movie: Matewan (1987)

Having recently visited the museum, I knew I had to track down this movie, which was not easy – thanks Barrett for your help!

Matewan is the retelling of the story of Bloody Mingo County and the Battle of Matewan, where the humble coal miners stood up to the bosses and lives were lost. It’s an iconic story in American labor rights history, and it’s movingly told here.

We begin with Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper, in his film debut) arriving in the town of Matewan, West Virginia as a union organizer sent to help the locals with their ongoing strike. (I was immediately reminded of the adage that there are only two stories in the world: a person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.) On the same train that brings Kenehan are a group of Black miners from Alabama who are being brought in as strike-breakers; the local miners attack these men before they even reach Matewan, presaging racism and violence that will plague organizing efforts. Kenehan exhorts the locals, however, telling them that it’s workers against bosses, not white against Black or anybody else (there is a recently arrived group of Italian miners in town, too).

It’s uphill work getting the white WV miners to let Blacks and Italians into the union, just as it’s uphill work getting the latter groups to strike, but Kenehan’s speeches, and the poor conditions and disrespect of the mine bosses, do achieve this. Everyone puts down their tools; the miners and their families construct a tent city on the edge of town (as their housing is all company-owned), and the workers bumpily navigate their union. Meanwhile, hired guns with the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency try repeatedly to do the work of intimidation: evictions, repossession of food and furnishings, and general pressure and violence. They are repeatedly thwarted by the town’s major and sheriff, and once by armed “hill people” from outside of town. For a time, it looks like the ragtag union bunch are well-positioned to win their fight, because of the tight local community. But hanging over this impression is knowledge that the company, and Baldwin-Felts, has only to bring in more and bigger guns, and eventually the town will be outnumbered.

The action of Matewan proceeds from Kenehan’s arrival through organizing and early conflicts and concludes just after the Battle of Matewan, the shootout where the mayor and Kenehan, and seven Baldwin-Felts guys, are killed. Voiceover by Danny from a later date (he is now a grown man, and still a coal miner) indicates that the union was eventually defeated in the West Virginia Mine Wars by the US military, and that conditions have more or less returned to their starting point.

Remarkable characters include the boarding-house proprietress who initially puts Kenehan up – a miner’s widow – and her teenage son Danny, a coal miner, budding Baptist preacher, and passionate union man; Few Clothes (delightfully played here by James Earl Jones), leader of the Black contingent; a flirtatious widow with a role to play; and two miners’ wives in the camp, one West Virginian and one Italian, who begin as antagonists but forge a friendship even without benefit of a common language. Several miners, union men and Baldwin-Felts thugs play individual roles, as well, but these are less developed personalities. While there is no question that this is a film with a message and that takes a side, these flawed human characters make it something more and better than propaganda.

While Few Clothes, the sheriff and mayor, and several union men and Baldwin-Felts guys were true historical characters, Kenehan and Danny are both inventions for the purpose of this film. On the one hand, I find they work very well as central characters to focus our sympathies and make the story come alive. On the other hand, I regret that it took fictional characters to do this work, and I wonder if the same emotional results could have been achieved using only true figures. I believe so; but I guess it would have been harder to focus it, with a larger cast and no one central hero like Kenehan. But isn’t that a beautiful fact of the union, that there is no one, single hero?

True events are also compressed, and sometimes conflated. I feel more forgiving of this move; this being not history, but a stylized version thereof, it’s okay with me that we made the storyline a little tighter and easier to follow, and more dramatic for its brevity. Inserting a fictional central hero feels less faithful to me that compressing a timeline. Maybe that’s just me? At any rate, if you’re learning the history of Matewan and West Virginia’s Mine Wars, do look further than this film, excellent though it is. (This should go without saying and applies to all historical fiction.)

Although a sad story and therefore hard to watch, I found this movie also beautiful and well done. I appreciated the cinematography, darkness and shadow moving, the feelings of tragedy and betrayal; it made me cry. I highly recommend it, if you can find it. Know your history, friends.


