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- Tribeca Film Fest Review: Queen of Glory
Nana Mensah wrote, directed, and stars in the 2021 film, Queen of Glory. The film had its world premiere as part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s “US Narrative Competition.” Mensah plays Sarah Obeng, the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants who is a doctoral student at Columbia University. From the film’s start, Sarah displays both her continued connection to her Ghanaian heritage and her American-ness. She drops off supplies to be sent to her estranged father back in Ghana, visits her opinionated aunties, and later, meets up with her married boyfriend, who heads her department at Columbia. Sarah plans to leave New York for Ohio, and move in with her boyfriend where he will begin a new job and they can (presumably) start fresh after he separates from his family. She is scheduled to leave in a week. Things take a detour when she receives sudden news that her mother has died from an aneurysm. Sarah heads home to the Bronx to take care of her mother’s funeral arrangements, first, the “white person funeral” that is more like a wake, followed by the more traditional Ghanaian funeral expected by the elders who loved her mother. Her father arrives from Ghana and is a reminder of the more traditional expectations and gender roles of her upbringing. Sarah, however, is not immediately ready to comply. Sarah is in shock upon learning that she has inherited both her mother’s home and the Christian bookstore she owned, run by a former convict (played by the excellent Meeko Gattuso). Before Sarah can move on with her life, she first has to help wrap up her mother’s. Her plan is to sell both. While the film is indeed very funny at times, I would characterize it more as a dramedy. The death of Sarah’s mother becomes the catalyst for her to reexamine her Ghanaian roots and the struggle of being Ghanaian-American. She is often caught between two worlds. Sarah is a scientist and an academic; her relatives are often asking when she will be married and start having children. Sarah continues to bristle at the cultural expectations of her role as a young woman while struggling to honor and stay connected to the mother she loved. In interviews, Mensah was quoted as: I wanted to tell this story because so many depictions I’ve come across of the African immigrant or first-generation American experience are rife with trauma. That was not my experience nor the experience of my family— there was struggle, sure, but also a lot of love, community, and laughter. So I decided to showcase this in a dark comedy about a middle-class, high-achieving Bronx native (by way of Ghana, West Africa), who is grappling with her origins and figuring out what she wants from life, as we all are. (Deadline) Other breakout performances in the film include her mother’s Russian next-door neighbors: a very pregnant mother (played by Anya Migdal) and her family, who is the first to ask Sarah directly: “But, what are you going to do out in Ohio?” Then there’s Pitt (Meeko Gattuso) who presents initially as a tough tattoo-covered ex-con, but secretly has a passion for baking. He reaffirms that Sarah does not have to be like her beloved mom, she only has to be herself. I won’t give away more from the plot of this indie because I want you to see it. Nana Mensah is wonderful as Sarah, but also in her writing and directorial debut. She really is a triple threat. Magnolia Pictures International has acquired sales rights to the film, so I hope it will be released in 2021 for more to see. Check it out when you can. Diana DiMuro Associate Editor Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes plants, the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school dropout. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro and Twitter @DianaDiMuro
- PODCAST: Eight Bits - Final Fantasy
Robby Anderson and Mike Burdge take a look at the Final Fantasy video game series, its impact on turn based RPG storytelling, as well as its multiple film inspirations, adaptations and sequels. Listen on....
- PODCAST: Overdrinkers - Masters of the Universe
Mike Burdge sits down with legendarily chill mf, Yarko Dobriansky, to discuss the truly special 1987 cinematic feature, Masters of the Universe, a movie so exquisitely exhilarating in its back-and-forth balance of awesome ideas and cheeseball aesthetic, they just couldn't help themselves. Cocktail Recipe By the Power of Grayskull (Collins glass, on ice, fill to serve) 1 3/4 oz bourbon 3/4 oz St Germain 1/2 oz lemon juice Top with ginger beer 5 dashes Angostura bitters Garnish with orange slice Listen on....
- Welcome to the Pity Party, Pal
A Review of French Exit Existential contemplation, by way of dry humor and wry wit, is not as easy a path to walk as some might think. Or maybe nobody thinks it’s easy. Either way, it ain’t. This possibly well-known fact is put to the test again and again in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit, a film with so many fantastic actors doing their best to inject life into a (pointedly intentionally) lifeless story that it gets by on charm alone, thematic convolutions be damned. Our story follows Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer), an aging socialite of the upper-class New York scene, and her son, Malcolm Price (Lucas Hedges), as they travel to Paris to escape their newly found money woes. Frances’ irresponsible spending and general bad attitude have left her, for the most part, friendless. While on their trip, the duo meets a variety of characters that latch onto the story in one way or another, while simultaneously being visited by the few folks from back home who are worried about them. This leaves us with a single apartment chock-full of lively characters and unique interactions to be had, but the film never really lets these personalities shine, leaving the viewer wishing for just a bit more. Based on his novel, Patrick DeWitt returns as screenwriter, seemingly to bring a more stylish and inadvertently more banal take on his original story. Woody Allen (*thunderclap*) has a tone and a wry sense of humor that is very hard to replicate, and many directors, (and even actors,) have been trying to do so for over forty years. Comedy, based in sardonic play and sneering caricature, is a very fine line to walk, especially when mainly dealing with upper-class white people. In particular, when those same people all of a sudden don’t have enough money to live out their usual lavish lifestyle, and therefore are forced (gasp!) to move into a family friend’s empty apartment in Paris. Now, I believe everyone involved in this project, from the writer to the actors, to the editor, does not necessarily want you to like these characters (most of them anyway). They’d rather you were interested in what’s going to happen to them based on their interesting dialogue, and there’s no getting around it: this movie thinks it is full of interesting ideas. It is not For me, someone unfamiliar with the original novel, and honestly, quite over the whole “Spoiled White American Character Travels to Other Country and Walks Around While Talking About the Future” model of storytelling, I gotta say, I was extremely impressed with Pfeiffer, Hedges and the rest of the cast. While most of the humor doesn’t really land, which again, I think is part of the point, there’s a big difference between dry and dreadful. Despite all that, the actors do bring these characters to life, creating an extravaganza of hit-or-miss moments that are a delight to watch for those brief flashes of ingenuity. Valerie Mahaffey, who plays a starry-eyed fan of Pfeiffer’s Frances (from the old NY days) is particularly on fire throughout the piece as one of the only purely good people occupying this apartment. The stellar cast includes the likes of Imogen Poots as Hedge’s ex-fiance, Danielle MacDonald as a medium with a bad attitude, and Tracy Letts, as a disembodied voice of a family member from the past; it is truly and obviously Pfeiffer who steals the show. Pfeiffer has been putting out amazing work over the past few years, obviously reinventing her image and persona in real-time as we watch her tackle demented thematic horror, chew-up-and spit-out Agatha Christie word soup, and star as a superhero in one of the most popular and successful franchises in movie history. In French Exit, she does phenomenal work communicating both the loneliness of her character, as well as the absurdity of some of her hangups. Her quieter moments, with old friends and homeless benchwarmers, are spectacular. Pfeiffer’s own experiences as a woman in Hollywood during an age where it was pretty much “be taken advantage of or rot,” really adds layers to the scenes about motherhood and female self-expectancy in a world with all eyes on them. Hedges is also an amazing counterpart for her to play these illusions off of, creating a very simple yet effective relationship between one character who knows their time is over, and one who isn’t certain what’s going to happen next. French Exit is a film filled with cliché, so much so that they even have a moment where a character poetizes about being a cliché and defends the term as a positive. This version of cliché is romanticized as everlasting and aphoristic, but the flip side is that it can also be seen as commonplace and unoriginal, and the film shares a bit of both of these traits. It’s entertaining with a great ensemble cast, and splendid look and feel, but ultimately, it leads to nowhere all that interesting. It wasn’t even very clever about getting there in the first place, but I don’t hold it against the movie all that much, maybe because or in spite of it, actively pushing for and fighting against these very things from start to finish. Mike Burdge Editor-in-Chief Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.
- PODCAST: Hot Takes - Bo Burnham: Inside
Robby Anderson discusses Bo Burnham's latest "comedy" episode, Inside, with fellow lovers of yuck-yucks, Diana DiMuro and Bernadette Gorman-White. Listen on....
- The White Tiger
Systemic Oppression of the Other, Systemic Oppression of the Self Servitude, COVID-19, and “Family.” When I was very young, my father used to regale me with stories about his childhood in East India, growing up with his older sister Lara and his younger sister Sheela* being shuttled around from small town to small town with his father, my grandfather, who worked as an administrator for the Indian Railways, responsible for the movement of goods trains in a section of the Eastern Railway, traveling throughout the system, touring and inspecting operations activity across dozens of stations. One person my father often spoke of was Bahadur, a young man who worked for his family for a few years when he was a child who became his de facto caretaker. My father idolized Bahadur, a servant who was so much more to him than that, and the stories my father told me about him painted him as an almost mythic creature with mysterious origins who had a profoundly deep impact on his life. It’s been decades since I thought about Bahadur, but he came to mind when I recently watched The White Tiger, Ramin Bahrani’s 2021 adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel of the same name. It’s a sharply written rags-to-riches story about a servant in New Delhi named Balram, (Adarsh Gourav, in a stunning performance in his first leading role) who gradually overcomes his station in life, raising himself up to become a successful entrepreneur through questionably moral means. Balram begins his life as a chauffeur for the wealthy Shah family; he holds the firm belief that it is an honor to perform his duty to serve them, and the family in return frequently claims that they consider him a member of their family, even though, as time goes on, it becomes clear what a disingenuous claim this actually is. So I recently asked my father to recap his memories of Bahadur. This is what he wrote to me: Bahadur was about 17 years old when he floated in across the border from Nepal into Sahibganj, in Bihar, where we were stationed for a few years. He came to my dad’s office at the Railways looking for work. Bapi brought him home, and he and Ma hired him as a kind of ‘utility player.’ I was about 4 years old at the time. Bahadur became my hero. He taught me about life’s everyday secrets. He taught me adventure and courage. He taught me how to revere nature. I ate wild berries with him and listened to him tell me about the behavior of earthworms in our ecosystem. When we moved to Dhanbad, I was playing in the back garden of our house and there was a cobra among the rocks under a tree – a deadly, poisonous snake – and I was poking and prodding it. Bahadur saw what was happening, brought a stick, and killed it, which saved my life. I used to ride on the handlebars of his bicycle to the bazaar, and he bought me toys. I sat with him as he sat near the manhole outside the kitchen while he ate his dinner. There was a stray dog in the neighborhood called Tutey, and somehow Tutey became Bahadur’s dog. He trained him to bring pillows between his teeth while making our beds. I felt Bahadur could do ANYTHING. Strange, but I think I learned confidence from him. Not to fear anything in life. He was family. I never saw him as anything else. When I was 7 years old, he left. I’m not sure of the exact reason, but I think it was because he wanted a permanent job in the Railway organization. Bapi couldn’t find a slot for him in the short term. Bahadur went to Nepal for a short home leave and never returned. Broke my heart. He told me he would come back someday. I’m still waiting for him. My father is 70 years old. He has lived in the United States since 1978. He currently lives in Berkeley, CA, and works as a Vice-President of Wells Fargo Corporate. And he’s still waiting for his beloved Bahadur, who left him when he was a little boy, to come home to Dhanbad. This made me tear up. But I can’t help unpacking some of this story critically. This young man, an immigrant from Nepal, showed up wanting a paying job in the Railways, and my grandfather couldn’t make that happen, so he hired him as a servant. Bahadur ran errands, he took care of my father, he made the beds. My father considered him family. But there it is, right there in my dad's narrative: Bahadur didn’t eat dinner inside the house with the family. Bahadur ate outside the kitchen, seated next to a manhole. And while my heart hurts for my father losing his friend, companion, and protector, I can’t exactly blame Bahadur for leaving. Nobody with the balls to walk into a perfect stranger’s office and ask for a job, would want to remain a servant indefinitely. * In The White Tiger, Balram is from a lower-caste family, living in a village in Laxmangarh, where the Shah family operated as their landlords. Balram was a bright child who could read and write English and was offered a scholarship to a school in New Delhi. He was declared the titular “White Tiger” by his community: an exceptional creature born only once a century. However, due to his father being stuck working low-paid menial jobs with no formal education, there was not enough money to pay their landlords and a prestigious school, and so, Balram’s grandmother forces him to go to work in the village tea stall to earn money for the family. He never returns to school, and his father eventually dies from tuberculosis, because he cannot afford medical care. When Balram becomes a young man, he aspires to become the chauffeur for the Shah’s son Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) who has returned to India from the United States with his New York-raised wife, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) and, he succeeds. Ashok’s father and older brother, both born and raised in India, treat Balram poorly, often asking him to do menial tasks on top of his chauffeuring duties, and they speak to him dismissively or aggressively. Balram is initially willing to accept this as his lot in life; he was born a lower-caste individual, and he considers it an honor to serve his duty to the wealthy family who provides a place for his family to live. The dynamics shift significantly when the Shahs decide to send Ashok and Pinky to New Delhi. The elder Shahs are fundamentally corrupt, a family who has made their millions in the oil industry, and Ashok's father wants to avoid paying taxes. Their method of staying solvent (and not in jail) is bribing politicians to look the other way. Ashok’s job in New Delhi is to keep paying regular visits to various high-ranking members of Parliament, handing over literal bags of cash to them. The Shahs view this as protecting their interests and buying favor (a kind of funhouse mirror version of being a political lobbyist). Back in New Delhi, once it’s just Ashok and Pinky to chauffeur, Balram gets a taste of what it’s like to be treated with kindness. Ashok and Pinky, influenced by their life in New York, don’t believe that servants should be treated like mere peons. Ashok demands that Balram stop calling him “Sir” or “Master.” Pinky tries to ask Balram what he really wants to do with his life, saying that she escaped a depressing future working in her parents’ bodega in Jackson Heights by going to NYU and becoming a licensed chiropractic practitioner, and she sincerely believes that Balram could do anything he wanted to do if he set his mind to it. (Although, Balram keeps insisting that all he wants to do is his duty towards his employers). Even though Ashok and Pinky both tend to speak to Balram in a condescending manner, with the privilege of their Western outlook, they don’t expect him to perform humiliating tasks like massaging their feet with oil (something Ashok’s father demands of Balram when he sees him) or shouting at him not to touch things in their home. They even invite him