Saturday, September 25, 2021

Center Stage: DEAR EVAN HANSEN and
EVERYBODY'S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE

In Dear Evan Hansen, a painfully lonely depressed teenager accidentally insinuates himself into the life of the family of a dead classmate. A few unfortunate coincidences lets them think he was their suicidal son’s only friend, and the poor kid’s too awkward and inexperienced with human connection to tell them the truth. And that’s the kind of lie that’s hard to unwind if you let it go for even a moment. Besides, he starts to like a feeling of acceptance it brings him. That’s an extremely uncomfortable dynamic, as the fragile high schooler knowingly stakes his emotional well-being on this falsehood, just as surely as his deceased classmate’s mourning family members have done the same unknowingly. The wait for the truth to come out is an unpleasant underlying concern, almost unbearable in its raw potential compounding heartbreak upon heartbreak. You just know it’ll break everyone involved. And yet the whole thing is a musical, with songs from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, whose work for the catchy Greatest Showman is probably their finest hour. Their kind of soaring pop uplift might make an awkward fit for material that wouldn’t take too much tweaking to imagine as a cold, creepy Michael Haneke feature.

That it somehow worked as a stage musical is something of a theatrical magic trick. Somewhere between the stage lights and spare sets is enough of an abstraction to allow the production to sit with its implications without letting its exposed nerves overwhelm with nagging doubts. On screen, it’s a tougher sit. The close-ups and medium shots invite a closer look at the emotional stakes. And, sure, as slightly mean internet frenzy goes, star Ben Platt, reprising the lead, is now slightly too old to hold the big screen as a believable teenager, especially as the filmmaking makes him somehow look even older. It doesn’t help that his every tic is still playing to the rafters. The rest of the cast is much better, and largely so good at embodying the enormous drama of the moments—Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, and Amandla Stenberg, especially selling some tricky moments of tearful connection. The ensemble is doing work imbuing their characters with such depth of feeling that it actually reveals how thin some of the parts are written. Meanwhile, director Stephen Chobsky—whose Wonder and Perks of Being a Wallflower are better movies about young people’s struggles with mental health—shoots it like a glossy indie drama. Every set looks like a showroom; every tear is shown artfully dripping down quivering cheeks. It makes the songs ever-so-slightly out of place, especially as choreography is generally kept to a minimum, and the lyrics then become plainly presented soliloquies.  

Some of the plot’s turns look flimsier that way, the outsized feelings pushed down into a too-real-yet-unreal box. And the trims taken to the story tighten the focus on the pitiable Evan’s woebegone mistakes instead of expanding into the larger ramifications for the others. (One needn’t look further than the final number, which has been changed from a group coda to a solo.) This all leads to the final stretch, already slightly shaky on stage, playing out as somewhat inadequate to the task of resolving its messy complications without playing like pat absolution. Too easy it was to shunt the hard work of atonement and grace off screen. It’s one of those instances where the movie version can make one almost see why it was a Broadway hit—a provocative stew of topical ideas about bullying and social media and mental health stirred up with strings and sentimentality—without quite feeling the effect.

A far more successful stage-to-screen musical about a teenage misfit is the exuberant Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. Based on a glittery pop confection of a British musical, it tells the story of a 16-year-old boy who hopes to become a drag queen. In broad strokes, the picture is in the tradition of Billy Elliot and Kinky Boots, in which a working-class young person pushes against conservative boundaries and pursues their dream against all odds. We have the plucky youth of the title (Max Harwood), who keeps his hopes to himself, mostly. His mother (Sarah Lancashire) is supportive. His best friend (Lauren Patel) wants to understand. But the bullies at his school pick up on his insecurities and his estranged father (Ralph Ineson) is distant from discomfort with his son’s sexuality and interests. The boy clearly loves sparkles and heels, makeup and feminine style. He has for a while. Now that he wants to be even more flashy with it and maybe even get up on a stage in their small-town drag show, why, it’s like he’s coming out all over again. The cast imbues the plot’s predictable moves with a giddy believability, an emotional grounding that makes it feel real enough to its situation and relationships even as it takes off in flights of musical fantasy. Best of all is Harwood, who sells the sense of youthful excitement and experimenting barely outracing his deep insecurity and fear. He hides it well, with the stuff to fake it until he makes it.

