1917

For me, 1917 made two big mistakes right at the start, from which it would never be able to recover. 

The first even before the start, the initial idea: a movie following two lance corporals on a one-shot styled overnight mission during the First World War. The main characters enlisted men who really look about 21? Love it, this is an excellent choice, this was a war of baby boys who only sparingly interacted with the there-and-gone officers on their sparrow-quick lives before they flew off or were shot down.

So the young lowly soldiers are good, relatively unknown actors playing them: good. But. A continuous take is chosen to generate tension through its restless, ever-hovering movement, this sense of always pressing on. This is so suited for a mission movie. But a mission movie is so not suited for World War I. This was a war literally entrenched. You went off to the Front, and proceeded to cower in a sopping ditch under shell fire until you either went mad or were blown up like the corpse-pocketed mud around you. This is a war known most for its endless bitter attrition, for its futile meaninglessness. Why were they fighting? No one knew. No resources were sought to be gained, no ideology opposed. You sat helpless and inactive in a trench as horror whined overhead, until you were told to go over the top and die. In the mental hospitals the wards were filled with men and officers paralyzed with psychosomatic limps and stammers, crushed by this sensation that they could not speak, they could not act. The lines held as the years dragged on and hope stagnated. In this war where if the bullets or the gas didn’t kill you the waiting would, there was no movement at all. And that is my problem with the very premise of this movie. A tracking shot heroic mission over enemy lines is a war movie idea pasted onto the one 20th-century European war where it makes no sense emotionally or historically. Why did you do this thing!

I’m frustrated and disappointed that this is what this movie was, because it would seem the filmmakers decided that depicting something more aligned with the reality of this disaster would not have been ~cinematic~ enough, a choice I feel both limited and dishonest. They clearly thought they had to come up with a way to generate action, get their leads out of the trenches, and this mission to reach another battalion would do the trick. So what they did is create WWI: The Video Game, and we just track along behind these two figures from set-piece adventure to set-piece adventure. An explosion, a plane crash, a side plot with a girl and a baby where you can conveniently use the object you’d picked up earlier, jumping into a rushing river and over a waterfall—“like an Indiana Jones adventure movie,” one of my friends described it later. Boo. Booo, I don’t like it! Instead of making a movie about World War I, they’ve just used it as an aesthetic backdrop for a simple rousing save-the-day story thematically disconnected from what was a long senseless bloody mess.

The thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. I know it, because I saw it, within this very same movie. This was 1917’s second irrecoverable mistake! To show me a glimpse of what I could have had! So early, in just the second scene, such as they are, was a sequence that felt true. First of all, it was far and away the best use of the tracking shot effect, both one of the most obviously technically impressive feats of camerawork in this, AND, actually aligned with the meaning of what was being shown! These combined to create such a powerful effect that another of my friends I was watching this with eventually just exclaimed softly next to me, overwhelmed at the sight we’d been watching: two young men weaving through the warren of a large British trench system on the Western Front in 1917. A continuous take here was in service to the story, its length capturing the incredible labyrinthian extent of these trenches full of doomed, muddy men, and its faintly dizzying, tiring movement conveying the grim surreality of this environment. We follow them until at last our corporals find not the person they were after, but the one who’s all they’ve got now. He’s all we’ll get, too. For this was when this movie made the enormous mistake, massive, of letting Andrew Scott play a WWI lieutenant. 

