Interesting Things I Read and Saw in 2021

One of the main reasons I rarely blog is that most film blogs I come across have a diary style that is a lot weaker than the type of strong, formal film criticism found in a rare film magazine such as Cineaste. Since I don’t venture out to movie theaters again just yet, it would be difficult for me to fairly make a list of the best new films I saw in 2021 so instead I’ll go for the diary route after all and mention some of the films and books that stuck with me this year, many of them not being 2021 releases.

This year, I read several ‘making of’ books including Steven Hyden’s funny, depressing (for its observant candor about our polarizing, tech-dependent last two decades) Radiohead’s “Kid A” and the Beginning of the 21st Century, Glenn Kenny’s also funny, warm (for its clear affection for Martin Scorsese and his Goodfellas team) Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch. Of the three, Stratton’s book feels the most dense with history, covering the director Sam Peckinpah’s biography, the making of his film The Wild Bunch, the Mexican Revolution, and the film’s lasting influence on American cinema.

I also read Tom Shone’s thoughtful but very subject-interview-focused book on Christopher Nolan, The Nolan Variations. In terms of books on a single director released this year (and read by me), Adam Nayman’s recent David Fincher: Mind Games was the strongest, most accessible, and most intelligent. I also read David Thomson’s book on violence in film and its potential/obvious negative impact, Murder and the Movies, and his overview of important filmmakers, A Light in the Dark. While these book premises may suggest Thomson has run out of ideas, he is as sharp and provocative as ever, and like Kenny, Hyden, and Stratton, he is able to look at texts from the past with today’s culture and mores in mind while also finding value within the texts for what they were at the time they were released. His age (eighties) and experience do give him a deserved place in film criticism. My partner gave me the hefty Film Noir: The Encyclopedia, and while its team’s thorough list of entries are fascinating (preferring the nearly unheard of The Zodiac to Fincher’s Zodiac) I longed for Thomson’s seductive writing style while reading it.

Few new film releases really struck out at me this year. The most memorable new releases were two very different music documentaries. One, The Velvet Underground, was by the hip, smart, and provocative Todd Haynes, and unsurprisingly covered the hip, smart, and provocative band The Velvet Underground. What made this film feel fresh was that most of the interview subjects were individuals who were either in the band (such as John Cale, who is still living) or knew the band intimately or at least were part of the same circle they ran in (i.e. the film critic Amy Taubin). This is sadly a strong contrast to the tendency in recent music docs to make the ‘talking heads’ be a long line of sycophant famous fans.

On that note, Penny Lane’s Listening to Kenny G is also unique. What starts off as a documentary about the world’s most successful instrumental jazz musician quickly becomes a portrait of how profoundly hated Mr. G’s music is in the serious jazz community. A lot of Lane’s interviewees are professional music critics who are politely astonished by Mr. G’s success despite his bland music and clear cultural appropriation. What’s even more fascinating about the documentary is that Kenny G, who also interviews with Lane, comes across as earnest, considerate, hard-working, grateful, and kind to his fans and friends even as he seems oblivious to why people would take issue with his music and its wide appeal.

Unwilling to venture into movie theaters, I did watch several older films through The Criterion Channel and sometimes through Mubi. Being able to watch a curated series of films starring the American actor Robert Ryan on The Criterion Channel including Bad Day at Black Rock, Crossfire, Caught, The Set-Up, On Dangerous Ground, and Odds Against Tomorrow illustrated how fortunate any film fan with Criterion is and how much more accessible classic film is now with many streaming services.

A Few Thoughts on Adam Nayman’s David Fincher Book

I finished reading film critic and academic Adam Nayman’s auteurist take on the American filmmaker David Fincher, David Fincher: Mind Games, last week. Since the book isn’t that fresh in my mind, I’ll skip a full review and just post a few thoughts I had on it.

