Feature Film: April2019


Us (2019)

I've written this in my head several times already and so this may end up a bit slight as it feels like rehash even though, of course, it's the first you're seeing it. If there were more of you, well, I might try harder. (Sorry.)

First, the movie is terrific. Jordan Peele has cemented his status. I suppose he could still have a Shyamalan-like falling off, but at present, he's established. I would give him my money. And I will, I suppose.

Anyway, the film does not have anything like as clear a stance as Get Out, but it has not shame in projecting. The amount of doubling and twinning and mirroring is intense; and details such as the VHS tapes at the beginning (The Man with Two Brains, Goonies, C.H.U.D.) aren't exactly subtle. (Period question: those movies happen just before the film. Release dates and prices were very differnt back them. Films often weren't released for a year after the theatrical debut and tapes could cost around a hundred dollars as only rental stores were buying them. So the question: is those three tapes on a little girl's shelf period?)

My other thing that might be a complaint is the scene of exposition near the end. Shot in a very cool way but pretty long. It felt too long. But then---the final twist---would it have worked as well without the exposition? That's the kind of thing that can only be discovered on rewatching. (And who knows if I will.)

Those quasicomplaints aside, the film is brilliant and wondrous

Cheatin’ (2013)

I don't think I've seen a Plympton feature since the summer after high school. It seems one with his shorts (which I've better kept up with). He's given up dialogue altogether, but his sense of music and timing and sound tend to make such a thing unnecessary.

He's still utterly willing to push animation into a morphic visuality no studio would ever use for more than a dreamed moment. Plympton really is willing to push into the surreal and symbolic to tell his story.

There's one particularly great moment where the parade of floozies flashes by while the protagonist's eyes remain constant. (I hope you can see this. If not, check with your local library---you may be able to sign up for some free films via Kanopy. They have a lovely selection.)

It's not easy to explain what's happening here in just a couple words, but regardless, even without context, it's a cool effect, no?

In the end, I only like the film okay, but I hope every student studies Plympton's work. I can't think of a better way to explode our visual vocabulary.

Captain Marvel (2019)

First, Captain Marvel was great. I enjoyed it very much and I'm more excited to see Endgame than I've been to see a film in sometime. So it did everything Disney wanted it to do.

You probably have your own opinions, so let me instead just spit details.

First, the films that are readable onscreen during the Blockbuster scene seem telling. It's great, for instance, that she blew the head of Schwarzenegger in a True Lies cutout. Appropriate. The line of VHS tapes she walks past? The only two I remember are Jumpin' Jack Flash and The Hudsucker Proxy. The former I've never seen, but the latter has obvious relevance with its themes of climbing up and falling down. And Babe? That's an interesting one to think about.

Speaking of which, how is it possible Chumbawumba was never used in this film?

But what year is this exactly? I can't decide. I'm guessing '96? It's a little fluid, but that's fine. The Nineties Nostalgia Parade didn't feel at all over-the-top to me, but it did certainly work on me. The music, man.

(Incidentally, the meta-cameo for Stan Lee was brilliant. I laughed loud and rather long. All by myself. Hm. Also, the Stan Lee-themed Marvel logo was a nice touch. He wasn't a perfect man, but it's no less than fitting.)

But the music! Sometimes it plays like it's stuff Carol should remember---but it's not. She disappeared in 1989, so---

Oh. Gone six years. 1989+6=1995. So that's settled. Except no way that Babe poster's up in Blockbuster, then. #WORSTMOVIEEVER

I will say it was distressing---viscerally and much more than I would have guessed---to have aliens shoot twenty or thirty missiles right at my hometown. Because they did. And I didn't like it.

The youngified Nick Fury was better than the youngified Phil Coulson who sometimes looked like he was in Harold Lloyd makeup, but both were impressive. I never doubted the Fury.

I look forward to seeing it again.

George of the Jungle (1997)

This came out just before I came home from my mission, but somehow, being an Adult, I still managed to watch in a good many times between arrival and setting off again. I don't think I've seen it anywhere (before today) asides my parents' home, yet I know it very, very well. My younger siblings must have really loved it.

This was a showing-it-to-the-kids event and they liked it. What's not to like? It's a mix of stupidity and absurdity yet well written! The jokes are clever, the film waxes meta without self-indulgence---everyone is respected young and old even though there are at least five to-the-crotch shots. How does that happen?

