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Monday, March 21, 2016

How Goes It, Trevor Noah?



            Alright!  I think it’s about time we checked in on The Daily Show.    

            Hard to believe it was only last August when Jon hung up the suit for good, and barely 6 months ago when the show started up again with Trevor Noah at the helm.  And almost right away, he made his presence felt, at least on a surface level.  Gone are the chains binding the host to the studio desk- now Trevor does most of his opening monologues standing in front of a full-screen backdrop.  We have a new opening sequence with a hip-hop riff on the old music, and a slew of new correspondents as well.  I would be lying if I said I didn’t get whiplash the first time I saw most of this, but showbiz, as with life, means change, so I’ve gotten used to them. 

            One of the big billings of Trevor as the new host was that his South African-immigrant background would give him leeway to make the show and the humor more international, and so far he has certainly delivered in that regard- an early bit comparing Donald Trump to several notable African “Presidents for Life,” the sort of thing most introverted Americans would never think of, was particularly inspired.  Plus, I think this current crop of correspondents is the most ethnically mixed group we’ve ever had.  Roy Wood Jr. and Jordan Klepper have great chemistry in all of their sketches, Jessica Williams is as amazing as always, and I’ve also developed a strong fondness for Ronny Chieng and his weird-ass daddy issues. 

            So lots of new faces, many of them non-white, and more of an outsider’s perspective brought to bear on our daily news.  All things late-night TV certainly needed.  But has it all been positive? 

            Sadly, not always.  As much as we have had to get used to someone other than Trevor Noah at the helm (and I haven’t been easy on him just because we share a name), he’s clearly had just as tricky a time of it getting used to the role himself.  While he has started to find a better groove as time has gone on, there were plenty of rocky moments those first few months, with some jokes falling flat, or his slower, more measured delivery just not fitting with the kind of humor he was going for.  A lot of people noted this, but I think some have been too quick to complain that the show was already going under.  Every new host of a show needs to find their feet, and that takes time.  He’s certainly gotten more confident as time has gone on, especially since the ongoing insanity of the Presidential race allowed him to perfect a Ben Carson impersonation on par with any of Jon Stewart’s best voices. 

            What I do miss terribly is War for the Ages that took place between Jon and Fox News, perhaps the greatest Moby Dick-esque media tale of our time.  As much as those confrontations took a toll on Jon over the years, his spats with one of the titan conservative institutions currently existing is easily one of the most entertaining, fascinating and, arguably, necessary pop culture events of our still-young 21st-century.  While The Daily Show rightfully targeted all major news networks for the various flavors of bullshit they regularly dredge up in the name of keeping themselves afloat, the degree of hostile partisanship mixed with an almost pathological spreading of misinformation about any topic you care to name has always stood out on Fox, which meant it rightly deserved the many, many bright lights Jon tried his best to shine on it over the past decade-and-a-half he did the show. 

            Obviously, Fox News hasn’t disappeared from The Daily Show- the network is way too big for a show focusing on contemporary news to avoid- but it certainly hasn’t gotten its own focused segments the way it used to.  Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, and co. aren’t as explicitly called out as much as they used to be.  Given how often and how harshly Fox would respond in turn whenever Stewart targeted them- and his responses in kind were often some of the best parts of any episode- it made their back-and-forth something wholly unique and special, and I think it was clear that it could never be duplicated once Stewart left.  It’s quite possible that Trevor and the writers consciously chose to not try to recreate that aspect of Jon’s style, and the decision was probably a wise one, instead focusing on what Trevor could do to make the show his own. 

            That doesn’t make it any less of a shame though, because the spread of destructive, paranoid, right-wing bullshit on Fox continues unabated and is a key aspect of why the Trump phenomenon has played out the way it has and continues to push forward unchecked through the primary season.  Because of this, the announcement of Jon’s departure was no doubt met by the staff at Fox with unbridled glee.  I get Trevor wanting to make the show his own, and I very much believe he will succeed in doing just that, but this is one part of the Stewart years I wish could keep on going. 