Overall, Nayman has released a very fine, attractive, and intelligent book. He includes many still images from Fincher’s body of work, and in a nod to the growth of fan art there are also several illustrations created by different artists. I appreciate that Nayman decided to utilize multiple illustrators, which alludes to the wide array of film-related fan art out there. These illustrations often take up two pages in this lavish hardcover book, and for each chapter on an individual film being studied there are two illustrated figures from the movie placed in opposition from one another. This is a good place to mention that Nayman places a heavy emphasis on dialectics in Fincher’s body of work and displays some clarity in discussing psychology in film (just as he did in his last book on Paul Thomas Anderson). Nayman also deserves a lot of praise for not simply creating an interview book with Fincher or mainly relying on Fincher’s own interview quotes (as Tom Shone did with mixed results in his recent book on Christopher Nolan). In fact, like with his book on P.T.A., Nayman interviews Fincher’s collaborators, and those interviews reveal that the notoriously perfectionistic Fincher has repeatedly shown loyalty and support to his collaborators. His long-time casting director started off as his music video assistant, and his most recent cinematographer started off as a gaffer on one of his previous films (!).

I wish that Nayman had been more critical or pressing when it comes to Fincher’s repeated obsession with policing and how that impacts viewers’ understanding of policing in the real world. With Fincher’s Se7en, Zodiac, and Gone Girl (I haven’t seen his Mindhunter series), detectives are consistently portrayed as well-meaning even if they don’t end up catching the criminal. I think that this overall positive if not sympathetic depiction of police work needs more thought especially in light of the polarizing zeitgeist when it comes to police in the U.S. in the past two years. I was also surprised that Nayman didn’t refer to more older, esteemed critics and their takes on Fincher. The late Robin Wood (who had also been based in Nayman’s Toronto) is never mentioned nor is his astute observation that Fincher’s early films represented a corporate conspiracy trilogy nor is David Thomson who in his famous Biographical Dictionary of Film has referred to Fincher as someone who likely doesn’t read much and in his recent Murder and the Movies has implied that the public might be better off with someone like him having never been around to repeatedly make violent movies with or without serial killers.

I read several film-related books this year, and Nayman’s was by far the strongest.

Briarpatch on Peacock

I was late to Andy Greenwald and Rosario Dawson’s single season television series Briarpatch. The series, cancelled after one season at the start of 2020, was based upon a novel by Ross Thomas. Dawson plays a U.S. Senate investigator who has left D.C. and returned to her small hometown in Texas to investigate the car bomb murder of her younger sister. We’ve seen this setup oh so many times before, but Briarpatch feels fresher largely thanks to a strong cast led by Dawson and some bold updates to the paranoid conspiracy thriller genre.

Briarpatch was broadcast on the USA Network, produced by Anonymous Content- responsible for other intelligent, postmodern series True Detective and Mr. Robot, and executive produced by Mr. Robot‘s creator Sam Esmail. Like those shows and Hulu’s recent murder mystery dramady Only Murders in the Buildings, Greenwald and Dawson’s series places a heavy emphasis on its setting (the Lone Star state) and fills it with an admirable cast. Dawson, who has always been strongest playing characters who are serious, intelligent, and also stricken, was born to lead a noir series. She’s ably supported by American television’s most underrated actress, Kim Dickens, as well as Mad Men‘s Jay Ferguson, Edi Gathegi, Brian Geraghty, Christine Woods, David Paymer, the late Ed Asner, and Alan Cumming.

American television certainly didn’t need another conspiracy-related murder mystery, but Briarpatch is colorful- both visually and through a Tarantino-esque collection of old pop songs, funny, and unpredictable. Throughout the series, characters listen to an Alex Jones/Joe Rogan-like radio nut job, a Greek Chorus for modern times connecting the characters through space, airwaves, electricity, and capitalism. I was lukewarm on the show until this radio personality actually shows up on the show played by an actor going far against type. I won’t spoil much more except to say that like another short-lived conspiracy masterpiece, Terriers, Briarpatch will probably be regarded years, if not decades now, as some kind of grungy, knowing, cognitive mapping work of art.

