The Fascinatingly Conflicted ‘Bombshell’ Documents the Downfall of Roger Ailes

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle SMPSP

Starring: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Rob Delaney, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Liv Hewson, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell

Director: Jay Roach

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Powerful Men Behaving Badly

Release Date: December 13, 2019 (Limited)/Expands December 20, 2019

Most of the audience who will see Bombshell are probably not regular Fox News viewers. Although I don’t want to assume anything too definitively. Maybe there are actually some people who have the mental capacity to watch both a notoriously conservative news network and a movie that is fundamentally critical about it. Bombshell makes a similar argument against rushing to judgment when being critical seems like the most obvious correct approach to take, especially in one key scene when a woman confronts Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) in a grocery store, and Carlson shoots back about the virtue of treating with respect the people you disagree with. That could easily be a shallow bromide, but when you consider what Carlson is going through, it has unexpected resonance.

What Carlson is going through is a fight against the systematic misogyny at Fox News, a workplace whose initiation for its female employees apparently includes a signature piece of harassment from founder Roger Ailes (a gluttonously made-up John Lithgow). After Carlson is let go from the network in 2016, she files a lawsuit alleging harassment against Ailes, prompting the other women at Fox News to consider if they will support her. Many of them are reflexively Team Roger, but a few of them actually have a crisis of conscience, especially Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) and a fictional character named Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie).

The filmmaking trick here is generating empathy, which is generally pretty easy to do for people who have clearly been harassed and abused. But matters are complicated by the fact that these women so resolutely insist that they’re not feminists as they come to terms with speaking out against the misogyny they’ve endured. I certainly believe it is possible to extend humanity to someone you deeply disagree with, but the struggle is even deeper than that. Even if these women leave and renounce their employer, they can’t ever escape the mark of having once worked at Fox News, so far removed is the network from the rest of the media landscape. It’s a sort of original sin that traps them in an infinite labyrinth. For a film that could have so easily been straightforward in many ways, I appreciate the complexity at its heart.

Bombshell is Recommended If You Like: Feeling disgusted and empathetic at the same time

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Lawsuits

Movie Review: ‘The Mustang’ is a Quietly Beautiful Tale of a Convict Finding Redemption Through Horse Training

2 Comments

CREDIT: Focus Features

Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jason Mitchell, Gideon Adlon, Connie Britton, Bruce Dern

Director: Laure de Clermont-Tennerre

Running Time: 96 Minutes

Rating: R for Horse-on-Human and Human-on-Horse Violence and Prison Profanity

Release Date: March 15, 2019 (Limited)

Is it possible to forgive yourself and move forward from the worst, most destructive mistake you’ve ever made in your life? That’s the question at the heart of The Mustang, the feature directorial debut of French actress Laure de Clermont-Tennerre. Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenarts) is in prison for assaulting his wife, but you don’t know that’s his crime until about halfway through, because he’s so tightly coiled that he barely conveys any information vocally beyond acknowledging people’s presence and asking them to go away. You get the sense that he wasn’t always this way, or at least that it wasn’t always this extreme. A key scene is a group therapy session in which the therapist (Connie Britton) asks Roman and the other convicts, “How long from the thought of the crime to the actual crime?” For most of them it was a matter of seconds, a moment of passion that instantly, dramatically altered their lives and self-perception.

For Roman, he cannot see a way back to himself or a version of his life in which he could ever again be comfortable spending time with his pregnant teenage daughter (Gideon Adlon). But despite the personal hell he is stuck in, a chance for redemption comes through via, of all things, a program for convicts to break and train wild horses (run by a no-nonsense Bruce Dern, charming in a crotchety sort of way). You don’t have to think too deeply to see the symbolism of Roman as a broken animal and to know that’s how they form such an empathetic bond after a violently unpromising introduction (Roman pounds the horse’s chest out of frustration in an early training session). Thankfully, De Clermont-Tennerre wisely underplays just about every moment, allowing Schoenaerts’ quiet intensity to do its job and speak every message that needs to be conveyed. This is a movie about hope emerging from a profoundly hopeless situation. That always has currency in cinema, and life itself.

