Stanning Stan: A Case Study

©2017, NEON.

Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly in I, TONYA

In my review of I, TONYA, I singled out Sebastian Stan’s performance as the much-maligned Jeff Gillooly:

Jeff’s masculinity is toxic and complex in a manner rarely explored in contemporary cinema.  Meek, yet monstrous, his voice pitches nasally in a way that grates; its near-femininity disarms you.  Stan walks a razor thin edge; too much, and he would be a caricature, not enough and it could be construed as almost romanticizing abuse.  In one scene, Jeff threatens Tonya in a way that is both incomprehensibly cruel and emotionally manipulative, yet you find yourself wanting to comfort him.   That level of fourth-wall manipulation requires incredible nuance and skill; Stan’s is evocative of Eric Roberts’ tour-de-force outing in Star 80.

My top pick in the Best Supporting Actor category in this year’s Dallas-Ft Worth Film Critics Association awards, Sebastian Stan has somehow eluded widespread acknowledgement by critics’ associations in this year’s run-up to the Academy Awards.  After the year of Weinstein and the tidal wave of victims’ voices against our culture’s systemic oppression and mistreatment of women, maybe my peers are reticent to reward an abusive character.

Stan’s performance employs a muted balance of humor and terror.  Radiating a disarmingly boyish docility, his prodigious bursts of violence land abruptly.  Perhaps he disappeared into the role so well, critics simply overlooked it.  As Roger Ebert used to say, the likeliest contender for laudits is who “acts most”, not finest.

At 35, with roles in television and the Marvel cinematic universe, Stan doesn’t possess the indie cred of younger comers like Timothée Chalamet, nor the résumé of a Stuhlbarg or Fassbender—the latter having played a super-villain in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS and a damaged sex addict in SHAME.

A more cynical view: Stan’s fanbase is predominantly young and female, a demographic dismissed in every circle, from fandom to serious drama—hence the pejorative “chick flick”.  Film criticism, not without its own scandals last year, is now dominated not so much by erudite journalists but white, male geeks who, somewhere between their love of comic book movies and web design, decided they had the chops to write about cinema without relevant education or experience.

Studio marketing, perhaps sensitive to, or even altogether unaware of, the perils of thrusting an abusive, vengeful nerd before a cadre of white male geeks, sidelines Stan in the promotional material for the film:

“Featuring an iconic turn by Margot Robbie as the fiery Harding, a mustachioed Sebastian Stan as her impetuous ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, a tour-de-force performance from Allison Janney as her acid-tongued mother, LaVona Golden…”

His performance goes without comment, in lieu of his physical appearance, an ignominy that typically falls upon women.   Yet, Stan remains stalwart, committed and gracefully deferential to his female co-stars, upon whom he regularly heaps praise, stating: “I’m happy bringing the attention where it’s due.”

In the current environment, perhaps that’s the sensible play for now.  But if I were his agent, I’d find out where Steve McQueen is having his next pitch meeting.

I, Tonya

©2017, NEON.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) and Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) in an elevator in I, TONYA, courtesy of NEON.

There’s a moment late in I, TONYA in which cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis frames Margot Robbie’s makeup-caked face in a way that feels as though we’re staring at her through a prison visitor’s partition.   She desperately smiles, rictus-like, through her tears and the result is devastating.

I’ve bemoaned how the strong female character has been reduced to the most literal of definitions: an attractive, yet glib firecracker who can take down any schlub with a quick fist to the kisser.   Oh, she’s not like those other girls.  She’s just one of the boys.

Directed by Craig Gillespie and written by Steven Rogers, I, TONYA somehow takes this exhausted formula and upends it.   An asthmatic chain smoker, Tonya Harding was the first American figure skater to conquer the triple axel at the 1991 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.  She first appears onscreen a pink-cheeked, cherubic toddler with cornsilk pigtails, dressed up soft and feminine, a look as ill-fitting as her oversized winter coat.  Her stage mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney), roughly tugs her along, presenting the prodigy to a skeptical figure skating coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson).

“How old are you, honey?” asks Diane.

“She’s a soft four”, LaVona concedes as Diane expresses hesitation.

Her daughter’s childhood lacks normalcy—no nurturing, no positive reinforcement.   LaVona purposely inflicts pain upon Tonya (emotionally and physically) under the pretense of “firing her up”.  The portentous child works best when agitated, intent on proving her nay-sayers wrong.   This dysfunctional dynamic continues into Tonya’s adolescence; Margot Robbie dons braces and heartbreakingly cheap fashion—”I have a fur coat,” made of rabbits she hunted years ago, with her estranged father, now too small to fit her adult frame—awkward yet somehow still defiant.

Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), a gormless nobody, haunts the arena where she practices.  Soft-spoken, he struggles with eye contact, stuttering out compliments about her looks.  Tonya, yet fragile in her self-esteem, soaks up every word.   For a minute, you think they might be happy together.  They’re young, playful, and gently tease each other.   Soon those barbs become heated; Jeff assaults her repeatedly.  The first time almost happens too quickly to process.  One can grasp why Tonya rationalizes it as a fluke.