He made his eyes look glassy. I don’t even know how you do that, but those too bright, too slack eyes are the first thing that hits you when he swings his head up with a movement like a hinge. You know as soon as you look at him: this is someone who has been down here for too long. His captain is dead, he informs us bluntly. The lower British COs fell so quickly in this war. They would go over the top first with their men and be cut down immediately by the guns, and there is also the macabre historical curiosity that the officers, pulled from England’s better-fed upper classes, were on average considerably taller than the enlisted men, and the German snipers learned to pick them out. Andrew Scott’s lieutenant is slight, wearing a beanie and a jacket not fully buttoned—he is camouflaged, and surviving. Frankly this could absolutely be why he has made it as long as he has. Because it is so apparent that he’s been lasting, and his longevity has come at a cost. It’s in those thousand-yard-staring eyes, his abruptness that also still rambles, this faintly dissociative gone-ness that permeates all of his performance. He is, distinctly, the only character in this movie with a sense of humor, a perfectly toned pitch-black haunted whimsey of exactly the type of the British soldiers who printed The Wipers Times. He blesses the corporals with a splash of whatever is in his flask crossed over their packs, and then drinks the rest as he bids them a bleak Godspeed on their suicide run, and then this phantom of the war is gone.

The problem is that Andrew Scott is so fucking good, that everything else fell apart around him, leaving him standing alone on the broken ground of the First World War movie that could have been.

You know it’s interesting to compare 1917 to Dunkirk, another recent expensively produced, beautifully shot British film about a world war with a large cast of both un- and very-knowns, and a conceptual approach to the way time is presented. But I think that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Chris Nolan, who has built his entire career on ticking clocks, had a more meaningful and cohesive thought working throughout his film about the relationship between time and an individual’s experience of war. When 1917 begins and the corporals are told they have to reach the other trenches by dawn of the next day, when the attack is scheduled, I realized that Sam Mendes wasn’t going to follow the unity of time implied by a single take. And sure enough, he doesn’t: at one point our point-of-view character is knocked out, and wakes up in the dark maybe eight hours later in a sticky pool of blood that has oozed from the back of his head. In fact, this transition marks the beginning of such a divergence from physical reality (contrasted to the much more realist style of the beginning of the movie—and much more affecting, if my and the rest of the audience’s reactions are any indication—where things like barbed wire and decomposing bodies felt horribly real) that I briefly wondered if we were to understand that he had died, or was dying, and all the rest of the movie was taking place in his head. However, the ending would not seem to support this.

What maybe would though is that the first thing our young soldier sees when he improbably scrambles to his feet, is the most otherworldly sight in the movie. Roger Deakins will win the Oscar for cinematography for the night sequence in the bombed out town lit only by slow white flares arcing overhead and a burning church in the middle, because it is one of the most gorgeous and striking visuals committed to film this past year. The stark sliding quality of the light reminded me immediately of the stunning Valkyrie & Hela scenes in Thor: Ragnarok, which is a compliment to 1917. And this means that once again, film will be honored for making the atrocity of war look beautiful. I wish so much that this one had been thoughtful enough for me to feel there was much to it beyond that.

★★½

A Hidden Life

I do not wish for the long holy poem A Hidden Life to have been kept out of reach of so many theaters, but it does mean that for me, I had to go out and meet it. I drove 45 miles outside of the city to a town I’d never seen, in order to have an experience. Because even if it had been playing just down the street, you have to go to A Hidden Life. You have to say, I have come to be here, and I will be for three hours of noble, shattering beauty. I have come to be dragged over the stones and the mountains. I have come to be here for three years. For three years I will stand swaying in the grass, and witness. I have come here, to hear a song that has been playing for three hundred years, and you can only hear it in bells, in cow bells and bells on woolly sheep and above churches for saints’ days. I have come to see a canonization, and I know that these things hurt. I have come to be here.

Franz Jägerstätter was a man with a hidden life, which has been made into a hidden film. He was a faithful farmer from a village in the Austrian Alps, and he would not swear loyalty to Adolf Hitler. He was jailed for conscientious objection to the war and its leader, and he was executed in 1943. He has been beatified twice, in 2007 by Pope Benedict XVI, and in 2019 by Harvard- and Oxford-educated philosophy scholar turned meditative American filmmaker Terrence Malick.