On Alex Garland’s Heady and Frustrating DEVS

After not updating this blog in nearly two months, I felt compelled to write again after spending months watching, taking breaks from, and then returning to writer-director Alex Garland’s eight episode mini-series Devs from Hulu and FX. While I try to make my essays about the texts I critique and not my personal experience in consuming them, I can’t think of another short series where all the episodes were available for streaming at once and I decided to watch them spaced out over the course of a few months. You know, as if each new episode was being released in weekly intervals.

The reason I took my time with Devs is that it doesn’t start off particularly strong. In the first episode, Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and Sergei (Karl Glusman) are a young couple living together in San Francisco. They are both computer engineers for a large tech company in Silicon Valley known called Amaya. Neither Lily nor Sergei are particularly interesting, brave, or sympathetic characters. They are introduced impatiently and uncaringly stepping over a homeless man living on their apartment building steps before they take a company bus from San Francisco to Silicon Valley, and the series’ writer-director-auteur Alex Garland remains uninterested in commenting on the tech industry’s disturbing and unprecedented real-world gentrification of San Francisco. It is in the first episode that Sergei is promoted by Amaya’s founder and CEO Forest (Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation going far against type) to the company’s experimental development division known as Devs. Hopefully it’s not a major spoiler to reveal that Sergei discovers something awful about Devs as soon as he begins there and mysteriously disappears, putting Lily firmly in the position of ‘protagonist in a paranoid conspiracy thriller genre’ that has now gotten rather old in film and especially television- especially when conspiratorial misinformation is spread so easily and significantly online.

Like so many conspiracy thriller protagonists who have lost a friend or loved one under mysterious circumstances (See Warren Beatty in The Parallex View or Fox Mulder in The X-Files), Lily is determined to find out what happened to Sergei. What’s less apparent and never becomes apparent in the show is why Lily feels so compelled to find answers to Sergei’s disappearance, especially when even in flashbacks Sergei isn’t revealed to be particularly bright, caring, honest, funny, or sensitive. In this regard, Lily makes for a rather bland heroine and Sergei an even less interesting victim even if Garland deserves credit for writing Lily as a female protagonist in a genre that is usually male-oriented and casting an Asian performer.

Mizuno is also very good and believable in the series even though Garland gives her character little depth, and the said can be said for most of the cast and their respective characters. Forest has named his company after a daughter he lost in a car accident, and, like in Garland’s previous films Ex Machina and Annihilation, Devs is a sci-fi thriller in which Forest is trying to develop a software that can replay the past and predict the future. So like Lily in seeking to avenge Sergei, Forest has very clear motivation for developing and protecting this software (he wants to be reunited with his daughter), but what led him to be so ruthless in doing so and even how he became a tech messiah is less clear. For every character in this series, which interestingly only has a handful of major characters, there is one large motivation they are holding onto and little other character depth. The same can be said for Lily’s puppy-dog ex Jamie (Jin Ha) who follows her around tragically to try and get her back and Forest’s number two Katie (Allison Pill) who is also his girlfriend and has benefitted from his largesse.

In a television era where characters have complicated backstories and often refuse to remain static, Devs suffers tremendously from superficial character development. In Garland’s last two films, characters played by the likes of Oscar Isaac and Natalie Portman felt like complicated, imperfect people living in sci-fi worlds; their strengths and flaws leading them to make choices that would shape their film’s plots. In Devs, Garland seems to have given his characters only the most rudimentary motivations so he can explore his larger philosophical question: do we have free will or are our fates pre-determined? Ex Machina touched upon this already in its exploration of data-mining and artificial intelligence as well as its title (derived from deus ex machina), but whereas Ex Machina is a lean movie with only three major characters, Devs is nearly seven hours long (without commercials), several thin characters, and enough conspiracy thriller cliches to compile a running list of seen-before tropes. In a world where Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter, and Google are knowingly harming democracy for the sake of profit, Forest’s quest to resurrect his daughter seems rather benign. In this regard, American life today and the way it is being harmed by social media and search engines is stranger than Garland’s fiction.