            This ties in to the big question everyone has been asking each other for over a year now- can Jon Stewart every truly be replaced?  While only time will tell what sort of reach and influence Trevor will have, I think that, sadly, the answer is already a very clear no.  Not because of any lack of talent on Trevor’s part, of course- he is his own comedian, and a fine one at that.  The simple fact of the matter is that, because Jon Stewart was such a unique comedic and TV talent, and because the length of his run allowed so many of us to literally grow into adulthood with his voice in our heads and his guidance helping us learn how to think and question and call out bullshit, there was never anything that could come remotely close to replacing that once it was gone.  And it was always bound to end, like all things. 

            This doesn’t make the new Daily Show any less good.  I still tune in every week, and for the most part I have been extremely happy with how things have gone since the change.  But Stewart’s absence will continue to be felt for a long time, by myself and many others.  Just remember to not take that personally, Trevor.  As long as you stand on our side in the War against Bullshit, we’re with you. 


-Noah Franc 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Review: Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar! (2016): Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.  Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum.  Running Time: 116 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4


            It’s been a few years since the Coen Brothers last graced the big screen with their directorial presence, but at long last they’re back, and in typical fashion; their new film, a broad comedic riff on Golden-Era Hollywood called Hail, Caesar! is a complete tonal and thematic 180 from their last work, the subtle, masterfully heartbreaking Inside Llewyn Davis.  It’s also (and this too is typical for them) much more multi-layered, oddball, and complicated than what you might think you’re getting based on the trailers, or at least appears to be upon first viewing.  The question of whether or not the movie does in fact contain a deeper, more nuanced examination of classic Hollywood than some think is a question I can’t answer until I’ve seen it at least once more and mulled it over at least twice more, but it is still superbly well-acted, broadly funny, and packed with enough stylistic Easter eggs for fans of classic cinema to pick out that I can wholeheartedly recommend it, and consider it one of the best and most interesting February (USA)/March (Germany) releases we’ve had in years. 

            Our main character is Eddie Mannix, played to a T by the always-dependable Josh Brolin, Head of Physical Production at Capital Pictures.  And when I say “physical,” I mean it- he’s basically the studio bulldog, roaming around Hollywood at literally all hours of the night and day and directly intervening in each and every crisis that comes along concerning the studio’s big stars (remember, these were the days when there was some meaning to actors at least pretending to live as paragons of moral Christian virtue).  In our opening scene, he breaks up a naughty, 3 a.m. photoshoot involving one of the up-and-coming lady actresses, slaps her around until she agrees to go quietly, the police shrug it all off, and we are officially off to the glittering, gilded races. 

            This particular several-days-in-the-life-of-Mannix features four main plotlines, all running parallel to each other.  The one getting biggest billing in the film’s marketing involves George Clooney’s Baird Whitlock, one of the longtime studio heavyweights and set to star in a Ben Hur-esque prestige picture called, what else, Hail, Caesar!  After a round of filming, he is drugged and kidnapped by two of the extras (one of whom, to my delight, is played by Vork from The Guild) and whisked off to a beach house in Malibu by a strange group of older men calling themselves “The Future.”  That, however, is just one part of a whole.  We also have side plots featuring Scarlett Johansson as a divorced starlet whose soon-to-show pregnancy threatens the family-oriented studio with a potential image crisis, frustrated top-down efforts to change the public image of Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), traditionally a Western mainstay, by inserting him into a classic British stage drama and setting him up with another of the studio’s big-name actresses, and the behind-the-scenes antics of dancing superstar Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), who is a lot more than the simple performer he first appears to be. 