A Hidden Life is about resistance, faith in God, and the strength needed to endure both. The evil that Franz objects to is actually rendered as more of an abstract concept of ‘war’ in general, perhaps oddly removed from the antisemitic specificity of the Third Reich. Hitler is shown on archival footage and mentioned specifically by name at several and key points, Heils are thrown, but in the three hours of this movie, Jews are never once mentioned. In fact, based on what we see of his life, Franz doesn’t even know that the Holocaust is taking place. We watch some undistinguished grainy black & white footage of battle alongside Franz at the military training camp he attends early on in the movie, and later he says that he believes the countries they are fighting did nothing wrong, that they are killing innocents. The mayor of Franz’s little town shouts transposition-ready xenophobic views about immigrants coming in to take their jobs, but nothing more precise. Concentration camps are mentioned once, but only as a possible fate for any priests who would publicly oppose the Führer.

It is probably a testament to how little seen A Hidden Life has been that I haven’t witnessed any discussion about the appropriateness of making a WWII movie about Christian martyrdom. But I think it’s possible, I think I do believe, that Franz’s moral resolve to oppose fascism so deeply and urgently, even in obscurity, is such a powerful and challenging thing to watch, that the value of this story overrides some oddness with the context in which it is situated. We feel with him the weight of his choice, as he gradually lifts it and takes it upon his shoulders, carries it through prisons and courts, even when they attempt to wrest it from him by cruelty and by force. You cannot help but confront whether you would have the conviction of soul to do what he does, to do what is good even when it will make no difference, as Franz is repeatedly reminded by others. That his sacrifice won’t stop the war. That all it will do in the only future he can know certainly, is leave his beloved family in misery and hardship. This movie makes you question why it is we actually do what is right. What does it matter versus what does it mean. I wrestled with this in my heart the entire time. I still am.

And Malick, damn him, makes the desire to simply stay alive so compelling, when Franz’s life before he is called up to the war is depicted with some of the most beautiful filmmaking I have ever seen. Their farm in the mountains is breathtaking, so green, soaring grey peaks, up above the wisps of clouds. Every scene there is a new adorable farm animal—a sweet brown cow, a furry donkey, a gaggle of ducks. Three little girls scramble over the fresh slopes like little mountain goats in their sweaters and boots. And Franz and his willowy wife Fani are deeply, completely in love. They both behave like they could press their heart into the other by clutching them close, frequently overcome by the need to just wrap each other in their arms under the open sky. There is such lyrical movement in this film—harmonious limbs working at tasks, hair blowing in Alpine winds, a bicycle messenger winding down a green path. The edit too is so fluid, long but dancerly. The story progresses chronologically but there’s often these little moments in conversations that are slightly ajar in time, a beat of a look on someone’s face that must be from just a bit earlier, or later, or just within. A lot of what is spoken is in voice-over, a Malick hallmark. Those parts are always in English. But sometimes, characters speak in the actors’ own German, particularly in scenes of casually chattering background talk, or shouting. This is never translated for the English-speaking audience, it just becomes part of the score, which could break your heart with its classical wind-blown beauty.

Mine did. Franz’s execution was laced with a faintly surreal fright and bracketed by sudden tenderness, that together cracked me in two. I broke down crying, tears falling down my cheeks as my chest was wracked with sobs I desperately kept silent in the dark of this theater I’d traveled to, like it was some sort of rite, that I must try, try not to make a sound. I don’t know why. It felt, in the moment, so important. I tried to hold so still.

★★★★★

Honeyland

I find documentaries like Honeyland difficult to really engage with. I can just never shake the macro view I’m always seeing in my head—that these people living in such remote poverty are doing so with people with film equipment watching them. It’s not that I think there’s an ethical or moral problem with this, the contrary: I think documentaries like Honeyland are important and valuable for the empathy they can inspire in people so far removed from this reality. That documenting these lives is itself an act of empathy.

