Author: Alex Russell

Is Sound of Metal the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I don’t know what it is about me that is always more interested in negative reviews than positive ones. The Oscars bring this out of me more than most things, but I’m always fascinated by the contrary opinion. We’ve spent a lot of this space over the last few weeks talking about the nominees and we have a handful to go, but today we’ll talk about another nearly universally loved film — except by a few people, who we’ll get to — Sound of Metal.

The only movie that critics hated that’s nominated this year is Hillbilly Elegy. People hated it because it feels false, which is always the risk of a politically charged biopic. This is no longer a “risk” when the subject is still alive and tweeting preemptive support of Tucker Carlson, at that point it’s just an unforced error. I don’t think it’ll win anything, the more movies up against it I see, but I call it out as an extreme example. Naturally, obviously, you would expect that any movie up for an award would be something that folks, y’know, like.

Sound of Metal is just that. It’s a movie about a subject everyone can somewhat relate to, if only as an abstract fear, and it’s a vehicle for a powerful central performance that never takes the camera away. It shares a lot of DNA with another Best Actor and Best Picture nominee, The Father, in that both films never spend significant time away from the star. It’s potentially possible to have a Best Actor film where the cast gets a chance to bloom away from the lead, like Minari, but more and more you see this category as a chance to see “most” acting as well as “best” acting, as we’ve discussed before. Typically that term is a cudgel swung at a hammy performance, but I’m just interested in how this trend has evolved. We don’t even necessarily have scenes where other characters talk about the lead, we just follow them around, nearly inside their head, for two hours.

Riz Ahmed plays Ruben Stone, a drummer in an experimental metal two-piece with his girlfriend on guitar and vocals. From the first shot we see Ruben wide-eyed and shirtless, intensely slamming away. His most visible tattoo reads “please kill me.” It’s not subtle visual storytelling, but it doesn’t really need to be subtle. Ruben gets ready in the RV they live in and we see a breakfast montage of lunges, pushups, and healthy green juice. We’re supposed to understand that these two are in recovery, or at the very least are healthy punks that tilt towards a straightedge lifestyle. This is the opposite of a “please kill me” tattoo. Fifteen minutes in and you understand who you’re dealing with without anyone turning to camera and explaining it.

Even the best films fall into this trap. There’s a ton of it in Mank, though that’s wrapped up in jokes and early Hollywood slang, and it always comes across as insulting when a movie feels the need to explain what you can pick up visually. Sound of Metal tells us who Ruben is at a basic level right away. The problem, I think, is it stops the development there.

Ruben loses his hearing dramatically and goes to a pharmacy for a solution. He’s convinced there’s something he can do today, he just needs to figure out what it is. The pharmacist sends him to a specialist, today, and the specialist tells him he’s lost almost all of his hearing, permanently, and he’s in danger of losing the rest. This is shocking, both to Ruben and to the audience, and it’s incredibly paced. A trend in the negative reviews I read is that people wanted this to be stretched out, but I think that’s a mistake. It’s extremely powerful to see the experts tell Ruben the news, sure, but the key here is that they do tell him there’s no real solution. They see who Ruben is, as everyone in his life does, and they realize this isn’t something that needs to be sugarcoated. They have to get this man to understand the limits of solutions available to him, but they can’t break through his armor. Ruben is told, just about right away in the story, how it’s going to end. He just doesn’t listen.

I guess that could be unsatisfying for some people, but that’s only if you want this to be a story of someone overcoming a problem and finding a solution. That’s not the story of Sound of Metal, and it’s really on you if you need it to be something else. Sound of Metal tracks Ruben’s resistance to partial solutions. He’s in recovery from heroin, which means accepting that you’re an addict and admitting it. His loss of hearing mixes with this and the people in his life want him to apply the same solution. You don’t get “cured” of addiction, you manage it. That works, somewhat, for Ruben in that he isn’t using, but you get the sense that he’d like this problem to have a more concrete solution.

Ruben spends the bulk of the film at a shelter run by a man named Joe, played by Paul Raci. Raci is up for Best Supporting Actor for the performance and it’s very well deserved. Raci grew up with deaf parents and brings the experience to the character. The world of the shelter feels like it’s been there for decades when Ruben enters it, and this is no small feat. It’s all montages and speeches about learning to accept that deafness is not a disability. This is the primary beef that reviewers, even ones who liked the film, take with Sound of Metal. Ruben wants to hear, but Joe insists that until he accepts a life of silence that he can sit in, he’ll always act like an addict.

I can see both sides of this argument. Ruben doesn’t really get any time to adjust before his new support structure demands he be okay with this life change. The film asks the viewer to side with Joe, and Raci’s performance makes the argument a noble one and a realistic perspective, but it’s a tough ask of Ruben in reality. Ruben sticks with his sobriety, but he’s angry that he’s lost the one thing that he enjoyed (music) and something he hadn’t ever expected it to be possible to lose (one of his senses). Sure, Joe is selling a perspective that would help Ruben adjust, but the position that Ruben is unjustly angry just doesn’t come through.

Sound of Metal makes a strong connection between addiction and accepting your lot in life. This part definitely works and it allows Ahmed a lot of space to explode and contract and seethe. He’s relatable at times and extreme at times. It’s exactly what a Best Actor performance generally is, for better or worse, and I think he’s in the top half of the category this year if not outright the best. The script does his character few favors, with his addiction story revealed in a literal interview and his backstory through a breakfast table conversation during the falling action. Most of it is just him emoting and trying to find the next desperate step forward, which makes Sound of Metal feel like an addiction story even though it’s really a recovery one. It’s a neat trick, even if there are unexplored directions that could add some more depth.

The sound design is the real centerpiece. We often hear literally what Ruben hears, which offers distorted, quiet moments as his hearing fades out and true silence as it leaves him completely. It’s a powerful technique to put us in Ruben’s perspective and it rightfully will be what most people talk about when they talk about Sound of Metal, but I think it’s used too infrequently. It’s possible that it would be frustrating if it came up more often, but as-is there are long stretches in the way-too-long center of the film where it doesn’t come up at all. We spend nearly every second of Sound of Metal with Ruben, but we’re only in his head a few times. The ending makes up for a lot of the lost time, but it also makes you wonder what might have been. The result is powerful and interesting, but I can’t help but feel like there is more you could do here.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The last 20 minutes of The Father is heartbreaking and intense. The first 20 minutes of Sound of Metal are shocking and intense. This may be unfair, but I do think Sound of Metal starts strong and gets a little less so with each act. The Father goes in the other direction, building on what you know and creeping towards where you suspect you might be going. Sound of Metal is the more interesting story, but the gimmick of The Father serves the story being told there better and is applied more consistently.

Is it the best movie of all time? I would have liked to see them go for broke with the sound design. Maybe that movie is unwatchable, but at least more of Ruben’s difficulties would have been nice to see. We don’t ever really get to know anyone, so even though Raci and Ahmed deliver excellent, award-worthy performances, it’s very hard to care the way you need to for the movie to get into your bones. There’s also a weird effect of it both feeling a little long but also rushing the ending and Ruben’s decisions. He seems to have accepted what Joe wants to sell him in one moment and then rejected it in another. This is all part of the addiction cycle, but there’s just something missing that could connect everything just a little bit better and make this feel more realized. It’s worth your time because of what it tries to do, but to dethrone In the Mood for Love, it would need to stick the landing.

You can watch Sound of Metal on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Father the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Writing for Uproxx, Vince Mancini wrote one of the four total negative reviews of The Father written by a major critic. I say negative because Rotten Tomatoes lists it as “rotten,” though that criteria is, generously, imperfect. On Twitter, Mancini called The Father “a thoroughly brilliant movie that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” It’s unfair to pick on his review as one of the only negative reviews of one of the most universally praised movies of the year, but the other three are by people and publications I haven’t heard of and Mancini has a point.

