Movie Review – Broker

Broker (2022)
Written & Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

I was blown away by Shoplifters, filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s 2018 movie about a family of outcasts who find solace in each other from an often cruel world. It was my first encounter with the writer/director, and his attention to humanism was a wonderful thing to experience. This meant I was pretty excited to watch Broker, and I can’t say my expectations were met. Broker is not a bad movie, but it doesn’t reach the heights of Shoplifters. Nevertheless, we still get a remarkable story about another found family that has to face reality in the end and find some way to hold the love they had for each other while the world pulls them apart. Once again, Kore-eda shows us that the most compelling stories to be told are ones about humans and their complicated relationships with each other.

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Comic Book Review – Aquaman by Geoff Johns Omnibus

Aquaman by Geoff Johns Omnibus (2017)
Reprints Aquaman #0-19, 21-25, 23.1, 23.2 & Justice League #15-17
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis and Paul Pelletier

In 2011, DC Comics took a bold move by relaunching its entire comics line under the banner of the New 52. Geoff Johns was already one of the people creatively at the company’s helm, so he could keep his Green Lantern run going pretty much intact. In addition, he was given the prized title of Justice League to revamp and then took it upon himself to also try and reignite enthusiasm over Aquaman. Over the preceding decade or more, Aquaman had been relegated to a joke character. In shows like Family Guy or Adult Swim’s Robot Chicken, if the character was referenced, it would be to state how useless his power set was compared to the more “impressive” heroes in DC’s catalog.

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Movie Review – Skinamarink

Skinamarink (2022)
Written & Directed by Kyle Edward Ball

When you are a child, a dark house can be the most foreboding thing in the world. Something that was once familiar in the daylight becomes absolutely nightmarish when the sun sets. As you grow into an understanding of the world, those fears subside and are replaced with more “adult” anxieties. Yet, something remains in the back of your head. Some cold autumn night when you have to go down into the basement, or you wake up and need to use the restroom down a blackened hallway, those childhood terrors begin slithering back from the corners of your mind. This is the atmosphere that Kyle Edward Ball is attempting to invoke with his experimental horror feature Skinamarink.

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Movie Review – Surviving Christmas

Surviving Christmas (2004)
Written by Harry Elfont, Deborah Kaplan, Jennifer Ventimilia, and Joshua Sternin
Directed by Mike Mitchell

It began in 2000. Sony Pictures wanted to develop a film for actress/comedian/director Betty Thomas. By this time, she’d directed films like The Brady Bunch Movie, Howard Stern’s Private Parts, and Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle. These weren’t ground-breaking movies, but people out there feel compelled to watch at least one of these if they come across it on television. The Brady Bunch Movie is mine. The more the film developed, the more Sony became hesitant to make it and eventually washed its hands of the project. So, Surviving Christmas found its way to Dreamworks. Ms. Buckley also smartly walked away from the movie.

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Movie Review – How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)

How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000)
Written by Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman
Directed by Ron Howard

Why? This is a question I often ask when going back and looking at older films, especially those adapted from popular IPs. These days it’s surprising when a film playing in the theater isn’t a cash grab on a well-known character or a single piece of an endlessly sprawling cinematic universe. In 2000, we were by no means in a golden age of cinema, but at least you could see something and be surprised by it. For years, Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, had refused to sell the film rights to his children’s books. He’d okayed some cartoon shorts but held fast that he didn’t want movie theaters to be showing bloated versions of his simplistic texts. Then he died in 1991. “Take that, you book-writing bitch!” Hollywood seemed to cackle. By 1998, the boys in LA had convinced Geisel’s widow to sign over the film rights of The Grinch. She stipulated in a letter that whoever plays the Grinch must be of the stature of “Jack Nicholson, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, and Dustin Hoffman.” All this makes me want is a Nicholson-led Grinch. Can you imagine?!