to celebrate Pinky’s birthday with them, and they tell him that they consider him family, and he begins to genuinely believe it. * My Sheela Aunty lived her entire adult life in Calcutta with her parents. She had a full-time job, working for one of the largest hotel companies in India, but she never quite left home. My dad and my Lara Aunty, always considered this to be a bit of a “failure to launch.” After all, my father immigrated to America after he got married. Lara moved to Paris at the age of twenty with less than $50 to her name to study at the Sorbonne, where she met my uncle Claude. When my grandfather passed away, Sheela Aunty continued to live with my grandmother, and every few years, throughout middle and high school, and well into my college years, my father and I would go to visit them over my winter breaks. Hema was Sheela Aunty and my grandmother’s housekeeper. She was a refugee from Bangladesh who fled over the border as a child during Bangladesh’s war for independence against Pakistan. She never completed high school. She had a daughter but was estranged from her husband, and she supported herself and her daughter with domestic work. I don’t know how Sheela Aunty found Hema, but when I remember my trips to India, Hema is always a huge part of the landscape of my memories. Hema was sharp as a tack, efficient, and sassy. I adored her. We all did. Hema couldn’t speak much English, and I cannot speak a word of Bengali. My parents used to speak it to each other but were lax about ensuring that I learn to speak it myself, only speaking to me in English. After my mother’s death when I was 12 years old, I stopped hearing the language at all at home. But having been immersed since birth around two native speakers, I understand it fluently. So fluently, that I even understand it idiomatically – there are times when I hear colloquial phrases in Bengali that are absolutely untranslatable to English in a coherent way, but on some instinctive level, I know what they mean. Some might find my relationship with Bengali to be fraught, but I’ve never felt that way. Being able to understand it is about 85% of the battle when one is in Calcutta, especially because after 300 years of British rule, most Indians know how to speak English. I get along just fine. Hema and I were always able to communicate with each other pretty thoroughly between her broken English, my fluent comprehension of Bengali, and our mutual love of Bollywood movies. My favorite story of Hema and myself – the definitive one of our relationship – was during one of our winter trips to Calcutta, when the day after we arrived, I was so miserably jetlagged, that I could barely drag myself out of bed to eat the hot breakfast Hema had cooked before I went back to the living room to pass out again on the couch. Hema was bustling around the flat, tidying up, and she walked past me flopping around on the cushions in a semi-fugue state. “Reeya,” Hema said in Bengali. “Reeya! You should take a bath. You’ll feel refreshed with a bath. Shall I run one for you?” I grunted in assent, and she started chuckling. “Okay, I’m getting the water started for you, you delicate American girl,” she said, again in Bengali. “Hey!” I retorted in English. “Don’t be using ‘American’ as an insult with me, Hema!” And then we both were cracking up. A whole conversation, a whole camaraderie, a whole relationship, carrying on a whole conversation in two different languages, with a woman I only saw every few years. When I think of Hema, I think of that moment, and it still makes me laugh. In 2005, my grandmother suffered a major stroke and lost much of her ability to be independent. Hema really stepped up when this happened. Sheela Aunty had to go to work, and my grandmother was not safe alone in her flat on her own given her mobility issues. Hema, who used to only come in the mornings to make breakfast and clean the flat, began staying with my grandmother all day long, while Sheela Aunty was at work. She made sure my grandmother ate lunch, got her out of her chair, and moving slowly around the house, holding her by the arms, to try to maintain what remained of her flexibility and muscle. Eventually, Hema got my grandmother to the point where they could go up to the rooftop terrace of the apartment building and walk the perimeter several times. Hema did this cheerfully and without complaint, because she genuinely loved my grandmother, and genuinely loved Sheela Aunty. If she felt it was her “duty” to help, that was never the impression I got. She gave herself to the task of caretaking for my grandmother as if she was caring for her own mother. Hema was family. I saw her as family. We all saw her as family. She was a godsend during those years. Sheela Aunty paid her extra for her efforts. But every day, when Hema wasn’t actively helping my grandmother, she was cooking, dealing with the laundry, and often down on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floors of the flat. She was family. But was she, really? My grandmother passed away a few years later, and Hema’s job description morphed back into regular housekeeper from being a caretaker. She continued to work for Sheela Aunty, but something in their relationship had profoundly changed. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, and I also wasn’t really in a position to speculate. The last time I visited India was in 2005, after my grandmother’s stroke. I haven’t been back since. My relationship with Sheela Aunty became strained once I graduated from college, as she seemed to fall into a deep depression that she refused to seek treatment for, which then turned into a mild form of agoraphobia and an extreme form of judgmentalism towards basically everyone. Even though no one knows more than me how untreated mental illness can have a calamitous effect on the way one treats their loved ones, talking to Sheela Aunty became increasingly unpleasant and I began ducking her calls and texts. In the last few years, I would communicate with her twice a year: once on her birthday and once on mine. The realities of being a working adult (as opposed to a student who gets nearly a month off from classes at Christmas time) made it hard to justify a 27-hour journey to visit an aunt with whom I didn’t enjoy spending time, and three cousins - my father's older brother's kids - with whom I have nothing in common. (Them: Vijaya - pharmaceutical rep turned stay-at-home mom, Robi - engineer and father, Arpita - anesthesiologist and mother. Me: unmarried, childfree by choice, no post-graduate degree, blue hair, tattoos, musician, long-winded writer of Story Screen essays, underemployed accountant, and very, very American). As a result, I haven’t seen or spoken to my Bangla-English banter buddy Hema in over 15 years, this wonderfully funny, courageous, generous woman under Sheela Aunty’s employ who gave so much to her and to my grandmother. Was Hema ever really my family? Considering how rarely I talk to my actual family in India, it’s hard for me to say at this point. * After what turns out to be a calamitous end to Pinky’s birthday celebration in The White Tiger, Balram’s story becomes quite dark. I am purposely not going to elaborate on the circumstances of what went down because I don’t want to ruin the plot. But Ashok’s father and brother end up paying a visit to Ashok and Pinky in New Delhi after the incident. The two of them resume their humiliating treatment towards Balram, forcing him to massage Ashok’s father’s gross feet again, shoving him and even kicking him at times, and being verbally abusive. Ashok, while perfectly magnanimous towards Balram when his family isn’t present, starts mimicking their treatment of Balram, which appalls Pinky (who already finds the way her husband shrinks into himself and stops speaking his own mind in front of his father and brother to be pathetic and distasteful). Eventually, after her in-laws return to Laxmangarh, Pinky leaves Ashok and returns to New York. Ashok falls into depression, starts drinking excessively and smoking copious amounts of pot, and begins to depend on Balram for emotional support. Balram, used to serving Ashok as a matter of “duty,” is only too happy to comply. “Why are you so kind to me, Balram?” Ashok wails drunkenly one night, “You are my only true friend. You are like my little brother.” But when Ashok’s actual brother returns yet again to coach Ashok through another round of political bribery, Ashok (in his brother’s presence) begins to mistreat Balram yet again. Balram finally begins to understand that as a servant, he will never truly be family to Ashok. And as long as he remains a servant, he will remain locked into a confining lifestyle, dictated by the realities of his birthplace and station, and by the reality of having to provide consistent income for his family back in Laxmangarh. He begins to realize that the societal system is rigged against people like him – and not just for the stereotypical reasons of caste. Balram has not just been harmed by the way the Shah family treats him. Balram has been harmed by the fact that his opportunity for an education was snatched away from him for a multitude of reasons: his father’s ignorance about money, the fact that his grandmother emotionally blackmailed him into working in that tea stall to help provide for his family, by the fact that he was conditioned to be a servant - not just by societal expectations of his caste and class - but by his own family’s attitude about where they stood within the hierarchy of Indian society. He was conditioned to believe that being a chauffeur for a rich family was the highest honor that he could achieve. The farthest up he could climb. He never once thought that he was capable of more in his life because every aspect of the world he lived in conspired to keep him down. And it is once Balram makes this realization, and remembers his childhood prophecy that he is in fact the famed, once-in-a-lifetime “White Tiger,” that he plans his escape from the fate of being a servant for life. The way that Balram extricates himself from a life of servitude and becomes a spectacularly successful entrepreneur and business owner is also quite grim. He flees to Bangalore and establishes a fleet of professional drivers to service the booming tech industry there. (He makes a point of saying that he treats his employees like employees, with the respect an employee deserves. He has them sign contracts when he hires them, and he never once refers to them as his “family”). I am again going to purposefully avoid elaborating on how he succeeds in becoming a successful business owner, so as not to ruin the plot, because honestly, everyone should watch The White Tiger. But by the end of the film, we realize that the thesis of the whole story is that once a slave realizes he is a slave, that is what allows him to free himself. Balram makes a (very welcome, in my book) snarky comment about the fantastical rags-to-riches tale of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire at one point, saying that in real life, there is no sparkly celebrity with a million dollars who will pull you out of poverty. One must take ownership of their own life in order to succeed. One must be willing to believe that they deserve better than what forces outside of their control - family, exorbitant wealth vs. extreme poverty, the entire culture of servitude that exists in India - exert on their lives. In the end, Balram is living a version of the American dream. But it’s actually the Indian dream. “White people are on their way out,” Balram tells a colleague, “It’s the brown man and the yellow man’s world now.” * On January 6, 2021, while my boyfriend and I sat dumbfounded on our couch watching CNN’s coverage of the Capitol Riot, my phone rang. It was my father. At nearly 9 pm. When my father calls that late on a weeknight, with the three-hour time difference between us, it’s never good news. But that night when I answered the phone, I assumed that he was calling to talk about the utter insanity that had happened in Washington DC that day (which, admittedly, was NOT good news). But I was so incredibly wrong. “Reeya,” my dad said, “Sheela is dead.” Sheela Aunty, my father’s baby sister, had been found dead in her flat that morning by Hema when she came in to do her usual cook-and-clean. Sheela Aunty was only 67 years old. I couldn’t believe it. “What happened? How could this happen?” And then it dawned on me. “Did she have COVID?” “I think she did,” my dad said. He had video-chatted with her only a few days prior, and she had looked pale and drawn and exhausted. She was having difficulty talking because she couldn’t seem to catch her breath, and when she did breathe, she was wheezing heavily. My dad obviously couldn’t diagnose his sister in Calcutta from Berkeley over WhatsApp, but we had been living in a global pandemic for nearly a year, and she certainly was showing symptoms of the coronavirus. The thing about Sheela Aunty is that well before she fell into depression and quasi-agoraphobia, she was afraid of doctors. In fact, she was always afraid of doctors, for as long as I can remember. When she got sick, she relied on a homeopath. During one of my trips to Calcutta, I was struck by a horrendous case of food poisoning, and I couldn’t even keep water down. I was so weak that I couldn’t hold my head upright. I probably should have been taken to the hospital for intravenous hydration. But Sheela Aunty was afraid of doctors, and so she popped over to the neighborhood homeopath, who gave her some random tincture that I was forced to swallow every hour, and a packet of foul-tasting electrolyte powder that she stirred into glasses of water and had my dad administer to me. (To this day I do not know why my father didn’t intervene and get me to a hospital, but no matter now; obviously, I survived. Still, WTF Dad?) So from what my dad, Lara Aunty in Paris, and my doctor cousin Arpita in Calcutta could surmise, Sheela Aunty began showing symptoms of COVID-19 about a week prior to her death, and instead of going to a doctor (or even calling her niece, Dr. Arpita, the hot-shot anesthesiologist, for a reality check), she went to that goddamn homeopath and came home with some tinctures or powders or some such bullshit, and then she died in the middle of the night from what the medical examiner determined was “cardiorespiratory failure.” (“Yeah,” my neurobiologist godsister in Boston told me when I called to give her the news, “That’s what happens to people who die of COVID. They literally cannot breathe.”) In their grief, Lara Aunty and my dad began to blame, of all people, Hema for Sheela’s death. Why hadn’t she intervened? Why didn’t she care enough to do anything to help? Obviously, my dad said, she didn’t give a shit. “Why would you say that about Hema?” I asked my dad. “Remember how good she was to Dida after her stroke? Why are you insinuating that she let Sheela Aunty die?” “Hema was a trouble-maker,” my dad said. “She was very difficult. Over the past ten years or so, she kept blackmailing Sheela all the time.” I was confused. “What do you mean by ‘blackmail’? Did Sheela Aunty have some sort of secret life that Hema knew about or something?” “No, no,” my dad said dismissively. “She was always asking Sheela for more and more money. Her daughter was having a baby and having a difficult pregnancy, the cost of living was going up, she was taking on more responsibility because Sheela was getting older, Hema herself had arthritis but couldn’t afford to stop working, so she was always trying to get more money. Blackmailing. Sheela would complain to me about it all the time. To Lara too – ask Lara Aunty. She felt Hema was taking advantage of her kindness and always asking for more, more, more.” This felt truly bizarre. Why was it such an affront that Hema, who had worked for Sheela Aunty for decades, should ask for a cost of living pay increase? Especially, when she had lost the bonus payment she received during the years she took care of my grandmother? Why was it offensive that Hema would ask Sheela Aunty for support during her daughter’s difficult pregnancy? Why was it offensive to point out that Hema was taking on extra responsibility because Sheela Aunty’s mental health was taking a toll on her physical health, especially after she retired (she reportedly left her flat so rarely that walking up a flight of stairs would leave her back aching and her lungs burning)? Why was it offensive to point out that as a low-income earning domestic worker, Hema, could not afford to stop working even though her own health was suffering? That isn’t blackmailing. That isn’t even emotional blackmail. That was a woman advocating for herself to her employer. Not only that, it was a woman who went above and beyond to take care of my sick grandmother while Sheela Aunty was still working full time, and she did so from the moment of my grandmother’s stroke, until the day of my grandmother’s death. What she did was nothing short of heroic, in my eyes. Sheela Aunty never considered this fact once – that Hema took care of my grandmother when she couldn’t – and instead, she had the audacity to complain to her siblings in France and America that Hema was asking for a raise? Sheela Aunty never married, never had kids, and she lived a frugal life. She owned her flat outright and had considerable savings, investments, and a pension. She could have more than afforded to pay Hema a little bit more – or a LOT more, given what Hema had done for my grandmother. “We never treated our servants like they were dirt,” my father told me after he watched The White Tiger. “We were not like the Shah family in this film. We treated them well. We cared for them. It might have been a little relic of that old British colonial noblesse oblige, but still, we took care of them, because we valued what they did for us. They really were like extended family.” And yet now, Lara Aunty and my father speak about Hema as if she fucking murdered Sheela Aunty. As if by virtue of asking for a raise, Hema somehow kept Sheela Aunty from seeking treatment for COVID. (If you ask me, it’s the bloody homeopath who should be blamed here.) I realized, at this moment, just how deeply my father and Lara Aunty had been steeped in the societal conditioning of their upbringing in India. My father has lived in the United States for over 40 years. Lara Aunty has lived in France for nearly 50 years. Most of the time, I would describe the two of them as more Western than Indian, both in outlook and worldview, especially after spending more than half of their lives living abroad. However, it's clear that on the topic of servant culture in India - a culture and practice that does not exist or function, structurally, in the West - they can't turn those cultural blinders off. They can't quite see someone like Hema as a real person. They are like Ashok and Pinky in The White Tiger: convinced of their enlightened, liberal sensibilities, they believe they acquired in America and France, but in the end, still condescending, insulting, and disrespectful of someone's humanity just by virtue of their servitude. * In the nearly six months since Sheela Aunty died of COVID-19, India has seen a horrendous surge of COVID deaths. A second wave of the pandemic has arrived in India with multiple new variants of the virus cropping up with deadly results. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a member of a Hindu fundamentalist political party. He cares more about turning India, a Democratic country founded on secular principles, into a Hindu country, - oppressing its not-insignificant Muslim minority - than he does about the health of his people. He bragged and boasted last year that the COVID-19 response in India was one of the best in the world. He took credit for that claim even though he actually did nothing to prepare to see India through an inevitable second wave (because in pandemics, there is always a second wave). This is proving to be a living nightmare – supply-chain issues are causing shortages in oxygen, hospitals across the country are desperately sending out distress signals, saying they are running out of beds and do not have enough oxygen to treat the thousands of newly-infected citizens. There are so many deaths in India now that there are mass cremations. Families who lose loved ones to COVID don’t even have the ability to give them dignified end-of-life care, a proper funeral service, a measure of closure. Modi refuses to acknowledge the oxygen shortage, and members of his political party have begun to threaten activists who speak up about the calamity that is Modi’s supposed brilliant COVID response preparedness. A month ago, in Calcutta, my cousin Vijaya, her husband, and her teenage daughter, all tested positive for COVID-19. Because Vijaya has access to one of the best hospitals in the city, (her sister Arpita works there as an anesthesiologist) she and her husband were given beds, access to the ICU, and oxygen, which they both needed. Vijaya’s daughter Malini experienced comparatively less severe symptoms and was sent to a quarantine center for ten days, followed up by another two weeks of isolation at Arpita’s house. While she was in the quarantine center, Malini texted me frequently about how scared and lonely she was, and I did my best to comfort her. “I am so angry at God,” she kept texting me, “God has ruined my happy family.” How do you tell a frightened ninth-grader who lives a very sheltered life in Calcutta (compared to the life I lived in San Francisco when I was 15 years old) that she’s angry at the wrong person, without sounding like a fucking asshole? As much as I desperately wanted to say “Malini, I don’t believe in God. There is no God. Modi is the problem. Modi is the one who has done this to your family. Be angry at Modi,” I just couldn’t. It wasn’t going to make her less scared. And it wasn’t going to make a lick of difference. We already had one relative die of COVID this year; I don’t think this kid wants to hear a political rant from her absentee righteous American Reeya Aunty right now. Vijaya has since been released from the hospital and is with Malini at Arpita’s house. I hear that Vijaya’s husband is on the mend as well. They are lucky because Arpita is a doctor. All over Facebook and Twitter, I see desperate pleas from Indian friends of mine from college: “Does anyone know if there are any beds in any hospitals within a 50 km radius of Pune right now?” “Does anyone know if there are any hospitals in Mumbai with oxygen?” Asking for family, they all said. I went to college with wealthy-ass motherfuckers; you don’t get into the kind of dubiously prestigious name-brand school that I went to, as an international student, without coming from money. They were resorting to social media to save their families. Their wealth cannot help them now. This is a full-blown catastrophe. In a recent editorial by Arundhati Roy in The Guardian, she wrote: On the night of 22 April, 25 critically ill coronavirus patients on high-flow oxygen died in one of Delhi’s biggest private hospitals… where shall we look for solace? For science? Shall we cling to numbers? How many dead? How many recovered? When will the peak come? On 27 April, the report was 323,144 new cases, 2,771 deaths. The precision is somewhat reassuring. Except – how do we know? Tests are hard to come by, even in Delhi… if Delhi is breaking down, what should we imagine is happening in villages in Bihar, in Uttar Pradesh, in Madhya Pradesh? Where tens of millions of workers from the cities, carrying the virus with them, are fleeing home to their families, traumatized by their memory of Modi’s national lockdown in 2020. It was the strictest lockdown in the world, announced with only four hours’ notice. It left migrant workers stranded in cities with no work, no money to pay their rent, no food, and no transport. Many had to walk hundreds of miles to their homes in far-flung villages. Hundreds died along the way. This time around, although there is no lockdown, the workers have left while transport is still available, while trains and buses are still running. They’ve left because they know that even though they make up the engine of the economy in this huge country, when a crisis comes, in the eyes of this administration, they simply don’t exist… these are villages where people die of easily treatable diseases like diarrhoea and tuberculosis. How are they to cope with Covid? Are Covid tests available to them? Is there oxygen? More than that, is there love? Forget love, is there even concern? There isn’t. Because there is only a heart-shaped hole filled with cold indifference where India’s public heart should be. "India..." Balram says more than once in The White Tiger, his words dripping with the venom of bitter cynicism, "...the biggest democracy in the world." As I hear more about what is happening in India right now, I keep thinking of those words. India has always been so proud of its status as a democracy after centuries of colonial rule, and yet, the foundation of Indian society is still built on the principles of feudalism, racism, and colorism, and the man currently in charge is a fascist demagogue who is literally watching the dead bodies of his citizens burn in mass cremations. The workers Roy is writing about in her editorial are people like Balram. They are people who have realized that no one cares to truly take care of them. While Aravind Adiga certainly had no idea when he was writing his novel that 12 years later there would be a global pandemic, nor did Ramin Bahrani know while he was directing The White Tiger that the film’s release would be pushed back almost a year due to said global pandemic, here we are, just like with The Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, and Judas and the Black Messiah – being presented with a film that inadvertently resonates with the current political moment. I have to wonder if the workers Roy is referencing in her piece are having a similar awakening to Balram’s? Are they beginning to understand how they live in a country that doesn’t see their humanity, or that they are trapped in a system that perpetuates a culture that keeps certain classes of people down and self-reinforces that oppression? Do they realize they need to truly recognize their own fate, as low-income workers, in poverty, that reduces them to the level of slavery, and that only by recognizing their slavery can they change things? I find myself thinking about Hema. I don’t know where she is now that she no longer has Sheela Aunty as her employer, now that my father and Lara Aunty have turned on her. I find myself remembering that time she jokingly called me a “delicate American girl” in Bengali, and I wonder what she would think of me now, writing an essay that might result in me getting canceled by my entire damn family. I worry about her because someone has to. I hope she’s okay. I hope she’s found another job. I hope she doesn’t get COVID. If she does and she dies of it, that news will never reach me. I will never know what happens to her now. I have to live with that. And then this gets me thinking about my father’s beloved Bahadur. The mythical tough Gurkha, the young man from Nepal who wandered into my father’s life and changed it so profoundly. The man who abandoned my father nearly six decades ago. The man my father says he is still waiting for. The man my father says was family to him, even though he ate his dinner next to a manhole outside the kitchen. The man whose reason for leaving is still somewhat of a mystery to my father. But I know why Bahadur left. I am certain of it. Bahadur came to my grandfather looking for a career in the Railways. He left because he likely realized that as long as he stayed, he would always remain a servant. He knew that no matter how well my father’s family treated him (and I know my grandparents; I know they never abused him), no matter how attached my father was to him, no matter how much he loved my father, that if he stayed, he was signing up for a life he did not want. Whatever he was escaping from in Nepal when he first walked into my grandfather’s office was preferable to a life of servitude, of self-reinforcing notions of “duty,” of conditioning himself to believe that this was the best he could do with his life. But instead of resorting to the extreme measures Balram does to free himself from this fate in The White Tiger, Bahadur did the only thing he could: he went home. He took his power, and he walked away. And after watching The White Tiger and seeing the way that COVID has destroyed the people of my mother’s land, and witnessing the vicious way my father and Lara Aunty turned on Hema after Sheela Aunty died, I can’t help but admire Bahadur for his courage. He got out before he slipped too far in. I don’t know if Bahadur is still alive now, but if he is, I wish I knew how to reach him. I need to tell him that I believe he is that once-in-a-lifetime creature. That he is, indeed, the OG White Tiger. *Names of family members have been changed throughout this piece. Reeya Banerjee Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.
- PODCAST: Hot Takes - A Quiet Place Part II
Robby is joined by guests, Diana DiMuro and Sophia Acquisto, to talk about A Quiet Place Part II, the anticipated sequel to the righteously awesome 2018 high concept horror film. In the spirit of more action oriented takes on horror originals, the film revisits the themes and rules of the first chapter while aggressively enhancing the world and its tensions. So, how's the whole thing all together?? Listen on....
- X-Marks the Anniversary
2021 marks 15 years since the release of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. This movie was the final installment in the original X-Men trilogy and the biggest legacy of this movie is it took five years and a soft reboot to save the franchise. So what didn’t work and why did this movie get such a bad reputation? The first and biggest issue is that the source material it was trying to adapt isn’t conducive to film. The arc known as the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” came out after five years of build-up and storytelling. So many moving parts were in play prior to this story, and film is not the right medium to capture this. Comic books are an incredibly serialized medium with decades of continuity. A good comparison is something like an old-fashioned soap opera. In both, decades pass and the characters never really deviate too far from their original concept. Characters can die and come back, characters get rapidly aged or de-aged, or they can look completely different. Television is the only format that comes close to approximating the storytelling in comic books. Films take much longer to produce and they usually need to tell a story in a finite amount of time. Disney has adapted the serialized nature of comics to great success in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Every year, 1-3 movies will come out, and plots are raised and resolved much later. This long-form serialized storytelling method was mastered in the comic book format by none other than longtime Uncanny X-Men writer, Chris Claremont. Claremont wrote the X-Men for sixteen years. During his time, he redefined the genre of superhero fiction and produced some of the most critically acclaimed superhero comics of our lives. In particular, the one from which this movie takes its material…the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” At face value, the 1980’s “Dark Phoenix Saga” seems like it could be a sexist story about how a woman cannot handle power/agency. Not long before this arc, founding X-Man Jean Grey (AKA Marvel Girl) had been transformed into the immensely powerful Phoenix. However, the reason Jean goes “evil” and becomes the Dark Phoenix has less to do with her inability to cope with her newfound powers, and more to do with the machinations of the men around her. She is implied to have been sexually assaulted by the sleazy villain Mastermind and used by the evil capitalist villains the Hellfire Club. The world around her was just not ready to deal with a woman with such power and proceeded to break her. This movie version takes the surface-level approach where Jean Grey is a side character in what should be her movie. The original Fox X-Men movies centered around Wolverine above everyone else. The story of the struggles and pain of Jean Grey is meant to motivate the male hero. We see how hard this is for Wolverine, while Jean mostly has to wear black contacts and look tortured. The other issue this movie has is trying to adapt a second, different, story arc, from 30+ years after “Dark Phoenix.” That arc is Joss Whedon’s “Gifted” arc of Astonishing X-Men. This arc covers the concept of a “cure” for being a mutant. So in addition to taking on a nine-issue arc that had almost five years of serialized build-up, this movie attempts a completely different storyline with a completely different cast. The movie was set up to fail, with only one hour and 44 minutes to handle what should have been a season’s long arc on television. The movie also attempts to introduce far too many new characters for the third installment of a franchise. Kelsey Grammar’s Beast, who in the comics is a founding member of the team, is finally introduced and given center-stage. Ben Foster’s Warren Worthington III/Angel is also a founding X-Man who comes in to promptly show off the special effects of having large wings. Additionally, the show also continues the tradition of throwing in B and C-List X-Men characters as wordless cameos only to kill them off or recast them in successive movies. With a budget of $210 million dollars, this movie was the most expensive film ever made when it came out. The bloated amount of special effects and characters only goes on to underserve the characters who should be the film’s focus. Through an odd twist of fate, the same writer, Simon Kinberg, would get a second chance to redo this adaptation years later in 2019’s Dark Phoenix. The penultimate outing for the Fox-owned X-Men franchise before the official Disney takeover, Dark Phoenix, served to mostly...exist. It was the fairly uninspired final outing for this series and everyone realized that maybe, just maybe, this story can’t be done justice in film. Outside of film, the story has been adapted twice for animation. In X-Men: The Animated Series we get possibly the closest to a comics-accurate adaptation, done in 22-minute installments over the course of a season. Wolverine and the X-Men, the most recent X-Men cartoon, attempts a happy medium between the film version and the comics version. It’s unknown what tactic the Marvel Cinematic Universe will take now that Disney has acquired Fox, but we do know that they have two failed attempts at this iconic story to give them pause on where to proceed next. But then again, the recent hit show WandaVision stole the idea and copied it to enormous success! Marco Rummo Marco is a comedian, writer, and underemployed New Yorker trying to make it in this damn world. He enjoys fruitlessly pursuing love on dating apps and keeping track of all of the movies he’s seen on Letterboxd.
- VIDEO: Willy's Wonderland Review
In our latest video, Robby Anderson reviews the Kevin Lewis/Nic Cage spooky joint, Willy's Wonderland. Watch on....
- PODCAST: Overdrinkers - Cocktail
Mike Burdge is joined by living legend, and noted tiki shirt thespian, Tim Guy, to discuss the 1988 runaway hit that forever seeped into the bar culture consciousness of America: Cocktail. Is the movie good? Does it suck? Who the hell are these people? Who made this? Is that how it works? Egg?? Get the real answers from two bartenders/cocktail enthusiasts. Listen on....
