Another Week: Number 36
As the cancer cliché goes, “Some days are better than others.”
On some days my wife seems more like her wonderful self, on others she withdraws into silent suffering.
Meanwhile, we watch screens.
We celebrated National Cinema Day on Sunday by purchasing two $4 tickets for Oppenheimer for a total of $12.18. Our chance to catch an IMAX showing in Milwaukee had already passed, but we chose nicely-centered Dreamlounger seats at the Marcus Rennaisance Cinema in Sturtevant.
Unfortunately, seated next to me were a pair of older women who felt free to comment on everything and anything at a volume sufficient to overcome the blasting theater sound system. I tolerated their chatter during the many advertisements and coming attractions (“That Tina Fey can play anything!”), hoping it would cease when the movie began. I even pointed at the onscreen “No talking” instruction while they criticized Greg Marcus‘s comedic talents.
Alas, their babble continued into the feature presentation (“A poisoned apple!”), so I turned into the face of the woman next to me and asked, “Are you going to talk through the entire movie?”
“No,” she replied awkwardly. But now my blood pressure — and perhaps hers as well — had been raised to a level I had not felt since quitting Twitter, and we were going to spend the next three hours elbow-to-elbow.
The movie itself races at breakneck speed and feels as if director Christopher Nolan has tried to squeeze all 700-plus pages of American Prometheus into a three-hour package. It is punctuated by numerous explosive noises that anticipate the eventual big bang, and in our showing the volume was so ridiculously loud that I seriously feared hearing damage. My wife, who has been suffering severe headaches for six months and counting, flinched silently.
Even the dialogue was deafening — and not well equalized. It was all blaring loudspeaker mid-tones accentuated by crashing subwoofers.
Cillian Murphy — whom we love from Peaky Blinders — is fine in the starring role, but the part is more modeling than acting. J. Robert Oppenheimer is gaunt, soft-spoken, and haunted. In the movie, Edward Teller calls him a “sphinx-like guru” and wonders whether Oppenheimer himself knows what he believes. This movie isn’t going to tell you.
The real standout performance is by Robert Downey Jr. as Lewis Strauss, a founding member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission who hires Oppenheimer to run the Institute for Advanced Study. Downey portrays a complex and ambitious bureaucrat who feels more real than anyone else in the picture.
There is just so much jammed into these three hours that no one else has room to emerge. There are so many characters darting in and out, between a whirlwind sketch of Oppenheimer’s career and the obscurities of theoretical physics, his several women, his time in Cambridge, in Germany, at Caltech, in the Netherlands, his New Mexico ranch, and so on.
Also, he leads the development of the world’s first atomic bomb.
Plus, all of these stories alternate with moments from the 1954 security hearing threatening Oppenheimer’s Q clearance. And then there’s a political plot underlying the hearings that surfaces late in the movie, which in turn is hastily wedged against the aforementioned question of Oppenheimer’s own motives.
The overall effect is itself like a bomb: Way too much energy crammed into too small a space.
Meanwhile — just as the key stealthy power play was getting spit out on the screen in blasting, rapid-fire dialogue — the women next to me started up again with some completely unrelated quandary, shouting to be heard over the movie.
I told my neighbor to take it to the parking lot. She told me to shut up and said that her companion needed to use the bathroom but couldn’t see her path to exit in the dark. So there!
Even at home with decent sound and no interference, Oppenheimer would be too much to absorb in one viewing, and I’m not sure I will want to re-watch it. At no point did I get a sense of how these events must have actually felt. Instead, this was a clamoring comic book of quickly-cut thumbnail sketches — a clatter of biographical mileposts played like a picket fence by a kid with a stick and some cherry bombs, thrilled by the noise.
I may want to read the book, though.
This three-part, three-hour documentary miniseries on Max was getting some press — and Danny McBride’s name was attached to it somehow — so we watched it.
Blech. I would not recommend wasting time on this series unless you need some reminder of how utterly crappy modern America can be.
Unless you are an idiot, you already know that telemarketing calls soliciting money for your local Fraternal Order of Police are a big, stinking scam, Nevertheless, that’s the big reveal that keeps getting revealed over and over again throughout all three parts of this shabby exposé.
Back in the early 2000s, Sam Lipman-Stern was working at a crappy telemarketing call center in New Jersey. The place was so crappy that Lipman-Stern began shooting videos to document its crappiness which he then posted to YouTube.
How crappy? We’re not only talking about on-the-job narcotics usage, we’re talking about in-office prostitution to finance said narcotics usage.
