Streaming roundup: Fahrenheit 451, The Rachel Divide & more

Fahrenheit 451

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Fahrenheit 451 would like you to know that it is really, really aware of what’s happening in America right now. The new HBO film, adapted from Ray Bradbury’s classic novel, tells the story of a dystopian near-future where books and free thought pose such a threat to society they must be destroyed. Beatty (Michael Shannon) and Guy Montag (Michael B. Jordan) lead a group of “firemen” whose job is to burn books, not put out fires. But when Guy reads a book for the first time, he starts to question whether he’s on the right side.

Bradbury’s novel was published in 1953, but writer/director Ramin Bahrani imbues his film with references to modern America, often to excruciatingly obvious effect. The ‘eels,’ who try to keep books alive, are a clear metaphor for illegal immigrants (lines about eels detail how they are crossing our borders, pretending to be like us, and taking our jobs). The history of firemen is transparently likened to alternative facts. The firemen literally chant “Time to burn for America again.” Yeah, I heard that campaign slogan too.

But what makes Bradbury’s novel so great is its timelessness: it’s a classic because the ideas it set forth about freedom of thought and authoritarianism can ring true 65 years after its release. Fahrenheit 451 has its eyes on the Trump administration’s platform, but the attack is hollow without paying mind to the structures and history that might cause the administration to espouse that platform in the first place. My three favorite films of last year (Get Out, The Florida Project, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) all had something to say about America without having to actually say it. Fahrenheit 451 is a forgettable movie, but you should take its advice: just read the book instead.

Fahrenheit 451: 2 stars

The Rachel Divide

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The Rachel Divide, a new Netflix original documentary, tells the story of Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington who became an immediate pariah when it was discovered that she was born to biologically white parents, but claimed to be black. In the opening moments of the movie, Dolezal is asked if she is African-American, and she responds that she doesn’t understand the question. It gets more complicated from there.

The film provides a context that the media firestorm in 2015 did not grant Dolezal. Her family abused their adopted black children, and Dolezal rescued her adopted siblings from the home. Significantly older than the adopted children, she transformed from a sister into a mother, and gradually found herself identifying as a black person.

The Rachel Divide paints Dolezal as a complicated individual: she has a tendency to lie, get sucked into social media, and make decisions that are destructive for her family. But the film gives Dolezal so much time to explain herself that it can’t help but be sympathetic. For a while, it’s an easy line of thought to fall into: what if Dolezal’s ‘transracialism’ is right? As she reads on-screen in a passage from The New York Times Magazine, “There was something oddly compelling about Dolezal, too. She represented — dementedly but also earnestly — a longing to transcend our historical past and racialized present...It was as if she had arrived in a future that hadn’t yet caught up to her.”

It’s a nice sentiment. But the fact of the matter is that the future hasn’t caught up to her, and it’s irresponsible to do anything but live in the present. Dolezal bears no weight of the oppression of black history. she’s right to say that race is a construct, but to say so without acknowledging the history and violence that give that construct meaning is completely ignorant.

Perhaps there is a future, some far off future, where racial inequities have been eradicated and the terror of white supremacy has been neutered, and people can assume transracial identities. But at that point, it wouldn’t matter, because race really would just be a construct. In the meantime, Dolezal is just a distraction, igniting an abstract debate about what it means to be black or white while actual black people are dying in this country every day.

The Rachel Divide: 2 stars

Faces Places

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Faces Places follows 89 year-old director Agnès Varda and 35 year-old muralist JR as they travel throughout France, taking pictures of ordinary people and turning them into massive public art installations. The Oscar-nominated documentary, out on Netflix now, is sweet and charming. Varda and JR are one of the most delightful odd couple pairings in recent memory; the two poke fun of each other in a way that makes it obvious they both have total respect for the other’s work, and their relationship carries the film forward.

At the center of the film, though, is the art. There’s not much more to it than its description: giant murals of everyday folks, recognizing them for achievements that would otherwise be deemed too small for appreciation. It’s a joyous act, one of compassion and creativity for little reason other than a love for creativity itself.

Faces Places ends on an incredible shot, one that puts the rest of the film in a bittersweet context. It’s a graceful turn, and a really beautiful movie.

Faces Places: 3.5 stars

Kodachrome

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Kodachrome, one of a seemingly nonstop torrent of Netflix original films, stars Jason Sudeikis as Matt, a record label executive who goes on a road trip with his estranged, dying father (Ed Harris) and his father’s nurse (Elizabeth Olsen) to develop some old film before the technology to get it developed expires.

The movie is a patchwork of road trip clichés. Ben and his grumpy father resolve some of their longstanding differences; Ben falls for the nurse; Ben realizes he’s not really passionate about his work. The script leans heavy into obvious platitudes about learning to love and forgive. Olsen is given nothing interesting to do here, which is too bad, because I think she deserves much better roles than this one.

Many of these Netflix originals are the movies other studios won’t release in theaters anymore, and I’m starting to think it’s for good reason. Kodachrome feels like such a throwaway movie, the kind of thing you’d only watch on an airplane if there weren’t any other options. I kept waiting for it to develop into something, but there isn’t much to look at here that we haven’t seen before.

Kodachrome: 2.5 stars

Kicking and Screaming

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Kicking and Screaming (no, not the Will Ferrell one) is not a new movie, but it certainly feels relevant right now. The 1995 directorial debut from Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, While We’re Young) begins with a group of college students on their graduation night, and follows them as they try to figure out what to do next.

Few films have captured the uncertainty and anxiety of post-college life as well as Kicking and Screaming (now streaming on Netflix). The film meanders along, and doesn’t really end up resolving much of anything in these peoples’ lives. They are not kicking and screaming into adulthood so much as they are crawling into it.

Baumbach’s debut also feels prescient in how well it captured a type of codependent friendship that has become a much more normalized model of living arrangement post-grad since Kicking and Screaming was released more than 20 years ago. The characters’ families are a small part of their lives. Instead, they gripe to each other about student loans and finding jobs, and they all live together and talk exclusively in references and inside jokes. The writing is so fantastically specific; even if you haven’t said exactly what these characters say, the sentiments are familiar.

The world could use an updated version of Kicking and Screaming, one in the context of the Internet age and without so much casual misogyny. Still, if you’re looking for a film that can commiserate with your post-grad unease, Kicking and Screaming is worth a watch.

Kicking and Screaming: 3 stars