I, TONYA is only obliquely about the Kerrigan/Harding rivalry and ensuing scandal that coincided with the emergence of the 24 hour news cycle—FOX News, sensationalized journalism, and the culture that inexorably led us to contemporary political events.   At its core, the film examines performative femininity, toxic masculinity, and the deep-rooted misogyny inherent in both.

A defiant tomboy, Tonya tries to fit in with the rigidly pristine image cultivated by the sport she has mastered.   Her attempts are repeated, desperate, and soul-crushing.   Purple nails become perfectly manicured french tips.  She sits at her little sewing machine, overjoyed upon completing a pink tulle monstrosity of her own design.

Jeff’s masculinity is toxic and complex in a manner rarely explored in contemporary cinema.  Meek, yet monstrous, his voice pitches nasally in a way that grates; its near-femininity disarms you.  Stan walks a razor thin edge; too much, and he would be a caricature, not enough and it could be construed as almost romanticizing abuse.  In one scene, Jeff threatens Tonya in a way that is both incomprehensibly cruel and emotionally manipulative, yet you find yourself wanting to comfort him.   That level of fourth-wall manipulation requires incredible nuance and skill; Stan’s is evocative of Eric Roberts’ tour-de-force outing in Star 80.

A spray-tanned Bobby Cannavale and squinty-eyed Paul Walterhauser round out an impressive ensemble as, respectively, a Hard Copy producer and Gilooly’s idiot accomplice Shawn Eckhardt (footage of the actual Eckhardt confirms a reality more absurd than fiction).  However, Allison Janney’s performance is scene-chewing perfection.  You miss her acerbic, frigid presence whenever she isn’t on-screen, and she doesn’t hesitate to remind you when she’s not.    Robbie’s interpretation of Tonya is infuriating in the best way; she keeps fucking up, refusing to accept personal responsibility.  She wastes opportunities, repeatedly reconciling with Jeff, persuading the viewer to shout expletives at the screen.   Yet simultaneously, we fall for her fragility, a sympathetic and so tragically human antihero.

I, TONYA is morbid and humorous and deliberately self-aware; it doesn’t quite possess the deft touch of Coen brothers fare.  Comparisons to Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN are off—wrong Natalie Portman flick.  Buoyed by the strength of multiple awards-worthy performances and characters you can’t help but legitimately give a shit about, I, TONYA leaps in and out of the fourth wall in first person, third person, and even (through the unusual omnipresence of sports commentators whose faces we never see) second person—crossing the dark comedy of DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (a brilliant cult film showcasing Janney’s trashy mom persona) with the surrealism of last year’s JACKIE.

Call Me By Your Name

©2017, Sony Pictures Classics.

Left to right: Armie Hammer as Oliver and Timothée Chalamet as Elio
Photo by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Amorem conatum esse amicitiae faciendae ex pulchritudinis specie.

Love is a desire of contracting friendship arising from the beauty of the object.
-Cicero, Tusc. Quaes., vi. 34

In the final scene, a Hellenic archaeologist (Michael Stuhlbarg channeling the spirit of Robin Williams’ most somber performances) comforts his son, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), with a speech that every LGBTQ youth, perhaps every teenager grappling with their first love, wants and needs so desperately to hear.  The bittersweet grin on Stuhlbarg’s face, as he expresses his life’s greatest regret, channels the many tragicomic performances of Williams, a comic who once said, “The saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy.”  But this is not a Bury Your Gays movie.

Each year, Mr. Perlman and his wife Annella (Amira Casar), a translator, take in an archaeology grad student at her family’s estate in Northern Italy.

Asks the professor’s visiting apprentice, Oliver (Armie Hammer), “What does one do around here?”

Elio replies, “Wait for the summer to end?”

A James Ivory script adapted from André Aciman’s Lambda award-winning novel, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME covers a summer in 1983 in which Elio and Oliver, the two principals, forge a slow-burn romance.

Chosen in particular for his comprehension of Italian locales, director Luca Guadagnino shot the film in Crema, Italy, where he resides.  A late-period Gen-X’er like me, Guadagnino’s use of production design and music replicates the period aesthetic with an authenticity that tends to elude Millennial re-creations of the scene.

Punctuated by the percussive staccato of John Adams’ ebullient Hallelujah Junction, Part 1, isolated in the Lombardy region of Italy in a villa tucked away from the sexual politics of America, the tension of the film arises not purely from the proscribed sexuality, but the intellectual foreplay.  When he’s not listening to Giorgio Moroder, Elio reads Heraclitus’ Cosmic Fragments.

Like Hulce’s Mozart in Forman’s AMADEUS, impertinently improvising alternate arrangements of Salieri’s welcome march, Elio coquettishly dispenses cross-pollenations of Bach’s Aria di Postiglione¹, “I just played it the way Liszt would have played it if he altered Bach’s version.”

Later, Oliver, Elio, and his father salvage a Hellenic bronze once owned by Hadrian.  Drawing his fingers across the nose and mouth of Dr. Perlman’s discovery, we take in Elio’s own resemblance to Michelangelo’s David—a pardonable misdemeanor as casting anachronisms go.