Rating: 7 rabbits.

movie: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)

This biopic centers on country legend Loretta Lynn, the daughter of (yes) a coal miner in Butcher Holler, Kentucky. I was recently motivated to track it down in part by that Kentucky music issue of Oxford American.

First, the superficial bits: I am impressed with how well this cast resembles the characters they play. Sissy Spacek as Loretta, Tommy Lee Jones as her husband, Doolittle “Mooney” Lynn, and Beverly D’Angelo as Patsy Cline offer remarkable likenesses. There is less to go on with Ted Webb, Loretta’s father, but Leon Helm did a fine job with that role. (IMDB’s trivia section claims, “Loretta Lynn is said to have fainted when she saw Levon Helm in full make-up and wardrobe, because of his amazing resemblance to her real father.”) Phyllis Boyens-Liptak as Clary, Loretta’s mother, reminded me most of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother.” All the acting struck me as more than adequate. Spacek’s Loretta is somehow both quaking and fiery: she alternates between terror and resolute defiance. Jones is charismatic and frightening. I felt drawn in and engaged by this movie – forgot I was watching actors at all.

The relationship between Mooney and Loretta made me plenty uncomfortable. In the movie, she is 13 years old when they marry; Rolling Stone says she was 15, but this is still disturbing, just to a slightly different degree. On their wedding night, in the movie, he rapes her. The next morning, he hits her for the first time. I did not enjoy watching this. But if this is the true story (and the movie is based on Loretta’s autobiography, so we are to take it as such – at least as close to fact as autobiography ever is), I can agree not to look away. This aspect reminded me of Urban Cowboy, but that fellow-1980 movie of abusive honky tonk relationships does not have the stamp of “truth” on its side, so I consider its offense a little worse, at least from the one angle.

Anyway. Nobody said this movie would be about everybody doing the right thing. It’s a movie about real people, at least ostensibly. Let me say a little more about the “truthiness”: this is a biopic, based on life, via an autobiography, with a co-author, of a celebrity, who has some interest in promoting an image her fans will appreciate. (In that Rolling Stone piece, she and her publicity team are quoted as basically falling back on that stereotyped Southern lady’s coyness about age.) So, based on a real life as represented by the woman who lived it. I’m not trying to be hard on Loretta. These are generalizations, not specific to her. None of us has infallible memory, and celebrity has been known to distort, too. While Loretta and Mooney come off in this movie as messy and imperfect, they are certainly also relatable and sympathetic; this is a classic rags-to-riches story where we root for the underdog. It’s arguably easy on its stars. I figure this movie is fact-adjacent.

I did get involved with it. I cared about the characters. I felt Patsy’s death, and Loretta’s several crises; I was both very angry with Mooney and understood Loretta’s attraction. It was visually pleasing. The music was (of course) excellent, and Spacek and D’Angelo sang their parts throughout, which is impressive. Long story short, this was well worth my time; I can only imagine the nostalgia it holds for viewers who are either from an Appalachia recognizable here, or big Loretta Lynn fans (or both). I’m not the former, and only a moderate fan, but it was a good enough time.


Rating: 7 pots of food.

movies: When They See Us (2019) and The Central Park Five (2012)

I was keyed up for the release of When They See Us as a Netflix original miniseries at the beginning of June. (I’m treating it here as a movie, especially because “limited series” seems like such a downplay for a serious work of art and social commentary.) I viewed the four episodes in three evenings, rushing through, feeling both addicted and horrified, unable to look away. I thought I was prepared for the subject matter, but I was shocked beyond expectations.

The show handles events from 1989, when five boys (four Black, one Puerto Rican and Black) were arrested for the brutal rape and beating of a white woman jogging in Central Park. Their names are Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, and Korey Wise. Although there was no evidence linking them to the crime, and although their confessions were full of holes and inconsistencies and signs of police coercion, they were found guilty. The four younger boys, ages fourteen to fifteen, were sentenced to between five and ten years. Korey Wise was sixteen, and received ten to fifteen, entering adult prison directly. In 2002, another man in prison for a series of rapes, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime, and Korey (still incarcerated) was released, and all five men’s convictions were vacated.

