Peggy Olson and Ian McKellen Share a Birthday

Today I learned that Peggy Olson and Sir Ian McKellen share a birthday. Like, an exact birthday. They are the same age.

How do we know this?

Sir Ian’s Wikipedia confirms it: 25 May, 1939 (age 82).

(Let’s stop here for a moment and collectively wonder, how does Wikipedia even get this information? Did they obtain a copy of his birth certificate? Do they take the word of a close friend or close-enough relative? Did Ian McKellen himself field a phone call from a Wikimedia fact checker? Did he have to stifle a Jesus Christ I am busy understanding Beckett how did you get this number to just get them off his back and say, “… yeah. I was born on 25 May, 1939.”?)

Peggy Olson was also born on May 25, 1939. I can write it like that because she’s American.

Who the heck is Peggy Olson? you may be wondering to yourself.

Only the copy chief of Sterling Cooper Draper Price Cutler Gleason and Chaough. Who could have starred in her own episode of I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant. Who could bring back knit pantsuits with a single wide shot. Who could possibly have had fleeting sexual chemistry with a strapping Colin Hanks dressed as a priest.

Peggy Olson is a fictional character played by Elizabeth Moss on Mad Men.

(Of all the Mount Rushmore shows from the Gilded Age of TV, Mad Men is always the last one to get a mention. Important but not watershed. Mad Men is Teddy Roosevelt. Tucked away in the corner, obscured in Jefferson’s [The Wire] shadow.) (Sopranos is Washington, obviously. Breaking Bad is Lincoln. Don’t expect me to sit here and explain this to you. It’s science.) (I happen to share a birthday with Teddy Roosevelt but we really can’t get into that now.)

Mad Men happens to be my favorite television show. The characters are awful people in the most glorious of ways. Blame it on the trauma, I love them all dearly.

Possibly the best episode of the series – inarguably the best bottle episode ever created in the history of TV – is season four, episode seven of Mad Men: “The Suitcase.” (It is also the episode in the exact CENTER of the series. Episode 46 of 92. Goddamn you, Matthew Weiner.)

In “The Suitcase,” the enigmatic Donald Draper is avoiding what he knows will be a bad phone call. The plucky Peggy Olson is heading out to have a romantic dinner with that wet loaf of bread she calls a boyfriend, Mark. Don is not happy with the work for Samsonite. (Suitcase!) Peggy stays working with Don, even though everyone else has left the office already. She is at once being naïve assuming Don will find her time valuable, for which she will inevitably complain, and also unconsciously indulging in the workaholic side of her self-fulfilled prophecy, of which she really loves. Mark resents both the former and the latter, and they break up over the phone when Peggy is so late for dinner that his FORTY BUCKS has gone to waste! (Break out your inflation calculator for this show, folks, or you will never stop laughing when people emphatically announce what things cost. Which happens a lot.)

Anyway. We’re not here to recap.   

The frame narrative of “The Suitcase” is of the infamous second fight between Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay. Everyone has left the office already because they’re off to watch the fight on closed circuit TV. Mark is taking Peggy out to dinner because it’s her birthday. And what day is it? May 25, 1965!

But how do we know how old Peggy is?! Well! Earlier in the episode, Meghan the Receptionist asks Peggy this question directly, and she replies, “26.” Meghan reacts with an impressed smile at the Single and Fabulous Exclamation Point copywriter, “Oh, you’re doing well, aren’t you?” Peggy is proud of herself.

Moments later in the same scene, when Mrs. Trudy Vogel Dyckman Campbell, obtuse about the waist from an on-purpose pregnancy, learns that Peggy is 26, her response is, “Well… 26 is still *very* young.” The condescension is devastating. Peggy is less proud of herself.

I mean… feminism, right?

From here it’s simple subtraction, my friends. 1965 – 26 = 1939. Peggy Olson and Sir Ian McKellen were born on the exact same day.

(Have I told you my favorite movies are The Lord of the Rings?)

Upon this realization, it’s not a far leap to immediately imagine that Gandalf the Grey and Peggy the Pantsuit are peers. Maybe acquaintances… friends, even!