The film has been cannily constructed, full of numbers reminiscent of everything from Pet Shop Boys to Madonna with a low-key Broadway sashay and more than a little pep in its jazzy step, stretching out across the screen. It sometimes dips into theatrical fantasy—like a cafeteria that fills with stage smoke as lunch ladies become background singers—and other times is snappily cut and styled like a glam music video. The debut director, Jonathan Butterell, and co-writers, Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae, are also the originators of the stage show and do a good job modulating the tone for the cinema. It’s a bit of kitchen-sink realism with a lot of dewey dreamy fizzy uplift involved. As it shifts between earnest drama and flashy dances, simple ballads and sparkling spectacle, it makes a nice balance of realism and fancy. Among the most moving is a sequence in which an older drag queen mentor (Richard E. Grant) sings to the young man about his days marching for gay rights as AIDS approached. While he recounts his past, we go into blurry VHS-style flashbacks haunted by the ghost of his future self. (His younger days are reminiscent of scenes in the heartbreaking It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davies’ recent excellent miniseries about that time and place.) Elsewhere, we have a suspenseful first drag show, parental confrontations, potential setbacks, and an isn’t-it-pretty-to-think-so sweet school dance conclusion followed by a dreamy mass dance number of a curtain call. The cumulative effect is a movie about acceptance that wears its lesson lightly and passionately. What a delight of a sugary (but not entirely sugar-coated) journey of self-discovery. It’s enough to make one believe what one character tells Jamie: somewhere there’s a party that can’t start without you.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Man Down: CRY MACHO

How lucky for Clint Eastwood that he’s now in his eighth decade making movies. And how lucky for us he’s matured into a fine grandfatherly paragon of cinema. To see him emerge on screen in another aged role of grit and melancholy is to see a fading monument to a passé brand of masculinity. We remember the roles of violence and determination in his past. We see him now, silhouetted against a painterly sunset or turned sideways in a plot others would approach head on, and from certain angles it looks like he’s frail, stumbling, disappearing into ever-deeper wrinkles and wispier hair. In profile he looks like the Old Man of the Mountain (before it collapsed, natch). He’s in total control of how he looks here, at once strong and weak. Having directed himself many times over the decades, he well knows how to use his iconographic qualities. He knows we know he was once the Man with No Name, Dirty Harry, the Outlaw Josey Wales. And he’s been deconstructing that gruff tough image for a good while now, in more farewell roles than any of the great movie stars were afforded. He was the reluctant gunslinger in Unforgiven, the one-last-ride astronaut in Space Cowboys, the world-weary boxing trainer in Million Dollar Baby, the mellowing racist-next-door in Grand Torino, and the enjoy-it-while-it-lasts semi-accidental drug transporter in The Mule. Each used his qualities as a former tough guy to mine deep currents of regret and second-guessing. That reaches another apotheosis in Cry Macho, probably the least of these, but the most pointed yet in saying all this macho stuff is worthless, in the end. And that a movie of such clean thematic clarity and simple sturdy craftsmanship was produced for a major Hollywood studio by a 91-year-old man in the middle of a pandemic is nothing to sneeze at either.

This is another movie that plays like he's writing his own eulogy. It pairs Eastwood, as a well-past-his-prime rodeo cowboy, with a troubled 13-year-old Mexican boy (Eduardo Minett) whose American father (Dwight Yoakam) wants brought back across the border for complicated custody reasons. The movie goes for little to none of the stakes you might expect. The suspense is mere token. The road trip takes few detours. It’s a pretty simple straight shot, there and back again, with episodic stops at various small towns and roadside diners where thinly sketched supporting roles either assist or need assistance from our mismatched leads. And there's some small amount of action, too, including giving the oldster a chance to land some punches. Do the old man and teen slowly grow to respect each other? You bet. Does the old man try to teach the youngster that it’s not all about being tough, that it’s okay to be sensitive, that looking to find some true grit in this world leaves you with just your grit and nothing else by the end? Oh, yeah. But Eastwood sells the cliches with his world-weariness, his sense of a hard-earned life behind him and a molasses drip need to leave the younger generations with some hard-candy truths that’ll linger long after he’s gone. The movie’s worst when it tries to lean into some generic thriller mechanics or pushes a little too hard on unearned sentiment. But it’s best when it ties its story’s energy to the subtextual knowledge that there’ll never be another Movie Star or director like Eastwood again. He's telling us one's never too macho to cry about that.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Let the Right Wan In:
THE CONJURING: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT
and MALIGNANT

Two recent Warner Brothers’ horror movies have been a case study in James Wan’s talents as a director. Maybe the clearest example of what he can do is the one he didn’t do, proof through absence, since The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It is a sequel to two movies he directed. After Saw and Insidious, he launched The Conjurings. The series starring Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson as paranormal investigators, loosely based on real people who claimed they were such a thing, had a good start. It also made him one of a select group of directors who’ve kickstarted three iconic horror franchises. Wan gave it style and character, long slow build ups to good ghost scares and in between the great actors were allowed to build warm chemistry for a portrait of a loving marriage. It satisfied, and made a whole cinematic universe of spin-offs in which other directors tackled the story of haunted objects largely disconnected from the central Conjurings, and therefore freed from the direct comparison with the flagship’s style and tone. (Even the ones that featured good cameos from Wilson and Farmiga, like a third Annabelle movie about a possessed doll, managed to do fun creep-outs with its ideas without stepping on the larger franchise.) What a disappointment, then, that the third in the central series is such a slack and boring affair.

