Sunday, December 1, 2019

Movie Review: "The Irishman"

I’m okay calling The Irishman a good movie. I won’t roll my eyes if it gets an Oscar nomination. I’m just not sure why the filmmakers went through the trouble of turning the Frank Sheeran-Jimmy Hoffa story into a $159 million, 3.5 hour film that underwent various postponements and that took pains to lure Joe Pesci out of retirement. And for what? The film works as a well-crafted docudrama — a history (and even that’s being challenged) — but there’s not much of a story to it, and when I say “story,” I’m talking about the things that compel us, rivet us, transform, enlighten, and enrich us when we watch a movie. Or that just make us feel. I'm not sure I felt anything. Rather, I saw things. I saw a series of characters who, in the 3.5-hour runtime, didn’t change in any substantial way. I saw a random series of cold-blooded murders of side characters who I could hardly keep track of. (Why Scorsese decided to dramatically document the date of their deaths with text boxes is unclear to me.) I saw a bunch of characters driven almost entirely by their quest for money and power, which are driving forces that make for dull storytelling. I saw a bunch of pointless cameos (Harvey Keitel, Ray Romano, Bobby Cannavale) for roles that could have been suitably filled by some newcomer who'd love to be in a Scorsese film. I didn’t see any pathos or emotional character arcs. I’m not sure what the movie had to say, or if it even tried to say anything. The fact that this story is arguably historically insignificant doesn't help things.

The Irishman could have worked as an enlightening second-half-of-the-twentieth-century mafia movie (in which we interestingly get to see how Mafia 2.0 interacts with government, how they carry out assassinations, how their business interests have evolved with a changing world, not to mention the always-fun tough guy codes, the fun subtle tough guy threats, and the fun tough guy beating a grocer nearly to death for nudging his daughter), but Scorsese already did that with Goodfellas and Casino. I wasn’t a fan of Hugo or Silence, but at least Scorsese was trying something different. The Irishman is warmed leftovers that took years and a lot of money to make.

I think of all the movies that could have been, and need to be, made with a $159 million budget. Why not tell the story of John Brown's Harper's Ferry raid? Why not adapt the Native Alaskan Two Old Ladies story into a movie? The English Kinder Scout mass trespass? The Monkey Wrench Gang? A biopic of Thoreau? I love all the old mob movies as much as the next guy, but I think they should go the way of the Western, and go away.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Book Review: "Sabrina"

Nick Drnaso's Sabrina is the most 2019 book you could possibly read. It's about conspiracy theory culture, suburban malaise, and how the truth has become something to be reshaped and marketed for consumption. It's cynical about our country, but there's a whiff of optimism in how the characters operate, person-to-person. Though atomized, fragmented, and mostly connected by screens and usernames, you can sense that these characters are dying to connect, help, and be helped. This was my first graphic novel and I couldn't put it down.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Book review: The Problem with Everything

Meghan Daum is one of my favorite memoir writers and her latest, The Problem with Everything, is very good. It’s a memoir/manifesto/cultural critique of our modern culture wars, in which she defiantly flicks away creeping ideological groupthink and casts a critical eye on 21st Century moral panics, on what she calls “fourth wave feminism,” and on how younger generations have seemingly abandoned toughness as a character quality.

For me, there’s nothing like reading the thoughts of a smart person. It almost doesn’t matter what her subjects are. I could read a smart person's thoughts endlessly. But I suppose this book was especially satisfying for the fact that her thoughts are close to my own. People of privileged demographics often feel hobbled from saying clear and unspoken truths, and, as a straight white dude, I’ve (perhaps sensibly) chosen to keep my head down and mouth shut. Call that cowardly, but it’s probably far better and more effective if criticism comes from individuals within their own groups. And that’s why an author like Daum (a feminist criticizing the foibles and fallacies of Facebook feminism) is so refreshing: It’s like, “Ahh, thank god, someone finally said it!” If I have any criticism of the book, it's that I wish she didn't shy away from venturing into issues of race, which is perhaps an even harder subject to talk about, and one that's sorely missed here. A great companion piece to this (and one more reliant on data) is Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of America, which criticizes the culture of safetyism, virtue-signaling, and righteous victimhood in America.

