Carl Reiner, 1922-2020

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For my eleventh birthday, all I wanted was a Carl Reiner movie. A little more than a year after the release of The Jerk, Reiner’s sixth film as a director and his first of four straight starring Steve Martin, the comedy was making its debut on HBO and I was desperate to see it. It was rated R, so I needed to ask permission to watch it, but I got my longed-for gift. The main draw was Martin — my youthful fandom for him was fervent — but I also knew, improbably, about Reiner’s involvement, thanks to my weird devotion to watching daytime celebrity talk shows that regularly included Reiner as a member of the old guard comedy elite. And I spent almost every day watching reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, attuned to the fact that it sprung from Reiner’s mind, in part because he occasionally showed up in the program, pugnaciously playing Alan Brady, the television star who employed the character played by the comic actor who gave the show its title. As I was first formulating the idea that the best comedy came from consistent, distinctive voices, Reiner’s voice was one of the first I heard and recognized.

A writer on the classic Your Show of Shows, Reiner didn’t start his career by creating his sitcom avatar Rob Petrie, but that’s arguably where his skill as a deceptively elegant innovator was first and most potently on display. I think it’s fair to say Reiner invented the modern sitcom, moving it away from the farcical floundering of the nineteen-fifties iteration of the form that was still deeply beholden to vaudevillian antics. The Dick Van Dyke Show was a workplace comedy, a warm family comedy, and mildly self-effacing showbiz satire all in one, developing enough distinctive characters that the jokes flowed seemingly organically from simply introducing a mild dilemma into the environment on a weekly basis and letting the figures on screen react according to their solidly established predilections. This is the mouth of the river that still feeds the best television comedy today.

Looking back, it’s remarkable how generous Reiner was in his approach to comedy. He was the straight man to his lifelong friend Mel Brooks in their famed and everlasting 2000 Year Old Man routine (which even snagged the duo a place on their beloved Jeopardy!), he based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his own life but clearly tailored it to the loose-limbed talents of his star, and made films that were dedicated showcases to the performers he cast. Among the films, none were more effective than the four outings with Martin, culminating in All of Me, released in 1984, which contains, in Martin’s partially possessed lawyer, one of the all-time great comedy performances projected onto the big screen. Reiner was even an early and persistent champion of Albert Brooks, telling anyone who’d listen, “The funniest person I know is my son’s friend,” back when Brooks was just another kid palling already with teenaged Rob Reiner. When Brooks made his first appearance on The Tonight Show, Carl Reiner was guest-hosting. Like all the most admirable funny people, Reiner was most committed to finding and celebrating others who made him laugh.

In his old age, Reiner remained fully engaged with the world around him, taking a knee or proudly donning a t-shirt to proclaim solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and generally pushing back with all his might against the corrosive liars wreaking havoc in leadership positions they gained through dubious means. He put the lie to the notion that people atrophy as they age, their ideas and outlooks turning to stone as if under Medusa’s gaze. He lived his principles to the very end, engaging his fellow global citizens with kindness, understanding, and heart.

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Outside Reading — Canon Fodder edition

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Rethinking the Film Canon by Rich Juzwiak

Earlier this year, I was listening to the Little Gold Men podcast as they discussed the newly announced Academy Award nominations. As they mostly expressed relief about the small signs of voters looking beyond the usual array of white-dudes-with-guns movies, even as they felt obliged to concede appreciation for the usual suspects among the honorees. (As did I.) Almost as an aside, one of the cohosts raised the idea that what was needed to shift away from the constant threat of #OscarsSoWhite controversy was not diversity initiatives mounted by the Academy, but a wholesale reevaluation of what kinds of stories and films are considered important and therefore Oscar-worthy. The recent Gone with the Wind kerfuffle provides the entryway to do exactly that, and Rich Juzwiak makes a good start with this article, written for Jezebel.

 

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You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument by Caroline Randall Williams

In this absolute powerhouse oped, published by The New York Times, Caroline Randall Williams makes the strongest possible argument against statues honoring Confederate soldiers and does so with unflinching candor about her own identity and family history. In particular, the opening sentence is devastating. Any comments I might add are doomed to inadequacy.

