movie review

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.

Is Solaris 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.

Akira Kurosawa watched the movie Solaris with the man who directed it and wrote about it. His remarks are included in the official release through Criterion and they are worth reading whether you’ve seen the film or not. He said that people find the movie slow, but he doesn’t. He said that people find Andrei Tarkovsky’s films difficult, but he doesn’t. He says these things matter-of-factly, but it’s also interesting that he brings the criticisms to the table in the first place. No one said “say some negative things and refute them,” this is ostensibly a pure piece of praise.

Tarkovsky has three films on the Sight & Sound list of best movies of all time. None of them are Solaris, but I decided to start with it anyway after my friends Mike and Eliza suggested it as a movie that you could nap to. That was a joke, but I get what they mean. It’s often called the Russian “answer” to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s lengthy, difficult masterpiece. I love 2001 and love it a little more every time I see it, but Tarkovsky hated it. He said it felt obsessed with technology and that it was lifeless. A lot of what Tarkovsky hated about 2001 is what I love about it. It’s a challenge, but a worthy challenge. Everything isn’t on the screen. That’s frustrating and there’s a valid discussion worth having about if an ending needs to be objective. Kubrick famously didn’t want to explain what happens in his movie and he wanted you to find the meaning that worked for you. The technology piece is a confusing criticism to me, but it makes a lot of sense after you see how the Russian director responded with Solaris.

All apologies to Kurosawa, but Solaris is a trying experience. There’s a reason he felt he had to, unprompted, respond to criticisms of Tarkovsky’s films as long. Solaris includes a five minute scene with no dialogue between characters we will never see again as they drive through a tunnel. It would be impossible to discuss Solaris without talking about the multiple extended periods of silent meandering shots of characters looking into the distance. It’s boring, often, and there’s really not an argument against that statement that I think a person could make.

That’s the point, really, and why I think Kubrick and Tarkovsky found different ways to explore similar space. 2001 includes a long shot where we see a spaceship dock for what feels like ten minutes. It’s long and drawn out and it’s not necessary, which has led to multiple defenses of it as part of the experience. Solaris similarly wants you to simmer in the mundane. When the main character shows up on a space station after a solo flight, he has a leather jacket on and seems almost bored by the experience. We’re supposed to infer that this happens all the time. This is not our world. People go to space here, that part isn’t supposed to be impressive.

There are four versions of this story. The original is a novel, which was made into a TV movie, which was then followed by Tarkovsky’s version in 1972, which was finally followed by Steven Soderbergh’s version in 2002. I watched the last two and I’m really glad I did, because Soderbergh’s version is fairly divisive. It’s not a bad movie, but it’s a really weird version of this story. I haven’t read the novel, but just comparing the two film versions, you come away from the modern one with a bad taste in your mouth.

Solaris is an ocean planet that has some supernatural powers, allowing it to manifest certain things on the space station that our characters observe the planet from. The scientists have been there a long time and they’re starting to lose it. Our main character in both versions is a psychologist sent to figure everything out. Tarkovsky spends half an hour showing us life on Earth, with particular focus on a pilot who has had previous experience with Solaris. The pilot tells the psychologist he should hear his story and think about it, but not for too long. In the remake, George Clooney plays the psychologist and we see a montage of his experience on Earth in a lonely world, consumed by the death of his wife.

In both versions of the story the same things are true. Space is a part of life. Solaris is an ocean planet with magical powers. The doctor is haunted by his wife’s death. The thing that’s different is how they’re presented. It may sound like a small thing, but the leather jacket is a good example. In the 1972 version, the doctor wanders around and slowly discovers what is amiss. In the 2002 version, he shows up and is immediately told everything. The film’s big line, “we don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,” is the payoff of almost three hours of rising tension in the 1972 version. In 2002 it happens fifteen minutes in, to no fanfare.

Soderbergh was making a different movie. Clooney looks worried about going to space and a side character tells him that the flight is automated and he’ll be asleep for all of it. We don’t really get that in Tarkovsky’s version, even at double the length. When we see him walk into the space station we can infer he flew there. We don’t need you to say he’ll safely fly there, don’t worry. The modern version has dozens of examples of this in the dialogue, with a constant need to explain what’s happening and how it’s happening to the audience. Clooney at one point uses a specific term for an unexplainable phenomena immediately upon learning about it. In the 1972 version this is a long scene with the character confused and frightened by their new reality, which is how anyone would experience it. It’s a very weird choice to make him ultra capable and immediately familiar with something humanity could not even imagine.