“But something was different back then. I shared a planet with those elders. We occupied the same universe. We breathed the same air. I had the great gift of being able to look up to my elders because it was possible to be like them. We may have been of different generations, with different problems and preoccupations and ideas about what constituted paying a lot of rent, but we still all grew up holding books in our hands. We called our friends from pay phones and negotiated sexual situations without technological assistance and registered opinions without being smacked down on social media moments later. We made mistakes in private and, in turn, respected the privacy of others in their mistakes. The same cannot be said for the relationship between my generation and those that are coming up behind us. Young people don’t want to be us because they’re not even the same species as us. Even if they did want to be us, the proposition would be absurd, like a human trying to emulate an orangutan. The world has changed so much between my time and theirs that someone just ten years younger might as well belong to a different geological epoch. In this epoch, there are no pay phones for calling friends at the spur of the moment. The contact highs from walking down the street have been replaced by dopamine hits from Instagram likes. To a young person, someone like me is not so much an elder as an extinction. Is it any wonder, then, that older generations’ contributions to the conversation are, at best, a kind of verbal meteor shower, the flickering, nattering remains of planets that haven’t existed for eons?”

Sunday, November 17, 2019

There is no crisis in reproduction

This is a solid, if longwinded, NYT piece about how there are many countries that have fertility rates below replacement levels. While I'd like to see our species reduce its fertility rates (which I’ll get to in a second), I am also a critic of systems that make it difficult for parents (and unappealing for would-be parents) to have a child. I'd rather we borrow from the Danish model, in which parents are given generous maternity/paternity leave, free health care, free daycare, and affordable college education. So I guess you could say I’m pro-parent and pro-child, but also pro-depopulation.

A discussion on reduced fertility rates is typically framed as a bad thing (as a “crisis in reproduction,” which is a phrase I've plucked from the article). It's seldom framed as a "crisis in overpopulation." In my 36 years, the world population has grown from about 4.5 billion in 1983 to 7.7 billion in 2019. Who knows what it'll be by the time I'm 80. These billions of people over-consume, pollute, change our climate, cause species to go extinct, remove habitat, and generally make the world less beautiful and sustainable. We've done amazing things, too, as a burgeoning species, but our growing numbers threaten the very soils, waters, ecosystems, and climates on which our existence depends.

The earth’s health is affected most by two things: overconsumption and overpopulation. We sometimes acknowledge the first, but it seems almost taboo to criticize the second.

Why are these articles framed as crises: crises for economies and crises for old folks who won’t have enough taxpayers or caregivers to support them? (As harsh as it may sound, I see this as faulty prioritization, as well as infantilization of an age group who might do better to adapt to trying circumstances than we may think.)

In articles such as this one, I’m struck by one consistent and amazing omission: a reduction in the fertility rate is actually good! Why don’t we acknowledge how reduced fertility rates may be a beneficial change our species is in the process of making, or how reduced rates are opportunities that ought to be encouraged and replicated? We seldom hear about the benefits of fewer people on this planet: more resources for each individual; more space to roam; more enchantment in the form of undisturbed natural features and replenished animal populations; a more sustainable planet; a longer habitation on earth for us; not to mention fewer crowds, less smog, replenished fisheries, and less traffic.

Before I die, I hope to see the human population begin to proactively dwindle (and my vision features neither death camps nor forced sterilizations) to a more sustainable level of, say, 1 billion. I don’t know what an appropriate U.S. population would be, but certainly less than 100 million. (It’s 329 million today.)

So, yeah, I don't see a "crisis in reproduction." I see a crisis in how the modern economy and neoliberal governing policies makes life a living hell for parents. And I see a crisis in common sense: in terms of the human population, less ought to be considered more.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Who has less taste: us or the cineplex?