 

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Confederate Monuments Getting Removed By Protesters Is a Statement of People Power by Jane’a Johnson

In the city I call home, debate turned to the sanctity of statues this week. Angry protestors responded to the needlessly rough arrest of one of their fellow activists by pulling down two statues near the State Capitol that commemorated progressive causes and an abolitionist, hardly symbols of bigotry and oppression. Those eager to cast aspersions on social justice protestors quickly snarling with satisfaction about the ignorance of the action, ignoring that reasonable explanations behind targeting the statues were offered almost immediately. Anyway, I agree wholeheartedly with invaluable local journalist Scott Gordon, who wrote, “We could spend a whole lot of time here parsing what the statues torn down this week mean or represent, but I also think the fixation on the statues is kind of deranged.” But that thought also brings me to this piece, written by Jane’a Johnson for Teen Vogue, that persuasively argues for the power inherent in citizenry taking it into their own hands to remove these bronzed commemorations of the wrong parts of our past rather than waiting for some sort of political process to grind through its slow work to the same end.

 

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The Rape Kit’s Secret History by Pagan Kennedy

In this corrective to history, published by The New York Times, Pagan Kennedy explores the genesis of the rape kit. Often credited to a Chicago police officer (because he demanded the credit), the investigative tool was actually conceptualized and created by Marty Goddard, an activist dismayed by the lack of attention and effort given to the crime of rape. Kennedy’s story is full of amazing details, most of which reflect very poorly on the systems set up to deliver justice in this country. That the manufacture and distribution of the kits was taken more seriously by Playboy Enterprises than any government or police officials — and that the fact of that isn’t particularly surprising — is one thread in thickly snarled explanation of how we’ve reached the current point of broad disenchantment with law enforcement.

 

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A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014) by Marlon James

A colossal, complicated novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings has an assassination attempt against Bob Marley at its core, but puts layers upon layers atop that incident until the sprawling story starts to feel like it’s touching upon every trouble embedded in the human experience. Marlon James has an enviable command of language throughout the book, developing enveloping rhythms to the dialogue and storytelling which remaining fiercely direct, like some implausible hybrid of Stephen King and Don Delillo. It’s one of those books that is exhausting and thrilled in equal measure.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Twenty-Eight

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#28 — Snowpiercer (Bong Joon Ho, 2013)

Most of the films of director Bong Joon Ho have been wholly original works, suffused with inspiration drawn from serious study of film, perhaps, but springing start to finish from his whirring brain. Part of the delirious miracle of Snowpiercer is that Bong found in the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige a work to adapt that skewed so close to his own sensibilities. In execution, Bong brought a lot of his own inventions to the story of a train on an endless global journey after a manmade attempt to thwart global warming results in a several climatological overcorrection. The co-creators of the original graphic novel laid the tracks, but it’s Bong who feverishly stoked the engine of the locomotive that runs on it.

The transport of the title is a train that is hundreds of cars long, holding the remaining members of the human race after the planet becomes uninhabitable due to the deadly cold. Over the years of cloistered travel, unyielding social segmenting has taken place. The wealthy riders are in cars near the front of the train, surrounded by luxuries exponentially more opulent than the those found on top tier cruise ships in the era of the Titanic. The poor ride in the rear cars, originally mean for storage are therefore of the most spartan design, like a series of enclosed back alleys. Any attempt made by those in the tail section to improve their living conditions — to literally more forward — is by totalitarian bullying that’s been misnamed justice.

As he would again a few years later with his historic Oscar-winner, Parasite, Bong combines scalding social satire with expert genre filmmaking. Snowpiercer has the pace and energy of a white-knuckle action movie, but Bong’s disinterest in the conventional keeps delivering jolts throughout the film. And the revolutionary charge from one train car to the next provides the opportunity to continues reinventing the story and finding new ways to underline the points, every door our heroes crash through providing entryway to a new devious twist of the narrative. Bong is courageous about exploring injustice, taking concepts to their bleakest logical conclusions.