Mancini’s review argues that a movie about dementia is “like watching someone pull the wings off of a fly.” He offers Dick Johnson Is Dead, which we’ve talked about recently in this space, as a better approach to the topic. I don’t agree with his take but I see where he’s coming from. He appreciates the positive spin and magical moments of Dick Johnson Is Dead, but I found those elements to be distracting from what I loved about the film. Mancini praises everything about The Father but ends his review with a question: “Who needs this?”

The Father is an extremely difficult watch. It’s based on a 2012 play and directed by the play’s author, Florian Zeller. In the film, Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, an elderly man with dementia. His daughter Anne, played by Olivia Colman, visits him often and hopes to improve his quality of life with a caregiver. Both performers are up for Oscars this year, as is the film itself for Best Picture. I wouldn’t be surprised if it swept all three. For the performances specifically, even amongst the bodies of work these two have put up these are strong outings.

It’s fairly indisputable that it’s well-made and that the leads put on a master class. Where it may break down for you, as it did for Mancini, is if you’re willing to watch an extremely depressing movie about an extremely difficult subject either during or just after a full year of lockdown and pandemic, depending on where in the world you live. This may not be part of your recommended diet right now.

Anthony’s memory has deteriorated, both short-term and long-term. He struggles to remember where he put his watch every day despite doing the same thing every single day. He remembers he has two daughters, but not where either of them is or who they may be married to at the moment. He engages with everyone he meets, but oscillates between charming tapdancing and angry, insistent yelling.

These stories are either told through the character themselves or through what happens to people around them. Both approaches have merit, but The Father shows us the “real” story by showing both. Anthony experiences a conversation that seems normal, but then people around him change. Either they fully change, down to the actress or actor portraying them, or they just act surprised that Anthony mentions something odd. We aren’t having guests, dad, it’s just the two of us. But then there are guests and Anthony is at dinner with several people. Was he right when he said guests will be there, was he mistaken, or is this, the third option, actually wrong, and there aren’t people here now?

It’s deliberately disorienting, as the condition would be. Anthony keeps mixing things up, as he asks Anne how she’s going to move to Paris if he’s still married to a man in London. In one funny, but deeply sad scene, he informs who he thinks is her old husband that she actually is moving to Paris and he’s sorry he’s ruined the surprise to this guy who is clearly on his way out. Several times he makes the same joke about Paris (“they don’t even speak English there”) to diminished returns and in incongruous situations.

The cast physically changing is an excellent touch. In one moment it’s Anne, Olivia Colman, and then it’s Olivia Williams playing a woman who might be Anne or might be someone else. Anne’s husband or a friend or her new husband or someone else rotates between several men. Scenes repeat with different characters, which provides some stability but continuously plays with the idea of what’s real. When this happens in fantastical movies it can go overboard and become confusing by design (see Late Period of Nolan, Christopher) but here, the confusion is a feature, not a bug. Anthony doesn’t experience brief moments of clarity, his whole life is falling down in a steady, rapid way. By the end you will be exhausted and the transformation will shock you. Colman maybe, arguably, doesn’t fully disappear into Anne, but that’s fine, it isn’t necessary. Anthony Hopkins, even playing a man named Anthony, becomes this patient. It would be easy for a performance like this to be a checkbox, but this is as much as you can possibly execute.

I understand where Mancini is coming from and I think there’s a certain bravery to saying it. Still Alice is, for my money, still the best film on this topic, though that plays more like a predictable horror film than the inventive approach here. It’s more terrifying, I think, but they both are earth-shatteringly difficult. There seems to have been a shift lately in more films about realistic terror than aliens and monsters, and while I can’t prove that with figures it feels more like audiences “want” to be scared of something that might happen. Whether that’s true or not, The Father is deeply real, which is both to its credit and what makes it so difficult.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, and not just for the reasons above. I really loved Another Round and I really loved the performance at the center of it. Both movies have solid surrounding casts but really rely on the guy in the middle to sell a tough collapse. The Father is great, no doubt, but I think Another Round is something I’ll come back to a lot over the years.

Is it the best movie of all time? Still Alice is a very similar story and I think a more effective one. The final scenes of The Father are terrifying for the right reasons, but Still Alice still haunts me to think about even years and years later. I still will have to leave this as In the Mood for Love, a movie that has evolved in my mind over the months and still seems to have things to fascinate me even when not watching it. Strong recommendation for everything mentioned today, but as we talked about up top, make sure you’re in the right place for the difficult ones.

You can watch The Father on Amazon Prime ($19.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Another Round the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Another Round has a chance to make history at the Oscars this year. The list of movies that have won Best Director but not Best Picture is relatively short. It’s under thirty films, and most of them are not crazy upsets. There are notable exceptions, like The Godfather and Cabaret or Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, but most of the time if a movie won one of the two “big” awards it deserved to win it. It’s almost unheard of for a movie to win Best Director but not even be nominated for Best Picture, though, which is the rare position we are discussing today.

I don’t think Another Round has any realistic shot. It’s up for Best International Film alongside Best Director, and the last time that happened Roma won both. Interestingly, that year Poland’s submission Cold War was also up for both awards and obviously won neither. Roma is the better film, but Cold War is really remarkable. It’s especially dumb that year that Green Book won in a year with such a competitive group of international films, but let us not digress. Another Round is a joint effort of several countries but is officially a Danish submission as that’s the language that’s used.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Martin, a teacher at a prep school in Copenhagen. He’s lost his zest for life and he’s in a marriage that is going nowhere with a wife who works nights and is detached. His kids don’t listen to him. His friends mock him but don’t really have any malice behind it. His life just happens to him. The turning point comes when he is engaged at school by a group that asks him if he’s so indifferent, will his students even be able to pass?

There are hundreds of movies that would find themselves at the 40th birthday party that Martin finds himself at and all of them would have the scene that happens next. Martin is staying sober to drive, but he is talked into having some of the fancy liquor. The gang finds their spark again and gets wasted and roughhouses in the park. Everyone finally remembers how to live. Booze loosens everyone up and it’s all, finally, great again. Why don’t we all do this all the time, they wonder?

If you hit pause at this point in Another Round, you’d probably be able to guess a lot of what comes next, but not all of it. We’ve previously discussed Cassavetes’ Husbands in this series, and Another Round owes a lot to that film. Both are an exploration of running away from problems and embracing an apparent solution that actually does not address the real problem. Both are alcohol-soaked fantasies of a good life with the real, actual good life eschewed purposefully. Both require you to look a little beyond what’s on screen to understand that this is a look into what the characters think, but not what’s actually right.

In Husbands, everyone is afraid of death and responding to a fear of mortality by hiding in booze and “the old ways.” In Another Round, supposedly the four guys are experimenting with a social theory that mankind is just slightly below the level of drunk needed to have balance. Supposedly, the theory goes, everyone is born .05% below the necessary level of alcohol. Just one or two drinks in the morning would even you out. It’s ridiculous.

What makes it work is it’s just enough artifice for the standard, everyone runs away from their problems mid-life crisis plot to make some kind of sense. Your experience may vary, but it seemed clear to me that the guys didn’t really believe in this to start. To start it was just a fun, weird thing to do because life was so boring, so why not be drunk? As it advances, it becomes clear that they really do think their lives are getting better and there really is some logic to being just a little bit drunk during the day.

I really think it’s important that there’s some belief in the theory. Most of the film centers on this idea, and ultimately how far each of the four teachers are willing to go to test it. Martin has a moment where he feels like it has served him well but everyone else wants to go deeper and he says “this is where I get off.” He then downs a Sazerac and it spirals from there. That he believes they were doing something scientific, even to a small degree, is important. That’s the moment it no longer is about that, or really anything.

It is inherently boring to tell a story about characters who feel their life has become boring and it is especially difficult to do so when your central characters are all men who are frustrated by actual real life with real problems and daily annoyances like a family and a job. We’ve seen so many of these stories and it is hard to not roll your eyes. It is required that something else happen to make you care about characters that you normally would want to just wise up and get back to life.

