Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Masque of the Orange Death

The red death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal -- the madness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress, and termination of the disease, were incidents of half an hour.

But Prince Prospero was happy and dauntless and sagacious. When his dominions were half depopulated, he summoned to his presence a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court, and with these retired to the deep seclusion of one of his crenellated abbeys. This was an extensive and magnificent structure, the creation of the prince's own eccentric yet august taste. A strong and lofty wall girdled it in. This wall had gates of iron. The courtiers, having entered, brought furnaces and massy hammers and welded the bolts.

They resolved to leave means neither of ingress nor egress to the sudden impulses of despair or of frenzy from within. The abbey was amply provisioned. With such precautions the courtiers might bid defiance to contagion. The external world could take care of itself. In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the "Red Death."

"The Masque of the Red Death," by Edgar Allen Poe.
"Are there worries about a pandemic at this point?"

"No. Not at all. And we have it totally under control. It's one person coming in from China, and we have it under control. It's going to be just fine."

– Donald Trump responding to a reporter on 1/22/20, the first of many times he minimized the risk of the coronavirus.
Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They're politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, 'How's President Trump doing?' They go, 'Oh, not good, not good.' They have no clue. They don't have any clue. They can't even count their votes in Iowa, they can't even count. No they can't. They can't count their votes. One of my people came up to me and said, 'Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia. That didn't work out too well. They couldn't do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they've been doing it since you got in. It's all turning, they lost, it's all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know, we did something that's been pretty amazing. We're 15 people [cases of coronavirus infection] in this massive country. And because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.

Donald Trump ridiculing concerns about the coronavirus to his supporters at a South Carolina rally, 2/28/20.
"Dr. Fauci said earlier this week that the lag in testing was in fact a failing. Do you take responsibility for that, and when can you guarantee that every single American who needs a test will be able to have a test? What's the date of that?"

"No, I don't take responsibility at all."

Donald Trump responding to a reporter, 3/13/20.

– A Donald Trump tweet on 3/22/20, one of several statements he's made in opposition to health experts and stay-at-home measures.

(I'm hardly the first or only person to make the Poe connection – it's been on several people's minds, and Driftglass has been citing the story for years.)

Trump cares much, much more about public adulation than human lives. We saw it with his inept response to devastation in Puerto Rico and lashing out at those who contradicted him, we saw it with his misstatements and then lies about Hurricane Dorian, and we've seen it throughout his entire handling of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration is doing to the United States what the Bush administration did to Iraq.

In 2018, Trump closed the U.S. "pandemic office," despite its value for precisely this type of crisis. Trump has repeatedly tried to cut the budget for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other health agencies, although Congress has blocked his efforts. Job vacancies and inexperience throughout the Trump administration haven't helped, either. Trump's team was briefed about pandemic threats before he took office. The Trump administration received multiple warnings about a major pandemic threat since January. Yet Trump has consistently downplayed the coronavirus threat, ignoring health experts even in his own administration.

Trump has styled himself as a "wartime president" for his pandemic response, but the concocted mantle is just characteristic self-adulation with little to show for it. Trump pawned off the coronavirus task force to Vice President Mike Pence, then apparently became jealous of the attention Pence was getting. Trump invoked the Defense Production Act (DPA) but long refused to actually use it, even though the law lets the government tell private companies to produce critical supplies that are sorely in need, such as masks and respirators. Trump's opposition to using the law despite pleas to do so seemed partially based on conservative dogma but also the usual corporate influence. As of this writing, after significant criticism, Trump has finally used the DPA to order ventilator manufacturing from General Motors, which is a start, and we'll see if this trend continues. (In the meantime, Trump and his surrogates have gone after the governors for insufficient public praise; Trump has insisted, "I want them to be appreciative. We’ve done a great job.")

Trump has also insisted on calling the disease "the China virus" and protested the term is not racist, even as hate crimes against Asian-Americans increase. Other members of his administration have used the terms "Kung-flu" or "the Wuhan virus," and even scuttled a G-7 statement by insisting on their terminology.

Predictably, Trump has continued his staggering record of lying and bullshitting with harmful lies to the public about the coronavirus, many due to his habit of making up the reality he wants at the moment. His sycophants at Fox News and other conservative outlets have cheered him on despite his bad information. If that weren't enough, conservatives have also attacked Dr. Fauci, an actual expert giving good advice. Trump has even bragged about "tremendous testing" in the U.S., even though anyone with the slightest grasp of reality knows that American COVID-19 testing is still dangerously scarce, far, far below the demand, and woefully behind that of many nations. In fact, as of this writing, a Seattle NPR station "will not be airing the [Trump] briefings live due to a pattern of false or misleading information provided that cannot be fact checked in real time." Trump cannot get through a single unscripted press conference without being petty and narcissistic, even about softball questions, and recently said governors "have to treat us well." It's one of his trademark threats; anyone who doesn't suck up to him should suffer. (Update: Trump has admitted he's told Mike Pence not to call governors who aren't sufficiently "appreciative." Suck up, or your constituents, the American citizens Trump is supposed to serve, will die.)

Besides masks and other protective gear, what hospitals need most are ventilators to help the most critical COVID-19 patients breathe. The U.S. has about 160,000 ventilators, far short of what experts think the nation will need – estimates differ, but one projection estimates America might need 960,000. The U.S. also lacks trained personnel to use the machines. Anyone's who's followed the pandemic news from credible sources knows that the lack of ventilators is a huge problem that could significantly increase the death toll in the U.S. and around the world. But despite his conceits that he is leading the pandemic response and doing a great job, Donald Trump apparently is not "anyone." His administration balked at paying for ventilators (before a partial reversal), but Trump also questioned their necessity:

In an interview Thursday night, [3/26/20], with Sean Hannity, the president played down the need for ventilators.

"I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators,” he said, a reference to New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has appealed for federal help in obtaining them. "You go into major hospitals sometimes, and they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, 'Can we order 30,000 ventilators?' "

Of all the astounding Trump statements, this one may be the most shocking and infuriating. Was Trump in a coma the past three months? Has he been sleeping through every briefing or staring at himself in the mirror when medical experts have explained the situation? Is he an imbecile? Does he have dementia? He honestly thinks a hospital in a major city can treat the COVID-19 pandemic with just two ventilators, despite the statistics on COVID-19 cases and deaths? He rejects out of hand the advice of experts based on a fleeting whim – or to spite a perceived political rival – or due to the extensive medical knowledge he's obtained by pulling it out of his ass? This is deadly narcissism.

Trump simply will not acknowledge any reality he doesn't like, and he expects others to play along. On 3/17/20, Trump lied and even tried to gaslight the public, claiming, "I've always known this is a real, this is a pandemic. I've felt it was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic." Likewise, his allies at Fox News pivoted 180 degrees and went from downplaying the virus like Trump to acknowledging its seriousness, as chronicled by The Washington Post:

More recently, Trump has been pushing to end stay-at-home measures, claiming the nation would suffer dire economic harm otherwise. Trump has said he'd like to end the safety measures by Easter (4/12/20), in opposition to all sound expert medical advice, apparently due to pressure from family members and doctrinaire conservatives.

So far, the stages of coronavirus response from Trump and his allies have been:

1. It's not a threat.

2. I said it was a threat all along.

3. It's only a threat to the little people. Who cares if your grandmother dies? I need to boost my slumping stock portfolio.

The COVID-19 pandemic poses severe challenges for months to come and could remain a problem for years, with a vaccine likely 12 to 18 months away and no actual cure for the contagious and sometimes deadly disease. That alone should keep us all mindful and spur those with power to try to help by all available means, and to invent new methods of aid. But the delusional incompetence of the Trump team and the 'expendable grandmother' mindset could make everything nightmarishly worse.

