Hamrah’s tenure at n+1 began in 2008, with an Oscars roundup that he literally phoned in because his day job kept him too busy. (For money and health insurance, he uses “semiotics to analyze television programming for a brand consultancy” — a postmodern occupation if there ever was one.) The riffs he dictated to his editor were terse and funny, with judgment slyly imparted through insinuation and association. He had this to say about “Atonement,” an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel: “Everything McEwan writes ends up as a movie. Someday his shopping lists will be filmed.”
As clever as such lines are, they were recorded in another era. If you read “The Earth Dies Streaming” from beginning to end, and I suggest you do, you won’t get to that 2008 Oscars roundup until you’re almost finished with the book, which mostly proceeds in reverse chronological order. The first review meets us where we are right now, in Trump’s America. Hamrah describes “A Quiet Place,” a post-apocalyptic fantasy in which a nation of whiners is forced by noise-seeking monsters to stay silent, as “a horror movie for MAGA-ites.”
A political awareness imbues Hamrah’s criticism without weighing it down. He doesn’t succumb to a leaden moralizing because he pays close attention to the medium he’s writing about, alert to what he sees and hears. Gérard Depardieu in 2017 is “still half man, half wildebeest.” Anthony Hopkins, playing Alfred Hitchcock, is remembered for his prosthetic lips and his noisy slurping.
Steven Spielberg shows up periodically in these pages as a stand-in for a certain kind of Hollywood vision: so unquestionably talented and so exquisitely banal that even his vaunted liberalism can’t prevent him from churning out movies that often end up being fundamentally conservative, full of empty grandeur. Spielberg says how much he admires elders like Stanley Kubrick but then unwittingly botches the homage, using classic footage of Kubrick’s “The Shining” in “Ready Player One” only to deface it with what Hamrah calls “Scooby-Doo action.”
On the movies he likes, Hamrah is idiosyncratic, sometimes apparently surprised by his own surprise. “Flight,” starring Denzel Washington as a heroic pilot with an alcohol problem, “is so good, except for the syrupy last 10 minutes, that it is hard to believe Robert Zemeckis, who directed it, has spent the last 25 or so years since he made ‘Back to the Future’ directing the things he’s directed.” The quietly unnerving “First Reformed” prompts Hamrah to decide “it is time to admit that Ethan Hawke is the great survivor of his generation of male leads,” even if he “may play too nice sometimes.”