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

30 December 2014

Best Supporting Actress 2014

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actresses who I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

ZOE SALDANA, Blood Ties

SUZANNE CLÉMENT, Mommy


EILEEN ATKINS, Magic in the Moonlight

LAURA DERN, Wild

Also loved:
Hong Chau, Inherent Vice
Anamaria Marinca, Fury
Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Viva la Libertà
Mélanie Thierry, The Zero Theorem
Uma Thurman, Nymphomaniac: Vol. I
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
Naomi Watts, Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Related:
My Best Supporting Actress Picks from past years (2004-2013)

29 December 2014

The Commitments

Alan Parker's The Commitments (1991) is an underappreciated gem of a film. It is delightfully funny, irreverent, and doesn't take itself very seriously, while also managing to feel honest, and hopeful, and really about something.

I don't want to oversell this movie, since it isn't anything brilliant, but this is really good stuff, and it feels like a kind of precursor to The Full Monty – a witty British comedy about an economically depressed area of the country filled with characters who try to put together a band in order to get themselves out of the world they're in.

The Commitments is way better than The Full Monty, and it is also unsentimental and very very funny.

It also stars a very young Glen Hansard (Once) – tons of other people, too, of course.

Anyway, it is definitely worth checking out.

27 December 2014

Agony

I feel like I am forever complaining about Hollywood musicals.

I didn't like their version of Les Misérables in 2012, and I didn't like Nine back in 2009, and I thought Chicago was pretty good, but not very well imagined. And then there was Sweeney Todd. Oof. The Phantom of the Opera. Awful. Dreamgirls was pretty good and I remember sort of liking Hairspray – those two are better than the rest of them, but movie versions of Broadway musicals have, to my mind, tended to suck.

And the reason for this is that they are filled with Hollywood stars and all directed by Rob Marshall. I exaggerate, obviously, but here's the thing: musicals are about singing. And yet Hollywood insists on casting movie stars who by and large cannot sing, or at least can't sing very well. So the music is rewritten so that the stars can hit the notes; or worse: we all pretend that the stars can actually hit the notes of the songs (*cough* Hugh Jackman *cough*).

And so we have Into the Woods, which should have been a slam dunk, right? It's charming, it's hilarious, it's big big big, and the stage version has always made a joke of having a fake cow, fake magic birds, and a fake giantess who destroys things. This works on stage, but in the movies it could work even better, right? Giants! Beanstalks! Fun!

But... it's Rob Marshall, who only wants to direct on sound stages, and can't ever seem to blow the roof off of any movie he's ever made. Every scene feels like it was designed for the stage and never for the camera. He simply doesn't direct for the camera. It's as though he doesn't make movies at all. A guy like Kenny Ortega does this kind of thing so much better, and yet Disney hires him to do television work and they give Marshall the big-budget studio jobs. I don't get it.

There is one scene in Into the Woods that doesn't feel like it was shot on a stage, and it is (and I know everyone will agree with me about this) the best number in the entire film: Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen's rendition of Agony, which is laugh-out-loud funny and performed brilliantly. Everything else feels like a stage number, even though we are up close and personal with the performers, Marshall's Into the Woods feels claustrophobic, small town (it's not intimate we're just nearer). Imagine, for example, scenes shot in real woods with natural lighting. You won't see that in this movie. Everything is a stage.

And this "small town" feel is the thing that sticks out to me the most as a viewer. The performers can't quite manage to do the roles as written – that's just a fact. And the director hasn't really imagined the show in a new and interesting way. So I couldn't shake the feeling that what I was watching when I saw Into the Woods was a really expensive community theatre production of the show. (I said the same thing about Les Misérables: "for me the film version of Les Mis is like watching a community theatre try to put on the show, except that the community theatre is Hollywood and the audience is just proud of these actors for doing their best. It's kind of like if our own six-year-old tried to sing Jean Valjean and we decided to give the little guy an Oscar for trying so hard.") It's slightly better with Into the Woods because the singers are better, and slightly worse because Rob Marshall is worse.

As everyone who has ever worked on the show knows, Into the Woods has its problems. Marshall solves none of them. Instead, he compounds them, sidelining the show's big number "Children Will Listen", and ratcheting down the comedy by cutting the "Agony Reprise" and even the witch's funny bits. Jack's mom, too – although she is a hilarious character onstage and is played in the film by comedienne Tracey Ullman – is played completely straight and doesn't get a single laugh. And Marshall seems not to understand quite what Into the Woods is about: that fairy tales affect children deeply, that we can't plan for the future even when we think we know what we want, that the world has things in store for us that we don't understand, that people change, which means that what you wish for at one point in your life may not be exactly what you end up wanting, that even wishing itself is circumscribed by social standing and economic circumstances, and that parenting is extremely difficult even in the best of circumstances. Marshall's film doesn't discuss any of these ideas with any real depth, and when it has the opportunity to do so (with the Witch and Rapunzel, with Cinderella's lack of desire for her own prince) it squanders this time.

The movie is not completely without merit, though. Little Daniel Huttlestone, who, as Gavroche, was the best thing about the Les Misérables movie, sings the role of Jack beautifully. And although what we see while Jack is singing "Giants in the Sky" makes literally no sense, what we hear is gorgeous. Huttlestone's voice is bright and clear and honest, and I appreciated all of his scenes. This is especially important because the emotional resonance of the show rests, eventually, on Jack and Little Red.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep: delightful to watch, totally committed, fascinating. But... the Witch in this Into the Woods wasn't that much fun. I said already that Marshall got rid of all of her good jokes, but even the ones that stayed in ("You should see my nectarines!") fall flat here. Streep's Witch is a creepy, odd figure. She's funny when she flies at the Baker and his wife at one point in act two, but mostly, she is so intense that she is hard to take as a figure of fun. Part of this has to do with just how fully Streep is willing to disappear into the role. The role doesn't want this kind of intense identificatory acting. It needed something a bit more ironic, with a few more winks to the audience.

Oh and Johnny Depp has a single scene in this movie. Did you know that? He plays a strange man-wolf kind of creature. Why didn't they make him a CGI Andy Serkis-type wolf? I have no idea. Wolves in this wood wear zoot suits? Apparently. And – as with "Giants in the Sky", Little Red's song about the Wolf's death ("I Know Things Now") – is staged in a totally bizarre, almost surreal manner that hasn't a thing to do with the reality of the film. I do not get it.

I spent so much of this film thinking... huh?

