Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 November 2013

Dallas Buyers Club: Not My Drug of Choice

I don't think I'll have much to say about Dallas Buyers Club, although it's the kind of stuff everyone eats up. Matthew McConaughey (who I have been sincerely liking in things lately – not this) and Jared Leto both lose lots and lots of weight for the movie. Their characters are both HIV+ in 1985, and they both want to be nominated for Oscars, so the weight loss makes a lot of sense (that totally worked for the never-before-nominated Christian Bale a couple years ago).

Dallas Buyers reminded me a lot of 2011's Puncture, which I apparently never reviewed but which I disliked quite a bit. (Side note on Puncture: it wanted to be a kind of twenty-first century Silkwood, but it just never really worked.) It reminded me of Puncture because it has a similar kind of fighting-against-the-medical-establishment theme. McConaughey's character, Ron Woodroof is a homophobic Texas asshole who is used to getting everything that he wants in life (did I mention he's a white guy?), so when he contracts HIV he starts paying an orderly to smuggle him out the drugs when he can't get them a legal way.

He keeps drinking and using coke, of course, and so he passes out again - this dude is really sick. Blah blah blah. Anyway, he starts to believe AZT is killing people (it is) and that the big pharma is trying to make money off selling AZT to sick people (it is) and so he tries to bring drugs that the FDA hasn't approved into the U.S. by smuggling them in. The real goal here is to make a lot of money quickly by selling drugs to other HIV+ Texans (almost all gay men – people Woodroof continues to refer to in derogatory terms).
Ms. Leto

He learns lessons, he makes friends with a transvestite (Jared Leto, who I liked more as the film went on), he goes to court, he stops thinking about only himself and starts thinking about the community. You get the drift. The film is absolutely filled to the brim with clichés, and the point is that we are supposed to better understand the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s from the point of view of this homophobic white Texan, instead of the overwhelming number of gay men who are suffering from the disease (to whom, presumably, we would be less likely to relate). I found the whole thing tiresome. It's also filmed in this standard, realistic, hagiographic kind of style that isn't, in fact, a style. From a formerly exciting filmmaker like Jean-Marc Vallée, this is particularly disappointing.

One more thing: Puncture was about fixing a problem with the medical establishment that is still in existence. In other words, the Kassen Brothers were trying to make a film about a particular social problem and to correct something pernicious in our current society. It was a movie about the invention of a syringe that was designed so that you couldn't re-use it. An invention that would actually save the lives of many, many drug-users. Dallas Buyers, on the other hand, is really about rehearsing an injustice from 1985 – all good and well; I write history myself – but the film never brings us into the present day. How has big pharma changed? How does the FDA continue to support big business while getting wealthy off of sick people? If you're gonna make a realist film about social problems, it's fine to set your film in the '80s, but at least bring us all up to speed.

26 November 2013

The Warmest Color - A Queer Forum

I asked a couple of fellow queers to have a little conversation with me about Blue Is the Warmest Color (La Vie d'Adèle). Here it is:

Aaron: I can start since I loved it. I think it is the best thing I've seen this year. And I think there are numerous reasons for that. I think what stood out to me most was Abdellatif Kechiche's emphasis on pleasure - eating gets lots of screentime. I loved that. I was also, obviously, in love with the way blue itself is simply everywhere in the movie.

Ms. Exarchopoulos & Ms. Seydoux
Blayze: I adored this film overall. A combination of a coming-of-age tale and a love story, the intensity and brutally honest story telling is what makes it successful. The tight close ups on Adèle to mark her journey, the sound design of the sex scenes (sweet Jesus), and even the length of the film itself add an incredible, tangible vitality to a perhaps simple plot. And yes, Aaron. The pleasure from food and eating was very effective. I loved it.

Kirsten: I thought this movie was the most successful in its telling of Adèle's initial discovery of her sexuality. The emotionless sex with that dude, the kiss on the stairs at her school, and that beautiful fantasy sex scene were all really succinct and powerful moments. After that first act of the movie, it kind of lost my love. What I liked about the first lesbian sex scene – the one where she's masturbating and fantasizing about Emma – and didn't like about the later sex scenes was the psychological element of sex. We had a point of view in that initial lesbian sex scene. The marathon sex sessions later in the movie felt kind of toothless. Also, simpleton that I am, the jumps in time were kind of confusing. I felt like I didn't know enough about the characters to feel for any of them. And I didn't like the eating stuff. I liked that Adèle was kind of a mess, but I did not like that she ate like a savage.