From a working-class family, Oliver appears to have simpler amusements—volleyball, cycling, swimming.  However, this may be a hypermasculine façade to conceal his true passions; he can digress into the disputed etymology of the word “apricot”.  Whether freshly squeezed or on the tree, the omnipresent stone fruit’s color pops, breaking through the sleepy comfort of the green countryside.

Let’s talk about those apricots.  The apricot tree in particular is one which prefers the temperate climate of North America yet can, with adequate care, thrive in the Mediterranean climate of Northern Italy, where same sex relationships have been legal since 1887.

Like those apricots, Oliver and Elio cultivate and nurture each other.  The Perlmans source their trees from a gay couple who represent one possible future for Elio and Oliver, depending greatly upon the social climate. Elio and Oliver attempt relationships with women, Marzia (Esther Garrel) and Chiara (Victoire du Bois) respectively, but these flirtations never develop into commitments, unlike the immutable and profound attraction between the two young men.

While Elio’s apprehensions stem mostly from personal insecurities, Oliver’s are a product of his American working-class upbringing.  On a stop in Bergamo just before flying back to the States, he rushes to join a straight couple dancing to his favorite song blasting from their car radio—”Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs.  It provides him a sort of hyper-heterosexual cover for his passions—always concerned that being seen alone with Elio, they would stand out like two luscious apricots.

Today, Elio would be my brother’s age, and yet a fair bit younger than the late James Ivory, who since 1963 had produced films with his business and domestic partner, Ismail Merchant, lushly adapting to screen the Austenian trope of summer home inter-class romance.  Merchant did not live to see his partner’s screenplay realized.  But, if you’ll forgive the aphorism, James Ivory’s love letter to Ismail Merchant, beginning with 1963’s THE HOUSEHOLDER, is now forty-five chapters long and counting.

As Mr. Perlman consoles Elio, he paraphrases Montaigne:

Si on me presse de dire pourquoi je l’aimais, je sens que cela ne se peut exprimer qu’en répondant: parce que c’était lui; parce que c’était moi.

If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I.

  1.  Capriccio on the Departure of His Beloved Brother, BVW 992 in B-flat: V. Aria di Postiglione.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. L to R: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Photo: Jonathan Olley.

Certainly, we have hardly ever faced a world in worse shape or in greater need of the lyrical, mystical, and common-sensical. There seem to be large and perpetual pockets where fair and sustaining values are more pale than they should be. But when we consider Plato, Strabbo, and the apostles Paul and John, and many others over the centuries, we see that they also wrote about their times as being likewise devoid of proper “management and meaning.” It appears that “culture at edge of utter corruption” and “world at the edge of utter destruction” are two of the oldest themes to be found in stories of the human race.

-Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ph.D., from the Introduction to Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”

In my editorial, “Frank Herbert’s Star Wars,” I posited that STAR WARS, as contemporary monomyth, might reach the same conclusion that Campbell did in that final chapter of his treatise, in which the Hero transcends the temporary objects of good and evil in deference to the cosmic perspective.

Where THE FORCE AWAKENS cribs from STAR WARS (1977), director Rian Johnson repeats the Rebel evacuation plot of the THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.  A tonally-inconsistent mess, it tries to balance callbacks to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK—Rebels backed into a corner, Jedi training, bad omens—with some truly brilliant ideas, particularly involving Luke, Leia (Carrie Fisher), Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the Force.

While the central story concept of THE LAST JEDI, Luke’s Dharmic apotheosis and Rey’s Gnostic enlightenment, is an inspired one, it’s hounded by lopsided execution and a ham-fisted subplot involving Stormtrooper-turned-Rebel Finn (John Boyega) and a maintenance worker, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). They must disable a tracking system aboard Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) ship to evade the Imperial forces and the only man in the galaxy who can help them turns out to be Fenster from THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Benicio Del Toro).  That, I can buy.  What I can’t abide is the sloppy, last-minute romance that emerges out of this unnecessary thirty-five minute digression as if the studio executives decided at the eleventh hour to retain a sequence, otherwise extraneous were it not for the need to make something out of nothing—and the kiss still feels horribly misplaced and selfish, endangering the entire Rebellion because of a crush.

Adding insult to injury are two clumsily-doled moments:  A drab, overtly topical pep talk about #TheResistance from Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and a subtext about war profiteers in an elaborate set piece (going for Bespin by way of the STAR WARS prequels) festooned with champagne goblets—you might call it the One Percent Planet (apologies to Nicholas Meyer).  Maybe if you look hard enough, you might see a monocle-wearing peanut?  The entire bit is unnecessary as it can be slashed down to a single shot in which Fenster, I mean DJ, flips through a catalogue of Rebel and Imperial arms.

While the second and third installments of the original STAR WARS trilogy also hopped back and forth across different subplots to bridge the complex and epic span of the Rebellion’s fight against the Empire set in the backdrop of Luke’s personal journey culminating in Darth Vader’s redemption, you always knew where you were in the story and had a chance to breathe before a major shift, like the conductor resting his baton between movements of a symphony.