            This might sound like a lot to pack into a sub-two hour movie, and it is, but all that debatably ends up being little more than window dressing.  The largest bulk of the film’s running time consist of extended homages to the various genre big-scale genre productions and musical tropes that Golden Era Hollywood made famous, from shoot-em-up, stunt-heavy Westerns, to stuffily costumed ballroom dramas, to crass overt religious prestige flicks, to painstakingly choreographed (and wholly tangential) tap-dance numbers in bar rooms, and much, much more.  For all their claims to abhor researching for their films, the dedication to recreating so much of the old school studio system in look and feel is, all on its own, worth the price of admission for any classics fan.  I imagine one could make an extensive board game out of identifying all the films and figures referenced here (Mannix himself is based on actual historical person of the same name). 

            That said, despite the technical and physical grandeur on display and the broad bawdiness of a lot of the humor, there are a world of tiny details stuck into the sides of the frame that let us deduce a slew of information about Mannix and the universe he inhabits.  Casual asides reveal a widespread assumption that the then-recent spread of TV will kill the film industry before too long, and there is a wealth of commentary on the history of gender roles in film production to be found in a side scene featuring Francis McDormand as a chain-smoking woman apparently responsible for all of each day’s grunt editing work, which she does sequestered away in a dark closet of a room (the scene also functions as the brilliant payoff to a joke set up over half an hour beforehand).  The Red Scare is ever-present, and even plays a key part in the film’s conclusion. 

            These sequences are so long and detailed that it almost seems like the “story” of the film is something of a joke, an excuse to move from one tribute film set to another, not unlike how many classic movie musicals were deliberately designed to allow for as many non-sequitur song-and-dance numbers as possible.  Unfortunately, this makes it rather difficult to parse out any connecting threads between the tissues of the film, and can easily lead one to think that the film is ultimately more than a diverting a fun ride meant to poke fun at collective studio nostalgia, albeit in a very superficial sense. 

            I think there’s more to the film than that.  What, I can’t quite say yet, since I will need to wait for the DVD release in order to see it again, but there were enough symbolic undertones I took away from the experience to wholly dismiss it.  The real-life Mannix was kind of an awful person (and may have actually killed a man), not at all the conscientious Catholic Brolin plays, but even Brolin’s portrayal seems to be a bit of a show he puts up for the world (all the world is a stage, after all).  The scenes where he breaks his cool and hits actors who step out of line (and the terror they are immediately seized with) hints at something darker in his character he might be desperate to hide (and he isn’t the only cast member with a desperately dark secret to hide).  I found a scene with his wife (a cameo role by Alison Pill) to be very telling- her bearing and words scream “I FEEL NEGLECTED AND IGNORED,” but being as caught up in the glittering endlessness of showbiz as he is, Mannix seems completely oblivious, or maybe just doesn’t care. 

            Or perhaps I imagined all that and Hail, Caesar! really is just a popcorn flick the Coens tossed out while gearing up for their next really great project.  Even if it ultimately is that though, it’s still a fun enough romp that I loved watching the movie, and found it well worth a watch for anyone missing the olden days of song-and-dance cinema. 


-Noah Franc 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Review: Where To Invade Next?

Where To Invade Next? (2014): Directed and narrated by Michael Moore, produced by Michael Moore, Carl Deal, and Tia Lessin.  Running Time: 110 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4


            I owe something of a personal debt to Michael Moore, as it’s thanks to him that I am as politically attuned as I am today.  It was his book Stupid White People and film Fahrenheit 9/11 (both of which came out right around the height of his popular fame and notoriety) that first opened my eyes to the importance of paying attention to and participating in the political system and the larger world regardless what walk of life you hail from, and of not just accepting what you’re told wholesale.  While I can certainly understand why many disagree with his stances, or find his style a bit too one-sided or too crass to do his arguments justice, there’s no doubt that the man knows how to throw his punches for maximum effect, and that the best of his films have earned their place in the pantheon of great American documentaries. 

            It’s been awhile since the heady days of the Bush administration though, and that plus the fact that he hasn’t come out with anything new in 6 years has somewhat pushed him onto the backburner of popular conversation.  Sadly, since it isn’t nearly as openly provocative as his takedown of the Bush administration, Where To Invade Next? is unlikely to change that.  Which is a shame, because Moore’s latest film is proof that his ability to challenge contemporary wisdom using sharp and timely wit remains undiminished.  That, and he can still make harsh, whiplash-inducing montages with the best of them. 