As for Oscar, it will get a few nominations, I expect, but it will not be getting a makeup nomination, which might seem odd, given the way Meryl Streep looks throughout the film. Sound Mixing?

26 December 2014

Best Supporting Actor 2014

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actors who I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.


CHADWICK BOSEMAN, Draft Day

SHIA LaBEOUF, Fury

RIZ AHMED, Nightcrawler

MARK RUFFALO, Foxcatcher

Also loved:
Olly Alexander, Le Week-end
Harvey Keitel, The Congress
Anthony Kelley, The Gambler
Harry Lloyd, The Theory of Everything
Valerio Mastandrea, Viva la Libertà
John McGuire, Mr. Turner
Gary Poulter, Joe
Tye Sheridan, Joe
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash

Related:
My Best Supporting Actor Picks from past years (2004-2013)

22 December 2014

Blood and Sand

There isn't much to say about Blood and Sand except that it is every single thing you'd expect from a Tyrone Power–Linda Darnell movie that stars Rita Hayworth as its femme fatale (except Spanish, so: mujer mortal?).

Power and Darnell were also in the famous Mark of Zorro.

All of these people think they are the stars of this movie, but unbeknownst to them, the picture is stolen by the former star of the stage and silent screen (and badass lesbian and avant-gardist) Alla Nazimova. She positively makes away with the movie. You wouldn't know it from the marketing, but she manages to make the whole thing about her. It's amazing.

The Third and Final Installment of The Hobbit

For the last two years, my friend Caleb and I have had conversations about Peter Jackson's film series The Hobbit and I have posted them. You can read our conversations about An Unexpected Journey and The Despolation of Smaug here. This will be the final installment.

Caleb and I know a lot about Tolkien's universe (Caleb more than I), so some of this may be super nerdy. I have tried to link to the LotR wiki when we talk about things that might need explaining.
~ ~ ~

Caleb: I'm only going to this movie so we can finish the blog series. I'm not sure that I'm excited for the film for itself. We shelled out for the IMAX 3D so I am sure that will make a difference in the writing and acting.

Me: Hahaha. Your expectations aren't very high here.

Caleb: No. They are tempered by the first two. So maybe, just maybe, I'll be surprised.

~ ~ ~

Caleb: The Hobbit: The Riding of Exotic Animals into Battle (this would have been a better title of the movie).

Me: Oh my god you are absolutely right. The first thing my sister and I did when the movie was over was talk about which moment in the movie is the funniest. My candidate for most risible moment was when Thranduil's antlered beast somehow picks up six (or was it eight?) orcs on its giant rack and then Thranduil somehow beheads them all in a single stroke (while the beast manages to remain unharmed). I mean, the movie was laughable. And not because it had so little to do with the book that JRRT wrote, but because it was completely and totally unhinged.

Caleb: The biggest issue with this film is that there is so little canonical depiction of the events in this section of the story. This last portion of the Hobbit trilogy focuses on the Battle of Five Armies which the book glosses over by conveniently having Bilbo unconscious for the most of the battle. This is a clear indication that Tolkien didn’t feel the tactical details of the battle – which make up the entirety of this movie’s insubstantial plot – were actually important to the story.

Me: And yet the film actually takes this as its title and the battle is literally an hour long.
~ ~ ~

Caleb: As the film opens I was struck by how unmemorable the score is. That’s a shame since the original trilogy’s score is so memorable and emotionally evocative. This is particularly noticeable when leitmotifs from the original score are included in this film. They provide a strong emotional tone and resonance to the scenes in contrast to the forgettable humdrum of the rest of the film.

Me: It's mostly epic choirs isn't it? I haven't the foggiest idea what they're singing about, but they sound quite doom and gloom.

Caleb: Honestly I don’t remember a single part of the score, choirs or otherwise. The only parts that are at all memorable are the nods to the LoTR themes.

Me: The odd thing is that all of this seems so not epic. I mean, The Hobbit as a book just can't support all of this seriousness – this​ is made clear by Peter Jackson's total reliance on comic bits with that sleazy Ryan Gage character who is always stealing gold and falling asleep and making old women do his work. I mean, he is nothing more than a clown figure, designed specifically for us to laugh at. And yet, he is a real focus of the movie.

Caleb: The "assistant Master of Laketown" or whatever his character title is is so unnecessary to the plot, then made so important and yet left unresolved. This is elementary storytelling. I don’t care if you’re going to make him central to the movie, but at least finish his story if you are.
~ ~ ~
 Caleb: As I was hoping, we are treated to Bard’s children shouting “Da da da” at least 137 more times in this film. Not only does that never get old or annoying, the single syllable endearment creates such an unscripted bond between the characters. At no point did it make me want to rip my ears off. And whoever thought that Bard could use his child’s neck as a sight window has clearly never shot a bow. There’s a reason that archers wear arm guards. The child’s throat is right where the nocking point will strike. This is all fine as it just sets up Bard The Negligent Parent for his super-objective in the film: Trying to find his kids in the middle of chaos. He cannot seem to hold on to them for more than a single scene.

Me: ​I found all of this just so pointless. The child's-neck-as-sight-window really set the scene for how the movie was going to continue, honestly. And I noticed this too, but I was already angry because I knew the dragon was about to die twenty minutes into the film. As for Bard running around trying to find his kids, what is all of that about? I mean, to hear him talk it's just all about the children, but then, like, keep them next to you and stop drinking elvish mead in Thranduil's tent.​

Father of the Year
Caleb: It’s bad enough that he loses the kids once in the chaos, but the second, third and maybe fourth time as an audience member I just don’t care if he finds them. Maybe if you had been less negligent, your wife would still be alive. I do like the shots of the icy water though. I had never given it any thought, but it’s actually the water that ​kills the dragon. He’s afraid of the water “knowing it is mightier than he, it would quench him before he could pass through.”

Me: Oh I hadn't thought of that. Of course! I was really sad about the dragon. The first twenty minutes of the film were its high point to my mind. The dragon is beautifully animated, and when he stares into the camera, it's just great stuff.​ Everything after that is downhill. (Except for the visit to Angmar.)

Caleb: I knew you were going to mourn the dragon and brood on that for the rest of the film. Honestly I didn’t like how he was animated. He was too fantastical with all of the spines and spires of muscly flesh which totally upstaged him as a character. PJ just overemphasized the visual at the expense of the actor and character.