It’s not that Rian Johnson can’t function as a director.  BRICK was an intelligently made film, but his inexperience is overshadowed by the looming weight of the STAR WARS saga and the monocle-wearing peanuts at Disney who might have picked him for the same reason Lucas replaced Irvin Kershner with Richard Marquand for RETURN OF THE JEDI.  A seasoned director and film professor at USC, Irvin Kershner relied on his own wisdom and that of his actors to drive EMPIRE into the densely-packed chapter that cements the whole story together.  This being Johnson’s fourth feature, he’s not teaching classes at USC any time soon.

In fairness, and without spoiling anything, I’ll call out two parts that worked well: 1. An ingenious sequence that personifies the Dark Side of the Force as a duality-within-duality of independence and solitude in contrast to the Light’s unity/conformity, and 2. Mark Hamill.

Probably one of the most underrated actors of our time, beset by typecasting, a disfiguring injury, and the tendency of fans to misguidedly credit George Lucas with Luke Skywalker’s gravitas, Hamill gracefully balances out the atonality with an acting style informed by Meisner technique, never stretching so far in either direction (the dialogue often vacillates between drama and weirdly-timed wisecracks) as to give the viewer emotional whiplash in spite of Johnson’s best efforts.  Yet even the Moptop Jedi can’t save a plot in which his greatest revelation—that balance lies beyond dogma, institutions, and the very constructs of good and evil—is undermined at the last minute by a walk-back so baffling its logic is almost Trumpian.

It’s rather tragicomic that a movie whose themes revolve around lessons from failure and the social cost of colonial imperialism would be helmed by Disney, for whom owning the Marvel and STAR WARS franchises isn’t enough; they’re mulling a bid to buy Fox.  A more experienced director might have followed his or her own instincts and expertise, expanding upon the parallels between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), connecting two of the most thrilling moments in the entire saga and the inexorable bond between Luke and Leia—together besting Lucas’ own muddled (and retconned) explanations of the Force with one which Campbell himself would approve:

I am the cleverness in the gambler’s dice.  I am the radiance of all things beautiful.  I am the victory and the struggle for victory.  I am the goodness of those who are good.  I am the scepter of the rulers of men.  I am the wise policy of those who seek victory.  I am the silence of hidden mysteries; and I am the knowledge of those who know.  And know Arjuna that I am the seed of all things that are; and that no being that moves or moves not can ever be without me.  Know that whatever is beautiful and good, whatever has glory and power is only a portion of my own radiance.  But of what help is it to know this diversity?  Know that with one single fraction of my Being I pervade and support the universe.  And know that I AM.

– Bhagavad Gita 10:36-41




The Disaster Artist

(L-R) Dave and James Franco as Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau in A24’s THE DISASTER ARTIST. Photo by Justina Mintz.

In 2003, almost a decade after I discovered ZARKORR: THE INVADER at a local video rental on the University of Minnesota campus, an unknown named Tommy Wiseau wrote, directed, financed, starred in and produced a film so inexplicably stupid it failed its way to cult status.

Directed by and starring James Franco as Wiseau, THE DISASTER ARTIST tells the story of the aspiring actor/filmmaker—an eccentric with a vaguely Eastern European accent and seemingly bottomless pit of finances, the source of which is unclear yet rumored to be a sub-TJ MAXX clothing line, Street Fashions USA.

The film re-creates, as best as possible, the backstory and working conditions of the bizarre melodrama, THE ROOM, from the point of view of Wiseau’s acrid relationship with aspiring actor, Greg Sestero (Franco’s brother Dave).  Wiseau’s third-rate, love triangle flick ran up $6 million, mostly due to his abject ignorance of industry best practices—knowing the difference between leases and capital expenditures would have been a nice start.  Entire rooftop sets are created in Los Angeles and San Francisco, two cities with no shortage of rooftop terraces.

As the production costs spiral out of control, so too does Wiseau’s strained relationship with Sestero who admires Tommy’s off-the-wall passion at the cost of his own bona-fide television opportunity alongside Bryan Cranston (playing himself in a cameo).

While THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t mince words about Wiseau’s harassment of cast and crew, it does underhandedly speak to a kind of geek subculture that appropriates kitsch value in all the wrong places.  It’s difficult to cheer on Wiseau as an anti-hero when it’s not clear exactly what, other than a vehicle for his own narcissism, he was championing.

In one instance, Wiseau’s inability to get through a single line reading becomes intolerable to a point where the director seems ready to walk.  This would be funnier for me if I hadn’t watched ten straight hours of the real thing on a location shoot, resulting in an actor’s trip to the ER and a day’s worth ($250,000) in lost productivity.

One feels no unease knowing that no humans were harmed during the filming of the Funny or Die sketch “Acting With James Franco“, which might as well have been James’ inspiration for taking on this project.  But THE DISASTER ARTIST, driven mostly by a near shot-for-shot re-creation of THE ROOM (excerpts shown side-by-side in the end credits), was already beaten to the punch before THE ROOM was ever a thing.  In 1999, Steve Martin and Frank Oz collaborated on BOWFINGER—about an equally hard-luck gang of Hollywood wanna-bes.  After perfecting his craft through two decades of stand-up, SNL and cinema, Martin reportedly spent fifteen years developing and two months writing that script.