I already liked Brendan Fraser at this point, but it's how I met Leslie Mann. It's probably how John Cleese solidified his identity as anything other than one of the Monty Python guys for me.

I was afraid this would not hold up, but it does. Even the CG's not bad. Few live-action cartoons have embraced their cartoon heritage so thoroughly and successfully.

It's also interesting---somehow I don't think I'd ever thought this before, but clearly those old Jay Ward cartoons hold a powerful influence. The narrator in Powerpuff Girls, for instance, is a clear descendent of Jay Ward narrators.

Anyway, it's a very fun film, but it doesn't deserve me saying more about it than I've said about, say, All the President's Men.

Shazam! (2019)

Okay. This Captain Marvel movie is not as good as the other Captain Marvel movie, but it's pretty good and certainly fun. I think the sins were a bit undersold and a couple characters were conveniently inconsistent, but not bad.

I'm a fan of David Sandberg's shorts (still my favorite), but this is the first feature I've seen. It looks good. The funny and family stuff works well. And his wife still gets to die!

Honestly, even knowing Sandberg was the director and hearing that the film used his horror expertise, the ugly moments were uglier than I expected. Which is why the sins disappointed. The film has a physics which lets people survive things they could not survive and monsters happy to kill who do not kill---which doesn't match the least cartoony, awful moments. That's the film's real issue.

But it was fun! Superheros! Yay!

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

So Lynchian.

All I knew about the film coming in (besides it was David Lynch) was: L.A. noir, lesbian sex scene that might be part of a dream, a notable jump scare. The first of these, sure. The second, mightn't the whole movie be a dream? The third, I'm not sure what this was. And I'm a jumper.

I think this film represens, from what I've seen of the ouevre, peak Lynch. It's Twin Peaks out of the woods and into L.A. That it began life as a pilot strikes me as appropriate, though I think I'm glad it became a film instead. Even if it is very long.

I wish Lady Steed were here. I need to talk about it with someone.

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

It seemed much more sensible on second viewing. It was Lady Steed's first time of course, and so she's where I was a couple nights ago.

Naomi Watts's transformations are incredible---it's not always easy to recognize her. Sometimes I'm not convinced she isn't a different person---methhead Meg Ryan or something.

Anyway. It's still strange stuff, regardless of making more sense next time 'round. It's good. Though I find the sex distracting, tbh.

Three Identical Strangers (2018)

This is every bit the trip the trailer promised---though I am glad I forgot almost everything about the trailer outside the initial premise and the basic tone of conspiracy.

It's strange, watching this, as I'm teaching my students how not to fall for conspiracies. Because conspiracies do exist. The important thing isn't to disbelieve in conspiracy as a concept, but to be wise and informed so you can tell facts from madness. Which can be difficult when sometimes they smell quite the same.

It is startling how the happy premise keeps finding new ways to darken---but it's also encouraging how it finds layers to that question of nature versus nurture.

An Honest Liar (2014) x2

Suddenly, I realized that this film I had enjoyed and which was now free on Prime was a perfect supplement to the weekslong discussion I've been having with my sophomores on logic and reason and conspiracy theories and storytelling and such.

And it was. It was also a hit. We haven't had a chance to talk much about it yet, but the story troubled some and enrapt all. Highly recommended.

King Lear (2018)

I'm not sure I've seen a filmed Lear before. I think I like this one. I mean---I like this one---I'm just still considering some of the choices it made and its value as a pedagogical tool. And I got to see Emma Thompson play against type, which was exciting.

Is modern setting now the default for Shakespeare films---is it more bold to play otherwise?

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The anticlimactic ending drove me into a rage the first time I saw it and I went almost twenty years before a second viewing.

This is my third.

I don't mind the ending anymore (it is, after all, very Pythonesque), but the film as a whole I am quite fond of. I still like Flying Circus best, but that's largely for nostalgic reasons rather than careful reasoning.

I still haven't seen their other features though. Time to get there, I suppose.

Hancock (2008)

I'm not sure this movie deserves its bad reputation. Which isn't to say it's without flaws, but it's pretty good.