Me: I think you're probably right, and my love for Smaug (and other dragons) in the books is clouding my reception of the dragon in the movie. But I am super into all of the houses on fire and the dragon flying through the sky and his attempted hex on Bard. I loved all of that stuff.
~ ~ ~

Caleb: It’s in the depictions of Thorin’s madness where Peter Jackson’s artistic bankruptcy hits rock bottom. Rather than attempting to write compelling scenes and working with talented actors to create convincing and nuanced a depiction, PJ just goes for heavy-handed special effects that would make even George Lucas blush. The scene on the golden lake has to the be low point of the film’s artistry but the blending of Benedict Cumberbatch’s voice when Thorin is speaking in "his mad voice" takes a close second. It’s a true shame to waste that ensemble of actors on cheesy CGI instead of telling a compelling story through dialog.

The Oakenshield
Me: ​It is much worse than you make it seem. Thorin's stupid "dragon-curse" dialog actually repeats. Do not speak to me. He just keeps saying that. The entire plotline of Thorin losing his way because of a love of gold rather than a love of something called "home" – and this is, in fact, the conflict of the film – is not even worth following. I mean, Jackson hasn't done a thing to dramatize the idea of the dwarves' ancestral home, the need to rebuild, the idea of becoming a great civilization again, the story of their origins – none of it. I don't sympathize with him even a little bit. PJ has always been a Manichaeist (and JRRT is mostly that as well), but there is simply no way to be on Thorin's side at any moment. Everyone else is either doing the exact right thing here (Bilbo, Kili, Legolas, Bard) or doing the exact wrong thing (Thranduil, Thorin, Azog).​

Caleb: If they had build some love for Thorin in the other films, maybe we could care that he has this sickness. As it is, he was already tedious so it’s hard to care that he has become more so.

Me: Yeah, I think Thorin is an interesting character in the book, but in the movie, he is just so serious.

Caleb: For me, the high point of the movie is the scene with The White Council in Dol Guldur. The only canonical description of this is Gandalf telling Frodo that “The White Council drove the dark power from Mirkwood”. I’m not sure how I pictured that before but not as the four of them going there in person to do it. It was excellent to see Elrond in action again. Same for Galadriel. I wish we could have seen Thráin II and his ring in this sequence though. There is another nice moment with Bilbo and the acorn which he plans on taking back to the Shire to plant which will become The Party Tree and which Samwise will later replace with the gift of Galadriel. This type of multi-generational lineage of objects, specially trees, is a key value in these works.

Me: I agree with you about all of this. And your point about Thráin II is where Jackson and company missed a real opportunity. Thorin's grandfather is one of the seven ringbearers among the "dwarf lords in their halls of stone", right? So he was corrupted in much the same way that the nine mortal men doomed to die were corrupted, but more importantly, the dwarf lords were corrupted by their love of gold. They used their rings to make treasure, to create new jewels, to amass wealth. Wouldn't it have made sense to see a juxtaposition of this corruption? Isn't the desire for power and wealth among elves, men, and dwarves – and later Saruman – what allows Sauron to become so powerful in the first place (and in the last place)?

Caleb: Ok, a quick refresher on the ring of Thrór… It was given to Durin III supposedly by Celebrimbor. It was inherited through many generations to Thrór and everyone thought it was lost when Azog killed him in Moria. That’s one of the reasons that Balin wanted to reclaim Moria after The Hobbit and before The Fellowship of the Ring. But of course Thráin II had it and was kidnapped while on the journey and died in Dol Guldur. That’s the other reason that Gandalf went there. Yes, the ring could not corrupt the dwarves like the men because Aulë created them during the time of Morgoth’s dominion so they "cannot be reduced to shades, dominated by the will of another" (I'm quoting from Durin’s Folk). The ring only "inflamed them with greed of gold and made all other things seem vain if they were deprived of it". You also thought he was talking about The Party Tree? There’s no canonical reference to Bilbo actually planting it, and it would only have about 60 years to grow but I like to think that’s what this reference is.

Me: The visit to Angmar was the moment I got truly excited about in the film. I had no image in my head for what it looked like, and I thought it looked really cool, even if we only saw it for a second.

Caleb: Even though it was a total rabbit trail, I was excited to see Gundabad and possibly Angmar. It had nothing to do with the story and there was no reason for Legolas (I’m pretending that the girl doesn’t exist) to be hanging out there, but I’m still sorry it didn’t happen and we only saw the outside.

Me: While we're visiting locations, can I just say that I don't understand spatial arrangements in this series. I didn't really get them in PJ's Lord of the Rings so much either, but here I find the locations a little mindbending. How far, exactly is the kingdom inside Erebor from Dale? And how come Thorin and his three pals need to ride up a mountain on Ibexes (!) (Ibices? Goats?) but Bilbo can walk up there super quickly in time to warn everyone that there is a trap before the trap is actually sprung. And how come Legolas got up to Gundabad so quickly but then took an eternity to get back to the mountain?

Caleb: No, there is no continuity of time for travel or space. Legolas just rides around the whole country in a matter of hours. The whole standoff with Thorin only takes a few days and Legolas rides there and back and has time to "wait until nightfall" all before it ends.
I also feel that there could have been a nice moment between Thranduil and the girl (I’m breaking my own rule here I know) about love and loss near the end of the movie. It didn’t happen though. Just some washed-out tropes. But as far as I know, that story about losing his wife is non-canonical though similar to Celebrían’s story. But she wasn’t killed, only wounded and never fully healed.

Sweet ride, bro.
Me: ​All of the stuff with Thranduil creeped me out. Lee Pace's performance was too weird for me to drop into that in any way. And as for having any feelings about his dead wife, there is a single mention of the wife up at Gundabad and then another single mention of her at the end of the film. Who knew Legolas was worried that his mother didn't love him?

Caleb: Legolas doesn’t really care about his mom. PJ just threw that in at the end because he needed at least one more parting shot.

Me: Yeah, but it didn't work at all.

Caleb: New question. What happened to the Arkenstone in this movie? It just disappears after the parley. Although he skips over all of the unimportant details of how Thorin receives his mortal wounds or who kills Fili and Kili, Tolkien takes time to tell us all about Thorin’s burial with the gem and his elf-made blade Orcrist. PJ takes the opposite approach and spends hours on the action and skips the story. It’s just another example of PJ wanting to focus the film on action-packed sword fights at the expense of any story or emotion.