The device here is just enough. When everything goes brutally wrong in different ways it’s not unexpected and it’s not easy viewing, but you care. That alone is some magic, but the trick of making you almost, just slightly, agree with the guys and their plan is something else. You see all four of them and they really do appear to be improving, drunk as hell, and it seems like they’ve figured something out. Then, as always, reality sets in.

The drunk acting is incredible, which is saying something because it’s one of the hardest challenges in film. Mads Mikkelsen has become a cult figure in acting for good reason and this is the best performance I’ve seen him execute. Even if the premise here is uninteresting to you, I really cannot recommend this high enough just to see him teach history lessons blacked out and manic.

The premise undersells this film. If I told you Another Round is a celebration of alcohol, that wouldn’t really be accurate. If I told you it was a dark parable, that’s also not strictly true. This movie does something more complicated than most mid-life crisis films or most booze-as-villain stories. There’s commentary about how to embrace life’s complications as well as how to enjoy successes. It’s really an incredibly complex approach to a pretty rote idea.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Promising Young Woman will probably stick with you longer. One of the yardsticks I’ve used to break ties when I’ve liked both movies is “degree of difficulty,” and I think this is an idea that most people won’t immediately buy into. I think it’s extremely hard to tell the story of Another Round and have it feel fresh. Promising Young Woman is probably the better lead performance with more choices and more notes hit and is justly nominated for it, but I think I give the slight nod to Another Round as a film.

Is it the best movie of all time? I still stick with In the Mood for Love, but this is very close. The interstitial scenes to show the gang’s alcohol intake and the tight shots on Mikkelsen’s face just kept surprising me, but part of me still thinks a movie about drinking to fix your problems is a tough sell. I don’t think I can call it the best movie of all time, but it’s the best version of this thing I can think of and really, so, so many of them exist.

You can watch Another Round on YouTube ($3.99) or Amazon Prime ($3.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Promising Young Woman the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Promising Young Woman is nominated for three of the four “big” Oscar categories: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. It is not nominated for Best Actor for reasons that are either apparent to you already or will become quickly apparent.

I have a love-hate relationship with the Oscars. They’re infuriating for the reasons everyone finds them infuriating, but I think they do a great job of uniting people around movies that are worth seeing. There are better ways to do this, no doubt, but I always appreciate the season before the Oscars when there’s a “crunch” to see everything, if you’re the sort of person who does that sort of thing. I am, if for no other reason than it gives me some extra justification to get mad when they do something dumb at the actual ceremony.

Despite all that, I don’t really have any interest in the “expected” winners. There’s a whole world of betting and tracking as people watch the other awards that lead up to the Oscars and I just cannot find the enthusiasm for it. More power to you if you can, but somehow even though I know they’re a messy disaster more often than anything else, I just love the big show.

I haven’t seen everything in any of three categories Promising Young Woman is nominated for, but this doesn’t seem like the kind of movie the Academy goes for, even when they try. There is a certain logic to them going against their own type, and I would love to be wrong, but this seems like something that gets nominated to show they “get it” but that’s all. It’s a revenge story, which is already tough for certain voters, but it’s also a “Me Too” movie with a message. I’ve read a dozen reviews and the same terms come up again and again as people try to compartmentalize this story.

We should start with the reviews. The AV Club’s review is worth your time and a great place to begin critical discussion. It’s a well-written review that unlocks a lot about the film, but it also argues that it isn’t as original as it thinks. Almost all of the criticism around Promising Young Woman either makes this argument or calls it overly cruel, if not in so many words. Most of the second kind comes from a certain type of reviewer that isn’t really worth discussing seriously, but I think it’s worth mentioning if only in contrast. The arguments seem to be either than this is unrealistically conceived or that it’s overly proud of treading ground that’s been done.

Carey Mulligan plays Cassie Thomas, a woman who dropped out of med school after her friend Nina was raped and the school did not pursue an investigation towards the rapist. Cassie now works at a coffee shop and lives at home. Her parents continuously hope she’ll start dating again and get back to the path she was on. There are scenes to reinforce this even if we might assume it. Director and writer Emerald Fennell leaves no ambiguity here, though we should talk about the role of ambiguity in the story of what Cassie spends her nights doing.

The “revenge” of Promising Young Woman is Cassie’s plan to get back at Al Monroe (Chris Lowell, from many things but most of all, to me, Bash from GLOW) who raped Nina. Al seems to be a full-on caricature of idiotic, entitled men, down to the Facebook post about how his future wife being a bikini model is great. We don’t see much of Al, but we don’t really need to. What we do see tells a clear story. Cassie spends her nights tricking men into taking her home, seemingly drunk but actually sober, to shame them over trying to take advantage of a woman who can’t consent. She’s on this path now, med school isn’t part of the plan.

We see a few of these encounters, but just enough to understand the way they go most nights. During one, Cassie adds a notch to a page full of black-and-red notches. We can infer what the red might mean and this strand of ambiguity is a nice one. One of the great strengths of Promising Young Woman is the willingness to sometimes show us the scale of Cassie’s undertaking. We only see a handful of these, but after one she tells a would-be rapist that there are several women across town who do the same thing. The guy doubts her, but looks just long enough that he wonders if it’s true. There’s no suggestion it actually is true, but it’s something to think about.

The thing is, what actually happens in Promising Young Woman is only half the movie. The other half happens when you realize that this character is only afraid of the suggestion that other people might be tricking him. The realization should be a dozen other things, all of which are more important lessons to learn. Most people Cassie interacts with learn something about rape and consequences, but they don’t learn what she wants them to learn. They learn to be afraid of specifics, not to engage with the larger issue.

As powerful as the message is and the moments Cassie suggests it strongly to the people she acts upon, there’s some stuff in the way. Some scenes are disjointed from what comes before and after, especially a scene where Cassie smashes a car with a tire iron. It’s great visually and it’s nice to see some of the simmering anger come to the surface, but it seems to mostly be designed to show us what Cassie is capable of and how she operates. The catharsis is real, but a scene with dozens of slash marks shows us more about how far she’s willing to go than any violence you put on screen.

These are small gripes. I was really fascinated by Promising Young Woman, most especially by how Carey Mulligan chose to play Cassie. If you just imagine the premise you probably imagine a specific character, but Mulligan shows us the steps between med school and nightly shaming sessions in how Cassie can’t really look at most people and doesn’t really speak up. She’s awkward in daytime scenes and when a confrontation doesn’t go as expected. These are choices and they tell us even more about who Cassie is. She’s decided dedicating her life to revenge and to a cause is worth it, but she’s conflicted to some degree. Not about what happens, but about what’s happened to her.

Cassie eventually meets Ryan (Bo Burnham) from school who has changed now and is a “nice guy” and wants to date her. Burnham’s established a persona as a nice weirdo and it serves the character here as he has to respond to Cassie’s unexplainable behavior. He runs into her on a night out and, at first glance, she appears to be on a date. It’s more complicated than that, obviously, but the realization that she can’t have a normal life and keep doing this is part of a series of changes for Cassie.

Changes may be too strong a word. Cassie has committed to an ideal that she thinks is important. She’s enacting change at an individual level in the only way she thinks will work. Some of these moments seem to go too far for some viewers, including an especially hard-to-watch scene with Alison Brie as an old classmate or Connie Britton as the dean of the school. Both are memorable and show how Cassie is willing to escalate things to get a point across. People have proven as a whole that they will not listen or change and so she’s decided to enforce the message much more specifically.

I guess I could see how this could not work for a person. It’s all bright colors but odd angles, designed to make things appear “fun” at first glance but never actually be fun. Cassie’s life is brutal because she feels the world has chosen brutality. I don’t think there’s an argument that could say she’s wrong. These are real issues, and even when she’s “successful” there is a strong suggestion that even her victims may not actually get the right perspective on things. That’s going to be depressing for a lot of folks, but it should be. I kept seeing “unrealistic” in reviews, but I’d really challenge that opinion. It’s fair to ask if this is a good way to tell this story, but this just doesn’t seem as wild to me as it seems to some people. I think it’s worth your time, especially if you look for the quiet moments and see Cassie’s character as a little more involved than the character some people seem to be imagining.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yeah, it’s better than the second Borat movie. It’s not really fair to do that comparison, but that’s the thing we do in this space. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm presents a different kind of sarcastic critique about feminism and women in American society than the house-on-fire approach Promising Young Woman does.

