I Am Not Your Negro, a new documentary about the writer James Baldwin, is an example of sympathetic magic. More precisely, it’s an attempt at sympathetic magic. As explained by Sir James Frazier in his classic The Golden Bough, sympathetic magic is the effort to absorb the attributes of something by contact. To gain the power of your enemy, you eat his heart. While the film’s subject is James Baldwin (1924-1987), it tries to give moral virtue to the modern Black Lives Matter movement by shoehorning footage of recent protests over police brutality with vintage footage of the New York novelist,…
In his great movies and Schindler’s List (1993) and Lincoln (2012), Steven Spielberg provided a good model for adapting tragic historic drama to celluloid. Instead of taking a sprawling subject like the Holocaust or the Civil War and trying to capture all of it, you narrowcast. Take one relatively small patch of time, such as Lincoln’s attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, or a few years in the life of World War II hero Oskar Schindler, and focus on that. It sharpens the plot and suspense and intensifies the performance of the actors.
Horror movies don’t get the respect of dramas, comedies, or even superhero movies, but in some ways they are the most daring kind of storytelling. Unlike romantic comedies or action movies, horror films are allowed to be unpredictable. Characters we’ve come to like bite the dust. Everybody knows that Spider-Man is not going to go down but in The Exorcist (1973), the leading character, a priest, does. In Drag Me to Hell (2009), a young woman who was heartless to a poor old woman gets sucked into the netherworld by demons. In Sinister (2012), one of my favorites, a writer played by Ethan Hawke realizes too late that his fascination with watching grisly movies he found in the attic of a new home is letting a sinister force into his house. That sort of thing won’t happen to Captain America.
Is it possible for a film’s musical score to undermine the film it supposedly serves? In the case of The Founder, the answer is yes.
The Founder stars Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc, the Chicagoan who took a small hamburger stop called McDonald’s and turned it into a billion-dollar global brand. The film depicts Kroc as an unstoppable force of nature but also a ruthless and dishonest businessman. Keaton’s portrayal is fantastic, his character at once a spry, hyper-focused visionary and a heartless SOB.
It’s just a formality, really. Very easy to do. Easier than walking.
These are the quiet solicitations of the Inquisitor, a character in Martin Scorsese’s new drama Silence. The Inquisitor, played by Issey Ogata, is in charge of persecuting Christians in 17th century Japan. Japan’s Edict of Expulsion of 1614 attempted to eradicate Christianity from its islands. The Inquisitor tortures and kills Christians, but also cajoles with cold ruthlessness. Presenting believers with a plaque with either Jesus or Mary on it, he places it on the ground and tells them: step on it to renounce your faith. It’s a very simple motion, he says. Just one step. Nothing to it.
Jackie, which tells the story of Jacqueline Kennedy and the immediate aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, is a moving and socially important film. It’s about grief, but also about how a pliant press allowed a grieving widow to create a powerful myth that was related to reality, but only tenuously. It’s about the media willingly succumbing to manipulation.
Arrival is a near-flawless film. Although billed as a science fiction movie, it is a deeply spiritual and humanistic meditation on life, death, love, and time.
Get ready to hear a lot about a new film called Moonlight. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (2008’s Medicine for Melancholy), it is a beautifully directed and brilliantly acted portrait of a boy struggling to find his identity in a milieu of poverty, violence, and drugs. The reviews have been rapturous: a “masterpiece”; “even better than you’ve heard”; a “gem,” and “one of the best films of the year.”
The Birth of a Nation has been called a classic revenge movie—Braveheart set in antebellum America—and it’s a largely accurate assessment. This is a biopic of Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in 1831 of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia, that resulted in the deaths of some 55 to 65 white people. In retaliation, white militias and mobs killed more than 200 black people before hanging Turner.
Something crucial has been left out of that assessment, though.
The Light Between Oceans is fascinating and even important film. Directed by Derek Cianfrance and based on the novel by M.L. Stedman, it’s a gorgeous if overly long examination of mercy, passion, and the slow working of the conscience.