Wan passed the reins to Michael Chaves, whose modestly effective The Curse of La Llorona was the least connected in the Conjuring-verse. (It was also, coincidentally, the second-best film of that Latin American folk tale in recent years.) With this new movie, he makes a competently framed sequel, but the screenplay is just so weak that it hardly matters he can do the sliding digitally-assisted camera moves and gin up some token suspense. Instead of the haunted house tours of the prior films, this one feints toward the idea of being a legal thriller. There’s a grisly murder, and the main suspect tells his lawyer that the devil made him do it—hence the title. So Wilson and Farmiga, taking this very seriously because the alleged murderer was a witness at one of their exorcisms lately, tromp off to investigate. Weirdly, the courthouse is left entirely behind so that they can snoop around secret Satanists and ferret out a conspiracy of evildoers lurking in the shadows. (Maybe because the “true story” would find a judge dismiss the defendant’s claim of possession and lock him up, the filmmakers needed something more supernatural to happen.) Its 80s setting places it squarely in Satanic Panic territory, a time when a frenzy of right-wing Christian scaremongering about phony devil-worshipping cabals led to false accusations against all manner of teachers, parents, and childcare workers. (n+1 editor Richard Beck’s 2015 book We Believe the Children is a well-researched overview of this history.) So it’s certainly more difficult to take the series’ fake “true story” claims in good fun when it’s now pretending this damaging falsehood might’ve had a point, even in such a limited case. Even if I could get past that, though, the movie itself is mechanical and dry, self-seriousness tipped fatally toward silly, with its good leads stranded in a plot that plods. I was thoroughly bored.

That’s not to say the movie Wan did direct, Malignant, is any less silly, but it owns it. The thing is so committed to its kookiness it reaches a fever pitch of style and confidence. The thing starts overheated and maintains a roiling boil from there. After some spasms of plot-setting, we arrive in the life of a woman (Annabelle Wallis) who, recuperating from having her skull cracked against a wall by her abusive husband, dreams he’s killed. She awakes to discover he was. From there it’s a not unfamiliar story of its kind, as the woman imagines herself present at more and more grisly murders—bodies torn apart with gross effects for gooey stabbings. The police view her suspiciously. Her sister tries to be supportive. It all ramps up until there’s a huge twist or three, and the movie adds a kind of manic glee to its increasingly wild images. Wan starts with the show-off overhead shots and gliding through walls he so loves. But the dialogue seems a little too flat, and the acting seems all dialed a bit off from the norm. The investigation is sluggish, and the psychology half-baked. The thing starts to feel strikingly composed—with dark and stormy nights and color filters and self-consciously posed blocking—but bog standard. It’s maybe the awkward halfway point between Dario Argento’s excess and M. Night Shyamalan’s earnestness for a while.

But by the time a stunt person, makeup, and wriggling gross-out body horror erupts into spasms of mind-boggling action and violence in pursuit of an amped up high concept giddily displayed, it’s hard not to get on board. I could appreciate the whole project then. It started by showing us a deceptively normal (in genre terms) idea, the better to satisfy when it reveals its extreme grotesqueries from the other side, an awkward but not unenjoyable mix. Wan isn’t pursuing the virtuosic symphonies of jump scares and spectral visions he brought to his ghost stories, or the twisting suspense gore of his earlier works. Instead he’s in pursuit of just how far over the top he can take a concept while still playing it straight. Does that make it a good movie? Maybe not quite. But it makes it a watchable and memorable one with a few fun sequences. It’s certainly the superior Wan production of the year. It strikes me as the kind of outlier horror movie best appreciated for what it’s trying, and admiring what it can pull off.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Where Are We Going; Where Have We Been?
9/11 Cinema at 20

“It’s like something out of a movie.” I don’t remember the first time I heard someone say that on September 11, 2001, as we stared in horrified curiosity at the news footage, compelled to see what would happen next, afraid and confused and reaching for the only comparison point that made sense. It was one knee-jerk way to try to understand something that barely felt real at first. Maybe I even said it myself once or twice. Skyscrapers burning, the towering infernos collapsing. Smoke billowing, debris floating, people running. The images were indelible; for anyone alive and able to witness the unfolding crisis of that day, the sensation they cause are unshakeable. We stared at the images intently, repeatedly, the inescapable news footage on a loop for days and weeks. We looked until the smoking towers looked like black caskets against the sky, until the rubble became a landscape, until the smoke became sorrow itself. Even so, we turned to the movies, even in some small part, that day to try to contextualize the novelty and all-encompassing terror in the images we were seeing. We continued to turn to them in the decades after, as the ripple effects of that terrible shock reverberated in images and stories we told ourselves afterwards. Beyond the propaganda that would follow, beyond the news that would endlessly roll, beyond the photo spreads and press conferences that tried to contextualize, cinema reacted, too. All along, the movies have helped and hurt our understanding. 