Is it the best movie of all time? I don’t think so, but it is better than the reductive taglines people keep adding to it make it sound like it is. I went into this without reading any reviews and it really surprised me. I expected the message to land, but not amidst as many complicating elements. The love story is worth following and the performances mostly work. I really do recommend it. It doesn’t need to be anything more than this, I think this is the exact way to tell this story. It’s okay that generational love story In the Mood for Love is a better movie. That’s also true of a lot of other stuff you should actively engage with, so go do it and really think about what you’re watching. Not what you think you’re watching, but what’s actually happening behind those moments.

You can watch Promising Young Woman on Amazon Prime ($5.99) or YouTube ($5.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Borat Subsequent Moviefilm the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The first Borat movie was a phenomenon. Sacha Baron Cohen is a madman and has made a career of topping himself, but his whole thing works not just because it’s so crazy, but because it has something to say. Obviously the performance is the main focus, but the enduring element is not the absurdity but the quiet moments. I’m not sure I would have said that about the first one, considering the decade-plus of “my wife!” we have all lived through, but it’s absolutely true of the sequel.

When they announced Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, which is actually called Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan but we’ll stick with the shorter title, I had zero hopes. The first one is crazy but it’s also self-contained. What more do you need to know? What more could there be to say? The plot of the first movie isn’t even important, I didn’t remember that it all hinged around Borat wanting to meet and marry Pamela Anderson until I revisited it. What you remember are the real-life moments, the blasé racism that Cohen was able to coax out of people with just about no prodding. You remember the mirror that he held up to our fellow Americans, not the silliness. More of that could surely work, but it would just be more of the same, right?

The sequel tries a much more complex premise and a much more traditional narrative. It is, indeed, more Borat, but it’s also a real movie in ways that Borat never was or needed to be. The original is a goofy road movie where Cohen wanders through American life to make people look silly and stupid, but the sequel finds a changed America where Borat is already a part of it. People recognize him and he’s famous enough to be a Halloween costume. The guy at the party store tells him he looks like the suit in the bag, but Cohen insists it’s not him. It’s a smart move to acknowledge that a significant portion of the country recognizes this character now and he’s thus up against a challenge if he wants everyone to be their true selves with who they think is some strange foreign reporter.

The true genius of the sequel is the casting of Maria Bakalova as his daughter. Incredibly, she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role. That’s probably scandalous to a certain kind of Academy voter, but I really think it makes sense. This could just be two more hours of horrible racists nodding along with Cohen saying crazy stuff, but Bakalova adds genuine emotion to the film. I didn’t have any interest in seeing more Borat, but I am here to tell you that you should watch more Borat, if only for Bakalova’s performance.

The film opens with Borat doing hard labor for embarrassing Kazakhstan after the release of the first movie. The government wants him to go back to America to offer a bribe to Mike Pence, because, sure, why not? His daughter stows away in a crate with a monkey who is also part of the government and a famous adult film start in Kazakhstan. Things all break poorly and Borat and his daughter Tutar must find a way into Donald Trump’s inner circle to redeem the nation and to save Borat’s life. You got all this?

The plot actually works, which I really feel like is the secret weapon. Borat does do typical Borat stuff, including getting a bakery to write an anti-Semitic phrase on a cake with absolutely zero hesitation, but mostly it’s all in service of the plot. The original feels wild at times and is always in service of a laugh first, a justification second, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm wants you to feel like these stakes matter. It’s a neat trick in a ridiculous comedy and one that I mention this many times because it really is pretty remarkable.

Tutar has been raised with some terrible ideas about what women can do in the world and the role of femininity as part of her identity, and a lot of her characterization is spent undoing that programming. Some of the basics are a statement about other cultures, but a lot is about America itself. Sure, it starts with Tutar asking for a golden cage to live in, but a lot of what she is shown as “enlightened” American society is similarly grim. Not every critique is as clear as the racist cake woman, but a parade of people who are shocked by the gross-out stuff in Borat’s life try to tell him that women acting stupid and debutante balls are actually the way to go. It’s not really that much better and them not realizing that is the point.

The world of 2020 isn’t completely different than the world of 2006, but in the time between the two movies our ability to be shocked by objectively shocking things has dulled. I couldn’t help but think about that during a scene towards the end where Borat gets a crowd to sing a happy tune about how the Saudi government tortures journalists and conspiracy theories about the pandemic. I remember the similar elements of the first movie feeling horrific. It felt like some of those had to be staged or there had to be something else happening. Obviously some people will sing a racist song with you in some dark corners of the world, but we’re not really like that, are we?

Well, yeah, we are. Donald Trump’s presidency was a constant reminder of what America actually always has been and it removed a lot of people’s ability to be shocked. Making a movie that shows people even worse than you expect them to be is a tremendous challenge in 2020 that it wasn’t in 2006, but Borat Subsequent Moviefilm clears the bar. When you see people on screen talking about wanting to sleep with Borat’s daughter as soon as he leaves or faxing death threats back and forth or whatever else moves the plot along, it’s just less surprising now. Shelving some of the crazy stuff and replacing it with a somewhat tender, sorta, story about a father and his daughter was a good play.

It’s still pretty crazy. I don’t want to spoil any of the genuinely wild stuff, but a dance scene among the debutantes should be included in the Oscar highlight reel for Best Supporting Actress forever if Bakalova wins. It is unbelievable. You just have to see it.

I don’t know that we needed more Borat and I’m pretty sure we don’t need even more, but this is worth your time. If you’re aware of anything from it you know the Rudy Giuliani part, where he agrees to an interview with Tutar and then goes to a hotel room with her. It’s pretty wild to see even if you know what’s coming. Giuliani seems to be speed-running ruining his life over the last handful of years and this performance is just another part of that disaster. With most of the real people in these movies you can at least see how they got into this mess, but I really can’t imagine what Giuliani was thinking here.

The whole experience is tighter than Borat and it really does deserve to be seen. The Trump stuff is pretty light, which works to showcase Tutar and Borat as characters. Bakalova is the standout and it’s not gimmicky at all that she’s up for an Oscar for a damn Borat movie. She’s funny as hell, especially when she coaxes people into telling the jokes for her as an interviewer. This had to be a huge task and to balance real pathos with an absurd premise is an accomplishment worthy of your attention.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It is a lot better than Hillbilly Elegy. Most things are, but it’s also better at the thing Hillbilly Elegy is trying to do. Both movies want to present a look at “real” America, with obviously very different suggestions of what you’ll find when you look. Hillbilly Elegy feels forced and slanted, with ridiculous, long scenes to express simple ideas. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is obviously ridiculous, but you learn a lot more from quick commentary that isn’t underlined. Borat the character is a bumbling nightmare, but Cohen the storyteller isn’t turning to camera to explain “that was racist!” Your movie should be at least as artful and smooth as a Borat movie. That’s where the line is.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it’s not really trying to be. This is supposed to make you think, at least a little, and it does that. It’s funny even though you know the Borat deal at this point. Bakalova’s performance is my favorite I’ve seen so far this year and while I don’t think she’s gonna win the Oscar, I really do want to point out that it’s not a stunt. The Academy is so often a decade or more behind and so ham-fisted so often that it’s worth praising them when they do something just a little bold and just a little bit interesting.

You can watch Borat Subsequent Moviefilm on Amazon Prime. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Hillbilly Elegy the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

A lot of people are writing the same review of Hillbilly Elegy. They talk about how people on the left hate it because J. D. Vance, the author of the memoir the movie is based on and the central character in the film, is a conservative and how people on the right are finally glad someone is telling a story they can find the truth in. Entertainment Weekly, of all things, called it “fact-based.” You’d only need to say that if you felt the need to be defensive. Most people don’t feel the need to call someone’s life story “fact-based.”