Sitting in the booth at the Greek diner, waxing philosophical about finding purpose through work, eventually discussing the death of a loved one. Peggy tells Gandalf that she watched her father die in front of her, while they were watching sports on TV. Gandalf replies, “Yeah… I don’t have a father because I’m a kind of immortal being that was sort of just, like, there one day? Like I wasn’t born so much as I just was, you know? But, I have watched a lot of people die right in front of me. So… I kind of get it.”

Peggy doesn’t really know what to say, so she just nods. Nibbles on a pickle. She glances up at the painting on the wall.

“Why is there a dog in the Parthenon?” she asks.

Gandalf looks up. “That’s a roach,” he says. “Let’s go somewhere darker.”

They get up to leave.

“Speaking of somewhere darker, did I ever tell you about the time when I was in the Mines of Moria?” Gandalf says, dropping cash on the table.

“Yeah,” Peggy says, scooting out of the booth. “You tell that one a lot, actually.”

Meditations in an Exploration: ‘The Calming’ Lives Up to its Name

In the vast silence and through the many pauses in action, Fang reminds us that all art is a series of choices. She succeeds in turning down the volume on the world, making us lean forward and listen close. To slow down, to pay attention, and to find virtue in that peace.

The first thing to notice about The Calming is the foliage. The film opens in an art gallery where an image of a forest is projected on a blank wall. A gallery employee adjusts nature for brightness and contrast. The next scene takes place in a tree-lined park where the main character (played by Xi Qi) lets a friend know she and her partner have broken up. In the subsequent scene, the foliage is fake and stuck forever between drywall and glass in a restaurant. Oh yes, writer and director Song Fang is going to have something to say about surroundings.

And it’s not all trees (though it is a lot of them). Fang places her protagonist against an incredibly varied array of backdrops: a city at night, a snow-covered country, bamboo forests, industrial refineries, mountains. She is almost always shot from behind, the camera at a safe enough distance to put her body and her environment in equal focus, forcing the audience to constantly evaluate the image to determine if her current place is the right one. The one that fits, that feels right. The one that will stick.

The Calming’s protagonist is constantly on the move, from city to city for her documentary exhibition or lectures, for brief visits to see friends and her parents. The walks she takes in nearby forests or parks are the only times she transports herself. She is always on a train or bus or in a cab. She is neither in the driver’s seat of her own life nor is she the author of her artist’s bio, because any talk of her life or work is spoken of by others. Her friend asks her about what happened to her relationship and she changes the subject to someone’s recent death. She’d rather talk about the absence of life than herself.

And so the audience is left watching her watch others, since she won’t talk about herself. Watching her wander paths to watch the branches and leaves blowing in the breeze. The presence of sound is so scarce. She has no internal monologue, and there is little soundtrack to speak of. To be contented to settle into this film of listless wonder appears to be the endgame.

But it’s not about wonder, is it? The closer she gets to home, the less honest she is about the end of her relationship. Why? When her belongings arrive at her new apartment, they barely take up one corner of one room. What does that say?

And then there’s the opera. The only time where we get to really see her face, and her eyes are closed. She is not only emoting for the first time in the film, she’s crying as she listens to Händel’s aria that says, “Convey me to some peaceful shore, where no tumultuous billows roar, where life, though joyless, still is calm, and sweet content is sorrow’s balm.”

The Calming is a story of a broken heart. In the vast silence and through the many pauses in action, Fang reminds us that all art is a series of choices. She succeeds in turning down the volume on the world, making us lean forward and listen close. To slow down, to pay attention, and to find virtue in that peace. We watched the protagonist wandering the woods and we wondered, “What is she looking at?” Instead, the movie was asking us, “What is she looking for?” The protagonist’s life may be joyless, for now, but it sure is calm.

There is No Spark in ‘Tesla’

Tesla is a film that often plays like a History Channel special about the life and times of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, at which it both succeeds and fails. It is both as boring as a lecture on electrical currents, and it is not remotely informative.

Written, directed, and produced by Michael Almereyda, Tesla is a film that often plays like a History Channel special about the life and times of visionary inventor Nikola Tesla, at which it both succeeds and fails. It is both as boring as a lecture on electrical currents, and it is not remotely informative.

While an omniscient narrator spoon-feeds the viewer facts in place of a story, a fourth-wall breaking frame narrative derails what little momentum exists from an already wordy script, making any discernible story nearly impossible to follow. Busy camera work tries in vain to create a mood while a baffling array of plot points distracts from whatever the point of this film is. (Did you need to know how Thomas Edison courted his second wife? Because for some reason Tesla will tell you.)