What I find odd, in a contemporary documentary, is when the documentarians are never addressed (unlike the ones where the process of documenting is itself part of the document). Weirdly, presenting these stories as if pure, as if we’re just magically happening to witness it, unadulterated by the presence of storytellers with cameras, makes everything they show feel less real to me. I just constantly think about the practicalities of it. How did you get that shot from a distance, I’ll wonder, when it’s a continuation of the moment we were just in? Did you have to re-stage it? What sort of cajoling was necessary for this nomadic cattle farming family to agree to be filmed and pretend not to notice, when they, seemingly spontaneously and without plan, roll in to the abandoned village? Is it really true that this destitute, nearly hermit-like wild beekeeper was just already wearing a shirt in an unusual rich saffron-yellow, a color matched to the hues of her honey and beeswax? Did anyone help her dig that grave in the frozen ground. What was your thought process before your cameras followed her out into the night with a torch to chase off the wolves howling in the blackness.

I spend a lot of time thinking these questions, and it keeps me at a distance from the story the movie is actually trying to tell. And in this case, I also found the story itself difficult, due to being so bleak! Hatidze and her bees are betrayed and mistreated by this other family, and it hurts to watch. They are also quite cruel to their animals, and that was just as hard for me to get through as their interpersonal and ecological carelessness.

But, I am glad that I did. There was something rewarding in the completion of it.

★★½

Apollo 11

This was playing at my favorite farm-to-table movie theater on the lake for ages and I didn’t go see it and I cannot believe I did that to myself. Granted, if I had seen it on a big screen with surround sound I might have fully broke down, and I wouldn’t want Jordan to have to do something about this woman on the floor. As is, I cried four times, breathed a stunned “Oh my god” at twice as many moments, and spent maybe a quarter of the runtime with my knuckles pressed to my open mouth. By the end of it I had to consciously try to relax the muscles in my forehead from where they’d kept my eyebrows steepled in dazzled wonder for so long.

What is this that so emotionally tackled me? Just a very straightforward documentary of the moon landing! But I think it’s in the straightforwardness that it gets so much of its power. Apollo 11 is almost radically chronological and unadorned, zero modern framing or talking heads, composed entirely of period footage & audio from July 1969, only occasionally supplemented with very, very simple moving diagrams of the rocket’s trajectory in space. These are always black with thin white lines and the barest of labels, if any. What text appears on screen, to name people and places or check in on a countdown to an event, is invariably white, regardless of what it is superimposed on, in a san-serif font as small and lightweight as an aesthetic blog. This is something I am sure was optimized for big movie theater screens, but even though I could only read it half the time, I loved the choice. It was so minimal and unobtrusive and clean, befitting the calm, steady progression of the edit.

Every choice the filmmakers made works to create something that is almost serenely uncluttered, allowing the astonishing footage to just glow across time and outer-space, as we listen to NASA and the three astronauts talk to each other. They are scientists—what they say is frequently remarkably composed and orderly (the aesthetic again! befitting of the content!), with those occasional moments of strange, heart-clenching poetry that have since become famous. Neil Armstrong dubbing the spot on the Moon where they landed safely Tranquility Base. Aldrin’s line from the lunar surface describing its “Magnificent desolation.” A scientist quietly naming in a flow of directions to these travelers, “Mother Earth.”

This movie is a lesson in how great the impact can be of showing instead of telling. We don’t need to be told that they did all this without modern computing power, because we see the rows and rows and rows of men at desks in Houston. And we don’t need to be told that those men were indeed mostly men on the whole, mostly white, because again, there they are. We don’t need an historian or social scholar to explain to us the political importance of this mission, we can simply drop in on a news program on the radio taking a break from the Americans up in space to mention the Vietnam War still waging on that week, Senator Ted Kennedy’s vehicular homicide on Chappaquiddick… We don’t need to be told of Apollo 11’s mixed mission of discovery and propaganda, we hear it in the tone of President Kennedy’s call to space from the Oval Office, and his speech to the world after.