“Doctor Sleep: The Director’s Cut” Will Keep You Awake

I was late to Mike Flanagan’s 2019 Doctor Sleep, a sequel to one of the best films made by Stanley Kubrick, The Shining (1980). Did the likely best horror movie of all time need a sequel? No, but Stephen King did write the novel The Shining in 1977 and then wrote its sequel Doctor Sleep in 2013, and King himself did give Flanagan his blessing to adapt the latter book so a Shining sequel in 2019 wasn’t entirely desperate.

The premise of Doctor Sleep is simultaneously more interesting and more absurd than you might guess. Dan Torrance, played with characteristic likability by Ewan McGregor, has grown into a traumatized and angry alcoholic after he and his mother were nearly killed by his possessed father at the Overlook Hotel all those decades ago. He has his moment of clarity after doing something truly selfish and amoral in New Jersey and then taking a bus to New Hampshire where he is taken in by a kindly park groundskeeper played by the ever-reliable Cliff Curtis. After sobering up with the help of AA, Dan gets a job as an orderly at a nursing home where a white cat named Azzie is prone to lay on the beds of elderly patients as they are about to pass away. Dan uses his telepathy, what he refers to as his ‘shine,’ to comfort his dying patients as they leave this world by helping them go to their final sleep (hence his nickname Doctor Sleep). The film’s scenes in the nursing home are consistently sad and touching as Doctor Sleep and Azzie help ease the suffering of vulnerable people at the end of their lives and Flanagan and his cinematographer Michael Fimognari clearly watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master before embarking on this equally decades-spanning narrative.

A movie just about Dan Torrance and a prescient cat assisting the dying out of inter-connection and compassion alone could have been a strong movie, but King has consistently illustrated that goodness exists amongst evil and so one film about a sober Dan Torrance assisting the elderly nearly switches gears and becomes one about his fight against concentrated evil. As Dan Torrance is staying sober in New Hampshire, a young black girl in the same state is also developing her own shining powers. Abra, played with plausible precociousness by Kyliegh Curran, has very strong shining abilities. Hers are so strong that she not only reaches out to the decent Dan, but also a caravan cult known as the True Knot who murder children and feed off their innocence. If this sounds fantastical, just consider how seriously film scholars have taken seriously the premise of the Overlook Hotel as a haunted hotel for four decades. The True Knot is led by Rose the Hat, a woman who is evil enough to kidnap and kill innocent children and conniving enough to convince her cult followers that what they’re doing is justified because it keeps them alive. Rose is played by Rebecca Ferguson, who gets the film’s showy part and her charming and melodramatic performance would make 80s era Jack Nicholson proud.

When I first started watching Flanagan’s director’s cut, Doctor Sleep felt like highbrow fan fiction complete with flashbacks to the events from the first film as well as recurring characters from the original text. There’s more depth to this late sequel than meets the eye though. If the Overlook Hotel was a fixed manifestation of evil, then the mobile True Knot is an allegory of ever-feeding capitalism, crossing state lines and borders, leaving behind only suffering and death. Rose and her minions dress like aging hippies, but their counterculture aesthetic merely masks American capitalist selfishness. The True Knot only think of themselves, and what feels good to them and how they can take the lives of others in order to prolong their own lives and pleasures. In that regard, they share common ground with both the conservative anti-maskers of this year along with the allegedly liberal victim-status cancel culture mob of the past few years as well. The power of Doctor Sleep is that its vision of evil is all-encompassing and boils down to selfishness: from the self-centeredness of taking too many drinks to taking any lives.

Edward Norton’s Ambitious, Intelligent Motherless Brooklyn

I was late to Edward Norton’s 2019 film adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel Motherless Brooklyn, mainly because the reviews I came across on the film had been critical of how far Norton strayed from Lethem’s source material. I’m happy to report that Norton’s film is ambitious, intelligent, dense, and makes for a fine and very different adaptation of Lethem’s book. I’d go so far as to say that Norton’s film is stronger than Lethem’s original work, but “the book was better” or the less often “the film was better” stance is hardly ever a fair argument for judging one text’s quality. That being said, here it is difficult to discuss Norton’s film without comparing and contrasting it to Lethem’s book.

