was thinking the same thing about lazy metaphors and lacking substantial racial commentary, but I better appreciated the scope of the movie not on race but on the effects of toxic masculinity. I think I was more dazzled by the photography in 2001 (or 2002 when it was made available to us in central Ohio) than in 2021. Monster’s Ball is a clumsy but well-intentioned movie that has some pristine elements to it but I don’t quite know if it ever coalesces into the important movie it desires. It’s an interesting artifact of Lee Daniels before he became an industry unto himself, and with Berry showcasing just what she was capable of if given the right opportunity. This began a run of “pretty actress goes drab” of Oscar winners (2002’s Nicole Kidman, 2003’s Charlize Theron, 2004’s Hilary Swank), and so the biggest lesson of Monster’s Ball after all might have been providing a successful template for future actresses to follow a path to Oscar gold.

Re-View Grade: B-

The Power of the Dog (2021)

Every year, it seems that Netflix’s crown jewel for their big Oscar hopes ends up getting marvelous critical acclaim, and then when I finally watch it I am left disappointed. It happened in 2018 with Roma. It happened in 2019 with The Irishman. And it happened in 2020 with Mank. I haven’t disliked any of those movies, but I was unable to see the highly laudable merits as other critics. Now here comes their big Oscar play for 2021, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a Western that has been gracing the top of more critics lists than any other American film this year (I’ll be getting to you soon enough, Drive My Car). As I burned through awards movie after awards movie to assess, I held back from The Power of the Dog for a time. I just didn’t want to find that once again I was disappointed with the latest Netflix Oscar contender. I’m still chewing over my feelings with The Power of the Dog, which has a lot going on under the surface and a palpable tension that you’re unsure of how and when it will erupt. It’s also a movie that touches upon repression, toxic masculinity, manifest destiny, grooming, emotional and physical manipulation, and the danger of unstable men who are unable to process who they really are.

Set in 1925 Montana, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jessie Plemons) own and operate a cattle ranch. George marries a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and brings his new wife and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live at the ranch. Phil resents his new sister-in-law, looks down on her son, and torments both repeatedly. Rose sees Phil as an enemy, someone who will not stop until he forces her out, and his target becomes her son, Peter.

This is less a traditional Western in several respects and more a tight character study that happens to be set at the conclusion of a Western fantasy for America, transitioning to modernity. It goes against our preconceived notions of a Western, not in a deliberately deconstructive way like 1992’s brilliant Best Picture, Unforgiven, but more in providing contrary thematic details that often get squeezed out. I was expecting the movie to take place maybe during the 1870s or 1880s, but the fact that it’s taking place five years removed from the Great Depression offers different story opportunities and larger reflection. There’s a reason this story is told well after the halcyon days of the Old Wild West. The movie is about certain characters holding onto an exclusive past that has eclipsed them and others ready to move forward by shuttling over their past and the obstacles standing in the way of personal progress.

There are thematic layers expertly braided together that touch upon the larger question over what it means to be a man in society. Each of the primary male characters (Phil, George, Peter) is an outsider to some degree, someone who doesn’t neatly fit into what constitutes a conventional man of the times. George is soft, empathetic, meek yet in a position of power from his family’s status; Peter is rail-thin, academic, odd, effeminate at turns, a dandy presented for ridicule; Phil is the one who presents as a “man’s man,” a hard-driving, hard-drinking man of the land who imposes his will on others. However, deep down, Phil is hiding a key part of himself that would conflict with his society’s view of masculinity. Each man bounces around points of conflict and connection with one another, familial bonds fraying, and a slow-burning battle for supremacy escalating.

The movie could have also been charitably nick-named “Benedict Cumberbatch is a jerk to everyone,” as this is much of what Campion’s script, based upon the 1957 novel by Thomas Savage consists of. The movie is absent a primary perspective. We drift from person to person in the small-scale ensemble, elevating this next character and their views and worries and priorities. Phil could be deemed the primary protagonist and antagonist, especially the latter. He’s a mean man. Phil is a man who likes to make others uncomfortable, who needles them, and he takes great interest in targeting Rose, partly because he doesn’t like the influence she has on his only brother, and partly because he can get away with it. When he sets his sights on Peter, you don’t quite know what this hostile man will do to get his way. Will he manipulate Peter to turn him from his mother? Will he endanger Peter as a threat to Rose? Will he go further and possibly kill Peter? Or, as becomes more evident, does he see Peter in a very different light, a special kinship that had defined Phil’s own secretive past.

I suppose it’s a spoiler to go further so if you want to, dear reader, then go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. Phil reveres “Bronco Henry,” a deceased rancher that taught him many things when he was younger. The movie heavily, heavily implies that this long-departed older man had a romantic relationship with Phil when he was much younger, something the grown Phil cherishes, caressing himself in private with a scrap of fabric belonging to Henry. The lazy characterization would be, “Oh, Phil is homophobic because he’s really gay, and he’s angry because he cannot accept himself.” With Campion, Phil could be viewed as a victim too. He was likely groomed by an older man, and maybe that relationship was viewed by Phil as more romantic and consensual than it was, but it’s the lingering nostalgic memory of the intimate happiness that he holds onto, afraid to move on because of the danger of letting go and the danger of possibly reaching out, being vulnerable again. Yes, dear reader, this is more a gay cowboy movie than Brokeback Mountain (which, to be fair, were sheep herders). Savage himself was also gay. As Phil takes Peter under his wing, you don’t know whether this man is going to kill or kiss him, and the tension is ripe enough that either way it can ties you up into anxious knots.