Me: This is actually the thing that I remember most clearly from The Hobbit itself: the Arkenstone being buried with Thorin. ​I was waiting for this because it seems really important to me in terms of closure for a) the way that treasure is divvied up, b) the way greed is – at least temporarily laid to rest in the text. The Arkenstone is Thorin's and he gets it in the end. This is important. It's totally crazy that he cut this from the script.

Caleb: And the whole "the stone glows when enemies approach" seems to have been lost. While we’re on the subject of action-packed sword fights… This whole battle seems to be have fought by mainly disorganized amateurs. The elves seem like professional soldiers and Dáin Ironfoot’s army seemed well disciplined (they are veterans of Azanulbizar), but everyone else seems to be running in half cocked. Thorin and company initially get armored up for battle but leave their armor behind when they make their charge. No helmets. Same for Bard and his people. Flowing locks don’t stop arrows. It’s amazing that any of them walked away from the battle given their lackadaisical approach to equipment. But speaking of armor, even those wearing it seem to derive little benefit. I mean, if you have access to all of this mithril-forged armor, it seems like a few of the characters might have survived a few stabs. I also felt the dwarves beat the orcs mainly because of their superior weapons and armor. As it says in Durin’s Folk: “But the Dwarves had the victory through their strength, and their matchless weapons, and the fire of their anger, as they hunted for Azog in every den under mountain.”

Me: ​It's impossible to take it seriously, though. Dáin was hitting orcs who were wearing armored helmets with his ​own head and he was somehow knocking them unconscious. It is here where the intended audience for the Hobbit films is the most colorable. Fans of professional wrestling? Twelve-year-old boys? I don't object to this in principle, but it's sort of fascinating because the Lord of the Rings movies didn't feel like this to me. The entirety of The Hobbit series seems to me intended for a much, much younger audience.

Caleb: Yeah, "fans of professional wrestling" are the target market for this film. 100%. It was nice to see Dáin Ironfoot with his famous hammer. But riding a sow and with a tusk-shaped beard? Enough with the riding weird animals. Then they ride sheep. I give up. The moose and pigs were bad enough. Not even counting the rabbit sled or warg riders from the other movies. Side note: What’s up with homophobia? His use of sod off [you] buggers? I understand these are common contemporary expressions in British English but out of place in both Middle Earth and 2014.

Me: So many anachronistic expressions! Sod off took me by especial surprise, though, even with all of the other ones in the film.​

Caleb: Well, it’s not quite as bad as the Gandalf saying “We must force his hand” in the second film. Analogies from poker? Really? As a final note on the battles, what’s up with the unnecessarily dangerous locations final battles? A frozen river? A collapsed tower over a canyon? I mean do even the action sequences need more action for you PJ?

The White Council
Me: ​But as you point out, this is the entire movie, right? So if battle sequences are going to be the mainstay of the film, one has to make them as inventive as possible in order to keep them interesting. Stranger weapons and more precarious locations (and apparent nods to the Prince of Persia – who knew Legolas could somehow step on falling rocks and jump out of a ravine!) actually do make the battle sequences more intriguing.​ Otherwise it really is just watching orcs and elves run at one another.

Caleb: No. No, I don’t buy that. It’s like PJ saying “would you like some more action on top of your action in this scene?” Like an epic battle isn’t enough. How about they fight on a bed of lava like Star Wars? You know he wanted to do that. It’s just terrible when even your action sequences have added action just to distract you from the fact that even the action isn’t enough.

Me: While we are on fight sequences, there is very very little in the way of acknowledging the huge death tolls involved in battles like this. And I know we are in fantasy land, but the books spend a great deal of time mourning the losses of the dead. Here, they are apostrophized.

Caleb: Yeah, in the book this isn’t even a large battle. The dwarves only field 500 guys and the elves only 1000. So its a battle of less than 5k combatants. The film has about 68,983 not counting the trolls. And I can’t even get started on the orc semaphore. I have an issue with the over-technologizing of these movies. The orcs are hardly innovators. Grond is about the height of their ideas for super weapons.

Me: Frankly, though, there weren't a lot of technologies in this movie. No trebuchets, and the only catapults were lashed to the backs of those war beasts. Hahaha. It was so dumb. 

Caleb: The only thing in the battle sequences that made me happy was seeing Bilbo throwing rocks. It harkens back to the line in Concerning Hobbits about them being deadly with thrown stones. We also see this in The Two Towers film where Merry and Pippin throw stones at orcs in Isengard while Treebeard holds them. I actually thought this was a well thought out move.

Me: No. I sort of thought this was silly. I mean, he has a sword in his hand and he's throwing rocks. But it might have been colored by the entire sequence before in which Dráin is using his own (apparently very hard) head as a weapon.
 ~ ~ ~

Caleb: And what happens to Bard, the Bardings, the dividing of the treasure, the Woodland Elves, or really any plot line at the end of the film? Nothing. None of those stories is resolved.

Me: Oh yeah. This is the craziest part of the movie – the film, which introduced a million subplots, is finally reduced only to two plots: the supposed friendship between Thorin and Bilbo and the question of whether Kili and the elf-girl will ever get to make out. What about all of the other characters??? It's weird because I didn't care about any of these plotlines that are extraneous to the book, and as it turns out neither does PJ. After a 90-minute interval of subplots, the film reverts back to the book and the book's focus (minus the Arkenstone).

Caleb: There are a few nice detailed thrown in the last scenes which help me feel more love towards the film. The moment with Lobelia Sackville-Baggins taking Bilbo’s silver spoons is particularly nice since he later leaves her the remaining spoons in the set in his will as he believes that she never returned all of them after the auction. I would liked to have seen Old Holman who would have been the gardener at this time or even Hamfast Gamgee who later tells those gathered at the Ivy Bush that he was helping to keep people from trampling the garden during the sale. And not to nitpick, but the Gaffer also mentions that Bilbo has a pony with “some mighty big bags and a couple of chests” unlike the one chest and bag in the film. It only matters because it helps to explain why Bilbo and Frodo are both hobbits of leisure, living off the wealth that Bilbo is carrying in that scene. Also makes no sense to walk "from the border of the shire" since Hobbiton is at least two days ride from the Brandywine Bridge. But let’s not get too detailed. At least things end on a high note with Billy Boyd's voice.

Me: ​If you say so. I thought that song was terrible.


Caleb: Yeah, it’s not awesome but it’s Billy Boyd. In a way, it’s like it's part of the family of the saga, and lineage is so important to this series.