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Movie Review – Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Written by Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, and Sergio Leone
Directed by Sergio Leone

Fairy tales are lovely things. They provide us with simple explanations for how the world works, little comforts before we fall asleep, ready to dream of all the beautiful things to come. The final shot of Once Upon Time in America shows its central character, Noodles (Robert DeNiro), lying down beneath a thin sheet as he’s about to be served opium in a den in 1933. The last thing we see is his confident smile that everything will work out. He might be down on his luck, but he did a “good” thing, which makes it alright. The viewer, having made their way through this 4+ hour runtime, knows better. We have seen the beautiful and horrible things that have been and are to come for Noodles, and that smile cuts through us. It doesn’t symbolize joy; it represents a profound tragic ignorance and decades of pain & confusion to come.

Sergio Leone’s final film, Once Upon a Time in America, is his only gangster movie, based on the novel The Hoods, which he’d been trying to adapt since the 1960s. Told across three points in time (1918, 1933, and 1968), we follow David “Noodles” Aaronson, a Jewish-American boy who forms a street gang with his friends, spends over a decade in prison, gets out to find his friends have built something more significant, and then loses it all by the time he’s an old man. This is not the story of a good person or someone who didn’t deserve to have it all taken away. Noodles is a horrible person, a vulgar brute & rapist, he deserves to lose, but that doesn’t make the trajectory of his life less tragic or painful to watch. Leone understands that every violent monster was a baby, a child once and that we don’t have to praise them, but we do need to understand them. If we hope to make a world where children are not ground up into these kinds of base killers, we need to know how they get there. No one is born evil. 

The most critical relationship in Noodles’s life is with Max (James Woods). The two meet as boys (played by Scott Tiler and Rusty Jacobs in 1918). The movie’s central love story is between these two characters, and you can feel the hunger grow between them as time passes. There’s an intense scene of the two as adults poolside, their respective molls lounging behind them. Noodles and Max face each other, and Max talks intensely about his plans for an upcoming robbery, emphasizing how this will allow him and Noodles to be free. There’s no thought or mention of the women they are with because they are disposable. Their true loves are each other, and all their passions lie in their bond. They fuck women, but they love each other. This doesn’t excuse how we see them treat women, but it is essential to understand what happens between these two men.

But let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Let’s talk about Deborah. As a young girl, Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) is the object of Noodle’s fantasies. There’s a hole in the bathroom wall of her family’s deli where Noodles will watch her practice her ballet dancing. She is keenly aware that he is watching and playfully teases him, a game of young love going back and forth. When Noodles finally tries to talk to her about how he feels, it’s incoherent. Deborah stops him. She lays out that she could never be with someone who is ultimately a two-bit thug, that Noodles has chosen a life for himself that she can’t live with, and so they will never be anything. She’s entirely correct; women who end up with men like Noodles don’t have pristine life stories; they always end in tragedy one way or the other.

Over a decade later, Noodles is released after murdering a cop and reunited with his old pals. Deborah is also there, and we are unsure if something will be rekindled between them. However, before they have their beautiful moment under the moonlight, Noodles takes part in a diamond robbery aided in part by Carol (Tuesday Weld), a sex worker who also works in the jewelers where the diamonds are held. The gang has to convince the jeweler that Carol is not in on the heist, so Noodles rapes her to make sure the story is “believed.” It’s a shocking moment but not filmed in a way that betrays Leone’s own perspective. He just films the moment and lets us sit with that. It’s never directly addressed by anyone in the scene or even Carol. Later, she shows up as Max’s moll, yet she and Noodles never talk about the rape. That’s important to note as we go back to talk about Deborah.

Noodles and Deborah go on a lavish date, and she talks about her dreams of going to Hollywood and becoming a famous performer. They sit by a river under the moonlight as Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous score plays. I was watching this in complete awe of the beauty Leone could present on the screen. This felt like two human beings connecting, a love being born; this was something good in Noodles’ life. But Leone is not a fool. It’s in his title, “Once Upon a Time.” Life is a fairy tale, a falsehood, a pose obscuring America’s nasty truth. 