There is nearly as much emphasis on the prolific Edison (Kyle MacLachlan) as there is on the titular character himself (Ethan Hawke), which could be a fun mirroring exercise if not for the lazy retelling of Edison as villain as though hipsters haven’t extolled this sentiment for years. Tesla is left substantially underdeveloped, mumbling and bumbling around in rooms full of powerful men without ever asserting what makes his life worthy of a film adaptation, proving that this one is more interested in exploring its own gimmickry than creating a story of value.

An auteur’s self-indulgent fingerprint is all over this bloated slog of a film, so much so that it lacks the fundamental element that made Tesla’s AC current so innovative: there is absolutely no spark.

Don’t Be Scared of ‘Boys State’

If Boys State is a microcosm of our political system (the lack of girls notwithstanding), of the youth participating in it and their dedication to the cause, have so, so, so much hope.

If you’re anything like me, you may begin watching Boys State like you would a horror movie, through the slats of your fingers, holding your breath. Your nerves have taken such a beating in the last four years that they’re shot to shit on a near constant basis. Your soul winces when you go on social media. Any given New York Times push notification should have a trigger warning.

In the wrong hands Boys State may have been that horror movie. As a woman I’m hard pressed to find many things scarier than an auditorium full of only men and boys, wearing the same thing, chanting, yelling, standing at podiums and saying things like, “Our masculinity shall not be infringed” to a roar of applause. The documentary’s subject is what amounts to a summer sleepover camp at its highest frequency: Boys State is an annual program in Texas sponsored by the American Legion for high school junior boys interested in politics. If I’ve made it sound piddly, it’s not. It’s been around since 1935 and notable alumni include Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, and Rush Limbaugh. If you think it’s very conservative, it is. If you think it’s very white, it is.  

The weird (surprising, refreshing, relieving?) thing is it’s not quite as conservative as you might think, not quite as white as you might think. The mock election process is far more in control than you’d ever give several hundred teenage boys credit for and not nearly as triggering as the infringement of masculinity line would lead you to believe.

Is abortion the most frequently brought up issue (other than gun control) upon which these literal boys are creating a party platform without a single uterus to be found? Absolutely. You’d be tempted not to expect anything more from these boys to whom a woman’s body is not autonomous but governable flesh… but you’d be jumping the gun. What emerges from the early stages of Boys State is a clear cast of characters, the obvious ideological elite among a very large group:

There’s Ben, the junkiest of these political junkies, who keeps a talking action figure of Ronald Reagan in pride of place in his bedroom and gets off on meritocracy. There’s Robert, the overly enthusiastic bro with the kind of energy that can rally a crowd with a rousing gesture to his crotch. He made some cash off of bitcoin and how lives in a home with a secret door behind a bookshelf like a Bond villain. There’s René, more composed than any teenager ought to be, impossibly and impressively centered. He’s got chic as fuck colonial-era founding father glasses and wins people over with passion where others only have division. And then there’s Steven, the most hopeful of the bunch. He’s a quiet, borderline meek progressive who got into politics because of Bernie Sanders and looks to continue in that vein.

You’ll think you have all of them pegged in their first few minutes. You will be wrong. They have narrative arcs that bend in the most unexpected places. There is growth and change among them. You see some of them discover the merits of our political system, others discover the faults, to both their fascination and disappointment. You’ll start to root for some in spite of yourself, to condemn others. You’ll find yourself holding your breath at the film’s climax. Not in the way you would in a horror movie, but in the way you would in the defining moments of a sport’s championship. You might cry.

Politics in this country is fraught, contentious, generally infuriating and sometimes all-consuming in its goddamn misery. But if Boys State is a microcosm of our political system (the lack of girls notwithstanding), of the youth participating in it and their dedication to the cause, have so, so, so much hope.

Who’s Afraid of Shirley Jackson?

‘Shirley’ imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption.

Anyone who’s watched five minutes of The Handmaid’s Tale is keenly aware of that show’s success falling entirely on the actability of Elisabeth Moss’s face. It’s excellent at hiding secrets. When her eyes need to read emotionless her mouth takes over… she smirks, snarls, exhales cigarette smoke not through pursed lips but by jutting out her lower jaw. If a smile sneaks through, she swallows it. It will be to your delight that Shirley contains much of the same, for similar and somehow even darker reasons than the Hulu show.