- Mainstream Something Else
Spoilers for Gia Coppola’s Mainstream Ahead In a world where opinions are getting cheaper by the day, it’s difficult to say, or create, anything that hasn’t been said before. Consequently, it goes without saying that in the era of social media, if you’re thinking it, it’s already been thought of. But while this sentiment is echoed across all media of creative art, film is usually the most celebrated when it acknowledges the communal experiences of the human condition. It doesn’t matter that these ideas and journeys have been shared countless times: the act of doing so is the source of its value. So when a movie like Gia Coppola’s Mainstream comes along and attempts to wax poetic on the current state of social media addiction we’re facing as a species, the success of the film doesn’t necessarily hinge on the why of it all but more on the how. The most important aspect of telling a story is creating a realistic space for the story to unfold and then filling that space with characters who have something to say. But when nobody’s saying anything, the value of the journey diminishes. Mainstream fancies itself a soapbox for the plight of today’s cell-phone obsessed youth, but it might as well be shouting into the void. The film opens with what you’re led to believe is one of our protagonist’s short films: an old-fashioned sepia-toned series of intertitles questioning whether Frankie (a mis-used Maya Hawke) will find what she’s searching for artistically, if she’ll ever get over the guilt she harbors for her father’s death, and if she can trust the enigmatic Link (the film’s synthetic heart, Andrew Garfield). The first few minutes of Mainstream are stylistically juxtaposed to the remainder of the film, but I don’t believe that choice was artistically made. This sloppy beginning begs a deeper conversation between Coppola and the art she personally makes (especially with her own history of her father - Gian-Carlo Coppola - tragically dying in a boating accident before she was even born), but the film never dives into anything nearly as interesting as the relationship between women and art, and if anything, the film paints women-who-create as a blight on the artistic world...but more on that later. After this false-start of a beginning, we learn (through a series of exposition dumps) that Frankie has been out in Hollywood for a seemingly long time, much to her mother’s dismay. She’s out there just trying to make her “art” happen, and her attempts just happen to be a handful of YouTube videos that aren’t garnering much attention. She works at a hole-in-the-wall magic-themed bar, The Magic Alley, with her (apparently) only friend, Jake, and is clearly stuck in a cycle of ennui. Nothing much is happening for good ole Frankie, until she is just hanging out at some random ole mall for no good reason except to meet Link, who she has chosen to film interacting with mall-shoppers while dressed as a mouse (or maybe a rat?) trying to sell cheese. He notices her filming him and then decides to, essentially, perform for her, giving her the material for her most successful YouTube upload to date. And when she sees him, randomly, on the LA streets a short while later, she’s desperate to collaborate with him again. So, what is it you’re into, Frankie? Is it making art or getting clicks, likes, and comments? And can they not be mutually exclusive? Mainstream can’t seem to figure it out. After Frankie and Link decide to become content creating partners (with the inclusion of barman Jake as their trusty writer) they home in on their message to the world: phones bad, screen addiction bad, society is full of idiots - and they’re the ones to bring this revolutionary thinking to the masses. They craft a “character,” a YouTube personality if you will, for Link to play called “No One Special” who “teaches” internet users to not listen to him on his philosophies, because he’s just like them: No One Special. But all the while, they’re copying YouTube’s most prolific and successful cash cows. Of course, this blows up online, and the team’s success becomes an ouroboros of philosophical and moral debate: how can you judge what you hate if you’re prospering off the success from exploiting those you claim to be brainwashed? See, I get the movie (if I may be so bold to assume), but I find the film, for lack of a better descriptor, tragically sloppy. Let’s get into what I loved about the film first: Andrew Garfield as Link as No One Special. This movie belongs to him. The costume, makeup, and hair departments dressed him to the nines, and he’s never looked better on screen (at least that I can remember, which is saying something). His commitment to the character in all its manic glory is superb. See, Link isn’t even who he is. Poor ole Link (who is living off the streets and doesn’t even own a cellphone) is really some wealthy kid who’s reinvented himself after facing charges from his pyro past...but SHHHHH! Don’t tell Frankie! Apparently, his hidden past is very upsetting to her when she finds out...even though she never asks him about his past, and she’s seemingly totally fine hitching her post to a handsome stranger...but, this movie wants you to ignore that and Frankie’s intentions for her anger towards Link, because, well, none of it really matters. Regardless, No One Special is, in fact, very special. The manner in which Garfield moves and commands the screen is captivating, and Mainstream is at its best when he’s on screen, especially so when his presence is amplified by emojis and classic social media filters. Despite Mainstream’s Charlie Chaplin-esque opening (sure, film good - and, again, internet bad), the film is really trying to lambast current social media content and creation by using footage manipulation to highlight how stupid it is. Buuuuuuuuuut...this is when the film is the most fun and engaging to watch. In fact, it’s why I was so excited to watch Mainstream in the first place. But that brings me to another disappointment: the trailer for Mainstream truly is a best-of reel of its best content. Its manic, hyper-filtered premise is what drew me to the film, and it's the majority of what I enjoyed while watching it. Is the film, or Coppola herself, telling me I’m dumb for liking those aspects best? If so, why make the rest of the film such a hot mess? After No One Special and his team fall from their peak (hosting a YouTube game show where they challenge their contestants to choose between either a reward for abandoning their cellphones or performing a ridiculous challenge to win their phone back), they decide to change their show’s format by challenging their audience members to buck social media’s hold on them. Obviously, forcing random people to alter their interactions with the outside world through social media doesn’t seem like a great idea (free will, anyone?), but No One Special forces one woman to rail against Big Makeup by posting an unedited photo of herself - one that shows her natural, birthmarked, face with the world as opposed to the make-up covered selfie she originally posted. (The film doesn’t want you to think too hard about how they obtained the original selfie, because, it truly doesn’t make sense that she would have had the same picture on her phone sans makeup, considering she said it was make-up and not a filter...but, whatever.) This forceful betrayal of trust lands No One Special, and team, in the hot seat for subjugating this young woman, Isabelle, to abuse and public humiliation, and a spot on a round table of YouTuber influencers who question his behavior. This is, perhaps, the strangest and most complicated scene of the film. No One Special has been invited to a morning-talk-show-style roundtable interview by some-such character played by Johnny Knoxville and propagated with other real-life YouTube personalities, including, but not limited to: Patrick Starr, Desmond Is Amazing, and Jake Paul. They immediately chastise NOS for causing Isabelle pain, to which he rebuts that it is the rest of society (especially the female, and sometimes female-presenting, content creators who use makeup as a means for content creation) who led Isabelle to believe she wasn’t good enough to begin with. This is a sentiment that I can get behind when it comes to self-worth, but the implication that the majority of female content-creators are only good for make-up tutorials, and that they don’t do a good job of imparting to their bases that they use make-up as a means of self-expression and art rather than a means of gender-imprisonment (or the argument that the viewers are too stupid to tell the difference) is extremely strange to watch...especially coming from a female director/writer such as Coppola. If Frankie is supposed to be a foil for Coppola (which is hard to ignore considering they’re both women who consider themselves to be artists who have both tragically lost their fathers), it’s telling that Frankie doesn’t wear make-up (even to cover up the scar she obtained from her father’s fatal car-crash) and seems to dress androgynously. Is Coppola trying to say that women who conform to societal female beauty stereotypes are damaging to the female population, or is she trying to say that men who attempt to teach women how to feel about themselves and how they should react to the world-at-large the problem? Honestly, I don’t think the film knows either...or even necessarily put much thought into it at all. It’s even stranger that the only female-driven performance at The Magic Alley revolves around an older female performer/comedian using Frankie as a stand-in for a baby...so, female content-creators are only good for make-up or babies...gotcha. Oh, except for you, Coppola, who apparently is lifting the scales from our eyes by showing us the way….cool. During the roundtable interview, No One Special claims that Isabelle couldn't have been too broken up about her tribulation on the game-show, because she later tried to hook-up with him after the taping, boldly stating that if she still felt she had something to prove to herself by sleeping with him, then that was no life to be living. She should find the validation for her own life’s worth from within. At this point, barman/writer Jake has already left the team, appalled that they humiliated a woman and then chose to edit the footage to make it seem like she made the decision to post the selfie herself. And after Link’s performance during the interview, even Frankie’s patience with No One Special’s prophetic teachings is beginning to wane. So when No One Special gets picked up for a special live YouTube event for the last scene of the film, Frankie is already checked out. And when it’s revealed that Isabelle has taken her own life after No One Special’s comments (her life wasn’t worth living, remember?), Frankie disconnects entirely. This happens simultaneously to Frankie finding out that Link has been lying about his past, and shortly after Jake confesses that he’s in love with her. (Yes, that was exceedingly and stupidly obvious the entire time and we’re meant to believe that these characters are too stunted to express, and also understand, said feelings.) Frankie has just been too blinded by Andrew Garfield’s good looks to realize the better option had been under her nose the entire time. Isabelle’s death is meant to be THE climax of the film, changing Frankie’s opinion of Link and the outcome of how the audience is meant to view him as well. But it’s confusing that we’re also shown Frankie’s distrust of Link’s character through her reaction to discovering his true life’s story. Why is Link’s past important, if he’s just a shit person at the core anyway? And why do we need to see the resolution of Frankie joining up with Jake at the impromptu memorial for Isabelle if women are supposed to be bucking the societal pressures of women having to please any man? Just, why, Why, WHY? And that’s my main dissatisfaction with the film as a whole: it can’t quite seem to keep straight which messages it would like to impart. And it doesn’t help that Frankie is one of the most boring lead characters I’ve ever had the displeasure of watching. She’s a woman who barely has any core drive outside of servicing the story, and because she was so unbelievable and shallow, the story crumbles around her. There’s a great line from a classic film that I think everyone has heard at one point or another: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” (Thanks, Ferris.) Well, life moves super fast now, and perhaps this film could have been a rallying cry a few years ago, but at this point, I think we’re the most discerning between what constitutes good and bad content that we’ve ever been, and plenty of people (both old and young) are striving to create good content that’s empowering to all involved. Sure, we’ll always be subject to stupid, unnecessary, and even harmful content, but as a society we’ve become more (I say more, not adequately) adept at treating each other with kindness and have begun to cleanse the internet of those whose main intent is to harm. I think we’re on an upward trend of support, and perhaps I’m just a bit naive, but I think we’re taking the filter back. We’ve learned, especially in this last year, to cut each other a little slack and enjoy one another’s existence in its natural state. It’s a shame that Mainstream came out after a period of intense worldwide self-reflection and isolation. Social Media moves pretty fast these days. If you don’t post while your message is relevant, you could miss your opportunity. Last week’s trending video is this week’s forgotten folly. I’ll tell you what is worth watching though: that Mainstream trailer. I think you can find it on YouTube. Bernadette Gorman-White Managing Editor Bernadette graduated from DePauw University in 2011 with a Film Studies degree she’s not currently using. She constantly consumes television, film, and all things pop culture and will never be full. She doesn’t tweet much, but give her a follow @BeaGorman and see if that changes.
- PODCAST: Hot Takes - Spiral: From the Book of Saw
He's gonna tear this city apart, even though he can't get anything done if there's no one on the force he can trust, but that was just a diversion and he needs everybody on this case. His name is Chris "Master of Twisted Horror" Rock, and he is here to unleash the next chapter in the Saw Franchise, which is a book apparently. Robby Anderson and Mike Burdge discuss. Listen on....
- M as in Mirror
I have grown a bit bored of the crime genre. The media landscape is flooded with podcasts, documentaries, films, and books all dedicated to murder, serial killers, and true crime. The last straw was the film, The Little Things, released earlier this year starring Denzel Washington, Jared Leto, and Rami Malek’s crazy eyes. It tried so hard to recreate the vibe of great shows like Mindhunters and True Detective, which showed that those who investigate the crazy can end up going crazy themselves, and instead, was a stylish-looking snooze fest. Shows like Hannibal and Dexter romanticize serial killers in interesting ways but I can't help but ask myself, "Should I be rooting for this person?" Even True Detective tried to ask big philosophical questions but it mostly got lost in its ideas rather than answer any of them. I was ready to give up on all things crime until recently, when I sat down to watch the 1931 German film, M. This 90-year-old thriller reminded me that the crime genre can be entertaining and thought-provoking. Its ending deals with issues like the culpability of the insane and society’s trust in government, better than anything I’ve seen in the modern crime genre. Its comments on these issues in 1931 are haunting, given Germany’s history at that time. The film takes place in Berlin, Germany. The city is on edge after a string of children go missing. The film opens with children playing in the streets, singing a sick song about a “nasty man in black,” coming to get them. Parents wait anxiously for their children to return home from school. We see children exiting a school, some leave with their parents, while others walk home alone. A young girl walks alone, bouncing a ball on a wall with a poster of the names of two children still missing. A shadowy figure begins to talk to her. We then see a mother preparing a table for dinner, looking at a clock, waiting for her child to come home. She sees other children coming home and asks them if they have seen her daughter; they say no. As she waits, we see the young girl with this mysterious man buying her a balloon and walking her around the city. These two scenes: the mysterious man with the young girl and the waiting mother, are edited in such a way that shows them happening at the same time. The viewer at this point knows that something bad will happen. This is confirmed seconds later when we see the balloon floating off into the sky and the ball bouncing away with no one going after it. We see nothing and yet we know this man is our killer. The director, Fritz Lang, leaves it up to the audience to imagine the grim details. He is more interested in showing us the aftermath of these events. We watch the killer writing an anonymous letter to the newspapers taking credit for the murders and promising to do it again. The police try to gather clues from the letter like fingerprints and handwriting analysis, all standard procedural crime narratives. As the investigation continues, the people of Berlin are restless, they begin to blame one another. Any man caught conversing with a small child is labeled a suspect and publicly attacked. The film builds this tense atmosphere between the public who are frightened and the local police and commissioners desperate to find answers. In another scene where we see two different events take place at the same time, the local authorities are trying to figure out how to move their investigation forward, while local crime bosses try to figure out how to keep the authorities out of their business. With the police leaving no stone unturned, a local brother is raided and the crime bosses are also trying to figure out their next move. In these scenes, we go back and forth between the authorities and the crime bosses, both stumped on how to handle the situation. The authorities decide to investigate recently released asylum patients, while the crime bosses decide to create a manhunt using the local homeless population. The police come close after they check the records of a man named Hans Beckert and search his house while he is not home. They discover evidence that he wrote the anonymous letter and wait for his return. This race between the authorities and gangsters to find the killer is thrilling to watch and you don’t know who you should root for. Hans Beckert’s fate seems almost certain as he walks the streets of Berlin. We see him notice a young girl looking at toys in a window and his face changes. He begins to look worried and troubled. It is almost like the monster within is creeping out and he is trying to keep it in. A groundbreaking technique this movie uses with Han’s Beckert’s character is a Leitmotif. This is a short musical sound or song that is associated with a person, place, or idea. In the film, Beckert’s character whistles: “In the Hall of the Mountain King” by Edvard Greig. This recognizable tune is whistled by the mysterious man at the beginning of the film, confirming Beckert is our child killer. The use of the Leitmotif builds the horror and dread of the film, knowing that when Beckert begins to whistle it, he is going to do something horrible. It also leads to his demise as he befriends another young girl and begins to whistle this tune. It is recognized by the blind homeless man who sold him the balloon earlier in the film. He tells his counterparts and they begin to track the man. They follow him from afar and in an attempt to not lose him, one of the men writes an M on his hand with chalk and brushes up against the back of his coat. M for Murderer. What happens next is an interesting chase sequence in which Beckert runs into an office building to hide from his pursuers. The beggars call the crime bosses for help and they rush to the scene. They tie up the doormen and torture them for information. This leads them to find Beckert, but one of the doormen trips the alarm system and they must rush to escape before the police arrive. They take Beckert to an undisclosed location. The police arrive just as the criminals are leaving and in the frenzy, the police capture one of the gangsters. The police think the gangsters came to rob the place. They use questionable interrogation techniques to get the gangster to admit that they were searching for the child killer and he reveals where they take him. It is interesting how the film shows that even though the gangsters find the child killer they torture the doormen to do so. They are criminals so this can be expected. The police, however, are shown to be just as bad with their interrogation. This highlights a real breakdown in society as a whole. Those in authority are bad and the citizens are bad. The criminals don’t trust authority and the authorities don’t trust the public. They say so earlier in the film when trying to figure out how to hunt for the child killer. They call the citizens stupid and unwilling to help in any tangible way. The most fascinating part of this film is its ending. Hans Beckert is taken to an abandoned factory by the gangsters, who have set up what is essentially a Kangaroo court. The judges are the gangsters, behind them are other criminals and citizens. They even give him his one defense attorney. The gangsters and citizens of Berlin have so little faith in their government that they instead take the law into their own hands. Beckert demands to be taken to the authorities, but everyone just laughs at him. They demand answers from him. He admits to the killings and defends his actions by saying that he can’t help himself. In an impassioned monologue, he talks about trying to quiet the voices in his head that urge him to kill and the only way to stop them is to, in fact, kill. In his monologue, he berates the criminals before reminding them that they choose to break the law while he, “has no control over this evil thing that is inside me.” His defense counsel agrees and recommends his client be handed over to the authorities. He tells the “court” that he belongs in an asylum. The court of criminals and citizens will have none of it, they laugh at Beckert and tell him that being handed over to the authorities would be pointless. He will be fed three meals a day and eventually let out on good behavior. Mothers in the crowd remind Beckert that he is a monster. The crowd demands death right here and now. They yell and scream at him, the looks on their faces are that of a mindless mob. Just as it seems Beckert is done for, we see a hand rest on his shoulder. We see the people in the crowd begin to raise their hands silently. The police have come to serve their justice. The film ends with real judges in a courtroom about to render their verdict. We see three mothers of the missing children sitting in the court crying and admitting none of this will bring their children back. M is already considered a classic film for its use of tracking shots and Leitmotif. It is the gold standard for what a crime thriller could and should be. What’s most interesting about M to me is that this German film deals with the idea of distrust in authority in 1931, when just two years later Hitler would come to power. When people lose faith in the powers that be, they will accept radical ideas that on the surface seem like the right choice. The history of the rise of Nazisim in Germany is much more complicated, but this film left me with chills just thinking about that aspect. The lack of faith in authority, especially in the police, is prevalent today more than ever with the Black Lives Movement and the recent collective sigh of relief Americans took after the verdict of the Derrick Chauvin trial. The amount of Americans who still believed the last presidential election was rigged is concerning. Conspiracy theories have become as American as baseball. M transcends the crime genre to hold a mirror to societies from yesterday and today and asks the question, "What is justice?" Sahil Sharma Sahil is a full-time student at Dutchess Community College and a part-time cinephile. He has been known to quote the film Step Brothers word for word, and he likes water to be at room temperature.