And we don’t need to be told that what that team achieved was, in every sense of the word, world-changing. Through the cerebral yet immediate way these events are composed onscreen, we experience ourselves the beauty of calculations so rigorously checked that the commands being executed feel like magic—as well as that freezing danger right before they go through, where it seems perhaps this gossamer thread of safety will at last snap and the astronauts be swallowed up. We feel a sense of the continuity of human exploration stretching back through the many types of ships we’ve sailed to new places, simply through nautical miles being called out to mark how many hundreds of thousands of them the astronauts are from their home port. And we feel the worry and hope and wonder of all the people gathered on the beaches, eyes trained up on the sky, just as we watch it play out again today.

★★★★

The Souvenir

Contains spoilers for pretty much every plot point

There is a lot here that reminds me of Donna Tartt’s interests. Young rich people (and their rich parents), who are either artists or vaguely “work for the Foreign Office”, codependency, hard drugs, classical music, social mores, True Art vs. Fake Art, terrorism as back-drop, miserable conversations in restaurants, OD’ing in an art gallery bathroom, overcoats—all rendered through a film grainy gauze of memory and emotions. But based on the universally poor reception of John Crowley’s The Goldfinch versus yes a mixed response to The Souvenir, but one where I’ve seen it land in top ten lists of at least six critics off the top of my head, Joanna Hogg seems to have more successfully conveyed these themes as worthwhile subjects. Or just more artistically likable in general.

Perhaps it helps that in Hogg’s The Souvenir we are actually in London, instead of Tartt’s merely spiritually anglophilic settings. What I suspect has even more of an impact though is that Hogg has been perfectly clear that this story is indeed about herself, the main character a young film student with even her same initials. It took Emily and I a little while to figure out when this takes place because they’re all posh artsy people so you can’t reliably go off their clothes and decor, but eventually we determined it was the 1980s, when Hogg was also in film school. Later I read that the flat was a replica of the one she lived in at the time, and the city views outside the windows are 35mm projections of photographs she took of London during that period. I love that, are you kidding.

I’m going to finally watch Archipelago and see if this holds, but I suspect that a big part of why I like Joanna Hogg is that half of the things she does blindside me, and the other half are exactly what I would have done, and both are a thrill. Probably my best call was when quite early on, soon after we’d seen Anthony’s arm and I’d clocked his track marks, I said, “oh no, he’s going to get some disease and pass it to her,” and then later—! I was also certain Anthony was dead in the scene where Julie and her mom decide to go to bed before he comes home. It had become unfortunately clear Julie was never going to leave her abusive first love on her own, so if we don’t want them together at the end (and we don’t, because only by spreading her wings without him can she can become A Full Artist), he was going to have to take this on himself and just leave this whole mortal coil. No taking him back now! Also: more trauma 4 for the Art.

Tilda Swinton, by the way, is so good in this. Her Hermes scarf, her lipstick. When she’s standing there without any of those things on and the belt on her dress is lopsided, and if you hadn’t already heard the telephone ringing while Julie’s note on the door flapped in the wind, you’d know just from her appearance what has happened. And how all she says in answer to Julie’s look is simply: “The worst.” Incredible.

I love this movie because of stuff like that. I love a stylish English mood picture where no one ever raises their voice and yet everything they say is outrageous, until it’s just me that’s screaming, quietly into my hands. I love stunt casting, here with Tilda playing the mother of her own daughter, the also very good Honor Swinton Byrne, with something of that Greta Gerwig in Frances Ha thing, all bright-eyed, shuffle-footed artistic earnestness and bad young-hearted decisions. I loved those big shelves around the window in that apartment. I loved Anthony’s floor length coat he wears indoors like a robe, with all the gold buttons running down—“Buttons” I called the coat, affectionately. Anthony himself though, the worst! A deliciously insufferable performance from this odd man beamed in from 1957.