Blayze: My biggest problem with the film is actually hearing interviews from the two actresses (Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux) and their "approach" to playing these queer characters. But I was completely swept up in the movie to care too much.

Aaron: I haven't read anything about the actresses, though I loved them both. But what about queerness in the film? I thought that the film seemed to understand desire as multifarious, and approached pleasure in an interesting way. If Adèle doesn't enjoy sex with Thomas (the Jérémie Laheurte character) that doesn't mean she wouldn't enjoy it with Samir (Salim Kechiouche) or Antoine (Benjamin Siksou), right? To say nothing of the pleasure of flirting or kissing or other pleasures that needn't necessarily be gendered. I think the reason I was so taken by the (as Kirsten calls them) "marathon" sex sequences (and there were also a great many of them) was that this, for me, is the awakening into sexuality and personhood. And in real life that awakening doesn't happen instantly (as it does in so many movies) but it takes a while, and it happens during sex – which can be a lot of work, incidentally. It is also a kind of accretion. One gets used to having sex, and things begin to make a kind of sense, right?

Kirsten: Yeah, I can get behind that idea. Coming into oneself as a queer-identified person has to involve sex. That's an important thing to recognize. That's what's awesome and awful about being queer. Sex is front and center.

Blayze: I also loved that her awakening was gradual. I don't know if I buy that their first sexual experience was all that natural for Adèle, but it definitely verified her queerness at least at that carnal level. It is front and center as Kirsten put it.

Aaron: Right. Not "natural". Not at all. It's not about insisting on a naturalness, but rather on a gradual awakening. And I feel like we do see this in movies about straight people every once in a while (I am thinking particularly of Monster's Ball and Unfaithful), but rarely in movies about queer people. In other words, although sex is front and center in terms of coming into queerness, it is often elided or euphemized in film.

Ms. Exarchopoulos & Mr. Laheurte
Kirsten: Absolutely. Blue Is the Warmest Color does confront that piece of queerness well. Just in the fact that they show all that sex. But about her being with men later in the film, while I like that her sexual expression is fluid and driven by her vulnerability, it always annoys me when a woman in a lesbian relationship cheats with a man.

Aaron: Yes, of course. Me too. Although I was so mad at Emma at that point, particularly because Emma made it seem like cheating with Lise (i.e. cheating with a woman) is somehow better/cleaner/purer than cheating with a man. That whole part was really cruel.

Kristen: I know! Frankly, I didn't like Emma very much throughout the film, but I really hated her when she threw out Adèle right on the spot. Also, why did she meet her at a restaurant later when she was in a happy relationship? And later, why invite Adèle to the art show? Typical lesbian psychological bullshit.

Blayze: I don't know if Emma implies that cheating doesn't count as much with a woman – I think she throws her out and gets so incredibly cruel because she is simply hypocritical in the moment. This is a great love for both of them, and the cheating hurts more when it's you that are cheated on, not vice versa. Emma's reaction is human, not specifically because she's a lesbian.

Kirsten: Also, what the fuck about oysters?

Aaron: Ha! What do you mean What the fuck about oysters?

Kirsten: It's an ongoing tongue-in-cheek thing about the texture of oysters being like eating "something else". All the forty-something lesbians in the audience cackled with delight. Leading me to worry about what's going to happen to my vagina as I age...

Aaron: Hahaha. But they're tasty!

Blayze: Can I also just say that I hate that it all ends with her being chased by a man?

Aaron: But it doesn't! It ends with her walking away. No?

Blayze: I'm just still cracking up over this oyster conversation...

20 November 2013

Frances Ha(!) and How I'm Still a Mess

Finally had the chance to check out Noah Baumbach's latest picture Frances Ha and it is charming.

Frances follows a woman in her mid-twenties who lives in Brooklyn but doesn't have / can't quite afford an apartment. There is more to her than this: she wants to be a professional dancer, appears to be terrible at relationships with men, reserves her most sincere attachment for her best (female) friend, and tends to be a sloppy drunk (like most of us).

I identified with her a lot. Frances is a total mess, and she seems sort of clueless about her own position in life and her own choices. It would be easy to look at Frances and feel that we are smarter/cleverer/more together than she is. But I couldn't do that. As much of a mess as Frances is – clueless about her relationships with men, clueless about her friendships with women, ignorant about her artistic abilities – I know I have been Frances at several points in my life. I looked at my roommate at one point during the movie and said I feel like her.