- The Inflection Point: A Conversation Between Three Films
In mid-March, I was visiting friends in Brooklyn (they are part of my quarantine pod), and one of them insisted that we needed to watch Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. I had intended to watch this on my own anyway; some of you may remember that I wrote about their wedding a few years ago, and how symbolically important it felt to have Meghan join the Royal Family. Of course, the potential that Meghan could have brought to the relevance of this increasingly irrelevant family was all for naught. The notoriously ruthless and questionably ethical British tabloid press, as well as members of Harry’s family itself (or “The Firm,” as the couple referred to it with Oprah), subjected Meghan to a barrage of racist coverage, all seemingly designed to paint her as a “difficult black woman” (especially in comparison to Kate Middleton, Prince William’s wife). It became clear over time that the tabloids may have been working in cahoots with certain high-ranking members of “The Firm,” with negative stories being planted by factions within William and Kate’s camp, and perhaps even by factions within Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles’ camp. There was a bombshell of a revelation that literally left Oprah speechless: that a member of the family had openly expressed concern about the potential darkness of Archie’s (Harry and Meghan’s son) skin tone while Meghan was still pregnant. And there was another bombshell revelation: that the choice to not give Archie a title upon his birth - despite it being the Royal precedent and his birthright - was not a choice Harry and Meghan made themselves (although the press had led the world to believe so), but because The Firm did not want a mixed-race child to be an official part of the Windsor family lineage. Because Archie lacked a title, he was not given a security detail. And because both Harry and Meghan had received death threats from racist crazies, the idea that their son would not be protected was utterly terrifying to them. Harry and Meghan were adamant that the Queen herself had never been unkind to them and that the skin tone comment was not made by either herself or her husband, the now-late Prince Philip. They pointedly refused to name who had made the comment as they believed it would be too damaging and cause more drama that they simply did not have the bandwidth to handle. And yet another bombshell: Meghan, from the pressure of being vilified by the press and the open racism on display from her in-laws, began to experience suicidal ideation during her pregnancy with Archie, but when she asked the family for help, they refused, on the grounds that a member of the Royal Family seeking psychiatric help would make the family look bad. Meghan continued to suffer up to and through Archie’s birth, and then she and Harry made a choice: they were going to step back from being senior members of the Royal Family, relocate to Canada (a Commonwealth country), and face a less stressful lifestyle out of the public eye. This choice, as we now know, backfired, because The Firm seemed to take this move extremely personally. They stripped Harry and Meghan of their titles and have seemingly disowned them. Harry and Meghan have now settled outside of Los Angeles and are figuring out what their new lives are going to look like. Oprah clearly understood why Meghan wanted to step back from active Royal duty, due to the racist press coverage and the lack of support from The Firm. But she made a point of asking Harry what made him step back - from a family, he was born into, a lifestyle he was born into, the only life he had ever known. How does one break away from one’s family at all? And especially, how does one break away from THIS family? (Which seems more and more like a cult the more I learn about them). Especially since it seems to have cost Harry his relationship with his older brother and his father, both of whom he is no longer on speaking terms with. But Harry was quite clear: he knew they had to walk away because he remembered all too well the toll on his mother Princess Diana’s mental health, of being married to his father, as well as the role of the paparazzi in her death. He didn’t want to see history repeat itself. But moreover, he wanted to protect his wife and his child. His mixed-race wife and his mixed-race child. He said that being in a relationship with a woman of color had opened his eyes to many things about society that he had been blind to, and he did not want to play a role in perpetuating racist treatment against his wife. He said he had made three statements denouncing the racist treatment of Meghan while he was still an active member of the family: once as a boyfriend, once as a husband, and once as a father, to no avail. Then, his wife became suicidal, and his family turned their backs on her. So he made the hardest choice of his life. This is remarkable considering the history of his family and the legacy of racism and imperialism that the United Kingdom left in its wake ever since abandoning all of its former colonies worldwide after essentially going broke during World War II. “The sun never sets on the British Empire,” it was once said. The British colonized half the world, and now have the temerity to complain about immigrants (Brexit), and one immigrant in particular (Meghan Markle). Harry decided to support his wife, at the cost of losing most of his immediate family. He took a stand. When asked, “What side are you on?” he said, essentially, that he was on the side of compassion, and anti-racism. * I know that I’m about to make what will feel like an insane juxtaposition, but as I watched Harry and Meghan’s conversation with Oprah, I started thinking about three films that came out last year that were contenders for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards: Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, Regina King’s One Night in Miami, and Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah. These films all take place around the same time period in the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement in the United States; the stories all contain overlapping plotlines. It’s curious that we have three high-profile films this year that cover such similar themes. Or perhaps not. All three films were hailed as “timely” by critics given the political atmosphere last summer of the massive Black Lives Matter protests that erupted over the deaths of George Floyd, Elijah MacClaine, and Breonna Taylor, among numerous others, at the hands of the police. The Trial of the Chicago 7 allows Aaron Sorkin to do what he does best: snappy, sharp, intelligent dialogue about politics and the law; searing, inspirational speeches about justice and how great America has the potential to be; riveting courtroom cases, and sprawling ensemble casts. You can recognize bits and pieces of former Sorkin properties in this film: A Few Good Men, The American President, The West Wing, The Newsroom. Sorkin has primarily been a screenwriter (and showrunner) during his career, but Chicago 7 is his second time in the director’s chair and it was the first time I’d seen him direct. Unsurprisingly, he understands intuitively how to match his direction with his writing, and although the film runs a smidge too long for my taste, it is ultimately a very compelling watch - not just for the trial scenes, but for the backstory of the disparate members of this group who have been put on trial, seemingly arbitrarily, against the toughest federal prosecutors the Nixon administration can bring, and with an outrageously biased judge, Julius Hoffman (played by Frank Langella). The Chicago 7 were all members of different groups protesting the Vietnam war at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The main focus in Sorkin’s film is on Thomas Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) from Students for Democratic Society (SDS), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, in an absolutely spectacular performance) from the Youth International Party (often called “Yippies”), and William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), the attorney representing the group. The Chicago 7 were charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of starting riots at the DNC. Although riots did occur due to police taking control of the hill where the protesters were congregating, they were not premeditated by these seven men (nor anybody), and none of them actually incited the riots. The Nixon administration had seemingly singled these men out for being prominent members of anti-Vietnam War organizations. Originally, there was an 8th member charged along with the other seven: Bobby Seale, National Chairman of the Black Panther Party (Yahya Abdul-Mateen), who was only in Chicago for a few hours that night. He was represented by a different attorney than the Chicago 7, who could not attend the trial due to illness. The Judge keeps insisting that Kuntsler step in to defend Seale, which both Seale and Kuntsler vociferously reject (though behind the scenes, Kunstler keeps offering to help, only to be repeatedly turned down). Fred Hampton, Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panthers, comes to court to lend support to Seale, which the Judge assumes is legal support, and leads to further trouble. Hoffman openly mocks the court proceedings, much to Hayden’s dismay and frustration. Hampton is killed during a police raid, Seale continues to demand that he should not stand trial without legal representation, leading the judge to punish him by having security take him to another room and return him beaten, bound, and gagged, which is immediately objected to by both prosecution and defense. Seale’s case is ruled a mistrial and he is removed from the court, the judge begins to remove jurors suspected of sympathizing with the defendants, and charges the defendants and their attorneys with multiple charges of contempt of court. By all accounts, this trial is a complete clown show, and after court each evening the defendants debate with Kunstler regarding the best strategy to defend themselves, with Hayden and Hoffman in particular, continually clashing with each other. Hayden finds Hoffman too abrasive and antagonistic, and Hoffman thinks that Hayden is not strong enough in his espoused values. Kuntsler discovers a tape recording with evidence that a statement Hayden made the night of the riots (after his friend Rennie Davis is struck in the head by a police officer) started the violence, but Hoffman agrees to get on the stand and offers testimony exonerating him while criticizing the US Government’s leadership. Hayden uses his opportunity to make closing remarks to name all of the soldiers who have been killed in Vietnam since the trial started. In the end, only two of the seven were acquitted of all charges, while the remaining five were acquitted of conspiracy but convicted for crossing state lines intending to incite a riot. They were sentenced in 1970, but in 1972 all of the convictions were reversed by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. At the end of the day, The Trial of the Chicago 7 shows that despite the bickering and drama between the defendants behind the scenes, all of the defendants are in fact on the same side. Despite their differing tactics in how to effectively protest or conduct themselves in court, they all want the Vietnam War to end, and they act in accordance with that desire. They have taken a side, a side that with the hindsight of 50 years we can all agree was the right side; the Vietnam War was a failed war that killed far too many and ruined the lives of countless veterans who survived, the US should have gotten out sooner, and we probably never should have gotten involved in the first place. But the fate of Bobby Seale is the one that haunts me the most in this film. After he is finally removed from the courtroom, when his case is declared a mistrial after enduring horrendous brutality and humiliation at the hands of the court officers, we never see him again or hear about what happened to him. By including him in the story, Sorkin succeeds in further underscoring just how abhorrent the judge’s behavior was during the trial, but it felt a bit like a manipulative trick in the end, as if Sorkin was using Seale as a way to shoehorn in the idea of black bodies being abused by white law enforcement to enhance the “timeliness” of the film, but didn’t take any time to unpack how his position as one of the original defendants charged with this crime was dramatically different from those of his white co-defendants. There is a lot to like about The Trial of the Chicago 7, and I can understand why Sorkin would be reluctant to make a long film even longer, but I genuinely feel like this was a missed opportunity; we see so much of the rhetorical sparring between Hayden and Hoffman mediated by Kunstler, but we never see what Seale’s point of view in those debates might have been, and how differently he undoubtedly would have seen and felt his place in that courtroom. He, too, was on the same side as Hayden, Hoffman, and the other defendants, but as the Chairman of the Black Panther party, his tactics for protesting were notably different. Whose side would Seale have been on - Hayden’s, or Hoffman’s? I’m inclined to think it would have been neither. Hearing more of Seale’s voice would have made the conversation underlying this story far more interesting. * If you’re interested in a philosophical conversation about racism and protest, Regina King’s December 2020 film, One Night in Miami, will definitely appeal to you. One Night in Miami is a fictional account of an evening Malcolm X spent in a hotel room with Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Cassius Clay (not long before he converted to the Nation of Islam and adopted the name Muhammed Ali) in February of 1964, on the night of Clay’s historic defeat of Sonny Liston. The film plays out as an extended meditation on the nature of, and how to leverage the effects of celebrity, fame, and political power within the fight for civil rights. Malcolm X (Kinglsey Ben-Adir) pushes Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) hard, saying that he is disappointed that Cooke has such a powerful voice as a singer-songwriter, and could be using his talent to try to create meaningful change for Black people in society, but instead, Cooke only records crooning love songs. Cooke says that of course, he cares about civil rights, that his success and creative autonomy can serve as an inspiration to the Black community, and that protest songs aren’t radio-friendly, nor do they elicit millions of dollars in sales the way his music does. Malcolm then plays Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” on the record player, challenging Cooke about his assertion that protest songs aren’t commercially viable. Cooke eventually leaves in anger, with Clay (Eli Goree) in pursuit, while Brown (Aldis Hodge) asks Malcolm why he is being so hard on Cooke. Malcolm responds, “There is no more room for anyone… to be standing on the fence anymore. Our people are literally dying in the streets every day. Black people dying. Every day! And a line has got to be drawn in the sand… a line that says, either you stand on this side with us, or you stand over on that side against us.” In the lead-up to the Academy Awards, Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died, was on trial for murder. Historically, we have not seen law enforcement be held accountable for their culpability in what is essentially state-sanctioned killing of Black and Brown bodies. In months since Floyd’s death, this has escalated into a debate about whether or not the police should be defunded. I wrote an essay recently defending Law & Order: SVU, with its coterie of do-gooding NYPD officers, continuing to be on air doing their always righteous thing as more and more police officers kill innocent Black people year after year. I predicted - rightly so, based on the 11 episodes of the current season that have aired - that the Law & Order: SVU team would directly address this issue in their storylines - because how could they not, right now? There is a moment in the SVU season premiere, which aired in the fall of 2020, where Chief Christian Garland (Demore Barnes) is infuriated after footage of the SVU squad arresting an innocent Black man seemingly for Exercising In The Park While Black goes viral. “The man had outstanding warrants; he wasn’t cooperating with the police on the scene. We were by the book,” Captain Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) explains. “That’s the book that got us here!” Garland shouts back. Right now, he says, given the state of the country after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, “business as usual” is not going to fly, and the man who was arrested is suing the NYPD and naming Benson and Sargeant Fin Tutuola (Ice-T) in the lawsuit. Later on, Garland pulls Tutuola aside and asks if he thinks racial bias had anything to do with what happened to the man in the park. Tutuola says he’s known Benson for twenty years, and “her only bias is for the victim.” Garland then tells him: “I know I’m not someone you relate to but we have something in common: we’re both black in blue. We’ve been on this job a long time… things are changing.” Tutuola laughs. “You know how many times I’ve heard that? The one thing I know, this country will always break your heart.” “Nah,” the Chief says. “This time is different. This is a true inflection point… I appreciate your loyalty [to Benson], but you need to watch out for yourself.” When I saw this episode, I was struck by Garland’s choice of words: “This is a true inflection point. Watch out for yourself.” When I subsequently watched One Night in Miami, I noticed that Malcolm X was essentially telling Sam Cooke the