None of the casting prepared me though for sudden Richard Ayoade. His familiar face strangely disorienting without his glasses, his Artíste dickery, his hilarious delivery of “…tesselate”—a gem in this necklace. Also very into that mystifying scene where Julie in her pink silk pajamas follows a trail of paper arrows on the floor of their flat to the window and as she peers out of it the block is rocked by an IRA bomb. That Anthony listens to booming dark stressful classical music and opera, and Julie and her mom listen to charmingly elegant frayed old Glenn Miller tracks. How there are two separate scenes where baby director Julie walks back onto set from where she was taking a phone call out in the hall, and then some PA boy has to trot over to close the door behind her. And then in the very last scene when that huge sliding door of the soundstage rolls open for her (pity that PA), and we see the landscape beyond it, and it’s the landscape that’s been serving as a backdrop to the poetry interludes(!)

I did not like any of the characters in this movie, but strangely it didn’t matter. I enjoyed watching them. They were aggravating, but they lived, and we don’t always live well in our lives. This movie is long, it meanders, but that creates plenty enough time and space to have moments where you feel your feelings shift. It is one of those slices of life that does feel like living, with the same gradual sea changes and sick undertows and murky things under the surface that may only glancingly break the water.

Mostly though it is two slow hours of lovely static shots of buttoned up posh British people you are yelling at to just break uppp. I had a delightful time. As Sean Baker, director of The Florida Project, put it: “I knew the second I saw the poor Rotten Tomatoes audience rating of 33 that I was going to enjoy this film. It simply means that the film isn’t mainstream audience friendly. I read a few of the reviews which were basically complaints of the film’s pace and lack of conventional plot. So I was excited. Not sure if it’ll be in my 2019 top ten but as of now it is.”

★★★★½

Little Women (2019)

I feel like I’m supposed to start my thoughts on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women by assuring you that I read book twice as a kid, which will then bolster the credibility of my opinion, whether positive or negative. But in fact, I am pretty neutral on Louisa May Alcott. Little Women was probably the first Adult Book I read when I was in elementary school, something big and old with many chapters, and I reread it a few years later to see if I got more of it as a 12-year-old than I did as an 8-year-old. I did! But overall, it didn’t make that much of an impression on me. Instead, little me was obsessed with like, Jack London. For our 5th-grade burlap embroidery project, I replicated the cover of our school library’s copy of White Fang

Are there any similarities between White Fang and Little Women (2019), you may be asking yourself, in growing confusion? There is for me! Snow. Snow figures heavily in my estimation of a work’s quality. There is such good snow in Little Women! It is not winter the whole time, but it feels like winter the whole time. It’s cozy, it’s so freaking cozy. Everyone is always wearing these cheerful woolen socks and nice fabrics and amazing jackets, and there is warm lighting and bustling, that particular cozy wintertime kind of familiar, familial movement. I found it so nice to just look at and listen to this movie, to the music of the girls’ voices weaving with Alexandre Desplat’s score. Not that the actual styles necessarily resemble each other, but the aesthetics of this movie activated the same pleasure centers in my brain that are delighted by Wes Anderson movies. Both are heightened appearances—here, the costume & production design clearly began in the 1860s, but veered off to land in this faintly fantasy realm, shaped by a modern sensibility of Character and Prettiness. I was entirely down with it. I liked how you could always tell the March sisters in a crowd by their anachronistic loose hair, how it marked them visually as different, a little out-of-time. I adored Jo wearing what looked like men’s shirts under her waistcoats, and Laurie more soft, feminine blouses under his. I loved that perfect attic.