On the limousine ride home, Noodles brutally rapes Deborah. It’s just a kiss, an embrace, but then, like an animal, he just savages her. We are made to sit through the scene absent that beautiful score, just the sounds of Noodles’ heavy breathing and Deborah’s screams and cries in protest. The car stops, Noodles exits, lights a cigarette. We know he knows he’s a fucked up person, but it’s too late. He destroyed whatever beauty had existed between them. Noodles offers the driver cash to drive Deborah home, and the man rejects the money but takes her away regardless. Noodles continues his late night by seeking a brothel and bedding down for the night with a sex worker whom he lets tag along for a while. Viewers with good memories will note this is the same woman murdered in the film’s opening scene as the mob is hunting for Noodles. 

When Morricone’s score returns, it doesn’t hit us with the same sense of beauty; this time, it’s a mournful tragedy. It’s a beautiful note played against the ugliest of tableaus that evokes a sense of painful sadness and sorrow. As Noodles’ life unravels further, as his plans to protect Max seemingly fail to happen, he retreats further into confusion. How he’d thought you lived life to be a success isn’t working out. Growing up, he’d seen that you would eventually get to the top if you brutalized and bullied your way along. That’s the way the other gangs operated. Hell, the police functioned practically the same. Manipulating a cop is how the crew got things off the ground in 1918 in the first place. 

If you are an American, as I am (however, living outside of the country), you are subject to a very coercive & effective system of propaganda from the moment of your birth. The messages about society and individuality are blasted into your brain every waking moment, from what you see in the news to the emphasis on “merit-based” success and bootstrap ideology, devotion & adherence to clearly broken institutions. If you just fuck over enough people, you, too, can be a winner! You see it in the praise of billionaires as “financial geniuses” rather than lucky-by-birth, duplicitous exploiters. The worst I’ve seen, especially as a teacher, is how this system of social education affects immigrants. So many Southeast Asian and Latine immigrants guzzle down these lies because they are so desperate to assimilate, and this “grindset” is how society appears to “function.” The country is a meat grinder, and its citizens are divided into two class-centric groups: the wealthy, turning the crank, and the rest of us, who get turned into dog food. The tragedy is that we future cans of Alpo are so effectively convinced to turn on each other, fighting to be the first one at the top of a pile of corpses.

Noodles is an objectively abhorrent character, and his rape of Deborah cements his status. I could not forgive him, but I still ached at that final scene. Leone isn’t going to just write people off as nothing; the tragedy comes from those childhood years when the movie is filmed with this sense of awe about New York City, the feeling that something magical could happen, that is the fairy tale of this story. The further we move along through time, the less pretty things become; even the lighting becomes darker, more noir-ish. Leone tells us the story of how immigrants got caught up in the fantasy of this time and how it destroyed them in the end. All the money, the violence, and the women you could fuck, whether they wanted it or not, amounts to nothing. You just hurt people struggling just like you, and it got you nowhere. You cannot argue that Noodles, Max, and friends are bootlickers. They rightfully hate cops, but they are too blinded to see that the path they’ve chosen instead doesn’t end with them coming out any better than those who stringently follow the system. In fact, organized crime was made a part of the system. The police are state-sponsored organized crime; the mob is an independent contractor. 

I’ve seen some reviews on Twitter and Letterboxd where it’s clear the person did not get what Leone was doing here. They are so fixated on the act of rape that they fail to understand why it is in the movie. Leone was as mad as they were about Noodles raping Deborah. People who like this movie feel the same anger. However, you have to understand this is a piece of art and the presentation of a criminal act in art is not an endorsement of the action. You can tell Leone finds nothing beautiful about it in how he films it. A subset of Americans is increasingly demanding puritanical art obscuring our lives’ cruel truth. I don’t fault anyone for wanting to indulge in fantasy. Hell, the majority of what’s playing in cineplexes across the country is escapist garbage that either has no connection to what people are experiencing in their material reality or pieces of poorly hidden propaganda that seek to re-instill conformity in the masses. They may present diverse faces, but the themes and intent of the art are still as sinister and nasty as ever.