[T]he fact is that the screens in most multiplexes are crowded with franchise pictures. And if you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree. It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing. — Martin Scorsese

We've been saying forever that "they don't make movies like they used to." That's mopey nostalgic nonsense. There are tons of good movies that come out every year. The problem is that cineplexes force-feed us little other than non-nutritious superhero, animated, and franchise films (with a bad teen smartphone stalker thriller thrown in). When the Scorsese article published eleven days ago, here is what was playing at my old hometown Regal Cinema in Niagara Falls, NY: 

Terminator 6
Maleficent 2
The Joker
Addams Family
Zombieland 2
Arctic Dogs
Black and Blue

As cineplex offerings go, this list could be worse. But of these eleven films, five are part of a franchise. Seven are animated or contain loads of CGI (which doesn’t make a film bad, but there’s a strong likelihood the movie will be an emotionally-uncomplicated visual feast). The Joker is very good. Harriet looks cheesy (but it’s about an important subject). Abominable appears to be a serviceable animation film. The rest are a slightly better than average selection of unchallenging, dumbed-for-the-masses movies, the dietary equivalent of a box of Kraft Mac and Cheese. 

I’m a film snob, but not a complete snob. I love popcorn blockbusters like Avatar, Gravity, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens to name a few. Who doesn’t like Kraft Mac and Cheese? But I know I also need to eat my vegetables.

The movies above could lead you to believe that movies have all been dumbed down and that film, as an art form, is dead, but movies are as good as ever. Playing elsewhere are: 1. Parasite, a Korean movie getting rave reviews; 2. The Lighthouse, an interesting-looking drama; 3. The King, a very solid period drama about palace intrigue with a nice dash of action; 4. Tell Me Who I Am, a solid documentary about child abuse; 5. The Laundromat, a well-intentioned flop that nevertheless tried to be interesting and about something important; 6, Dolemite Is my Name, a solid biopic starring Eddie Murphy. Plus Judy, By the Grace of God, Pain and Glory, Motherless Brooklyn, and probably a handful more. What if Regal showed something more like this: 

Terminator 6
The Joker
Zombieland 2
The Lighthouse
The King
Dolemite Is my Name
Tell Me Who I Am

That’s a respectable and hardly pretentious selection—a filet of salmon and a side of broccoli to go with your Mac and Cheese. We could zone out and forget our troubles with Zombieland, see a bit more of the world with Parasite, and grapple with questions of that identity and abuse in Tell Me Who I Am.

A few questions:

Why is Netflix increasingly becoming the platform for character and dialogue driven movies—movies like The Irishman, The King, and Dolemite Is my Name. Are production companies uninterested in movies like The Laundromat because they know cineplexes won’t show them, even though they get directed by renowned filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh and star legends like Meryl Streep? 

And — more significantly — I wonder: Where does good taste comes from? Are cineplex selections so crappy because the movie-going public has no taste and the cineplexes, out of sheer financial viability, must give us what we want? Or is our taste so awful because the cineplex force-feeds us this crap and we’re less exposed to the good stuff? The answer to that is probably more complicated. Enhanced taste likely involves our quality of education as well as the sort of shows, music, books, and movies we’re exposed to from childhood on. It doesn’t all start and end at your local Regal.  

Not to sound melodramatic, but these things really matter. For the health  of our society, we could use more Amour and less Too Fast, Too Furious. This past summer, an Italian study found that children who’d been exposed to low-brow TV had significant lower math and reading scores, and that later in life they were less civically minded and less politically active than peers who grew up exposed to more enriching television programs. I feel like I’m a beneficiary of a good media education. I didn’t grow up in a house with shelves of books or overhear conversations about politics and history. But the local Video Factory and Blockbuster had all the necessary classics, and I ate them up. I had a movie theater about a five minute drive from my house — the Summit 6 — and by the time I graduated from high school, I’d seen almost all of the AFI’s Top-100 (and very nerdy) list of the best movies ever. It was my way of acquiring a bit worldliness and wisdom from a place called Wheatfield.  

But the selection of movies at the Summit 6 was probably just as lousy as it is today at my local Regal, and we moviegoers were probably just as undemanding in our tastes. We can’t hope for the market to educate us: it’ll just keep feeding us as many fructose films as we can take. I suppose the only thing that can be done is to consume well, mock the bad, and give our kids good movie educations from the start. And maybe some future generation will have something better to watch than Terminator 28.