same thing, that despite his loyalty to those who buy his apolitical music and have made him rich, he has a choice to make about where he stands as a Black public figure. I’m thrilled to see that SVU has proven wrong all of the breathless uninformed op-eds last year castigating the show for even existing. And I’m intrigued that the themes that SVU is explicitly exploring in 2020-2021 are being implicitly echoed in three major films from 2020. Ultimately, the bottom line is that at some point, you have to pick a side, whether you are a famous musician or a fictional television cop. * The words of Malcolm X and Chief Garland were in my head when I watched Shaka King’s February 2021 film, Judas and the Black Messiah, a film set in the late 1960s about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the aforementioned Chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, and his betrayal by William O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), his security captain who is also an undercover FBI informant. While Hampton (almost always referred to as Chairman Fred) never became a household name in the same way Malcolm X did - he certainly did not have access to celebrity friendships with football players, champion boxers, and pop singers - his politics in regards to the civil rights struggle are not dissimilar to Malcolm’s. Both The Nation of Islam (in which Malcolm X was a prominent leader and chief spokesman) and the Black Panther Party (founded by Huey Newton and the aforementioned Bobby Seale in 1966, a year after Malcolm’s death by assassination), disagreed with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ideology of using non-violent protest to further the cause of civil rights, even though the ultimate goals of both organizations are different. Malcolm pushed for a Black Nationalist movement, “by any means necessary,” to remove African Americans away from American society because he believed that as long as white people exist, African Americans would not be able to prosper. He, and the Nation of Islam, felt that separatism – even to the extreme of all African Americans going back to Africa – was the only way to ensure true civil rights and safety for the Black community. The Black Panther Party, on the other hand, did not believe in separatism; they wanted to end police brutality and the murdering of Black people, but they wanted to do so in a way that allowed Black people to exist in American society safely, even if it meant being heavily armed at all times. (This is why I wanted so desperately to see a conversation between Bobby Seale and the rest of the white defendants in Chicago 7.) Specifically, Malcolm’s words about picking a side resonate heavily with the story of O’Neal – a man who, depending on how you view his betrayal of Hampton, either didn’t pick a side, picked the wrong side, or desperately wanted to pick a side but was unable to reconcile that desire with his own selfish motives. In 1966, O’Neal was caught at the age of 17 by FBI Agent Roy Martin Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons) for car theft. In exchange for having all of his charges dropped, O’Neal agreed to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in Chicago and provide intel to Mitchell as the FBI had expanded its dubiously legal anti-communist COINTELPRO program to include Black civil rights activists. O’Neal ingratiates himself with Chairman Fred and the other Panthers in Chicago quickly, and eventually, he is appointed as a captain for Chairman Fred’s security detail. Every now and then, he meets up with Mitchell to tell him what he knows about the Panther’s current plans and future demonstrations. However, by the summer of 1969, Hampton had been working with Chairman Fred’s Rainbow Coalition, an alliance between the Panthers, gangs, and minority groups within Chicago. The FBI was becoming increasingly nervous, not just about the existence of the Rainbow Coalition, but that their informant had gained political power by being such an integral part of the movement. The FBI raids Panther headquarters, burns down the building, and demands that O’Neal draw them a sketch of the layout of Chairman Fred’s apartment, so they could plan another raid, with the Chairman as the target. O’Neal complies. The night of the planned raid, December 3, 1969, at a gathering at Chairman Fred’s house, O’Neal spikes Chairman Fred’s drink with a sedative, so that he won’t wake up when the police come storming in. Then he fled and fell asleep at about 1:30 AM. The police burst into the Chairman’s apartment at 4:00 AM, killed the security officer on duty at the time, injured several others in the apartment, and then shot the Chairman in the back of the head two times. This film is astonishing to me for a number of reasons. First of all, by centering the story as ostensibly around the relationship between O’Neal and Mitchell, director and screenwriter Shaka King, managed to squeeze in a backdoor biopic of the life of Chairman Fred Hampton. We see that he was a charismatic leader, a brilliantly inspirational, poetic speaker, and a romantic - not necessarily characteristics one would associate with the typical stereotype of a “militant” Black Panther. He cared about his people. He set up programs so that children in the community could get free breakfast and people in the community could get free health care. I had no idea about these programs. In fact, I had no idea of anything about Chairman Fred, nor did I know much about the Black Panthers before watching this film, beyond what I was superficially taught in school. (All I remember from high school is that the Panthers were open to using violence as a means to protect themselves, as opposed to Martin Luther King Jr.’s devotion to passive resistance). Judas and the Black Messiah gave me some extremely crucial insight into this time period, and into how revolutionary Chairman Fred was. He believed in the idea of a collective being the way to raise his community up, which is why he formed the Rainbow Coalition. Daniel Kaluuya just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this performance, and it was well-deserved. But it would be doing the film a disservice to overlook the exceptionally nuanced performance by Lakeith Stanfield (also nominated for an Oscar in this category) as Bill O’Neal. At first, it seems clear that O’Neal is only in this FBI informant gig for himself, to avoid inevitable jail time for car theft. However, as the years go by and he spends more and more time with Chairman Fred and the other Panthers, you can see how he is slowly, perhaps without realizing it, growing and evolving his worldview by listening to what Chairman Fred says about the Black community and the issues of racial injustice in America. He is moved by Chairman Fred. He is inspired by Chairman Fred. And so, not only is this a story of a man betraying another to the latter’s peril, it’s a story about the fight for O’Neal’s soul. There is a moment during a rally after Chairman Fred has been released from prison and is giving a speech. At this point, Mitchell and the FBI are getting concerned about O’Neal becoming too entwined with the Panthers, given his participation in the Rainbow Coalition, and so, Mitchell shows up to the rally in disguise, just to show O’Neal that he is watching. While Chairman Fred gives a tremendous speech, O’Neal stands before the podium, as a security captain, and the fear in his eyes is so apparent. But what is he afraid of? Being accused by Mitchell of no longer following through with the plan and getting convicted of car theft? Being suspected by the other Panthers that he does not truly believe in Chairman Fred or the party’s platform, which would certainly not end well for him? Or is it that he is having a sudden realization that, separate from his relationship with Mitchell or with the other Panthers, he truly believes in Chairman Fred’s politics and platform? He feels like he is on the Chairman’s side. And yet… O’Neal gives the FBI that sketch of the floor plan, drugs the Chairman’s drink, and allows his boss and friend to be killed brutally in the middle of the night. So in the end, it can be argued that in the fight for O’Neal’s soul, Mitchell defeated Chairman Fred. O’Neal picked a side: the side of the FBI. The side against his community. Or did he? Judas and the Black Messiah is bookended by footage of an interview with the real William O’Neal from Eyes on the Prize, a 14-part PBS documentary filmed in the late 80’s about the history of the 20th-century civil rights movement in America. The film ends with O’Neal, simultaneously explaining that he had no allegiance to the Panthers, but also when he looks back on this time period, he feels proud that he was someone who took an active role in what was happening in his community. It’s a confusing statement. Does he honestly believe that being the informant who provided key information that allowed the FBI to murder the 21-year-old Fred Hampton in his sleep meant he was taking an active role in his community? Personally, I think it’s more muddled than that. Director Shaka King has said in interviews that O’Neal strikes him as the kind of person who, having been so beaten down by white supremacist culture, genuinely believes that what Mitchell, the white FBI agent, has to offer him is inherently better than anything Chairman Fred has to offer. While I can see his point, I don’t necessarily think that’s what bears out in the film. Stanfield’s edgy, agitated performance as O’Neal so clearly captures the struggle of a man who for the first time in his life is trying to discern what his own moral and ethical code is. While Mitchell treats him well, buying him expensive drinks and dinner at a posh restaurant when they meet to trade information, O’Neal also inherently understands that Chairman Fred’s progressive agenda could be massively powerful for the Black community that he grew up in, and he is flattered by the Chairman’s trust in him. The tragedy of Judas and the Black Messiah is that O’Neal never figures out which side he’s on - and that is even borne out in the coda to the film: after they play the clip of O’Neal’s Eyes on the Prize interview, a title card appears on the screen saying that O’Neal continued to be an informant within the Black Panther Party for several years and that he took his own life shortly after Eyes on the Prize began airing on television in January of 1990. The timing of his suicide, to me, feels telling. It almost seems as if once he was forced to confront the hypocrisy of the interview he gave to the documentary filmmakers, the reality of the toxic duality of his contribution to the civil rights movement was too much for him to bear. * I started writing this article at the beginning of April 2021, but during the lead up to the Academy Awards on April 25th, I ended up taking a pause, not just because I wanted to see how the awards shook out (especially with regards to these three films), but also because it turns out that Derek Chauvin’s verdict was to be handed down five days prior to the show. Like most of us, I was happy and moreover relieved, to see that Chauvin was found guilty of the three murder charges against him for the death of George Floyd on Tuesday the 20th. At the Academy Awards, Regina King began the show with the first of many references to the verdict that night, and I couldn’t help but think of Chief Garland on Law & Order: SVU telling Tutuola that we are at a “true inflection point.” Maybe he was right. This years’ nominee pool at the Academy Awards was the most diverse I have ever seen, and there were more winners of color than I have ever seen as well, including Youn Yuh-Jung (Best Supporting Actress, Minari) and Chloe Zhou (Best Director and Best Picture, Nomadland). Daniel Kaluuya, as I mentioned earlier, won Best Supporting Actor in Judas and the Black Messiah for his beautiful performance as Chairman Fred Hampton. Unfortunately, both One Night in Miami lost in all three categories it was nominated for, and The Trial of the Chicago 7 lost in all five categories it was nominated for. But it doesn’t mean that we have solved the problem of systemic racism. Not by having a diverse array of nominees and winners, including the two films I have written about here directly about the civil rights movement and the one that exists just adjacent to it, after several years of #OscarsSoWhite protests, in tandem with only one police officer being held accountable for the death of an innocent Black man to which he was responsible. Garland claims: “This time is different,” meaning as opposed to past instances of the United States reckoning with their history of racism. Malcolm X, in One Night in Miami, spends the whole film trying to convince Sam Cooke that this is the time to establish which side of the line they are on. This film, along with The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Judas and the Black Messiah, are an exploration of an earlier inflection point in our history on this subject. And there have been even earlier inflection points as well - going as far back as the Antebellum Period in the United States, and the protests of abolitionists that led to the Civil War, and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and the complicated and fundamentally flawed period of Restoration after the South was defeated and slavery was abolished, which led directly to the Jim Crow era and lit the fire for the civil rights movement during which Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Fred Hampton were prominent leaders. In each of these inflection points, citizens have had to take a massive personal inventory about which side they choose to be on, and Judas and the Black Messiah is a tragic example of what can happen when someone is unable to make that choice definitively. The overwhelming celebration of Derek Chauvin’s guilty conviction (not to mention the conviction itself) gives us hope that Americans are beginning to take this inventory and are coming down on the right side of the line. They are beginning to make their choice. Right now this could, indeed, be the inflection point that causes real change. I’m reluctant to say that definitively. America doesn’t exactly have a great historical record on this topic. And it feels silly to take some dialogue from a fictional television character and use it as a declarative statement about the state of race relations in this country. But this brings me back to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. As I mentioned earlier, the United Kingdom has a particularly horrendous track record of exploiting the labor, bodies, and dignity of the people of color in the colonies they maintained for over 350 years, moving lower status populations of certain colonies to be indentured servants in other colonies. And now, 73 years after granting independence to those colonies, the British population voted overwhelmingly in support of Brexit, which exempts them from EU immigration rules and keeps foreigners from moving to the UK. In the meanwhile,15 of their former colonies belong to an organization known as the British Commonwealth States - countries that are technically independent and have their own rules of government and political leadership - where the Queen is still regarded as their ruling Monarch. Among these countries are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. The rest of the former colonies are also loosely considered to be connected to the Commonwealth, and the Commonwealth is reportedly something that the Queen holds dear to her heart, but in a very paternalistic, noblesse oblige way. This is the culture in which Harry grew up, and he reached an inflection point with the treatment of his wife by his family and by the British media. He took a personal inventory and he made a choice - an unprecedented one - to back away from that culture to protect his family. Granted, just because a white British Prince decided to definitely declare himself to be anti-racist doesn’t suddenly mean that the entire United States of America is going to follow suit; in fact, his estrangement from his family and the continued nasty media coverage of his choice in the UK proves that there is still a long way to go there, too. But it is a small step towards a larger hope of a true reckoning in society - the same kind of small step that the Chicago 7 were working towards in their protests of the Vietnam war, the same step, but larger in scale than Malcolm X and Chairman Fred Hampton were working towards in their championing of civil rights and raising up and protecting their community. These three movies feel timely for a reason, and the reason is, we’re not done yet. Derek Chauvin’s conviction is an encouraging development. Let’s hope we get more of this going forward, using the example of the protestors and agitators and inspiring figures who came before us that we have been so thoroughly reminded of in our most recent movie awards season, to continue to take an inventory, to leverage this inflection point, and to choose to make society safer for all of our citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. Reeya Banerjee Reeya is a Hudson Valley-based musician and writer. In her other life, she works as a hospitality finance associate, enjoys watching Law & Order SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She can frequently be found in various coffee shops and bars drinking IPAs while reading pop culture news on her phone.
- PODCAST: Hot Takes - Mortal Kombat (2021)
The latest movie adaptation of one of the most beloved fighting game, Mortal Kombat, series has dropped, on both small screens and big, inadvertently becoming a major talking point in the future of cinema, as well as acting as another installment in the long line of questionable video game movies. Jack is joined by Jeremy Kolodziejski to speak on how they felt about all of this. Listen on....
