Breaking Bad: El Camino

An extended meditative and emotionally satisfying epilogue, quite worthy of the Breaking Bad brand, El Camino feels more like lost pages from the original story.

This Netflix "event" movie reunites fans with Jesse Pinkman (Emmy winner Aaron Paul). In the wake of his dramatic escape from captivity, Jesse must come to terms with his past in order to forge some kind of future.

With El Camino, Vince Gilligan knows what he's doing, and it doesn't take him long to shift everything into higher gears. This is Gilligan operating near the peak of his calibre, and he takes time to fix one of the few crucial things of the show that he didn't get quite right the first time. He reinforces the main theme of Breaking Bad: that none of us know what we are capable of until we are pushed to the limits and our own survival is on the line.

Visceral, ruminative, and totally worth your time, particularly if you are lucky enough to see it on the big screen, El Camino is currently playing at the Chase Park Plaza in St. Louis as well as on Netflix.

 

Rahul Menon was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and currently lives in Illinois. He is an assistant director, screenwriter and occasional actor, as well as a computer science engineer who worked as a software analyst and in advertising and marketing prior to entering the film industry. His screen debut was as screenwriter and assistant director of Saayanna Varthakal (Evening News) in 2018. He is currently pursuing a masters degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. FacebookInstagramIMDB.


Roundtable: Joker is no laughing matter

This weekend, the CultureGeek Roundtable pinned on the squirting flowers and went to see Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix and directed by Todd Phillips. Here's what our panel had to say.

 

Rahul Menon

When you hand him the Oscar, can you introduce him as Joker?

Joker is what you get when you have a mediocre, overbearing director standing on the shoulders of one of the greatest actors of our time.

I've heard the audience and few critics say that this movie does a bad job of making us sympathize with the devil, and I have to completely disagree with them, because I feel this is more of a piece that's showing us how or why that devil came to be.

The portrayal of violence has been a controversial topic of discussion, for months now, even before the movie released! My two cents? It doesn't have as much as violence as John Wick or Anna or Ready or Not or Liam Neeson's Cold Pursuit.

The film is a psychologically rich portrait of a mentally ill loner that just happens to take place in a world that will one day yield a cowl-wearing billionaire vigilante. It lays out this life in decline and dares us to watch how it turns out. It works much better as a singular character study than as a broader sociopolitical drama. And regardless of where you will personally sit in reaction to its material, the fact it's inspiring conversation is an achievement in itself, and is nothing less than admirable in my opinion. I feel that the less you think about Joker as a comic book movie, the more you'll like it. I would always prefer movies that make you want to have discussions over the disposable ones that come out every other month.

The movie definitely is a calculated risk on WB's part, and I really hope it works for them, as that would open doors for more R-rated "superhero" films from the studio. It would make them stand out from all the Marvel films, which will (hopefully) hit saturation soon, now that the grimace has turned into ashes. I imagine how the movie would've played out if there wasn't a commercial imposition that the main character has to become the Joker at the end, or may be. WB could've gone the M. Night Shyamalan Split route and kept the entire Joker thing under wraps, calling the movie Arthur or something.

If only Todd Phillips' movie had the depth or clarity of vision to match up to its star's performance. But even with all its negatives, Joker stands out as a formidable and twisted film, both primarily because of Joaquin Phoenix. He isn't so much an actor as a moral contortionist in this origin story that features too many overt nods to the Scorsese movies from the 70's and 80's. Phoenix has plumbed depths so deep and given us such a complex, brutal and physically transformative performance that it would be no surprise to see him take home a statuette or two come award season. Heath Ledger definitely would have been proud, if he was able to witness this.

And with that, we have the clown who fights Batman as the most coveted role in Hollywood.

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Jim D. Gillentine

In the latest movie from Warner Brothers under the DC banner, director Todd Phillips tries to show one of the possible ways that a man might snap and become a villain.

In Joker we are introduced to Arthur Fleck, a party clown living with mental illness and a condition of uncontrollable laughter when he is stressed. He tries to care for his mother, hold down his job, and stay balanced in a city that is suffering from crime, corruption, and a nasty garbage workers strike. As one bad thing after another happens to him, he begins to slip into madness, and we see the results of his fall.

Is Arthur Fleck a victim of his environment? Is he a madman that should be feared and we hope gets killed in some way? I really don’t know, to be honest. The movie has shown me one thing: Joaquin Phoenix’s performance is powerful, frightening, and one of the best if not the best performances this year. He at least deserves to get an Oscar nomination, if not win the bloody thing.

This movie isn’t your usual comic book movie. There are no crazy CGI special effects, no super powers, nothing magical. Just a gritty, dirty city and one man’s journey to become a villain. There are a couple of Batman Easter eggs here and there if you look for them, but this isn’t Batman’s story. This is Arthur's story, so don’t expect to see a superhero to show up to save the day.

 

Elizabeth Donald

If you removed the word Joker from this movie, and renamed the Waynes as the Jones family, this movie would probably be shed of many of the complaints about it. But it is not a movie that should be ignored.

It's not a superhero movie, nor the kind of film that one usually associates with comic books. That's partly because most people think of comic books as inherently fantasy, magic skills and funky devices and spandex costumes with awesome back spin kicks and flying - even from fans. That, of course, is only one level of comics, a medium that has illuminated depths and darkness far beyond the grittiest crime drama. I said when The Dark Knight premiered that if it were not a Batman movie and was billed as a mob drama, it would have taken home best picture. I had that same sense watching Joker, that this movie could have been billed as any crime drama outside of Gotham City, and it would be viewed very differently.

Joker is not best picture. It has many flaws, pacing among the worst of them - for a good portion of the film, I found myself hoping it would hurry up and get to the point. It has created an indescribably vicious urban hell that is basically the worst nightmare of the early 1980s brought to celluloid. As we walk the streets of Gotham with Arthur Fleck, we are uncomfortable watching the awful things that happen to him, because we know there can't be a happy ending for the bad guy - and he's the bad guy, right? 