            Beginning with an imaginary meeting with the heads of all branches of the US armed forces, Michael Moore decides to undertake a mission as a one-man army to “invade” various countries around the world and “conquer” them in the name of taking their best social, economic, and political policies and bringing them back so that they can be used to better the United States.  From there he travels through Italy, Slovenia, France, Portugal, Tunisia, Germany, Finland, Norway, and Iceland, literally clad in the American flag, and the differences in happiness, productivity, and gender equality he finds will come as a true shock to many American viewers.  Indeed, one can’t help but get the same impression Michael Moore does by the end of the film that “the American dream seemed to be alive and well everywhere but America.”   

            In Italy, laws that provide Italians with lots of extra vacation time (4 weeks’ minimum, but usually a lot more) leave everyone, from shop floor workers to CEOs, feeling happy, relaxed, and always looking “like they just had sex.”  In France, school lunches are seen as a chance to teach children how to eat properly and healthy, with cheese, vegetables, and fruit provided every day, and French fries are only served twice a year.  Finland has done away with homework almost entirely (some students get stuck with about 20 minutes’ worth a night), and now has the best-rated school system in the world.  University students in Slovenia, even foreign students, pay no tuition fees, and student debt is completely unheard-of.  Portugal experienced a huge drop in drug-use and drug-related crimes after decriminalizing possession and providing better health service for those who seek treatment.  Norway’s prisons, even high-security ones, are designed to rehabilitate and not to punish.  And not only does Iceland have some of the best gender-equality practices in the world, when many of their banks took part in the shenanigans that led to economic collapse nearly a decade ago, the top executives and ill-doers were actually tried, convicted, and punished. 

            One segment I found particularly powerful takes in place in Germany, where he comments on the similarities in the histories of both countries- while Germany has worked deliberately to openly acknowledge and atone for past mistakes, specifically the Holocaust, there is just as much carnage and oppression in American history, but it has always been comparatively ignored.  After showing some memorial signs in place in Berlin to commemorate particular Nazi crimes, Moore wonders aloud what would be on similar signs put up in American cities.  His examples make for one of the best food-for-though moments in the entire film. 

            While many of his examples of American absurdity compared with more humane policies in European countries speak for themselves, there are some points that could have used more detailed elaboration.  Most critiques of policies like those he advocates are entirely cost-focused, as in, “We can’t provide all this free stuff because it would be so expensive!”  This is not the case, and there are plenty of economic arguments disproving that, but he doesn’t do too much to elaborate on how such systems could be set up on the other side of the Atlantic.  That doesn’t make him wrong, but it does mean people already convinced such ideas can’t work in the US won’t walk away convinced otherwise. 

            Despite that, this is easily one of the most thoughtful and even optimistic films Moore has ever produced.  Its style is less in-your-face than some might expect, as Moore focuses more on the people he interviews this time around, and injects himself and his oft-derided antics into the scene far less often (one brilliant exception is when he sits down for lunch with a class of young French children, providing a visual contrast worth a thousand laughs).  Its focus on gender equality and power of women to affect change is also one of the most moving and inspiring segments in a documentary I’ve seen in years- his visit to Tunisia in particular should be enough to dissuade many of the wrongheaded notion that Islamic politics is incompatible with greater rights for women (and that, in fact, the US could learn a thing or two from the Tunisian government in this regard). 

            Ultimately, Where to Invade Next? is a hopeful film about our constant and often sudden and surprising capacity for change.  The power to make a better world resides within all of us, at all times, just waiting for us to realize it’s there.  No, things won’t ever be totally perfect, and all of the countries and cultures Moore raids for ideas have their own problems and difficulties.  But that can’t be an excuse for American insularity, and we do indeed stand to gain much by looking to the rest of the world to pick the flowers, and not gather the weeds. 


-Noah Franc