Me: But I will say that I loved the bit about the spoons. It is one of the most memorable things in the book.

Caleb: Yes, that was my favorite moment. And also the mention of Fatty (Fredegar) Bolger who gets sadly stiffed in the films. Though this must be a reference to some relative since he would not be born yet. His father was named Odovacar, not ‘Fatty’ so I’m not sure who the reference is to.

Me: The Fatty Bolger reference was a cheap shot. Fatty Bolger was Merry and Pippin and Frodo's friend. He is clearly not alive yet.

Caleb: I’ve been rethinking my criticism of the animation of Smaug. I stand by it in the main, that it puts too much emphasis on the visuals and hides the performance and character of the dragon. But I do like how his head is more snake-like than traditional dragons. Most dragons have more head above the jaw than below it. But this Smaug had little above the jawline which gave him a more reptilian look. I only like that because it harkens back to their beginnings as giant cold drakes, flightless and snake-like. Glaurung most certainly had a snake head more than a traditional dragon head.

Me: Glaurung. That's my boy.

Caleb: You love all of the characters I hate.

Me: I know. Well, I for one am glad all of this is done.​

Caleb: I give it 2 out of 5 Mallorn leaves.

Me: Hahahaha. 

Caleb: And I don't care what you say I have Billy Boyd's song on repeat right now.

Me: Ok, ok. So sensitive!

17 December 2014

Still Alice

Still Alice played in Los Angeles for only one week: an Academy-qualifying run in two theatres beginning on December 5th before it is released more widely on January 16th. So I had to drive rather far to see this movie, but I was glad I did. It is an excellent film and, perhaps more importantly for my timeline:

With Still Alice, Julianne Moore is finally going to win a Best Actress Oscar.

Still Alice also contains beautiful performances by Kristen Stewart and Alec Baldwin, but the star here is Alice herself, Julianne Moore. The performance is beautiful. She is terrified and angry and defiant, and then lost and confused. It is a sensitive, humane portrayal of someone fighting to stay herself from an actress who has done consistently good work since her big break in Robert Altman's Short Cuts in 1993. It's about time Julianne Moore had a Best Actress Oscar in her hands, and her performance in Still Alice is so good that everyone is going to feel happy about giving it to her.

This film is not Oscar bait, though. I had read in certain places on the interwebs that Still Alice is a) a star vehicle or b) Oscar bait. And it is neither of those things. Instead, it is a fascinating, beautiful movie about Alzheimer's disease that is complicated by its multiple perspectives.

As the film begins, we meet Alice, a professor at Columbia who has just turned 50. She's a leader in her field and she has begun, ever so slightly, to forget things. She describes these moments of forgetting as though something has just "dropped out" when it should be there. Still Alice plays close attention to these early moments of understanding Alice's condition. We see this from Alice's perspective, and as a very educated, independent woman she explores these moments at her own pace without telling her husband what is happening. Everything is from her point of view here. At her first visit to the neurologist the camera doesn't look at him a single time. We get only Alice's face as she answers his questions and processes what he's telling her.

We stay in Alice's perspective for a long, long time. And then, in act three, as we move forward and Alice begins forgetting a lot more, the film subtly but deliberately switches from Alice's point of view to her husband's, and we see Alice's condition not as her struggle to remember things or accomplish tasks but as his struggle to cope with her condition. (He doesn't cope very well.) And then, finally, we switch to Alice's daughter's perspective as she cares for and loves her mother, even when her mother seems as though she is totally unaware of her surroundings.

The filmic switch between Alice's perspective and her husband's is one of my favorite moments in the film. Alice's Alzheimer's has progressed quite far, and the film conveys this total lack of a past by focusing very tightly on the toppings at Pinkberry. And they're beautiful: a tight, focused shot of Fruity Pebbles and then another, similar shot of a different topping. This is all Alice can focus on: the present moment. So she looks at the prettiest thing in the room – mounds of brightly colored frozen yogurt toppings – and then she focuses on the next one. There is no past or future, there is only this beautiful image in front of her, and it is what she can take in. Directing team Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland have made their best film to date. Highly recommended.

16 December 2014

Summing Up 2014

1. What did you do in 2014 that you'd never done before?
I co-directed a show with my friend Geoffrey Kershner. We did an outdoor production of Thornton Wilder's USAmerican classic Our Town in a historic cemetery in Lynchburg VA.

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Yes, I did. I had a "hot 2014" goal. I got in great shape. And then I moved back to the northeast and promptly began to stay inside and gain weight. (I'm actually planning to do two weeks of Insanity over Xmas vacation, so I'll finish the year on a fit note.)

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes! My dear friends Walter and Jeanne Kmiec had a daughter on November 26th: Australia Marie. The turkey came a day early!
And my friends Chris and Amber Evangelista had their son Mason this June.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Not this year, no.

5. What countries did you visit?
No foreign travel this year.

6. What would you like to have in 2015 that you lacked in 2014?
A guest room, and a little more space. I'd like to be able more than a few people over to my house comfortably.

7. What dates from 2014 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
On August 1st I drove from my home in Virginia to my old home in Tallahassee so that I could drive to my new home in New Hampshire. It was a really intense couple of days.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Publishing in a top-tier journal. My piece "The Queen's Cell: Fortune and Men's Eyes and the New Prison Drama" appeared in the journal Theatre Survey in May. This was a really big deal for me, and I'm still pretty excited about it.

9. What was your biggest failure?
Still no full-time job. I am not really sad about it, but it has made life difficult.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
No. But I'm getting older. I feel it everywhere.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A wedding gift for my friends Julie and Bobby, who got married (finally) this October.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as usual.
I am also (as always) really proud of my sons Dayne and Jordan. They are both working hard and making their way in the world.
My friends Justin and Elizabeth, who consistently make me laugh.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
The U.S. government, whose record on human rights is, as it turns out, much much worse than we thought.
President Obama and his lack of leadership on issues of race and violence in this country.
The Congress in general (across party lines) and Republicans everywhere for the lack of care for the lives of people different than themselves and their inability to see that there might be ideals in the world more important than the accumulation and preservation of private stores of capital.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Paid off my car this year. Feeling pretty awesome about that.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
The annual meeting of the American Society for Theatre Research in Baltimore this November.
A Song of Ice and Fire. I started reading the books in June or July and I am already on book four of the series: A Feast for Crows, easily the most difficult of the books so far. Here are some spoiler-filled, quippy posts about A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords.

