So liberal Twitter today got into an internecine spat about Trump’s comments over Mike Pence being politely addressed by the cast at last night’s showing of Hamilton. Pence was booed by the audience, and then after the show, actor Brandon Dixon addressed the VP-Elect in a serious but respectful manner. The following morning, Trump, incensed that anyone would chastise a powerful white guy, said the cast was rude and that they should apologize. It was Trump being Trump, but it was worth noting his hypocrisy, weakness, and inability to let any slight go by unnoticed.
Or was it? There was then a counter uproar saying that people who cared about the Hamilton incident were being distracted from the Trump University fraud settlement and that Trump is getting richer by having foreign diplomats stay in his Washington, D.C. hotel. Trump was using social media as a distraction so people wouldn’t call him on settling the Trump U scandal even after he had previously promised he would never settle (Trump lied! It’s true!).
So we have liberals chastising liberals over the proper way to respond to which scandals, and saying that this is Trump’s genius strategy: throw so many problems at people that they can’t focus, and he can get away with everything. There are just a few problems with this.
1) If “Trump Wins by Being on Twitter” was true, then why did his staff force him off of it in the final weeks of the campaign? “Aides to Mr. Trump have finally wrested away the Twitter account that he used to colorfully — and often counterproductively — savage his rivals,” wrote the New York Times on November 6th. The more Trump opens his mouth, the more opportunities people have to attack him, and during the campaign, his aides were smart enough to realize that if he could just shut the fuck up for more than two weeks, the news cycle would consume Hillary Clinton. (This, by the way, is not the sole reason Clinton lost)
2) Trump may have a lot of issues, but it’s not your place to tell people what they can and can’t care about. People are scared and hurting right now, and trying to police that outrage is sanctimonious and counter-productive. Let’s go back to the campaign, and assume that if all liberals had just focused on one issue to the neglect of all others, then Trump would have lost. So what issue should it have been? His sexist comments? His racist comments? His lack of political experience? His dealings with Russia? The Trump University fraud? Who gets to decide what’s important to everyone? Do you want to be the one who tells a woman who was sexually assaulted, “Hey, it’s rough, but we’ve got to keep the focus on his ties to Russia.” Do you want to tell the Muslim man, “I know he wants to criminalize being Muslim, but we can only care about his sexual assault charges.”
Trump does pose a unique problem in that he is a non-stop (to borrow one of his few and favorite words) disaster. It is difficult to pin him down to any one thing, but that makes it more important for all of us to care about all of it. And I know that’s exhausting. I know that in the last 10 days, it’s been nightmarish, and it’s not going to get any easier. Life is going to be hard, and it’s going to suck for a while, but telling people what they can and can’t care about isn’t a solution. Every day is going to be a struggle, and there’s no saying, “You are only allowed to care about these things.” It’s incumbent on all of us to hold Trump and his administration accountable 24/7. If that means today we rail against him for chastising artists, wiggling out of a fraud trial, filling his cabinet with racists, and profiting off foreign diplomats staying at his hotel, then that’s what the day calls for. It’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be fun, and there is no alternative.
Last night, I had an odd double feature of Death Wish and Christmas Vacation. It was my first viewing for both films, and while I found Death Wish the more entertaining of the two, both movies left me with some thoughts regarding their cultural commentary and the historical context that commentary was made. I posted my thoughts on Letterboxd (a fantastic site for keeping a movie journal), but in case those comments were to vanish for some reason, I wanted to keep them here as well (my site is indestructible). Keep in mind that these are not reviews but simply a collection of disorganized thoughts that I wanted to put down before I went to bed.
[Note: minor spoilers ahead]
An absolutely fascinating film. If the Bernie Getz shooting hadn’t happened 10 years later, I could have sworn it would be the influence for Death Wish. The film is borderline unapologetic in its values, although there is an awkward moment where a background character has to explain why Paul Kerney (Charles Bronson) is killing so many black people isn’t racist (she has a fair point, although it ignores the larger social issues, which falls in line with the rest of the movie).