It shows.

The Post


Tom Hanks (as Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (as Kay Graham) in Twentieth Century Fox’s THE POST. Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise.

There are two types of courage involved with what I did. When it comes to picking up a rifle, millions of people are capable of doing that, as we see in Iraq or Vietnam. But when it comes to risking their careers, or risking being invited to lunch by the establishment, it turns out that’s remarkably rare. -Daniel Ellsberg

About 20 minutes into Alan J. Pakula’s ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, The Washington Post publisher Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) emerges from his office to meet with Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) to discuss the Watergate lead.  One of the fastest kinetic tracking shots at the time, it’s punctuated by the Eastman 5254 100T film stock, “pushed” in chemical processing resulting in a slight, diffuse glow of the grid of overhead lights—a shot that sticks in my mind as surely as it stuck in the mind of a young filmmaker who had just come off directing JAWS.  His next film, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, about a man’s relentless pursuit of the truth to the incredulity of all those around him, took on a decidedly different look.

In THE POST, director Steven Spielberg fluidly mirrors this shot with a SteadiCam following Bradlee (Tom Hanks) through the newsroom as the drama begins to unfold around Daniel Ellsberg’s (Matthew Rhys) 1971 leak of the Pentagon Papers—a decades-spanning intelligence assessment which betrayed administration doubts about success in Vietnam, highlighting the influence of what Eisenhower warned was a growing Military Industrial Complex.

When Ellsberg returns from Vietnam after conducting part of the intelligence assessment for the State Department, Secretary Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) concludes with his advisors that the Vietnam situation is worsening, “We put another hundred thousand troops in the field, things are no better.  To me that means things are actually worse,” then does an about-face before the press.

This bald-faced lie sets Ellsberg’s mind to providing The New York Times with morsels of the study that demonstrates Presidents dating back to Eisenhower committed U.S. forces to military actions in Southeast Asia that were nonetheless doomed to failure.

THE POST also tells the story of the paper’s beleaguered owner, Katharine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), who inherited the paper from her husband Philip following his untimely suicide.  At loggerheads with Bradlee, Kay agonizes over whether or not to publish Ellsberg’s find amidst skepticism that the paper can be run as profitably as competing publishing entities Gannett and Knight/Ridder, the latter of which was purchased by McClatchy in 2006.

Spielberg and writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer reinforce the “feet on the ground” aspect of traditional journalism as we watch people running, from office to office, building to building, out at dawn on a Sunday morning to grab the first copies of The New York Times issue featuring Neil Sheehan’s report on McNamara’s study.  Like Pakula’s Director of Photography Gordon Willis, Janusz Kaminski shoots frequently from low angles to capture those drop ceilings at The Post and the The New York Times.  Spielberg contrasts this nose-to-grindstone milieu with the aristocratic boardroom drama of the pending initial public offer of Washington Post stock on the American Exchange.

“You think this is really necessary…. taking the company public,” says Donald Graham, who later sold Washington Post Co. to Jeff Bezos for $250 million in 2013.  Bezos was admonished in the press for lacking due diligence in his acquisition; in retrospect this compels one to scrutinize Donald Graham’s disposing of a key pillar of the family’s political and social presence.  A contentious end to a paper that serendipitously landed in the hands of his mother.  The paper’s founder, Eugene Meyer, passed control of The Post to Philip and not Kay—a fact that Board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) dredges up as he balks at the IPO, which the underwriters price $3 million less than planned.  Restraining anger, Kay responds fulsomely, “Thank you, Arthur, for your frankness.”

Assistant Managing Editor Ben Bagdikian (Bob Odenkirk) follows leads to locate Ellsberg—now off the grid as the Nixon administration secures an injunction against The Times, the first such censure of the free press in America.  Kaminski echoes the closeups (minus the split diopter) of Woodward (Redford) hitting up all his contacts to track down Ken Dahlberg and the $25,000 check that connected Nixon’s re-election campaign to the Watergate break-in.

These moments, however, are beset by numerous Spielbergisms.  Returning to D.C. with the classified documents on an Eastern Airlines flight, a stewardess asks about the large box in the window seat, “Must be precious cargo.”

Ben replies, “Yeah. It’s just… government secrets.”

Later, as the team of journalists scramble to reassemble the un-numbered pages of the classified study, they’re paid a visit by Senior legal counsel Roger Clark (Jesse Plemons).  Tony Bradlee (Sarah Paulson), Ben’s wife, counts heads to make them sandwiches.

“Tell me these aren’t the pages from the McNamara study,” says Clark.

“Four thousand pages of it,” concedes Bradlee.

Just then, Tony enters with the sandwiches, and the punchline, “Anybody hungry?”

Spielberg atones, barely, bestowing Tony with the “Oh please” speech that’s important, especially now, to differentiate the task Kay has as a woman entrepreneur from that of her male publisher. But the point is to further Bradlee’s arc and, while it’s made in one sentence, Spielberg throws in four more.