A viewer could be forgiven for confusing Moss’s age in Shirley, because for someone as hardened, bitter, talented, strained, and achieved as Shirley Jackson you’d imagine her to be much older than her 35 years at the time she wrote Hangsaman. (Presumably the novel she’s writing in the film. Though never specified, the general premise and a scene with three Hanging Man tarot cards suggest as much.) Though the actor is barely older than this, the performance reads much older, as though Moss was playing some decades her senior. She is weathered, lowering her vocal tone in line with Jackson’s penchant for smoking, though she’s not physically aged to look older.

But Moss’s Jackson reads “old” simply because the male gaze hasn’t struck her, simply because we’re not used to seeing women like this. Her breasts sag and her tummy bulges. She looks wrong in a red lip. She is not of her surroundings… or is she? She looks and acts as though she’s been chewed up and spit out by the expectations of post-war, American dreaming New England. Her mental illness(es) are a part of her whole person, which by nature is not for the consumption of men. Such is the sexualization of women in the language of film that “crazy” rarely translates as more than Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The only exception to this may be Misery, but even then, her un-sexuality is a plot device to keep her as neutral and unthreatening as possible.

Shirley Jackson is not neutral. But she is unconventional. Unconventional in the way that women are not allowed to be when placed out of the male gaze because of the inherent danger they exude, a danger both alluring and repulsive to those around her. Shirley imagines the unconventional woman as societal terrorist, capable of profound, delectable corruption. She’s the embodiment of the first day you realize the patriarchy is real, when the bottom falls out from under everything you once saw and now you see it everywhere. She infiltrates minds. The dean of the English department confesses that after reading Jackson’s work he imagines taking his own paper weight and bashing his head in.

A premaritally pregnant Rose Nemser (Odessa Young) in her sweater set is ripe for becoming Shirley’s newest vessel. Rose is caught between both the horny, debauched underbelly of academia (members of which are often jerking each other off both figuratively and otherwise) and the smothering nature of the time period, with an evolved sexuality of her own that buzzes at the edges of her scenes. If not for Shirley, Rose would have become like all the university wives, both victims and contributors to their fates.

If Shirley is of the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? lineage, Rose acts as more Nick than Honey to Jackson’s Martha. She both torments and nurtures Rose, using Rose as a filter through which she can process both her emotions and her intensely engrossing work. Through Rose, Shirley is able to shed a layer of neurotic skin, appearing whole, almost relieved when done. Through Shirley, Rose becomes unconventional. She is now the terrorist, able to infiltrate minds, needing to shed her own skin. And on and on the cycle goes.

‘Light from Light’ is Here to Soothe Your Existentially Anxious Soul

‘Light from Light’ worked with a light and careful hand to craft a sense of existential ennui that’s hard to do without becoming overbearing.

Grasshopper Film

This review contains mild spoilers. 

Perhaps it shouldn’t be remarkable for a film to have an exceptional opening scene, but Light from Light shows how rare it is. Right out of the gate, the film expertly stages the entire piece in tone and intent. The scene is impeccably structured and showcases the protagonist’s journey with a skilled deep-dive into her background. The strength of its introduction makes you believe.

As a child, Shelia (Marin Ireland) once had a dream that could be interpreted as prophetic and otherworldly or merely coincidental, depending on one’s individual proclivities towards such things. But it was deemed prophetic for her, turning little Shelia be something of a psychic and became a small town celebrity for a time. People relied on her for guidance and comfort, anxiously awaiting to hear her most recent dream. But once her dreams ceased to foretell anything at all, her community quickly lost interest in her. A fact that, while not explicit, visibly still pains 40-something Shelia in the present day as she’s retelling the incident in a radio interview. The young girl thought herself to be special, in the kind of way that’s reflected in everyone else’s behavior towards her, until one day she wasn’t. Though Shelia grew up to be a small-time paranormal investigator, her belief in both the supernatural and herself never really recovered. 