On that sunny September day twenty years ago, we had not long before emerged from the 1990s, whose blockbuster cinema reliably brought us these visions of disaster. They gave us a resurgence of such calamities, ever escalating. Daylight flooded the New Jersey Tunnel. Speed hijacked a bus. Titanic sunk a famous boat. (That one, of course, had a dose of reality. It was also easily the best, and stuck in the conversation such that more than one person wondered how 9/11 could be turned into a romance. Remember Me?) Volcano burbled lava down LA streets. Independence Day blew up the White House, and other major landmarks. Deep Impact took out the whole coast. Armageddon took out several places—most hauntingly, in retrospect, the chunk a meteor took out of the side of the World Trade Center. When they came down for real, it was our only comparison point. What often felt like safe fantasy in those movies, bemusement at the sight of destruction, became suddenly, horribly, actual events, news footage to witness.

For those of us otherwise unaffected directly in smaller towns across the country—those of us with no relatives in New York, no flights to be diverted—it was still an event on a screen. And yet the reality sunk in. The citizens of my midwestern hometown talked in shocked tones, worried some building near us might be next. Such was the effect of these new images supplanting and overriding the Hollywood explosions in the mind. Surely, they thought, it doesn’t end there. A sense of surety and safety had been shaken, with many feeling suddenly vulnerable to the consequences of history, as writer Mike Davis put it. How interesting, then, that the ways in which these images of destruction were reclaimed by Hollywood were mostly for fantasies of power and control. As we marched off to ill-considered wars doomed to some degree of failure, loss, and calamity, superheroes stories started their latest flourishing, at least in part because the narratives of apocalypse narrowly averted by strongmen played upon the nation’s desire for easy resolution, a reclamation of all-powerful American supremacy. Seen from that angle, what are the Avengers, after all, but the elite global police force some dreamed the United States could be in those early interventionist pre-emptive strike years?

The so-called incoherent texts of Hollywood filmmaking worked overtime in the Bush era. Movies whose politics are hard to parse on purpose get bigger box office, or so the suits often say. Sure, some mainstream movies dripped with a productive poison pen of politics—Demme’s 2004 Manchurian Candidate remake was an astute dagger to the heart of the military industrial complex’s many tentacles; Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales extrapolated a dystopian mania from its sprawling future shock sci-fi insanity that feels quintessentially mid-aughts in tone and intentions; the Coens’ cynical Burn After Reading lampoons flailing intelligence agencies. They were the exceptions, though. Some, like the South Park guys’ broad puppet comedy Team America: World Police had a few good jabs buried under the slobbering prejudices of the time. Others, like the Bourne films and their ilk, took the jangled geopolitical destabilization—and deep suspicion of surveillance and dark espionage failings—as bruising shaky-cam set-dressing. That’s effective, and remains a time-capsule in that regard, but is shallow commentary that stops at that level. Still others bolstered lizard-brained concerns with Islamophobia—how many Middle East-set thrillers started with the distant sound of a muezzin over an ominous opening?—and retrograde ideas. Even the horror movies—Saw, Hostel, and, the best, a gutsy remade Hills Have Eyes diptych from the thoughtful gore-meister Wes Craven et al—were torturous, spilling innocents’ viscera as we learned the depravity our worst representatives in the wars carried out in our name.

Some filmmakers eventually found ways to draw more directly on the terror of the day—through what might be coyly called “9/11 imagery” in the reviews of the time—and bring the unsettling feelings to life in fiction. Matt Reeves’ found-footage Cloverfield reconfigured the chaos of first-person footage into a terrifying kaiju attack. Spielberg perhaps had the best blockbuster reactions—Minority Report’s corrupt paranoid pre-crime units presaging the Patriot Act, The Terminal the first studio picture to include the new Department of Homeland Security, and the one-two punch of the terrifyingly vivid War of the Worlds and mournful historical revenge thriller Munich making our post-9/11 anxieties rich cinematic texts. Others, like Michael Bay’s grinding globetrotting Transformers bringing down buildings all over the world in outsized spectacle, played both sides—skewering and celebrating might-make-right jingoism. Even some superhero movies—the X-Men’s haunted Others, in particular—managed to strike a tuning fork on the tenor of the times. On television, the complicated response blasted out in propagandistic ads and TV movies. (Even Disney Channel aired tributes to the American flag, and did a story of 9/11 from the perspective of an aircraft carrier in an original movie, Tiger Cruise.) Some burst out as the ticking clock hook of 24’s right-wing urgency to its one-man terror-preventing violence; the brooding slow-rolling cyclical horrors of Battlestar Galactica’s sci-fi warfare was the tortured left-wing hawkish dove on the flip side.