Later, the plot crescendoes—a montage of the presses and trucks rolling, accentuated by the portentous bombast of John Williams’ score.  And, aside from a conclusion I won’t spoil except to say that it plays exactly like the meta-film twist at the end of Altman’s THE PLAYER, Spielberg can’t resist to inject a Gumpian “brush with history” as then Assistant Attorney General Rehnquist, a future Justice of the Supreme Court, calls to advise Bradlee the publication of the papers is prohibited by the Espionage Act of 1917—just a beat too late to stop the story going to print.

I grapple with Spielberg’s directorial ethos.  An immensely talented filmmaker, he tries too hard to please audiences when he doesn’t have to—I get why.  Like a publisher bristling to print the most important story of our time, threatened by exogenous forces, he buries his own lede an hour into this 109-minute crowd-pleaser:

Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks might be the two most overrated and yet simultaneously most talented actors sought by such Generals of the Arts as Spielberg.  Before making her historic decision, Kay presses Ben about his palling around on Kennedy’s yacht, “Hard to believe you would’ve gotten all those invitations if you didn’t… pull a few punches.”

Streep subtly accents the pause with a dismissive twirl of her wrist.

Later, Bradlee admonishes Kay, “I never thought of Jack [Kennedy] as a source.  I thought of him as a friend, and that was my mistake.  And it was something that Jack knew all along.  We can’t be both.  We have to choose, and that’s the point.”

In February, The Washington Post adopted its new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”  Coined from a quote by Judge Damon J. Keith whilst ruling from the bench of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that warrantless wiretaps were illegal, it’s ironic that Bezos pushed the slogan.  His Amazon empire commands the new technocratic state, accompanied by Facebook, Google and Twitter, the legal counsels of which were grilled by the House and Senate Intelligence Committees for their role in enabling Russian disinformation campaigns in the 2016 U.S. election.

The new technocrats understand page views, they understand ad-based revenue, but do they understand editorial guidance?  Do they understand protecting sources?  Do they respect the role of the “investigative journalist”, a phrase that became a mockery before the blogosphere thanks to the advent of 24 hour ad-funded network news.

Yet in the past week we witnessed the due diligence of editorial guidance in the firing of Brian Ross from ABC; The Washington Post rejected a fake source backed by Project Veritas.  The wheels of justice may be slow, but the hammer-stroke of responsible journalism is swift.


Justice League


(L-R) RAY FISHER as Cyborg, GAL GADOT as Wonder Woman, EZRA MILLER as The Flash and JASON MOMOA as Aquaman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ JUSTICE LEAGUE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics

For as long as I can remember I just wanted to do what was right. I guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore. And I thought I could throw myself back in and follow orders, serve. It’s just not the same.
– Steve Rogers

As a moviegoer, you steel yourself before a film like this, “I have no expectations.  I just want it to be fun.  Anything beyond that is gravy.”

But gravy has texture.  And this review has spoilers…

Wonder Woman thwarts a terrorist plot using the Lasso of Truth to credibly work in the expository monologue in which the bad guy explains his scheme.  In the real world, the terror is the motivation, so threatening to do it seems rather counterproductive.  This opening is punctuated, unsubtly, with slow-motion scenes of (hold your laughter) a skinhead kicking over a fruit stand while a hijabi recoils in horror.  I did not make this up.  This was an actual scene, in an actual movie, that actually cost over a third of a billion dollars to produce.

It’s equally funny (or painful) to observe the way in which this prologue beats us in the head:  Nazis and other evil proliferated because Superman is dead and the world is an irredeemably horrible place.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that the movie is irredeemably horrible.

Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, directed by Zack Snyder, JUSTICE LEAGUE is one of the ugliest and most disorganized films I have ever seen.  It’s offensively ugly, as with an establishing shot of the Amazonian lands of Themiscyra.  Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN introduced us to the gilded fortresses and lush vistas of this mythical land.  As if to purposely insult her work, a seconds-long CG sequence that feels minutes-long presents this magical place in the most unimaginative, boring, flat angle humanly possible.

On the heels of Jenkins’ critically- and commercially-successful film, JUSTICE LEAGUE unites Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman with Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), to defeat the horribly-animated Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds voicing what vaguely resembles a horned Liam Neeson in one of several absolute wastes of talent herein).

In some kind of unpoetic symmetry that would make George Lucas proud of his worst rationalizations, this “Save The World” plot steals from the Marvel universe twice–THE AVENGERS (2012) invokes the Cosmic Cube from Marvel’s Tales of Suspense (1966) which was then copied in D.C. Comics’ Fourth World series (1970-73).  Like the Cosmic Cube (the “tesseract” in the movies), the Mother Boxes are an Asimovian abstraction; both are technologies so advanced they’re sufficiently indiscernible from magic.  In cinematic terms, they’re the same MacGuffin.

The picture makes a great deal of hullabaloo about the Amazonians as protectors of the Earth from the wrath of various gods and demigods.  In a massive battle, reminiscent of Tolkien’s War of the Last Alliance, the Amazonians, Atlanteans, and humans, fight off Steppenwolf.  He attempts to combine the Mother Boxes into the world-shattering Unity the same way Thanos from the Marvel universe acquires the Infinity Stones to combine them on the Infinity Gauntlet.