There is a narrative that develops around anything political that gets poor reviews. It’s predictable: Hollywood critics hate it, people love it, the critical set is out of touch, Real America knows what’s best. I’m sure there are cases where that’s true and if you read enough reviews you read some crazy stuff. It’s easy to not be a part of the target audience for a movie or to just not connect with something and to rank something with redeeming qualities as a poor experience just because it isn’t for you.

That is not what’s happening here. Hillbilly Elegy is a messy, boring, frustrating exploration of one man’s experience that he’s turned into a political movement about how laziness and welfare are destroying America. It’s impossible to engage with it without engaging with the politics behind it, but it is entirely possible to love a piece of art you disagree with or to hate one that you think makes great points. If the last few years have taught us little else, it’s that your politics alone don’t make you worth people’s time. You have to have something interesting to say, whether your audience agrees with you or not.

The real J. D. Vance is tweeting conspiracy theories and truly ugly nonsense as I write this, but I checked in just to confirm what I expected might be true. He’s running for Senate in 2022 and he’s backed by billionaire super-villain Peter Thiel, famous for saying that freedom and democracy are not compatible and women’s rights and welfare are big reasons why. Vance worked for Thiel and became a celebrity among the political right when he published his memoir. Ron Howard directed it as a film, thus we have to engage with Oscar-nominated Hillbilly Elegy.

It’s easy to track how this happened, but harder to say why it happened. No one’s mind will be changed by this movie. The premise appears to be a typical American story, with a character literally telling Vance’s character in the film that he’s the American dream because he paid his way through college by joining the military and got out of the South and into high society. Vance initially rejects this statement with a big flourish about how the South and rural people are smart and capable and no one should shame them.

This is a cringeworthy scene, but it sets the table for who Vance is and what he believes. He then spends the entirety of the movie insistently walking away from this premise and behaving inconsistently with it. It establishes the film’s desire to have it both ways and to play loosely with the point behind the memoir when it doesn’t work for the performance. You have to bend reality to make it make sense, so they bend it. Vance’s book is designed to make an argument about poverty, but the film is designed to show it off as a contrast to what you might accomplish if you don’t live like this.

I knew I wasn’t going to like this, but I really tried. I’m from the South, but not this part, and I moved away, but not to that part. My life is not very much like Vance’s and my childhood was not much like his, but I am familiar enough with the experience to see parts that ring true and parts that ring false. One moment that’s intended to be endearing is when Vance finally lets his guard down towards the end of the story and lets his girlfriend in on his experience. He says “syrup” when they’re making pancakes and she makes fun of his accent. It’s meant to be a charming scene, but it’s about ten minutes before the story is over. The effect is to suggest that who Vance becomes after this story, after he goes home and sees that things are even worse than he remembers, is someone who can laugh at himself.

This is my major issue with Hillbilly Elegy. The premise is a mean one, arguably cruel, and it’s delivered in a way no one should find sweet. Amy Adams plays his mother and is intended to show us the cycle of addiction and how opiates can lead someone to dark places. The reality, we learn more every day, is that this cycle is destructive and isn’t generally people who get high for fun and want to shirk responsibilities. There’s a darker version of this story, but Vance wasn’t interested in that argument and Howard’s film isn’t, either. You can argue that it’s all “fact-based” and whatever Vance’s mom does in the movie is what she did in real life, but this is where it matters if this is one man’s opinion or a larger story about the Southern or rural experience.

Adams does what the script asks of her, but it asks her to be a cartoonish villain. We mostly see her in flailing desperation and see her lows played for drama, but it’s so continuous and so repetitive that it becomes cyclical. Vance has to leave a big interview with a law firm because he has to go back to the country and take care of his mother. She has relapsed and only his presence can save her. We see him go to great lengths, all to his credit, but he just can’t get her the help she needs because she doesn’t want help.

There’s an opportunity here to make a few different, competing statements. Adams’ character could be a statement about how you fall into addiction and your life is impacted and stops being yours. Vance, again, is not interested in that argument, so it’s instead a statement about how family can hold you back if you fall into their negativity. I won’t rob the movie of what little surprise it has, but a line delivery between Gabriel Basso, who plays Vance, and Adams during the climax shocked me. I expected this to trigger a larger argument and her final, destructive move, but it doesn’t. It’s a horrific, terrible moment, but in the world of Hillbilly Elegy, that’s actually the moral.

Vance then experiences a great life. Everyone else is okay, we learn through 1980s-style credits that show where everyone is today, but Vance specifically, his life rules. It’s all because he had the strength to pull himself up by his bootstraps and do the work. Heroin is just pain leaving the body or whatever, just tough it out. It’s such a bizarre message and such a strange way to deliver it that I still kinda can’t believe it’s the centerpiece of the story.

Along the way, Vance is taken in by his grandmother, played by Glenn Close. Close is up for an Oscar for this and I really hope she doesn’t win it, entirely because of the rest of the movie. Youn Yuh-jung in Minari is nominated for a very similar role and a much more interesting one, but given the history of the Oscars you have to expect Close is the favorite. Beyond the “critics hate it; they don’t get it” narrative, there’s also an argument that Close is excellent in Hillbilly Elegy even if the movie stinks. She does a great job, it’s impossible to argue with that, but there are so many impossibly ridiculous moments that it isn’t enough to overcome the script.

I would not believe it if someone else told me this, but I am telling you that one of her moral lessons to a young J. D. Vance is that everyone is a “good Terminator,” a “bad Terminator,” or a “neutral Terminator.” I could not contextualize that for you if I tried. She exerts tough love over her grandson and does have an honest moment that I really liked where she tells him that it’s about working hard and getting lucky. We don’t spend a lot of time on this lesson, probably because it refutes Vance’s premise that anyone who doesn’t make it out of poverty or addiction does so because they’re lazy.

Howard’s direction puts his typical positive vibe on this and the film keeps veering into brief lessons. A teacher tells Vance he’s too smart to get bad grades. His grandmother tells him his friends are all a bad crowd. None of these are very interesting, but they show why Howard found his story worth telling. Maybe he didn’t care about the politics behind it and maybe he did, but Vance’s muddled, one-point-plan of “just work hard, if you fail it’s because you didn’t work hard or because of The Government but also don’t blame The Government” shines through everyone’s fake accents and aww-shucks jokes.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Mank is similarly dour, but suggests that not trying is a good way to avoid having to find out if you can make it or not. There’s a lot more cynicism in Mank but also a lot more story to tell. I think Mank is more worthy of your two hours and more likely to cause you to think about how people treat each other, even though Hillbilly Elegy is more expressly going for that.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, and I think it’s the worst movie we’ve looked at so far in this series. It’s just not the most interesting version of this story. I would be most interested in a version where Vance isn’t so much of a clean-cut hero, though. It’s rare to see a person whose central trait is ambition played this way because that’s not how most of us think of ambition. There is a story to tell here, but you’d need Vance to not be the one telling it.

You can watch Hillbilly Elegy on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Mank the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

People clown on the Oscars for a number of valid reasons, but I’ve always been most fascinated by the Best Actor category. The Academy needs to become more inclusive and it seems to want to become more relevant, but attempts on both fronts feel clunky. There’s a lot of room to improve for America’s supposed arbiters of what makes great cinema great and I do hope they figure it out. I don’t think the answer is a “Popular Film” category or whatever that was, but I do think any move to fix the larger representation problem is a good one.