- MOVIE DADDY: Raiders of the Lost Ark
Throughout his career, Steven Spielberg has created some of the most popular films of all time, garnering him an enormous amount of respect on both a critical and financial scale. He is considered by many to be the most famous director of all time, given his track record as both director and producer of some of the most recognizable films of the past 50 years. Movie Daddy is a series by Story Screen Editor-in-chief, Mike Burdge, which aims to cover The Beard's directorial filmography in an attempt to present just why Steven Spielberg is very much that hot fire when it comes to being an American filmmaker. In this installment, we’re gonna hit one of the big ones, which arguably solidified Spielberg’s standing as an unmatched talent, and introduced to us one of the most recognizable figures in film, Indiana Jones. That’s right, we’re talkin’ dat' Raiders of the Lost Ark. ==================== “This movie we’re making now is not real life. But at the same time, it is not a send-up, it is not an imitation of anything.” -Spielberg on the intentions of Raiders Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fast film: fast-paced with a cleverly edited, throwback feel. It’s an ode to the nostalgia of the Saturday serials that inspired, in and of themselves, some of the strongest nostalgias we have today. Birthed from the same mind that drew on Flash Gordon to create the seemingly endless world of Star Wars, this new take on the adventures of a dashing and daring explorer only becomes even more impressive as your familiarity with these old school adventures increases. I'm sure the idea of a “love letter to,” within the film genre, sounds like a tired description at this point, but hoo boy, does Raiders beg for, and deserve that moniker. Yet, for all its massive popularity, and its nostalgic tendencies, Raiders of the Lost Ark remains, first and foremost, a masterpiece of filmmaking, and a testament to movie magic. It’s the movie Roger Ebert described as: “an out-of-body experience,” and which Gene Siskel referred to as “tight.” It also happens to be one of the movies totally engraved in my mind: every line, every shot, every moment. It just might be my favorite Spielberg film, purely for the fact that it’s kind of hard to argue against. It’s a flawless film, exceeding at every turn with effortless, dynamic ease. To put it bluntly: It’s a really cool movie. Also, there’s an amazing black and white version that exists, which I highly recommend catching at some point. It’s… insanely cool. But we’re not here to talk about that. Let’s go back: Born from Spielberg confessing that he would love to do a James Bond-esque picture to his brother-from-another-mother, George Lucas, Raiders of the Lost Ark began as an idea Lucas thought would pique Spielberg's interest to a unique level: the story of Indiana Smith (womp womp). Spielberg and Lucas had been good friends for quite some time at this point; they worked together in one form or another on several projects - through the American Zoetrope era, a production company founded by walking sexpot, Francis Ford Coppola. Spielberg had known Lucas for over 10 years before that fateful sandy beach conversation, where Lucas was hiding away during the opening of Star Wars, nervous of how his wacky space adventure would turn out with the general public. They were friends, so when Lucas brought up an idea he had been working on even before he started the script to Journal of the Whills, Spielberg decided to make this movie, for and with his friend. By the time they got started, the names Lucas and Spielberg attached to any movie was guaranteed dynamite, and these two Beard Bros knew it. With a little shot in the arm from noted dreamboat, Lawrence Kasdan, (who presumably gave the movie its pop and soul) they had a script that was ready to destroy the public consciousness of what it meant to make a throwback movie at that time. Then it came down to getting people to actually play these roles, primarily that of our hero, Indiana Jones, and his goddamn partner, Marion Ravenwood. Spielberg and Lucas searched tirelessly for an unknown actor to play Indie, feeling that this level of faux authenticity would allow the movie’s strengths to stand on their own. But eventually, Spielberg saw The Empire Strikes Back and called up Lucas, exclaiming: “He’s been right under our noses!” Lucas said he knew exactly who Spielberg meant right away, and while hesitant at first, (after working with him before) it became the final choice (after teen-heartthrob Tom Sellick fell through) that Harrison Ford would be the perfect fit for the fedora-wearing explorer. Ford was “enthusiastic” about the script, and also about Steven Spielberg. After wrapping on Empire, and moving into a new home, Ford turned down script after script, until a call from George Lucas brought up Spielberg’s next project. At the time, Ford was right in the middle of his launch to stardom. Given Ford's success as Han Solo in the first two Star Wars films, as well as his turn as Rick Deckard in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner the following year, his decision to take the role of Indiana Jones is as easy a mark as any to hit as the thing that finally catapulted him. And that’s not even mentioning the “You’re Goddamn Right, Gimmie My Money” one-two of Return of the Jedi and his Oscar-nominated performance in Witness in the following two years. Your dude was killing it. While, yes, Harrison Ford’s rugged good looks and insane comedic presence are both responsible for his rise as a star, as well as the success of Raiders becoming such a behemoth of entertainment, one of the things that really makes Indie sing is actually a result of Ford’s own no-bullshit persona. Throughout the shooting process, Ford really asked a lot of rational questions as far as his character's motivations in scenes, as well as his reactions. Ford being the prickly dude he’s now known to be, really helped the believability of Indie’s reactions and physicality within all the major and smaller moments found throughout Raiders. “What’s to stop me from just pulling the gun?” Ford would ask the stunt coordinator when choreographing the fight scenes in the movie. And while the good ol’ “It happens too quick” would work sometimes, we’ve all heard of the big one where Ford’s barbed point of view changed movie history forever: the infamous Swordsman Fight Scene. As the story goes, Indie was supposed to fight off a large swordsman with his whip, leading to a whole bit with a butcher getting “his work done for him” by the sword-wielding baddie. Ford’s version (the one now plastered in our minds) is funnier, even if it was the believed result of the actor feeling sick. This is inarguable. It’s the film equivalent of letting the bass drop. It hits, and it hits at just the right moment. I’m not going any further in this write-up without gushing, just for a moment, how absolutely out-of-the-park Karen Allen hits her shit as Marion Ravenwood. It is a transcendent experience. This movie is filled to the very brim with spectacle and WOW, that at times, I feel that Allen’s work can easily get lost within the extravaganza, but my good God is she something else in this movie. With practically nothing under her belt at the time of her casting, Allen brings the goods to a seemingly thankless role, something she would do again to equally impressive effect with her roles in 1984’s Starman and 1988’s Scrooged. How this woman didn’t become a superstar herself is frankly embarrassing to the entire human race. When discussing her experience on Raiders, she said this: "You get down into all the layers of all the technical things having to be working all at once. It wasn’t just the acting, it was being aware of what the camera was doing, and being in the right light, being in the right place at the right moment and not getting in each other’s way and all of these sorts of things, I mean it was fascinating." Karen Allen was a motherfucking star who beat the shit out of any scene you threw at her, not just with her insanely impressive presence and delivery, but with the seasoned know-how of a tempered actor who knew what she needed to get done, both when and how. Obligatory John Williams score shoutout!! What do you want me to say about this? Seriously? Pull it up on Spotify or YouTube and just deal with the fact that it’s a bop. It slaps and is easily one of the top five themes EVER. That’s it. GREAT JOB, JOHN! But let’s get into the movie proper, shall we? The beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark is just a miracle; its opening sequence is a pacing and editing marvel, on both a technical and experiential scale. And if we can fast forward, the final big scene of the movie takes place on what is visually (and sort of literally), a movie-set, and is also a psychotic rollercoaster of entertainment and movie magic. Bookending your movie with these jaw-dropping moments is one surefire way to make a classic. Luckily for us, Raiders also has plenty of tasty filling: an impeccable tone, outlandishly enjoyable characters, and heart-racing action that all adds up to the very thing we think about when we imagine what movies can do. Let’s start with what makes the tone of this film so great. While the slapstick, tongue-in-cheek antics are great, they are the resulting leftovers of many cut moments of similar fun fare. Spielberg actively shot loads of funny moments within all points of the films, leaving it until the final stages of the editing room to hone the balance. The comedy within this movie is finely tuned and only released when narratively perfect. Similarly, Indie’s heroic nature (i.e. his badassery) is typically usurped time and time again. When we are first introduced to him, we see him fail and get run out of a jungle, nearly dying, only to escape by the skin of his teeth, and THEN we see he’s a big ol’ wuss around snakes. This narrative tactic of having Indie’s confidence get the better of him not only makes everything more believable but also ties us to the stakes of the moments. We want Indie to make it because, c’mon dude, you got this! The entire plane fight scene is pure magic. The dynamic the audience has with Indie, coupled with the added flair of Speilberg’s mesmerizing blocking, (we’ll get to more of this soon, I swear) creates an absolutely beguiling piece of cinema that is indisputable. And while we’re on the tone train, let’s talk about exposition. There is an amazing exposition dump with some military dudes early on in the movie that gives the audience every facet of information they could need in a purely naturalistic way. THIS is how you do it, baby. The exposition work in this film is just all-around perfection. Something is always happening and is always given just the right amount of attention. There is a keen eye on blocking with editing in mind. Watch the “Bad Dates” scene and tell me this movie isn’t made by a genius. I dare you. We’ve already discussed the two heavy hitters of this movie - Ford and Allen - but the secondary characters in this thing are out of control. Paul Freeman as Belloq is a world-class fuckboi; Ronald Lacey puts in the distinguished work of "That Creepy Guy" as Toht, and you’ve got John Rhys-Davies doing his shudderingly sexy thing as Sallah. And one would be embarrassed to not bring up “Sir” Alfredo Molina in a role that, even though he is only in the first ten minutes, you still think of his face and rubbing-fingers every time you think of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it is in Denholm Elliot, playing Brody, that the brightest light of the ensemble shines, and while he isn’t given much screen-time in this first installment, he radiates ACTING in his brief scenes. Don’t worry, we’ll get more into Elliot's amazing abilities in the Last Crusade, where he’s utilized so much more, creating one of the greatest sidekick characters of all time. Brody speaks a dozen languages and knows every local custom, don’t ya know? The stunts in this thing are out of control, full stop. Keeping the natural feel and allowing the camera to flow through the scenes required an insane amount of talent and trust by the stunt team, something that I think is felt even while watching the movie as a spectator; you know that’s not Harrison Ford doing that, but it’s still Indiana Jones if that makes sense? It’s insane what the stunt team accomplishes in this movie. The more you pay attention to the stunts as events as opposed to moments, the more the awe sets in. A quick aside: One of the oddest moments in the film is when Indie supposedly rides a submarine to “Nazi Island.” You know the part I’m talking about. How does he survive this? A deleted scene does show him holding onto the periscope of the submerged submarine, seemingly explaining how his survival might have been possible. Does this make sense? No. Is that how submarines work? As someone who has served aboard a submarine, I can tell you: No. No, it is not. Is the mystery better than the deleted explanation? Sure. Great job, everybody. Keep giving me a good movie, thank you. And it is here, dear reader, that we must delve into the mind that brought this awesomeness all together: one Steven Allan Spielberg. This was, in many ways, a big rebound from the failures Spielberg perceived onto himself from 1941, which created some wounds to the director’s image that he hoped to heal. Spielberg very much wanted to be under-budget and under-schedule, the opposite of the plights that had plagued him in his previous films, whether successful and critically acclaimed or not. I spoke before on George Lucas’ dream of the idea, and Lawrence Kasdan’s injection of thrill into the story, but it is in Mark Dinning’s review from "Empire" that Spielberg is most eloquently placed: “If Lucas is Raiders’ guts and Kasdan its head, then Spielberg is its beating heart.” "The first film I ever saw was The Greatest Show on Earth, by Cecil B. Demille. That was the first experience I ever had in the theater. My father said that he was taking me to a circus movie. But I didn’t register “movie,” I registered “circus.” And I stood in line with him in the cold sleet in New Jersey. And I always imagined a circus took place in a tent, not a brick building, so it didn’t make any sense to me. I expected the curtain to open and I’d see real elephants, a real lion tamer, and the curtain opened and there was big white material, and this flat image came on this white sheet, and it was The Greatest Show on Earth. And my first reaction was that my father had betrayed me. He promised me a circus, and took me to something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but was not satisfying in any way. I couldn’t smell it, I couldn’t climb into it, you know, I couldn’t be afraid of it. And as I’m watching the movie, suddenly I’m smelling it, I’m afraid of it, I’m climbing into it and by the end of the film, I was really jazzed. I remember the spectacle." -Steven Spielberg There’s an outright ludicrous nature to some of the stuff on display in Raiders that is unbelievable, but you still believe it. You buy into it because it all happens naturally within the rules and tone that the movie sets up, mainly within its opening moments. Like, a whip? Whips don’t work like that! Or do they? Who cares? This is cool and fun! It is a transactional adventure. Of the film's escapism Spielberg says, “In Raiders of the Lost Ark, things happen that an audience would believe if they buy the first ten minutes of the movie.” There’s realism to all the moments and the look of the film. Spielberg was notoriously adamant to shoot quickly, perhaps worried he would fall short like his previous films, which went over-budget and over-schedule. His tenacity and vigor make the moments captured feel real and raw, something he would continue to use in the future: his techniques of blocking on the day, rolling with the improvised look and nature. There is a tone here that is meticulously calibrated, allowing the feeling to be natural. All of this is how you make a magical movie. Behind the scenes, we see time after time Spielberg perfecting moments within shots to use for edits in real-time. He’s literally seeing the movie as they make it, and accounting for these needs on the day to produce the exact images and feel he wants. This is what a director should do, and usually does, but ya boi does it very, very well. The technical aspects of making this movie shouldn’t be understated. They made this thing QUICK, finishing eleven days ahead of schedule. Given Spielberg’s track record, that’s very, very good. Spielberg longed for the days of shooting Duel and The Sugarland Express in under sixty days, these quick, intimate productions of verve and technique. Most big-budget, epic movies take many months, if not longer, to fully produce. He wanted to do something bigger than he’d ever done in less time than it had ever taken him to do it. And he did. That’s boss level. "Steve does a great deal of homework when he does a picture. And he’s very organized, and I think one of the main reasons the film is going so well and is ahead of schedule at this point, is because Steve also has gained a great deal of technical knowledge on making movies, he’s made these kinds of movies before, he knows what to anticipate. He knows how to make a production move. " -George Lucas This isn’t to say that there weren’t a number of major obstacles for Spielberg to overcome. There was grueling heat in the desert scenes, with the film notoriously shooting during the hottest time of the year in Tunisia, reaching over 135 degrees Fahrenheit. On a quick fun note: The legend of Spielberg himself being the only member of the cast and crew to not get sick while filming in Tunisia by eating only cans of Spaghetti-O’s is *chef’s kiss.* Spielberg’s display of handling tone and the adventurous exploitation is a wonder, something he would replicate so seemingly effortlessly in the sequels that it becomes something of an enigma that the (ahem) fourth installment in the series would be so generally lacking in the very things that made the series so interesting and exciting. While this is a fun movie to watch, it is apparent that it was a difficult movie to make, but Spielberg’s tactics and techniques work their magic at every turn. On mapping out set pieces to feel natural in editing, and therefore also in viewing, Spielberg says he thought, “Geography makes an audience more secure with the story.” Knowing where our characters are in relation to the world around them helps us understand what they are trying to do, and where they need to go to do it, naturally, allowing us to fall even deeper into the entertainment of it all. It also seems like Spielberg started figuring some things out while on the set of this movie, which is surprising, given how successful many of his previous films were. It’s kind of hard to imagine the director, who notably and obviously created the “Spielberg Look,” saying, “When you don’t really know what the effects are gonna be until you get into post-production, it’s very hard to direct somebody and say, ‘Look frightened, or look overjoyed, or look with awe at something that will not be in for a few months!’” But that’s what The Beard does: he’s a great director, and part of being a great director is both understanding your need, and having the ability to communicate the unseen to those who will need to perform and capture that vision. “Every actor needs a different director for each moment. And I think I have to be a different director for each actor, moment to moment,” he once said in an interview commenting on him working with so many different types of actors in different types of genre roles. Raiders was made for $20.8 million and grossed $363 million. Indiana Jones’ first cinematic adventure would go on to win five Academy Awards in the technical categories (Editing, Sound, Sound Editing, Art Direction, and, of course, Visual Effects), losing the more major awards to Chariots of Fire and Reds. The technical Oscar wins make a lot of sense, especially the sound design by Ben Burtt, who is the John Williams of sound effects in many ways. Much of what makes Raiders so special isn’t just the things we immediately think about, but the entire piece as a whole and how it builds and releases tension, all the while maintaining a feeling of excitement and danger, and much of this is due to the sound design and previously praised editing. Some other final notes of interest include the amazing delivery of Ford’s, “Ha ha ha haaaa-sonuvabitch…” at the taunts of Belloq, as well as the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it splatter of Indie’s blood on the windshield of the truck he’s driving after being shot in the arm. It’s fantastic stuff that high-definition conversion was made for. Speaking of which, a fond memory I have of watching Raiders took place at a screening of its 2K theatrical re-release, I believe for its 35th anniversary, where the screen was so massive and the picture so crisp, that my partner, Diana, and I, noticed a fly crawl into AND OUT OF actor Paul Freeman’s mouth during his ending monologue in the film’s penultimate moments. We lost our minds. Captain Katanga, played briefly by George Harris, never returns in any of the sequels, and this makes me sad. It should also be noted that this movie features one of the best examples of another Spielberg-ism the director is so regularly known for: the Mini Movie, wherein a scene placed perfectly within the movie contains, in itself, a dynamic 3-act structure that really builds character and sets the wanted mood moving forward (the example I speak of is, of course, the Drinking Shots scene, which acts as Marion’s introduction). Your honor, people of the jury… Raiders of the Lost Ark is a good movie, this much is undebatable. But I argue to you, that even in a filmography that contains the birth of the blockbuster, several Academy Award nominations and winners, the perfection of the CGI and practical effect balancing act, and arguably the greatest opening moments of any war movie ever made, Raiders is Spielberg’s most impressive film, if only for the fact that he makes perfection look so effortless that a viewer may be so wrapped up in the experience of it all that they might not even notice the craft and skill on display in every single frame. On the next Movie Daddy, allow me to explain to you why The Terminal is actually quite charming, if not also ridiculously problematic and loooooooooooong. Mike Burdge Editor-in-chief Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.