What the public generally didn’t want from its screen time, however, was any direct consideration of the War on Terror. Fantasy ruled the day—especially ones that dealt indirectly in uplift—a la the New York resilience of Sam Raimi’s cheerful Spider-Man or entirely in magical characters’ made-up realms: Harry Potter, Hobbits, Narnians.  Direct adaptations of the events of 9/11, no matter how well-intentioned, like United 93 or World Trade Center, underwhelmed. War stories, or war-inspired stories, flopped worse. I somehow saw a bunch as they were new, making me one of the few to hit all these, I imagine: Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Grace is Gone, Stop-Loss, Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Body of Lies, Fair Game, Syriana, The Kingdom, A Mighty Heart, and more I’m forgetting, I’m sure. Some are quite good; others are listless and stumbling in their own self-important messaging.

On the doc side, everything from verite to issue statements flowed. None were as wide-ranging as Adam Curtis’ attempt to understand the philosophical origins and implications of the crisis: The Power of Nightmares. Nor were they as electric as left-leaning populist provocateur Michael Moore’s last true lightning rod moment as an agitprop activist documentarian: Fahrenheit 9/11. A persuasive, enraging, sly and upsetting argument against Bush’s handling of 9/11 and its aftermath, the movie remains a great time capsule of mainstream left-wing dissent in the moment. It was a surprisingly big hit in the election year summer of 2004, when it felt like it might actually win Democrats the presidency. We know how that turned out. We also know how irredeemable viral conspiracy theory docs, like Loose Change, prefigured the new media waves of disinformation and “doing your own research” that has walled off swaths of the American public from reality. Better captures of the paranoia and devastation that was the fallout and blowback of the times can be found in Laura Poitras’ work chronicling violent wars abroad and digital wars everywhere. Many attempts to wrestle with the meaning of the moment in the moment fell short, victims of a cultural conversation that just didn’t want to confront the ugly truths head on. It was Support the Troops or be silent, The (Dixie) Chicks told to Shut Up and Sing, talk show hosts cancelled for questioning the misinformation fed to them as reason to spark a forever war. Rare was the serious consideration given to understanding the moment deeply, that a way to Support the Troops and Be American could be to help us avoid making grave mistakes.

So here we are, 20 years later, with the images of that fateful day long since passed into the history books, while the conflicts and ideas stirred up by them linger in our increasingly polarized and poisoned discourse. We’ve had many good articles and essays over the years, and some good documentaries. And now the 9/11 imagery has long since passed into visual cliche. The shock of the new has softened. Pull up footage from that day—YouTube users have uploaded full programming from the morning shows breaking in with the jolting alarm; they make for a fascinating rewatch—and it’s easy to see why the tremendous upset and reverberating consequences are hard to capture and synthesize. The real raw moment— not reconfigured into superpower fantasy or topical terrorism thrillers—remains a rare sight on our screens. Zack Snyder touched it for his breathtakingly pessimistic Superman and Batman, and the visceral negative reaction from many in the audience—critics and Joe Popcorn alike—proved the toppling towers are still a bruised sore spot, especially if you’re selling it as futility and fallibility, something a superhero can’t stop. It still hurts, despite and perhaps because we have yet to fully digest its impact, the buried psychological wounds of seeing this mass casualty event repeated ad infinitum for years.

How will we ever process this open wound, when the ways we’ve covered it up are to let its intense emotions get ignored, trotted out only by hypocritical politicians and pundits in diminishing (fingers crossed) attempts to goose the public’s appetite for further war. (Look no further than the outsized opprobrium Biden has received in the press for ending the war in Afghanistan. We can argue the merits of the moment, but let’s not pretend it’s not two decades of mistakes that got us to this point.) The smoking towers have joined the indelible moments of history, the kind those who weren’t yet born look at in dreadful amazement, asking of us older folks, “Where were you when…?” Meanwhile the confusion of that day has metastasized in our fearful, paranoid, conspiratorial discourse of these days. I often recall Susan Sontag’s essay for The New Yorker’s issue the week after the towers fell. She wrote: “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen. ‘Our country is strong,’ we are told again and again. I for one don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong? But that’s not all America has to be.” Alas. The stupefying effects of such massive trauma continue.