All that said, I pick Best Actor because I feel like, especially recently, there’s been a streak of wrong choices. In 2017 Gary Oldman won for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, which may be one of the ten worst movies nominated for any award in the last ten years. Oldman does strong work, but it’s a heightened performance because it needs to be to survive in a ridiculous movie. Rami Malek won in 2018 as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Malek was obviously great and really nailed what had to be a difficult challenge, but that movie is even worse than Darkest Hour, with distracting, breakneck edits for no real reason and cliched dialogue even in the most important moments of Mercury’s life. Joaquin Phoenix won as Joker in Joker last year and I feel like that completes the three-peat. Joker is full of capital-c Choices but at a basic level, it’s a remake of King of Comedy that didn’t seem to understand the message of King of Comedy. It’s a weird mess.

All three of those movies are bad, arguably among the worst if not the worst of the nominees in their respective years. Very often the award seems to go to whoever did the Most Acting rather than any other metric of quality. I definitely think all three of those roles are defensible as great performances, but shouldn’t it matter if you did your great work in a bomb or not?

I don’t know if Oldman will win for Mank this year or not, but it’s the most nominated film at this year’s Oscars. This is typical of the Academy, to the point where wasting breath on jokes about the movie with the Oscars as a central plot point being heavily nominated at the Oscars is not necessary. Of course they did, because of course they did. It’s the story of the writing of the screenplay for Citizen Kane. Orson Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz split credit for it, but for decades Hollywood elites argued about who actually was the man behind Kane. Welles directed and starred in it, so he’s the name you know, but “Mank” is the man director David Fincher wants to sell you as the genius.

There’s a few things to know before we move on. This story might have happened the way Fincher tells it, but it almost certainly didn’t and most people agree this version has been discredited over the years. Mank and Welles both created Citizen Kane and you are welcome to argue that one was more important than the other, but Fincher’s version paints Welles as someone out to steal Mank’s hard work. You don’t always lose points for twisting the facts to make a good story, but this is extreme.

Fincher seems to think it’s necessary that Mank be a sole genius with Welles in dark shadows for most of the film. The actor playing Welles does his best, but it comes off as a parody of the director and I assume that’s in Fincher’s directing. Welles isn’t the hero here and he’s arguably the villain, though one of many in the larger story about how Herman J. Mankiewicz couldn’t get out of his own way.

The story goes that Mank was the funniest guy in the room but also the drunkest, both traits most people in his social circle had some of, but never more than him. He worked on a dozen things you love and he’s an icon of this era of Hollywood. That’s apparently not enough, which is why Fincher hangs sole credit for Kane on him. Interestingly, Fincher says the finished product of Mank is a revision from earlier “anti-Welles” versions. I can’t imagine what happened in the first cuts; Welles must have tried to kill him.

Oldman is working extremely hard here, which is why I think he’s a safe bet for the Oscar. This is ten times the movie Darkest Hour was and it’s at least a better performance, though with a smaller gap. You want Mank to “win” every time you see him, but you start to realize early on that won’t happen. He shows up drunk to important meetings and charms his way through parties, but mostly because people have an attitude of “oh, that’s just Mank.” He’s a jester, which mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, Cowboy from Full Metal Jacket) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister from Game of Thrones and a million other things) tell him directly.

For as bad as the Welles role is, Mayer and Hearst are terrific. The movie is only partially about the actual construction of a screenplay, it’s also about exploring Mank’s life to see how he got his ideas. Mayer’s worldview and political dealings provide the acid and Hearst’s power provides the central character for Citizen Kane. None of these are secrets or inventions for Mank, but they’re explored well and the personalities live up to what they need to get done. Dance especially is impressive and gives an incredible final speech about how we see ourselves in the world and what it amounts to in the end. Amanda Seyfried does a fine job as Marion Davies, but Oldman is the center of even their scenes, so it’s hard to really get into her character. I can’t imagine she’ll win for Best Supporting Actress, but that field is always hard to predict.

If you really love old Hollywood or you really love Citizen Kane or you really love black and white cinema, you’ll probably like Mank. It’s not completely a true story and some of the side stories don’t really go anywhere and it bloats a little bit as it moves into act three, but none of that is really the point. Fincher said he made this because he thinks the idea of Mank writing a brilliant script under the terms that he wouldn’t get credit for it, but then that he did want credit for it, is an interesting enough idea to carry a movie. This is his attempt to prove that as true and we should judge Mank by whether it is or isn’t.

I guess it is, but not by much. The performances are mostly good and sometimes great, and by the established metrics Oldman could certainly deserve his statue for this one, though one hopes we’re looking for something a little more ambitious than this in 2021. Mank is the story of a guy who had to ruin the dinner party or the birthday party to prove a point. Even if the point is sometimes worth making, it’s difficult to watch as a hero to root for, and that’s even before you factor in that he’s drunk to the point of throwing up.

I’m a big fan of Welles, though there are many reasons not to be. He was absurd, aggrandizing, and brash. Mankiewicz certainly had more to do with Citizen Kane than Welles would want you to believe and there is a story in that discussion that’s worth telling. I don’t think it’s this one and Mank feels like too many tales wrapped up in one story as a result. I enjoyed Mank, but I’m squarely in the target audience, and I think anyone who isn’t will struggle with this one. Oldman does the best he could possibly do, but it feels like another movie where the surrounding pieces can’t live up to the central performance. This is a much better movie than all three recent Best Actor films, but those same weird problems with those three are present again in Mank.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is tighter and more consistently makes the point it aims to make. These are very different movies, with Master and Commander focused on keeping complex, busy scenes of naval chaos easily understandable through clear cinematography and Mank almost entirely conversational and black-and-white. The difficulty in Master and Commander is all in the visuals and Mank is all about the central character and keeping us hooked on how he’ll navigate the politics of the big studios and the “great men” he deals with all the time. Both nail the “look” of what they’re doing, but Master and Commander succeeds to a greater degree with the story because it picks one lane and stays in it.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it’s not even the best David Fincher movie. The reviews are interesting, with most of them making the point that the politics behind the characters are the central argument and the screenplay production isn’t really the heart of the story. Fincher seems to believe that, but Mank can’t ever decide which story it wants to tell you. I think that’s why it ends up not really connecting with audiences and why people seem to want to praise the visuals and performances but struggle to talk about the story.

You can watch Mank on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In January, Russell Crowe responded to some guy on Twitter who said Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was a powerful sleep aid. The guy tagged Crowe, which led to Crowe telling him it was an “adults movie” and praising it as a story about “fidelity to Empire.” Everyone yelled at the original guy, a few sites picked it up as a funny story, and that was that.

I’d never seen it, despite a friend of mine saying it was his favorite movie. Part of this series is that I’ll watch anything anyone suggests, so this is for Ryan, who loves this movie as much as Russell Crowe.

A lot of the modern discourse about Master and Commander (we’ll shorten it to that from here on out) is about how it disappointed. This was the year of the last Lord of the Rings movie and it was the same era as the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The world was primed for a bunch of movies to follow Master and Commander and the books that provide the basis would allow for just that. It never happened. This was the only one, and director Peter Weir only made one more movie in the next two decades.

What happened? Master and Commander got clobbered at the Oscars by The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Nominated for 10 awards, it won only for cinematography and sound editing. It made money, but not as much as you’d expect. Russell Crowe wasn’t even nominated for Best Actor. It’s pretty weird, especially given the niche that Master and Commander has carved over the years since. It’s not uncommon to see it on lists of best films of the era and it looks worlds, universes, whatever, better in retrospect than Johnny Depp’s boat franchise from the era.

The narrative that seems to have sprung up is that it was too boring. It’s a long movie that almost never leaves a single ship and most of the cast does their best to sell the time they have, but no one really sticks with you. It’s beautiful, thus the cinematography Oscar, but it’s a very long story about how important it is to sail for England and to fight for country. It’s a tough thing to ask audiences to sink their teeth into, which the team behind the movie seemed to realize when they changed the adversary from the books to make sure Russell Crowe wasn’t fighting American ships.

It’s perfectly stitched together. We open on fighting and then learn why. We find out the other ship is evil and never meet anyone involved, even in distance. We find out our guys are the good guys and Russell Crowe tells Paul Bettany about the power of leadership and the importance of country. There are a few scenes where they all but turn to camera to explain their positions, these old friends who represent the importance of scientific doubt and military dedication. Their opposition is interesting, but it’s also unwavering and a little predictable.