As clear as his delight is in sharing his imaginings, Bong is not some cheap provocateur like some other directors that traffic in stomach-churning confrontation. He always has a point to make, and it’s usually grounded in deep humanity. Showing the ugliness that exists — and the power structures that perpetuate the ugliness in a callous bid to maintain their own comfort — is a means to appreciate how things could and should be better. Sometimes waging a fight and breaking some manmade symbols of oppression is the only way a true-hearted person can finally step out in a new world, likely finding out that everything that kept them bound previously was based on a fearful lie.

Then Playing — Ashes and Embers; Brewster McCloud; A Star is Born

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Ashes and Embers (Haile Gerima, 1982). Made around forty years ago, Haile Gerima’s experimental drama opens with Black men driving in a city who get pulled over police officers that immediately escalate the situation, presuming guilt as a default for no other reason than skin color. That’s how far we haven’t come. That’s only one piece of Gerima’s powerful film that also addresses the lingering psychic wounds harming U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War and the general and persistent troubles faced by Black citizens as they tried to operate safely and fairly in a nation that too often demonized them just for being. Gerima’s approach is about registering impressions rather than clicking through plot points, giving the film a quiet, impassioned verisimilitude that was a hallmark of independent film of the era. John Anderson gives a strong, committed performance in the lead role, but it’s Evelyn A. Blackwell, as a worldly-wise, no-nonsense grandmother whose responsible for the most engaging acting.

 

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Brewster McCloud (Robert Altman, 1970). The same year as M*A*S*H, Robert Altman offered this delightful oddity, as if he felt compelled to rapidly signal the Hollywood establishment that having a box office hit on his resume didn’t mean he was going to play by any recognizable set of rules. Brewster McCloud follows the title character (Bud Cort), a virginal young man who lives in the utility corridors of the Houston Astrodome, dreaming and scheming in pursuit of the freedom of flight. He also works briefly for a corrosive nursing home magnate (Stacy Keach, under a thick slab of old age makeup), falls in love with a sweet oddball (Shelley Duvall), and avoids the probing of an out-of-town police detective (Michael Murphy) trying to solve a series of mysterious killings in the city. And that’s only describing the portions of the film that are remotely conventional. Working from a screenplay by Doran William Cannon (who also wrote the nutso Skidoo), Altman is in rascally mode, with a false-start opening credits, slippery satire in every narrative nook, and René Auberjonois escalating in lunacy as a lecturer-narrator who drops in periodically to expound on birds, gradually adopting the behavior and demeanor of the feathered creatures in the process.

 

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A Star is Born (William A. Wellman, 1937). The original take on the muchfilmed tale of star-crossed showbiz figures on opposite career trajectories might very well be the best of the lot. It has a zingy efficiency and cheery bravado, the melodramatic tragedy of the plot nicely balanced by comedy that takes some bold swipes at the still-emerging entertainment industry. In this A Star is Born, Janet Gaynor plays the hopeful ingenue whose dreams of being in the pictures are trod upon until she catches the eyes of a boozy movie star (Fredric March), who becomes her champion at the studio where he works. Her career takes off and his tumbles down. Both actors are in fine form, with Gaynor especially charming in a handful of moments where she clearly gets to play, such as a bit set in the studio commissary where she tries out a half dozen iterations of the throwaway line she’s been given in a movie. William A. Wellman gives the film a buoyant energy and demonstrates especially crack timing with the smart, funny script that was touched by several, including Dorothy Parker. I’m assuming she was responsible for the many sharp lines about downing drinks.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Twenty-Nine

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#29 — American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)

Rife with absurdity and energized by misguided bravado and crass capitalistic scheming, David O. Russell’s darkly comic rendering of the FBI’s Abscam sting operation would feel off if it didn’t have “American” in the title. This sort of conglomeration of criminality, opportunism, slippery morality, and rationalized hedonism could only be hatched in the land of the free, home of the brave, this place where delusion is a virtue as long as it is aligned with ruthless greed. The original title of the screenplay, as penned by Eric Warren Singer, was American Bullshit. When Russell took the acclaimed script and started reworking it to his own sensibility, the name was obviously going to need to change to find a place on theater marquees, but the rebranding to American Hustle isn’t a lamentable concession to social norms. American Hustle is better anyway, because the hustle truly never ends for the sort of hucksters that populate the story, whether they’re two-bit con artists or duly appointed law enforcement officials.