It’s a terribly painful story to see unfold. On the April night in 1989, we see a large group of boys running through Central Park and acting out. They push at and harass bicyclists. They beat up a man. It’s easy to see how things escalate: boys roughhousing, and then some of them take it a step too far; imagine yourself one of those boys. You’re not responsible for the actions of those you’re with; you don’t even know all of them. It turns out that the jogger was raped in the same park on the same night, beaten within an inch of her life. Three of the boys who would become known as the Central Park Five were arrested that night. The next day, police came looking for Yusef Salaam. His friend Korey was with him when they take him in, and agreed to come along, just for moral support. In an ugly-ironic twist, Korey would serve the longest sentence for this crime in which none of the Five had any involvement.

It’s unsurprising that When They See Us knocks it out of the park with Ava DuVernay as creator, co-writer and director. Under her guidance, we see the boys running through Central Park. We see them picked up by police, and interrogated without parents present for hours and hours, without bathroom breaks or food; we see them pushed around, threatened, and coached through their false confessions. We see them in court and then in prison; we see them get out and hug their families and try to put their lives back together. We see Reyes confess to the rape. I am deeply impressed by the acting performances given by both the young actors (portraying the teenaged boys) and adults. I am horrified, over and over again.

I’m glad (well, that’s a weird word) to see the story of Korey Wise’s sister given air time, too: Marci was a trans woman murdered while he was incarcerated, who we meet only through flashbacks, as he weathers solitary confinement by living in a dream world largely starring this much-loved older sister. The story of a murdered Black trans woman is unfortunately common still today, and Marci deserved this coverage. She is beautifully played by Isis King.

I was also intrigued to meet the very sympathetic (in both senses) character of Roberts, a white prison guard who goes out of his way to be kind and generous to Korey, even holding him in an embrace when he finds out about Marci’s death. Roberts does not appear to come from real life (go figure). He was a sweet departure, but his totally fiction existence feels like a final driving-home of the horror of this true story.

I find the title interesting, too. I can think of several ways to follow this phrase, from ‘when they see us, they only see one thing/they think they know us,’ to ‘when they see us, then, finally, we’ll get justice,’ in the sense that we mean when we say it feels good to be seen. The story is so clearly about racism, about the way in which these boys, these children, were handled as proxy for everything that the world feared about Black men in 1980s New York. A white woman was raped, and they came for the Central Park Five just like they came for Emmett Till. And they were just babies: that’s one of the advantages of seeing and not just reading about this story, seeing the faces of these boys and realizing how very young they were.

I think this was everything it needed to be. As a crime drama, it’s gripping and moving. As social commentary, it’s thorough in its criticisms: the cops and prosecutors demonize themselves through their actions. I wept more than once. It’s also a visually impressive piece of art – this is where I’d normally call it visually pleasing, but of course that’s the wrong adjective – it’s full of expressive images, from the wide-angle view of boys in the park to the interrogation rooms and prison cells, and expansiveness of the outdoors to a man freed. I am still recovering emotionally from this story. Well done, DuVernay and full cast.

After feeling so affected by this show, I went looking for more, which led me to the documentary covering the same events from seven years earlier. The Central Park Five did much of the same job as the Netflix series, but with original footage and the perspectives of the men looking back from years later. Necessarily, it offered a less complete view of past events, because it stuck to the footage available; we don’t see police hit or threaten or coach the boys’ confessions, obviously, but we see the taped confessions, and we see the faces of the five boys and, later, men themselves. (Antron McCray allowed the use of his voice and not his image, as an adult.)

There was not much more of the story to be gained here, then, but an advantage in seeing it come from the people actually involved. I appreciated seeing what each character looked like, in comparison to the actor(s) who played them. I enjoyed seeing period footage of New York in general, too. I think it’s probably a good documentary, but it suffers some by comparison to When They See Us, which has the obvious advantage of being able to show more – whatever DuVernay wants to depict – and more dramatically. Having the two together feels like the right final call, of course, for the viewer wanting to explore this subject matter. I’m very impressed with both.