When Steppenwolf returns centuries later, their Mother Box is housed in a fortress.  The Amazonians went to considerable trouble to protect this artifact.  We see enormous doors and a series of gigantic barricades and then, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in film:  Steppenwolf bursts through an earthen side wall like the Kool-Aid Man.  Cue Rich and Randolph’s “Yakety Sax”.

Ultimately, the Unity can only be stopped by the cooperation of these heroes with extremely disparate abilities which somehow the writers have to cripple at key moments to arrest what might otherwise become an incomprehensible plot.  Aside from a casting stroke of genius–Ben Affleck plays a smug asshole–Wonder Woman, essentially a living god, could blow the thing apart with her magical bracelets but D.C. always saves the worst deus ex machina for last.

Anyone who can read IMDb understands that Warner Bros. has no choice but to revive Superman (Henry Cavill) because we’re now stuck in a nuclear arms race of apocalypses and reboots.  Aside from his drawn-out re-appearance (it’s neither a twist nor a delight, more of a slow dribble), it’s nice to see Superman bring back some of the lightness-of-foot of the old Justice League cartoons–particularly his sporty banter with Ezra Miller’s Flash.  In spite of the much-needed booster shot of levity into a crassly-dark core franchise that perverted the concept of the incorruptible Übermensch, the film remains a visual and conceptual hot mess.  Warner Bros. usually gives us at least two acts of somewhat noble conceits before unraveling in the third.  JUSTICE LEAGUE is a cacophonous mess from start to finish.

Some of that is going to be blamed on the untimely family tragedy suffered by Snyder necessitating the last minute rewrites by Joss Whedon, but the video game cutscene-quality animations, digital composites, and generally horrible editing on a $300 million budget seem consequences of a franchise caught off guard by Marvel and serially incapable of gaining a proper footing.

Setting aside the laws of thermodynamics for a moment, where is this idiot who keeps inventing these world- and universe-destroying MacGuffins and what was he thinking?  Yes, I’m sure there’s a backstory that began with good intentions and it’s probably documented in the errata of some comic book appendix somewhere that nobody who sees JUSTICE LEAGUE has either time or inclination to read.  It’s not in the film, nor do we see how the Box protected by the race of Men is recovered.  I guess it was just accidentally unearthed at some point.  Next time, throw it in a volcano or something…

Thor: Ragnarok

©2017, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures & Marvel Studios

Chris Hemsworth in THOR: RAGNAROK.

In the Poetic Edda, Ragnarök—”the final destiny of the gods”—brings an end to Odin, Loki, Thor and several other gods of Norse mythology.  In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s co-opted mostly to show off some cool CG animations, hurl a few baddies this way and that, and give a dud of a sub-franchise a much needed facelift vis-à-vis the comedic stylings of Chris Hemsworth and director Taika Waititi.

Suspended somewhere in the bowels of a fiery lair, a chained Thor (Hemsworth) listens captively as the smoldering demon Surtr (Clancy Brown) drones on in the usual expository monologue where the evil villain explains his evil plan.  Naturally, Thor fights his way out of this prison and returns to Asgard with Surtr’s crown which leads to a series of events that releases Hela (Cate Blanchett).  Possessing immense power, she threatens the destruction of the Nine Realms—Asgard and eight other worlds, including Earth.

Somewhere along this adventure, Thor and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) find themselves on a garbage-strewn planet ruled by an egomaniacal weirdo, the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum; who else?).   Sakaar appears to be some kind of intergalactic dumping station.   That’s merely a consequence of having various portals, including one that recalls the old joke about orifices, “Hotter than…”  Also home to a kind of interplanetary gladiatorial tournament, Thor is reunited here with the reigning champion, Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and introduced to the MCU’s first gaylien—Korg (an ad-libbing Waititi).

The film strongly leverages Hemsworth’s comic timing and openness to self-ridicule.  Grandmaster is a scenery-chewing delight as Jeff Goldblum, or vice-versa?  But Blanchett’s demigoddess feels impotent when relegated to CG-laden hand-to-hand combat—why, when she can snap her fingers and kill them all?

Inspired heavily by FLASH GORDON (1980), RAGNAROK is easily one of the most entertaining Marvel films.  Yet, for all its brazen gags, its hip soundtrack (forking out the gross domestic product of a small nation-state for a couple verses of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song”), and its cool if somewhat hetero-normative heroes (Valkyrie and Korg, Tessa Thompson who could be an action star in her own right and Waititi, respectively, rep LGBT in the comics), the House That Steve Rogers Built doesn’t rush headlong into truly dangerous territory.  Having exhausted multiple origin stories, each Marvel sequel is stuck perpetually recycling a “save the world” plot, just rearranging characters and settings.  How many times can an immortal god of thunder come of age and find his place in the universe?

The Millennial Falcon: What Wright Gets About Music that Chazelle Gets Wrong

:©2017 TriStar Pictures, Inc. and MRC II Distribution Company L.P. All Rights Reserved.