The event receiving the dramatization treatment unfolded as the venal nineteen-seventies evolved into the glossily empty nineteen-eighties, giving Russell plenty of garish trappings to work with, front disco collars to combustible microwaves. The Abscam sting involved luring elected representatives into a scenario where they took what they believed to be bribes from an Arabian company, with political largesse expected in return. In Russell’s rendering, this sordid business is presented with verve. Borrowing the shifting narrators and general rambunctious energy of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Russell depicts a milieu of anxious striving, of problem solving as the walls are closing in. Every character is splashing in flop sweat, desperately looking around for a hurled life preserver.

At the point he made American Hustle, Russell had completely rejuvenated his career with The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. Among other accolades, those two films resulted in seven nominations and three wins in Academy Awards acting categories. Performers came to Russell’s productions fully motivated to give their all, and American Hustle boasts an amazing set of performances. Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Jeremy Renner are all terrific as schemers moving through this scramble of shaky ethics. The obvious standout, though, is Amy Adams. As Sydney Prosser, a woman whose situational duplicity is abetted by the men who can’t help falling for her, Adams has carbon-fiber strength and trembling vulnerability at the same time, the gears of her brain in perpetual motion as she surveys the emerging chaos around her and tries to figure out where her preferences and the most prudent strategic movies align. Sydney is casing her own life, and Adams shows the precise excitement of  that fraught and exciting approach to getting through each treacherous day.

Russell’s film is enthralled by the nonsense of human interaction, particular the ways in which all the imperfections of various encounters mound into a trash heap of comic misery. American Hustle is about a particular event at  particular time, but its escalating tension was found again in any number of fumbling maneuvers in search of quick dollars in the many years that followed.  In the U.S., the type of scrambled aspiration depicted here never goes out of style.

Now Playing — Da 5 Bloods

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If there’s one thing that’s absolutely certain about a project that was developed by Oliver Stone and then given to Spike Lee to rework, it’s that the resulting film is not going to lack for ideas or ambition. Da 5 Bloods, Lee’s newest joint, began life as an original script titled The Last Tour, with a story that followed a group of Vietnam War veterans who return to Asian nation to retrieve a valuable item they left behind decades earlier. Part saga of enduring wartime trauma and part modern gloss on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the script came into Lee’s hands and he and his fellow BlacKkKlansman Oscar winner, Kevin Wilmott, added their own artistic concerns to the piece. The four soldiers stepping in country again became black men, and the film was given the welcome political undercurrent of considering the damaging war from the perspective of men fighting under the flag of a nation fiercely committed to keeping them oppressed.

Lee opens the film with a flurry, presenting a documentary-like assemblage of clips to set the mood, led by Muhammad Ali’s famed quote explaining the way the Viet Cong were less of a threat and offense to him than his own countrymen. The stage, Lee introducing the four veterans, played by Delroy Lindo, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, and Isiah Whitlock Jr. They have reunited in Vietnam to locate the remains of their old squad leader (Chadwick Boseman) who was killed in action. That’s the officially sanctioned mission, but they’re also in search of a stash of gold, originally shipped to the country to pay off the Vietnamese, but claimed by the serviceman as a form of reparations. During the war, they’d buried the gold in the jungle only to see the ravages of napalm obscure the countryside enough that they could no longer locate it. Only the unearthing caused by recent mudslides have provided them a new chance at the treasure.