We should be uncomfortable. Joker is the most political movie I have seen in years, a movie centered not on spandex and fisticuffs, but on a deeply divided, inequitable society. The things happening to Arthur are the same things that happen in our actual society, on the abuse of the different, the harshness of the streets, the selfishness of many humans, the cruelty of those in power. It is disheartening to watch, because we know these problems and that they have no easy solutions. 

But what exactly is the politic of Joker? From one perspective, one could view it as a mockery of the resistance movement, that the poor and angry 99 percent are sheep being manipulated by a madman into violence over nothing. "Those who oppose this unjust establishment aren't given a specific ideology, just explosively violent rage," writes Matthew Rozsa of Salon. "It offers no solutions beyond 'burn it all down.'"

From another perspective, it could be viewed as a warning to the 1 percent: the consolidation of power and money among the very few is enraging those who fight and die in the streets, and there will come a boiling point. Thomas Wayne is the walking personification of privilege here, spouting nonsense about how wealth just means you worked harder than the rabble, and speaks of the protests against him with such disgust and dismissiveness that in another decade, I would wonder how he could strive to be elected to anything. There is a sense that the wealthy of Gotham City live in a carefully protected bubble, and Arthur pierces that bubble in the most violent way possible. 

Rozsa hit on another of the major concerns: that Joker could be seen as a dangerous manifesto that could compel those who struggle with violent tendencies to commit acts of violence. And I must admit, it struck my mind that as much as Joker was uncomfortably real and awful to me, to someone of a similar mindset as Arthur, it could be quite the inspiration. 

Is it responsible to create works of art that feed the darkest of impulses? Conversely, is it responsible to whitewash such art to the point where we can simply pretend worlds like Arthur's do not exist? These are questions for far wiser minds than mine. 

One of the major concerns many fans had going into this film was that the Joker has always been an enigma. Any attempt to codify an origin story for the Joker is met with disdain and/or backpedaled quickly out of existence. The Heath Ledger variation played on that very mystery, with Ledger's Joker giving a different tale to everyone he meets about the source of his scars.

Fortunately, this was one area that I felt Joker handled well. There are multiple possible backgrounds for Arthur, and we are never sure which is the real one. It makes a mastery of the unreliable narrator structure, with repeated instances where we are unsure if the events unfolding are real, or merely Arthur's imagination. Even the ending puts the film itself in an entirely new perspective and leads us to question everything we've seen. For some audiences, this will be enormously frustrating; for others, it makes the film complete. Therefore it's difficult to know whether to recommend this movie, as it will definitely be one of those "love it or hate it" films. 

One thing no one can dispute: Joaquin Phoenix has turned in a career-level performance. His physical contortions are matched and surpassed only by the emotional gamut he runs as this deeply damaged human attempting, in his words, to find joy. Phoenix is acclaimed for his method acting, and one can only imagine the depths to which he had to reach to find this particular character. Joker is more of a character study than a story, with the wider background of the crime-ridden, disastrous dumpster fire that is Gotham City as mere background to illuminating Arthur. 

Is the Joker a born psychopath who found his way to becoming the Clown Prince of Crime, or is he a troubled, damaged man pushed into horrible acts by the torment of the city? Joker has no answers for us, not even in the form of a bat. 

 


IT finishes with a strong bite

Warning: There may be spoilers for book and movie(s) ahead.)

It's hard to objectively review IT: Chapter Two, considering that it is drawn from my favorite novel of all time. So buckle in, folks, this is going to be long.

I've always maintained that Stephen King's novels are best examined as a surface bugadeboo with something entirely other underneath. The Shining is his treatise on alcoholism and domestic violence, with a haunted hotel on the surface. Cujo is about unhappy marriage, from the seven-year itch to loveless abuse, with a rabid St. Bernard on the surface. Pet Sematary is about how we face death in American society (or don't), Under the Dome was his criticism of the Bush II administration, The Dead Zone questioned whether a political assassin could ever be right, Dolores Claiborne and Gerald's Game explored the impact of child sexual abuse, and The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption found dignity and even God behind prison bars.

None of it has to do with monsters, unless they are the monsters who walk among us.

IT is my favorite novel because when I read it, my mental vision takes me to the streets of Westfield, Mass. I lived there from ages seven to fourteen, so it is the place where childhood lives for me. That's about where the resemblance between Derry and Westfield stops, as it was a lovely town despite junior high, and as far as I know there were no shapechanging killer clowns. 

Most people dismiss IT as the story of Pennywise, but like the rest of King's work, its inner story is something very different. It's about imagination, the rich and lustrous flavor of a child's imaginings that dim to a dull glow when they grow up. That's why the children were so strong when they faced It in 1955, and why their diminished numbers were able to defeat It in 1985.

The movies dispense with those themes for the most part, focusing a bit more on childhood friendship than imagination. Much was made of the changes made to the characters' backstories beyond the simple update to 1989. The hints of incestuous abuse from Bev's father are made explicit, and then added to poor Eddie and his mother (of which there is no hint in the book). Stan's backstory was filled out with more interesting creatures; I approved of making his father the town rabbi in what has to be the whitest, goyest town in Maine, but having Rabbi Dad be cold and dismissive feels unfair. Movies always try to amp things up, of course, but does everyone have to have terrible parents?

B83c5deb-802c-4f77-9913-d2ca39e10ded.sized-1000x1000Which brings me to Mike Hanlon, one of the best characters in the book and the one served worst by Chapter 1. Book Mike had a stable, happy home life. He had parents who loved each other and loved him, who raised him well and paid attention to him, who cheered his successes and taught him how to survive the racism of their neighbors and the world beyond. They fought the battle so many working-class black families had to fight (and still do), and they did it with dignity and grace. Mike is the wonderful person that he is - bright, studious, curious, empathic - because of his parents.