No way, he said. But even if most of the time I can feel as though I have my life together, or feel as though I can confidently talk about who my friends are and how close we are and whom I can depend on thoroughly and where my career is headed, I also constantly feel as though I am hurtling headlong toward nothing, as though I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing or what I'm going to do next.

What's great about Frances is that she runs wherever she's going, spinning her way down the streets of New York at breakneck pace.

The film also refuses to be a romantic comedy. Actively refuses. And I appreciated that.

Frances Ha is my favorite of Baumbach's movies. Baumbach is obviously obsessed with the 1970s, and with Frances he captures our current hipster culture in the film-style of Woody Allen's Manhattan, black-and-white film and all. It's a lovely homage that makes perfect sense. The film is also very funny – frustrating, of course, and messy, and she makes such stupid decisions! – but as much as I laughed at Frances, I found myself directing my laughter inward. I have probably done most of the stupid things she does. Frances Ha is on Netflix Instant at the moment, and it's only about 90 minutes. Believe me, it's worth your time.

16 November 2013

Car-races, Oscar-races, and the Problems of the Bio-pic

Jordan and I saw Ron Howard's Rush yesterday.

I had heard chatter about Daniel Brühl's performance making an appearance in the Supporting Actor category, and so I figured I'd check it out. Also, I really do like Chris Hemsworth. I am a fan of Thor (haven't seen #2 yet), and I liked him in Snow White and the Huntsman.

I do sort of have to admit that I find it difficult to keep Chris Hemsworth, Charlie Hunnam, and Garrett Hedlund differentiated in my mind. I mean, I know they are different people, but I have trouble.

This is the German Poster.
(The most interesting version.)
Rush is based on a true story: the real-life rivalry between Formula One drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt. You can read the plot of the film on Lauda's Wikipedia page, which is surprisingly extensive. True stories are difficult to film, of course – writers feel as though they need to stick to the truth as much as possible, and yet they also feel that they need to make a kind of sense of things. The truth, of course, rarely makes sense, and so biopics so often have obvious explanations to the very difficult problems of life (Ray is an excellent example of this) or attempt to find meaning in events that have no meaning.

And so Rush is exciting whenever it is interested in car-racing. When, instead, it is interested in sentiment, it lags (and lags a lot). James Hunt, for example, is married in the movie for about five minutes total. The film uses his wife only as a marker of Hunt's own life: when he's doing well, the couple is happy; when he's doing badly, they fight. If this is rather sexist, it is even more notable for being boring. One-dimensional characters are not interesting no matter what their genders are.

The rivalry between the two men is an interesting one, but Howard jumps back and forth between their perspectives. Do we root for Hunt? Do we root for Lauda? I rooted for both at various times (I think this was the goal), but the constant narrative switching was very frustrating. Howard also continually announces when we are in history in extremely clunky ways. January 1976, we read on a sign just moments before a news announcer tells the camera And here we are in January 1976. Thanks. We get it. At one point Jordan leaned over and whispered to me: I think that shot of ice melting on the tire was supposed to tell us it's hot in Brasil in the Summer. Yeah. I bet it is.

I don't think much of Brühl's Oscar chances, either. He is an excellent actor (Inglourious Basterds, Good Bye, Lenin!), but Rush doesn't have much going for it except for the cars, and Brühl spends most of the movie irritating everyone in sight, even if he is eventually a rather likable character. So, I won't be holding my breath, but he may eke out a nomination after all.

If you're thinking of seeing the movie, though, go ahead and skip it. This is for fans of Formula One racing only.

15 November 2013

Man vs. Ocean Part 4

There have been a bunch of man vs. ocean movies lately: Life of Pi, Kon-Tiki, The Deep. And now comes J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost, about a man on a small yacht (39 feet, says the Wikipedia page) who accidentally loses power and begins to take on water after crashing into an abandoned shipping container (apparently filled with children's shoes). From there our man is alone in the ocean with little hope of rescue.

Mr. Redford as Our Man
All Is Lost is different from the other movies I mentioned – and indeed unique for this year – in that it has only one character. Robert Redford anchors the movie: is its only character, its only voice. And being alone in the ocean trying to survive he says very little. The fact that he is the only character means we know almost nothing about him.