There are some major differences between the two texts. While Lethem’s novel took place in 1999, Norton’s film takes place in the 1950s. In Lethem’s book, the protagonist Lionel seemed and acted like a much younger person while in Norton’s film he’s clearly in his late 40s. In both texts, Lionel is a private investigator working for the Brooklyn snoop Frank Minna along with three other hoodlums Minna once rescued from a Catholic orphanage along with Lionel. When Minna is killed pursuing a job, Lionel has to put his intelligence and investigative skills towards finding his boss’s and surrogate father’s killer. In Lethem’s book, Minna is a small-time hood with a buried heart of gold whereas Norton’s Minna is played briefly and touchingly by a far more dapper and warmer Bruce Willis. Norton plays Lionel, and convincingly conveys the character’s constant Tourette’s syndrome outbursts. In the book, Lethem paints Lionel’s tics and convoluted thought patterns in heartbreaking density. In the film, Norton displays his character’s verbal outbursts effectively and without relying on excessive VoiceOver narration.

Norton’s decision to move to film’s setting from the end of the 20th century towards its postwar period was not an unmerited one. Lethem’s detective novel is a noir piece, and the story lends itself well to a directly noir postwar period. Like the shell-shocked WWII veteran Freddie Quell in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Lionel is an outsider unable to get proper institutional treatment for his affliction even as so many benefit from the postwar economic boom, but is saved by an equally benevolent and manipulative father figure (Philip Seymour Hoffman in PTA’s film, Bruce Willis here).

In Norton’s film, the real antagonist behind Minna’s murder and seemingly every injustice in New York City is Moses Randolph, a city planner played with prudent villainy by Alec Baldwin and clearly based on the real-life New York City planner Robert Moses. Randolph has maneuvered himself into multiple city commissioner positions and created his own Bureau Authority. He is enabled by a team of bureaucrats set to profit greatly from clearing African “slums” in order to build costly housing for white families. Like Daniel Plainview in PTA’s There Will Be Blood and Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, Randolph is even willing to harm his own blood relatives, including his brother played by Willem Dafoe, in order to amass power and control.

The scholar Fredric Jameson has written extensively about how the conspiracy film is a poor man’s version of cognitive mapping, the impossible goal of situating oneself within global capitalism. What Norton accomplishes, intentionally or not, is an attempt at cognitive mapping. Just as Lionel’s mind leads him down an uncontrollable path of mental obsessions and verbal tics and outbursts, Randolph’s ever-expanding reach over land, roads, parks, beaches, and buildings creates a clear and complicated flow of money, human connections, and human and financial costs. Just as Lionel’s mental space is a mess, so is the sprawl of global capitalism. This is what Norton’s film so brilliantly and effectively conveys and what most film critics seem to have overlooked.

From The Dog Whisperer’s First Book

“It’s been published elsewhere, and I am not ashamed to say it:: I came to the United States illegally. I now have my residence card, have paid a large fine for crossing illegally, and am applying for full citizenship status. There’s no country I’d rather live in than the United States. I truly believe it is the greatest country in the world. I feel blessed to be living and raising my kids here. However, for the poor and working class of Mexico, there is no other way to come to America except illegally. It’s impossible. The Mexican government is about who you know and how much money you have. You have to pay enormous amounts to officials in order to get a legal visa. My family had no way to get their hands on that kind of money. So, with just one hundred dollars in my pocket, I set out for Tijuana to figure out how to get across the border” -Cesar Millan, Cesar’s Way, p. 38.

It Was Pretty Good

I was late to Andy Muschietti’s It: Chapter Two. I had seen the first film in theaters and was impressed by its suspense, psychological terror, and harsh view of the world. Having seen much of the It mini-series I didn’t feel much need to see Muschietti’s second film until I felt drawn to the movie after being so impressed with the recent HBO show The Outsider, which was also based on a Stephen King book.

