What I have been reading and Watching

Hi everyone. I have read and watched too much during these past couple weeks to write about, so I thought it would be best to put some of my favorite things I watched and read in a post. Let me know if you have other suggestions.

Movies

The Crying Game – The Crying Game is a bizarre story, but is surprisingly effective. Stephen Rea is the main reason I decided to watch this film. He was married to prominent IRA activist Dolours Price. The film takes some incredibly weird turns, but I am surprised by how affecting I found the film to be. It’s on Netflix and I would recommend if you are really bored. B-

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – Ang Lee’s beautiful film about sacrifice and growth is still quite good. The performances here are great, but the film is mainly about the cinematography and choreography of the fights. It is excellent and a really fun watch. I think this movie definitely could have more to say, but it is a really well-made film. B

Television

Hillary – The Hulu docuseries is an interesting look at Hillary’s life. The documentary is divided into two parts: the 2016 election and a chronological look at her past. I found the latter to be more interesting, as they ask tough questions about her time as a first lady and show how important she is as an American figure she is. The 2016 election is less interesting to me, but it is through no fault of their own. It simply has been rehashed and debated too much.

The documentary is certainly biased toward Hillary, but it does a good job of giving counters to many of her assumptions. This is a film that is dedicated to her story, so naturally, she will look more sympathetic than others. However, I think this is a good docuseries, that understands the subject. For anyone with a passing interest in politics, you should watch. B

Devs – This is probably the best show I have seen on the nature of free will. Too often shows that tackle these subjects aim for complexity. This show aims for slow understanding. The showrunner is Alex Garland, who wrote Ex Machina and Annihilation, two films that I adore. Devs is a slow-burn, but it is too the show’s benefit. Its approach gives it time to analyze the ideas behind the show, and give it a melancholic feel necessary to the story. I cannot describe the show without giving away important details, but if any of these topics interest you, watch it. A-

Breaking Bad – The hallmark show is definitely overrated, but is still a great watch. The ending is phenomenal, and while certain sections of this show lag, Breaking Bad really becomes a beautiful study on what lurks beneath. Every performance in this show is excellent, Anna Gunn and Aaron Paul are the two standouts to me. Bryan Cranston is obviously terrific as well. While The Wire is still the best show of all time in my book, this is a great watch and should be on everybody’s list. A-

The Leftovers – This is peak pandemic watching. The premise of the show is that 2% of the world’s population disappears all at once. The story picks up three years later, as people are left to try to figure out what happened and avoid it happening again. This is not a show interested in explanations, but rather in how people deal with and attempt to explain the unexplainable. The Leftovers loves ambiguity and uncertainty, which will frustrate plenty of viewers. Nevertheless, I think it is beautiful. I still have one more season to go, but I cannot recommend it enough. If you are into bleak storytelling, it is hard to get bleaker than this. Damon Lindelof is the head writer, and he does a phenomenal job. A terrific watch and my only regret may not be rating it highly enough after the final season.

The Plot Against America – One of my favorite books is now an HBO miniseries. David Simon and Ed Burns, the men behind The Wire, recreated the alternative history into an extremely real story of not doing the right thing when needed. Simon and Burns nail the characters, and the performers really bring the nuance forward. It is a necessary tale of anti-semitism and of poor leadership in times of crisis. Sounds familiar?

Mrs. America – The first three episodes of this show dropped on Hulu a few days ago, and all of them were excellent. The story about the figures in the women’s liberation movement is a terrific story about how women fought to gain respect amongst their colleagues on both sides of the feminist movement.  I will have more as the show continues, but a great watch as well.

Top Chef – Top Chef is the best. I love it. It’s just so fun. If you need a cooking show fix, this is the one. Fun, fast, and incredibly high stakes, Top Chef is what every cooking game show hopes to be. It is terrific. Watch it. Seriously.