Um, never mind. Because in Chapter 1, we find that instead Mike's parents died in a fire, and he's raised by an awful, abusive grandfather who imparts none of these qualities on him, forcing him to kill animals against his gentle nature. I spent whole portions of Chapter 1 with my jaw hanging open - why do this? Why replace the Hanlons with this horrible caricature of the too-strict black grandparent? And why take Mike's curious investigation of Derry history and give it to Ben, who already has his own skills and intricate backstory to contribute? It took Mike, a driving character behind the Loser's Club in the novel, and made him essentially background noise to the story of Chapter 1.

So I approached Chapter 2 with cautious optimism. That became foreboding when I read news stories alleging that Mike was to be degraded even further in the second half: Instead of being the town librarian who has carefully researched and interviewed the city's history to record the impact of Pennywise, Mike was to be a drug addict turning to heroin to deal with the traumas of fighting It. So it was stated in plain English by director Andy Muschietti after Chapter 1 came out.

Nice try, Master Director, but all the kids fought It and Bev in particular went floating in the deadlights. None of them turn to drugs, even though it would make sense, especially for Richie. The only one to fall into addiction is the black guy? Nice. 

Fortunately, it seems that idea hit the cutting room floor. You can see its echoes, however. Isaiah Mustafa does an exceptional job with what must have been one of the hardest acting gigs ever: to begin filming under one premise of the character, and then have it yanked out from under you. In several scenes, especially earlier in the film, Mustafa appears to play Mike as high, speaking very quickly and falling all over his words. The movie attempts to pass it off as fear, but I read the interviews and I know where the script began. Any hint that Mike is an addict has been cut, and instead he just comes across as terrified (and living in the attic above the library for no clear reason specified). 

So I give Muschietti props for listening to the screaming and coming to his realizations late. Did he change it because he realized it was a horrifically racist thing to write, or because he figured there would be protests overshadowing his movie? Only he knows for sure.

(Also, I have heard zero buzz about this plot development silently disappearing from the final cut of the film. Am I the only one who remembers?)

The only shadow remaining is when Pennywise is tormenting Mike late in the film, and shows him a headline accusing Mike's dead parents of being crackheads who burned themselves to death; in the final moments, we see the real headline, and they are simply local residents, not addicts at all. We know Pennywise uses psychological torment as well as physical threats to horrify his victims; with the clumsy edits, the headlines no longer make any sense at all. Likewise Pennywise taunts Mike with "I know your secret.... you're a madman." Well, no, he isn't. There are multiple problems with Mike, as has been widely discussed, but he's not crazy. It's a huge "huh?" moment during the final battle, and clearly it started with the now-excised drug abuse. 

But I can't complain, because Mike is the driving force of the story as he takes over Chapter 2 - almost to a greater extent than the book. It's quite clear on the written page that while Mike brings them all back together again and brings them up to speed, he then cedes the reins to Bill, who had been their leader in childhood. This doesn't really happen in Chapter 2, as Bill is distracted again and again by Pennywise and attempts to go off alone - Mike must stay in charge because Bill never takes up his role as leader, which means Mike also bears the responsibility for the possible outcomes. 

Other stories get short shrift: while I don't think we needed to meet Ben's bartender in Nebraska or Richie's angry manager, I feel cheated by the ninety seconds we see of Bev's husband, Tom. That story is much more detailed in the book and deserved to be there, as it was more than just "Bev married a dick like her father." That's too simplistic for what Book-Tom means for Bev and for the Losers. He beats the snot out of her, and she barely escapes with the help of a friend (also missing in action) who then pays drastically for her loyalty. Tom shows up in Derry, as does Bill's wife Audra, and they have a part to play in the fight against Pennywise.

Tom is the living embodiment of the Losers' Club's failure to escape their past, the walking example of all that was awful in their childhood and that they willingly kept - the damage Pennywise inflicted. For him to hit Bev a few times and she runs out the door does the story a disservice, as well as paying little attention to the psychological impact of domestic abuse.

But CultureGeek, the movie is already 17 years long!

Yes, it's a long, long, long movie. So I would have been happier with about 20 fewer minutes of Cthulu as imagined by Sam Raimi and replace them with actual character development. We don't spend a whole lot of time with Pennywise the Clown this round, as he's very busy turning into CGI tentacles and letting his variant other forms torment the Losers. I've never been all that fond of entrails and gross-out horror, so I can't say that Pennywise in his various forms scared me nearly as much as the old woman in Bev's childhood apartment. (Until she turned into Raimiesque CGI, mind you. She was hella scarier as a human.)

As I said when Chapter 1 came out: Bill Skarsgaard is not responsible for my complete lack of fear at Pennywise. It's not his fault. He did a fine job as envisioned... but that character design. It's the Bugs Bunny buck teeth and funky costume. I simply could not find him scary, not with the voice to match those goofy teeth. (The CGI teeth are another story.) Maybe it's because I saw the Tim Curry edition in 1990 and slept with the light on for a few nights. But the goofy face simply doesn't work for me. Curry needed no CGI to scare the bejesus out of me or my high school classmates, who carefully stepped around the stormdrains outside our school for a few days as the miniseries was running. Just in case. 

If anything, Pennywise is less scary in this modern version, because the few times we do see It as the clown, It is attempting to lure a small child by guilting her into playing with him (a theme it repeats several times) or popping up in cheap jump scares. I can't be scared of the sobbing passive-aggressive Pennywise, folks.

The one moment where Pennywise is truly scary is in the inspired mirror maze sequence, which apparently was dreamed up by James McAvoy (Bill) and Muschietti. I will live with Bill refusing to take up his mantle of leadership because McAvoy simply knocks that scene out of the park. 

The changes that are bringing the most chatter post-release involve Richie and Eddie. I feel that Eddie fares almost as poorly as Mike in the changes to his character, both as a child and as a man. Eddie is portrayed as being an angry, hard-cursing germophobe. They got one part right. But Eddie's talent that contributed to the group was his unerring ability to navigate in any situation - it is the "compass in his head" that helps them to survive the sewers. Beyond that he was gentle and shy, and Richie's best friend. Where did this perpetually angry man come from? He's so fiercely unlikable that we find ourselves wishing Pennywise would eat him and put him out of our misery.