At this workplace, Lipman-Stern met Patrick J. Pespas, a fellow telemarketer with a heroin addiction and a lovable, unsophisticated personality. Over the course of time, they eventually team up and set out on a mission to unmask the deceitful telemarketing operation.
The whole thing is just pathetic. It’s pathetic that there are people gullible enough to fall for these scams. It’s pathetic that companies can rake in millions of dollars operating them. It’s pathetic that police unions look the other way in exchange for a small cut of the loot. It’s pathetic that employees could be in such vulnerable circumstances that they must prey on their vulnerable fellow citizens in order to survive. It’s pathetic that the government can only ever enact weak measures to curb these predators, who then adjust their tactics and come back stronger.
This whole sick business would make a fine 20 minutes on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, but instead, we get three hours from dudes who are not journalists at all, and who are not even particularly bright or funny.
Pat Pespas seems like a real good guy at heart, and he’s a caretaker for his wife through her cancer ordeals, but he’s painfully unaware of how to dress, how to interview someone, or even how to follow a train of thought.
If Telemarketers wants us to laugh at him, well that just feels like more for-profit cruelty.
BS High (2023)
Another new scam documentary on Max, BS High, details the Bishop Sycamore High School scandal of 2021 in which a group of ill-prepared athletes, many above high school age, were passed off as an Ohio high school team and even appeared in a game televised by ESPN in which they were badly beaten and suffered injuries.
The film includes interviews with Roy Johnson, the breathtakingly arrogant bullshitter who perpetrated the ruse, and it describes how he roped a bunch of disadvantaged youths with football dreams into this elaborate scam for his own financial gain.
BS High is an actual documentary — the kind with an outline and documentation. It’s not groundbreaking or anything, but the scam is audacious and Roy Johnson is a piece of work.
One thing I did find distracting was the use of assorted modern loft spaces as interview settings. If the subjects could have been questioned in their own environments, some depth might have been gained.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, Season 2
This series is one of the best things currently offered on Max.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty focuses, of course, on the Los Angeles Lakers in the early 1980s and their colorful owner, Jerry Buss. It stars John C. Reilly as Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson, Jason Clarke as Jerry West, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, and Jason Segel as Paul Westhead.
The thing is, though, you don’t have to be a basketball fan to enjoy this show. It’s just thoroughly enjoyable storytelling with a top-notch cast of characters.
John C. Reilly is outstanding as the fun-loving owner who ushered in the team’s “Showtime” era. Reilly is great in anything, but he really gets to let it hang out in this role. Adrien Brody and Jason Segel create real tension as co-coaches with differing approaches.
There has been some harsh criticism of the show’s factual infidelity and unflattering depictions — particularly of scout Jerry West as fairly belligerent — but I’m admittedly ignorant of this history and I do understand that people’s impressions and recollections often differ. The series is based on the 2014 book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, by Jeff Pearlman, who heavily researched his book.
For us, Winning Time is a thoroughly entertaining watch. There’s a lot of drama, but plenty of comedy as well. Early on, it employed a few too many retro production gimmicks to reinforce the era, but those quickly eased. The series does evoke its period quite convincingly.
Somehow, Amy and I have managed to never see Scarface in the last 40 years since it was released. But CBS Sunday Morning aired a profile of F. Murray Abraham and by Wednesday we were watching Scarface on Amazon Prime Video.
Abraham may be the best thing in the movie.
Oliver Stone’s script is moronic. Giorgio Moroder’s synthesized soundtrack is cheesy. Michelle Pfeiffer’s performance is flat. Brian DePalma’s direction is stilted and his violence is ridiculous. Al Pacino’s character evolves from an intriguing oddball into a total cartoon. By the time his sister loses it near the end of the two-hour, 50-minute monstrosity, the movie is as laughable as any SCTV sketch.
But hey, we have finally checked Scarface off our list.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2022)
We finished our week the way we started it: watching a movie about a team gathered from various places to build a bomb in the desert — this time on Hulu.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline is based on the book of the same title by Andreas Malm, a polemic in favor of escalating environmental activism to the level of sabotage in view of the rapidly worsening climate emergency.
This movie, however, is fictional, and fairly light on political argument. Instead, it follows eight environmentally-active young adults from various North American locations who meet in the West Texas desert to build a pair of bombs, then place and detonate them to break an oil pipeline, causing oil prices to spike and deterring fuel consumption.
The film alternates between the backstories of the individual saboteurs and their progress on their joint mission. It’s pretty thin material, but director Daniel Goldhaber does manage to weave it into a decent thriller, and some of his actors’ performances are quite good — for instance, Forrest Goodluck as the intense bomb assembler.