Texas' Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick claimed that "lots of grandparents" would be willing to die to preserve America, by which he meant the stock market. Brit Hume defended Patrick's remarks, calling them "entirely reasonable." Glenn Beck urged older Americans to go back to work and claimed, "I'd rather die than kill the country." Several billionaires have expressed similar sentiments, including Tom Golisano:

The damages of keeping the economy closed as it is could be worse than losing a few more people. I have a very large concern that if businesses keep going along the way they're going then so many of them will have to fold. . . . You're picking the better of two evils. You have to weigh the pros and cons.

("Real" talk, from people unlikely to suffer the consequences of their callous idiocy.)

Likewise, some investment banks are pressuring medical companies to raise prices to increase their profits during this crisis. (The notion that they are killing their potential customers does not seem to have occurred to them.) Pharmaceutical companies have largely gotten their way in Congress to put profits first, mostly due to Republicans. At least one drug company has been publicly shamed into rejecting a ridiculous and potentially dangerous sweetheart deal, and perhaps public pressure can continue to spur corporations to renounce evil.

Speaking of which, congressional Republicans have continued their tradition of being cartoonishly evil, proposing a 500 million dollar slush fund to be controlled by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who could also hide the names of the companies he gave to for up to six months. (Perhaps some Trump companies or Trump allies would be included?) To add to the farce, Trump declared that "I'll be the oversight." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, ever shameless, attacked Democrats for opposing the bill while fighting against the public interest. Oh, and some members of the Republican Party (which sadly has been the party-before-country-party for decades) were likewise shameless enough to argue that some unemployment measures were too generous and could make workers too uppity. (This mindset is likely also why the Trump administration is cutting food stamps.) The Democrats did fight for and won some good measures in the two trillion dollar stimulus package under consideration, but David Dayen has described it as "robbery in progress" (and has some more details here; Digby highlights another provision open for abuse).

Rulers often use a crisis as an excuse to grab power and make corrupt deals – the Trump EPA is suspending environmental laws at the behest of the American Petroleum Institute and the Trump Justice Department has asked for emergency powers that could include suspending habeas corpus. These are classic shock doctrine moves; the Republican track record does not inspire confidence and U.S. conservatives are significantly more evil than many of their international counterparts (although they almost always seem to get a pass for it).

Like Prince Prospero in Poe's story, Trump the Orange One and other conservatives in power believe that they will survive the pandemic unscathed. They've become more cavalier about expressing their true views: that other people simply matter less, and that they're happy to let other people suffer and die for their own benefit. They are too dumb, selfish, greedy and short-sighted to realize that the same fate could befall them, or that killing off their customers and fellow citizens might not be a good long-term plan. The U.S. conservative reaction to this pandemic is basically the same as their reaction to climate change – ineffective, full of denial, and focused on profit and personal gain at the expense of all the people of the world – but for COVID-19, the deadliest consequences have been accelerated, and will be hitting hard in days, weeks, and months instead of years and decades from now.

The dominant form of U.S. conservatism is essentially neo-feudalism: those born to privilege are inherently better, and can rule over the masses. If you choose the right parents or suck up to the right lord or corporation or institution, you might live pretty well or even extravagantly, but the vast majority of the populace will have far less opportunities and likely a markedly lower quality of life. The U.S. is the wealthiest nation in the world, and the richest could still remain obscenely wealthy without seeking to increase the inequities of wealth and power as conservatives and the Republican Party consistently do. Our current, messed-up system is a choice. Although decent people exist who self-identify as conservatives, it should be blatantly clear by now that the dominant strain of American conservatism is destructive and sometimes literally lethal, and these crappy citizens and corrupt governors should be voted out of office and kept far away from power. Republican voters saw Trump was unfit for office and voted for him anyway. Congressional Republicans saw he was unfit for office, corrupt and incompetent, yet refused to convict him and remove him from office when he was impeached. The Conservative policies are simply awful, and Trump is not an aberration of conservatism; he's emblematic.

If there's anything positive about the pandemic, besides heroic medical workers and acts of kindness and creativity and community, it's that more people seem to be realizing how many "rules" in the U.S. system are bullshit, "with power structures built on punishment and fear as opposed to our best interest." For instance, it should be clearer than ever that the U.S. needs good, universal health care, a much stronger social safety net, and a much kinder, compassionate and supportive society. Jared Bernstein has characterized conservatism as YOYO, "You're on your own," whereas liberalism is WITT, "We're in this together." The present crisis has produced some clear insights and articulations of moral principle in that vein.

Steven Klein captures the real fear of plutocrats:

Alex Cole points out a telling contrast:

(Why, it's almost as if they always argue to benefit themselves at the moment rather than from some deeper principle.)

Alexandra Petri offers the satirical "I regret that I have but one grandparent to give for my country."

Ken Tremendous considers the flaws of the conservative "let people die" proposal in terms of the trolley problem.

Scott Lynch explains "Disaster 101":

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explains some basic humanity:

I want to make a point on the president's point about the economy and public health. I understand what the president is saying, this is unsustainable that we close down the economy and we continue to spend money. There is no doubt about that, no one is going to argue about that. But if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it's no contest. No American is going to say, 'accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.' Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth. Job one has to be save lives. That has to be the priority. . . . My mother is not expendable. And your mother is not expandable. We're not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable. We're not going to put a dollar figure on human life. . . . We are going to fight every way we can to save every life that we can. Because that's what I think it means to be an American.

Cuomo is overly optimistic or diplomatic when he says "no American" believes such monstrous things, because sadly, we've seen that some of them do, and many of those people have power and influence. But may we hold them to account, follow higher principles, and try to help one another stay safe in these trying times from the Orange Death as well as COVID-19.

(Cross-posted at Hullabaloo.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

St. Patrick's Day 2020

I hope everyone has a good and safe St. Patrick's Day. This year, I thought I'd feature the haunting version of "The Foggy Dew" performed by Sinead O'Connor and the Chieftains. Here's some background. The video has a bit of commentary at the very end.

Feel free to link or mention any favorite Irish songs in the comments.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Warren's Exit

I was disappointed that Elizabeth Warren didn't do better in the primary elections and had to drop out last week. I've been impressed with her since hearing her interviews on Fresh Air as a professor and consumer advocate before she became a senator. She was one of the few heroes in Congress fighting against foreclosure fraud and other malfeasance by big banks. Her record has been overwhelmingly positive.

As a candidate, she had many good policies, and they were more comprehensive than those from most politicians. She even adopted Jay Inslee's more detailed environmental plan after he dropped out and met with her, which was an encouraging sign about adopting better ideas and coalition building. Warren was also adept at putting human faces on policy proposals, whether it was weaving in her personal biography or talking about the people she met on the campaign trail and the struggles they were facing. Liberal and Democratic candidates often fail to do that effectively, sometimes offering fine polices and data and thinking that those policies will win on the merits alone, or failing to consider how nefarious their political opposition is. (Why, of course the Republicans will support this plan, because it's a good plan and helps their own constituents! Only a monster would oppose this! And surely they wouldn't – um, they wouldn't – uh, the Republicans voted how?) The human angle and the values driving those better policies are essential parts of explaining them to voters, and Warren consistently does that well.

She was also one of the few candidates who could talk about overall goals (such as universal health care) but also multiple possible routes to get there or at least make progress. Likewise, she was one of the few candidates who gave a good answer on Mitch McConnell and the unprecedented obstructionism by Republicans in government, who have shown they will almost always put party before country and even their own constituents, will not evaluate policies on their merits and simply will not argue in good faith. In several interviews, Warren spoke of the importance of Democrats winning back the Senate, but also explained what she could do via executive order if that didn't happen in 2020.

In contrast, some other candidates would blame "Washington" but not Republicans and conservatives, and basically were selling themselves as magic kumbaya figures who would somehow make Republicans see the error of their ways and renounce evil. (Buttigieg was particularly egregious about this as his campaign progressed, but it's also been a key part of Biden's pitch, and Klobuchar, Gillibrand and some of the early dropouts made similar if more modest claims.) Practicality is admirable, but delusion is not, and I remain wary of political figures who will not call out that conservatives and Republicans are the core problem in American politics and have been for a long time. Republicans are shameless about making false claims and manufacturing scapegoats – especially racial minorities, liberals and Democrats – while the more establishment Democrats often are afraid to call out real villainy by conservatives and Republicans. Throw in the "both sides" false equivalences that imbecilic hack pundits love and it becomes almost impossible to have an honest political conversation in many major venues ostensibly devoted to discussing politics.