The acting is extremely polished all around, with each performer having layers of subtext to shield their true intentions. Cumberbatch (Spider-Man: No Way Home) is a thorn in so many sides and it isn’t until much later that the veil begins to drop, ever so slightly, allowing you to finally see extra dimension with what appears to be a bully character for so long. He might just be too impenetrable for too long for some viewers to develop any empathy. Plemons (Jungle Cruise) and Dunst (Melancholia) are sweet together, and I enjoyed how each one leans upon the other for support. Rose is the butt of much of Phil’s torment and teasing, so we watch Dunst break down under the constant abuse of her berating brother-in-law. When her character sees a way to gain an upper hand, it becomes like a light in the darkness for her momentary relief. I felt heartbroken for Rose as she studied a piano tune for weeks to impress esteemed guests of her husband’s, only to succumb to her nerves and insist she couldn’t play because she didn’t think she could be good enough. Then to watch Phil cruelly needle her further about her disappointment by whistling that same tune is even worse. This is the best acting of Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) since he was vying with Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) for every preteen lead in big studio features. There’s a deliberate standoffish quality to the character, to Peter’s way of viewing others. It’s like he’s part alien, studying the things that make people tick. Like Cumberbatch, there are multiple layers to this performance because his intentions are equally if not more guarded. You almost need to watch the movie a second time to better identify what Smith-McPhee is doing in scene after scene.

The Power of the Dog is a terrific looking and sounding movie. The photography is beautiful, the New Zealand landscapes are awe-inspiring, the production design is handsome, the musical score by Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) is discordant strings that enhances the tension permeating through the movie. Campion hasn’t directed a movie in over ten years, and this is only her second movie since 2003’s misbegotten erotic thriller, In the Cut, starring an against-type Meg Ryan. It feels like she’s had no time away with how controlled and resonant her directing plays. I wish her script was less ambiguous to a fault; it errs somewhat I believe by holding out key revelations about Phil for too long, leaving us with the man being an unrepentant bully for too long. There are significant turns in the concluding minutes that will reorient your interpretation of the entire film, and I have every reason to believe that when I watch The Power of the Dog another time it will be even more impressive.

Congratulations, Netflix, on breaking your streak of disappointing me with your prized awards contenders. I’ve included many Netflix movies in my best lists, and worst lists, over the years, as that is the lot when you have such an enormous library in the prestige streaming arms race. The Power of the Dog is an intimate and occasionally even sensual Western that pushes its put-upon characters to their breaking point, and perhaps the audience, while rewarding the patient and observant viewer. There’s gnawing, uneasy tension that gets to be overwhelming, but the movie benefits from the unexpected destination for where that tension will lead. Will it be violence? Will it be passion? Will it be a crime of passion? The acting is great, the artistic quality of the movie is high, and each scene has much to unpack, allowing for further rewarding examination. I wish there was more of the last half hour when things better come into sharper focus, and I wish the movie was a little less ambiguous for so long, but this is one of the better films of 2021 and Campion’s best movie since 1993’s The Piano (I fully expect her to become the first female director nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar). The Power of the Dog is a lyrical, surprising drama, a sneaky character study, and proof that my Netflix overrated front-runner curse has been lifted (for now).

Nate’s Grade: A-

Petite Maman (2021)

There are two things to know about the deeply heartfelt new French movie, Petite Maman. The first is that it’s the follow-up by Celine Sciamma, the writer and director of one of 2019’s absolute best movies, the sumptuously romantic, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. That was reason enough to watch this relatively short movie. The next is a twist that I’ll save for the body of this review but that makes this childhood examination on loss, grief, and the future far more compelling and emotionally striking. It’s further proof to me that Sciamma is one of the best filmmakers out there and that her devotion to story and human emotion is paramount; just as I was enveloped in the romantic swell of Portrait, I was charmed and enchanted by this wholesome movie that’s so winsome that you could watch with the whole family, that is, if you can convince children to watch a 75-minute French drama with you, and if so, congrats.

Nelly (Joséphine Sanz) is mourning the recent loss of her grandmother. She and her mother and father have camped to grandma’s old home to pack it up. Everyone is sad and one day Nelly’s mother leaves without warning. She doesn’t know when mom is coming back. In the meantime, Nelly makes a friend with a neighbor girl, Marion (Gabrielle Sanz). She’s living with her mother and nervous about an upcoming operation to fix a genetic malady. However, in the meantime, these two little girls find solace in playing with one another, building a fort in the woods, and creating role play scenarios that allow each to hone their acting skills. Over the course of a few days, Nelly learns to understand her family more while learning to say goodbye on her own terms.