Likewise Book-Richie was a smartass, the ADHD wisecracker whose mouth always got him into trouble. In the 1990 miniseries, they could not have chosen a better pairing of an exceedingly young Seth Green and the late great Harry Anderson to play Richie, and they did it perfectly. Anderson in particular ad-libbed a lot of his puns and wisecracks, and you got the real sense that he and Eddie were friends despite his jibes.

This movie's variation never stops to let Eddie and Richie actually be friends, or anything more. As children and as adults, Richie comes off like a jerk, saying mean, foul things to Eddie and Eddie returns with actual anger bordering on fury. It's hard to buy these people as the best of friends when they spend the entire movie being angry with each other. (And why, exactly, was Eddie's profession changed to a corporate raider who screams at traffic, instead of the limo service owner who can easily navigate in and out of Boston traffic, which is a supernatural feat in and of itself?)  

Then, of course, there is Richie's secret.

There's no hint in the book that Richie is gay. In fact, he's quite decidedly not, and the 1990 miniseries doubles down and gives him a string of ex-wives. Eddie likewise has married, though he basically married Mom (and cute trick by having the same actress play Eddie's mom in the past and his wife in the present, but they lost all the points with repeated fat jokes, because we all know about fat women, amirite? Ugh). 

I have often argued that movies have to stand separate from the source material, which is why "but in the comics..." will get you thrown out of my proverbial bar when we're talking superhero movies. And I really think it could have been an interesting twist to see Richie secretly gay... if it made any sense at all for him to be so deep in the closet in 2019. That actually would have been more comprehensible in the original 1985 novel or 1990 TV-movie, or if Richie had been in any other profession than show businesses. Really, "actor/comedian comes out as gay" would barely rate a squib in Entertainment Weekly, and so the movie fails to give us any kind of grounding or reasonable backstory for why this secret has a Capital S in Richie's life.

(Or why he treats the apparently object of his affections so abominably.)

This is a movie that opened with a gay-bashing murder, and it's as horrifying and awful to see as it is in the book. King wrote it based on a real gay-bashing murder in his area in the 1980s, and there has been much buzz about it. The book makes it clear that Derry is more viciously homophobic than most towns around it, tacitly blaming Pennywise's influence. But the movie barely connects that atmosphere with Richie - and nor should it, since Richie wouldn't care one iota what the people in his former hometown think of his orientation. Rani Baker goes into much greater detail on this than I can, since this review is already as long as the book and has taken an extra week to write, but suffice to say this whole subplot could have been done much, much better.

And yet it was lovely to visit my creepy not-hometown of Derry again, and when I could shut up my inner editor desperately clutching the 1004-page book to my chest, I enjoyed it. Stephen King's cameo had me rolling, there's a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo from the original Young Ben from 1990, there are several other nods to the book, the miniseries and other King stories, and even a turtle nod. 

But I needed less Clownthulu and more psychological torment, less confused half-editing and more friendship among my heroes. I wanted the history of Derry and the subtle ways Pennywise infused himself into the town, and really, would it have killed them to roll the Standpipe? It's just pixels.

I enjoyed it. But I'm not sure I'll be watching it over and over again, as I have the 1990 miniseries with Tim Curry and his merry band. We all still float down here. 


The Tragedy of Lawrence of Arabia

Aristotle says that a tragic destiny is precipitated by the hero’s tragic fault, his 'error or frailty' (hamartia), but Aristotle also calls this turn of events a change of “fortune."

Aristotle fits with Lawrence of Arabia perfectly. In the epic film that won Best Picture in 1962, T.E. Lawrence steps into the role of the classical hero who strives to do "the right thing" for the Arab people by uniting them together. At least as portrayed in the film, his confidence is actually arrogance, his belief that he knows better than the Arab people he leads what is best for them.

His arrogance leads Lawrence to a low point in the movie, in which he has to lead his men into an attack against the Turks that becomes a total rout. All the Turks are killed, including the ones that are trying to surrender, which contradicts Lawrence's earlier philosophy against unnecessary violence. Lawrence's ego succumbed to the "white savior complex" and he became a cold-blooded killer with no mercy. 

Scott Anderson of the Smithsonian Magazine delves into this, describing Lawrence as "a man trapped by divided loyalties, torn between serving the empire whose uniform he wore and being true to those fighting and dying alongside him. It is this struggle that raises the Lawrence saga to the level of Shakespearean tragedy, as it ultimately ended badly for all concerned: for Lawrence, for the Arabs, for Britain, in the slow uncoiling of history, for the Western world at large. Loosely cloaked about the figure of T.E. Lawrence there lingers the wistful specter of what might have been if only he had been listened to."

At one point, Lawrence sees his reflection on his blood-stained dagger. Seeing himself through the blood, he realizes that he has become worse than the enemy, betraying his own core beliefs in order to "win."

There have been many criticisms of this undoubtedly classic film, specifically regarding its depiction of Lawrence, who was described by some as far more humble and less egotistical than his depiction in the classic film. Is it possible that the filmmakers accentuated Lawrence's ego to make a point of their own about colonialism and Eurocentric attitudes? His sexuality also has been a topic of historical speculation, largely ignored by the film - but that is unsurprising, given the far more restrictive cinematic environment of 1962.

It is a film that begins with tragedy: at the very beginning, Lawrence dies in a senseless motorcycle accident. It is the ultimate irony, after going through all that he endured in the desert, his death proves that life can be senseless and wasted in a moment’s notice.  

 

This is part of an ongoing series involving philosophical approaches to classic films, as studied by our resident philosophy student, Jim D. Gillentine. Jim is an author and self-professed comics geek, having immersed himself in four-color prose since the 1970s, and is the biggest Godzilla fan in the western hemisphere. He is currently completing his bachelor's degree in English literature and philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Website.


At long last, Othello

For a movie I waited six years to see, Othello wasn't bad.