I think some Democratic candidates know the real problem, but shill a weak, general condemnation of politics and offer "both sides" bullshit, which strikes me as cynical and counterproductive to long-term progress. And others are naïve enough to believe that crap, which may be worse. All – well, almost all of the Democratic candidates – condemned Trump. But of all the candidates, Warren and Sanders have pushed the strongest critiques of Republican abuses of power in government and abuses of power in general by corporations and other influential entities.

Warren might wind up as a vice presidential pick or a cabinet official. But I think being a good senator is underrated.

Here's her press conference at her house:

Here's her interview with Rachel Maddow:

Here are her remarks to her staff and supporters:

I want to start with the news. I want all of you to hear it first, and I want you to hear it straight from me: Today, I’m suspending our campaign for president.

I know how hard all of you have worked. So from the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything you have poured into this campaign.

I know that when we set out, this was not what you ever wanted to hear. It is not the call I ever wanted to make. But I refuse to let disappointment blind me — or you — to what we’ve accomplished. We didn’t reach our goal, but what we have done together — what you have done — has made a lasting difference. It’s not the scale of the difference we wanted to make, but it matters — and the changes will have ripples for years to come.

What we have done — and the ideas we have launched into the world, the way we have fought this fight, the relationships we have built — will carry through, carry through for the rest of this election, and the one after that, and the one after that.

So think about it:

We have shown that it is possible to build a grassroots movement that is accountable to supporters and activists and not to wealthy donors — and to do it fast enough for a first-time candidate to build a viable campaign. Never again can anyone say that the only way that a newcomer can get a chance to be a plausible candidate is to take money from corporate executives and billionaires. That’s done.

We have also shown that it is possible to inspire people with big ideas, possible to call out what’s wrong and to lay out a path to make this country live up to its promise.

We have also shown that race and justice — economic justice, social justice, environmental justice, criminal justice — are not an afterthought, but are at the heart of everything that we do.

We have shown that a woman can stand up, hold her ground, and stay true to herself — no matter what.

We have shown that we can build plans in collaboration with the people who are most affected. You know, just one example: Our disability plan is a model for our country, and, even more importantly, the way we relied on the disability communities to help us get it right will be a more important model.

And one thing more: Campaigns take on a life and soul of their own and they are a reflection of the people who work on them.

This campaign became something special, and it wasn’t because of me. It was because of you. I am so proud of how you all fought this fight alongside me: You fought it with empathy and kindness and generosity — and of course, with enormous passion and grit.

Some of you may remember that long before I got into electoral politics, I was asked if I would accept a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was weak and toothless.

And I replied that my first choice was a consumer agency that could get real stuff done, and my second choice was no agency and lots of blood and teeth left on the floor.

In this campaign, we have been willing to fight, and when necessary, we left plenty of blood and teeth on the floor. And I can think of one billionaire who has been denied the chance to buy this election.

Now, campaigns change people. And I know that you will carry the experiences you have had here, the skills you’ve learned, the friendships you have made, will be with you for the rest of your lives. I also want you to know that you have changed me, and I will carry you in my heart for the rest of my life.

So if you leave with only one thing, it must be this: Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: Nevertheless, you must persist.

You should all be so proud of what we’ve done together — what you have done over this past year.

We built a grassroots campaign that had some of the most ambitious organizing targets ever — and then we turned around and surpassed them.

Our staff and volunteers on the ground knocked on over 22 million doors across the country. You made 20 million phone calls and sent more than 42 million texts to voters. That’s truly astonishing. It is.

We fundamentally changed the substance of this race.

You know a year ago, people weren’t talking about a two-cent wealth tax, universal childcare, cancelling student loan debt for 43 million Americans while reducing the racial wealth gap, or breaking up big tech. Or expanding Social Security. And now they are. And because we did the work of building broad support for all of those ideas across this country, these changes could actually be implemented by the next president.

A year ago, people weren’t talking about corruption, and they still aren’t talking about it enough. But we’ve moved the needle, and a hunk of our anti-corruption plan is already embedded in a House bill that is ready to go when we get a Democratic Senate.

We also advocated for fixing our rigged system in a way that will make it work better for everyone — regardless of your race, or gender, or religion, regardless of whether you’re straight or LGBTQ+. And that wasn’t an afterthought, it was built into everything we did.

And we did all of this without selling access for money. Together, more than 1,250,000 people gave more than $112 million dollars to support this campaign. And we did it without selling one minute of my time to the highest bidder. People said that would be impossible — but you did that.

And we also did it by having fun and by staying true to ourselves. We ran from the heart. We ran on our values. We ran on treating everyone with respect and dignity.

You know liberty green everything was key here — my personal favorites included the liberty green boas, liberty green sneakers, liberty green make up, liberty green hair, and liberty green glitter — liberally applied. But it was so much more.

Four-hour selfie lines and pinky promises with little girls. And a wedding at one of our town halls. We were joyful and positive through all of it. We ran a campaign not to put people down, but to lift them up — and I loved pretty much every minute of it.

So take some time to be with your friends and family, to get some sleep, maybe to get that haircut you’ve been putting off. Do things to take care of yourselves, gather up your energy, because I know you are coming back. I know you — and I know that you aren’t ready to leave this fight.

You know, I used to hate goodbyes. Whenever I taught my last class or when we moved to a new city, those final goodbyes used to wrench my heart. But then I realized that there is no goodbye for much of what we do.

When I left one place, I took everything I’d learned before and all the good ideas that were tucked into my brain and all the good friends that were tucked in my heart, and I brought it all forward with me — and it became part of what I did next. This campaign is no different. I may not be in the race for president in 2020, but this fight — our fight — is not over. And our place in this fight has not ended.

Because for every young person who is drowning in student debt, for every family struggling to pay the bills on two incomes, for every mom worried about paying for prescriptions or putting food on the table, this fight goes on.

For every immigrant and African American and Muslim and Jewish person and Latinx and trans woman who sees the rise in attacks on people who look or sound or worship like them, this fight goes on.

And for every person alarmed by the speed with which climate change is bearing down upon us, this fight goes on.

And for every American who desperately wants to see our nation healed and some decency and honor restored to our government, this fight goes on.

And sure, the fight may take a new form, but I will be in that fight, and I want you in this fight with me. We will persist.

One last story: When I voted yesterday at the elementary school down the street, a mom came up to me. And she said she has two small children, and they have a nightly ritual. After the kids have brushed teeth and read books and gotten that last sip of water and done all the other bedtime routines, they do one last thing before the two little ones go to sleep.

Mama leans over them and whispers, “Dream big.” And the children together reply, “Fight hard.”

Our work continues, the fight goes on, and big dreams never die.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I've seen a number of good postmortems on the Warren campaign, including pieces by David Dayen, Harold Meyerson and Matthew Yglesias. Ella Nilsen and Li Zhou, among others, have written about "Why women are feeling so defeated after Elizabeth Warren’s loss."

The primary race is now between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, and COVID-19 news is justifiably crowding out many other stories. But I did want to take a moment to recognize Elizabeth Warren.

(Incidentally, Warren's released and updated a good coronavirus plan, and as Digby's noted, both Biden and Sanders have given better speeches than Trump on the pandemic.)

Saturday, March 07, 2020

2019 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. In addition to this section, there's The Top Six, Noteworthy Films and the Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2019 wound up being a surprisingly good year for film, with many solid entries and a handful of standouts likely to be remembered for years to come.