The main problem is that the third-act twist is a huge mistake. Could have been a good movie on its own, but it doesn't let the first two acts reach their proper conclusion. (And the denouement is ... bad.)

Keep in mind I just watched the extended version. I don't know how it's different from the original.

In short, the redemption story was the best thing this movie had going for it and, rather than The Twist, having him continue to check in with his prison groups would have made for a better movie.

That said, the mythology presented post-twist is pretty good, and the ambivalence of the "villain" is pretty great too. Maybe the sequel could have gone there. But smashing them together prevented either from becoming its best self.

Which is a little ironic, given what this movie was trying to be about.

One last note: the acting is terrific, especially from the leads.

Captain Marvel (2019)

Just as good on a second viewing. Which not something you used to be able to say about Marvel movies.

I did pick up on a couple eastereggs I missed the first goround and possibly an (intentional) error or two, but over all it was much the same experience.

I do like Brie Larson. From Envy Adams to Room, she delivers.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

This is a surprisingly good movie.

Considering how many moving parts there are and how much stuff I the viewer am bound to forget, it holds together.

And then: it keeps offering last-minute saves only to take them away. It must be the roughest franchise blockbuster of all time. Not even Empire killed over half its leads!


Previous films watched

jan feb mar apr may jun jul aug sep oct nov dec








Friday Rejections


In working on the Welcome for the opening day of the AML conference, I wrote these two things before settling on the final version.


Welcome to Berkeley, everyone. We’re glad you made it.

Living here, as I do, I have heard a lot these past couple years that the world is tipping precariously toward the endtimes, a rhetoric I thought I’d left behind, given the Church’s lean away from millennial rhetoric during my adulthood.

I hadn’t missed it, to be honest. I remember images of the world afire as the righteous floated naked above the confusion—as a 1967 illustrated Book of Mormon storybook had it—but I’m not anxious for the world to end! Even if there is plenty happening today over which reasonable people may reasonably find themselves reasonably stressed. You don’t need me to make a list.

On the other hand, as a human, you are less likely to die a violent death today than ever before in human history. So that’s something! Granted, you’re safer in Helsinki than Caracas, but, on average humans, are figuring this life-on-planet-Earth thing out. Assuming we don’t melt the place first, we should be okay.

I picked “Helsinki” as my low-violent-death place because of something funny the U.S.’s ambassador to the U.N. said last week. I picked “Caracas” as its counterpoint because, on the uncheerful Wikipedia page “List of cities by murder rate,” it comes in number two. And number one has a tenth the people of Caracas.

111.19 homicides per 100,000 people in 2017. Which is a lot of people. Saying it’s only 0.1% misses the fact that 3,387 people died that year, more than lived in my hometown the year I left it for California.

Another fact I pulled from Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, by the way, is the best evidence I know that the Lord Almighty is unlikely to smite us with a planet-consuming baptism by fire to float naked above anytime soon. The glory of God is intelligence which I am going to lazily equate to information here, and Wikipedia is the children of God sharing with each other more information than can be processed without the artificial brains we have created and distributed over our home planet to make ourselves more like God. We are slowly collecting and democratizing the history of our planet. We are sharing all we know and are learning about linguistics, literature, theology, thaumaturgy, and manga. There’s so much in Wikipedia about manga, guys. So, so much.

It’s also got somewhere between 500 and a thousand articles related to, as our name would have it, Mormon Letters. I’ve written a few myself.

Incidentally, back to Caracas, the Church’s newsroom tells me that 0.53% of Venezuela’s population is members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 168,123 members. And you know what I know about them?


Wikipedia’s great, but it’s not going to tell me what it’s like to be a Latter-day Saint in a city that kills off my hometown each year. Me, in my padded Berkeley life—how can I even imagine that? I could tell that story, but it would be wrong. Much better that I read that story.

This is a refrain we’ve been talking about in the AML for years—how shall we hear the international Latter-day Saint voice? We’ll be hearing a bit about that today and tomorrow, but even with an intended international thrust, we won’t be hearing a lot.

We, as the Association for Mormon Letters, need to remember the little word that gets left out of our initialism: FOR.

We are FOR Mormon Letters. And right now, though the how is unclear, it may mean leaving behind the one for a moment and seeking out the ninety and nine. To get hyperbolic about it.