Is this movie possibly too lovely and nice? I mean it depends on what kind of experience you want out of a film, I’d say. But as the adage goes, easy reading is damn hard writing. Making a movie this charming is just as difficult a feat as making a movie that’s stressful. They both require a strong and well-expressed directorial vision, and performances in sync with it. Speaking of which, Gerwig has a nearly perfect cast of lovables here. Timothée Chalamet as this innately dissolute & floppy sentimental rich boy is just top quality use of Chalamet. Saoirse Ronan and Laura Dern are, as ever, masterclasses, and good mother-daughter casting to boot. But the most inspired casting in this movie has got to be pairing Meryl Streep with Florence Pugh. Florence Pugh in this…I’ve loved her since Lady Macbeth, and my god, the woman’s got TALENT. Her Amy is hilarious, human, infuriating and winning. She doesn’t eclipse her costars, but oh, she shines bright.

Now, politically, this movie has gotten positioned in the cultural discourse as the only chance for female stories to be taken seriously in 2019’s film crop. And that’s a shame just on the face of it, that each year we just get the one basket for all our eggs, and also because I feel this particular movie was too light & lovely to quite bear that weight. Of course it is feminist, by definition: it is concerned with depicting women as full human beings, quite literally in the script at several moments. It’s just not the style of cinematic feminism that makes me feel excited about the directions women-led filmmaking might go in, the way this year’s Hustlers or The Farewell did, or even Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird two years ago. It’s nice, watching a period piece that states simply, by its existence and dialogue, that women are interesting—listen I had a wonderful time watching Colette—and I think more of these in the world is a good thing, far better than none of them. I just think Little Women is suffering from undue expectations that were forced on it by the nature of the film (& criticism) industry right now. Not everything has to be deep or revolutionary, and it can do a disservice to good works to try to package them that way.

Anyway, the book changes! [Those who don’t want to know anything that’s different yet, look away now!] Apparently young me only registered that Friedrich Bhaer was European and somewhat older than the rest of the characters, and as Louis Garrel is French and looks older than Timothée Chalamet (I mean who doesn’t), I had not seen his casting as a shift. Turns out, Friedrich was decidedly not an attractive figure in the novel, and Garrel is, and listen, I take no issue with it. Because, and this is getting to another meaningful change, if you’re going to do an elegant choose-your-own-interpretive-adventure kind of ending (which I think is the kindest choice for an adaptation of beloved book), then you might as well let the ending where Jo still marries the professor be an ending where the professor is a certified dish. Alternatively, Jo gets to be genderqueer ace representation, which rules.

★★½

Uncut Gems

Spoilers immediately!

When that heavy abruptly shot Howie in the head the whole theater gasped, and I felt a wash of relief. “Was that actually the happy ending?” one of my friends asked as we walked away from the theater, and “oh it absolutely was,” I responded. Howie dies at probably the highest he’s ever felt, abuzz with victory and possibility—and before he can proceed to fuck this up too, as he has fucked up everything this whole movie and seemingly his whole life. It’s actually the nicest thing the movie can do for him, and the nicest thing it can do for us, who can finally, finally breathe, now that Howie will at last be quiet for one goddamn blessed minute. Is that dark? Sure. So is Uncut Gems.

Mostly it is cacophonous. When I imagine the script I picture it criss-crossed with text like those old 19th-century letters where they were trying to save paper, all the lines just running over each other and at cross purposes. I’d say the characters’ volume keeps going up and up as they fight for verbal dominance, but honestly I think Adam Sandler just yells ceaselesly for the entire runtime. Perhaps not in a few of his scenes with Idina Menzel, probably because he knows he’ll never win that way with her.

Incidentally, Great Actor Adam Sandler is back, but Idina Menzel is TERRIFIC in this. She is distinct and sharp and so, so funny. I’m a little obsessed with it actually, how this movie let both of its female leads be, it could be argued, the funniest characters in this black comedy. It would have been so easy, traditional, for Menzel and Julia Fox to simply be the combative no-fun wife and the emotional bimbo mistress, each a different kind of albatross that the male lead is supposed to shake off. But Howie’s soon-to-be-ex wife Dinah is a highlight every time she’s on screen, and Julia (yes same name) is actually the only one who gets character development and an arc. In a welcome surprise, Julia absolutely OWNS the driving final act, starting with her hilariously crying along with Howie and showing him her new tattoo, up until she’s slipping off that very tan rich man and into a limo, with her two big bags of cash. I hope to god that her and Dinah just split the money—Howie’s survivors.