Russell Crowe is the beating heart, which is what makes the lack of an Oscar nomination so interesting. He’s the only good thing about Gladiator, another movie that people have rethought and seem to love now despite some very big swings, and he was just off the success of A Beautiful Mind. This is all part of peak Russell Crowe, which should have spelled success.

I really think it’s the ensemble cast that does it in. There are memorable little moments, but most of the cast walks in, does something, and walks out. That’s a fine thing to do, but it begins to feel like you’ve met thirty interchangeable characters by the end of the movie. I offer this only as a means to finding why people didn’t connect with it at the time, but it does feel especially empty when one character very memorably sacrifices themselves to save the ship but you begin to wonder if this is someone you should feel for or not. Russell Crowe’s character even seems a little conflicted.

The heroics are writ large and the triumphs are great. It’s a feel-good movie, to a certain degree, and I definitely had a good time with it. I’d shake off the “sleepy” angle that our intrepid Twitter user tried to sell. There’s a lot of fighting and even a lot of the natural, slowed-down-to-show-you-the-boredom ship stuff works to move the pacing along. If you asked me if it’s a beautiful movie, I’d have to say yes. Is it well-made? Obviously. It crushed my expectations as I sat down expecting to struggle through an overly long trip to sea. Russell Crowe is right.

I will say this, though, that Russell Crowe is also right about the second part of what he said. His character gets in an argument with Paul Bettany’s character about corporal punishment and leadership that turns into a summit of Big Ideas and Truths. Bettany says that a light touch is important and Crowe says you have to lead with strength. There’s an opportunity here to say something, but Weir seems content to let Bettany offering a road not taken be the extent of it.

We never spend any time with the French at all. Crowe’s character gives a rousing speech to say that the ship literally is England, just in case you might miss it, and demands overwhelming, unquestioning military support. These are the politics of a captain and his mates, so I’m not asking for this to have some Battleship Potemkin moment or anything, I just was surprised to see a moment or two where someone says “maybe you’re wrong” to Crowe and then to follow a plot that insisted he isn’t, never could be, and any questioning of him will be rebutted with immediate displays of how he’s right.

The hero does heroic stuff, barks at people who challenge him, and wins constantly. Contrast this with dozens of movies that Master and Commander brings to mind, nearly all of them with more internal strife or more development. It doesn’t matter here for what’s on screen and the broad sense of beauty and craft, which is why this won what it did, but also might be why some people find it hard to connect with. This is one of the all-time versions of good guys telling you they’re good and then showing you that, which is a fine thing to be, but I kept thinking about what might be possible with a captain who is famously lucky that gives leadership advice all the time. It’s great that he thinks he’s a genius, but it’s a little less interesting if he actually is.

It’s absolutely not fair to talk only about what it “could” be, because what it is an extremely entertaining voyage where the good guys fight the bad guys. Weir’s choice to never show us the enemy until the very end, and even then not really, lets us root for our team and get wrapped up in the life of sailors in the era. It’s a period piece that really just wants to hold the camera on these people and show us their lives, then leave. Crowe says it’s about sticking to your guns and he’s absolutely right. He knows exactly what he made and it’s good enough for him, so it should be good enough for all of us.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I liked it a great deal more than Uncut Gems. Crowe is the center of almost every scene, just like Sandler is, and the energy is exactly reversed. There’s never a moment in Master and Commander where Crowe’s character is anything less than confident and charismatic. It’s just a movie that doesn’t ask you to work very hard to at least like it, even if you don’t connect directly with the message.

Is it the best movie of all time? I am sticking with In the Mood for Love. I get Master and Commander now and I feel like I’m being a little reductive in trying to find this angle where this movie most people liked and a lot of people love didn’t connect with people. There really is this narrative, though, and a ton of people seem to spend a ton of time trying to figure out why this didn’t take the world by storm. I stand by my criticism, which is almost zero percent about what’s on screen and more about what’s not there, which is that a super charismatic character that everyone likes who wins all the time can only be so interesting. Crowe nails it, front to back, but I’m not sure there’s enough space for us to think about what we want him to be. It’s only a problem in comparison and even then, it feels like I’m grasping at straws, but that’s because the paint on the canvas is all so perfectly where it’s supposed to go.

You can watch Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World on Amazon ($3.99) or YouTube ($3.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Uncut Gems the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

On Marc Maron’s podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Eddie Murphy talked about his recent career and why he wants to get back into acting. It’s a fascinating interview for a number of reasons, but what will stick with me the most is his frustration at being named the “worst actor ever” by the Razzies. Officially the Golden Raspberry Awards, the Razzies are a loose group of people who award negative versions of the Oscars for things like worst acting or worst directing. I can’t find the specific version Murphy is talking about, but he was named worst actor of the decade once, beating out nominees Rob Schneider and Mike Myers.

Typically people do not care about the Razzies, but Murphy mentioned it several times and seemed, at least in some way, to have taken genuine offense at the joke. He said it made him want to make good movies, if for no other reason than for people to remember that he is genuinely funny and can do good work. Who wouldn’t feel the same?

Adam Sandler’s career has been very weird. He has significantly more nominations at the Razzies than Murphy does, just three shy of the record-holder Sylvester Stallone. Sandler seems willing to add to his fake trophy case, as well, as he’s still making trash at a breakneck pace. He’s been in more than 60 films and does not seem to be slowing down, and most of them are so bad you wouldn’t even pretend to imagine seeing them. It just doesn’t matter to him, clearly, and most of the worst of them don’t even make an attempt to seem like a real movie.

That’s what makes it so confounding when he makes something good. There are similar actors in this space, depending on your preferences you may call to mind some of Nick Cage’s weirder stuff or Jim Carey’s inconsistent forays into drama. Sandler was best in either Punch-Drunk Love or Funny People, for my money, and both show that he absolutely could do this, he just doesn’t want to work that hard.

Uncut Gems was sold as Sandler’s best yet and it might be just that. The central role of the film was briefly going to be played by Jonah Hill and it is unimaginable to me to picture that version of Uncut Gems. Both Hill and Sandler have the same nervous energy, but Sandler is unique in that you don’t really want him to win. I kept coming back to that during the frequent terrible challenges that Sandler’s character Howard Ratner faced. Do we actually want him to win, as he so clearly wants for himself at all costs?

Howard Ratner is a jeweler and a gambler. His life is a disaster. Everyone in his professional circle seems to view him as a risk at best and a dunce at worst. His family life is in tatters, with his estranged wife negotiating the date of their separation and his brother-in-law kidnapping and torturing him as part of a larger loan shark deal. There is no aspect of Howard’s life that works and all of it, clearly, was his fault. He prioritized the wrong things and felt like he was always one deal away from making this all come together.

The plot of Uncut Gems is based on the premise that if you just hit once and hit big enough, you can fix everything. But the thing is, as you know from dozens of other movies and from your actual real life, that’s not how it works. Howard is pretty consistently reminded of this, but he misses the lesson and focuses on the problem being that he’s just not hitting big enough.

There are some interesting performances in this, mostly from either non-actors like NBA legend Kevin Garnett (who is great) and sleepy, weird radio host Mike Francesa (who is not). Lakeith Stanfield continues to be great in everything as the broker who finds clients to shop in Howard’s jewelry store, including Garnett as himself. Howard dazzles Garnett with a rare stone from Ethiopia and through several overlapping deals, Howard tries to turn the stone into a fortune.

The thing about movies where someone “does deals” and acts slick to make quick money is that the lesson is almost always “don’t do this,” but the style seems to contribute to people not getting it. The most obvious version is Scarface, but there’s some of that in Uncut Gems. Howard’s life is a mess, top to bottom, but there’s a sense that he’s the smartest person in the room and if he could just get the chips to fall right, he could be in charge of all of this. That’s the surface level, but the Safdie brothers who directed Uncut Gems certainly do not want you to walk away with that feeling. The ending is a powerful exclamation point, but there are reminders all along the way. Every time Howard meets someone famous or important, he messes it up or can’t seem to convince the room of his greatness.