Books

Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe – The definitive book on the troubles in Northern Ireland. A searing account of the violence and anger that defined generations of violence. It is a terrific and well-researched story.

A Dance with Dragons – The last of the Game of Thrones books. I have read many books in between when I have gotten bored, but this is one of the most entertaining books of the series thus far. I cannot wait to let you know what I think of the conclusion!

Goodfellas, Avatar & Korra

Goodfellas – Martin Scorsese’s crime masterpiece is the best the genre has to offer. Ray Liotta stars as Henry Hill, a real-life throughout the 70s and 80s. The movie opens with Hill, Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci), and James Conway (Robert De Niro) stabbing a man in the back of their trunk. You then hear Hill narrate that he had “always wanted to be a gangster.”

That moment sets the tone up for the film perfectly. This is not about a good man who gets sucked into a life of crime. This about someone who wanted to be a gangster and who enjoyed being a gangster. There may have been less glamourous parts, but he wanted this lifestyle and he enjoyed it.

At no point is Henry Hill a good person. He acts for himself and his own interests, and while you root for him in some sense, it is very clear what type of person you are dealing with. Goodfellas asks questions about what type of people get into this profession and what lengths people will go to protect their friends and ultimately themselves. 

Scorsese is a master at crafting a story about men in power struggles and what that reveals about them as people. The performances from the cast are great, but this is a movie about the writing and it shines. A must-watch that is now on Netflix. A-

I had a twitter thread recently about some shows and things I have been enjoying during the lockdown. Avatar: The Last Airbender (Avatar) and The Legend of Korra (Korra) were both high up on my list. Both are phenomenal in separate ways. Avatar is a kids’ show and can be a bit tough to get through for an adult. The Fire Nation starts out as a bogeyman and it can be exhausting with the dialogue being so kid-friendly. Once you get through the first half of the first season, the show becomes magical. The show matures greatly throughout its three seasons, and by the end is an epic tale of friendship and adventure. This is the type of television I wish I could have watched as a kid.

Korra is for young teens and adults, and the sequel to the series. Whereas Avatar is about defeating an enemy throughout the three seasons, Korra is four different stories about growth and change. Korra is much darker in tone, but still excellent. It also explores political themes in an interesting way and builds on the fantasy world created for Avatar in interesting ways.

Both shows are great examples of fantasy television. They offer great adventure and find time to explore deep themes within the characters. They are both terrific shows and ones that I recommend for anyone looking for enjoyment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stay Safe everyone!

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a beautiful film

*The following post contains spoilers for Portrait of a Lady on Fire*

Portrait of a Lady on Fire opens with a blank canvas. Paint streaks the white background, as Marianne then tells her students to focus on her. The blank canvas appears throughout the movie, a motif of discovery. While I’d be the first to admit that a film about a Lesbian romance would not be at the top of my must-watch list, Portrait of a Lady on Fire shocked me with its beauty and brilliance. It is a beautiful film that covers many topics, from navigating gender roles to the meaning of love. At its core, it is a story of how art can help us discover what we love and who we love.

The film centers on the developing love between Marianne and Heloise in the 18th century. Marianne is assigned to paint a portrait for Heloise, a daughter of an elite family living on an island off of the French Coast. If Heloise’s suitor likes Marianne’s painting of Heloise, he will marry her. At first, Marianne is told to keep her task a secret, as Heloise exhausted the last painter and refused to pose for him. Eventually, Marianne tells Heloise that she is painting her and Heloise agrees to pose for Marianne. As the painting becomes more realized, their intimacy and compassion for each other grow.

This movie is in part meant to change and play with the idea of the male gaze, but for me, this movie is mostly about the creative process. After Marianne is done painting the first painting of Heloise, she eventually fesses up that she is secretly painting her and shows the painting to Heloise. The painting is very basic, and while well-made, does not really capture Heloise’s essence. Heloise criticizes Marianne for the painting, telling her it is sad Marianne cannot even find the painting creative or personal. Marianne then destroys the painting for herself, because she knows she can do better.