Baby (ANSEL ELGORT) in TriStar Pictures’ BABY DRIVER. Photo: Wilson Webb

In the climactic concert performance capping Damien Chazelle’s WHIPLASH in which Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) furiously  hammers out a drum solo to “Caravan”.  Chazelle haphazardly intercuts close ups and split screens that neither correlate to the correct pieces of the kit nor convey the feverish intensity of John Wasson’s arrangement of the jazz standard.  The typical counter-argument is that WHIPLASH isn’t a jazz movie.  True.  And SHINE isn’t a biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff, but the critical theme of both films is the short distance between perfectionism and madness.

Chazelle, a self-professed mediocrity of a musician, compounded his mistake with the saccharine, misguided LA LA LAND, in which black culture and the true origins of jazz take a back seat.   Nothing is made of the fact that Duke Ellington wrote “Caravan”, nor does Neiman show any appreciation for Ellington or anything else he composed.   Chazelle “hears the notes, if not the music,” with his obsessive, mechanical miscomprehension of “Caravan” and of jazz in general.

In “Whiplash,” the young musicians don’t play much music. Andrew isn’t in a band or a combo, doesn’t get together with his fellow-students and jam—not in a park, not in a subway station, not in a café, not even in a basement. He doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not (as Parker did) with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history—no Elvin Jones, no Tony Williams, no Max Roach, no Ed Blackwell. In short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition—the concert band and the exposure it provides—and nothing else. The movie has no music in its soul—and, for that matter, it has no music in its images.

– Richard Brody; “Getting Jazz Right At The Movies”, The New Yorker

Named for the Simon & Garfunkel tune, Edgar Wright’s BABY DRIVER is a musical disguised as a chase flick.  The film opens on a heist, in which Baby (Ansel Elgort) is employed as the wheel man.  Inspired heavily by Walter Hill’s THE DRIVER, Wright plunges us headlong into a riveting chase—the best I’ve seen since RONIN.  Baby, constantly plugged into his iPod to drown out tinnitus caused by a childhood injury, cranks “Bellbottoms” recorded in 1994 by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.   You’re ready to believe that Wright’s stand in for the OCD Neiman is just another millennial hipster glomming on to Gen X music for nostalgia.  The title card hits, trumpets strike a familiar chord, but instead of House of Pain’s “Jump Around” we’re transported back to the source of that sample: Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” (1963).

Just as quickly as we wonder how Baby developed his appreciation for the classics, we meet his foster father and a pile of records from vintage labels like Chess and Stax.  But let me step back for a moment:  The opening heist and ensuing chase are punctuated by swooping and swinging car-eography and the syncopated percussion of cleverly edited gunshot foley.  Even as he returns to his apartment, the camera swings and sways in a single take across the living room and kitchen while Baby dances to Carla Thomas’ tune of the same name—earlier, he’d met a waitress quietly singing the words.  Later, when the two hit it off, watch how the ringing in Baby’s ears ceases (sans music) and the DP dollies the camera around and around, in a restaurant, at the laundromat.  The boy is smitten.  The girl throws his equilibrium out of whack and, for a moment, he can stop thinking about what Doc (Kevin Spacey) will do to him if he doesn’t pay him off.

The visual poetry is always accompanied by the perfect song, and there are so many, from the soulful “Nowhere To Run” by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas to the smooth “Never, Never Gonna Give You Up” by Barry White—again, covered magnificently in the 90’s by Lisa Stansfield but Wright wants us to appreciate the original except in a couple of instances where he poignantly juxtaposes old and new versions: “Easy” by Sky Ferreira and the original by The Commodores, and Beck and T.Rex’s versions of “Debra”.   From the frenetic “Brighton Rock” by Queen to Young M.C’s self-mashup “Know How”—Baby has a briefcase full of mixtapes—each track fits the scene to which it is coupled and gives us a virtual tour of blues, jazz, rock, funk, reggae and hip hop in a running time barely longer Chazelle’s broken record.

A word about Ansel Elgort.  Suffice it to say he’s more compelling to watch than Lily James whom, sadly, Wright didn’t give much to do except inexplicably fall for and be whisked away by… The cherub-faced boy concealing a carnivorous smile plays Baby focused, with an economy of words—triggering what my wife refers to as a “competency kink”.   Behind sunglasses—he owns more pairs than Elton John—Baby resembles a cross between Anthony Michael Hall’s awkward geek in THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and Tom Everett Scott’s drummer, Guy, in THAT THING YOU DO.  Like Tom Hulce’s fictionalized Mozart, he’s a prodigy so insanely skilled, he waits out the heists not obsessively calculating his next move but playing with his wiper blades.  This fits.  Chazelle’s Andrew is, as Richard Brody observes about Buddy Rich, a technician, but Baby is a true band geek.  Like Bruce Willis’ cat burglar in the misunderstood, mis-marketed absurdist comedy HUDSON HAWK, Baby’s technical application of music (timing out his escapes) is secondary to his aesthetic appreciation of the same.

Footnote: While Wright’s most obvious homage—Baby’s black-on-white vest-on-longsleeve—caught my eye immediately, I ruminated on the intended metaphor.  And then it hit me….

You’ve never heard of the Millennial Falcon?  It’s the Subaru WRX that made a robbery getaway in less than five minutes and sixteen seconds.