The Oscars were fun this year due to several especially worthy recipients and some good segments. The set was pretty cool, I thought, providing some visual interest and malleability. Janelle Monae, a natural performer seemingly unfazed even by a huge audience, got things going with a spirited opening number that also featured Billy Porter. The rest of the evening wouldn't be as diverse, but Monae and crew were sensational. Although the Oscars didn't have designated hosts, Steve Martin and Chris Rock "not hosting" were quite good together. Martin remains my favorite host of the past few decades.

The Best Song category had some good performances but also some oddities. Eminem showed up to sing "Lose Yourself" (heavily bleeped), 17 years after it won the Oscar. It's a catchy song, but his appearance felt random. I'm not a huge fan of Frozen, but I thought it was neat to have a cast of international Elsas singing "Let It Go." The Elton John-Bernie Taupin song "(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again" is decent, but its win felt like more of a lifetime achievement award than for its own merits, although this wasn't the strongest year for nominees. Elton John, who won before with lyricist Tim Rice for 1994's "Can You Feel the Love Tonight," graciously let his longtime collaborator Taupin do most of the talking this time. "Daily Battles," a moody piece written by Radiohead's Thom Yorke for the film Motherless Brooklyn, made the initial nomination list of 15 but unfortunately did not make the final shortlist of 5. Meanwhile, "Stand Up" from the film Harriet is a pretty good song, and actress and singer Cynthia Erivo absolutely slayed it during her performance.

Standout presenters included Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, who did very sharp, interweaving banter to present the Oscars for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design. (Somebody needs to fund them making another movie together.) Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus also were great, pretending to be self-absorbed stars who did not understand what a cinematographer does and expressing ire at editors for cutting their performances. James Corden and Rebel Wilson, who appeared in the already infamous cinematic bomb Cats, came out dressed as cats to present the award for visual effects.

The Oscars montage game remains strong, and it was particularly nice to see a montage of great international films. Of the honorary Oscar winners, I was happiest for Cherokee actor Wes Studi. (You can see his acceptance speech from last October here.)

The Oscar "in memoriam" segment (the montage of death) is always put together well, but Billie Eilish wound up being a rare miss as singer. I like some of Eilish's songs, but her rendition of "Yesterday" was too soft, mumbly and in a bad key for her voice. (She also was not a good choice for the new Bond song. Let her stick to her lane, producers.) The montage appropriately ended with the legendary Kirk Douglas, of course, who made it to 103, leaving just Olivia de Havilliand left of Old Hollywood. (TCM always does a splendid memorial segment, and you can see the edition for 2019 here.)

Joaquin Phoenix gave a heartfelt and slightly nutty acceptance speech for Best Actor, touching on (among other things) animal rights. Renée Zellweger, winning for Best Actress, also came off as a bit loopy, but both performers have a reputation for eccentricity. It's trippy that performances as the comic book character the Joker have now won two Oscars.

As for other award recipients, I enjoyed Best Animated Short Film winner, "Hair Love," and it's well worth a look if you haven't seen it. It's good on its own merits and a nice expansion of diversity. For sheer artistry, though, my favorite in the category was the French stop-motion piece, "Mémorable," which centers on an artist experiencing dementia. I haven't seen the Best Documentary Feature winner yet, American Factory, but it looks intriguing, and typically all the nominees are good. The makeup jobs transforming Charlize Theron and John Lithgow for Bombshell deservedly won an Oscar. I thought the sound awards seemed apt this year, with Ford v. Ferrari winning for Best Sound Editing and 1917 winning for Best Sound Mixing. I probably would have given Thomas Newman the Oscar for his superb score for 1917, but Hildur Guðnadóttir's score for Joker was innovative, effectively creepy and also excellent, plus it was nice to see a woman win (relatively young, too). Roger Deakins, after being nominated and not winning for years, deservedly won a second year in a row for his extraordinary work on 1917.

Brad Pitt's Best Supporting Actor win for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood felt like a lifetime achievement award, but he's extremely likable in the film, oozing effortless charisma, plus all of his competitors have already won performance Oscars. (Pitt's lead performance in Ad Astra was more impressive, however.) Laura Dern was my favorite of the actor wins, though. She gives a great performance in Marriage Story, but has a long career of excellence, and gave a lovely, gracious shout-out to her acting parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd.

The screenwriting nominees typically represent the actual best movies of the year, although I've been disappointed by some winners in recent years. This year, they went to precisely the right recipients, though – Jojo Rabbit for Best Adapted Screenplay and Parasite for Best Original Screenplay. Both are extremely creative, original and occasionally inspired pieces of work, and I was cheering their wins.

Likewise, I would have been happy to see 1917 win for Best Director and Best Picture, because it's a legitimately great film. I probably would have given the nod to Sam Mendes over Bong Joon-ho for directing due to the astounding technical challenges of making 1917. But I was thrilled to see Parasite win both awards (along with Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature Film). Parasite is a truly original, incisive, funny, disturbing piece of work, thought-provoking, entertaining and memorable. After last year's "safe" win of Green Book, it was an absolute coup that Parasite mopped up at the Oscars, the first film in a foreign language to win Best Picture, a superb film on its own merits, and not remotely a safe pick. Bong Joon-ho claimed he wasn't expecting all the wins, and seemingly had to improvise a bit for his acceptance speeches, but gave nice shout-outs to his fellow directing nominees, most of all Martin Scorsese. I'd be interested to see how the ballots and ranked choice voting looked for Best Picture, but Parasite's victories alone made this a great Oscars.

On a personal note, I got to attend an Oscars rehearsal this year, so it was neat to see how things are run, and to see a few bits that were cut or changed for the actual show. All the presenters who showed up to rehearse seemed to take things quite seriously, wanting to get things right. Our favorites were Maya Rudolph and Kristen Wiig, who ran through their entire banter rapidly and flawlessly, which we loudly applauded.

On to the reviews. As usual, I try to label spoilers, but also follow a simple rule: if it's in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

2019 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Six

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and the Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

Parasite: Parasite is original, entertaining, bitingly satirical, disturbing, thought-provoking and memorable. Kim Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) lives with his family in poverty in a basement apartment. They're all underemployed, but father Ki Taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Chung Sook (Jang Hye-jin) resourcefully try to find work – even if folding pizza boxes isn't lucrative. Ki-woo's friend Min-hyuk has been the English tutor for the daughter of the rich Park family, but he's going abroad, and asks Ki-woo to take over for him. Ki-woo knows some English but hasn't completed university (perhaps for lack of money; we're not explicitly told), so his artistic sister, Ki-jung (Park So-dam) forges a realistic diploma for him. Ki-woo soon impresses both the mother, Park Yeon Kyo (Jo Yeo-jeong) and daughter, Da Hye (Jung Ji-so), who both call him Kevin. Yeon Kyo is also looking for an art tutor for her rambunctious young son, Da Song (Jung Hyun-jun), so Ki-woo suggests his sister, but they don't let on they're related – she goes by "Jessica." Soon they're both entrenched and look for ways to help their own family through the Parks.

It would be wrong to give away too much of the plot, but Parasite is very funny for the first section. It's hard not to admire the Kim family's resourcefulness, especially because their initial deceptions are victimless. Park Yeon Kyo's care for her children is admirable, but she's also quite gullible. Her husband, Dong Ik (Lee Sun-kyun) is a bit haughty. Parasite turns more serious as class attitudes slowly emerge, and writer and director Bong Joon-ho plays visually with levels, the high and the low. The film takes a sharp turn about halfway through and becomes much darker, feeling at times more like a thriller or horror film. The few violent scenes are disturbing, but intentionally so and not gratuitous. Parasite's originality and unpredictability make it riveting on a first viewing and its depth makes it hold up very well to subsequent viewings. It boasts many memorable moments, but I thought its most fantastic image, which summed up the Kim family and the dark, funny satire of the movie, involved a cigarette and a toilet. More in the…

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

1917: The pantheon of great war films gets another member, and all the better that this one centers on World War I. (The U.S. prefers World War II movies.) 1917 portrays two British soldiers on the Western front in France during the Great War. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is summoned for a mission and asked to grab a volunteer; he nabs his mate, fellow Lance Corporal William Schofield (George MacKay). General Erinmore (Colin Firth) informs them that a British battalion planning an attack in the morning will be walking into a German trap. 1,600 men could all die, including Tom's brother, Lieutenant Joseph Blake. The communication lines are out, so the two soldiers must deliver the warning in person in time, and to do so must cross no man's land, supposedly abandoned German trenches, and all manner of perils such as mines or enemy soldiers.