During the second attempt to paint her, there is a great scene where Marianne and Heloise begin to see how close they have become. Marianne notes Heloise’s common behaviors from the view of the painter, and Heloise then tells Marianne similar small details about her behaviors. The implication is that both begin to understand each other through the creative process. The task of painting is not just the painter understanding the subject, but the subject understanding the painter as well.

As Marianne and Heloise spend more time together, they not only fall in love but create a society that is impossible elsewhere. Part of their ability to do this is because Heloise lives on a remote island, and after the first attempt to paint Heloise fails, her mother leaves, leaving Marianne, Heloise, and their maid Sophie by themselves. It allows them to navigate their roles and society differently.

Watching both Heloise and Marianne come to the realization they will never see each other again is so painful, and so brilliantly executed it is hard to not be moved otherwise. At one point Heloise is reading the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The story ends with Orpheus looking back towards Eurydice as they are escorting her out of the underworld, breaking his promise and leaving her stuck there. The maid Sophie upon hearing this is incredulous, believing that Orpheus damned her for no reason other than his selfishness. Heloise and Marianne interpret it differently, saying that he chose the memory of her. Marianne goes on to say that he made “the poet’s” rather than the lover’s choice.

I tend to agree with Sophie in this regard, as all Orpheus had to do was wait. But Sophie and Marianne are trying to make sense of what will happen once their time together is over, and Marianne has to leave the island. How will they choose to remember each other? They know that they may never see each other again so they do not have a choice. As Marianne begins to leave, Heloise beckons her to look back and she does. Marianne and Heloise make the poet’s choice.

The ending of the film makes it clear that while Marianne and Heloise can wish to be together, it would be almost impossible in 18th century France. They have no other choice but to make the poet’s choice. They continue the memory of each other even when society will not allow them too.

Good Time, Snowpiercer, & Bam Adebayo

Good Time – This pick was inspired by the Oscars. After watching and loving Uncut Gems, I thought I would give their earlier film Good Time a try. It is also quite good, and although not quite good as Uncut Gems, it successfully merges the two obsessions of the Safdie Brothers: New York City and men who take advantage of the people around them. The story revolves around the Nikas brothers, Connie who is a criminal, and Nick who is mentally disabled. Connie and Nick rob a bank, and Nick is arrested while Connie escapes. Connie then decides he has to spring Nick from jail.

Robert Pattinson does an excellent job playing Connie. He takes advantage of so many people at times it can be upsetting to watch, but part of you always wants to root for him. He makes a good anti-hero. The film is a bit too zany for my tastes and wanders at points but the core story of the film is very enjoyable. A definite recommendation. B+

Snowpiercer – This pick was also inspired by The Oscars. Before Bong Joon Ho won Best Picture for Parasite, he wrote Snowpiercer. It was his English language debut, and it still is quite good. It like 1917, feels like a video game, but it is much more fun as the setpieces and scenarios are increasingly wild and outrageous. It is a good movie filled with interesting political commentary, but much of it is a bit too silly for it to really mean much. Parasite is a better film, it is more subtle and more fun to watch. I would still recommend Snowpiercer, but not my favorite Bong film. B-

Adebayo is heading to his first All-Star Game. He is in line for a huge contract once his rookie deal expires. He has reoriented Miami’s present and future. “He’s the Zo [Alonzo Mourning],” Riley says. “He’s the UD [Udonis Haslem]. He’s the Dwyane [Wade]. They were standard-bearers. Bam is that person. He is the real deal.”

This is a fantastic profile of The Miami Heat’s Bam Adebayo by Zach Lowe. Even if you have a small interest, I recommend you read it.

I am working on a piece about my grandparents which I hope to be out these next couple of weeks and I just preordered Patrick Radden Keefe’s Say Nothing, which I am very excited to read. I am also currently watching Breaking Bad so there will be plenty more to come on all of that!