There’s nothing all that interesting in the remake, but the original is a fascinating, strange piece of art. I can’t spoil the ending, but it really surprised me, maybe even “scared” me is the right term. The remake ends similarly but without any of the visual flare or unsettling sensation of Tarkovsky’s film. Soderbergh was making an action movie and he made one, Tarkovsky was making several things at the same time. It’s a rumination on what we mean to each other and what we’re willing to do to preserve our memories.

It’s probably not a very bold take to say the long, weird Russian version is better than the Hollywood remake, but I think Solaris is a way into a more interesting discussion. If a movie is boring, is it bad? When I last saw 2001 in a theater, the crowd seemed anxious and people struggled with some of the longer shots. There’s a lot of filler in Solaris, with two long scenes about philosophical discussion of the meaning of life. Characters offhandedly drop references to great works of literature and smirk at each other in hallways over and over. Really only a few things happen over three solid hours. The tunnel I mentioned earlier is supposed to signify that they live in a futuristic society, but we’re taking quick trips into space to look at the alien world. Don’t we already know this is the future?

It’s only through Soderbergh’s attempt that Tarkovsky’s makes sense to me. It’s too long, inarguably, and it’s messy, but cut down and simplified it becomes a story no longer worth hearing. Is there a sweet spot? Probably, maybe, but you watch the spaceship dock for ten minutes because it lets you digest. You need to spend some time with this one and Tarkovsky isn’t necessarily interested with what you’re going to see while you spend that time. You bring yourself to Solaris, which means it has to hook you for it to be worth seeing. I wasn’t able to connect with all of it, but the final experience really worked for me, especially the final shot, which will haunt me for some time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I would love to hear Tarkovsky’s take on The Royal Tenenbaums. There’s an interesting comparison to make between the two male leads in these films. Both men want to improve on a past that they cannot change. Both recognize that it’s probably too late, but want the experience of trying to fix it. Both change course once they find the experience unexpectedly changes them. The Royal Tenenbaums is one of my favorite modern films and Solaris is a tremendously trying experience. I recommend everyone see Solaris but I cannot say it’s better.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but it’s way better than the remake. I was really shocked by Soderbergh’s version, especially because I love most of his work. I think Logan Lucky is one of the most remarkable comedies of the last twenty years. I mentioned small details, but I really think what makes the modern version so weird is that it doesn’t trust the viewer. Almost all of the movie is spent in explanation or backstory. None of this is very interesting and it creates a sensation that the story you’re actually seeing is very small. Tarkovsky’s version wanders around slowly, letting you fill in gaps with what you have to conclude for yourself. Audiences really hated Soderbergh’s version and while I’m sure they probably wouldn’t want to watch a three-hour Russian version of the same story, they would probably feel like it is a more human experience.

You can watch Solaris on HBO Max. 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 Royal Tenenbaums 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 had a friend in school who used to quote Wes Anderson movies all the time. “There are no teams,” he would tell me often, echoing a small, but important, joke from The Royal Tenenbaums. I was going to call Wes Anderson “divisive,” but that isn’t exactly it. It’s more that if he works for you, he really works for you. From the visual style to the vocal patterns, Anderson’s films are nothing if not specific. That specificity lends to a “universe” that people really connect with (or don’t).

My friends Mike and Eliza suggested this (and a few other movies) and I rewatched The Royal Tenenbaums for this review. I’ve seen it a handful of times and I count myself among the people still charmed by Anderson’s cutesy world. They don’t all work for me. I had a hard time sinking my teeth into The Darjeeling Limited and I only like, but don’t love, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which seems to be a full-on crime. I think Moonrise Kingdom is his best, but Tenenbaums was the first one that really clicked with me, so it’ll always be special.

This should be terrible. On premise alone, a dysfunctional family modeled after J.D. Salinger’s Glass family is a frustrating space to spend time. Adding “rich” and “aloof” as primary descriptors for the cast does not improve things. Mix in Anderson’s aesthetic and Gene Hackman as our primary character, a deadbeat absentee father who lies to get back into his family, and really, ugh. Did I mention it’s all supposedly part of a novel that Alec Baldwin reads to you periodically, in the style of Franny and Zooey?

It’s amazing that it works, but it’s even more amazing the degree to which it works. The cast is outstanding, obviously, but I couldn’t isolate anyone who doesn’t nail what they’re given. Every role has a “thing” to it, which Baldwin narrates as a way of introducing the character. This could feel contrived, as we’re told that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot has been smoking since she was 12 and acts out to try to get noticed and has soured as a result of that failing or Ben Stiller’s Chas is a recent widow who has become obsessed with safety but was always high-strung, but they feel fully realized immediately. The narration is constant but never feels tacked on or distracting. This alone is a feat.