Who is this man?
Why is he alone?

Who was his family?
To whom would he return?
What does he do for a living?
How long has he been sailing?
What is he doing in the Indian Ocean?

When he writes a letter of goodbye, to whom is he writing?
For what is he apologizing?

In this way, All Is Lost is a mystery as much as it is an adventure story. Because we know nothing about our man, we search his face, his possessions, his every action for answers. Our man, though, is a survivor. That's what he is. Chandor doesn't give us backstory. If our man thinks about his life, his regrets, his loves, we know nothing of it. We see only his face and the things that he does to try to stay afloat, alive, and healthy.

If this is valuable as a kind of pure, ascetic filmmaking (and I think it is), it has its drawbacks, too. The reason I liked Kon-Tiki is because it is about teamwork and sticking it out and dealing with other people in confined spaces. One of the reasons I loved The Deep so much, is that it is a meditation on death and on managing things of which we do not know we are capable. The Deep is also fundamentally about losing other people, about coping with that loss, about getting back to something.  

All Is Lost is about staying alive and nothing else, survival tout court. As I say, this is an awesome, unique way of approaching such a story, but I couldn't identify with our man as much as I would've liked. I wanted to know what he was thinking about. I wanted to be alone with him, the way I was alone with Sandra Bullock in Gravity, the way I was alone with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson in The Deep.

I will say that I like this J.C. Chandor's stuff. I liked Margin Call and I liked this. He has a kind of cinematic austerity and clarity that I really enjoy. I look forward to his next picture.

14 November 2013

12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen's latest is just as smart as his last two films, although 12 Years a Slave is very different from both Hunger and Shame.

Mr. Ejiofor
Some great things right off of the bat. The acting is superb. McQueen has cast Chiwetel Ejiofor as the lead Solomon Northup, and the film also boasts not only usual McQueen-muse Michael Fassbender but also superb supporting performances from Lupita Nyong'o, Adepero Oduye, Alfre Woodard, and Sarah Paulson. And that's before we talk about the much smaller roles that are beautifully performed by excellent actors (Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Dwight Henry, Quvenzhané Wallis, Michael K. Williams, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Dano).

The acting is unbelievable. Expect at least three acting nominations come Oscar morning. Four actually seems more likely.

Ms. Nyong'o and Ms. Woodard
The film is also really smart about the complicity of everyone in the South with slavery. There are no nice white women in this film feeling bad about themselves while their husbands torture and abuse the people they've enslaved. No way. 12 Years a Slave has no time for such narratives. And this means that at times McQueen's film is unbearably violent. Now, I thought that Tarantino's latest was also smart about violence, but McQueen makes the violence in his film ubiquitous and almost banal. Unlike in Django, in 12 Years the violence is never on show. We are not there to watch violence: we are there to watch how it affects people, how it damages lives, how it is used to maintain a criminal system. When I say it is banal, too, I mean that it is a part of what enslaved men and women dealt with on a daily basis. 12 Years makes this point again and again. The film's characters' lives and safety are always under threat. Always. This is life under terror. There is never a moment of peace.

The film also takes its time. It moves poetically in ways similar to McQueen's previous films (although this is less pronounced in 12 Years). More than once the camera lingers on Ejiofor's face for longer than it is comfortable for the audience, and once he looks directly at the audience. These shots are haunting and beautiful. After one of the men dies in the field, his family and friends stand beside the grave and the camera simply stares at Topsy Chapman and waits for her to do something. She eventually starts singing, and the pause before her song is almost as heartbreaking as the song itself.

I had one qualm about 12 Years. There is a way that the film allows us to believe that Solomon Northup doesn't really belong in the South, isn't really a slave, that he deserves to be free because he is actually a freeman from the North. Now, all of this is true. He is a freeman from a Northern state. But none of the people enslaved in Louisiana ought to have been there. Every single one of those people would have been free if justice existed anywhere near those plantations. With the ending of 12 Years (which is a little bit like the ending to The Color Purple), the film allows us to celebrate Solomon's escape to freedom, the justice that he finally received thanks to USAmerican law. After I saw the film with my friend Leah, I told her that what I wanted from McQueen was one last shot of the plantation after Solomon's escape: one final reminder that if the USAmerican justice system finally allowed Solomon his freedom, that same legal system continued to enforce the enslavement, torture, and death of unnumbered others whose names and histories are lost to us.