I still prefer Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love, but this is a remarkable performance. Sandler never stops talking all the way, giving a kind of run-on-sentence feel to his performance. He’s continuously scheming and trying to be one or two steps ahead on his own chessboard, but he’s not building effective contingency plans for when people see his moves. He’s on three phone lines at once and screaming obscenities at someone in the same room. Based on this not-that-scientific list, Uncut Gems has 560 instances of the f-word, making it one of the most obscene films in history by just that metric. It’s never as distracting as you’d expect, but the general anxiousness that runs underneath Sandler’s performance really, really is. That’s the point, but it’s an exhausting movie.

Roger Ebert said of Sandler’s positive performance in Punch-Drunk Love, “He can’t go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?” He was only partially right. Sandler absolutely can and will continue to make some of the worst films available to mass markets, but he also seems to want to do one of these every few years. I think with anyone else, Uncut Gems wouldn’t really work. It needs to be someone you aren’t really rooting for but don’t actively hate. Sandler, especially behind sunglasses and with amped up nervous energy, hits that sweet spot. If he did it more often or more consistently, it might become less interesting when he actually nailed it. It’s an extremely generous reading of his career and his choices, but I’d prefer to think it’s intentional.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so. Minari feels complete, with every intention examined and every character explored. We spend a ton of time with Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems, but most of the cast doesn’t really feel real. His wife hates him because of who he is, but who is she? His girlfriend makes self-serving decisions, but also is committed to him at the risk of her own life. None of these are fatal flaws, but there’s a lot of Uncut Gems that moves to react to Sandler. It’s not really a criticism of Uncut Gems, but it is something you notice when you compare it to something like Minari.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I’m still going with In the Mood for Love. I don’t think it’s quite Sandler’s absolute best performance but I do think it’s extraordinary. Joaquin Phoenix won the Oscar this year for Joker, a tremendously bad movie that he’s admittedly pretty great in, but Sandler wasn’t even nominated. It’s clearly because of all the garbage he keeps producing and the Academy’s unwillingness to let him put “Oscar-nominated” on the cover of some movie where he plays an animated fart brought to life or whatever, but Sandler’s performance cannot be overstated. There are very few people who could have done this and made it watchable for two hours. That alone is a big accomplishment even if most of the rest of the movie just happens in the background.

You can watch Uncut Gems on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Minari the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I do not read GQ, but someone linked this article on Twitter and I think it contains a few interesting things worth pulling out to start a discussion of Minari. First, it includes the prices of all the clothes Steve Yeun wears in all the pictures, which seems to be their “deal” but is ridiculous in a piece like this. Second, it includes this from Yeun:

“There’s this built-in Voltron image of what an Asian dad is supposed to be, and to break through that is kind of difficult,” he added. “To not just break through the expectations of others, but also to break through the gaze in your own mind. We profess that we’re caught in the white American gaze, and that’s true. But we forget that we are also that gaze. That gaze is encoded into us, and the last boss is yourself.”

Yeun said this as part of a larger discussion about his character in Minari. He plays Jacob Yi, a Korean American farm worker who wants to grow vegetables. He wants to build a life for his family and he’s willing to take a risk to do it. It’s one thing to make it and quite another to feel like you’ve made it, and Jacob will only be satisfied if he feels like he’s made it his way.

Han Ye-ri plays his wife Monica, who is frustrated with slow progress and the distance and difficulties that she feels Jacob is inserting into their lives. She doesn’t want to live in the country, especially not rural Arkansas, and she doesn’t think this is the right path for their family. Daughter Anne (Noel Kate Cho) and son David (Alan Kim) don’t get much say in the matter and seem to try to fit in as best they can.

The movie hinges around Monica’s mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung) coming to live with them and the energy she changes with her presence. David especially is thrown by this wild, strange woman who “doesn’t act like a grandmother.” David has a heart condition and struggles with daily life, while Soon-ja wants to drink Mountain Dew and watch pro wrestling. It’s a role reversal between two characters we spend a lot of time with and it adds to the reality of the world. These aren’t stock figures in a movie about “finding a better life,” these are real people with real quirks and real ambitions.

There are no heroes or villains, even outside of the Yi family. The only other character with any significant screen time is Paul, played by Will Patton, who carries a cross around on Sunday and won’t even touch a cigarette. He’s a bit of a cartoon, but the longer he hangs around the more it feels like just a heightened version of a real person you might run into in this world. I’ve spent a lot of time in Arkansas and I felt like it was still a bit much, but it’s notable that he is just a guy who hangs around and wants to help.

It shouldn’t be remarkable that a movie like this is just about a real story and how characters move through it, but I feel I have to call out that no one wants to destroy the Yi family because they came in as Korean Americans and they’re the other. There is no scene with a dude with one overall strap buttoned saying he doesn’t like “their kind.” There is racial tension through misunderstanding and through the immigrant experience, but it is done through narrative rather than through tropes. Even in a scene where a white kid asks David a racist question about his appearance, it’s clear from how the scene plays out and what follows that this is realistic confusion and, arguably, curiosity. We can infer some of the greater difficulties and the movie doesn’t present a rosy picture, but it doesn’t feel the need to talk down to the audience to understand the societal challenge.

I really enjoyed it, front to back. This is the first new release I’ve watched by paying full-ticket price during lockdown and I’d recommend it. People seem to balk at the price, but for my fiancé and I, it would have cost more to do it at the theater. Hard to judge it in that context and I hope that the revenue it makes does films like this some good. Minari is in a weird space with cultural conversation, as it was nominated for (and won) Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards. The Globes say that any movie with more than 50% of the dialogue not in English is “foreign,” which may work as a technical definition but is a tough statement to make about a movie about Americans having the American experience in America. The Globes are always dumb, but rarely in ways this easy to understand and disagree with.

Reading “(USA)” as the country under the foreign film section of the winners of this year’s Globes is the height of silliness, but it calls to mind a number of similar conversations. A friend of mine mentioned Roma the other day and the first thing I thought of was a debate about if a Netflix movie can be a real “Best Picture” candidate. That debate looks very silly now for obvious reasons, and I hope that this debate looks silly in future years for even more obvious reasons.

Dumb debates about American film aside, Minari is a powerful, frustrating movie. I say frustrating in a positive way, as it succeeds in showing a family struggle as the principle figures clash about what is best for their future. It also shows a marriage in crisis without necessarily saying that or spending all the possible screen time on it. It’s never far from what’s happening, but Jacob pushes against the idea saying that everything will be okay once he can get into business. It’s never that simple and it isn’t for Jacob and Monica, either.

To return to Yeun’s quote at the top, his character really is fascinating. I’m not Korean American and I cannot begin to understand the experience, but the accomplishment is still very clear. Minari has to show us a family that is distinctly Korean as well as distinctly American and to do so in a way that doesn’t ever pull us out of the story to help us understand either point. Choices need to feel like part of a larger story and characterization, which they continuously do. These should be table stakes, but I don’t feel like they are in a lot of movies. It’s just a damn good story, well told, with some more difficult realities to examine than similar fare that would be damned with the descriptor “heartwarming.”

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? It is better than both versions of Solaris. It also feels better to watch this even though both movies show us a marriage where people don’t understand each other because they’re not necessarily paying attention the right way. Solaris doesn’t want you to feel good, so it’s not really a level playing field, but still going with Minari.

Is it the best movie of all time? I still am sticking with In the Mood for Love. I really enjoyed Minari and I was surprised at the high-wire act it pulled off when showing a family that fights and struggles but not feeling like an emotional workout. I think the only thing that makes me go with In the Mood for Love is the challenge there of a love story without the love is even harder, but I’d say Minari is the better movie to watch on a Tuesday.

You can watch Minari on YouTube ($19.99) or Amazon Prime ($19.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.