16. What song will always remind you of 2014?

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
a) happier or sadder?
Happier
b) thinner or fatter? Thinner
c) richer or poorer? Richer

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Writing. I've been reading a lot and watching a lot of movies, but I really ought to be writing more.
Seducing attractive men.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Worrying about the job market.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
I'm in Los Angeles with my family.

21. Did you fall in love in 2014?
Um, sort of, but then I decided to slow that business down.

22. How many one-night stands?
Two? I forget. At least two. Not that many.

23. What was your favorite TV program?
True Detective.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
No. I usually do, but nowadays I feel like hate's too much. I am finished with some people, but I don't think about them enough really to hate them.

25. What was the best book you read?
Marcel Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu. It took me a whole year to finish it, and I loved it so much that when I finished it this June I immediately picked up Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's book The Weather in Proust.
Henry David Thoreau's Walden; or, Life in the Woods, which I started reading as a part of a book club with my friends Jaime, Tom, and John.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Anna Meredith.

27. What was the best piece of theatre you saw?
Some students (Raechelle Egan, Michael Hogan, Eddie Miller, Graham Mortier, and Darius Rivera) at Florida State made a piece called Sissy that I saw in a bathroom in the Fine Arts Building; it was directed by Steven King and Robin Mackey. I loved it so much I couldn't stop talking about it for months. It was brave and intense and smart and fabulous and just a lot.
I also really loved the National Theatre of London's production of Frankenstein directed by Danny Boyle.

28. What did you want and get?
A great cast for Our Town. A publisher for my second important article.
Several visits to see Jordan in South Florida at his new job.
Some pretty amazing meals. I have been eating great food lately.
A new website! Check out www.aaroncthomasphd.com if you are so inclined. It was designed by my friend Caleb and I am pretty proud of it.

29. What did you want and not get?
To be able to attend my friends' weddings in California this year. My work life just didn't allow it.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
There are a few other films left for me to see – I have a list of about 40 – but I can't imagine them being better than Under the Skin.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 33. I spent the week before my birthday in Cleveland OH at the Mid-America Theatre Conference presenting some new work on Lorraine Hansberry and American Communism. I also got to visit with two former students in Ohio. Then I drove a little further west of Cleveland and spent the night before my birthday with my friends Mike and Jill Haller and their two sons. They took me out to dinner and we had a great meal and better conversation, and it was great. Then the morning of my birthday I drove several hours south to Virginia to cast Endstation's 2014 season. I saw a production of one of my favorite Jacobean tragedies – Beaumont & Fletcher's The Maid's Tragedy – at the Blackfriars in Staunton VA. It was a good introvert's birthday; too late I realized that I wanted to hang out with people at a bar. I couldn't find a good bar in Staunton after 10.00p and so I went back to my hotel and watched The Wolverine.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Living closer to my Los Angeles friends.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2014?
You should usually choose to wear a tie. People notice. It isn't that uncomfortable and it steps up your game in a serious way.

34. What kept you sane?
Chats with Patrick McKelvey.
Hiking in the mountains of New Hampshire.
Great beer: Vermont is amazing for beer.
Meals with my cohort at Florida State: Kris Salata, Daniel Sack, George McConnell, Nia Witherspoon, Samia Abou-Samra, and Carrie Ann Baade.
Happy hour at BJ's with Leah/Matt/Walter/Jeanne. 
Workouts with Matt Silva, Jude Flannelly, and Colin Land (remotely).
Early dinners at the Ethiopian place with Katie.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Matt McGorry. He has a great sense of humor and good politics and also look at him.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
I feel pretty hopeless about so-called political issues. The power of our government is torturing people abroad and killing people without any consequence here at home. The government itself and those in the government barely even think to apologize for these outrages, and many of our citizens – the majority of our citizens – do not actually care.

37. Whom did you miss?
My nephew and nieces. Walter and Jeanne (who I lived with for two months, but then had to leave). Justin, Elizabeth, Ashley, Danny, Wahima, and Kirsten in California. But I have a lot of friends in a lot of places, and I miss all of them a great deal.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Makeda Payne.
The Mortier twins. I'm obsessed with those two.

39. Tell us a valuable life-lesson you learned in 2014:
I'm learning how to manage academia a lot better. One of the ways I am thinking about things nowadays is to understand that my commitment ought to be to being a better, stronger scholar and not to be more hire-able or more attractive to employers or even to my current institution. My job is to attempt to make an impact in my own field of study. This kind of thinking has really helped me to stress out way less about who I am, what I'm doing, where I'm going.

I am also learning about my own commitments to my career. At this point in my life, my work is really the most important thing in my life. Thankfully, most of the work I do on my research and writing is truly enjoyable. But here's the thing: happiness is not the same for everyone. Just because the machine tells us that we need to do x, y, or z to be happy, doesn't mean that that is what is going to make us happy. We have to find that ourselves – and sometimes that is a far distance away from the images of happiness that we are fed through movies and television.

Being a friend – going out of your way to be generous, to check up on the people you love, or even people that you don't know very well but whom you like a lot, is infinitely rewarding. I love to send emails and messages to the people in my life, sending them affection and encouragement. This is a practice I want to continue a lot more in 2015.

40. Share an important quote from 2014:
"It would be well perhaps if we were to spend more of our days and nights without any obstruction between us and the celestial bodies, if the poet did not speak so much from under a roof, or the saint dwell there so long. Birds do not sing in caves, nor do doves cherish their innocence in dovecots." (This is from Walden.)

12 December 2014

Fox-catcher

Bennett Miller is great at what he does. Miller makes very smart movies that I find really emotionally compelling, but that tend to be bleak or more clinical than most. His movies don't hit the emotional nail on the head, the way so many other filmmaker's movies tend to do. What one ends up leaving the theatre with is an overwhelming feeling of just how well made Miller's movies are.

So to begin, Foxcatcher is excellent. It is superbly acted and sparely made.

And Foxcatcher avoids the sentimental storylines it might have followed, focusing instead on the viewer's intellectual understanding of what is happening, and aiming for more complex characters – if you think of the way Capote and Moneyball work, you can see this same avoidance of simplicity. Miller creates complex, difficult characters. Even his heroes have many things wrong with them. They make awful mistakes and selfish decisions that later cause them great pain. So Foxcatcher is not a story of how bright, young wrestling star Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is seduced, exploited, and destroyed by the wealthy billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carrell). Instead it is a nuanced, slow tale of a strange relationship between this rich patron and a man who feels alone and misunderstood. Of course, du Pont is exploitative and creepy, and Schultz is a bright, young star who is innocent in many ways, but to his great credit Miller never lets us place the men in easy villain/victim roles.