Mitchell Hurwitz saw the comparisons to his idea for Arrested Development when he saw Tenenbaums. On this rewatch I was surprised by how much of Michael, the central figure in Hurwitz’s ensemble comedy, is in Chas. Tenenbaums is a comedy, sorta, but really modern ensemble comedy owes a lot to the way that Anderson is able to show us terrible people and make us care about something beyond punishment or redemption. I’d seen the movie many times but still, this time, I found myself interested in every arc and hoping for developments, good or bad. There are a dozen or so people in the extended family structure and nearly all of them are memorable and fascinating. Another feat.

Anderson is well known for his soundtracks and Tenenbaums may be the centerpiece of his career. The playful “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” kicks up as Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum picks his up grandkids to raise some hell. The somber “Needle in the Hay” plays during the film’s most shocking and upsetting climax. There are between two and fifty-five Nico songs, especially towards the end. This isn’t a viable criticism, but this effect has diminishing returns on rewatches. Nico is great, but I felt like every new scene found a new 45-second clip at an unnecessary pace towards the end. There’s no room to breathe, which I may only be noticing because of how many movies with longer, wandering paces I’ve seen recently.

This is not a scientific study, but if I had to guess, this is the most common answer people I’ve met have given for their favorite movie of all time. That alone is pretty remarkable, isn’t it? It’s only reflective of one person’s experience, which is in turn only reflective of one culture’s experience, but it’s still something. Most of the negative reviews don’t feel like Anderson nailed making his characters sympathetic or they hated how precious it was. Where’s the disconnect?

The first criticism first: Who says this is supposed to be sympathetic? Margot, the adopted Tenenbaum daughter, cheats on her miserable husband Raleigh St. Clair. You can read this as terrible behavior and feel for St. Clair or you can observe that he’s distant and doesn’t really understand her and infer that it probably never was a successful match in the first place. Margot is treated harshly by her father, even by his standards, and acts out. St. Clair tries to connect, but meekly and robotically. There are a dozen judgements to make, all correct. Probably most people feel like Margot is wrong here, but there’s no real attempt made to sell us on anyone being “good” short of Danny Glover’s character. Most everyone else is letting everyone down, in big or small ways.

The second: too cute? Anderson is the definition of A Lot as a director, to be sure, but buy the ticket, take the ride. As Wes Anderson movies go, this is practically boring from a style perspective. There’s no Sigur Rós underwater climax and no stop motion and no consistent-but-bizarre motif. The character who dresses the strangest, Eli Cash, is even remarked upon as essentially doing a bit, which is unheard of in the expanded Anderson universe. There are reasons, explained, inarguable reasons, for almost all of the strange choices. If you found this “too cute” I would imagine you are unable to abide the modern Anderson period where he’s learned that the choices absolutely do not need to be explained.

In my memory, this was much more affected, more “Andersonian,” than I found it upon rewatch. It also was much meaner as a distant idea than it is as a fresh film. I remembered less of a moral and more of a feeling of finality. I don’t know if multiple viewings or just a viewing as a much older person changed my mind, but I was really impressed. This is a movie that can grow with you and can reflect a different feeling towards family and forgiveness through different lenses. Most people I know have already seen it and it’s a fair bet you have, too, but try it again, no matter how cute you thought it was last time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I’ve watched both Le Samouraï and The Royal Tenenbaums a few times. Both are impressive, but Le Samouraï is marked by how little happens. It’s a tone piece about suspense and waiting to see if the bomb goes off in the end or not. There’s little doubt in The Royal Tenenbaums that these wealthy characters won’t experience many real struggles but also won’t find much in the way of real connection. You know the ending from the start, if not the actions then the feeling. That should make it less interesting, but the fact that you still will want to follow dozens of plots and characters says otherwise. Is one a harder feat to accomplish than the other? No, not really, but Tenebaums is a movie I could recommend to everyone. Le Samouraï may require some explanation.

Is it the best movie of all time? It’s a strong contender, but no, I still will go with In the Mood for Love. One of the challenges here is that The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie I grew up watching. It came out when I was an older teenager and defined the way I saw film for many years. I’m too close to it, I too strongly want to nod towards it and call it perfect and capital I important and move on. I don’t have a good argument for why it isn’t other than the shock I felt then and the ton of bricks that lands on me now when I think about the ending to In the Mood for Love and how we got there.

You can watch The Royal Tenenbaums 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 Le Samouraï 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.

This is the first suggestion in this series, from the author of Over-The-Shoulder. I recommend checking out their blog if you like this one, especially the discussion of if a small budget makes Reservoir Dogs a better movie than it would have been otherwise. I have a few other recommendations to get through, but if you’d like to add to the list, instructions are at the bottom of this post.