King of New York, Standoff at Sparrow Creek, & The Outsider’s Effective Horror

King of New York – This was a movie recommended by Quentin Tarantino on The Rewatchables podcast. Quentin Tarantino is someone I will generally take recommendations from. King of New York was a very influential movie for him, as it was revolutionary for its time in terms of how much sex, violence, and profanities it displayed. Frank White is a very good character and the movie is fun and explosive. It just fell flat for me at certain points. I really enjoyed parts of it, so that pushes it into the B-range. However, this is a film that was largely forgettable. B-

The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (Available on Hulu) – This debut from studio Cinestate and Henry Dunham is electric. When an incident of open fire occurs at a police funeral, members of a militia go into hiding. When they discover one of their guns is missing, they suspect each other. Chaos ensues. My biggest complaint about this film is that it is a bit too tight. It is incredibly economical with its dialogue and run-time. The movie is less than an hour and a half long, a miracle in today’s ecosystem of longer and longer films. It is so tight and compact, it can be hard to follow what is happening. However, the more time I have spent on the film, the more I realize how much I like it. Sparrow Creek does so many things right and is pulsating right until the very end. It is a film I admire almost as much as I like, and I am very happy Cinestate took this risk. The product is a thrilling result. A-

When I first heard about HBO’s The Outsider I figured it was something I would avoid. I am generally fairly squeamish, and a show about a shapeshifting killer seemed like a bad idea for my sensibilities. I am now four episodes in and I enjoy it. It is not my favorite thing ever, but its ability to capture Stephen King’s tone of dread and horror works really well. I enjoy how they have turned a traditional true crime genre and given it a horror aspect. Much of the drama rests in the characters coming to terms with a potential supernatural being in their midst. It is quite enjoyable and while it is hard to recommend, if you enjoy horror it is worth a watch.

 

Atlantics, 1917 is not a good movie & Looper

Atlantics (Netflix) – This was an incredibly surprising movie. It starts as an African Romeo and Juliet type story. Then things quickly change. I do not want to say too much about this film, but it manages to combine realistic horror with fascinating themes and character building. This is an excellent foreign film overflowing with themes and ideas about what makes a person to how people can haunt us. While the film drags at points, this is a really excellent examination and a great example of storytelling. I do not want to say much else other than watch it if you have a Netflix account. A-

1917 – This year’s war movie is so bland and uninventive I am genuinely shocked it has won any awards. 1917 uses one-shot technology to make you feel as though you are present with the soldiers, and it does not work. Rather than add to the film or make it more exciting, it makes you feel like you are watching a first-person shooter video game. Viewers are held captive as watching as each successive “boss battle” gets harder and harder, only for there to be little reason to care. Frankly comparing this movie to a video game is insulting to some video games, as there are many with better stories than this.  It is distracting and unnecessary and forces the story to contract in a way that is not beneficial for the viewer. It just seems like a way to mask bad storytelling.

While I understand people will love this movie for the cinematography alone, the story is why I go to the movies. This movie fails completely in this regard. The characters are uninteresting. The story is unrealistic. The choices the characters make are hard to explain.  While the one-shot gimmick could have worked, poor storytelling makes it difficult to justify the movie’s existence. 

For the record, the cinematography is stunning. The one-shot does work very well at certain moments. There is one shot where a character is running across a battlefield. It is beautiful and moving. Then again, I found it hard to care and was just hoping for the movie to be over. There will be plenty of people who like this movie, but I am not one of them. The fact that this movie was nominated over Uncut Gems is insulting, and if 1917 wins Best Picture I will have a hard time justifying my interest in The Oscars. 1917 is one of the worst critically acclaimed movies I have seen in years, and I really hope no Academy Award member votes for this film. C+ 

Looper – Looper is set in 2044. Time travel has not been invented yet but it will be in 2074. It is outlawed and only used by major crime organizations. When crime organizations want targets eliminated they zap them back to 2044 to people called loopers who shoot them and eliminate them. One Looper, Joe, is given a target who is him 30 years later and lets him escape. Chaos ensues.

