Category Archives: 2019

The Best of Enemies (2019, Robin Bissell)

Chris Rock has a joke about waiting to see if the evening news—it’s an old joke—report on a crime is going to have a Black perpetrator or a White one, just so he (Rock, a Black man) can figure out if his white coworkers are going to ask him if he knew the perp (if he’s Black).

In other words, I had to check and see if Best of Enemies writer, director, and producer Robin Bissell was a White person. He is. He’s also fifty, which… isn’t a demographic to be making The Best of Enemies in 2019. Or ever, really. There was never a good time for a fifty year-old White guy to make a movie about a North Carolina Klan leader in the early seventies realizing Black people are people because they can be nice to him. Best of Enemies is basically the reverse of those White “liberals” who tell Black people to stop complaining or they’ll have to vote GOP next time when, in reality, you know they all voted for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein anyway. It’s about lead Sam Rockwell—the aforementioned Klan leader—realizing not just Black people are people but also how the system is rigged against poor Whites and Blacks alike and that rigging seems to be the point.

Less on the second part, however, because it might be interesting to see that development in Rockwell’s life and the film avoids any interesting developments.

I’m going at Enemies a little harder than usual for a few reasons. First, Taraji P. Henson is top-billed. She’s the Black woman community organizer who works with Rockwell and contributes to his ability to see the humanity in… you know, humans. Rah for him, sure, but a movie? Not sure it’s worth a movie. Especially since the movie sets itself up to be this great anti-buddy buddy pic between Henson and Rockwell and it’s not. Henson, it’ll turn out somewhere in the very lengthy two hour plus runtime, is red herring. She’s got nothing to do in the movie. Not even supporting player scraps after the movie shoves Rockwell into the lead. So The Best of Enemies, which ostensibly is about two “born enemies”—a Klan leader and, you know, a Black person—becoming something together, is really just a White Savior movie for Rockwell. And he’s not even the most interesting White Savior in the picture.

John Gallagher Jr.’s the most interesting White Savior. He’s just in a bit part, which is too bad because he’s a lot more useful a character than some of the bigger stunt casts in bit parts—fifth-billed Wes Bentley, for example; around to be the creepy, greasy Klan guy who you think is going to crack and kill someone.

And then there’s Nick Searcy, who’s—as usual—quite good. This time he’s quite good as a piece of shit upper class racist who gets Rockwell’s poor White Klan boys to do his dirty work. Is the film aware of… Nick Searcy’s optics? Like. You can leave a lot at the door. You can’t leave Nick Searcy at the door. It’s not a good enough part for it really to be worth it. Though no one’s part is really good enough.

Henson’s great. Even after Bissell’s scared to give her scenes with other Black people. Or maybe he’s not scared. Maybe he just doesn’t have the interest in her story. She and Rockwell are working on a charrette, which doesn’t make the Apple dictionary (says something, I imagine), and is “any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem.” The problem in Enemies is school integration. Rockwell and Henson end up co-chairs, forced into working together by facilitator Babou Ceesay. Cessay’s in town doing the charrette because the judge doesn’t want to have to rule on school integration and wants to pass the buck.

It’s not a metaphor for the film’s proclivity for passing the buck, but only because Bissell wouldn’t know how to do a metaphor.

Technically, the film’s fine. It’s clearly on too low of a budget to do the period well. Almost no extras in the exteriors of strangely empty streets and so on. Bissell’s not bad at composition. He’s perfectly pedestrian, which does the film no help in getting over the budget constraints. Presumably most of the money went to Rockwell and Henson, who both do their best, but… there’s only so far they can go with the script and what the script gives them. Or, in both their cases, what the script doesn’t give them. Henson just doesn’t get material. Rockwell gets material but no character development arc. The whole point of the movie is shitbag racists are people too but Bissell never wants more than a caricature from Rockwell. Maybe a 3D one, but still just a caricature. You can see Rockwell getting bored in Enemies. The part doesn’t give him anything to do. Not really. Not sincerely. Some of his best scenes in the movie ought to be the ones where he’s just hanging out with wife Anne Heche, only there’s so much expository dumping in those scenes—because Heche isn’t a big-time racist, she just loves one. So she makes him different than the Bentleys or the Searcys of the film. Her and Rockwell having a son with Downs in the South in 1971 and still, you know, loving him. Best of Enemies exploits its cast in a lot of ways—after a while, if she’s not just building up Rockwell’s humanity, Henson’s part is reduced to crying helplessly—after a certain point, Bissell can’t even pretend he’s not just objectifying anguish… but no one gets it worse than Kevin Iannucci as the son. Bissell’s a callous filmmaker.