Today’s film is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, which provided heavy influence for the style of action movies today. The titular samurai is Jef Costello, played by the notoriously handsome Alain Delon. There is no description or discussion of Delon I can find that does not specifically call out this detail, which is fascinating. He’s great looking, obviously, but it’s interesting how consistently you see it called out when you read about his career. His charm is important, as he’s playing a laconic hitman with a curious code of honor.

Jef lives a stoic life. We see his apartment with a bunch of cigarettes and water bottles and not much else. He moves with determination, marching through life in a raincoat and hat and a grimace. We see him steal cars using a huge ring of skeleton keys and each time he stares straight ahead, clearly nervous but also intent on anyone watching seeing just another person. He must blend in, so even this distinctive look is intended to be forgettable among everyone else in Paris.

A handful of the better James Bond movies had just come out when Le Samouraï was released. The audience must have made the comparison, with this handsome gunman who oozes cool confidently entering scenes and demanding things of other characters. When Jef establishes his alibi before the hit, he tells a group of poker players that he never loses, not really. The “not really” is important, as it takes this beyond cliché and into a statement about who he is. Everything he does, from a simple apartment setup to the way he speaks with people, is tied up in an idea of himself as a lone wandering warrior. On the one hand, he kills for money, which seems inconsistent with any sort of code. However, it’s very clear he has no moral issues with this. He does what people ask and the rest will sort itself out.

Roger Ebert is almost always worth quoting, obviously, but here I want to pull out more than usual. He said Le Samouraï “teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense—how action releases tension instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don’t care about are happening constantly.” I could not agree more and I feel like this is the most important element of the film. A “cool” and quiet hitman who doesn’t care if what he does is right or wrong is a pretty bad starting point for a story. In lesser hands than Melville’s, this would be a character that would be really difficult to root for and a plot that it would be hard to connect with beyond wanting few people to die.

It works because of how little happens. Jef trades in his car’s license plates several times and barely speaks with his handler. He establishes an alibi and outwits the police once he’s identified, but most of what happens is other characters moving the plot. Jef is shifty and odd, but Delon is so handsome you find yourself drawn in. It’s really important that we have this time to develop an interest in Jef’s success, because if he was shooting people and running down alleyways all the time, we wouldn’t care. He’d just be James Bond.

I saw Drive before Le Samouraï, and it’s a very weird experience to see the result before the inspiration. I suspect most people will fall into that group, but I especially encourage you to see Melville’s film if you liked Drive. There’s obviously a lot going on in Drive that’s different, notably Le Samouraï spends a lot of time silent where Drive is mostly the soundtrack, but the connection between the main characters is hard to ignore. There have been other quiet anti-heroes, but this is really an obvious lift.

When something finally does happen, you care about it. You don’t really know if the police will catch him or if he wants to be caught or if he has something else planned until it all pays off. The ending is important to not spoil, so I won’t, but I will say that it pays off Jef’s code and ties up everything in an unexpected way. Melville isn’t necessarily trying to say something here so much as to show us something, but that’s not a criticism. This story model and this character type come up again and again in action films, but you are unlikely to find one where the director delivers so completely on their intention. Almost every scene is tense, even though almost nothing happens. Melville teaches us to constantly expect something even without paying off that intention until we finally care whether it happens or not. It’s not all explosions and car chases, but it’s a grander accomplishment than a continuous surprise that isn’t surprising at all.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so. Melville was an interesting character who played the interview subject in Breathless and he’s worth learning about if you aren’t familiar. He was fascinated by American cinema and there’s a larger discussion worth having about the influence of American film on Le Samouraï and vice versa. If more action films cared about their protagonist, I think we’d be much better off. In the Mood for Love is a totally different kind of movie that has a lot more space to breathe and to seep into your mind. It’s far less self contained and has a leg up for that, alone.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but I think it might be the best action movie of all time. I’m not sure what my other pick would be, probably The French Connection. That’s a discussion for another day, but I think what draws me to Le Samouraï is that there’s enough of an internal consistency to what Jef does that he feels like a real character. We don’t see enough to learn why he does all this, though, and the fact that he’s in it for the money but lives such a cheap life is a fascinating element. It suggests that he really does view himself as a warrior who is intended to work this way. What would get you to that way of thinking? We don’t see, but that lets you fill it in yourself.

You can watch Le Samouraï on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max. 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 In the Mood for Love 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 the discussion in this series so far has danced around what makes a film even eligible for the discussion. I don’t think it’s even possible to know, which is why this is an “eternal search.” As an American born in the 1980s, I have a specific perspective and most of the film I’ve seen is American film. I try to branch out when I can, but a lot of my background and a lot of what’s available to me is one kind of cinema.