Death Wish is an angry fantasy for anyone who has ever been a victim of a violent crime or known the victim of a violent crime. It reaches deep into the futility having crime seep into our safe worlds and show us how powerless we truly are. And the only solution comes not from the police, but down the barrel of a gun. It also helps that in the world of Death Wish, most criminals carry switchblades and not guns.
Oddly enough, the police aren’t seen as ineffective as much as allied against the individual rather than supporting the community. An entire department seems to mass around stopping Kerney, but they shrug their shoulders when his wife was murdered and his daughter was raped. There’s media sensationalism to the vigilante, but no character ever brings up the point that the cops are now investigating the murder of a criminals rather than the murder of an innocent women.
Of course, this all plays into the notion of the One Man Against the World fantasy Death Wish (winkingly?) embraces. The movie makes sure to position Kersey not as the outlaw, but as the noble gunslinger. He’s always looking for trouble, but he’s righting the wrongs the law can’t or won’t stop.
It’s also strange that the criminals gravitate towards Kersey; in one scene, a couple punks go through multiple train cars just to get to him even though there are other people on the train and he’s just some guy reading the newspaper. Bronson may not be intimidating (although we see at the beginning of the film that he’s absolutely ripped), but he’s also doesn’t convey weakness. Why would criminals target him as a victim?
It’s tough to tell if director Michael Winner is playing it straight, but either way, it’s a damn interesting and entertaining film. It’s heavy-handed as hell, and I honestly don’t know if it’s satire or preaching. Personally, I would like to see it as satire since I think that makes it a smarter movie. Then again, the film could also be played as a tragedy. Kersey is an honest, hardworking man and violence consumes his life and becomes his addiction. At the end, rather than give up his gun, he gives up on his family and moves away so he can kill more street punks.
National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
Billed as a “Christmas classic”, I was a little underwhelmed by Christmas Vacation. It wasn’t as funny as I’d hoped it would be, nor was it particularly memorable. The family dynamic felt like The Ref but with all the hard edges rounded off to a PG-13 rating. More often than not, the movie relies on slapstick and rarely finds a satisfying build-up and pay-off to its farcical elements. The best moments are when the Griswolds continue to unintentionally ruin their neighbors’ lives.
Where Christmas Vacation caught my attention wasn’t so much in its comedy, but in its values. Coming out a year after the Reagan administration, it’s a movie that champions the pursuit of the middle-class becoming the upper-middle class while still retaining good, old-fashioned American values. The Christmas miracle isn’t getting to keep the house. It’s getting to keep the house AND get a swimming pool. If your house has a swimming pool that not inflatable, then congratulations: you’re upper-middle class.
Meanwhile, Uncle Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his brood are the disgusting poor. They’re not necessarily bad people, but they’re uncouth, dumb, and most importantly, they mooch off the goodwill of the Griswold clan. Uncle Eddie may be good for kidnapping the wealthy, but he’s also the guy who expects you to open your wallet and pay for his kids’ toys because he’s too lazy to get a job.
Meanwhile, the film also doesn’t want to alienate the aspiring middle class by saying the wealthy (Clark’s boss) are inherently good. But they’re certainly not bad. They’re just misguided, and if they could only see how much a middle class family like the Griswolds appreciate Christmas, then the rich folks would realize that maybe they shouldn’t slash the bonuses of hardworking Americans. This dream scenario would truly be a Christmas miracle.
It’s also important that the Griswolds are a very specific kind middle class family. They live next door to the Chesters–a horrible, selfish couple who may be in the same income bracket, but they’re not REAL Americans. They don’t have kids, they don’t celebrate Christmas, they’re not friendly, and they simply don’t share the Griswolds values.
