Archive for November 2019

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

November 24, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 3.56.09 PMAbout an hour into the documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project comes the moment we’ve been dreading. Here, though, the moment is presented much differently, due to the movie’s subject. Marion Stokes (1929-2012) was a former librarian whose second husband was wealthy, so she had a lot of time and resources to spend 35 years — 1977 to 2012 — recording every TV news channel 24/7. In this way she filled hundreds and hundreds of videotapes with local (Philadelphia) as well as national news. At 8:49 on the morning of September 11, 2001, Marion’s VCRs were running as usual, and we see a grid of four screens simultaneously showing puff pieces or morning filler. CNN, on the top left, is the first to cover the developing catastrophe, and for a long time the other three screens keep showing their unimportant things. Then ABC breaks into Good Morning America to weigh in. Then CBS. Then, finally, the Fox affiliate.

Recorder is the story of, as the film admits, a hoarder — a type not unknown on the library beat — who amassed information. Marion Stokes, an African-American woman, had seen a lot in her time. Fired from her library job for associating with communists, she took to local TV to participate in discussions with all sorts of people. She didn’t trust any one news outlet to deliver the truth, so she started tracking them all — which at first, with only three networks, was easy. This media junkie, described by everyone in this film who knew her as brilliant, was saving all of this for posterity. At the end, when the Internet Archive comes to the rescue and takes a truckload of tapes off her son’s hands, we sigh in relief — Marion’s work of 35 years is going to someone who knows what to do with it.

Of course, Marion’s work is useful beyond simply archiving the news. She also captured a great deal of pop culture, if only collaterally through commercials. I know someone, who goes by the handle the Internet Lurker, who has a YouTube channel dedicated to TV ads he has extracted from old videotapes: anytime someone recorded a movie or sports event off of TV but wasn’t motivated to hit “pause” during the commercials, an inadvertent record was made of a time and place. A good deal of knowledge may be gleaned from observing how 7-Up, say, thought it most efficient to get us to buy their soda in 1987. The hairdos and fashion are a side benefit (and, often, a hoot), but the history of advertising in the late 20th century will be written with help from collections like the Internet Lurker’s — or Marion Stokes’.

The movie is far from a hoarder-wonk’s daydream, though. Its main focus, as established by director Matt Wolf, is to paint this one eccentric, often prickly woman as a keeper of the flame of truth. Marion was already in her thirties during the Civil Rights era, and knew firsthand the importance of questioning what the largely white male establishment told you was news, or not news, and how it told you that. (For the second time in a recent documentary about news, Phil Donahue turns up — here, it’s to make the same point about that establishment.) The only way to study bias in reporting, especially since the networks themselves couldn’t be counted on to archive their own daily output, was to document it relentlessly. When cable came in, and Marion found herself tracking C-SPAN and CNN and MSNBC and CNBC, it’s hard to imagine whether she felt overwhelmed or elated by the thrill of the chase.

In the footage we see here, Marion has a streak of stereotype about her — the enormously intelligent but irascible person who isn’t having your nonsense, African-American female division. (See also: Maxine Waters.) She could easily have held her own against William F. Buckley on Crossfire if she hadn’t decided to move from the camera eye to a chair at one of her nine properties. Sitting in front of countless monitors, she in effect became a monitor, as well — a brain taking in data and processing it. But what insight did she gain? Her main concern, we understand, was to save the news from disappearing. But she couldn’t have had time to watch all those tapes herself, not when the next day would bring yet more things to record. The subtle point of the movie is that she squirreled away data she couldn’t possibly have viewed, for the benefit of unseen, unknown others. And this is not an altogether happy portrait: as a reward for all her dedication, in December 2012, Marion Stokes left consciousness while footage from the Sandy Hook massacre unspooled before her, soaking all our TVs in the blood of children. Recorder doesn’t try to flip that into something positive, and I won’t try either.