The concept of this movie alone is brilliant. The writing sends this film over the top for me. Rian Johnson does such a good job of making genre fiction new and exciting, and this film is a great example of how to embrace the paradoxes of time travel and tell a terrific story with it. Every part of it is perfect, from fast editing to terrific performances. This is one of my favorite films I have seen in a while. A+

It Comes at Night & Fleabag is so ****ing good

*The following post contains spoilers for Fleabag.*

It Comes at Night – Horror is not generally my cup of tea, but Night is taut and sharp without being over the top. I do enjoy post-apocalyptic fiction and this finds a way to nail a feeling and a moment. While it is a bit lacking at points, the story is quite good. It is told on a small scale and is more impactful than you would expect. If you are not into horror films, this is a good one to try. B

“Love is awful. It’s awful. It’s painful. It’s frightening. It makes you doubt yourself, judge yourself, distance yourself from the other people in your life. It makes you selfish. It makes you creepy, makes you obsessed with your hair, makes you cruel, makes you say and do things you never thought you would do. It’s all any of us want, and it’s hell when we get there. So no wonder it’s something we don’t want to do on our own.” – Hot Priest

Fleabag (Amazon Prime) is an incredible work of art, with terrific writing and innovative style. While Season 1 is excellent, the second season is its best. It is so inventive and heartbreaking, some of the scenes took my breath away.

Where the first season is focused on building the Fleabag character as she tries to live with herself, the second focuses on how she and a priest try to live with themselves together. Fleabag questioning her past choices and the Priest questioning his faith.

Both manage to shake up each other’s faith. The priest even begins to notice how Fleabag addresses the audience. Suddenly, she can no longer escape each moment, she has to live in it fully with the priest. She has to be honest with him. She can no longer hide from others. The priest is the only one who sees Fleabag for what she is and changes her for the better.

The priest also has to live with himself. He loves God and his faith, but Fleabag makes him question it. He also falls for her and breaks his vows, forcing him to live in conflict. How can he preach love to God if he broke his vows?

The conflict and pain within these characters are so beautiful and real. I had not watched Fleabag before the end of the last year but it easily would have made my top 10 best shows of the year and of the decade. It is a remarkable piece of art, and with only 12 episodes of 20 minutes each, it is rather binge-able. Please take the time to watch it. It is phenomenal.

 

Bombshell & My Final Thoughts on Game of Thrones

Bombshell – I was surprised how much I enjoyed this movie. Directed by Jay Roach, this movie explores the Roger Ailes scandal from inside Fox News. Bombshell focuses on three characters to explain how the abuse happened, popular news anchor Megyn Kelly, initial accuser and talk show host Gretchen Carlson, and composite character Kayla Pospisil.  While the other two characters are very interesting, Kayla is easily the best part. Her response to the abuse illustrates the horror of the abuse itself, and how it happens. It is not always about the physical, much of it is psychological.

While this movie is certainly not pro Fox News, it does not get too caught up in politics. While it does illustrate Trump’s rising popularity, the movie is not interested in making a liberal statement. Bombshell’s primary focus is on workplace harassment, making for a better and more straightforward film. It is not perfect, and at times it is hard to care about every part of this film. However, it is plenty of fun and does a great job illustrating how harassment happens in the workplace. B+

“There’s nothing more powerful in the world than a good story” – Tyrion

In the show’s final moments, Tyrion is speaking for the writers. Nothing beats a good story, and while the ending was not perfect, it is really hard to take away from the story of this series.

The final two seasons were not the best this show had to offer. Both had plenty of ridiculous and absurd points that were odd from a fantasy perspective and from a plot perspective as well. That said, the show is incredibly well made, and even with some of the downsides is worth watching.