- PODCAST: Eight Bits - Mortal Kombat
Robby Anderson and Mike Burdge yap about the Mortal Kombat franchise, from its humble arcade beginnings to the recent massive blockbustin' return-to-the-cinema experience. Many adaptations, all with different things in mind, show a varied approach to just how video games can be brought to the big screen. Listen....
- Bored to Death: A Review of Blithe Spirit
The very essence of comedy, the one thing that it can truly be boiled down to if needed, is entertainment which intends to make an audience laugh. Blithe Spirit purports to be such a piece of entertainment, yet its intentions lack anything to laugh at, so much so, that it would be arguable that humor and wit were the furthest things from what was on its mind. This tale of pitiful personalities takes place in England in 1937, a time when, apparently, zero chemistry was required for all relationships, be them romantic, friendly, or even paternal. Walking snack, Dan Stevens plays Charles Condomine, a successful novelist struggling to churn out the next big piece: his first screenplay. While it is confusing just exactly what he is trying to do (it is inferred many times that he is simply adapting a previous novel, yet he is stricken with writer’s block, and we see multiple scenes of seemingly original content and dialogue being created. What?), the film has one small added pitch: What if the writer’s dead wife was helping him write the screenplay? Here’s where I’ll get the joke: “It feels like someone’s dead wife wrote THIS screenplay,” out of the way so that we can all move on. With the return of his deceased wife’s (Leslie Mann) spirit at the befuddled hands of a medium fraud (Judi Dench), Condomine is forced to deal with the feelings he may still harbor for his ex-love, even as these feelings begin to infuriate his current wife (Isla Fisher). There are many movies that Blithe Spirit thinks it is, and even more that it is trying to be. The modern-piece throwback to the Golden Age of Moviemaking and all its quirks in the film industry is ripe with situational humor and in-the-know winks and nods, yet this movie takes advantage of none of them. Based on the popular play by Noël Coward, one can see the seams where adaptation began to diverge from the original texts' intended bravado, which isn’t particularly a bad thing, but it does no favors to a movie that is literally about adaptation and it never seems to understand that there is at least something there to be played with for humor. But, to be fair, there’s a lot in this movie that should be funny which falls flat due to misshapen dialogue, the occasional overuse of editing or a general look and tone held tightly throughout that makes one feel like they’re watching a Drunk History segment with the funny voiceover removed. While watching the film, I kept finding myself vanishing even deeper within my own soul. This isn’t to say I wasn’t paying attention at any point in the film. This is my job, and it is a nice job to have, so for 99 minutes, I paid attention to this movie, a movie that at several instances seemed to be directly and intentionally attempting to make me die. Is this the worst movie ever made? Far from it. Is it bad? Oh, sweet lord yes. The lack of laughs is not the only sin on display here (although it is probably the major one). The film’s manic style and attitude are constantly working against anything it is trying to communicate. Scenes are either chopped up and scrambled together in moments of shot-reverse-shot with multiple camera angles being plopped down at different takes, with character’s appearances noticeably changing over the course of an intended one-minute discussion, or they are extended into long takes where we are just watching a couple of people in a room talking to each other with little motivation for plot and zero sense of situational dynamics. The audience is practically begging for someone to just trip over something already so that they can see something happen and have characters react to it comedically. And this, again, is the major issue I have with Blithe Spirit. It’s just not funny. I don’t need pathos in everything I watch, and I sure as hell don’t demand top-notch filmmaking from start to finish, but if you’re going to call yourself a comedy, base your project on the work of a notably very funny writer, and hire an overqualified cast, you should at least be able to bring the goods on the yuck-yucks every once in a while. Thinking back, the only times the film actually got an audible chuckle out of me were times when Dan Stevens would look physically sick from what he was doing (often), repeatedly noticing that there is just music playing ALL THE TIME regardless of what is going on, and whenever legendary Dame Judi Dench, (seen here doing her very best Anthony Hopkins from the Thor movies impersonation), would say the names of very hard to pronounce plants and flowers. In the end, Blithe Spirit is the type of film that doesn’t seem to care so much about its audience as it does about itself. In a movie that paints all of its characters with the same personality type, with the majority of the plot taking place in a single setting, you’d think there’d be a little movie magic left to go around, but every joke and observational quip land as hard and unfortunate as a convertible falling topside down off a cliff into a sea of anemic monotony. Mike Burdge Editor-in-chief Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He currently resides in Poughkeepsie, NY, and most assuredly is going through a French Connection phase.
- PODCAST: Hot Takes - Shiva Baby
Jack and Robby talk about Emma Seligman's phenomenal directorial debut, Shiva Baby. It is a good movie, this is a good podcast, and you are a good person. This all fits. And, as always, spoiler free chat for the first 20 minutes or so if you wanna check out the vibe of this thing. Seriously, it's really, really good (and playing for one more week at Story Screen Beacon Theater!) Listen on....
- An Irresistible Imp: Tim Curry at 75
Picture late-career Tim Curry, spotlit and standing in the center of a darkened Broadway stage. Imagine him singing mournfully of personal loneliness in the face of great responsibility, but in a way that conveys how that loneliness also reflects something deeper and universal about the loneliness of the human condition. His voice is rich and, despite the schmaltziness of the tune, you can’t help but feel somewhat moved by it. Now, picture him doing all this while dressed as Arthur, King of the Britons, and being mockingly accompanied in the song by his ever-present servant, Patsy, whom Arthur obtusely fails to recognize as a potential candidate to answer the central want of his song. The song in question is “I’m All Alone”, from Spamalot, the musical adaptation of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Curry’s handling of the song is impressive because of how well he is able to convey both the humor and pathos of the song. Arthur does feel genuinely melancholy in this moment, which Curry delivers completely straight, even in the face of an uproarious audience and Patsy’s interjections. And still, Curry’s performance does come across as funny, but he gets there in character, without needing to wink at the audience to sell the laughs. There is something I think under-appreciated about the kind of work Curry is doing here that is part of what draws me to write about him. An unfortunate hallmark of his long career is that he has frequently been the brightest spot of some otherwise very unsuccessful projects, and I think this may have obscured just how talented he has been. There could be a temptation - particularly given the number of commercial failures he has been in that has gone on to develop a rabid following - to label him as a cult film actor. To do so would not only miss how good he was in those cultish films but would also fail to account for how impressive and versatile he has been in his career. On stage, Curry’s breakout, and most well-known role, came as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the original London stage production of The Rocky Horror Show. But, he was also a three-time Tony nominee. First, for the role of Mozart in the original Broadway run of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus in 1981. Again for the musical My Favorite Year in 1993. And finally for Spamalot in 2005. In terms of acting credits, the overwhelming majority of Curry’s work has actually come from voice acting. This change in direction began in earnest after the twin flops of Clue and Legend in 1985. Aside from being a recurring presence in many of the cartoons of my childhood like Tiny Toon Adventures, TaleSpin, Darkwing Duck, Captain Planet, Gargoyles, or Freakazoid!, he won an Emmy for his work as Captain Hook in Peter and the Pirates and was nominated for a Grammy as the narrator of The Bad Beginning, the first book in the series, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. A mere cult film actor, Curry is not. That Curry would find such success in voice work makes sense to me given how expressive and multi-faceted his performances could often be. Some of what Curry was doing as Frank-N-Furter in Rocky Horror, could be missed because of how big that character and film are, but he is really doing something nuanced throughout. Notably, in his last song of the film, “I’m Going Home”, Curry makes a believable shift from the limitless bravado he’s embodied for much of the film, to an almost maudlin vulnerability. And, while he’s sincerely conveying the homesickness in the song that the story demands, he is also delivering a knowingly Judy Garland-esque performance for a phantasmic audience it seems only he can see. It really should be too much and is in a way, but it completely works because of how well Curry sells it. Similarly, another quirk of Rocky Horror that relies entirely on Curry to succeed is that, by all rights, Frank-N-Furter should be the unambiguous villain of the tale, but he is the character that we’re mourning at the end of the film. Over the course of the story, we see him trap two stranded motorists, later sexual assaulting each of them, remove half the brain from one person to turn another into a living sex toy, before murdering that unwilling donor and feeding the remains to his dinner guests. This is a monstrous character as written, that has also been hailed for decades as a symbol of self-expression and tolerance for difference. That is just bonkers and is wholly a credit to Curry’s performance. The loveable or irresistible villain may be the most common theme of the characters Curry has played. There is something impish and mischievous he brings to his roles that makes it hard to treat the characters he plays as actually evil. Ridley Scott had a seemingly impossible wishlist when he was looking to cast the role of Darkness in his 1985 film, Legend. He needed someone who could convincingly play something like the Devil. He needed an actor that could simultaneously project menace, sexuality, power, and give a theatrically operatic performance, all while wearing stilts, and being covered head to toe in makeup and prosthetics. Scott had seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and based on how brave and compelling he thought Tim Curry’s performance in that film was, Scott knew that Curry was just about the only actor who could pull off a role like Darkness. Scott turned out to be right. Curry is extraordinary in the role, and easily the best and most memorable part of an otherwise mixed film. It’s impressive that Curry was able to do as much with the role as he did because of the limitations he had to contend with. In terms of the costume, some of the heavy lifting of the role was done by just how impressive he looked, but in terms of performance, his mobility and sight were so limited by that makeup and prosthetics that about the only tool left for him to work with was his voice. In the same spirit of Darkness, Curry’s performance as Pennywise the Clown is the most memorable part of the 1990’s TV mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s It. It’s interesting to compare his performance against that of Bill Skarsgård in the same role for the 2017/2019 film adaptations of that story. This is something it’s hard to see past my own possible bias based on how old I was when I first saw it, but coming almost 30 years earlier, it’s Curry’s performance that I still find far more chilling. The biggest difference between the two seems to be that, though Skarsgård plays a compelling monster, particularly heightened by more modern costuming and effects, Curry’s performance hinges on him commuting to largely playing Pennywise like an actual schlocky clown and letting the horror build off of that. That choice gives him more range in that he’s actually able to bring humor that heightens the tensest scenes. It would go a bit far to say that one finds themselves rooting for Curry’s Pennywise, but it is true that he’s just about the only part of that 90’s adaptation that made an impression. An almost perfect inverse to Curry’s performance as Pennywise is his portrayal of Long John Silver in Muppet Treasure Island. What’s most impressive about this role is that Curry manages to make Silver just as believable as a dangerous cutthroat as he is as a surrogate father figure to the young boy protagonist, Jim Hawkins. In those moments where it makes sense to play the scene for tension, Curry does; When the scene calls for warmth he plays that just as sincerely; And, when the scene requires him to sing alongside his muppet costars, he takes to it with gusto. In the case of the song “A Professional Pirate”, he needs to do all three in quick succession and he lands it perfectly. It’s a performance that would almost come off too manic to be coherent, but Curry seems to recognize how much wider a palette he can paint within the Muppet universe. All of this brings us to the role that I think may best capture what I’m trying to highlight with Tim Curry. The degree to which Clue works as a film hinges on a dizzying and multifaceted performance from him that needs to work for three different endings to the story. The endings break down into the two in which Curry, as Wadsworth the Butler, solves the case, and the final ending in which Curry, as Mr. Boddy, is the villain. Now, we’re talking about a broad, farcical comedy, so suspension of disbelief does some of the heavy lifting, easing the way towards being able to accept Curry as either the hero or the villain of the story, but it matters that there is something compelling about Curry’s villainous turn in the final ending that doesn’t leave the audience feeling cheated, or like the ending hasn’t been earned. Curry’s performance throughout the film is impressive, particularly the break-neck pace at which he is solving the murders in the final act, but it would be all for naught if he had lost the audience for any of the three endings. He pulls it off, though. He’s convincing as the hero. And, even more importantly, while revealing himself to be the villain, he overcomes the fact that this final ending does not make a whole lot of sense in relation to the rest of the film. There is something so welcome about Curry’s heel turn, that the viewer just goes with it, even welcomes it. I think there is something a bit magical about that, and, like so many of his roles, I don’t know that there is anyone else that could have pulled it off. Thankfully, Tim Curry is still with us for his 75th year, but an unfortunate stroke in 2012 has largely deprived us of his presence onscreen. His last acting role came that same year in a previously filmed performance of Eric Idle’s What About Dick? After that, a few voice performances that he had recorded before his stroke trickled out over the next few years. Rarely appearing in public at all, it seemed likely that this would have been the end of Curry’s career. Fortunately, and unexpectedly, he managed to find the perfect bookend to his career with a pair of returns to the story that started it all. With the help of some judicious editing, he was able to play the Criminologist in the 2016 TV Adaptation, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let's Do the Time Warp Again. And, in 2020, with a great deal of help from his fellow cast members, he was able to return to the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter as part of a live-streamed performance to raise money for the Wisconsin Democratic Party ahead of the 2020 elections. The limitations of his speech are apparent in both, but each of these performances is still worth seeking out if only to see the infectious light to the man that still shines through. Damian Masterson Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.
- PODCAST: 93rd Academy Award Predictions
Mike Burdge, Diana DiMuro, Bernadette Gorman-White, Robby Anderson and Jack Kolodziejski get together for their annual episode covering their thoughts, opinions and predictions on this years Oscar nominations. Minari! Nomadland! Sound of Metal! Judas and the Black Messiah! Mank! Mank! MANK! MANK!! Juicy takes on all these, and more, await you.... Listen on....
- PODCAST: Hot Takes - Godzilla vs Kong
Noted Big Boys Fightin' Historians, Jack and Robby, are joined by guest Jeremy Kolodziejski, to talk about the return to the cinema with this humbly made little feature about two bros who just can't seem to get along. That's right, it's Godzilla vs Kong. And it's cool, and it has a super, super dope score. Listen on....