The Mustang is Recommended If You Like: The Rider but with a lot more quietly intense masculinity with hidden sensitivity, The Shawshank Redemption

Grade: 4 out of 5 Wild Horses

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’ is a Love(s) Story Like No Other

Leave a comment

CREDIT: Claire Folger/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall, Bella Heathcote, Connie Britton, Oliver Platt

Director: Angela Robinson

Running Time: 108 Minutes

Rating: R for Getting It On Unapologetically

Release Date: October 13, 2017

I think every man, woman, boy, girl, or whatever personal nomenclature you prefer should go and be inspired by Wonder Woman. I also want to recommend just as wholeheartedly Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, the story of Wonder Woman’s creator and his inspiration, but fair warning: William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) lived an unprecedented life, by any era’s standards. His biography is not absolutely necessary to understand the context of Diana Prince, but it is enlightening. His story is also alarming, but also ultimately joyous, and that is true especially in light of the Wonder Woman film so pointedly emphasizing Diana’s prerogative to protect all life.

To get right into it: Marston did not come into comic books through publishing or 9-to-5 hackery, but rather psychology and academia. He is noted for developing DISC Theory, which proposes that all human behavior can be categorized as either dominance, inducement, submission, or compliance. To be clear, this is not just sexual behavior he is talking about, but all human behavior. If you’re wondering if a guy like this would be intrigued by sexual bondage, then your instincts are correct. However, if you’re also thinking that this part of the story has nothing to do with the creation of Wonder Woman, you clearly have not read her early issues. Marston is also famous for inventing an early lie detector prototype, and now that are you are remembering the Lasso of Truth, it should be abundantly clear how his ideas have lived on.

But while all that history is important to the film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a love story through and through, and an unapologetically nontraditional one. Marston and his wife Elizabeth Holloway Marston (Rebecca Hall), a fellow psychologist, lived with another woman, Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), lover to them both. If this arrangement sounds like misogyny lurking underneath a supposed ally of women, well, this staunchly feminist does not see it that way, and neither do its staunchly feminist characters. Instead, Bill, Elizabeth, and Olive, in their decision to live together in defiance of society’s standards, are positioned as self-sacrificing heroes ahead of their time. This is true perhaps in the sense that as the inspirations of an iconic fictional character, the ladies’ legacy lives on. But it is not exactly true (at least not yet) in the sense that polyamory is still far from normal.

Personally, I do not object to polyamory on any moral grounds, but rather, because I find the prospect emotionally exhausting. But damn if Professor Marston doesn’t have me cheering for those who believe in it. There is no doubt that this trio are in fact deeply in love with each other. A series of lie detector scenes make that effervescently clear. These moments may be cinematic contrivances, but I don’t care, as they are so entertainingly bold! Indeed, it is rare to find any major theatrical release whose social and romantic politics are so unapologetic, and for that, it should be cherished.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is Recommended If You Like: Wonder Woman comics – the classic and the obscure stuff, Jules and Jim, Shakespeare in Love, Secretary

Grade: 4 out of 5 Lie Detectors

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘Beatriz at Dinner,’ Salma Hayek Ain’t Taking No Guff From Racist John Lithgow

1 Comment

This review was originally published on News Cult in June 2017.

Starring: Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, John Early

Director: Miguel Arteta

Running Time: 83 Minutes

Rating: R for Verbal Knifeplay

Release Date: June 9, 2017 (Limited)

What would you do if you have had a chance encounter with the person who represents all that you oppose? I imagine that many people would feel quite strongly when responding to this question but also that it would produce a number of disparate, potentially conflicting answers. Beatriz at Dinner, the latest collaboration from the Chuck & Buck team of writer Mike White (School of Rock, HBO’s Enlightened) and director Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids), fundamentally understands this tension, with conviction in its ideals and uncertainty about how to live by them.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a goat-owning masseuse/healer who makes a house call to her wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton). When her car breaks down, she finds herself stuck at Cathy and her husband’s Grant’s (David Warshofsky) fancy dinner party. Cathy is happy to have Beatriz there, as she considers her family ever since she helped her daughter through cancer treatment. But Beatriz is culturally light years away from client’s friends and colleagues. Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, and Amy Landecker are right in their cluelessly arrogant upper class wheelhouses. (Sample dialogue: “I love psychic stuff.”) And then there is real estate mogul Doug Strutt, brought to gloriously, hideously racist life by John Lithgow.

Comparisons between Strutt and a certain current world leader are inevitable, among perhaps both his detractors and his supporters. But it is worth noting that Lithgow’s performance is as far as can be from crudity, in terms of style if not so much substance. His default presence makes him a natural at playing oddly trustworthy authority figures. He has a hint of eccentricity – not so much that he ought to be dismissed, but just enough that he is allowed to get away with it. That reputation is ripe for subversion, as in the NBC sitcom Trial & Error, where his eccentricity verges on bumbling idiocy, or here, where it is a cover for plain evil.