One episode I was particularly impressed with was the Season 6 finale. As I tweeted, it is one of the best episodes of television I have ever seen. From pacing to storytelling, everything works. The opening scene at the Sept of Baelor is one scene I will never forget.

The actors all give incredible performances, but I was particularly impressed by Sophie Turner. While I was critical of her initially, much of that had to do with her intentional aging in the show in comparison to the book. Her transformation during the show is terrific, and she sells it all the way through.

Also, I understand why many people are upset with the ending. I would have picked Sansa, as she was the best politician and Bran has too many responsibilities as the three-eyed-raven to actually serve as the Protector of the Realm. I once again say that the ending does not ruin the overall quality of the show. It is a tremendous achievement of Television, and one worth watching.

Frances Ha, The Laundromat, High Flying Bird, & The Edge of Democracy

Frances Ha – Frances Ha is a really fascinating movie, that manages to tell so much story in such little time. It is certainly fun, but it just lacks the emotional resonance that I expect from Baumbach at this point. It is very good at points, and Greta Gerwig does a great job. It just lacks the emotional resonance to really make it interesting. B-

The Laundromat – The Laundromat is The Big Short but for the Panama Papers. One of the two Netflix films directed by Steven Soderbergh, it is incredibly fun and entertaining. While many characters and performers get lost in the fast plot (Meryl Streep among them), this film belongs to Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas. Thankfully, they deliver as Mossack and Fonseca. They manage to be clever and break the fourth wall without it being distracting from the plot. It all just works so well, and while I can understand why people are not as high on this film as me, everything worked for me in this film. This is an important film, as the Panama Papers were not given nearly the attention that they deserved in the media. It is fun and fast, and one of my favorite films to come out this year. A-

High Flying Bird – The second Soderbergh Netflix film is a bit slow for my tastes, and even though it is about basketball, it bored me. I enjoyed the interviews interspersed with basketball players, but this film, on the whole, did not work for me. C+

The Edge of Democracy – This Netflix documentary was directed by Petra Costa, an activist in Brazil with sleek film making. It chronicles the Car Wash scandal in Brazil, and how it threatens to upend the Brazilian political system. It is very melodramatic at points, and I would have appreciated a more Frontline style approach to the material. The film also could have been a half-hour shorter and tends to drag at points. At the same time, the personal connection made the film a fascinating project, even if I did not always agree with the filmmaker’s point of view. I also think the length and dread was an artistic choice, and one that I disagree with but also respect. It is a worthwhile watch and a great introduction to a political nightmare in Latin America, even if some of its sensibilities do not always agree with mine. B

My thoughts on The Irishman

The first hour of The Irishman is the worst part of the movie. The writing is crammed in the beginning, and it does not give a ton of room for the characters to breathe. Also, the limits of the de-aging technology are on full display during the first hour. There is one scene where Robert De Niro beats up a guy in a shop, and it looks very silly. Even though his face is younger his body is not the age that he is supposed to be in the film, and so it looks strange. It is also unclear what age the characters are supposed to be at what points. De-aging technology needs work but after the first hour, it disappears into the film.

The film really becomes great in the last hour. Then after two in a half hours, the film’s themes of age and loss come together in a searing finish. It is a devastating end, and the length in some ways helps the impact as you feel you have been with these characters for so long before it all comes together. I won’t spoil anything, but it is definitely worth it if you are willing to watch the movie.

Robert De Niro is a standout as is Joe Pesci, but Al Pacino is the showstopper as Jimmy Hoffa. He energizes the movie and brings out the emotional core of the movie at many points.

If you are willing to sit through three and a half hours this movie is worth it. However, make sure you know what you are in for. It is long and takes time. It is flawed and needs work in certain areas. If you love Scorsese however, this is a must-see. I think the flaws mostly in the beginning hold the ending back for me, but it is so brilliant and searing, the movie just gets into the A category. A-