I've already told the tale of how a Netflix DVD of Othello ended up hanging around my house for six years. This week, I finally watched the bloody thing, which allows us to return it and begin using the DVD mail service again, just in time for a semester in which two of the three members of my household will be studying film.

It was an early outing for Laurence Fishburne, who burns up the screen with Othello's contained fury (and even pulls off his seizure with some measure of realism, a feat not always accomplished by other actors). Despite being a product of the 17th century, race is endemic to the story, and Fishburne pulls off the balance of playing a black man in military service to white leaders in ancient times while never ceding to anyone as master. It's really amazing to watch.

Believe it or not, this 1995 film was the first time an actor of color actually played Othello on the big screen. Today the idea of whitewashing this iconic character of Shakespearean lore would probably burn Twitter to the ground, but onstage Othello had been played by white actors (usually in blackface) until Paul Robeson in 1945, and all prior movie adaptations likewise had such noted ethnic actors as... Laurence Olivier, Sir Anthony Hopkins and Michael Gambon. Oops. (In Orson Welles' 1952 version, he simply rewrote it so that everyone's objection to the marriage with Desdemona had to do with age and physical attractiveness instead of race, so that Welles could play Othello himself. Okay, Orson.) 

Notably, Sir Patrick Stewart took on the role in 1997 with the Washington, D.C. Shakespeare Company - but in what they billed as a "photo-negative" variation, where he was the sole white actor with an otherwise all-black cast. I'm not sure how the racial politics would have played out with such an adaptation, but I would have been quite curious to see it. Likewise the 1982 Broadway adaptation with James Earl Jones as Othello and Christopher Plummer as Iago must have been fascinating, and the 2007 with Chiwetel Eijofor as Othello and Ewan McGregor opposite him.

MV5BNWRlYmU1ZGMtMjEwYy00NjVhLTk3MmYtN2UxM2JmOTMyZjkyXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAwODA4Mw@@._V1_Here the foil for Fishburne's Othello is Kenneth Branaugh as Iago, at the height of his Branaugh-ness. He oozes marvelously across the screen, and his manipulations and asides to the audience are consummately done. You don't quite get the sense of the hatred Iago bears for Othello, an odd misstep for the acknowledged King of Shakespeare, but as always he does a terrific job of translating the sometimes-cumbersome language in a manner that helps even the uninitiated drawn into the story.

The internet record shows that this variation of Othello came about during the O.J. Simpson trial, which may have impacted audience reaction. If so, it didn't help: the movie bombed at the box office and while Branaugh and Fishburne received accolades for their performances, it's largely been forgotten among the major Shakespeare adaptations.

That might be that for all its intense personal drama, Othello is a very talky play. There are a few swordfights and the inevitable stabbity-ness that are required in just about any Shakespeare, but most of the play is conniving people talking to each other and passing handkerchiefs about. First-time director Oliver Parker made a spare play a bit more lush with cinematography and stagecraft that keeps the eye entertained, but there are lulls where we have had seven scenes of people talking at each other. 

There's also the trouble of Desdemona. Irene Jacob is there to look pretty and dismayed by turns throughout the film, and not much else. Of course, there's not much you can do with a script that portrays one of Shakespeare's more passive heroines, but Parker really doesn't try. She's merely a cipher for Iago to manipulate around his chessboard and an object for Othello to possess and, if he chooses, destroy. It's difficult to interpret a 500-year-old play through modern eyes, but Othello's murderous jealousy plays so much of toxic possessiveness and domestic abuse that we find ourselves wondering whether they really would have had such a happy marriage, even without Iago's machinations.

It's a compelling film, deserving of a higher grade on Rotten Tomatoes and certainly doesn't deserve its status as a bomb. I'm not sure it was worth six years and $543 paid to Netflix - Laurence of Arabia wouldn't be worth that - but it was an engaging, compelling film and I am sorry that I must, finally, send it back. 

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist, editor, author, photographer, grad student and instructor, as well as the editor of CultureGeek. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at donaldmedia.com.


The $543 DVD

Tonight my husband and I will watch a DVD that cost us $543.

Then we will return it, but we won't get the money back.

This is probably the dumbest thing we have collectively done in the nine years that we have been a couple. I can't say it was the dumbest thing we've done in our lives, because there were some truly questionable personal choices back in the nineties that don't bear close examination. 

But Othello is probably in the top ten list.

I was a Netflix early adopter, back in the days before it was an app on the Apple TV that popped up and fed me entertainment at the press of a teeny tiny button on a teeny tiny remote we keep losing in the couch cushions. I signed on back in the days when you ordered discs by mail and everyone knew that wasn't going to last when you could drive over to Blockbuster and get your movie right away. Who waits for mail?

Note to self: Don't attempt to play the stock market. It's not going to work out well for you.

When Netflix launched streaming, I hopped on board, and eventually settled into one of the dual plans: $7.99 a month for the single-disc DVD service and $7.99 for the one-screen-at-a-time streaming which is now $8.99 and thank goodness we only have one TV. Yes, even at CultureGeek Manor where we watch waaaaaaay too many shows, one television set is sufficient.

It was Christmas 2013, and I had a hankering for some Shakespeare. The DVD queue had grown to at least 70 movies, and so I scanned through and picked the 1995 Laurence Fishburne Othello. All I knew about it was that its poster used to hang in my college newsroom, and that it costarred Kenneth Branaugh (at the height of his popularity) as Iago. Directed by Oliver Parker, it seemed like a fun way to spend a holiday evening. It arrived on New Year's Eve, 2013.

We still have it.

I don't know what happened that New Year's Eve, or how we forgot about Othello. It got shoved in a drawer in the entertainment center, and every once in a while one of us would say, "Hey, we need to watch that so we can send it back." Months passed, and I often noted that we were paying the monthly fee for our Netflix DVD service and not using it. 

"This is dumb," I declared on more than one occasion. "Let's just send it back and get another movie." 

But wait. Othello still looks like a good movie. We've held onto it this long, isn't it silly not to at least watch it before we send it back?