As has been the case at almost every step of his laudable career, Lee’s ambition expanded beyond his ability to fully contain what he’s attempt to do. Da 5 Bloods is lumpy, unwieldy, and at least twenty minutes too long. But it’s also often incredibly assured, with Lee offering regular reminders that there are few current directors in his league when it comes to innovative visual staging that somehow feels like classic narrative filmmaking. There’s even one critical moment when he seems to be deliberately — and expertly — mimicking Steven Spielberg with radiant light and longtime collaborator Terence Blanchard giving it his best John Williams musical emotiveness on the score. In general, Lee balances the heaviness of the material with an almost jubilant playfulness, whether in multiple allusions to other films (including a “badges” hat tip to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and giving Whitlock the chance to deliver one his beloved stretched-out profanities.

Lee also gives Lindo, another regular collaborator, the role of a lifetime. Lindo plays Paul, the veteran whose disillusionment is so pronounced he’s bought into a certain presidential candidate’s cynical pitch “What the hell do you have to lose?” Deeply damaged by his experiences, in the war and after, Paul is clearly succumbing to mental health issues and is largely unable and unwilling to deal with it, a situation most heartrendingly manifested in his relationship with his son (Jonathan Majors), who tags along on the trip. Lindo gets to rage, Lindo gets to portray brutalizing vulnerability, and, because Lee is a fearless director, Lindo gets to monologue right at the camera with tightly controlled madness, like Richard III with soiled MAGA hat. It’s a big swing of a performance, and Lindo connects squarely.

Da 5 Bloods is distinctive. Watch the film with no credits attached and there would be still be no doubt as to who made it. That certainty comes from its flaws as much as its strengths. Lee is a great filmmaker who makes messy films, and the sprawl of their spirit is part of the appeal. If it doesn’t completely cohere, the film is still thrilling and jarringly relevant for this particular moment of citizens taking to the streets, quite literally, to demand justice that is long overdue.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirty

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#30 — The Farewell (Lulu Wang, 2019)

The best movies sit and resonate with a viewer, as if taking up permanent residence in the soul. Even as I write that, I understand the sentimental is almost unbearably syrupy, instilling in cinema a kind of cheap magic, the stuff of the most self-important, insufferable Academy Award ceremony clip packages. But it’s also the best means I have of explaining the way certain films can make a perfectly fine first impression and then slowly, surely blossom in the memory until full-scale adoration is the only proper response. There’s no other film on this list of mine that rose higher in my estimation between the first time I watched its closing credits crawl to the moment I put a number next to it than Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. I’m halfway convinced that another six months of rumination would prompt me to edge it up another five spaces or so.

The endlessly admirable artistry of The Farewell stems from its heartfelt reason for being. Wang based the story on a situation from her own family, centered on the culturally motivated concealment of a fatal diagnosis. In the film, Billi (Awkwafina) is an adrift young adult living in New York who is devastated when she finds out her beloved grandmother (Zhao Shu-zhen) has terminal lung cancer, and her emotions are roiled further by the revelation that the family chooses not to tell here, adhering to a Chinese norm of not burdened a loved one with the knowledge of pending death. Against the wishes of her parents (Diana Lin and Tzi Ma), Billi tags along on the trip back to the family homeland of China, a congregation of far-flung family members under the masquerade of a wedding but truly to give the woman one last time with the extended clan before her expected departure.

The film mines some comedy from the efforts at deception, but Wang is more concerned with exploring all the large and small ways deception is deployed to preserve relationships and, occasionally, a preferred sense of self. And Wang, herself an immigrant from China, takes great care in detailing the cultural differences, large and small, the deeply American Billi sorts through in returning to the place where she was born but remembers only faintly. Her time in the U.S. has erased this part of her, but it’s left it smudged. Awkwafina perfectly embodies the struggles of a person in the part of the long arc of growing up when they realize there was a lie residing in the implicit promise of adulthood providing the certainty of a settled direction. With a downturned mouth and slumped gait, she gives the impression of an individual who has been partially collapsed by the weight of life, which works in conjunction beautifully with a story that poses questions about whether hard truth should impede enjoying every small, gifted moment.