The great lists are a place to start, but even that is imperfect. For every list, someone has a criticism. The most famous list used today is probably AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Movies” list. The “American” in “American Film Institute” should tell you one problem, but the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum offers many others in his rebuttal and alternate list. You could do worse than the list Sight & Sound puts out once a decade. Robert Ebert called it the only one that real cinema folks “take seriously.”

The detail I find most interesting in all versions of “great” lists is that recency bias works against you. On the one hand, this isn’t all that shocking. People are more likely to list films in the canon on their list than to put something they just saw on it and it takes a long time for any collective consensus to form around anything. The more democratic lists like IMDB’s Top 100 work the opposite way. Everyone’s favorite movie is the thing they just saw.

AFI’s top 100 lists exactly one move from 2000 or later: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Sight & Sound list only has three. IMDB’s lists 37. This is a bigger statement about IMDB than it is anything else, but it’s interesting to see how these things shake out over time.

Yi Yi and Mulholland Drive come in at #93 and #28 respectively on the Sight & Sound list, but In the Mood for Love beats them both at #24. The methodology is not built exactly this way, but as the most recently movie released ahead of it is from 1979 (Apocalypse Now), we are left to assume that Sight & Sound says this is the best movie of the last thirty years. Those are pretty big shoes.

Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-shen meet in a hallway in Hong Kong in the 1960s. They both are in marriages that seem to be stressed, but in ways we struggle to understand at first. We see only parts of life, and even then only for extremely brief moments. We see the passing of time made clear, but no progression seems to take place.

Chow is a journalist and Su is a secretary. Their spouses both work and are frequently away, which creates a space for a friendship except for the external forces against them. Their neighbors are in the hallway all the time, asking after each of them and their spouses, and the pressure of society drills into them over and over. Su frequently dresses up to go to the noodle shop down the alley and Chow finds himself running into her in ways he can’t avoid or really handle.

The experience of these run-ins is powerful. Director Wong Kar-wai really wants us to feel the social constraints of two married neighbors who have no one to talk to but also can’t really talk to each other without creating a scandal. The pair and the supporting cast encounter others over and over in cramped hallways and have short conversations. In another director’s hands we’d get this explained to us, but here we just see so many versions in a row that we feel overwhelmed by the experience. It’s a better way to convey the world around them and how they feel moving around in it and the experience really works.

It’s also important to see this to realize this isn’t a couple slowly forming, exactly. It becomes clear that each of them is in a failing marriage and that infidelity is likely, but then even more shocking realizations become even more clear. This could be the setup for a love-rectangle, but that’s not exactly it. The two form a partnership, more accurately, and pass time with clandestine, chaste encounters. They even become business partners, after a fashion.

The film eventually follows the pair as they pursue their own version of happiness, but it isn’t the conclusion you’d anticipate. It isn’t even the direction you probably would expect, with really “important” narrative pieces omitted. This omission isn’t confusing, but it is just enough to make you wonder how our cast made it through all this, and if they could have done any of it differently.

It’s a love story with less love than you’re probably used to seeing in a genre film, but it’s definitely still a romance. I found it beautiful, often, and shocking without being extreme. Most of the film happens in hallways and offices and it asks you to look at characters, often obscured by railings or door frames, who have to consider very carefully if they are willing to reach for something new. I don’t think “love story” really sets the tone correctly, but this is too complex for any one identifier. The most powerful emotion is the tension of possibility that runs through the whole thing and really, though all of our lives. There are so many moments where another decision in the past would change your present life, and In the Mood for Love shows both the really obvious paths not taken and the small, quiet moments that only turned out to be other paths much later.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Dick Johnson is Dead is “modern” even compared to a “modern classic” like this one. This would be a better question with a documentary. There are a few more documentaries on my current list and I’ll revisit the question then. I certainly liked In the Mood for Love more.

Is it the best movie of all time? There are a handful of scenes where the two main characters act out other conversations, but we only realize they were acting after one of them breaks the scene. The film would work without these, but they’re what will stick with me for a long time after seeing it. The performances are strong, and they’d have to be with this small of a cast, but they are never stronger than these immediate shifts between swept-up lovers and then their real characters, neighbors who might be falling for each other and might not. These small touches, including an ending that I won’t spoil, pushes this one over the top for me. It’s not my favorite movie I’ve ever seen, but it is, I think, enough to edge out Badlands from the current top spot on our list.

You can watch In the Mood for Love on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max. 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.