There’s no need for a full review of such a popular film, but I was impressed. The cast is near flawless (James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Bill Skarsgard, among others), and the computer generated imagery actually serves the suspense well. At nearly three hours, the filmmakers could have easily cut out many of the flashbacks because the first film already covered the backstories of the adult characters when they were children.

I wanted to briefly mention It Chapter Two because the near-climax of the film brought to mind Alex Garland’s Annihilation. In the latter film, the diegetic sound (the sounds within the space of the story including character dialogue and noises) collapses and fragments with the non-diegetic sound (the sounds outside the story space, i.e. the film score). It Chapter Two briefly does something similar near the end of the film, and both its sound and imagery brings recalls Annihilation.

I mention this because I think that Garland’s film may have set a trend that filmgoers can expect to see more of in the future. In neither instance is this process done just for show either. In Garland’s film, the move reflects the way that the premise is about a zone where genetic cells in humans, animals, and plants are refracted like light. For Muschietti, the trick alludes to how the film’s evil clown Pennywise is a light source that reflects fear hallucinations to its victims. Anyway, these films illustrate that even some big budget films are doing intelligent, new things with cinema.

Mark Ruffalo and Co. Soar in I Know This Much Is True

Try as I might to watch less television, Derek Cianfrance, Wally Lamb, and Ruffalo’s mini-series I Know This Much Is True has been too good to pass up. The series is based on Lamb’s novel of the same title about two Connecticut brothers and their shared family history and traumas. In the series adapted and directed by Cianfrance, Mark Ruffalo plays both brothers, the serious and volatile Dominick and his vulnerable and also mercurial paranoid schizophrenic brother Thomas. Dominick’s life as a forty year old man revolves around taking care of Thomas, who he both loves and resents. After Thomas cuts off his own hand in a public library in an act of intended religious sacrifice, he is transferred from his group home to a state forensic facility. The stress of where his bothered has landed causes Dominick to have to deal with his own issues rooted in his difficult relationships with his violent stepfather, played by John Procaccino, and the women in his life including his ex-wife (a very good Kathryn Hahn) and his current girlfriend (Imogen Poots).

The entire cast is uniformly strong in this grim yet humane drama, and the show so far (two episodes have been broadcast on HBO) feels plausible and raw. I’ve become tired of films and TV shows using the same performer and computer generated imagery to put identical twins onscreen especially because the stories are usually just about male twins (Ewan McGregor in season three of Fargo, Tom Hardy in Legend), but I Know This Much Is True uses its special effects in the service of a story for grownups. I can’t post a full review because the full season hasn’t aired yet, but I’ll be pleasantly surprised if this doesn’t end up being the television series of the year.

Possible Movie of the Year: Clark Duke’s Arkansas

I will be pleasantly surprised if I end up liking any new film I see this year as much as I liked Clark Duke’s comic thriller Arkansas. The film, adapted from John Brandon’s novel of the same title, is sad, funny, smart, and very unpredictable. I went into the film knowing very little so I’ll reveal only the basic premise. Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke play Kyle and Swin, small-level Southern drug couriers for a drug dealer they’ve never met named Frog, who is played by Vince Vaughn. At this point in his career, Vaughn seems to largely choose interesting projects, and Arkansas is no exception. In the film, a drug deal goes bad, and a series of misunderstandings are exacerbated by the shared arrogance of Kyle and Swin leading to twists, turns, suspense, and brutal violence.

Hemsworth is believable as the serious, strong silent type Kyle who is contrasted with the talkative and wisecracking Swin. They’re cocky and not very likable heroes, but Hemsworth and Duke make them a very human pair. Vaughn is reliable and unshowy as always. John Malkovich and Vivica A. Fox are very funny as Frog’s middle managers. Eden Brolin plays Swin’s girlfriend Johnna, and will surely become a major star. The presence of Michael K. Williams alone is in itself a treat. I’ll say little else except that the cast is uniformly brilliant, and that this is a rich and humane portrait of Southern crooks you might just end up caring about. With so much division in America these days, Arkansas is a simple and sad reminder that most of us share the desire for shelter and safety for our friends and family.