Sheila is instantly empathetic, and the film that follows the opening scene never exploits that. She’s almost permanently wounded, though not bitter, and moves through the world with a sense of resignation less indicative of depression than a sincere belief in one’s own inconsequentiality. A financially struggling single mother, Shelia had to forfeit her position with her ghost hunting team because she couldn’t afford the dues. However, when she takes on a freelance case with a widower, Richard (Jim Gaffigan), she does so for free. It’s a development that at once checks out and feels a little superfluous, but Shelia’s altruism is the logical extension of her outlook on life. Nothing really matters, including money. 

The concept of paranormal investigation is usually relegated to campy horror, but the fact that it’s been a part of popular culture for fifteen years and is rarely used as a device of high drama is rather surprising. Light from Light rightfully finds the metaphor in the practice: of course it’s not about proving ghosts exists more than it’s about providing consolation for the pained and living. It’s a salve for even the irreligious (or especially for them); a metaphysical exercise to sooth your aching soul. Shelia’s involvement in ghost hunting is threefold: she wants to help people, she longs for confirmation of a divine existence, and she needs the fix of hopeful possibility. 

It’s that fix that fuels the paranormal investigation field, both for those who participate and those who watch it. That fix keeps even the Light from Light film watcher on high alert, keenly searching every corner of a room for movement or a misplaced item. When it doesn’t happen, you’re disappointed. When it does, you’re thrilled. For a moment.

Because when the film is over, the jolt of the thrill dissolves and inevitably feels empty. Because the act of seeing releases the narrative tension. Because now there is proof and proof is not nearly as exciting as the possibility of it, or the tease of not obtaining it. Something is now definitive where once it was delightfully opaque. Shelia is relieved at having seen, but why? Is it merely because she’s proven to herself the very thing for which her community rejected her as a child? She now has an answer, but what will the answer solve? Having seen absolves Shelia of finding purpose within herself. Of doing the work of living. 

Light from Light worked with a light and careful hand to craft a sense of existential ennui that’s hard to do without becoming overbearing. It develops its world and really lives in it, full of characters together but alone, drifting through whatever we’re supposed to be doing here. It’s not aimless, even if its characters seem like it. Its climax doesn’t negate the rest of the movie, but it’d be something more profound without it: What do we owe to ourselves? Where does hope come from if not from above? How do we keep going, when the fix is so temporary?   

‘Midsommar’ is Pretentious Nonsense

The implication that an audience’s emotions should be wrenched out than coaxed out is as arrogant as ‘Midsommar’ is self-indulgent.

Ari Aster is a tease. There’s an allure to his filmmaking style. His shots are long and careful, sometimes lasting full scenes, often utilizing the space of a whole room. He wants your eye to wander, to notice what art is on the wall or what books are on the table. With Midsommar, the camera floats around a scene or straight into the atmosphere, wheeling above the action. You, along with the characters, can’t find your feet. You’re disoriented, but you like it. Aster politely requests your attention, and you offer it to him, along with your patience. He’s trustworthy. 

Oh, but then. Somewhere in the second act, you get an itch. Shots become too long and too careful. Lingering on imagery now feels more like a preoccupation than nuance. You want desperately to come down to earth and find your footing, because the experience of watching Midsommar is becoming tedious and uncomfortable. And then you realize, to your disappointment, that that’s probably exactly what Aster was going for.  

His characters are too archetypal to exist as people. They’re shells of people, serving as functional cogs in a machine. Some function to generate empathy, others to hate or laugh at. At least one exists only to ask questions because Aster so clearly and desperately wanted to avoid using classical exposition. All his characters go through feelings of tedium and discomfort, along with confusion, repulsion, maybe fear – like you do as you’re watching. You are to inhabit the shells of his characters. His machine is putting you through the paces of the characters so that you feel as the characters feel, and he believes there’s artistry in that. 

The implication that an audience’s emotions should be wrenched out than coaxed out is as arrogant as Midsommar is self-indulgent. The Shining’s massive Overlook Hotel feels like a slowly tightening straightjacket. The Babadook twists your nerves until they feel as Amelia’s hair looks. Each and every one of Georgina’s noes in Get Out burrows itself under your skin until it’s crawling. You are claustrophobic, wrecked, unnerved, all because of carefully crafted choices made by the filmmakers guide you to that place. Aster’s choices are empty stunts that feel condescending. There is no value in verisimilitude if the story is the expense.    