Like Moneyball this film, too, is about money – about how money works to give some people what they want and ask others to bend their ideals and shape themselves into different people altogether. Foxcatcher is a fascinating character study of three men (Schultz's brother David, played by Mark Ruffalo is also a very important figure in the film). And it's also a USAmerican tragedy; Foxcatcher's ending is overwhelmingly, devastatingly sad.

Mr. Tatum
If I seem reserved in my praise of the film, and if what I'm saying sounds intellectual rather than emotional, I think that's both what the film wants from its viewers as well as a slight problem I had with the film. I really liked Foxcatcher, and yet... it wasn't everything I wanted it to be. I can't quite put my finger on what else I wanted from it – greater insight into the main character Mark Schultz and the decisions he made, more emotional resonance between the two brothers, a greater indictment of John du Pont, or wealthy entitlement in general – but I did want something else from the movie. It is an excellent film, but I suppose I must've expected something slightly different.

As for the acting, I have spoken before about how good I think Channing Tatum is. In Foxcatcher he's better than he's ever been. He's absolutely unbearably good in this movie. His performance is completely physical – he embodies this bow-legged iron-jawed wrestler perfectly – but to stare at his face (and Miller's camera does this a lot) is to see worlds of heartbreak. It's a gorgeous performance: easily one of the best of the year. Everyone is talking about Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo, and that's fine. They are both very good, but Tatum's work here is revelatory.

In any case, Foxcatcher is easily one of the best film's of the year. It's creepy and suspenseful and powerful and honest and scary and finally heartbreaking.

11 December 2014

Whiplash

Damien Chazelle's movie Whiplash is about the relationship between a young drummer – college freshman Andrew, played by the awesome Miles Teller – and Fletcher, the head of the studio jazz band at Juilliard (renamed Shaffer Conservatory in this movie) played by J.K. Simmons.

This might sound like a relatively run-of-the-mill teacher-student drama with overtones of oh, I don't know, Music of the Heart or Dead Poets Society, in which an inspiring teacher is able to change the lives of his or her young students, impacting them forever through access to the arts. Whiplash is emphatically not this. In any way.

On the contrary, Andrew is driven and single-minded. He's a character who doesn't have much time for anything outside of his music career, and he is willing to sacrifice all of the relationships in his life in order to succeed at this career. And his teacher Fletcher is an almost unmitigated asshole. He's an abusive, violent, terrifying man, who browbeats, insults, and emasculates every person (all male) in his studio band. Fletcher seems almost unhinged, purposely sabotaging the members of the band when he can, arbitrarily punishing them for the slightest of mistakes, and throwing things at their heads. Andrew's response to this is to work even harder. He practices for hours and hours, his hands turning raw and covering his drum set in blood.

Fletcher is a kind of perverse mentor, one who is possibly pushing Andrew to greatness but more probably pushing Andrew toward suicide. But the skill with which Chazelle manages to tell this story is really the best thing about Whiplash. This movie is one of the most intense experiences you can have at the cinema this year. It's absolutely nerve-wracking. The stakes are astounding. And, yes, it's just a kid in music school, but music is this young man's life, and his life always feels at stake throughout Whiplash. Andrew is drumming to become someone, to make something of himself. He, like many young people today, feels as though he is not worth anything, as though he is lost in a sea of success stories; Andrew sees being one of the world's greatest drummers as a way out of that. A way to be a person.

If it seems unlikely that any of us would suffer under the likes of a "mentor" like Fletcher, this seems perfectly logical to Andrew. This is how to become someone, and if one has to endure emotional abuse or even physical torture to achieve that, it is worth the sacrifice to him. Mercifully, Chazelle includes a counterpoint to this version of tutelage in the person of Andrew's father (played by Paul Reiser). Andrew's scenes with his dad are touching and sensitive. His dad doesn't understand Andrew's drive for greatness – like many parents, he sees his son as already a great person – but he loves him all the same and (quite naturally) wants to protect his son from the likes of people like Fletcher.

But Whiplash is not about a debate about which types of mentorship best prepare a young person for success. This is a film about a young man who is navigating a journey to selfhood. A kind of coming-of-age narrative about an undergraduate trying to be the best he can be. And by the end of the film, morality doesn't have anything to do with what we are watching. We watch Andrew carve a niche for himself, make something, in a contest of wills between him and his sadistic instructor.

Mr. Teller
The acting in this film is superb, and J.K. Simmons is being singled out for best supporting actor awards across the country right now. He is guaranteed a well-deserved Oscar nomination at this point. Why more people aren't talking about Teller's extraordinary work in the movie is another question altogether.

Critics and awards bodies tend to prefer male performances by older men and female performances by younger women.
(No one is talking about Channing Tatum's genius performance in Foxcatcher, either – more on that another day.)

The other star of the movie is its editor Tom Cross. The film is filled with sequences of drumming, of jazz ensembles playing together, and of Fletcher screaming in people's faces; Cross ratchets up the intensity, editing together an enormous amount of footage. The jazz sequences are stunning – gorgeous shots of horns and winds and bassists, interspersed with Andrew's relentless drumming. It's this that gives the film its high stakes and its desperate tension. This is must-see stuff. One of the best films of the year.

07 December 2014

Quick Thoughts on Two More Movies

I still really don't know how I feel about Birdman, although I know I like it more and more the more I think about it. While I was watching it, though, I think I was more on the fence about it than I am now.

I do know that the end of Birdman is very, very funny. I laughed and laughed all through the credits sequence. The film ends with a kind of great practical joke.

Weirdly, I think I just believed that the guy playing the Birdman had magic powers. The film said he did, so I didn't question it. I realize that later on in the film we are supposed to figure out that he imagines all of his superpowers, but I was completely on board with the whole having-superpowers thing.

I wonder if this was because Iñárritu's last film was about a man who had superhuman abilities. One of the things that I think I found difficult about Birdman was how little it was like Iñârritu's earlier films – I love his earlier work, so I sort of missed the international feel that his stuff usually has. Birdman is a very U.S.-centered movie.