Just one more month...

Next week begins the semester for our collegiate family. If you follow us on social media, you know that my husband, my son and I are all in college together for various purposes. This is, at long last, my husband's second-to-last semester as an undergrad, and I am beginning my last year working toward my masters degree. When we embarked on this crazy adventure, we had to do a serious budget cut, and the Netflix DVD plan almost got axed.

Almost. Because... isn't it cheaper to use the DVD mailing service than to go to the movies? Sure, if we actually sent back Othello. The best of intentions...

This fall, my husband is taking a class on philosophy and film. The syllabus lists approximately 25 films that he will be required to watch out of class. Some of them are excellent films, like Lawrence of Arabia and The Exorcist (though I cringe that his first viewing of Lawrence will be on our little TV instead of the big screen where it firmly belongs). Some of them give me hives, like The Big Lebowski and This is Spinal Tap (see, I just lost about 40 percent of my readers, didn't I? The Dude does not abide.)

No, they're not studying Othello, but that would be hilarious.

This class is problematic for us, because of the 25 films, we only own about five of them. (Like I wouldn't have Alien. Sheesh.) A few are available through the Kanopy system at the university, and a grand total of one each on Netflix streaming and Amazon Prime. I sent a missive to the Film Professor, but sadly he has been downsizing his formerly insane collection and does not have any of them.

I examined our local library, and found a good number of them are available and most of the rest  through interlibrary loan. We have been tracking which ones we can acquire through various means, and which will have to be rented. 

"I can't believe how few of these are on Netflix," I griped. Bad enough that we'd have to spend money on nonsense like Spinal Tap, but Re-AnimatorEvil Dead 2? I'm not objecting to Vertigo, mind you, but Zulu? I have to pay money for this while I'm paying perfectly good cash to three (3) streaming services....

My son piped up, "What about the Netflix DVDs?"

Crickets. Staring. 

"I'm an idiot," I declared.

Yes, we were still paying $7.99 a month for the DVD rental service. I looked up our queue and found Othello listed at the top, on rent since December 30, 2013. Just to make myself cringe, I calculated how much we have spent on the DVD rental service while Othello has slept in his drawer, and it came to $543.32.

Both of us will be studying film this year: he's got the philosophy class, and I'll be beginning work on my thesis, which will involve watching approximately every film about journalism since time began. The Netflix DVDs will finally get some use, and save us the trouble of renting all those bloody movies.

But we'll have to watch Othello first. I mean, we've had it this long. It's only right.

 

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist, editor, author, photographer, grad student and instructor, as well as the editor of CultureGeek. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at donaldmedia.com.

Cross-posted to other sites.

Euphoria: A Technicolor Trip to the Teenage Wasteland

Respectfully, I called it.

When Netflix canceled the sweet, innocent coming-of-age series Everything Sucks!, I looked at the known projects actress Sydney Sweeney was attached to at the time (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, HBO’s Sharp Objects, and a little movie set in 1969 Hollywood from Quentin Tarantino) and said Netflix would regret letting her get away.

Netflix famously doesn’t release its viewership numbers. But if you listen closely you can probably hear the sobbing from outside their offices. And she’s not even the named star of HBO’s Euphoria. Zendaya, who made the great Spider-Man: Far from Home even better with her wit, is our Virgil in this little walk through the hell of the teenage years.

She plays the improbably named Rue, a teenager who may be bipolar but is definitely a drug addict from a young age, and there are all sorts of fan theories that Rue is dead and narrated from beyond the grave.

My advice? Don’t overthink it. Watch it as a teenager might live it — experience it in the moment. Yes, there will be a lot more sightings of the nude male body than you’d expect from a “teen drama,” but it barely makes a dent in the nudity disparity of show business. But if flashing lights are an issue for you, watch something else. (Seriously.)

When we meet Rue, she’s fresh out of rehab after an overdose — her little sister found her, and yes, that has repercussions — and she has no intentions of remaining sober. Then she meets Jules, a trans girl played by newcomer and real-life trans model Hunter Schafer, and the sort of instant chemistry only found in teenage years sparks into a peculiar, tentative, frightened and frightening, and magical romance.

Rue’s issues, we’ve already discussed. Jules’ issues involve hooking up with older men who swear they’re not gay but invariably find her on gay dating apps. And one of them (played by Eric Dane) turns out to be the father of one of Jules’ new classmates — and one of the wealthiest men in town. Oh, and the son is a case study in whatever privileged young white male sociopath just got away with a horrible crime, probably sexual in nature, whenever you read this. Those are just a third of regular cast.

Some have stories we’ve not begun to explore, so I’m glad HBO has ordered a second season. Maude Apatow (daughter of filmmaker Judd Apatow and his wife, actress Leslie Mann) plays the younger sister of Sydney Sweeney’s character, maybe the one level-headed character on the entire show, and all we know about her is that she seems to be in love with Rue.

There are two drug dealers — a dropout in his early 20s and his well-read but trashtalking little brother who may be pre-adolescent — who could probably carry a series of their own. Barbie Ferriera’s work as Kat — a budding webcam girl — is breaking the new boundaries in the portrayal of plus-sized women and their sexuality that Lena Dunham likes to think she did, minus the insufferable factor.

Where are the parents? Well, Rue and her sister are children of a single mother who works hard. Cass and Lexi (Sweeney and Apatow) are daughters of a single mother who drinks hard. Eric Dane’s menacing statutory rapist character is waking up to the fact that his son is a true monster in the making. And the drug-dealing brothers are caring for a grandmother at home who seems to be virtually comatose.

The show’s dark. But sometimes it’s wickedly funny: There’s a fourth-wall breaking sequence in the second episode in which Rue discusses the rules for nude male selfies, let’s say, that is shocking and raw and hilarious, and probably got her key card to the Disney Studios deactivated.