It's a good setup for a war movie, and director-cowriter Sam Mendes and master cinematographer Roger Deakins (who won his second Oscar in a row) shoot the entire film as if was done in one shot, with visual effects smoothing the seams. That's been done before, most notably with Birdman (reviewed here) and in 2002's Russian Ark with a true single shot and no effects, but 1917 stages significant action sequences as well and uses some difficult environments. Gimmicky? Maybe. At times, I feel the single shot approach adds to our immersion, but at others, I think the limitation might rob Mendes of good options. It's extremely technically impressive, though. And some sequences are definitely more powerful as a result – for instance, a key scene where we stick with one of the soldiers and then we realize, with him, that something significant is happening behind him.

MacKay and Chapman are both good as the young soldiers – they sell their friendship, and we also witness how they change over the course of their journey. Mendes also makes fine use of notable actors in small roles, including Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Benedict Cumberbarch, Richard Madden and the aforementioned Colin Firth. We're given a series of memorable, powerful scenes through the fine craftsmanship of Mendes, Deakins, cowriter Krysty Wilson-Cairns, production designer Dennis Gassner, the sound design team (mixers Mark Taylor and Stuart Wilson won the Oscar), and composer Thomas Newman, who delivers one of his most striking, moving scores to date. (I would have been happy to see Mendes and Newman win Oscars, although I applauded the eventual winners.) No man's land is appropriately creepy, with its pools and dead bodies; scenes in tunnels are appropriately claustrophobic; a scene with a plane is brilliantly staged but also emotionally wrenching; a nighttime cityscape of long shadows and flame is haunting; a plunging chase through water is exhilarating; a song attended to by silent, still soldiers is all the more moving because of the chaos and turmoil preceding it. The last few shots of the movie carry emotional weight, and the signature shot from the trailers deserves special mention: it's remarkably impressive from a technical standpoint, with one of our protagonists running toward the camera, which is pulling back, as other soldiers cut across the screen horizontally as they climb out of the trenches and run into battle, while explosions rain down. But it's not just a flashy shot to sell tickets. Narratively, it really is the climax of the movie, and Mendes, Deakins and Newman especially pull out all the stops to deliver not just an impressive spectacle, but a gripping, moving scene where we are invested in the outcome. It's a bravura piece of moviemaking. Unless war movies aren't your thing, you'll want to see 1917, and on the biggest screen possible.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu): Probably the best film of 2019 you didn't see and might not even have heard about, the French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire starts as an interesting period piece and then just keeps getting better and better. During the latter part of the 18th century, Marianne (Noémie Merlant), a young painter with limited prospects due to her gender, accepts a commission to paint the portrait of Héloïse (Adèle Haenel), a young woman who is to be married to an Italian lord. Héloïse had been in a convent, but her older sister, previously betrothed to the lord, died recently (possibly suicide), and Héloïse is to take her place. The marriage is contingent on the lord approving of Héloïse's appearance, hence the portrait commissioned by Héloïse's mother, a countess (Valeria Golino). There's an additional catch – Héloïse is rebellious and refuses to sit for a portrait, so Marianne must spend time with her to get to know her face and then paint her in secret.

Héloïse and her family live on an isolated island in Brittany, and after men row Marianne and her trunks of painting supplies to the island, we follow just a few women: Marianne, Héloïse, the servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) and less often, the Countess. Marianne and Héloïse spend more and more time together, and given her isolation and trepidation over her situation, Héloïse increasingly welcomes Marianne's company and having someone to confide in. But as Marianne grows to like Héloïse, she feels less comfortable about deceiving her.

This is very much a female affair. Writer-director Céline Sciamma, her producers, and her cinematographer are all women. Hélène Delmaire painted all of Marianne's pictures for the film and her hands stand in for Marianne's in some shots. The film focuses on women, and after the men who row Marianne to the island leave, we don't see men again for most of the movie. When we finally do again, it's a visual jolt, a seeming intrusion on a female space, which is surely intentional by Sciamma.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire isn't that flashy, especially at first, but gradually, it becomes more emotionally charged as the women develop a more intimate relationship. Both Héloïse and Marianne have restricted options as women of their era, but can be more candid with one another than in other company, and have more freedom on the island, especially when the Countess must leave for a while. They help Sophie seek medical help, which results in a remarkable, multilayered scene with Sophie on a bed next to a young child. They and Sophie also argue passionately about different versions and interpretations of the myth of Orpheus (one of my favorites) and that story becomes key to the movie, providing a striking image late in the film. Marianne's key paintings are visually interesting but also become narratively and thematically important at times. Given the invocation of Orpheus, it's appropriate that music plays a pivotal role despite really only three instances. The first is an early harpsichord scene as the women start to get to know each other. The second is an impossibly gorgeous, otherworldly chorus sung by island women by a festival bonfire at night – it's presented as source/diegetic music, but it's score, much more modern than the period, and helps establish that we are entering some special realm where the normal rules may not apply. The third is the finale, featuring a full orchestra, and is simply but powerfully presented, with a riveting performance. I expected that I'd appreciate Portrait of a Lady on Fire going in, but I wasn't anticipating being this impressed and moved. You've probably heard of the other five films in my top tier from 2019, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire was harder to see, but my reaction was, "Wow, I'm so glad I went to see this one."

Marriage Story: Blockbusters may be more technically challenging to film, but it's easier to get away with a thin story and the spectacle generally takes pressure off the performances. Writing a realistic, character-driven story is much harder, and such films absolutely depend on a good script, good direction and good performances. With Marriage Story, writer-director Noah Baumbach provides an American Bergman domestic drama (a poster of Scenes from a Marriage even appears in the background), with pretty fine results. Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) are a married theater couple – he's a director, and she's his star actress. Their theater company is well-regarded, but Charlie is very focused on it, and Nicole feels neglected in both their artistic collaboration and their marriage. They attend counseling, but Nicole doesn't want to share her "things I like about you" list, and they stop. She moves to Los Angeles to star in a TV pilot, taking their young son Henry with her. They agree to divorce but try to keep it amicable and skip lawyers. But then Nicole gets a lawyer, and soon Charlie must, too, especially with custody of Henry on the line.

Neither Charlie nor Nicole is a bad person, and Marriage Story's great success is that it lets us be sympathetic to each of them in turn if not simultaneously. Charlie and Nicole say some awful things to each other at times, but make kind gestures as well. This is the best performance I've seen from Adam Driver to date, and it's on the short list for Scarlett Johansson as well. Laura Dern is a standout as Nora, Nicole's lawyer, who has a great speech about how women are held to a higher standard of parenting than men. Alan Alda likewise gives a fine performance as one of the lawyers Charlie consults, a low-key, retired family lawyer who wants to keep things civil if at all possible. (It's not, but you guessed that.) Although Marriage Story is primarily a drama, it does have some funny bits and thankfully isn't unrelentingly dour. The last few scenes have a nice callback to the beginning of the film, are fairly moving and really well-done.