Once Upon a Time in America is a better film in its portrayal of organized crime than The Godfather and the gangster movies it inspired. I don’t dislike The Godfather. It is one of the best movies ever made, but so is this. Leone’s final film is a tragic romance, deconstructing the dense myths America built up about these criminal figures. He is saying that if you live by these principles, you will die a friendless, miserable, old piece of shit. No one in the movie gets a happy ending. Hell, one of the last times we see a central character are his limbs getting ground up in a trash compactor. If you walk away thinking Leone doesn’t view these characters as harshly as you, then it speaks to a profound lack of literacy in the culture than it does the filmmaker’s work. This picture is a condemnation of America, shared through tears and a sense that it didn’t have to be like this. These children didn’t need to become these broken old men. But, they just followed the few paths before them as immigrants in a country that has always harbored a seething hatred for new arrivals while assigning themselves some sort of divine right to exist in the space. Once Upon in a Time in America should linger with you, it should be something you cannot get out of your head, and the outcome of that contemplation should be on ways we can make a world where children do not get locked into suicidal lives before they get a chance to understand who they are and could be.

Movie Review – Piggy

Piggy (2022)
Written & Directed by Carlota Pereda

Being fat is not fun sometimes. As a fat person growing up in a fatphobic culture, I have struggled with my body image. I know it’s far worse for women than me. Experiencing a disconnect between body and mind can be a horribly traumatizing experience. Piggy explores a terrifying weekend in one fat girl’s life when she becomes entangled in the murder spree of a serial killer in her small Spanish hometown. Much like Julia Ducournau’s work on Raw and Titane, this movie seeks to tell an intensely violent story while exploring issues surrounding being fat and being a woman.

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TV Review – Atlanta Season Four

Atlanta Season 4 (2022)
Written by Stephen Glover, Ibra Ake, Jamal Olori, Stefani Robinson, Janine Nabers, Francesca Sloane, Karen Joseph Adcock, and Taofik Kolade
Directed by Hiro Murai, Angela Barnes, Adamma Ebo, and Donald Glover

Atlanta was always a show that was hard to describe. Yes, there were main characters: Earn, Vanessa, Darius, and Al/Paper Boi. But the series was also an experimental anthology, breaking away from those serialized stories to tell one-offs. Both types of stories always felt infused with a sense of magical realism that turned the show into a fantasy, an exploration of being Black in America in the Southeast but imagining beyond the limitations of reality. Atlanta never tried to capture Black voices outside of this particular place, I’m sure it spoke to aspects of the Black experience, but it clearly was a show about the place and time as much as the people. The third season, which saw our four primary characters touring Europe, was met with less enthusiasm than usual. That makes sense, it was the season the least connected to Atlanta, but I still found it to have some episodes that were masterpieces. It was nice to get back to the city in season four, and the creators involved didn’t skip a beat.

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TV Review – Better Call Saul Season 3

Better Call Saul Season 3 (2015)
Written by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, Thomas Schnauz, Gennifer Hutchison, Jonathan Glatzer, Gordon Smith, Ann Cherkis, Heather Marion
Directed by Vince Gilligan, John Shiban, Thomas Schnauz, Daniel Sackheim, Keith Gordon, Adam Bernstein, Minkie Spiro, Peter Gould