A more recent episode found her in a manic state, obsessing over her relationship with Jules and coming to all sorts of plausible but wrong conclusions, donning an outfit like a 1930s police detective (suspenders, dress shirt, fedora, cigarette) and towing Lexi around as her junior partner. That bit of costume play could have been right at home on the sort of tween fare where Zendaya got her start, though it would have been a lollipop or Twizzler as the prop instead of a cigarette.

The 3:45 a.m. phone call to the long-suffering friend would have been the capstone in either situation, along with the friend finally hanging up. But then there’s the moment where medicine bottles in a comatose woman’s bedroom become animated and start telling Rue to open them up and take all the pills. And the finale looks like it’s going to have a true-to-life discussion about an unwanted pregnancy (I’m not saying whose, but it isn’t Rue’s) that may not end with the happy “I’m keeping the baby” or “I’m giving it up for adoption” moment you’d find if Nick or Disney ever went there.

The actors’ and actresses’ work with creator Sam Levinson (son of director Barry Levinson) has created a searingly intimate look at the teenage years with characters who are as close to the performers as their skin. At least a couple of the performers say in post-show segments that their characters are based on their own experiences (Ferriera, Schafer). So while there is an element of “freak out the parents” here — a bit of the “cautionary tale” baked into the recipe — there’s also some hope even at the bleakest moments.

Because some of the people telling these stories have survived as bad or worse. That’s something, at least.

 

Jason Tippitt is a recovering seminarian and mostly recovered former journalist living a few miles beyond that place you stop to use the restroom off Interstate 40 between Nashville and Memphis.


Guest Voices: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

"In this town, it can all change, like that."

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino's love letter to a bygone era of movie stardom. It's indulgent, but also complex and fascinating, and offers an utterly unique experience for those willing to embrace its meandering charms.

It looks at two men who embody the dichotomy of Hollywood, and tells a fractured fairytale about the city of dreams with a blend of fact and fiction. It's Tarantino's warmest movie since Jackie Brown.

It's also a kinder, gentler film than one would expect from the master of gut-wrenching graphic violence and bloodshed. It's imperfect, erratic and even infuriating at times. But it is nearly impossible not to love.

Tarantino has a reputation of being a man of many intense passions, but this is the stuff he really cares about, we can clearly see and feel that in every single scene, and it inspires some of his most quietly effective filmmaking.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino found an ideal project to focus his fixations, fantasies, fetishes, and concoct a brilliant recipe of Hollywood fairytale. One of the best part of the movie is that it forgoes telling us how much Tarantino loves films, and simply lets us feel it, almost like being on a ride of 1969 Hollywood Boulevard with him.

Talking about the actors involved, Brad Pitt has one of the coolest movie roles he's yet played, Leonardo DiCaprio gets to show off all manner of acting chops, and Margot Robbie gets to enjoy pretending to be the Sharon Tate we never got to see.

It's also a heavyweight acting match between Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. If it were up to me, I would hand the belt to Pitt, along with an early Oscar nomination. Their whole dynamic, which was beautiful and brotherly, reminded me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Now that's a heavy comparison!

It's funny, sad, perversely nostalgic, and it's Tarantino's obsessive ode to a lost Hollywood era that's packed with visual verve, pop-culture riffs and cinematic pleasures.

It's both the most and least Tarantino film in a very long time. 

 

Rahul Menon was born and raised in New Delhi, India, and currently lives in Illinois. He is an assistant director, screenwriter and occasional actor, as well as a computer science engineer who worked as a software analyst and in advertising and marketing prior to entering the film industry. His screen debut was as screenwriter and assistant director of Saayanna Varthakal (Evening News) in 2018. He is currently pursuing a masters degree at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. FacebookInstagramIMDB.


Mars is back and shining brighter than ever

I grew up a Nancy Drew fan. I graduated from the Berenstein Bears to Nancy's mysterious exploits at age seven, because my mom pulled down her box of canvas-bound editions and gave them to me. I was hooked, even if they used weird words I had to go look up like "titian" and Nancy was always getting captured and needed her boyfriend or father to save her. Hey, it was the fifties.

So when I say that Veronica Mars is the heir apparent to Nancy Drew, you should know that it's a high compliment.

I did not believe I was the target demographic for the show when it premiered, being significantly out of high school. And yet the strong writing, great acting, snappy dialogue and fun stories interposed with enough real drama to tug at the heartstrings kept me hooked all the way through the first two seasons. The third season stumbled a bit, and then came the axe of cancellation.

The movie was... disappointing. It was clearly a message to Hollywood that the fans raised $5.7 million to bring Veronica back to life, but I wish we had gotten a movie worthy of Kristen Bell and her compatriots. It says something that while I remember the season arcs of S1, S2 and S3 nearly perfectly, I had to go look up reviews of the movie, which at 107 minutes was barely long enough to count as a two-part episode.

So I'm happy to say that S4 is a wonderful return to our favorite detective. Veronica is working with her father again. Wallace is teaching at the high school. Logan has become James Bond - er, Naval Intelligence, swooping in and out of Veronica's life in a manner befitting their mutual social shortcomings. (As usual, played by the eternally underappreciated Jason Dohring. Someone give this guy a leading part, because he can burn down buildings.)

The sheriff is a pain in the ass. The rich people in town are obnoxious and corrupt. And there's a murderer afoot.

In short, welcome back to Neptune.

I found the season almost as compelling as S1, binging through it in a couple of days. And since S1 of Veronica Mars is practically the template for which binging was invented, that says a great deal. With Veronica, it's not often about whodunit, but how we get there, and there were just enough twists to keep me entertained even though I saw the villain coming (and the final twist, which apparently has people screaming). 

Flaws: I miss Wallace. Oh, he's there, but his role as a teen was to be Veronica's conscience, a snarky Jiminy Cricket to keep her from getting too deep in her own head and messed-up traumas. He's barely there in this season, and the role of Veronica's Conscience is played by... Logan? Okay, I actually prefer the James Bond Logan to the angry, scary-violent possessive jerk we've seen before, but Logan does not serve as anyone's conscience, ever.