Probably because he can’t figure out how to make the movie work. Possibly because it’s not Rockwell’s movie but Bissell can’t imagine it any other way.

It’s a waste of the cast. Maybe not Bentley but everyone else. Bentley’s fine he’s just not promising. Everyone else is at least promising. Like Bruce McGill. Or Nicholas Logan, who’s creepy as the bland blond Klan redneck (versus Bentley’s greaser one, who needs a Johnny Reb cap to be distinct).

Really good songs on the soundtrack. Seventies stuff. Because they were listening to early Bowie in South Carolina in 1971. It’s Bissell bumbling his way through softening the audience with nostalgia.

Is there a good movie in the true story? Probably. The clips over the end credits of the real people Rockwell and Henson are playing is a better movie than the previous two hours and five minutes and they’re just clips.

There’s some good acting work in the film and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design is good and whoever did the line producing did well, but… The Best of Enemies is way too shallow. Bissell knows there’s a movie in the story, he just can’t find it. Especially not in his script.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robin Bissell; screenplay by Bissell, based on the book by Osha Gray Davidson; director of photography, David Lanzenberg; edited by Harry Yoon; music by Marcelo Zarvos; production designer, Jeannine Oppewall; produced by Matt Berenson, Fred Bernstein, Bissell, Tobey Maguire, Matthew Plouffe, Danny Strong, and Dominique Telson; released by STX Films.

Starring Sam Rockwell (C.P. Ellis), Taraji P. Henson (Ann Atwater), Anne Heche (Mary Ellis), Nick Searcy (Garland Keith), Babou Ceesay (Bill Riddick), Wes Bentley (Floyd Kelly), Nicholas Logan (Wiley Yates), John Gallagher Jr. (Lee Tromblay), Caitlin Mehner (Maddy Mays), Kevin Iannucci (Larry Ellis), and Bruce McGill (Carvie Oldham).


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Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019, Jon Watts)

Spider-Man: Far From Home spends so much of its runtime being a constant delight, the first sign of trouble passes. Something where director Watts needs to connect doesn’t connect, only it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t seem like it needs to connect too hard. Then the third act is this massive, impersonal action sequence where the sidekicks get a better action finale than the hero and the mid-credits sequence entirely changes the stakes of the film. And then the post-credits sequence entirely changes how the film plays. It’s like there’s a surprise ending then there’s a twist ending but the twist should’ve come in the regular ending… It’s also too bad because neither of the additional endings let lead Tom Holland act.

And Far From Home is usually really good about letting Holland act. He’s great, even when he’s going through the same hero arc he went through in his last solo outing. Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers’s script has a lot of good jokes and nice moments for Holland (his romance arc is at least different this time) and his costars—as well as an almost great scenery chewing part for Jake Gyllenhaal—but it’s fairly thin. The film’s able to deliver some real emotion, not just from the film’s events but also from all the weight hanging over the world post Avengers 4, which seems kind of light actually but it’s set at least nine months after that film so maybe people are just emotionally fast healers and whatnot. Plus Holland and romantic interest Zendaya have oodles of chemistry so their high school romance but with overachievers on a school trip to Europe arc is wonderful. Lovely even, which is why its treatment in the additional endings is such a boondoggle.

Enough about the endings. I think.

The film has Holland and his high school classmates touring Europe while Samuel L. Jackson (in a shockingly humorless turn; not bad, just shockingly humorless) tries to get him to help save the world. Jackson’s got a new hero—Gyllenhaal, who’s from an alternate Earth and has ill-defined magical powers—but he wants Holland along for some reason. It makes even less sense once the film gets through the main plot twists, not to mention the additional end ones. See, I’m still on the endings. Sorry.

The reasons don’t matter because Gyllenhaal is really good. He’s earnest but mysterious. He and Holland have a good rapport, though it might be nice to see Holland not desperately needing a mentor. Or at least getting a funny one; Martin Starr and J.B. Smoove are comic relief as the high school teachers. Might not have hurt to give them something more to do. Far From Home has an excess of talent and doesn’t utilize enough of it. But, again, it doesn’t matter during the smooth sailing period of the film because just so long as nothing goes too wrong, nothing can screw it up. Cue ginormous third act action finale. The bad guys in the movie are these giant weather monsters (sans Flint Marko) so all the action is big. Great combination of action and landmark destruction (the monsters go after all the big European cities). There’s no way the film can top it for the finale and instead just puts more people in imminent danger. The film closes on iffy ground and then the additional endings—even if the post-credits sequence is inessential (it isn’t), the mid-credits one is the whole show—just cement the problems.