Wang knew that some viewers might find her story’s central conceit to be implausible, so she asserts the autobiographical bona fides by opening the film with the words “Based on an actual lie.” One of the more intriguing aspects of The Farewell is the argument it makes that there are a lot of actual lies out there in the ether and that maybe, just maybe, that’s not so bad. It’s less the accuracy of the statement than the motivation behind it. And if kindness is the guidance principle, it might be okay for truth to exist on a sliding scale.

Then Playing — The Innocents; Marshall; Things to Come

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The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961). A horror movie that favors spooky atmosphere over jolting shocks, The Innocents is adapted from the Henry James novella The Turn of the Screw. Miss Giddens (Deborah Kerr) takes a position as a governess at remote estate, looking after the young niece (Pamela Franklin) and nephew (Martin Stephens) of a notably uncaring businessman (Michael Redgrave). What begins as the normal patience-testing behavior of rambunctious children longing for attention soon escalates to more unsettling mischief, and Miss Giddens grows certain that the house holds dark, perhaps supernatural secrets. Director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Freddie Francis work little wonders with hazy light and thick shadows, giving the film a constant hum of low menace. Kerr plays her role with her customary focus and steely elegance, helping to elevate the material above cinematic potboiler.

 

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Marshall (Reginald Hudlin, 2017). Chadwick Boseman’s everlasting acting tour of towering figures of the twentieth century makes a stop at Thurgood Marshall. Rather than a biographical tour through the legal legend’s life, Marshall largely sticks with his work as a NAACP attorney on the case The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Snell. Settling comfortably into the familiar rhythms of a big-screen courtroom drama, Reginald Hudlin is able to slip in the valuable social commentary more discreetly, winning over the audience with clear heroes and villains that smooths the way for hard — and, sadly, enduring — truths about bigotry in policing and U.S. justice. Boseman, as usual, radiates charisma, even if he struggles a bit to get deeper into the man he’s portraying. The supporting performances are generally strong, with Josh Gad turning in impressively nuanced work as the small town lawyer Marshall ropes into serving a lead counsel on the case. It’s also entertaining and sort of endearing to see James Cromwell, one of the most devoted of the celebrity lefties, playing the surly, hard-right judge presiding over the case. Dan Stevens doesn’t fare as well in the role of the prosecuting attorney. He plays too many scenes with the mustache-twisting brio of a silent movie scoundrel itching to tie a damsel to some train tracks.

 

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Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936). Based loosely on an H.G. Wells book published a mere three years earlier (the author himself reworked the material for the screen), Things to Come posits a future riven by global war. The creeping fascism of Nazi Germany was obviously on the minds of the filmmakers, but the nation’s incursions into the rest of Europe were more threat than reality at the time, lending the film an unnerving prescience. In Wells’s imaginings, war stretches on for decades, leaving civilization in rubble, susceptible to the bullying of a preening warlord (Ralph Richardson, performing with admirable gusto) until a more measured and scientifically advanced human tribe forcibly takes over, forging a lasting peace. Human nature is a prickly beast, however, and reactionary rebellion eventually starts to simmer. Fairly typical of the era in which it was made, the staging is often amusingly stiff, as director William Cameron Menzies struggles to coax believable interactions out of Wells’s didactic, occasionally academic language. When the film’s timeline stretches to a full century beyond the point when it was made, the effects and art direction are impressive, standing as a reasonable — if far less inspired — successor to Fritz Lang’s landmark Metropolis.

Outside Reading — The Fire This Time edition

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America, This is Your Chance by Michelle Alexander

Well, this is the article I’ve been waiting for. There are few people more qualified to comment on this particular moment in U.S. history than Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. In characteristic fashion, she brings a measured but point viewpoint to the discussion, backed by accumulated knowledge and bolstered by uncommon moral clarity. As the headline suggests, the nation is at a point of opportunity, thanks in large part to a sudden, overdue surge in understanding among the greater populace that pervasive brutality and repression waged against the citizenry is a form of rot that must be addressed. If we squander the astonishing act of collective self-education happening right now, the opportunity for true, lasting social betterment might not come again. Alexander’s piece is published by The New York Times.