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

The Irishman: Although The Irishman is not as good as any of Scorsese's masterpieces, it's got enough going for it that it's pretty interesting, and it's nice to see the old gang of Scorsese, De Niro and Pesci back together, also with Pacino this time (plus a small part for Harvey Keitel). The movie's based on the book I Heard You Paint Houses, which appears as the title at the end – apparently, "painting houses" is Mafia code for being a hitman, and the "paint" means blood splatter. We first meet Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) as elderly and frail in a nursing home, but most of the film is told in flashback, starting with Sheeran driving trucks in 1950s Pennsylvania. He starts making deals to "lose" parts of his hauls to a local gangster, Skinny Razor (Bobby Cannavale). Skinny's crew goes too far and takes an entire load once, Sheeran is charged with theft, refuses to give up names, is defended by a union lawyer, Bill Bufalino (Ray Romano). Bill clears Frank and then introduces him to his brother, Russell (Joe Pesci), a Pennsylvania crime boss who's impressed by Frank's silence. Soon Frank Sheeran is working for Russell Bufalino on a variety of jobs, including "painting houses." Through Russell, Frank eventually meets Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), the powerful union head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. We then follow Sheeran and Hoffa (and Russell Bufalino) through the decades, with Sheeran becoming head of a local union, Sheeran and Hoffa's families becoming much closer, and Hoffa's tangles with the federal government (especially the Kennedy administration) for his ties with the mafia and other shady deals. Hoffa is charismatic but headstrong, and not inclined to back down from a fight. The mafia becomes progressively concerned about his seemingly reckless behavior, and Russell Bufalino has Sheeran try to warn Hoffa, but Hoffa considers himself untouchable because of all the dirt he knows. Sheeran owes a great deal to both men, and genuinely likes Hoffa, but is loyal to Bufalino and his crime family, putting him in an increasingly difficult spot.

We're mostly here for the performances, and it's a treat to see De Niro in a good leading role again, especially in a Scorsese picture. His talent for subtlety and nuance, to be captivating while a character is thinking, serves this material extremely well. As was the case when they paired off in Heat, Pacino gets the flashier role and is also superb. As Hoffa, he's a fiery showman, even explosive, and can be reckless, but also warm and generous. He has the successful politician's gift for making someone feel like they're the most important person in the room. As Russell Bufalino, Joe Pesci presents a careful, cautious man who keeps his cards close to the vest. He's used to getting his way and is patient and deliberate enough that he usually does. As gangster Angelo Bruno, Harvey Keitel has a similar calculating energy to Pesci, and it's nice to see him in action again despite not much screen time. Stephen Graham is memorable as Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, a fiery teamster and gangster who clashes with Hoffa. (Despite being a Brit, Graham has made a name for himself playing American gangsters.) And Anna Paquin is a standout as Sheeran's daughter, Peggy.

The Irishman distinguishes itself from some other organized crime movies by how the later scenes with the older Sheeran emphasize regret, but also specifically how that regret plays out with his family. Henry Hill in Goodfellas essentially regrets being caught. Michael Corleone in The Godfather III regrets some of his most evil acts. The Sopranos has anxiety as a core theme. But most organized crime stories present a glamorous and exciting side to the criminal lifestyle, and almost every character proclaims their abiding commitment to their families, biological and not just criminal. The Irishman is one of the few crime stories other than Blow I can think of that delves not just into family strains, which most do, but into wholesale disintegration of relationships. Sheeran prizes his omertà/code of silence, and views it and some of his violent conduct as honor, but those he claims to love the most can have a sharply different critique. This gives The Irishman's last stretch a more thoughtful and critical feel than many other stories in the genre.

The film has its flaws. The most discussed issue is the visual effects, with De Niro and the other actors being de-aged throughout the film. Scorsese worked with Industrial Light and Magic to develop a new system (including a special camera setup) so that the actors wouldn't need to have the usual dots or rigs on them and could focus on acting. The results aren't entirely successful, and are occasionally distracting. De Niro is also given blue eyes, and especially in a dark restaurant scene, they look glowingly unnatural. And as some critics have noted, even though the actors might look younger, their body movements are those of the septuagenarians they are (as in a scene where De Niro kicks someone). So I wish the effects were better, but most of the time we can still focus on the performances. I appreciate Scorsese pushing for a system like this, to potentially make performance-centered films easier, especially those portraying characters over several decades. Visual effects' value in creating spectacle or locations is well-known, and motion capture has also come a long way, but this approach could develop into something quite valuable.

The Irishman is also awfully long, coming in at 3 hours and 19 minutes. I was never bored, but some of the scenes are repetitive and most of Scorsese's more recent feature films feel a bit bloated. Lastly, we don't really get to know Hoffa that well. It's true that Sheeran is the main character, but we don't really get a good sense of why Hoffa was so popular in his union and why he rose to power. We can see his charisma, but also his tendency to pick potentially unwise fights that would hurt the cause. Was he getting his union members great benefits that they loved? Did they just love him personally? In the film, we see more of his recklessness and corruption and less to admire. So what was his appeal to the union membership? We're not really shown that. Also, narratively, the more appealing Hoffa is, the tougher Frank Sheeran's growing dilemma is. I get the sense that Scorsese took familiarity with Hoffa and his cultural influence too much for granted, because Hoffa disappeared in 1975 and the majority of viewers could benefit from the film giving a better sense of what a big deal Hoffa was. All that said, I found The Irishman was one of the more interesting and memorable films of 2019, and I'm glad Scorsese, De Niro and the gang are still making movies.

Apollo 11: 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing, and I really couldn't get enough of documentaries and narrative films about the event and the space race. One of the best, certainly as a single feature versus a series, is Apollo 11. It uses all archival footage, some of it shot in 70 mm, and much of it never previously seen by the public. I don't recall, for example, ever seeing footage of the stunning, massive vehicle designed to transport the rocket to the landing pad; I assumed the rocket was built right there. Apollo 11 probably spends too much time on the ground before the launch for my tastes, but to be fair, less space flight footage is available. The film uses no narration, but uses tons of original audio. Apparently, Apollo 11 takes some liberties with the time line and other matters, but for the most part, it does a pretty great job of telling the story, and conveying how extraordinary and thrilling the event was. The moon landing remains one of the greatest human accomplishments in history, all the more remarkable given the technology available at the time, and more to the point, technology invented to pull off landing human beings on the moon and bringing them safely back home. Seeing Apollo 11 in a theater was exhilarating, thought-provoking and awe-inspiring, and one of best moviegoing experiences of 2019 for me. It gives a little hope about what human beings can do when we really commit to it, and makes one think about what we could be doing now to make the world or ourselves better. This is another film that really benefits from a large screen, but I think it'll be pretty captivating regardless.

2019 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. In addition to this section, there's The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Six and the Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

The Farewell: Nai Nai (Zhao Shu-zhen), the matriarch of a Chinese family, is dying but her sister keeps the truth from her. Instead, the family decides to hurry the marriage of one of its youngest members, Hao Hao (Chen Han), to his Japanese girlfriend, Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), as an excuse to gather everyone together to say goodbye to Nai Nai in China. Our main character is Billi Wang (Awkwafina), a second-generation Chinese-American living in New York City, who adores her paternal grandmother Nai Nai and is shocked to hear the plan from her parents, Haiyan Wang (Tzi Ma) and Lu Jian Wang (Diana Lin). They explain that some Chinese people believe that worry hastens death more than the disease itself. Billi doesn't have the best poker face, and her parents agree to let her travel to China only on condition that she not tell Nai Nai the truth or mope about.

The Farewell has a setup reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952) in that someone terminally ill isn't told of their diagnosis. Writer-director Lulu Wang based her film on her own life – the same situation occurred with her grandmother and family. As a result, The Farewell has a personal feel, as well as a nice mix of comedy and drama. Awkwafina typically plays comic supporting roles, but here she shows she can both play a serious role and be a film's lead. Although the film centers on Billi and everyone's relationship with Nai Nai and their grief, we also see plenty more from Billi: her dealing with being rejected from a fellowship; struggling to express herself in not-great Mandarin; and telling scenes about her familial relations. (Lu Jian: How many wontons do you want? Billi: ..Five. Lu Jian: That's not enough. Billi: Make it a dozen, then. Lu Jian: ...Ten.) Basing the film on her family members surely helped Lulu Wang know these characters (and her aunt Hong Lu, or "Little Nai Nai," plays herself), but it takes an observant eye to craft so many authentic moments. I thought The Farewell was one of the best smaller films of 2019.