I am excited for the lineup we’ll be hearing from this weekend, but as we regale in its brilliance, let’s remember there are more voices out there. The human family is international. The Church is international. Let’s keep striving to take AML international as well.

Let’s learn how to listen.


Andrew and I were talking about Maurine Whipple yesterday. The author of The Giant Joshua, one of the most significant novels in our field, left behind boxes of papers and unfinished works, including the two sequels to Giant Joshua.

Earlier this week, we received news that Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire passed away. A prolific short-story writer and poet, the Queen of Eldritch Fiction, and proud queer punk transvestite Mormon. We may never see his like again.

And on Monday, Ángel Chaparro Sainz was forced to tell me his funding was not happening after all and he would not be flying in from the Basque country to be with us this weekend.

I was born the same year the Association for Mormon Letters was founded, which makes me older than Stephen Crane or Jane Austen or Edgar Allen Poe or honorary AML founder Joseph Smith when they died.

People don’t last long on this earth of ours. Institutions hope to have better longevity but you never know. That’s why it’s vital we meet every year. That’s why we need to share and promote and publish.

It’s easy to forget which little word left out of the initialism connects Association to Mormon Letters. But the word is FOR. We are FOR Mormon Letters. And today we’re here to take other’s output seriously by sharing some output of our own.

Welcome to Berkeley. Let’s do something FOR Mormon Letters while our sun still shines.



Don't judge me; judge the book


028) Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs, finished March 20

Since the last two Briggs books I've written about, I've read two shorter ones. And now I've read this, his first nonfictional book, a loving look back at his parents' married lives. They are clear models for other married couples in his work---but these two are probably the easiest to love. And perhaps the easiest to understand.

He takes us through their lives, decade by decade, as they experience Depression and War and modernization---joy and sadness, the growth of their child, the mysteries of today confounded through the lens of the past with the future relentlessly pressing on.

I found these people, his parents, easy to know. They remind me in some ways of my grandparents, but they are not my grandparents. They are Ethel and Ernest.
three or four days


029) Let's Go Exploring by Michale Hingston, finished March 20

This is (at the moment) the last in a terrific-seeming series of books providing serious but friendly consideration of "pop classics." I enjoyed reading it and am considering making a pitch myself. I have a book I think they would be interested in and I know I could write it---but should such a book be my priority? That's what I'll need to consider. (I'm having the same internal debate re an LDS Eros book.)

ANYWAY, this one's about Calvin & Hobbes, described on the cover as "North America's last great comic strip." Which is arguable, but this equivocation from near the end seems much more inarguable: "if not North America's last great comics strip, then the last one with the power to unite readers around the world, across cultural and generational lines, and to serves as the kind of artistic and intellectual totem that millions of parents will reverentially pass on to their own children when the time is right" (121, the antepenultimate page).

Hingston makes some solid arguments about what makes the strip work so well, but analysis of the strips per se is maybe 60% of the book. Other chunks are about Watterson and his famed battles with fame and the syndecate. Peeing Calvin gets consideration, as well as other knockoffs including some good ones like Hobbes & Bacon and (so I've heard) Calvin.

Recommended if you love Calvin & Hobbes and palmsized paperbacks. (Buy the paperback and the publisher gives you the ebook free!)
perhaps two weeks


030) Gentleman Jim by Raymond Briggs, finished March 20

A little short for this list, but it demands inclusion.

While this book stars the "same" couple as When the Wind Blows, in this earlier book, they're hapless to the point of near-absurdity. Having also now read E&E (see above), I feel like I have to break my own rules and talk about the author.

It seems to me that Briggs, roughly forty when Gentleman Jim was released, was ready to tackle the spectre of his now-dead parents. An earlier book, if it existed, may have been more cruelly satirical. This book, though I guess I can agree it's "funny," is loaded with pathos. It relentlessly reveals the characters' ignorance, but I don't think it's that easy to laugh at them. They are too earnest, to sincere. The author holds us in his hand and invites us to examine them. And the cruel among us, if we desire, can laugh them to scorn. But it does require cruelty. I don't see how you can blame them for the situation they are in. Society made them this way. Made promises they can't understand. Took possibility from them.

Lady Steed called it a sad book.