So Uncut Gems actually treated its mistreated women pretty well, treated them as real characters, which I appreciate. It was also entirely unafraid to dive into issues of race and economics, which I appreciated as well. And they hired basketball star Kevin Garnett to play a fictionalized version of himself, for a far larger role than a simple cameo. He was a full-on supporting character, and he nailed it! He was out there really acting, and doing a totally good job! Watching someone love something is one of the best ways to make us love that character—if you can pull it off, and that’s the if. But Kevin Garnett’s weird love for that hunk of opal was palpable, and now I love him.

Anyway, this is a movie that is deliberately exhausting and unpleasant and chaotic and harsh, but as mentioned, with a happy ending. That the happy ending is the main character getting shot in his jewelry store feels rather peak Safdies, but here we are (New York City).

★★★½

Peterloo

Peterloo is very like one of those particularly good lectures that people who aren’t even in your history class make a point of dropping in to hear. It is composed almost exclusively of long speeches, bracketed by more Socratic style conversations. Mike Leigh lays out this world of 1819 England carefully, in thorough detail, mostly through words, with the occasional visual aid—a set composed like a painting—displayed behind. You know how the class will end: it ends with the Peterloo Massacre, when law enforcement officers on horseback ran into a crowd of peaceful working class protesters at St. Peter’s Field in Manchester, swords drawn. As you near that end, because you’re nearing that end, you find yourself gripped. A sword is poised over the entire lecture hall, as Professor Leigh gets closer, and closer. And when he gets there, with a shock, he suddenly switches mediums. It’s still film, in the movie, but the scene of the massacre lands like a lecturer pausing, and beginning to play an old song, unaccompanied and powerful. No more talk, just a kind of harrowing music, in the screaming of people and horses.

There were two moments where I said something aloud while watching Peterloo. One was about halfway through, when I announced “Break time!” This movie is two and a half hours long, and it feels it. But if you stream it (on Amazon Prime in the U.S., who bought this class warfare movie for distribution, bizarrely), there is a scene where three men on fiddles play a little tune by a stream, overheard by two women who are walking through the grass and stop to listen appreciatively. This little interlude occurs about an hour and fifteen in, and is the perfect signal for you to take a breather.

The second time I said something was to announce in quiet, mountingly desperate surprise: “I feel like I’m going to go out of my mind.” This was in the latter half, as the protest drew near. The first half of Peterloo is slow and boring, in the ways people who do not enjoy the early Star Trek series find those shows slow and boring, wondering how long these moving but yes somewhat broad characters are going to be standing around discussing matters of justice within a faintly alien social system. The content does not change in the second half, not until the final fifteen minutes, but the tension and doom began to build hot in my blood.

Peterloo can seem like a very staid sort of movie, a straight costume piece about a particular period of history, rigorously un-romanticized. But my god this movie can get you really worked up. At one point, watching these early 19th-century English working people speak so urgently about not being represented in their country’s government, I was suddenly swept anew with frustration over my own country’s gerrymandering, the electoral college, the fucking senate system, and I got so mad for a second I couldn’t see straight. It’s been 200 years since 1819! 200 years and we STILL don’t have a true representational democracy! We are still held in the grip of greedy landowners, who really believe they’re doing their employees a favor by paying them with the money they’ve produced through their labor! And we still have militarized police violently putting down those who try to do anything about it. Fuck.

Peterloo brings a new meaning to the term slow burn. ‘Slowly incendiary’, maybe. This is great filmmaking. This is that history lecture you don’t want to miss.

★★★★