Cleaning Out The DVR: Charlie Says (dir by Mary Harron)

Why does one join a cult?

That’s a question that’s been raised by a lot of different people over the past few years.  Some people claim that MAGA is a cult.  Others claim that Wokeism is a cult.  One need only go on twitter to discover cults devoted to celebrities.  There was a crazy woman named Emma who literally spent 8 years searching twitter for any critical reference to Garrett Hedlund so that she could personally attack whoever made the comment.  I once made a rather mild joke about Jennifer Lawrence’s habit of falling at award shows and, almost immediately, I started getting angry replies from people who had J Law as their profile pick.  Once upon a time, the Beliebers ruled the twitter wastelands.  Then it was the One Direction stans.  Now, people have to be very careful about what they say about Taylor Swift and Timothee Chalamet.  What makes people devote their lives to blindly defending celebrities and politicians who don’t even know (or care) that they’re alive?

In the HBO docuseries, The Vow, Mark Vicente (a former leader of the NXIVM cult) declared that “Nobody joins a cult!”  His point was that no one willingly joins a cult.  Instead, they get involved because they’re looking for something that is missing in their lives and, sometimes, this leaves them vulnerable to being manipulated by whoever is in charge of the cult.  Vicente’s argument was that it could happen to anyone.  The subtext, of course, was that Vicente was saying, “It even happened to me and look how smart I am!”

(It’s the same thing that one tends to hear from former members of Scientology.  “Sure, all of the stuff about Xenu didn’t make any sense and the average child would have seen through it but I fell for it so that means anyone could have fallen for it!”)

My own personal opinion is that most people join cults because they’re incredibly dumb and don’t have the confidence necessary to think for themselves.  That may sound harsh but I really do think that this is a case where it’s helpful to remember the law of parsimony.  It’s tempting to come up with all sorts of complex theories to try to explain why people join cults but the simplest answer is that people joins cult because they’re dumb.  I think sometimes we spend so much time exploring the lives of those who join cults that we tend to forget that the majority of people are smart enough not to.

This was something that I found myself thinking about as I watched the 2018 film, Charlie SaysCharlie Says is one of the many recent films to explore how a grubby ex-con named Charles Manson (Matt Smith) was able to brainwash a group of hippies and turn them into his own personal army of murderers.  Charlie Says opens with Leslie Van Houten (Hannah Murray), Patricia Krenwinkel (Sosie Bacon), and Susan Atkins (Marianne Rendon) already in prison for the Tate-LaBianca murders.  A social worker named Karlene Faith (Merritt Weavers) is assigned to teach them college classes but Karlene is more concerned with trying to break the mental-hold that Manson continues to have over the three women.

The film is full of flashbacks to life at the Spahn Ranch with Charles Manson.  All of the expected details are included.  Charles Manson plays his guitar and talks about letting go of one’s ego.  A dazed Tex Watson (Chace Crawford) wanders around in the background, eager to prove that he truly is a member of the Family.  Blind George Spahn gets a handjob from Squeaky Fromme.  The women search through dumpsters for food.  The orgies give way to violence as Manson realizes that he’s never going to be a rock star.  Everyone at Spahn Ranch is happy until they aren’t.

Both the film and Karlene speculate as to how Charles Manson managed to brainwash the women who lived at the Ranch.  The film suggests that it was a combination of drugs, Manson’s own skills as a con man, and the fact that most of Manson’s followers were so eager to escape the patriarchal system under which they grew up that they didn’t realize that they had wandered right into another.  Of course, it could also be that Manson’s followers were just extremely stupid.  One thing that I have discovered from reading about Manson is that, while there was many people who decided to follow him, there were even more who took one look at him and Spahn ranch and who, much like Brad Pitt in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, left as quickly as they could.

(One of the more interesting things about the online reaction to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood were the complaints that the film’s finale was misogynistic due to the violent deaths of the Manson followers.  Personally, I’m against the death penalty.  I view it as a classic example of putting too much trust in the government.  However, knowing what was done to Sharon Tate, I had no problem with Leonardo DiCaprio setting Susan Atkins on fire with his flame thrower.)

Mary Harron has directed many good films, including I Shot Andy Warhol, American Psycho, The Notorious Bettie Page, and The Anna Nicole Story.  Unfortunately, Charlie Says often feels like it’s meant to be a parody of all the other films about Charles Manson.  Some of that may have been unavoidable.  The horrific nature of their crimes has often overshadowed the fact that Manson and the Family were a ludicrous group of people.  Take out the crimes and they were essentially the real-life version of those dumbass commune dwellers in Easy Rider, the one who were trying to grow food in the desert.  Indeed, one of the smartest thing that Tarantino did with Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was that he used Manson and the Family sparingly.  As Charlie Says shows, the more time that a film spends with Manson, the more difficult it is to feel that the members of the Family are worth much consideration.  For the most part, the film follows Leslie Van Houten as she goes from being an insecure teenager to being a brainwashed murderer but, despite a strong performance from Hannah Murray, it doesn’t offer up much insight (beyond her own stupidity) as to how and why Leslie was so easily seduced into life at the ranch.