This qualm is no small criticism, but it is, in truth, only a gripe. 12 Years a Slave is an excellent film by a filmmaker at the height of his abilities. It's poetic, it's powerful, and it's extraordinarily smart. This is must-see stuff.

11 November 2013

Animated Short Films

The Academy released a list of the 10 Animated Short Films that will advance for the possibility of winning the 2014 Academy Award. Here's some stuff I dug up in order to pre-game.

1. This is the trailer for Feral. It looks pretty great.

2. Disney's Get a Horse! will open screenings of Disney's Frozen and is the likely frontrunner for the award.

3. Gloria Victoria appears to be an Expressionist/Cubist film with little narrative.
Probably not the Academy's cup of tea, but one never knows.

4. You can watch a clip from and the trailer for Hollow Land at the website for the Office National du Film du Canada. This website will eventually host the film, as well.

5. You will notice the voice of George Takei narrating the film The Missing Scarf.
Above is only the trailer, but the animation looks bright and exciting.

6. Mr. Hublot is still unavailable, but will be available via the website soon. You can also see some gorgeous trailers and pictures there.

7. I can't find any good video for Shuhei Morita's Possessions. Apparently the film is about a man trapped in a house where the objects in the house have developed souls. Before he can escape the house he has to fix the objects. Sounds cool to me.

8. You can (and should) watch Requiem for Romance as soon as you can. 
It is a Vimeo staff pick, and they won't let me share it, so it might be pulled down soon. 

9. This is a one-minute clip from Room on the Broom.
It is a 25-minute film and may be available in another place on the internet, as well.

10. The last film is called Subconscious Password and is another film from the Office National du Film du Canada. The film isn't available yet, but will be at the website eventually.

03 November 2013

Before Midnight

I am so glad that Linklater/Delpy/Hawke keep making these Before movies.

When I saw Before Sunset in 2005 (I actually have the review I wrote back then), I was blown away by how much I thought the movie was about me, how much the two characters seemed to be articulating so many of my own struggles – and even more: that they seemed able really to get at how I felt about the things with which I was struggling.

Jesse and Céline are older than I am now, and Before Midnight is a much different film than either of the previous movies. For starters, there are a lot more people in this movie. The film begins with Jesse and his son walking around the airport and talking. As invested as I am in the father-son relationship, you can be sure my eyes had already filled with tears five minutes into the film. We get to spend some more time with Jesse and Céline after this, and they talk about almost everything other than their relationship with one another: work problems, issues with the kids, scheduling, dinner. It's mundane, but doesn't feel stifling or heavy in any way. These are the things we do. These are the ways we fill our lives.

And it is hard to be alone with one another when you're in your forties and have three children. And friends. And work. And a life. A conversation by yourselves walking through a Greek village? Who has time for that? This is precious alone-time – time couples with kids don't actually have.

The centerpiece of Before Midnight is an afternoon dinner conversation with a group of couples. They talk about gender, they talk about love, about penises and the value of coupling. Marriage as such doesn't really come up. In other words, this is about being together. Even when we're talking about gender we're talking about how we manage to stay with someone, what it means to give up enough of oneself to make a relationship work.

Jesse and Céline have given up a lot to be together. And this opened up space for primal doubts. What do these people still want from life? What do they still want from each other? And what does it mean to be in love? What is that? And what of sacrifice? What is its value when weighed beside the other things that one gets from one's lover?

Before Midnight deals with these questions exquisitely. If it is a talky film – and all three of these films are – it also has more than a few gorgeous moments of cinematic poetry, where the film seems to pause. We sit and watch the sunset for a moment, breathe together and wait, and it seems to me that in little pauses like that, sometimes something has a chance to open.

This is, in many ways, a deeply unsettling film, attempting to deal with some very difficult problems of love and relationships. I absolutely loved it, but I also felt a little off-kilter the rest of the evening, as though I'd been asked to solve some really difficult puzzles and hadn't quite succeeded.

Oh, and one more thing: Look for Academy-Award-winning cinematographer Walter Lassally as an old mentor in the film. Lassally has never been credited for acting in a movie before now, but he shot Michael Cacoyannis's Zorba the Greek and Tony Richardson's Tom Jones in the '60s, as well as being one of Merchant-Ivory's regular cinematographers for twenty years – from Savages in 1972 through to The Ballad of the Sad Café in 1991.