While I would like to give screenwriter John Hughes credit for crafting a ridiculously subtle satire of the American dream, his screenplay for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off shares the same kind of me-first values of the Reagan era. When the characters sing the National Anthem at the end, it’s not ironic. It’s taking national possession of the holiday. It’s not “Happy” Christmas, you British bastards. It’s “Merry” Christmas. If you don’t like it, you can get out.
I’m going to put this to bed once and for all:
I’m not a negative person.
That seems to have become my reputation. I know part of that comes from what I say about upcoming movies and my comments on trailers, posters, and other aspects of a marketing campaign. My coverage of movie news is part-mockery and part-criticism. I can’t go back through every single news story I wrote in 2011, but people get defensive over minor things. The trailer for The Dark Knight Rises didn’t change my life and I made fun of the collapsing football field because it’s funny. I don’t think the movie will be bad. It’s a criticism of a trailer that shows a football player who doesn’t realize that everyone behind him has fallen into a pit and died. Also, the quake ended when he scored a touchdown, so it worked out well.
But I also get excited by good trailers. I do a Top 10 list at the end of the year to prove it. And most importantly, I don’t let any piece of marketing lock in my opinion. Marketing on major movies is a non-stop assault, and I can’t avoid it, but I can try to stay objective before being subjective.
However, I can go back through my reviews and try to empirically prove that I’m not negative. I’ve come to the point where I almost want to stop using a letter grade. The reason I keep using them is because hopefully it will serve as a hook. Readers will scroll down to the bottom, see the letter grade, and then read the review to see why I gave that grade. Sadly, the rating tends to dominates the content. We’re in the Rotten Tomatoes age where people want to see a percentage and take that as the final word on the film’s quality. Keep in mind that RT works on a binary-system. A film is either “fresh” or “rotten”, so a B- has the same weight as an A+. Even as a shorthand, Rotten Tomatoes is imprecise.
But since people are so fixated on grades, and then they want to turn around and say that I’m negative, I’ve provided the following chart, which breaks down how many As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs I gave out in 2011:
As you can see, the highest percentage of my reviews were either a B+, B, or B- (the exact number was 56). “B” means “good”. “A” means excellent. I have seen enough movies to understand the difference. Hollywood and even indie films don’t hit a grand slam every time they go to bat. “A” is a high standard and when a movie meets that high standard, it should mean something.
The next highest percentage was “C”, which means “mediocre”. I hate to say it, but there’s plenty of mediocrity in the world. Not everyone is a superstar and a lot of movies just get by. They’re forgettable or they’re a wasted opportunity. I don’t hate these movies. I just don’t get much out of them.
Perhaps this disconnect is that my critics want my film criticism to be “one higher”. Cs should Bs, and Bs should be As. But I demand more from my movies. I see the flaws not because I’m “negative” but because criticism is my business and it’s my job to break down movies and see how they work and how they don’t. I don’t “turn off my brain” nor would I want to. It seems ungrateful considering it got me to where I am today. I don’t like subjecting it to Sucker Punch, but we’re in it together.
There’s no agenda for me. There are movies I look forward to and movies I dread, but I give them all a fair shake. And if you don’t think I do, then look past the letter grade and read the actual review.
Beauty and the Beast 3D (Rating: A+)
Contraband (Rating: B-)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Rating: B-)
Young Adult (Rating: A-)
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Rating: B)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Rating: A)
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Rating: C+)
The Adventures of Tintin (Rating: C)
We Bought a Zoo (Rating: C)
War Horse (Rating: C-)
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Rating: B)
These are reprints of my reviews from Toronto:
Shame (Rating: B+)
Sleeping Beauty (Rating: C+)
Arthur Christmas (Rating: B+)
The Artist (Rating: A-)
Hugo (Rating: B-)
The Muppets (Rating: A-)
The Descendants (Rating: A-)
Immortals (Rating: C)
Into the Abyss (Rating: D-)
The Lie (Rating: B+)
Melancholia (Rating: B+)
The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (Rating: C-)
Tower Heist (Rating: B-)
A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (Rating: A-)