On the plus side, Matt Smith does a good job as Charles Manson, playing him as being a natural born con man.  As played by Smith, Manson is someone who knows how to use his hippie image to his advantage and who also knows how to read people.  The question about Manson has always been whether he believed all of his Helter Skelter nonsense or if he was just a criminal mercenary.  (The author Ed Sanders, who wrote The Family and spent years researching Manson, was of the opinion that Manson was far more well-connected with the leaders of Los Angeles’s organized crime scene that his hippie image might have suggested.)  Charlie Says suggests that Manson was a con man who ultimately made the mistake of believing his own con.

As far as Manson films go, Charlie Says doesn’t add much that hasn’t already been said.  Personally, I could do without anymore Manson films.  There’s nothing left to be learned from his horrific crimes.  Allow Once Upon A Time In Hollywood to be the last word on what the Family was and how they deserved to go out.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Marriage Story (dir by Noah Baumbach)

The Oscar nominations were announced earlier today and, as happens every year, some of the nominations were met with acclaim while others left observers scratching their heads.  Right now, on twitter, there’s a fierce debate going on between those who think Joker deserved all of its nominations and those who believe that the Academy has once again deliberately snubbed women and people of color.

As for me, I’m just shaking my head at all the nominations for Marriage Story.  I get the feeling that, out of all of the recently unveiled best picture nominees, Marriage Story is the one that we will have forgotten about within the next year.  It’s an acclaimed film and I’m happy that Scarlett Johansson finally got a nominations (two nominations, as a matter of fact, as she was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Jojo Rabbit) but, in the end, Marriage Story feels rather hollow.

Marriage Story is about the end of a marriage.  Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a New York-based theatrical director.  Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) is his wife.  Nicole is an actress who, before she married Charlie, was best known for appearing topless in a teen comedy.  Charlie is often credited with having resurrected her career.  On the surface, they’re the perfect New York couple.  However, when we first meet them, their marriage is coming to an end.  Charlie, we learn, cheated on Nicole with a production assistant.  Nicole wants to go to Los Angeles so that she can star in a television series and have a career that’s not dependent upon her husband.  Caught in the middle of all this is their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson).

At first, Charlie and Nicole agree to an amicable split, one with no lawyers and no accusations.  That doesn’t last.  Nicole hires the cheerfully ruthless Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern).  Charlie, after moving out to Los Angeles, finds himself torn between hiring either the the kindly (but ineffectual) Bert Spitz (Alan Alda, in a role he was born to play) or the somewhat sinister (but definitely effective) Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta, also in a role that he was born to play).  While both Charlie and Nicole try (and often) fail to maintain a civil relationship for Henry’s sake, their attorneys go to war.

There’s a lot of good things to be said about Marriage Story.  Though I think that his truly award-worthy work for 2019 was not in this film but instead in The Report, Adam Driver does a good job with role of Charlie.  Scarlett Johansson, who has so often been unfairly overlooked at awards time, again proves herself to be one of the best actresses around.  Dern, Alda, and Liotta are well-cast as three very different (but very recognizable) attorneys.  Noah Baumbach’s script has several good lines.  The scene where Nicole’s sister is awkwardly recruited to serve Charlie with the divorce papers is both funny and cringey.  The much-acclaimed scene where Charlie and Nicole go from having a polite (if awkward) conversation to yelling at each other is definitely effective even if it’s power has been diluted by it’s subsequent reinvention as a twitter meme.

That said, Marriage Story ultimately left me feeling dissatisfied.  It’s pretty much an open secret that the film is based on Noah Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh and, watching the film, you can’t help but feel that you’re only getting one side of a very complex story.  My first warning sign came when Nicole left for Los Angeles and the film cut to her on the set for her new television series.  Marriage Story goes so overboard in portraying Nicole’s show as being vapid and silly that you can’t help but feel that we’re meant to look down on Nicole for abandoning Charlie’s avant-garde theater productions to star in it.  We’re meant to say, “She gave up Broadway so she could star in some second-rate Marvel show!?”  From the claim that no one took Nicole seriously until Charlie married her to it’s portrayal of her being easily manipulated by her attorney, there’s a pettiness to the film’s portrayal of Nicole.