I can't disagree.

feeling really nervous i've left something out

031) The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis, finished April 2

I'm a bit embarrassed this is only my second Michael Lewis book the first) just because I've gotten to know the man a bit and he doesn't just write great books---he's a solid human being (and fine Little League coach). But this one is closely connected to Moneyball. Check out what I said when writing about it:
In other news, this book made me think a lot about how to apply math to improving [anything]. Because everyone from Bill Gates to Arne Duncan thinks we should do it. And maybe [they're] right. But what do we measure? And how do we do it? And what would those numbers then mean? And how would we go about acting on them?

We. Don't. Know.

And frankly, I doubt we ever will. Unlike stocks and baseball, we don't have decades of data measured in the same or similar ways over decades and zillions of incidents with tons of observers. I don't know how we can reproduce that.

So many variables. The mind boggles.
What did I learn from The Fifth Risk? That the government of the United States of America has unfathomable amounts of data on many, many things. And when attacked by math, amazing things happen. The improvement of weather forecasts? Thank you, federal government. The discovery of the opioid epidemic? Thank you, federal government. Enough food to let us live in cities? Thank you, federal government. And on and on and on.

Most of the book is really just a biography of the government bureaucracy, filled as it is with do-gooders and scientists. The deep state, if you will.

But the impetus and ever-hanging black cloud of the book is presidential transitions. Excellently well prepared-for transitions are messy and complicated and highly problematic. Then Coach Michael shows us what a completely disinterested (when not outright hostile) transition looks like and you have to wonder. After another term and a half or so of intentional dismantling, aggressive neglect, and prioritizing commercial concerns over human concerns, suddenly Republican's threats of us looking like Venezuela seem pretty plausible.

I was especially struck by how little people (me included) understand about what the federal government does for them. Take this guy: from Montana. Thinks his taxes are paying for California's illegal immigrants. Has no idea the federal government is propping up his state.

Coach Michael tells story after story about the federal government serving and supporting rural America without letting the people being helped that they are doing it. In some cases, they are forbidden by law to tell people they are being helped.

And the ubiquity of government assistance is such that we don't realize how much we need them until something goes wrong and we blame them. Our lives would be much, much more prearious without the Deep State making sure geese don't fly into airplanes and that chickens aren't giving us salmonella. But you can bet that when those budgets are cut (drain the swamp!) and more geese hit airplanes and more chickens send you to the hospital, the bureacrats will take the blame.

One thing that was particularly interesting is learning how little many capital-d Departments reflect their name. Commerce, for instance, does the Census. This I knew. But it also does a huge percentage of the government's data collection on any and all topics. Astonishing amounts of data about astonishing amounts of things. Data the new administration has been working to conceal and hide since they arrived. Data hidden can't help anyone.

I also knew a bit about the varied missions of Energy and Agriculture, but I was still in a constant state of amazement, reading this book. If I really wanted to help people, maybe I should have entered government.

If you really want to help people, vote the bums out.
about a week


032) No Matter the Wreckage by Sarah Kay, finished April 8

I had this Barnes & Noble gift certificate, so I went to Barnes & Noble and went through their poetry section. This is the book I purchased, but several also-rans were picked up at the library and, therefore, read much more quickly, including (I think inclusively) later year's #45, #46, #48 & #49, and #65. Did I pick right? Who can say.

I did like the book, make no mistake. My only run-in with Kay prior to this was a poem about her elementary-school principal, that I saw illustrated online, somewhere. Not sure, where, but I'll guess it was the same illustrations now in a book. Dunno.

Anyway, it's pretty typical of her work (read it here). Everyday language, slightly heightened. It has the simplicity and easytofollowness required to be a big spoken-work success, but it's much better than properly maligned Instagram poets like Rupi Kaur. At times she's quite transcendent, but it's hard to judge if her work will outlast her generation. Sometimes that y/n feels obvious. Not here.

The manner is largely confessional and feels autobiographical. It's a good book. I liked it. Rare is the friend, however, upon whom this books would I press.
at most nine months but somewhat less than that


033) Letters to ta Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, finished April 9

I found plenty of wisdom in this book, but what surprised me was the endnotes---which revealed Rilke was quite the young poet himself when he wrote this stuff.

It's quite a brief read and thoughtful and contains no prescription.
possibly two years