The Kitchen

November 17, 2019

kitchen Based glancingly on a mediocre comic book, The Kitchen is the middle panel in an accidental sisters-are-doin’-crime-for-themselves trilogy, bracketed by two better-received films — Steve McQueen’s Widows, from last year, and Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, from this past September. Nobody, I think, will advance the argument that The Kitchen is the neglected masterpiece of the trio, but I would like to recommend it anyway; its pleasures are piecemeal, having more to do with acting firepower than with the unconvincing quilt of clichés that calls itself a story. The narrative glides by, and writer/director Andrea Berloff doesn’t seem very concerned with the moral import and emotional costs of it all, but the cast is.

The lowlife Hell’s Kitchen Irish mobster husbands of our heroines — Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, and Elisabeth Moss — are sent away in 1978 for armed robbery, leaving the women to fend for themselves. The head of the local mob, a glowering creep, refuses to allot the wives enough money to live on — protection money isn’t coming in. So the women take over collection, positioning themselves as reasonable and less toxically masculine alternatives. But as one of the goons eventually tells one of the women, “You’re worse than we ever were.”

Which is debatable, and a movie in which the women gain power because they’re outwardly nicer and retain power because they’re not actually all that nice inside would be interesting, but The Kitchen isn’t really that movie. All the routine rise-of-the-criminal scenes are there, the fanning out of dollar bills, the respect paid, the pivot towards legit community service, the casual and empowering finality of the bullet. But when it comes time to slog through the crime-does-not-pay sermon, the movie lacks conviction. It’s difficult to prompt the audience to root for the violent awakening and self-realization of an abused woman and then turn around and condemn that process.

The women are murkily written; only the acting brings some cold clarity. Melissa McCarthy’s Kathy protects her kids, Tiffany Haddish’s Ruby has been made ruthless by her hard life and abusive upbringing, and Elisabeth Moss’ Claire is a battered wife turned assassin. Kathy’s relative compassion comes from her relatively stable life; her jailbird hubby is no prize but not as bad as the others, and even her loving Irish dad is still around. There’s an idea here — take enough anchors of humanity away from a woman and you have yourself a very fearsome adversary — but it just sinks into the pudding along with anything else potentially interesting here. The Kitchen is a moderately competent crime flick and that’s all it is. Given the cast — and not just pained McCarthy, disdainful Haddish and born-again corpse-carving werewolf Moss — it could’ve been much sharper.

Yet a film fan shouldn’t go through life without seeing what the actors — also including Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, and Margo Martindale in a ‘70s hairdo she clearly got from my grandmother — do with some of the whiskered situations. Bill Camp, for instance, gives us an Italian mobster so confident in his power he can afford to be pretty mild-mannered. Martindale functions as the sort of ogre the heroines are in danger of becoming, but she’s terrific at it, snapping out insults like firecrackers. There really isn’t a bummer in the cast, though I think Ruby calls for a brand of coldness that Haddish can’t persuasively convey — good news for her conscience (she may be too good-hearted to play anything different believably), bad news for Ruby, who too often reads as emotionally null. A character is taken out with an impersonal abruptness that sort of works as comeuppance but comes across as a betrayal of the character’s portrayer. We’ve followed the person through blood and triumph, and past a certain point the movie seems to lose interest in the person morally, and some other characters, too — they’re just damned to hell, I guess. But up until that point, there’s some painfully fine stuff.

Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer

November 11, 2019

Apr 05, 1978 - Boca Raton, Florida, U.S. - National Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope oand copy of the photo of Elvis Presley. Pope died at 61, GENEROSO P. POPE JR., the millionaire owner and publisher of The National Enquirer, suffered a heart attack yesterday at his home in West Palm Beach, Fla., and was pronounced dead on arrival at the J.F.K. Medical Center in Atlantis, Fla. He was 61 years old. Mr. Pope, whose father founded Il Progresso, the New York City Italian-language newspaper, bought a weekly newspaper, The New York Enquirer, in 1952 for $75,000. It had a circulation of 17,000 copie A gore-soaked tabloid, whose publisher had mob connections, was ultimately involved in helping install the President of the United States. This story, worthy of James Ellroy, is at the heart of the documentary Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer. Aesthetically, the movie is both cold and cheesy, a weird combo platter. Various interviewees (Carl Bernstein is probably the film’s biggest “get”) sit in lonely, swanky rooms or in dimly lit bars, and the interviews are broken up by vintage news footage — grainy film stock, bleary video. It’s ugly, but then so is the subject; director Mark Landsman means to show that the tabloid that’s been an unavoidable patch of the American cultural wallpaper for much of our lives has left a mostly corrosive footprint wherever it has stepped.

Or stomped. By 1997, the Enquirer’s reputation as a ghost haunting the closets of celebrities was so entrenched that the paper went through a period of disfavor following the death of Princess Diana. The paparazzi who chased Diana to her death were not working for the Enquirer, but the association was made anyway — the paper was a synecdoche for all other intrusive tabloids. (For what it’s worth, the paper’s then-editor Steve Koz made a performative violin solo of refusing photos of the wreckage and called on other tabloids to do likewise.) Before then, the Enquirer had actually been gaining a rep as an unexpected source of hard-nosed journalism during the O.J. trial. But the sacrifice of Diana at the altar of enquiring minds that wanted to know seemed to shame, for a while, the supermarket gobblers of tabloid burgers.

What Scandalous makes clear is that the paper, for decades, reported all the news that was printed to fit — it was custom-made to slake the public thirst for lightweight squalor. The Enquirer’s original goodfella-in-chief, Generoso Pope Jr., gradually shifted the rag’s angle from sub-Weegee shock-horror to “Why Jackie/Liz/Oprah is as miserable as you are, Jane Q. Public.” That formula held for a long time, until, in those more innocent times when such a thing could still happen, Gary Hart was captured on film with Donna Rice on his lap and his political career was generally acknowledged to be toilet-bound. The Enquirer’s vampire fangs had drawn a new kind of blood, and it liked the taste. Bill Clinton found himself similarly drained. But all along, in Scandalous, we also hear about stories Jane never saw — contemptible behavior by Bob Hope, Cosby, etc. We’re told that the Enquirer kept mum about certain stars in exchange for access. That will take on grim relevance later, when what Ronan Farrow has recently exposed as the “catch and kill” mechanism (he’s in the film briefly) was employed to keep Donald Trump’s mushroom out of the pages of America’s favorite tabloid. Hillary stared zombie-eyed and pallid from many an Enquirer cover, contrasted with the insensate orange vigor of the MAGA who would be king. The paper that had followed America’s lead was now leading America.

That was under the jurisdiction of Trump pally David Pecker, who has since sold the Enquirer, after the paper’s attempted sliming of Trump foe Jeff Bezos backslimed. Today the paper sits in its usual point-of-purchase slot, itself zombie-eyed, a mewling wisp of its former robust ghoulishness. It continues to harass celebrities and the Royal Family just like the good old bad days of 1985, but having ended and expedited presidential dreams, where else can it go? It seems a spent force. And yet the hunger for the Enquirer’s stock in trade remains, only it’s filled elsewhere. For what is Fox News if not tabloid journalism at its slickest and most dangerous, speaking to an audience of the fearful and incurious? The network’s serpent-in-chief, Rupert Murdoch, of course slithered from the brackish waters of British supermarket rags. As James Ellroy knew, America is a tabloid country, and so Scandalous is not just a movie about that thing Grandma reads at the hairdresser’s. At its “best” and worst the paper is a souvenir from our national shadowland; we want to think we’re better than the Enquirer but we kind of know we deserve each other.