As a final remark, I want to say that I have a friend who has come into personal contact with Linda Fairstein, the evil, racist prosecutor in this story. This friend had her own horrible experience, which upholds what we learn about Fairstein here. Friend, I am sorry again for what happened to you. We’re decades late, but I’m glad everybody’s now talking about her and holding her responsible for some of her actions. Fairstein has enjoyed a career as a crime novelist until just recently: following a social media campaign, her publisher, Dutton, a Penguin Random House imprint, has ended the relationship. Small progress.


Rating: an average 8.5 years for these two fine films.

movie: Paris, Texas (1984)

Wim Wenders directs this visually stunning, stately-paced film set in West Texas and Los Angeles. I’m really here for those visuals, including old shots of my hometown of Houston (shot around the time of my birth) and the Big Bend area that means so much to me. The plot is as stark as that West Texas scenery. We open with a man (Harry Dean Stanton) in a filthy sports coat and red baseball cap (which didn’t mean then what it often means now), stumbling through the desert. He turns out to be Travis Henderson, who disappeared four years earlier. After he collapses in a little shop in the desert, his brother Walt comes to rescue him, taking him back to L.A. and the household where Walt lives with his wife Anne and the eight-year-old boy who is Travis’s son but calls Walt & Anne Mom & Dad.

Slowly and sparely, Travis and the boy, Hunter, build a relationship of sorts. When Travis gets ready to go find Hunter’s mother Jane, Hunter wants to come along (of course). The two take off on a road trip back to Texas, where the reunion is somewhat dissatisfying for everyone, I think, including me the viewer.

I found the ending (which I won’t spoil too much) a little disappointing. It reminded me of an Abbey novel, when he handles gender relations most poorly. But a dear friend of mine, who is a huge Wenders fan, points out that it’s only honest to Travis’s character; and I guess that’s not wrong. I claim that I wanted something, not sappy, but more open-ended, perhaps… but then I realize I’m thinking of A Perfect World, which was sappy, so maybe I’m not being honest with myself. I can’t say the ending wasn’t realistic. Maybe I wanted something unrealistic.

At any rate, I was pleased with the movie overall. I said I came for the visuals, and these did not disappoint; I could watch several hours more of the same.

Travis & Walt, truck, desert & sky

freshly shaven Travis seeks recognition in mirror

The plot is just a frame to hold these images. Or, the West Texas desert is the central character, more than any of the human ones. Or, the plot is merely performative of the desert. Or, the point of the movie and its plot is simply to communicate that the desert dwarfs humanity and our petty hopes and goals.

I’d watch this again, maybe again and again, and keep seeing new images and metaphors. That big sky.


Rating: 7 car doors.

movies: Notorious (2009) and All Eyez on Me (2017)

These two biopics of the last decade handle the stories of Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls) and Tupac Shakur (2Pac, Makaveli) respectively, although their stories are intertwined and each appears in each movie. First, the disclaimer: I’m not a terribly serious rap fan and don’t know a ton about these two giants. I do like some rap music and I do like what I know of Biggie and Tupac, but I didn’t come into these movies with much of a background of knowledge.

So I guess I came for three things: one, I wanted to hear more of the music each man made. Two, I wanted to learn more about them as people and as public icons. And three, I was interested in the ongoing question of who killed each of them. Maybe a fourth as well – I always want to enjoy a movie and/or admire it as art.

While I enjoyed both movies and took something away, my review is mixed. I feel like in both cases more could have been done with the material. All Eyez on Me takes a particular moment as narrative present and looks back: Tupac’s in prison, giving a reporter an interview. Notorious uses a narrative voiceover, also backward-looking, although it’s not clear what (if any) specific moment he’s speaking from. While this is a technique that can work, I’m not sure it was the right choice here. In Notorious in particular, I felt like it slowed the action down. In All Eyez on Me, the interview often felt performative; at times Tupac and the interviewer explain his past to one another in an obvious narration to the audience, that kind of dialogue that feels totally unrealistic because you know both characters already know everything they’re saying. In fact, I think in All Eyez, dialogue was an overall weakness. This effect faded for me as the movie went on, but I don’t know if that’s because it actually got better, or just because I got numbed to it.