This milestone anniversary has, understandably, turned many of our minds back to that day. With the increasing distance of time, the culture at large has been able to move somewhat closer to Sontag’s hope. We did end up being stupid together, but historical awareness, and a sense of moving beyond the simple projections of strength, can be seen in new reconsiderations. Now studios have taken some attempts to retell it to us beyond the references and debates that it used as the grist for so many plots over the years. (Yet it’s still all about what can be sold to us, isn’t it?) Disney through National Geographic released 9/11: One Day in America on Hulu (notably not the Disney+ NatGeo tab). It opens with a disclaimer: “The following program shows…intense scenes of suffering and trauma.” There’s something we weren’t so lucky to get twenty years ago. It’s immediate and intense. Here is a six hour experience that takes us hour by hour through the day, using many first-hand videos and audio intercut with newly recorded testimonies from survivors. Some footage is familiar, but the biggest moments sneak in with a preserved stunned surprise, and from angles that are unexpected. It restores the day’s despair through a methodical accounting of the process, seen through the lenses that happened to be in the right place to see. This NatGeo project has a weight—comprehensive, all encompassing, present-tense cut with the still-rattled words of those who lived it. Every new piece of information—specifics of injuries, coincidences, consequences—reminds the viewer that a mass tragedy on this scale is built out of thousands of individual tragedies.

This feels like an essential historical accounting. Made in conjunction with the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, it has a funereal quality, partly the simple staging and industrial art-installation reels of primary sources, partly the low strings droning on the score, the pace’s patient unfolding, the heavy accumulation of detail. (It also reminded me of The Washington Post’s art critic’s writing, on the occasion of that museum’s opening, that it’s “a hellish descent into a dark place, where a tape loop of death and destruction is endlessly playing.”) The full picture in this documentary emerges with deliberate, harrowing slowness, with considered unflinching images artfully arranged to reconstruct the story, and draw us back into not just the facts, but the feeling of that moment with the benefit of being able to see a full panorama instead of the immediate gripping pinpricks of confusion. It lingers on its shots, lets the enormity descend with grim reality. I watched it with my shock and sorrow renewed. But the documentary is also, in its length and shape, soberingly manipulative, with anecdotes coached to have bitter stinging revelations and delayed gut-twisting reveals. Because it narrows its focus to just the day in question—not making large claims about What It Meant or Where It Went—the power and weight is maintained throughout, though it slips when it feels the need to nod toward later events for the interview subjects. And even as it provides the horrible hows, it studiously avoids the just-as-uncomfortable whys. As it goes on and on, it can occasionally get lost in narratives even as it tries to recreate experiences of the day. I can understand the temptation. The loss and pain and violence and grief is still difficult to take in. No wonder we’ve yet to fully process it.

The events of the day are too large to contain. Although it is important to understand the experience of that moment, it’s just as important to see the world it wrought, the unsettledness left in its wake. To narrow our focus risks simplifying our understanding. Take Apple TV+’s contribution to the anniversary doc space: 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room. It has incredible access and interviews polished to a confident shine. The talking heads include: George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, and many other high-ranking government officials from the time. They speak simply and clearly in a standard oral history way. Which means they’re also speaking for posterity quite obviously aware of the way these comments will pass into public record. I found a certain interest in their words about the day—where they were, what they claim they thought, some little details and unexpected comments. But the thing is so professional and poised that it never once asks the difficult questions of its powerful people. They don’t have to reckon with their warmongering and other mistakes that followed. And in that context, the stark judgements the movie leans into feel all the more unseemly. If Nat Geo’s accounting is sometimes heavy-handed, at least it’s also experiential, and generally uses good judgement in picking out its use of the day’s footage and audio; War Room uses it to goose suspense as if the events aren’t plenty gripping without cheap glossy embellishment. The film treats the day with all due enormity, but won’t let it speak for itself. It has people who were in important positions tell us little more than we’d get from anyone.

Good news, then, for those looking for context, that Spike Lee understands that day is one major inflection point at the dawn of our turbulent young century. Hence his epic new documentary for HBO, the complicatedly named NYC Epicenters: 9/11→2021½, frames the last twenty years as a series of shocks to the country’s system, bookend by calamities beyond our control that nonetheless spun further out of control through our mistakes. The film runs nearly eight hours, told in several chapters, beginning with 2020, reeling forwards, then backwards, tumbling back through the past couple decades. Lee starts with the pandemic, proceeds into the political turmoil of recent years, the various ugly outbursts of violence and prejudice flowing through our culture. He hits the highlights. Or lowlights, as the case may be. Elections. Uprisings. Police brutality. Insurrections. Massacres. Diseases. Disasters. And yet, because Lee is such a jovial interlocutor and clever filmmaker, he weaves the story of these decades like a juggling act between sorrow and uplift, honesty and curiosity. It’s filtered through his personality, filled with well-chosen archival footage, ironic juxtapositions, emphatic intertitles, eccentric observations, and passionate pleas. One of its most moving sequences is a wordless one: an Aaron Copland fanfare playing over film of the World Trade Center being built.