Paradise Hills

November 3, 2019

paradisehillsEvery shot of Paradise Hills is otherworldly in its beauty. I’m not sure how it “reads” as a narrative, but as a visual work of art, a tone poem, and a riff on some familiar but evergreen themes it makes one stand and applaud. The 29-year-old director, Alice Waddington, hails from Spain and first made her mark with the eleven-minute short film Disco Inferno in 2016. The short is worth the 99-cent rental on Amazon; its story is a little baffling — it has to do with a “minion of hell,” dressed like a masked and sinuous spy out of Georges Franju’s Judex, trying to rescue an ingenue destined for demonic soul enslavement, or something — but it plays like a surreal silent film (except when it doesn’t), and it’s good preparation for the elliptical, allusive sights and sounds of Paradise Hills.

We wake up along with the confused Uma (Emma Roberts) in a remote island stronghold, a cross between a palace and a well-appointed girls’ prison. Young women, it seems, are sent here to be trained out of their troublesome quirks and habits. The society that produces these women — including Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), sent to become more skinny, and Yu (Awkwafina), sent to become less Awkwafina — is some sort of post-war Hunger Games dystopia/utopia, depending on whether you’re an Upper or a Lower (as in class). Uma wants out of the island paradise; she has a like-minded friend in pop star Amarna (Eiza González), who’s here apparently because she started making personal music frowned on by those in charge. Standing in her and everyone’s way is the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose habit of snipping thorns off rose stems is a bit too tidy a metaphor for her supervision of the girls’ re-education.

But honestly the plot (by Waddington and Sofía Cuenca, worked into a script by Nacho Villalongo and Brian DeLeeuw) is entirely irrelevant to the pleasures here. Paradise Hills is about creamy pink interiors and sun-dappled exteriors, all cloaking something immeasurably darker and uglier. It’s about the masochistic female fantasy of being persecuted for being oneself and shipped off to a strange place with other women, who together will rise as a sharp-toothed sisterhood against the oppressors. (There’s some of that, but not too much; as it is, the movie is never less exciting than when it tries to gin up excitement via chases, sneaking around, etc.) It’s also about loving ancient gothy films so much it hurts. It’s every much as gleaming an act of cinema worship as Anna Biller’s odious The Love Witch, except that Waddington actually finds things to say about the things whose surfaces she and cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui photograph so indelibly. I can see Paradise Hills becoming a cult favorite among a certain type of dramatic teen — its sensibility is authentically female in every frame, asserting the power of its girls and women from the start, and denying that the structure of the patriarchy (and the women complicit in it, like the Duchess) has anything to offer them but chains. The movie doesn’t hate men, but it sure doesn’t have a lot of love for them either.

To which I say, good. A movie whose identification is completely with women and their experiences is particularly welcome now, not to politicize overly what should be a timeless empowerment fable and a grab bag of brightly-hued confections. The performances, I have to say, lean towards the artificial — common among directors with strongly visual instincts — save for Awkwafina, who is always radiantly, daffily herself, even in a more solemn context like this. But there’s literally always something great to look at; Waddington seems to have walked on set for each shot, tweaked the colors and decor 75%, and then called action. Most people will see Paradise Hills at home or even on their phone, not on the big shiny screen its visuals demand, and that’s a pity.

But the eye and the sensibility on view in Waddington’s work (I hope Disco Inferno comes as an extra on the eventual Paradise Hills Blu-ray) are not to be discounted. The movie is a glimmering calling card showing deep-dish promise; whoever scouted the amazing locations deserves a case of beer, and overall this is the most pictorially arresting sci-fi debut feature since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. As for the animating story, I acknowledge that I’m not its ideal audience, though even some women, like Vulture’s Alison Willmore, have pooh-poohed it — “a dystopian princess fantasy,” she called it, with perhaps some unconscious racism under its hood. (Why isn’t Awkwafina the lead in this?) I am probably more forgiving and sentimental about the movie’s narrative and complaints than that. It works as a lavishly crafted daydream shading into nightmare. It started to lose me around the climax, but when it had me, it had me.