Detail is Aster’s aesthetic, and it’s his most annoying quality. My movie companion and avid horror fan said of Midsommar, “It’s the horror movie that social media made.” There’s so many visual cues, so much folk art to filter, so many flower crowns to selfie. But they’re also vapid and intentionally misleading. He mistakes minutiae for symbolism, and unless you’ve read the same books on Swedish pagan rituals as he has, most of what he offers is meaningless. 

There’s a strong sense that Aster is very pleased with himself and his obtuse creation. Throughout the film, he purposefully withholds explanation to keep you on the hook and then delivers something that answers nothing. When the denouement hits, you half expect to see Aster peeking out from behind the screen, grinning at you, inviting you to interpret all you want, knowing you will never get it because you are not him. One should not have to do follow-up reading in order to understand what happens in a movie.

Midsommar is less than the sum of its parts. It has a handful of effective moments, but it’s full of missed opportunities. Specifically, the film is so very white, but it never approaches what it means for docile whiteness to heel-turn into hostility. It’s not to say that all filmmakers need to speak to our sociopolitical times, but avoiding the topic feels like a glaring omission.

But then, there’s no examination of anything in Midsommar. Aster knows what everything means, but he refuses to tell you. Instead, he places people, scenes, events in front of you and commands you to do something with them. You squint. You scour the shot for a clue. You save the details for later. But there’s no reward in it for you, because Aster isn’t telling a story. He’s playing a guessing game.

‘Yesterday’ Rises Above Its Gimmick… Mostly

‘Yesterday’ knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun.

Yesterday is every musician’s dream born of a What If hypothetical: a Y2K-like event causes everyone in the world to forget the Beatles ever existed except for one man. The man is struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who seizes the mass amnesia as an opportunity to make his dream come true and co-opt the Beatles catalog as his own. Much of what follows is a rise-to-stardom tale sprinkled with unrequited love, imposter syndrome (but for real this time), and a whole lotta catchy ass Beatles songs. 

It’s to Yesterday’s credit that it doesn’t rely on its elevator pitch, because it could have, and then would have become the movie I thought I was going to see. The hypothetical works better than it should because the film is open to examining the consequences. An early example: before Jack realizes that the Beatles only exist to him, everyone thinks he’s written their songs. He’s routinely flabbergasted by everyone’s cursory judgment of songs that he deems to be masterpieces, rendering him an egoist, ensuing hilarity. That his friends and family would consider him suddenly so very self-centered is the logical extension of an alternate reality that feels both novel and familiar. It also unveils Yesterday’s secret weapon. 

Well, not so secret. It got you to see the movie. If you saw the trailer, no doubt you were taken by the adorable irony of the hypothetical. This referential irony – not at all to be confused with dramatic irony, because no – is part of the reason why the MCU has succeeded beyond all reason. Audiences find value in easter eggs and having theories being proven right. They enjoy being in on the joke. 

Yesterday rewards you for paying attention to culture. Or, the less cynical take: for being a part of the culture at large and for appreciating art. 

But referential irony means you’re a step ahead of every character at all times, which makes you feel smart, which results in laughter. With no Google search to deliver lyrics, because, after all, the Beatles songs don’t technically exist, Jack struggles to remember the songs. But we know. His endless quest to remember the words to “Eleanor Rigby” (“There’s rice in it!”) is funny because the clever editing and Jack’s swearing is funny but also funny because you want to scream at the screen, “IT’S FATHER MACKENZIE WHO DARNS THE SOCKS!” because you know something that that guy doesn’t. Referential irony recontextualizes your preexisting knowledge so that one joke becomes two jokes: one to laugh at and the other because you get it

Yesterday has a lighter hand than most films (read: American films) would when it comes to its referential jokes. All of the Picasso Lines in the trailer are sprinkled throughout the movie so it’s not as insufferable as it could have been. And many of them are undercut by a Google search sight gag that shows the most obvious answers (beetles not Beatles), so they’re not the full punchline. It’s a clever antidote to way-too-easy jokes. 

If you’re sensing a bit of skepticism from me, it’s totally there. I enjoyed Yesterday, I really, truly did, but I’m still trying to reconcile the (yes, well-executed) hypothetical with the gimmickry of referential irony. Why do people need to feel smarter than the thing they’re watching in order to enjoy it? But then, if the gimmick makes more people feel more involved in the thing they’re watching, how can that be a bad thing? Is it cheap? Maybe. Bad? No. I’d probably feel more irate about the gimmick if not for the fact that the referential irony doesn’t get in the way of the movie as a whole. 