I’ll save the spoilers for the next paragraph because I feel like they are unavoidable to truly get at what makes this movie special. One non-spoiler merit of this movie is how persuasively it is told from the perspective of childhood. Our little eight-year-old heroine is the protagonist, and we see the world from her understanding. That doesn’t mean the movie ever leans on narration or a reality-bending imaginative framework; it’s simply told with the understanding of what it’s like to be a child with questions and emotions that you don’t quite know how to handle. There’s a beguiling innocence with the movie that makes it so wholesome and sweet. As an adult, it’s not too difficult to remember your understanding of the world as a child, let alone family relationships, especially in the aftermath of bereavement. Nelly is forlorn because she didn’t know her last exchange with her grandmother would be their final interaction, and that ache is relatable no matter the age. Nobody knows when their last interaction with a loved one could be, so it’s easy to feel that same lament that more wasn’t made to achieve a better sense of closure. There’s a sweet moment between Nelly and her mother where they role play what that final exchange could have been, and all Nelly wishes is to say goodbye one more time but with more forceful feelings behind the words, and it was a moment so pure and innocent. The entire movie is like this moment, a lingering earnest sensation that is universal and expertly delicate.

Here comes the spoilers, so dear reader be aware if you still want to remain as pure as this movie, although I would argue knowing this spoiler ahead of time will improve your movie-going experience by giving you a necessary part of the puzzle. Petite Maman translates to “Little Mother” and it’s more than simply little kids pretending to be adults. It turns out that Marion is actually the eight-year-old version of Nelly’s mother, and her house they retreat to after playing in the woods is an older version of Nelly’s grandmother’s home. There are clues early, like the same distinct wallpaper and interior design of the house, but you might be able to dismiss that as maybe there are just similar houses being built in this neighborhood. After a while, though, you start to realize there’s more going on here, and the movie doesn’t treat you like an idiot. Nelly flat out tells Marion that she is her child from a future. From there, the movie becomes a fully felt inter-generational bonding experience, where daughter gets to talk to her mother on her own level, answer questions for her curious young mother, and they talk about dealing with sadness as they know it. When Marion asks if Nelly was planned, she says yes, and Marion says, “That makes sense. I can’t stop thinking about you already,” and tears come to my eyes even typing the words. This twist brings so much more meaning to everyday activities; instead of Nelly staying one last night to make pancakes with her new friend, now it’s Nelly having only one more opportunity to bond with her mother when they’re both at the same age, saying goodbye while telling her how much she loves her, not knowing if when they part that she may even see her adult mother again. Wow, that is so much going on. Nelly even gets another shot to find that closure with her grandmother.

The two young actresses are twin sisters, and both are terrific. Given the gentle nature of the movie, neither is given any great moment where they tearfully break down, shout their feelings, or chew the scenery in general. These feel like real kids dealing with real emotions under some unique circumstances. Each of the Sanz sisters is a delight and realistically subdued and not just poor actors incapable of effectively showing emotion. When Nelly and Marion are play acting a scene, with one pretending to be an investigator interrogating the other as a suspect, they both have a twinkle to them as they admire each other’s acting ability, saying they should become an actress. It’s a nice moment for each of the Sanz sisters because they’re living their own dreams in the scene.

Petite Maman is a special movie and one that doesn’t feel like a frame is wasted. Even at only 75 minutes in length, its compassion and sweetness are eminently felt and appreciated. My only regret is that we could have had more time together with these two and to develop even more, but it almost seems like its own commentary on life and our relationships itself. We always are left wanting more, never knowing when one last hug or joke will be the last, and so savor the human experiences we have, the cherished memories earned, the gamut of emotions shared, and enjoy what we have.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh returns to his boyhood home with Belfast, a coming of age story set during the Troubles in 1969 where Protestant mobs were targeting Irish Catholics. The movie is partly autobiographical as we follow young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) and his parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Cirian Hinds, Judi Dench) dealing with life as their neighborhood block more resembles a war zone. There are dangerous influences and dark intentions on the peripheral, but we’re mostly at kid level, where his days are preoccupied with sitting closer to his crush in school and wanting to impress his older cousin and be accepted. The parental perspective is kept to offhand whsipers and weighty conversations about moving away or staying behind. The black and white photography is gorgeous and exquisitely composed, looking like old family photos come to rich life. The actors are charming and heartfelt, and when called upon deliver emotional fury. The problem with Belfast, and it feels mean to even cite it as such, is that everything is just a little too nice, a little too clean, a little too safe. The childhood perspective doesn’t quite jibe with the political instability at hand. It’s not a Jojo Rabbit where that disconnect is the point for reflection. It’s clearly Branagh’s love letter to his family and native land. It feels like entire scenes have been plucked directly from Branagh’s nostalgic memories. It also feels like the characters are more sweet-smiling composites than real people. It’s all been romanticized with Branagh’s personal nostalgia, reshaping the odd angles and dangling conflicts into something more sentimentally safe, easy, and inoffensively digestible. Belfast is a perfectly enjoyable movie but it feels like a simple TV movie-of-the-week, crowd-pleasing version of a complex story worthy of greater nuance and scrutiny.

Nate’s Grade: B

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