 

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How Apples Go Bad by Helen Rosner

Leave it to a skilled food writer to finally address the fundamental flaw of the tediously pervasive metaphor of “bad apples” to excuse broad organizational failings in law enforcement agencies. The apologists who employ the bad apple defense believe that the presence of a bad apple in a batch is singular problem. Just remove it and everything’s fine. The problem is, as Helen Rosner expresses with deadpan journalistic grace, the agricultural and food storage problem with bad apples is the way their rot spreads to all the other apples around them. Apple farmers are extremely concerned about the presence of bad apples because of the likelihood that entire trees or bushels will become irredeemably corrupted by their presence. So it’s not just the apple that tortures a man to death by kneeling on his neck, it’s the three apples that watch impassively as it happens and all the apples back at the precinct house who remain mute as the crime is concealed fro the public. When considered that way, the bad apple metaphor is apt. It simply doesn’t mean what its most common users believe it does. This article is published by The New Yorker.

 

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The Absolutist Case for Problematic Pop Culture by Mark Harris

In the wake of the predictably phony outrage over the recent decision to briefly remove Gone with the Wind from HBO Max, with plans to affix a contextualizing disclaimer before the storied feature is offered again, Mark Harris pens an earnest article grappling with the dilemma of cinematic art of the past that is out of step with modern considerations. The immense value of this article, published by Vulture, is that Harris doesn’t succumb to the common practice of easy answers fueled by furious personal certainty. The situation is complicated, and Harris works through it on the digital page, coming to a preferred conclusion while simultaneously allowing the imperfections of his stance. The best way to honor classic film — and literature and music and so on — is to meet it with just this sort of open intellectual conflict, allowing for the continuing sweet and the gradually soured to coexist, but also not allowing the contradictions to go passively unexamined.

Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Thirty-One

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#31 — Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017)

A common failing of first-time feature directors is a tendency to put every last notion they have into a film that can’t possibly hold them all. The opportunity to make a full-length movie is so rare and elusive that an understandable urge to pile in inventive techniques, themes, motifs, and other elements out of the belief — or fear, more precisely — that there won’t be a second chance. The cool trick shot that has been dreamed about for ages in wedged into the film, whether it does the duty of enhancing the narrative, or the scalding social commentary is slipped in edgewise, even if its is combat with other storytelling components. Perhaps that’s the core reason Jordan Peele’s Get Out feels like such a movie miracle. It is crammed to the sprocket holes with ideas without becoming toppling over from imbalance. It marvelously coheres, giving it a resonant power that feels like it’s revolutionarily discovering and conveying the social problems it identifies.

Melding horror with satire in a manner that accentuates the commonality between the two forms, Peele’s riveting film ruminates on prejudice and appropriation, police harassment and liberal virtue signaling. It makes it abundantly clear that a black man in the U.S. is always defined and understood first — and often exclusively — by the color of his skin and all the false assumptions fostered by ages of bad history. That doesn’t maintain entirely as bigotry and hatred. The eager ingratiation of announcing the desire to case a third ballot for Obama is just are surely an act of sorry reductionism. And, the film lays out clearly, the fumbling kindness of white people who are ostensibly allies is its own insidious deception, a trap concealed in a hug.

Peele infuses his film with a remarkable energy while remaining relaxed enough in his approach to give every contributor space to make a mark. A seasoned performer, Peele is especially generous to the actors, leading to skilled, impactful performances across the cast, especially Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Lakeith Stanfield, Lil Rel Howery, and Betty Gabriel. Because there are levels of deception built into the story, many of the actors get the opportunity to play sharp pivots of emotion — or, in the case of Williams and Gabriel, diametrically opposed emotions at the same time — and Peele’s attentive camera captures their astonishing ingenuity.

Get Out often feels like a movie executing a critical mission. But it achieves this without the stultifying self-importance that so often dooms features about race relations, even those with a more insurrectionist spirit. It booms with the thrilling possibility of cinema, where the right creator can prove that there can never be too many ideas.