Because, I promise you, cynic of all cynics, it really doesn’t. Yesterday knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun. It secured a killer leading pair in Patel and Lily James, who have actual chemistry, which is a bit hard to find this side of A Star Is Born while romcoms are still generally on the outs. Patel is perfect in the role. An outstanding vocalist and overflowing with movie-carrying energy, he also has the exact right face for the amount of times he needs to read “earnest but befuddled.” We’re also blessed to get Kate McKinnon as not-quite-villain in excellently tailored clothing. Her particular brand of weird is an amazing foil to Patel’s befuddled face. Yesterday toes the line of being too much so deftly it’s basically dancing on it: a lively if not mildly stiff Ed Sheeran plays himself and uses his own song as his ringtone. (As though people have ringtones anymore? The joke still lands.) Best of all, it’s not at all corny. 

Still. It’s clear that English romcom screenwriter emeritus Richard Curtis didn’t want to stray far from his comfort zone. Yesterday’s love story becomes its main narrative. But buried under its romcomness there’s a version of Yesterday that would resemble something closer to an art movie than what we got. Think of a peppier Inside Llewyn Davis that replaces some of the ennui with philosophy. There are more than a handful of occasions when the movie asks us to consider the following, though without a lick of follow-through: What are the implications of losing an immense cultural touchstone like the Beatles? What does it say about Rock and Roll’s history of cultural appropriation that Jack, a person of color, has trouble getting these incredible songs off the ground? What do these songs mean outside of their cultural context? What does music mean to people? 

It’s hard to tell if Yesterday’s hypothetical came before the decision to use the Beatles as the vanished band. The Beatles are the band, after all. It’s impossible to argue with their ubiquity, so we’ll never not buy the idea that the world would lose their collective shit over these songs. (And if you – yeah, you – don’t like the Beatles, you’re a contrarian and you know it. Grow up.) The hypothetical created a very lovely film, but it’s still hard to avoid the desire to see more of what this cinematic universe could provide.   

‘On the Basis of Sex’ is Infuriatingly Dull

‘On the Basis of Sex’ failed to find and use the fortitude of its subject, rather relying on the convention of “humble beginnings” and sucked all the air out of its own story.

Focus Features

I’m feeling the urge to use profanity. Well, more profanity than I might use in a typical review of a lukewarm movie. 

I’m also feeling the urge to use the first person, which I try not to do as a practice of objectivity, in as much as a film critic can be considering the whole job is to state an opinion. But I’m mostly reaching a point of exhaustion with the whole genre of the award-baity biopic. 

They’re so fucking stale. They’re coated with this layer of politeness so thick that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. That they have to be made with permission from their subject (or their subject’s estate, either of which usually has a vested interest in the movie’s production) neuters the story. They become an unreliable source of information because nothing the subject could do can veer too far from a predetermined, politically correct path. This is not a case for “warts and all” necessarily, but a plea to take some goddamned risks with your story. Especially when your subject is Ruth Bader fucking Ginsberg. 

There are few people alive in the United States right now that matter more than Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Her literal existence is keeping this country afloat. Her recent health scares have pushed the entire country’s populous to the edge of their collective seats (whether you agree with her politically or not) and her absence threatens to derail decades of progress and stall progress for decades more. This person’s story is one of urgency because the consequences surrounding her very fucking personageare so dire. 

And no amount of triumphant shots of RBG walking in skirts and heels among pant-legged men will convince me On the Basis of Sex had any interest in being anything other than cute. The film strives to be the origin story for a real-life superhero whose revolutionary infallibility has made her a cultural icon. But instead of showing her strength, On the Basis of Sex would have you see her belly, her vulnerability, her set-backs, the moments when even she couldn’t be moved beyond rejection. 

The film is too cute. Too cheeky. It uses too many historical in-jokes that undercuts its subject’s importance. It’s respectful in a way that robs the magnitude of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s achievements. It’s respectful in the way that has become distasteful in a post-11/9 America. Of course she’s suffered set-backs. Of course she’s been made to feel unimportant and silenced. A lot of white, liberal soul-searching over the last two and a half years have resulted in unhappy realizations of what hasn’t changed, not what has. Progress is progress is progress, but by and large the marginalized are still so. There are few of us left that aren’t disenfranchised, and the function of a film like On the Basis of Sex serves mostly as a reminder that forty years later, those in power still have their thumbs pressed firmly on this country’s forward momentum. 