The strength of each movie was definitely its material, the legend of each of these men and the groundbreaking work they each did in rap music, the music business, and the role of rap in a larger culture. Their murders, I’m afraid, are inextricable from their legends: who can say how Biggie’s or Tupac’s career might have ended, had they had the chance to grow old and maybe wash up, sell out, or continue to build their dynasties? Even if the storytelling choices weren’t always the best ones (in my impression), even if dialogue was weak, there’s a powerful magnetism to these characters – even the acted versions of these characters, which I’d say (no offense to the actors) offers a dilution of the originals. For fans who miss their heroes, and who can put aside expecting Demetrius Shipp Jr. to be Tupac (Jamal Woolard/Biggie), there’s something here to be loved and wept over.

In a movie like this, a lot rides on how well the actor looks like, or can channel, his role. I remember in Straight Outta Compton (why didn’t I write that one up??) being really impressed with mostly uncanny lookalikes. The Eminem movie, Eight Mile, had the advantage of the star playing himself, and that one is probably my favorite of the rap biopics, maybe for that reason. From memory, I also think that both of those films featured more music, too. All Eyez did a little better than Notorious; the latter left me really wanting to hear more of Biggie rapping. I did enjoy some of the female musicians featured there, though: Faith Evans, but especially Lil Kim, who I thought was especially true-to-life as played by Naturi Naughton.

Speaking of women, I loved both all-star-cast moms! Biggie’s was played by Angela Bassett, and Tupac’s by Danai Gurira (a small role by Lauren Cohan made this a mini-Walking Dead reunion). Holy smokes – these performances threatened to steal the show. Also, a reprisal in All Eyez by Woolard as Biggie made for nice continuity; that was a good choice. I found Woolard as Biggie a more lookalike casting than Shipp as Tupac, although I have trouble explaining the latter: in some scenes, the resemblance is indeed very close. I think there was just something charismatic and inexplicable about Tupac that Shipp lacks. But I think I’m going to credit that to Tupac’s extreme charisma, rather than dock Shipp points for it, bless his heart. Tough act to follow.

Storytelling so-so; music not as plentiful as I might have hoped for; general awesomeness-as-movies a bit up-and-down. As to how much I learned about the lives of the two, well, I learned a lot I didn’t know, but can’t speak for its accuracy. I was interested to see Biggie portrayed as much more a wanton womanizer, where Tupac had exactly zero love interests until the big one came along. (He comes across as quite virtuous, IF you believe him innocent of the rape he was accused of, as the movie portrays and as he always maintained.) Tupac is portrayed as much more intelligent, ideological, full of plans and dreams and ideas, and revolutionary – although alternating with fun and hijinks. (There is a moment in Notorious that captures this perfectly: “That was Pac,” Biggie muses. “A revolutionary one minute, a thug-life motherfucker the next.”) Biggie is presented, in both movies, as just less intelligent. He doesn’t really have plans or dreams except to make money, although this is not a totally morally void ambition: he wants to provide for his kids, make things better for the next generation.

In Notorious, the question of whether Biggie had anything to do with Pac’s murder is answered: emphatically not, and Biggie was still hoping for a reconciliation. In All Eyez, the truth of what happened isn’t explained (because indeed we don’t know who killed Tupac), but Tupac does not share the goal of making up. Suge Knight is played pretty much as I understood him: a sinister, conniving figure; he could be generous but nothing comes for free. Both men’s murders remain unsolved.

These movies are both far from perfect, but they were well worth my time. They’ve mostly served to further whet my curiosity. One reviewer (can’t remember where I read this) recommends I go read Murder Rap next; and who knows, maybe someday I will.