(Here's Lulu Wang on on The Treatment, The Business and Fresh Air. And after you've seen the film, you'll find this January 2020 story interesting.)

Ad Astra: Ad Astra (which means "to the stars") is essentially 2001: A Space Odyssey mashed up with Apocalypse Now/Heart of Darkness, with astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) asked to seek out or at least contact his father, Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a famous and celebrated astronaut the public believes to be dead. Earth is being buffeted by occasional power surges that cause great damage. Roy is told by the U.S. Space Command that his father may be still alive and also that they believe his father may be causing the surges. But as Roy progresses, he discovers new, key details that make him question the story he's been told.

Although the film involves several journeys through space, and some notable action, overall it's a pretty internal, reflective film, with heavy narration from Pitt as Roy McBride. Roy is an extremely cool customer – he stays calm under pressure, which is a huge asset for his work, but he's also emotionally blocked, repressing rage and other feelings, and thus pretty crappy at personal relationships. Pitt does a fine job and it's one of his best performances; honestly, I'd rate it above his Oscar-winning turn for 2019's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and Ad Astra and his previous body of work almost certainly helped nab him the trophy. Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga and Donald Sutherland are memorable in supporting roles. Although director and cowriter James Gray bragged about the scientific accuracy of the film, a few key moments don't make sense but at least don't really affect the outcome. Overall, I thought Ad Astra was far more successful and satisfying than Interstellar in exploring a character and the human psyche in a science fiction setting.

Jojo Rabbit: A young boy in the Hitler Youth earnestly tries to be a good little Nazi, but he's simply too good-natured for it, despite the urgings of his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler. Mixing comedy and Nazis has been done well in the past, but it's not the easiest feat. Jojo Rabbit does an admirable job of making us laugh while also showing us bigotry, terror and death. The film's success depends largely on a great debut performance by twelve-year-old Roman Griffin Davis as the young Johannes "Jojo" Betzler. He's got an open, expressive face, and even when Jojo tries to be harsh or cruel, it's clear he can't keep it for long. Davis handles the wide range of emotions the film demands impressively. Jojo's biggest challenge comes when encountering the boogeyman of the propaganda he's been fed, a real-life Jew, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a girl a bit older than he who's in hiding. Jojo tries to press Elsa for her "Jew secrets" to write a book, and she toys with him, amused but also saddened by how gullible he is about awful myths and whatever she concocts. Meanwhile, Jojo alternates between bonding and acting out with his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell) has Jojo putting up propaganda posters around town, where he sometimes runs into his good friend Yorki (Archie Yates). Throughout all this, Jojo is given advice by his imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler, who mostly comes off as ridiculous if supportive but occasionally demanding. He's played with a comic flair by the writer-director, Taika Waititi. (There's added comedy in Waititi being part Maori and definitely not part of Hitler's master race.)

Jojo Rabbit fits well with Europa Europa, To Be or Not to Be and Life Is Beautful in successfully mixing Nazi-satirizing scenes with serious ones. All the major characters have some complexity – Jojo himself, Elsa, Rosie, and even Captain Klenzendorf. About my only criticism would be some deliberate anachronisms in the finale that I found distracting. But the film is definitely worth a look.

Avengers: Endgame: Give Marvel credit: not only did they deliver a great summer blockbuster, they managed to put a fitting capstone on all their films up to this point, and somehow make it look pretty easy. You do need to have at least seen Avengers: Infinity War (reviewed here), and many Endgame scenes will have more resonance if you've seen the other Marvel films, but otherwise, it's pretty self-sufficient. After a little action, the film slows down, and becomes much more about how the characters deal with grief and loss. The next major section is a complicated, multi-target time heist, and just as the filmmakers did in Infinity War, they bring variety to each segment. (Although parent-child scenes are a recurring theme in the movie.) Then, never fear, the movie's massive budget is put to use in an epic, multiphase, final battle. Endgame provides quite a few funny moments, but given the ending of the previous film, its overall feel is much more somber. And although it contrives some crowd-pleasing moments, such as all the heroines assembling, we don't mind much because they're fun, and other crowd-pleasing moments build on previous Marvel scenes and thus feel very much earned. (You probably know the big one.) Marvel remains excellent at knowing the characters and building the stories around them and their relationships. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) didn't have as large a role in Infinity War, but he's the key hero among dozens here, and Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) remains integral as well. Likewise, we didn't see much of Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) in Infinity War, but he's essential for establishing the chilling opening of Endgame and the emotional stakes of the later heist. Infinity War, among other things, cleverly set up Endgame to center on the core Avengers team for the bulk of the movie, and they all get good scenes.

I have mixed feelings about how the film treats Thor (Chris Hemsworth). On the one hand, his changes show a different side of grief and makes use of Hemsworth's comic gifts. On the other, as with Thor: Ragnarok (reviewed here), if not as severe, the filmmakers sometimes go for the laugh even if the gag's not really in character, which is rare for Marvel. (To be fair, Thor does get a great, more serious moment during the heist sequence.)

Chances are you've already seen Endgame, but it boasts some fantastic spectacle, great character moments and some genuinely moving scenes. The craftsmanship is impressive, all the more so when Endgame is viewed as the culmination of about 20 films. As we covered in the Infinity War review, it's the cinematic equivalent of a comic book crossover series, one of the good ones. No one's ever done something quite like this before.

Relatedly, It's intriguing that both Endgame and the Game of Thrones finale came out in the same month, given that the Marvel Cinematic Universe and "GoT" have both been cultural juggernauts. Game of Thrones, while offering some good moments in its final seasons, significantly botched its ending (for reasons I could explain at length but you've probably already seen elsewhere). Marvel managed to stick the landing, which is all the more remarkable given how high the expectations were. Also: some Game of Thrones fans were absolutely horrible about posting major spoilers before even other time zones got to watch new episodes. In contrast, Marvel fans (and Star Wars fans) have been consistently good about not giving away key spoilers.

(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

Joker: Joker is a well-crafted film with a great lead performance, but it's pretty unpleasant viewing. We follow Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a party clown and struggling stand-up comic who's on medication he gets through social services – he has a condition that occasionally causes him to burst into uncontrollable laughter, which unsettles those around him. We see Arthur get mugged by teenagers and mocked by some of his coworkers; one of the few people who seems kind to him is a single mother neighbor, Sophie Dumond (Zazie Beetz). Arthur's mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), is in poor health, and tells him surprising tales of working for local millionaire, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). We're pretty sympathetic to Arthur Fleck because of the mistreatment we see him suffer and what we learn of his childhood, which included abuse up to possible brain damage. But he's also prone to sudden violent rages, and taking things too far, making him not someone you'd like to hang out with for long.

Joaquin Phoenix gives his best performance since The Master (the eleventh film reviewed here), and he's similarly feral, intense and riveting. We can't take our eyes off him as Arthur Fleck, even if it's uneasy viewing. Joker is also interesting for its meta touches – it explicitly references Martin Scorsese's films The King of Comedy and Taxi Driver, both starring Robert De Niro, and De Niro himself appears in Joker as a major character, local talk show host Murray Franklin, who mocks footage of Fleck's stand-up act. Rather than being gimmicky, I thought the references gave the film more depth. Director and cowriter Todd Phillips was best known for The Hangover films before this, and he does produce some jet black comedy here, most memorably in a late scene involving Arthur's coworker Gary (Leigh Gill). The unsettling score by Hildur Guðnadóttir (who won the Oscar) adds to the unease. It's interesting that the comic book character the Joker has now won two actors Oscars (the other, of course, being the late Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight, the second film reviewed here). You might guess some of Joker's twists, but I found that didn't detract from the viewing experience. Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, and the filmmakers sought to make a disturbing film and succeeded. It's not a film I'm going to rush to see again, though.