We live in a time that’s too weird and nasty and tumultuous and to settle for respectful. Of course making a movie about a living legend is difficult. But On the Basis of Sexfailed to find and use the fortitude of its subject, rather relying on the convention of “humble beginnings” and sucked all the air out of its own story. This film is a history lecture instead of a battle cry. Its crowning achievement was landing a cameo by Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the final moments. She’s reached the top of the steps of the Capitol Building and there she is, despite her movie, a steel fucking beam. It’s enough to make you cry. 

‘Boy Erased’ Exists in a Religiously Tolerant Bubble

There is a lot of well-meaning ignorance floating around this story, but ignorance is only well-meaning if it does more good than harm.

Unerased Films, Inc.

Boy Erased is a film at the center of several Venn diagram bubbles. The first is that of Biopic, as it is based off of writer Gerrard Conley’s memoir of the same name. The character of Jared Eamons, portrayed by Lucas Hedges, is Conley’s surrogate, who is outted as gay to his parents by his college friend, Henry (Joe Alwyn). Jared and Henry are freshman who have a strongly developed sexual tension, until Henry rapes Jared, then confesses he’d also raped a kid in his church. Henry contacts Jared’s parents as a preemptive measure, to scare Jared into keeping silent about what happened.  

The outing comes with additional implications, because Jared and his parents are Evangelical Christians, which creates the second bubble. Upon Jared’s admission that he thinks he’s gay, his parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) enroll him in a gay conversion program called Love in Action. The program operates with very strict rules, including supervised uses of the bathroom, no phones, and no writing or reading, other than the materials provided. Jared’s classmates are mostly young adults or teenagers, and mostly male, so the program is tailored to enforce gender roles and stereotypes for young men. They’re taught to gesticulate in certain ways that read more masculine (fingers facing front when putting hands on hips, sturdy handshakes), and are goaded to feel anger rather than sadness, since the former is more masculine.

Though Jared’s story is an atypical one and doesn’t necessarily aim to be a catch-all tale of conversion therapy, the subject matter alone creates the third bubble of Harrowing Journey. His story is baseline humiliating, as this deeply personal aspect of one’s life becomes a community affair. He’s made to consider his sexuality as first a “problem,” and then as a “sin.” The tragedy in Jared is his how hard he’s trying to make it work. He wants so badly to live up to his parents’ and religious community’s expectation of young manhood. He believes so strongly that his faith will be what saves him. Jared is just a Good Kid. His Christian morality (the good, Jesus-like parts) are deeply ingrained, and he treats people with dignity and empathy. 

The trouble of Boy Erasedis that it leaned too hard into the intersection of Harrowing Journey and Christianity, not through Jared but through his parents, of which there is little more than a self-induced persecution complex. The film has an unexpectedly soft view of religion, which is difficult to not be cynical about, given the fear and anguish that religion (specifically this kind of religion) causes. There is a lot of well-meaning ignorance floating around this story, but ignorance is only well-meaning if it does more good than harm.

Jared gets out from under the thumb of conversion therapy with the help of his unexpectedly tolerant mother and his own impressive capacity for critical thinking, but other kids are not so lucky. One is clearly being regularly beaten by his father, another kills himself after his family is forced (and fully willing) to beat him with a Bible. Boy Erasedis asking too much of its audience: it wants to give credit to the ignorant while creating empathy for those who torture their children physically, emotionally, morally, and otherwise. 

After Jared leaves Love in Action, the film jumps forward four years, and shows him living in New York with a bevy of supportive friends and some published writing. In what appears to be a rare moment of communication with his still-religious father, Jared tells him that he’s the one who needs to change, not the other way around. If Boy Erasedwere interested in Jared’s journey and not the redemption of the ignorant, it would have shown how he found and rebuilt himself over four years, not his reluctant father ignoring his son’s pleas.

Boy Erased is not a bad movie in its execution, but there’s something distasteful in its loyalty to the world that created its very subject matter. It’s not a cautionary tale more than a polite imploration of empathy to the religious right, who would likely not see this movie anyway. It exists in the bubble it created for itself.