While Lithgow’s performance is impressive in the most expected ways, Hayek’s is fascinating for how surprisingly, and occasionally even bafflingly, Beatriz behaves. But there are not really any logical inconsistencies here, as there is no blueprint for how to act in this situation. Beatriz believes that she recognizes Strutt as the developer who destroyed her Mexican community, and so she viciously chews him in front of the whole party. In this game of chess, she may have sacrificed her queen too early, but perhaps it is all part of her strategy. She bobs and weaves, offering up apologies, or feigning them, or mixing legitimate apologies in with lip service. In the meantime, she gathers up evidence to potentially prove Strutt’s misdeeds. But to what end? This is a man who boasts of skirting, or even running roughshod over, the law.

Responding to this moral vacuum requires counterintuitive behavior, which inspires a career-best performance from Hayek but puts the film on shaky narrative ground. The story ultimately becomes just as untethered as Beatriz, and accordingly it cannot really figure out how to conclude. Should it go in for the kill and ramp up the intensity, or should it settle for the moral victory? It offers up both versions, which is a little frustrating, but the straightforward viciousness is fun while it lasts.

Beatriz at Dinner is Recommended If You Like: Enlightened, Evil John Lithgow, Clapping Back

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Aperitifs for Destruction

This Is a Movie Review: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Leave a comment

me-earl-dying-girl-popsicle

Greg Gaines (the titular “me”) is reminiscent of Community‘s Jeff Winger. In the beginning of his story, he puts a great deal of effort into proving that he does not care, only for his ending to underscore the lengths to which he does care.

Greg defines himself by how detached he is from the high school clique system. He affects a dispassionate disposition, but he puts so much effort into being on amicable terms with every group. He goes so far as to devise a taxonomy that is thorough enough to include “Boring Jewish Senior Girls, Subgroup 2A.”

Every other major character is presented through Greg’s limited perspective, and accordingly they register as if they are all in their own distinct movies. Nick Offerman and Connie Britton play slightly against type/slightly extending from their types as Greg’s parents, making for a pretentious art flick and a slightly overbearing dramedy. Molly Shannon is right in her wheelhouse in the overbearing comedy portion as the mother of the girl with cancer. Jon Bernthal is Greg’s history teacher in the slightly dangerous bildungsroman. And Katherine C. Hughes, as Madison, the hot girl who means well but makes Greg feel terrible by virtue of being a hot girl, prompts the animated fantasy sequences.

Fuller portraits of Earl and Rachel (the titular girl) manage to shine through, thanks to their significant screen time. Greg refers to Earl, his filmmaking partner, as his “co-worker,” but Earl is quick to point out that they are in fact friends. There is a bit of a magical Negro vibe at play, which could have been unfortunate save for RJ Cyler making Earl so strong-willed and the narrative presenting plenty of personal background.

Rachel could have very well been the embodiment of cancer-related epiphanies or just one half of a typical teenage weepie romance. Indeed, Greg often suggests that the story seems to be going in that direction, only to immediately rebuke that idea. Instead, Olivia Cooke keeps Rachel appropriately grounded, as she comes across as just a person dealing with her illness on her own terms. As far as Greg and Rachel’s relationship goes, they develop a true friendship as a result of spending a lot of time with each other. Potential interpretations of the exact nature of their friendship are left wide open.

Madison represents an intriguingly unique story tack. She emerges as another love interest for Greg, which – for a character with only a handful of scenes in a movie with a more expected potential romance – is disconcerting, but also resonant. Greg assumes that Madison’s attention towards him is just pity, but there are enough subtle tells to suggest that her interest is genuine. What emerges is a film accomplished in its thorough commitment to taking on the subjective perspective of a protagonist so insecure that he cannot imagine that anyone would actually think highly of him. As Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is stuck in Greg’s head for so long, it is cathartic when he is finally able to get out of it.

A few words must also be devoted to Greg and Earl’s parody films (with dumbly brilliant pun titles like “Eyes Wide Butt,” “My Dinner with Andre the Giant,” and “Pittsburghasqatsi”). Because Greg is so unassuming regarding their quality, they come off as more charming than annoying. And based on what footage is actually shown, there appears to be decent composition and editing. It helps that Earl’s committed performances consistently shine through. Much of the story is leading up to the premiere of the film that the duo are making for Rachel, which could have ended up as so many clichés, but instead emerges as an idiosyncratic vision (regardless of quality level) and hardly what anyone could have possibly expected.