It’s a bummer because Holland, Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, and Jon Favreau are all great. Watts does a fine job directing. Europe looks great. Fun soundtrack. Competent if impersonal score from Michael Giacchino. Matthew J. Lloyd’s photography seems a little rushed on composite shots but whatever. Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd’s is a little rushed though, especially during the exterior night sequences, which are already problem spots for Lloyd and Watts.

Speaking of Watts, despite that fine directing he does, he’s got no interest in the special effects visuals. He’s got no time for them. It’s okay for the giant weather monster fights because it keeps the focus on Holland. But when the film’s got this lengthy hallucination sequence? It’s okay. It gets the character from point A to point B, but the character doesn’t have any reaction to what they’ve seen. It’s a terribly missed opportunity. In so many ways. Including a great Empire Strikes Back reference.

Oh. Marisa Tomei.

The movie completely wastes her, while still managing to celebrate her awesomeness in the role and her chemistry with Holland.

For a while, Far From Home is such a grand European (superhero action) adventure with a wonderful—and likable—cast and fun attitude, it seems like there’s nothing it can’t get away with. The movie’s self-assured and justifiably so for most of the runtime, but those two additional endings just make it seem like… it was all bravado and not actual confidence. Hence a bummer. A weird one, wonderfully acted one.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Watts; screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, based on the Marvel comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko; director of photography, Matthew J. Lloyd; edited by Dan Lebental and Leigh Folsom Boyd; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Claude Paré; produced by Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige; released by Columbia Pictures.

Starring Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Zendaya (MJ), Jacob Batalon (Ned), Jake Gyllenhaal (Beck), Jon Favreau (Happy Hogan), Tony Revolori (Flash), Angourie Rice (Betty), Remy Hii (Brad Davis), Martin Starr (Mr. Harrington), J.B. Smoove (Mr. Dell), Marisa Tomei (May), Cobie Smulders (Hill), and Samuel L. Jackson (Fury).


Caught in a Ham (2019, Miguel Jiron)

I think I went into Caught in a Ham with unduly high hopes (I’ve been a Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham since 1983) and apparently I’m enough of a purist to be a little upset Spider-Ham loses out on half his four minute cartoon so it can tie into Into the Spider-Verse. There’s also the issue of him getting the shaft on the runtime. If you’re going to ape an old Looney Tunes cartoon, give it at least seven minutes. Four just isn’t enough. Especially not when half of it is bridging material, which is the nature of the made-for-home-video-supplement beast but whatever. Have some respect for the brand.

Anyway.

The cartoon opens fine. Spider-Ham swinging through the city, making jokes about the hot dog he’s about to eat (I don’t remember cannibalism from the old comics but I was in grade school) and he gets into trouble with a painfully uncool villain, Doctor Crawdaddy. Oh, right. John Mulaney voices Spider-Ham, Aaron LaPlante voices Doctor Crawdaddy. They’re both fine. There’s not much for them to do. LaPlante’s the butt of Mulaney’s jokes and gags, which are lifted—most obviously—from Bugs and Elmer and then something else with slamming doors and hallways. I can’t remember if it’s Tom and Jerry but it’s something. I feel like there’s a cat in it.

Caught in a Ham, considering how “meta” it gets, would do just as well if not better to give citations on screen with the nods because they’re not meant to be discreet and citations would—do something.

Because once LaPlante’s Doctor Crawdaddy disappears and the cartoon gets very meta about Spider-Ham being a digitally animated creation being digitally animated, it becomes obvious it’s not adding up to anything. And it doesn’t. It just sends Spider-Ham, presumably, off into the Spider-Verse, where—hopefully—he gets more to do than in his own truncated cartoon.

Maybe it plays better after Spider-Verse but it certainly shouldn’t.

The animation’s good. Wish there was more of it and less perfunctorily animated meta-nonsense.

1/3Not Recommended

CREDITS

Directed by Miguel Jiron; screenplay by Jiron, based on the character created by Tom DeFalco and Mark Armstrong; animated by Daran Sudric; produced by David Schulenburg; released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

Starring John Mulaney (Spider-Ham) and Aaron LaPlante (Doctor Crawdaddy).