Pain and Glory/Dolor y gloria: Pedro Almodóvar's latest film is semi-autobiographical and his most personally revealing film to date. We follow Salvador Mallo (frequent Almodóvar collaborator Antonio Banderas), who like Almodóvar, is a gay director struggling with chronic pain who hasn't made a new film in a while. An old friend, Zulema (Cecila Roth) urges him to introduce one of his old films, Sabor (Flavor in English), which would require him to reconcile with the film's star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) with whom he had a falling out. Meanwhile, we see flashbacks of Mallo's childhood, with his mother Jacinta played by another Almodóvar favorite, Penélope Cruz. In the course of revisiting his old film and old relationships, plus dusting off an old, abandoned play, Mallo starts to revisit his past and also delve again into his creative side, all while fighting with physical pain and possibly some new addictions.

Banderas gives a vulnerable, sympathetic performance as Mallo, who's talented but hurting and withdrawn, and occasionally prone to undiplomatically speaking his mind. Almodóvar also offers an somewhat unconventional storyline with some unexpected turns and notable coincidences, making Pain and Glory a bit unpredictable. For instance, late in the film, we meet Mallo's mother in the almost-present-day, this time played by Julieta Serrano, and she and Salvador share some pivotal scenes. This is the best serious performance I've seen from Banderas, and Almodóvar remains an interesting filmmaker. (I was glad to see that a seeming incongruity was intentional and explained by the end.) This isn't a flashy film, but it's character-driven and quite a good one.


(If the spoiler button isn't working, you can read the spoiler text here.)

The Report:
You have to make this work. It's only legal if it works.

A true story of an idealistic staffer fighting the system, The Report (or The Torture Report, with the word "Torture" crossed out), focuses on Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), the key member of the Senate Intelligence Committee's investigation into torture by the CIA under the Bush administration. Jones wants to get the truth, but the CIA pushes back. Jones also gets resistance from Obama's chief of staff, Denis McDonough (Jon Hamm), who argues it's time to move on from this recent history. Jones' boss, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening), sometimes supports his efforts but occasionally urges caution and seems more concerned with political calculations. But Jones finds or is contacted by people involved with the torture program with troubled consciences who want the truth known, and also has to consider breaking the rules to report everything to the public.

As you may know, Jones and his team reviewed countless pages and eventually produced a 6,700 page report that remains classified, with only portions released to date. (It should all be declassified.) Writer-director Scott Z. Burns picked an ambitious project – this is potentially difficult material, because on the one hand, poring through papers isn't inherently cinematic, while on the other, scenes involving torture and abuse may be gripping but disturbing. Credit Burns for managing to deliver both a decent thriller and primer on U.S. torture during the Bush era. Although The Report doesn't examine everyone in the Bush administration, I was impressed by its accuracy and responsible approach to a serious subject, which made a welcome change from Zero Dark Thirty (I have a very long post on that film here). The Report received generally positive reviews but a very limited release in theaters, although it is available on Amazon.

(For what it's worth, I saw The Report with friends who are less into this history who found it fairly compelling as both a movie and primer. Here's Scott Z. Burns on The Treatment, Morning Edition and the PBS NewsHour.)

Dark Waters: Another real-life story of an idealist fighting the system, Dark Waters follows lawyer Robert Billot (Mark Ruffalo) as he takes on the chemical company DuPont, a mighty corporate power. He comes to the case accidentally; he's a corporate defense lawyer, used to protecting big companies, but a farmer from his hometown of Parkersburg, West Virginia, who knows Billot's grandmother shows up asking for help. The farmer claims that DuPont is poisoning the water and causing the deaths of his cow herd, which is suffering from odd medical ailments. Billot initially isn't planning to get deep into the case, but after he visits the farm, sees videotapes, and uncovers more evidence, he finds himself sucked in – DuPont's much-touted Teflon seems to cause cancer and birth defects. Billot's just made partner at his law firm, and his doggedness soon makes him enemies at DuPont, most notably executive Phil Donnelly (Victor Garber). It also stresses relations at work; his boss Tom Terp (Tim Robbins) tries to be understanding but is under pressure himself. Robert Billot's wife, Sarah Barlage (Anne Hathaway), likewise tries to be supportive, and is alternately proud of her husband and concerned about his health and seeming obsession with the case. The details depicted in the film are pretty chilling. Ruffalo's earnest performance gives the film its core, and the part of "the wife" is written with some welcome depth and variety, which Hathaway digs into with zest. Bill Camp is also good as Wilbur Tennant, the farmer who sets Billot on the case, as are Mare Winningham and Bill Pullman in small roles. Dark Waters is fairly engrossing as a film and sobering for its lasting real-world implications. After you see the film, I'd highly recommend checking out the All Things Considered interview with Mark Ruffalo and the real Robert Billot.

Just Mercy: Our third true story of an idealist fighting the system centers on Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), a young lawyer who travels to Alabama in 1989 to try to help death row inmates who cannot afford representation. He and his colleague Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) face considerable opposition in town just in renting an office, and Stevenson soon experiences far worse. Stevenson's key client becomes Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), charged with murdering a young white woman in a flimsy, manufactured case. Several factors make Just Mercy notable: one, it's based on an actual case and is presented realistically, which makes the clear injustice (and racism) all the more appalling. Two, Stevenson is not a white savior; being black helps him connect with his clients and their families, and also means he's subjected to harassment, as are his witnesses. Three, the performances, which are uniformly good, are naturalistic, even low-key. As Stevenson, Jordan never really makes flashy speeches (as in, say, A Few Good Men). Instead, he makes his arguments calmly, and rather than browbeating others, often uses a more understated, compassionate approach, appealing to the better angels of their nature. Jordan and Foxx give fine performances as the leads, but Tim Blake Nelson is also exceptional as Ralph Myers, a key witness, and Larson and Rafe Spall as the local D.A. are also good. Several of the locals urge Stevenson to visit the local To Kill a Mockingbird museum, but seem to want to think of racism as something that existed in the past. Just Mercy shows that isn't so, and unfortunately it remains a timely film.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: A passion project for director and cowriter Terry Gilliam, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was officially released in 2018 but only in the U.S. in 2019, first as a one-day, special event and later in limited release. If you've seen the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, about all the disasters that struck Gilliam's previous filming in 2000, and know that he'd been trying to make this film for almost 30 years, you have applaud his perseverance if absolutely nothing else. (The Wikipedia entry has a pretty exhaustive rundown.) Although The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is not as good as Gilliam's masterpieces, Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Fisher King, it's still got some fine scenes, and fans of either Gilliam or Don Quixote won't want to miss this one.

Toby Grummett (Adam Driver) is shooting a commercial in Spain featuring Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and a windmill. Toby's presented as pretty cynical and shallow, and is having an affair with Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), the wife of "the Boss" (Stellan Skarsgård), but while at dinner, a man tries to sell him a DVD of Toby's student film, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote." Toby buys it and watches it, which brings back memories of when he had a soul, and the bonds he formed with his Don Quixote, played by a slightly nutty cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce). He also recalls his romantic relationship with Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a local young woman who played a small role in the film. Toby goes looking for them, and discovers that Javier now truly believes himself to be Don Quixote, and furthermore believes Toby to be Sancho Panza, his squire. Soon they are off on adventures together, and reality and fantasy increasingly seem to blur. Many of the incidents are taken directly from Cervantes' Don Quixote, although generally with some modern twist, as with the Knight of Mirrors. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would probably benefit from repeated viewings for its details and also likely suffers from high expectations given its tortuous development – personally, I liked it, but wanted to adore it and promote it far and wide. I'm not the biggest Adam Driver fan and Toby's shallowness in the beginning seems like a pale imitation of Jack from The Fisher King. But Jonathan Pryce makes a superb Don Quixote, Olga Kurylenko is quite good, and Joana Ribeiro is memorable as Angelica. Whatever The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is, it is not a cookie cutter film, and bravo to Terry Gilliam for finally getting it made.