Also, I didn't find it a flaw, but please remember that Veronica Mars is now a streaming-service show on Hulu. And boy, do they enjoy not being subject to network censors or the restrictions of underage actors. Bamp-chicka-bamp-bamp.

Fortunately, Keith and Veronica still have the single best father-daughter relationship on television. (Fight me.) They have the kind of loving, friendly, honest-with-flaws affection we'd all love to strive for with our offspring, once they grow up and become humans. I might add that Enrico Collatoni joins Jason Dohring in the "eternally underappreciated actor" field, as his ability to break my heart with facial expressions has not dimmed with the passing of years.

This season was so much fun that I found myself nostalgic for S1 again, and so I have been replaying the old episodes in my spare time. Now I've gotten my husband hooked, and I'll be restarting another binge, so I have to fun of watching him solve the murder of Lily Kane. (Shhh, nobody tell him.)

Some of the reviewers got a little snide, asking if we really need more Veronica Mars now that Kristen Bell isn't Nancy Drew age anymore. Shut up, reviewers. There is fun on the dark side of thirty, thank you, and if S4 is an example of what they can do with the grownups, I'd like to see several more, thank you. Welcome back, Veronica.

 

Elizabeth Donald is a freelance journalist, editor, author, photographer, grad student and instructor, as well as the editor of CultureGeek. In her spare time, she has no spare time. Find out more at donaldmedia.com.


Another roar at Pride Rock

There is almost nothing new about The Lion King.

But you should still go see it.

One of the big attractions from this sort-of-live-action remake (we'll get to that in a minute) was the inspired casting. Donald Glover and Beyonce inherit the claws of our leading lions with grace, and in both acting and singing, they roar with the best of them. It was only fitting that James Earl Jones was the returning cast member, as no one in the world could follow in his paw-steps as Mufasa. John Kani can't be the ghost of Robert Guillaume and fortunately he doesn't try. Alfre Woodard is a dignified and intense Sarabi, and while Billy Eichner and Seth Rogan really can't match Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, they do Timon and Pumbaa proud. And John Oliver is inspired casting as Zazu.

The only one who suffers is Scar, which surprised me as Chiwetel Ejiofor is no slouch at all to being quietly menacing (as all Firefly fans know). Perhaps it's simply that Jeremy Irons' voice is impossible to follow, or perhaps it's that his big number, "Be Prepared," is the only one to get a major rewrite and they should have left it alone. Supposedly Benedict Cumberbatch turned down the role, which might've been interesting to hear with his sinister bass, but I'm not sure anyone could have resolved the mishmash that they made of "Be Prepared." (Rumor has it the number was going to be left out entirely due to the Nazi metaphor from the animated version, but people threw fits, so they worked it in even thought Chiwetel really can't sing, and excised the metaphor, and yeah, it's a mess.)

But you should still go see it. New-Lion-King-trailer-2

The biggest problem with the new Lion King is actually a problem all the other live-action remakes have managed to avoid: it's too much the same movie as the 1994 blockbuster that changed Disney forever. Love them or loathe them (and for me it's a mixed bag), the live-action remakes have each brought something new to the story. 

Cinderella gave its heroine more of a backbone and a greater connection to Prince Charming, as well as a motivation and history with the Evil stepmother. Beauty and the Beast solved some of those irksome plot holes from the animated version, like why the entire kingdom forgot it had a prince, why all the poor servants were cursed too, what happened to Belle's mom, and so on. Aladdin attempted to resolve some of the queasy stereotypes from the original animated and turned much of the plot on its ear, resulting in Jasmine's rise as the true protagonist of the story and shifting away from "will they or won't they get married" as the primary conflict. (Also, "Speechless" is as kickass an empowerment song as "Let it Go" or "How Far I'll Go." Fight me.)

Lion King doesn't do any of that. There are a few hints at a backstory we never see, a long-ago love triangle between Sarabi, Mufasa and Scar, which would add a little nuance and malice to Scar's actions and tie it closer to the Shakespearean source material... if we ever got to see it. Unfortunately it's just a few throwaway lines, and then we're back to a shot-for-shot remake of the original.

But you should still go see it.

Why go see an allegedly "live-action" remake that is so utterly faithful it practically copies the camera angles from an animated film from 25 years ago? When you probably saw it in the theater, bought the clamshell VHS, bought the Gold Collection DVD, and now probably have it on Blu-ray as well? When you grew up singing its songs and taught them to your kids? Why see a slavishly-faithful remake that takes zero chances with the story that made Disney nearly $1 billion in unadjusted dollars on a $45 million investment? 

Because it is, quite simply, the most amazing visual achievement in cinema I can ever recall seeing in a theater.

We all know lions don't sing or dance, right? I mean, I'm pretty sure on that point. I am less sure after watching The Lion King in its current iteration, and when I saw that the production crew thanked the staff of Animal Kingdom, I wondered if they were training the critters at night and just telling us this is CGI.

It was simply impossible to tell that I was watching a CGI-animated film, which was initially billed as "live-action" and then was mocked relentlessly until Disney quietly dropped that line from the promo. It's a fair point; it's still animation, just a very different kind than the ground-breaking visual style that ushered in Lion King in 1994. 

Even though the entire opening sequence is an homage to the original, shot for shot and moment for moment, I found myself gaping at the screen as CultureGeek Jr. and I marveled at the amazing state of the art that created this film. Visually it was an astounding piece of artwork, bringing lions and hyenas and antelope to life before our eyes, making them sing and talk without a hint of silliness, and all in the shadow of what appears to be Mt. Kilimanjaro. 

The Lion King was never my favorite of the Disney Renaissance, but it's always been a fun movie that shaded a little darker and more adult than its predecessors. It's Hamlet with lions, and the very few changes by director Jon Favreau don't change that.

And yet I still tell you to go see it.  If you didn't like the original, you won't find anything new here. If you liked the original, you'll probably like this one. But it also represents an amazing new state of the art in filmmaking, and while I wish they'd have brought something new to the tale of Simba and his compatriots, I tip my hat to the artists who drew this new picture for us.