RECENTLY

Hail Satan? (2019, Penny Lane)

Hail Satan? starts with a joke and ends with Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves having to wear a kevlar vest to a rally because so many Pro-Life, Born Again Christians are making legitimate assassination threats. The opening joke is one of the first Satanic Temple rallies, when they’re goofing on Rick Scott. In the span of five years, the Temple (TST) went from being a prank to getting a theatrically released documentary. TST has gone on to become a tax exempt religion (so head to their website if you want to join and get your kid out of corporal punishment, because Satanists aren’t about any of that shit).

The documentary does a mediocre job tracking the organization’s growth. In the first “act,” as the founders recount its early history, all the interviewees are obscured because death threats from Christians. By the end, when the film’s interviewing regional chapter leaders and so on, those folks are on screen unobscured. Hopefully they’re not getting death threats from Christians.

But the film doesn’t get into the death threats. Someone mentions it before they suit up Greaves with the kevlar for what turns out to be the perfunctory finish of the film. Director Lane directs the documentary’s sporadic narrative without any structure, so it’s not like a “let’s talk about death threats” aside would fit but not talking about them also stays in line with how Lane avoids talking about opposition to the Satanic Temple.

Given the TST members define Satan as the “adversary” not the horned beast or whatnot… Hail Satan? not mentioning how the opponents to the Temple are 1) Christian, 2) dedicated to the destruction of the U.S. Constitution, 3) hypocrites, 4) bad people, 5) whatever else. There’s one montage sequence where Lane shows Christians complaining to a city council about the TST giving the daily prayer but not much else. Sure, the film shows Arkansas senator Jason Rapert as an evil fuckwit, but the guy’s objectively an evil fuckwit. Those citizens ignorantly ranting against Satanism? Lane and editors Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden made the choice of how to present them. Including using a woman who’s apparently an ESL speaker as a joke.

Lane is more than comfortable to present the Satanic Temple as a necessary good but doesn’t get into why it’s necessary; the documentary does at least silver medal gymnastics to avoid talking about how awful American Christians treat everyone who doesn’t think like them. Lane frequently just uses a one-liner from Greaves to comment on something, which “works” because Greaves has got a great onscreen presence as an interviewee (the film relies on following him so much it ought to just follow him), but it’s a major dodge. Lane’s more than comfortable to use Megyn Kelly as a sight gag but not to actually address why Kelly is able to be used as a sight gag. Because she’s an evil white American Christian.

Of course, Lane avoids a lot of other things too. Frequent interviewee Jex Blackmore ends up excommunicated from TST (for promoting the idea of assassinating the forty-fifth president) and Lane covers it, but then seems to use pre-excommunicated interview material from Blackmore again, which doesn’t seem… right. It’s “fine” in a documentary-sense, like Blackmore signed the releases or whatever, but has her perspective changed since the excommunicating. If it hasn’t, it at least ought to be addressed. Pretty much everything Lane avoids ought to be addressed.

Because Hail Satan? only runs ninety-some minutes but the lack of structure makes it feel like two and a half hours. The middle section is just waiting for something to happen. It rarely does. When TST wins one case then loses another, Lane barely addresses the loss. She doesn’t ask her interviewees about it, she just has some quick newsreel footage.

The use of footage is another thing. It’s where Lane’s most comfortable taking jabs at American Christians, usually letting someone else do it, not the film. And Lane doesn’t have to be making a pro-TST documentary—it doesn’t start out as one (when it covers the Temple’s early shenanigans)—but it definitely ends up making one. Some of that positive light is going to be inevitable with the Satanic Temple. Their seven pillars, after all, are just about being good to one’s fellow humans. They aren’t the hateful shit stains. The hateful shit stains are the Christians, who Lane isn’t willing to address, which is the missing half of Hail Satan?

Because the movie just makes the Satanists out to be regular folk (and now a literal oppressed minority), maybe twenty-first century punk slash retro grunge is a little overrepresented but they’re basically just anti-ignorant humanists. Their opposition? Their adversary? The pro-ignorance Christians.

Who Lane takes a swipe at in the editing room with someone else’s footage, someone else’s words.

As is, Hail Satan? is two or three short documentaries lumped into a feature but about half of what it needs to be. It tries to have the Satanic Temple without its adversary and you always need to show the evil. Rapert’s a loathsome, dangerous buffoon, sure, but he’s a poor stand-in for Christianity. Hail Satan? doesn’t flesh out its villains enough; so Christian privilege even permeates a movie about how Satanists are actually the good guys.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Penny Lane; cinematography by Naiti Gámez; edited by Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden; music by Brian McOmber; produced by Gabriel Sedgwick; released by Magnolia Pictures.


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