As for Charlie, he’s presented as being flawed but, as the film progresses, it’s hard not to notice that almost all of his flaws can also serve as a humble brag.  He’s a little dorky,  He’s too intense.  He works too hard.  Sometimes, he has a hard time not being the director.  Almost all of Charlie’s flaws are the type of stuff that people mention in job interviews whenever they’re asked to name their biggest weakness.  “Well, I guess I am a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes….” It’s hard not to feel that, despite a few scenes where Nicole gets to open up, the film is really only interested in Charlie’s perspective.  By the end of the film, Marriage Story reduces Nicole to merely being an obstacle standing in the way of Charlie and his son and it’s hard not to feel that both the character and the actress who plays her deserves better than that.  The film goes from being Marriage Story to simply being Charlie’s Story.

While you’re watching the film, it’s easy to get swept up in Driver and Johansson’s performances.  It’s only afterwards, when you really think about it, that you come to realize that Marriage Story doesn’t really add up to much.  It’s a good acting exercise and I’m sure that it will be popular among community theater actors who have been asked to prepare a monologue for their next audition.  But the whole is ultimately far less than the sum of its parts.

Here Are The 70th Annual Emmy Winners!

To be honest, I didn’t actually watch the Emmys this year.  For one thing, I was upset that Twin Peaks was not nominated for Best Limited Series and I was even more upset that Kyle MacLachlan was totally overlooked.  It’s hard for me to take seriously an awards show that snubs Twin Peaks but honors Alec Baldwin’s uninspired Donald Trump impersonation.

However, I did kind of follow the ceremony on twitter.  I was happy, for instance, to learn that Bill Hader and Henry Winkler won for Barry and that Thandie Newton won for Westworld.  The Emmy that should have gone to Twin Peaks went to The Assassination of Gianni Verscace, which was good but uneven.  (The first five episodes were brilliant.  The final three felt somewhat superfluous.)  Ryan Murphy beat David Lynch for Best Director.  I mean, what the Hell?

Anyway, here’s the winners!

Best Comedy: “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon)

Best Drama:“Game of Thrones” (HBO)

Best Limited Series: “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (FX)

Best Actress, Comedy: Rachel Brosnahan, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Best Actor, Comedy: Bill Hader, “Barry”

Best Actress, Drama: Claire Foy, “The Crown”

Best Actor, Drama: Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”

Supporting Actress, Drama: Thandie Newton, “Westworld”

Supporting Actor, Drama: Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones”

Supporting Actress, Comedy: Alex Borstein, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

Supporting Actor, Comedy: Henry Winkler, “Barry”

Best Actress, Limited Series or TV Movie: Regina King, “Seven Seconds”

Best Actor, Limited Series or TV Movie: Darren Criss, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”

Supporting Actress, Limited Series or a Movie: Merritt Wever, “Godless”

Supporting Actor, Limited Series or Movie: Jeff Daniels, “Godless”

*Television Movie: “Black Mirror: USS Callister” (Netflix)

Variety Sketch Series: “Saturday Night Live” (NBC)

Variety Talk Series: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver”(HBO)

Reality Competition Program: “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (VH1)

*Reality Host: RuPaul, “RuPaul’s Drag Race”

*Structured Reality Program: “Queer Eye” (Netflix)

*Unstructured Reality Program: “United Shades Of America With W. Kamau Bell” (CNN)

*Guest Actress, Drama: Samira Wiley, “The Handmaid’s Tale”

*Guest Actor, Drama: Ron Cephas Jones, “This Is Us”

*Guest Actress, Comedy: Tiffany Haddish, “Saturday Night Live”

*Guest Actor, Comedy: Katt Williams, “Atlanta”

*Documentary or Nonfiction Series: “Wild Wild Country” (Netflix)

*Animated Program: “Rick And Morty” (Adult Swim)

Writing for a Comedy Series: Amy Sherman-Palladino, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Pilot)

Writing for a Drama Series: Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg, “The Americans” (“Start”)

Writing for a Limited Series, Movie or Drama: William Bridges & Charlie Brooker, “Black Mirror: USS Callister”

Directing for a Comedy Series: Amy Sherman-Palladino, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Pilot)

Directing for a Drama Series: Stephen Daldry, “The Crown” (“Paterfamilias”)

Directing for a Limited Series: Ryan Murphy, “The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story” (“The Man Who Would Be Vogue”)

*Directing for a Variety Series: Don Roy King, “Saturday Night Live” (Host: Donald Glover)

Writing for a Variety Special: John Mulaney, “John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous At Radio City”

Directing for a Variety Special: Glenn Weiss, “The Oscars”

*Awards presented during the Creative Arts Emmy ceremony on Sept. 8-9.