And because Lee expands the frame of the story, he talks to all manner of New Yorkers: governors, mayors, senators and congresspeople, yes, but also: actors and activists, nurses and journalists, teenagers and teachers, doctors and lawyers, writers and witnesses, firemen and firebrands, experts and bystanders. (This expansiveness also led him to lengthy sequences with 9/11 conspiracy theorists removed before that episode aired.) Here’s a film that understands we’ve lived through two decades bracketed by tragedy and buffeted by unrest. It also knows it happened to people with perspective and experience. It’s a loving appreciation of the people of New York and a testimony to their resilience. And in doing so it becomes a testament to the qualities that just might see us through: diversity, perseverance, and love for one’s neighbor. This we should be able to understand.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Royal Mess: HARRY & MEGHAN: ESCAPING THE PALACE

It’s plain to see why Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have become a most fascinating celebrity story of our time. It has everything: tragic backstory, complicated family dynamics, international politics, conversations of privilege and empire, race and class, royalty and, yes, romance. The youngest son of the tragically killed Princess Diana, the party boy veteran settles down after falling for a biracial American actress. It’s quite a story, even if that’s as far as it went. Marrying into the ongoing tabloid soap opera that is the royal family, however, sadly guarantees that’s not the end of it. In the disreputable genre of ripped-from-the-headlines made-for-TV movies, the whole complicated narrative is obvious grist for vaguely-lookalike unknown performers to get made up and reenact moments we read in tabloids. Lifetime, the leading purveyor of this once more prevalent genre, has now done it three times. And the third time is something like the charm because it finally has enough story, and permission from recent revelations, to lean all the more heavily into scandal roiling with suspense and emotional upheaval.

Thank Oprah for that. Her widely seen primetime CBS interview with the couple remains one of the most captivating TV moments of the year. Impeccably staged and probingly candid—albeit still carefully managed—and given the space to go on in detail, the former talk-show host proved she still had the considerable presence and skill she developed over decades in this space. She allowed Harry and Meghan to present a united front, speaking openly and guardedly about issues with the family. Racist comments toward their children. Unfair treatment in security and publicity. A lack of concern for their emotional and psychological well-being. Oprah’s reputation as a facilitator of Important Conversations, and the sagacity with which her every furrowed brow and nodding head—there’s no better listener on TV—and turn of phrase—“Were you silent or silenced?” was an instant classic—contains lent gravitas and believability to their captivating revelations. (It also made me wish Oprah did this more often. We’re not exactly overflowing with good interviewers anywhere these days.) These stories didn’t come out of nowhere. The couple had already stepped back from their royal status, a turn which followed a rabidly racist English tabloid culture and off-the-record reports of palace discord. It’s not news to hear stories like this leak from the place, but the source made it all the more persuasive.

So without that confirmed reporting from their mouths, it’s no wonder Lifetime’s earlier attempts to dramatize their lives flailed. In 2018’s Harry & Meghan: A Royal Romance, a pretty tepid rom-com filled time on the network’s schedule. It made the whole thing dewey-eyed in the most mechanical ways, and hand-waved the real issues in the mix. The movie has Harry coo sympathetically that he understands the Black experience because he has red hair, and ends with the grandmotherly Queen telling her staff it’s okay Meghan is Black. The network’s sequel, 2019’s Harry & Meghan: Becoming Royal is a feature-length montage of made-up moments tepidly staged and flatly developed. Best is probably a little arc with a fake British morning show as the bobble-headed hosts slowly diverge—one representing the scoffing white male prejudice, the other a woman who reaches her breaking point with him. Both films are pretty bland with makeup slathered on like a thick polish and every scene lit like an IKEA showroom. It’s pretty clear the filmmakers had a tight budget and cramped ideas, with little insight into what to do with the story at hand. They didn’t really know what they were telling. Turns out, it was because we didn’t have all the information.