What does it mean to do “good”? There is so much talk about good, evil, laws, and criminals in America without any tangible examination of what these terms and their underlying concepts even mean. Season three of Better Call Saul opens with another black-and-white vignette set in Jimmy McGill’s present. He’s still working at a Nebraska Cinnabon under the alias of “Gene.” “Gene” is taking his lunch break, munching on a homemade sandwich, when he witnesses a teenage boy shoplift. The boy hides in a photo booth, and the mall security guards have no idea where the boy has gone. A beat passes. “Gene” nods towards the photobooth after making eye contact with the guards. They apprehend the boy, and he glares, knowing precisely who turned him in. The guilt suddenly washes over “Gene” as they march the boy away in handcuffs. “Gene” did what was ‘right,’ but he certainly doesn’t feel that way. Suddenly he shouts, “Don’t say anything without a lawyer present!” which garners an expletive from the guard. 

The third season of Better Call Saul centers on this question. Are the actions of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) ‘good’ and ‘lawful’ & do they have to be both. He’s positioned against older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), whose crusade against his sibling reaches its zenith here. Chuck sees the world in clear absolutes. There is the LAW; anything outside of that is wrong, bad, evil, your negative pejorative here. Jimmy sees the legal profession as a malleable tool to reach desired outcomes. Jimmy’s core motivation is not money but winning. He loves going head to head and coming out the victor. Chuck would never admit this, but it is his fundamental motivation. Instead of being open about it, as his little brother has always been, Chuck couches it in a veneer of civility & order. You see the cracks when Chuck is delivered a metaphorical killing blow in the season’s third act. 

One of the biggest problems when making a prequel television series is that you risk making a static show. We know where Jimmy will end up, so how do you still deliver fresh stories showing growth when the endpoint is known? You do this by introducing new characters not present in the starting series. Chuck, Howard Hamlin, Nacho Varga, and Kim. Oh, Kim. Before watching this show, I’d seen some people refer to Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) as the “heart” of Better Call Saul. I had no context for that, but it stuck with me. I’m seeing that happening now, making my heart ache for future seasons. Kim is a glorious character, a perfect counterpoint to Jimmy & Chuck. They are angry little boys who use the Law as a cudgel in their personal family bitterness.

Kim is the audience surrogate more than Jimmy or Chuck, or Mike. She is in the middle. Kim is a person who wants to do good. Helping people makes her feel good. She likes the way she can use the law to help them. Yet, she acknowledges that the law’s mechanisms can harm and impede progress. Like all of us, she has personal ambitions; she wants to be known as a good lawyer in her community. Jimmy constantly tempts Kim to his side, not benevolence but mutually beneficial. Look at the Sandpiper Crossing case, where Jimmy wants plaintiffs to settle now so he can get paid quicker than waiting for the process to play out. The victims will get compensated, and so will Jimmy, but they may not get a fair deal. Chuck believes the case should play itself out regardless if the delay harms Jimmy personally. Kim benefits from Jimmy’s machinations; this results in the greatest internal conflict for her. But, ultimately, she does appreciate what he did.

That doesn’t mean she agrees with Jimmy entirely. His loss of income when his ability to practice is harmed, Kim says it’s OK to his face but then overburdens herself with finding additional clients to make up the gap. By the end of the season, Kim is in the hospital because of this and has to re-center herself to understand what really matters to her. Some of Jimmy did rub off, the fun-loving part, yet even then, she is still her own person. I didn’t think I would become this invested in Kim Wexler when I first started watching a show about the crooked lawyer from Breaking Bad, but here we are. Rhea Seehorn has me in awe, such a nuanced yet strong performance that results in a multi-layered character that surpasses anything I’ve seen in the Breaking Bad verse. Kim does good things and bad things, all in a realistic context. She might not become a criminal mastermind, but she will leave out a piece of evidence if she thinks it could benefit, but it is when she ultimately relents and adheres to presenting everything, even if it harms her case, that we come to love Kim. We hope she can hold onto Jimmy’s hand and keep him from going over the edge, but…we know partly how this story ends. I’m worried because Jimmy would only end up where he is now if Kim wasn’t there to pull him back.