Following up on my “Best of 2016” rankings, I didn’t post proper reviews of “Weiner” or “Hacksaw Ridge” before the listings in order to keep things a surprise. I thought I would expand a little bit on both…
Hacksaw Ridge: It’s true that I may stand alone among critics in listing this as one of the worst films of 2016 when everyone else seems to be listing it among the best, but that’s okay. [If I’m alone among critics in not praising FX’s “Atlanta,” then why not the conservative, lily-white film equivalent of it? Although “Atlanta” looks like a masterpiece compared to “Ridge.”] To use a quote “Hacksaw” would surely approve of, “The truth shall set you free,” and the truth is that this is a lousy movie.
It’s a dishonest, phony-to-the-core Christian propaganda movie disguised as a prestige picture, and what makes it even worse is that it appears to be working (“Hacksaw” stands a good chance at being nominated for Best Picture and even Best Director for the loathed Mel Gibson). It’s amazing to me that people have honestly called this “Mel’s forgiveness film” since it’s almost exactly like every other film he’s directed (“The Passion of the Christ” and “Apocalypto” were also Christian fantasies about the barbarism of non-believers) except those films had an otherworldly mystery to them that made them something unusual. “Hacksaw” could’ve just as easily been the most expensive Kirk Cameron movie ever made. In the film’s climax, the protagonist is literally lifted off a mountain Christ-style. But as with all Mel Gibson’s explorations of faith, the “struggle” against violence is a tease, as Mel is really only turned on by more violence.
The movie’s “persecution” angle feeds the need of an American rightwing that feels like it’s being “persecuted” by Transgender rights or imaginary oppression like the War on Christmas. The film’s central religious conflict—a soldier doesn’t want to carry a gun into battle because it violates his rights as a Christian—feels thin, but by the end an entire legion of troops refuses to go into battle before the lead character gets done praying. Scenes like the one where Andrew Garfield (as Desmond Doss) defends himself from certain death by kicking a grenade are more eye-rolling than anything in the last “Fast and Furious” film but this foolery has the sheen of a “true story.” The same protective label that has seemingly let a paranoid piece of Christian-persecution fantasy trojan-horse its way into the Best Picture race. And the less said about supporting stock characters like Vince Vaughn’s cruel-mouthed drill sergeant, Teresa Palmer’s virginal sweetheart, and Hugo Weaving (in a career-worst performance) as a “mean ole paw,” the better. Grade: F
Weiner: The very first time I’ve picked a documentary for the Best Film of 2016, and for good reason. Who knew Anthony Weiner—that eternally scrappy, self-destructive genius-fool ex-politician/liberal champion—would be the millennial “Citizen Kane?”
Watching a “great” man completely undone by a personal failing is the stuff of Greek tragedy. And this doc comes as close to any explanation I’ve ever seen as to why “Sexting” is becoming the vice of our times. The best explanation comes not from a dry, detached behavorial psychologist but from Weiner himself, who never seemed interested in even meeting the women he was supposedly having a maybe, someday, quasi-, down the road affair with, and was perhaps criticized as much for his scandal’s weirdness as the scandalous behavior itself. Male pundits seemed baffled at the time “What do you mean there was no actual sex?” and even Weiner’s long-suffering wife Huma Abedin might’ve wished he’d had physical sex with women and spared her the embarassment of seeing his dick pics on the nightly news.
In fact, the label of Greek Tragedy might seem a little lofty for a film that features the down-and-dirty tabloid-voyeurism of an agonizing scene where Huma has to call Anthony’s donors to assure them everything is okay as she watches a muted television showing footage of her husband’s penis. Then there’s the sight of the fame-hungry “Sydney Leathers” (Weiner’s sexting partner/internet quasi-mistress/therapist/facebook friend/enemy) as she tries to force a reality TV-style confrontation with Weiner outside his election night concession party. But here the movie upends the trash-TV-programming of making viewers want to see someone brought low (so they feel high) by showing the pain and anxiety Huma feels in even attending her own husband’s concession party. [It’s impossible not to feel for Huma and want to see her avoid humiliation while Leathers’ current Twitter account casually mentions Weiner in the same sentence that she also does porn if you’d like to book her.]
“Weiner” is a lot shorter than “Hacksaw” but in a way the two films are bizarre mirror versions of each other since Anthony too just wants to get on with his business but everyone around him won’t stop obsessing about a personal decision. Much like Doss in “Ridge,” they also wonder why Weiner won’t just drop-out, and it’s a hybrid character flaw and strength that Weiner won’t just give up. “Weiner” also offers context for certain moments like Anthony’s campaign shouting-match with a deli customer (the man had insulted his “Muslim” wife) and what is usually portrayed as Anthony’s pettiness sometimes has more noble intentions like defending his wife.
The doc packs in so much commentary on media, sex, politics, tech-culture, voyeurism, reality TV culture’s noxious blending with political campaigns, scandal-culture, gotcha-culture and the hijacking of “journalists” (Weiner’s message is completely drowned-out by Sexting coverage) that would rather cover Hillary’s emails than ask her anything substantive. And at the core of the film is the universally-human question of “Can anyone really change?”
You’re rooting for Weiner and ashamed of him at the same time, as you hope he gets it together but know he probably won’t. The looming question of “How do you even treat an addiction that doesn’t require you to be in the same room with what you’re addicted to?” will come up a lot in treating online porn, online poker, sports betting, and all the new addictions of the wired world.
For all these reasons and more, “Weiner” deserves an A and is easily The Best Film of 2016.