Harry & Meghan: Escaping the Palace is a different beast entirely. It grabs the throat right away, with a revving engine over black, a smash cut to a car crushed in a Parisian tunnel. It understands the stakes at play. Turns out it's a dream sequence. It’s Meghan in the car. Harry sits up in bed sweating, with the gasping fear that accompanies every such scene you’ve ever seen. One could call this tasteless, but it’s also out to joltingly embody the Oprah special’s implications. Here’s a man in love with a woman who he increasingly fears is doomed to the same fate as his late mother. He sees the same swirl of factors brewing on the horizon. Most of the movie isn’t as dramatic as its opening, but is still plenty invested in the drama, the sense of real people in all the news. It stands up the conflicts and allegations with a subtext-less verve. Subtle, it’s not. But it is restrained and respectful, with even that attention-grabbing, controversy-courting opening intended to be fair to the real motivations of real people. Those looking to be superior to the form will certainly find plenty at which to scoff. And it certainly would not stand up to scrutiny if you put it next to a big-budget theatrical standard. But connoisseurs of the TV movie will recognize its flat-footed charms.

Returning director Menhaj Huda makes it with the same bland wallpapering of muzak-ish score, stock footage establishing shots, and simple, brightly lit staging as the previous films. But the acting chews into meatier scenes, with meaner personality clashes and tightly navigated discomforts. And there’s an underlying tension to the conflicts that build up a head of pressure on the family drama. Huda matches it with some pushier camera moves and snappier cutting. We see negotiations between family and fame, palace politics and brand management, and the gilded cage of their privilege as they yearn to break free. The heartbroken and the greedy alike plot and snipe, behind each other’s backs, of course. (There’s also a cavalcade of other dilemmas, from Prince Andrew to the pandemic.) There are relentlessly ironic juxtapositions and manipulatively positioned flashbacks to Princess Di for counterpoints. And the sense of royal fragility cooks up fine fissures of melodrama. I enjoyed it in the junk food way it’s intended, turning a real recent news story into a fast-paced tabloid tale gratefully committed to energetically recreating the juicy details without quite losing the human feeling inside. It’s about as good as this quick, cheap, surface-level production could be. But it’s also worth noting the Oprah interview did more in a conversation than this movie does in all its well-intentioned hustle.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Dragon On:
SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has a pretty good first hour. It’s bright and lively. It starts with a flashback about a devious semi-immortal kung-fu kingpin played by the never unappealing Tony Leung. (These superhero movies sure have a way of drawing in the biggest cinema royalty for paychecks and borrowed prestige.) The flashback plays out in some small amount of Zhang Yimou-inspired whooshing marital arts and flowering scenery. Then it hops a couple decades to the man’s grown son (Simu Liu), who fled his bad dad for a life as a normal bloke in San Francisco. He gets the expected call to action when attacked by some brutes on a bus and ends up proving he has moves like Jackie Chan. (He hangs out the window like a guy who’s seen Police Story’s impressive opening sequence.) This is, of course, a surprise to his best friend and comic relief (Awkwafina) who tags along on his journey back to his family where, surprise surprise, his pop is up to supernatural shenanigans that might bring about the end of the world. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, swerving away from the decent, intimate, indie-adjacent dramas he’s been making (like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy) into the bland and shiny machinery of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, nonetheless allows his performers a little bit of room to strut their stuff before the plot gears swallow them up entirely. An early highlight finds Shang-Chi fighting a kabuki-masked baddie up and down towering bamboo scaffolding, an enjoyable mix of place and space and personality juggling characters and variables. Eventually Michelle Yeoh shows up as Auntie Nan, who knows a thing or two about the deep magic of their family and how it might save us all. That’s never a bad choice, either.

But by then, that’s also where the movie's gone big and slow, trading a light touch for a sluggish trudge through exposition, backstory, flimsy family drama, thinning characterization, flat Marvel cameos, and a lengthy CG shooting gallery in which all the major players stare off at the phoniness with faux-profundity between quips. Gloopy beasties flop around and energy beams zip-zap and the apocalypse is trying to burst out of a hole in a cave (big improvement on the old hole-in-the-sky climax, eh?). It is, in other words, a Marvel movie. It has an appealing cast of movie legends, up-and-comers, and character actors trade bouncy banter and establish fun dynamics, ricochet through some clever early action sequences, and wear slick costumes. Then it lets all that dwindle down into routine resolutions involving energy beams and super-punches and swirling pixel clouds. The extent to which this one distinguishes itself is the genre skin it chooses to inhabit—reason for cinephiles to nod in recognition and critics to dutifully list off other, better filmmakers of which the movie reminds them in hopes the MCU fans choose to wander outside the franchise in a mind-expanding direction. (Here: in addition to Yimou and Chan, the fantasy epics of Tsui Hark, Wong-Kar Wai’s Leung-starring Grandmaster, and Ang Lee’s Yeoh collaboration Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.) This is like those but worse and with Iron Man references. The extent to which any of these Marvel programmers works depends entirely on how much escape velocity of affection that first hour gathers before flattening out. For my money, this one is straight down the middle: better than some and worse than others. So it goes.