Rating: an even 6 lines for each.

movie: The Lovely Bones (2019)

And then there was The Lovely Bones, which I’ll call a sleeper: we didn’t pick this movie out like we did Extremely Wicked, and in fact missed the first half hour or so. But it turned out to be an impressive one.

I read the book, by Alice Sebold, but some time ago, clearly pre-blog; I don’t remember it very well, and don’t remember it impressing me terribly, but it came back as the movie unfolded. I do remember some talk when the movie came out, of the challenge of the first-person narration by (very minor spoiler here) the ghost of a murdered girl. I remember not being impressed by this challenge: don’t you just use voiceover narration? I guess that’s pretty obvious – maybe too obvious – but it’s how it is handled here. And I have no complaints.

Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon is brutally murdered by a neighbor: this is the part of the movie I missed, but it sounds like it’s all off-screen and implied rather than shown. She spends the bulk of the film in an in-between zone, neither living nor ready to move on; she wants her murder solved, and she misses her family, and she regrets never having had a first kiss. The killer neighbor cleans up well, and the Salmon family struggles to cope: Susie’s father obsesses over the case, her mother eventually leaves, and her younger sister will take matters into her own hands. There are lovely, ethereal scenes in the in-between, magical and visually stunning – I was reminded of A Wrinkle in Time‘s visuals. The killer is an easy man to hate (the friend I watched this movie with commented that that actor’s now typecast for life). The Salmon father, played by Mark Wahlburg (I confess a weakness for Mark Wahlburg), is easy to sympathize with even as he makes some less than wise choices. And the ending is strangely happy, for a movie with such disturbing content.

I’m deeply impressed by the cinematography, the revelation of information, and the visuals. When I saw that Peter Jackson directed, I thought, oh, of course. That’s why it’s so beautiful, at least. I’m also reading that the plot diverged heavily from the novel in a few points; but my dim recollection of the book felt very familiar here. Maybe it’s better that I let so much time pass between reading and viewing, because I’m always prickly about the way movies mess up the books. But here, the general familiarity felt faithful enough, and the film version was stunning.

I do recommend; and suspect I recommend the book as well.


Rating: 8 bouncy balls.

movie: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

A few days of wifi access have yielded a few movies, beginning with this one. From Sundance to Netflix comes Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a recent biopic about Ted Bundy.

Bundy was known to be a handsome guy, and here played by Zac Ephron, he comes off handsomer than in real life – I’d rate the real Bundy average, not remarkable, where Ephron is eye-catching. His long-term girlfriend Liz is played by Lily Collins. The movie is based on a book that the real-life Liz wrote: The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall (a pseudonym). The movie takes Liz’s perspective at times, but at times gets well away from her, as she distances herself from Bundy during his incarceration and trials, and the film follows the courtroom drama and Bundy’s developing relationship with Carol Anne (Kaya Scodelario).

I have mixed feeling about the way Bundy was portrayed. I think the idea may have been to show the extreme creepiness of how truly everyday a serial killer can be: this is the guy next door, with arguably better-than-average good looks but otherwise unremarkable. That’s what is showed here, and that’s what’s so scary, right? But in showing how everyday (and charming and handsome) Bundy was, the film skirts the edges of the strange fandom of the gushing young women attending Bundy’s murder trial: we’re getting a little into hero worship. And that’s even creepier. This may be the trouble with telling a story like Bundy’s at all. Maybe we should be less obsessed with serial killers in the first place…

I watched the movie, though, and I have to say it was entertaining, or at least mesmerizing. Ephron’s cute; Liz is compelling, and I feel her pain. I think she could probably have used some more screen time, and somewhere I read the reasonable criticism that her decision to get sober is covered in a mere montage scene, in which she wordlessly throws away half-empty liquor bottles. For such a major life event, and for the movie’s arguable heroine (spoilers aside, she wrote the book that gave us the film, for dog’s sake), I think she may deserve more. But an engaging evening’s viewing, sure.


Rating: 5 butterflies.
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