But so much of it is so excellent. Those drums! The score is just this drummer. It's incredible. And the acting is great. My favorite performance was Andrea Riseborough's but the work is pretty great across the board with Edward Norton being the other real standout.

***

Force Majeure, which I saw tonight, is superb. Force Majeure is a Swedish film directed by Ruben Östlund (it was called Turist in Sweden). It's about a man and his wife and their two kids on vacation at this posh ski resort in the Alps. Early on in the vacation, an avalanche comes toward the family while they are lunching on the top of a mountain. The way that the parents and children react to this event and the fallout from their actions is the topic of the remainder of the film.

And it is a real puzzle. Force Majeure asks lots of questions about what we prioritize in our lives, about the futures we create for ourselves, about ways of dealing with confusion and crisis. It's a very, very smart movie that troubled me deeply.

The acting by the lead performers Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli is excellent, and the photography is gorgeous. There are also a bunch of beautiful supporting performances.

My favorite section of the film was a strange luminescent/dance/nightclub sequence late in the film's second act. This film about masculinity and fatherhood and dealing with being male suddenly erupts into an intense fluorescent monosexual world of beer-swilling shirtless twentysomethings all screaming and (perhaps?) hoping to prove something. In the middle of this world stands our late thirties protagonist, wearing all of his ski gear and looking as lost as he's ever been in his entire life.

Force Majeure is about feeling at a loss as to what to do. But the film itself doesn't leave its viewers behind. This is a careful, sensitive character study that is beautifully done.

Days of Future Past

Well, I am still seeing these X-men movies.  
Days of Future Past, though, really has to be the low point so far. The script was apparently cobbled together by fans of Star Trek, since the plot is really a kind of mash-up of Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home and Star Trek (VII): Generations. There's even a moment in the film when we go into Beast's office and an episode from the original Star Trek series is playing on the television set (and of course the captain from Generations is playing Professor X).

And everyone is in this X-men movie. Not content with the origin stories of the X-men that we saw in 2011's X-men: First Class, this X-men movie places us in the past and the present. We have all of the casts – the old and the new. Double the pleasure!

Well, double the confounding plots anyway. I honestly had no trouble following all of the absurd plot twists, but I can't say that I cared much about what was happening. Wolverine goes back in time into his own body in 1973, and he has to convince Professor Xavier and Magneto to work together to stop Mystique from killing Peter Dinklage. And if they do that, the world will be less afraid of mutants in the future.

Um... ok. Will he be successful? We all know the answer is yes, but if only the doing of all of this had any fun attached to it! It doesn't, or at least it has very little. Even Wolverine (who is plenty of fun and has lots of delightful quips even in the bad movies that feature only him) is boring in this movie. Worse yet are James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence, who cry and cry and have a lot of feelings throughout the film.

There is one really fun sequence in the film, when Quicksilver breaks into the Pentagon and rescues Magneto from his metal-less prison cell. This part is fun fun fun. But the rest of the movie just doesn't have the same joie de vivre; it drags and drags some more, and it's filled with ponderous philosophizing about "doing the right thing" and "noble sacrifices" and "believing in people's true path".

Let's not lie, I'll probably see the next X-men movie, all the same. (I explain my fascination with the X-men here.) But Days of Future Past was a real misstep.

06 December 2014

Women and Madness/Sadness

I don't really know what has happened, but lately I have been reading a lot about women and "mental illness". First it was three plays by Sarah Daniels (Beside Herself, Head-Rot Holiday, and The Madness of Esme and Shaz) and one by Howard Brenton (Sore Throats); then yesterday I read Caryl Churchill and David Lan's play A Mouthful of Birds, which is an extremely loose adaptation of Euripides' Bacchae. Oddly enough, I'd never before thought of the Bacchae as related to the Medea in that they are both about women killing their children. This is really strange because I've read the Bacchae dozens and dozens of times and my mind has changed about it many times, as well. But it has never really occurred to me that the play was about women who have gone mad and a woman who kills her own child. But, of course, this is the precise content of the text when examined from a certain point of view.

I have found these Sarah Daniels plays particularly illuminating about the way systems like mental institutions and state biopower silence, eliminate, and often murder women who have been sexually abused and raped by calling them "unbalanced" or "ill". Resorting to "madness" or "illness" as explanations of these women's violent, antisocial, or inexplicable actions is yet one more way that we refuse to deal with the violence committed against women's bodies (often by fathers, doctors, or the police).

This is a rather long intro to talking about the film I saw last night directed by Tommy Lee Jones. The Homesman is a cold, difficult western centered on characters about which ambivalence is the feeling you are most likely to have. These are hard, hard people, and the characters at the film's center – played by Jones himself and by Hilary Swank – are single-minded, driven characters. But The Homesman's characters are also very rich. Jones does not let us know these characters very well – what matters to the film itself is what they do – but the performers give us wells of feeling and years and years of history in their work. We instinctively know a great deal about who these two people (and indeed a whole host of gorgeously portrayed supporting characters) are and the difficult lives they have had to lead.

The excellent script (also by Jones) does not rely at all on long monologues, either, choosing to allow the empty beautiful-but-terrifying landscape itself do most of this expository work. We are in the Nebraska territories long before settlements of any size have been established. The land and sky are almost always gorgeous, but a sense of the foreboding hangs on everything at all times. Anything could happen out here, and no one would be able to say anything about it or do anything about it. There is no law. There is only what people do.

What is madness when there is no civilization? What does it mean to be crazy in a world like this? Precious little, really. Or, rather, how would anyone know?

The Homesman is ostensibly about a woman who agrees to take three women who have gone mad back over the Missouri River into Iowa (a much more settle place than the Nebraska Territory at this time). The plot, then, is about the journey, about the people we meet on the way to the Missouri, a kind of picaresque portrait of the "west" at this time. Like the Bacchae, though, The Homesman turns out to be about women and madness much more fundamentally. And it approaches this topic with delicacy, humanity, and poetry. This is a slow but beautiful little film that I found very moving. It won't be everyone's cup of tea (as usual, the septuagenarians in Hanover who watched it with me disliked it and were totally baffled by it), but it is excellent.

For the record, the other actors in the film (all doing great work) are Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep, Hailee Steinfeld, Sonja Richter, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, William Fichtner, Evan Jones, Barry Corbin, John Lithgow, Jesse Plemons, and especially David Dencik. As for Oscar chances, I am not sure how hard its distributors are pushing, but Oscar nominations for Hilary Swank and for Marco Beltrami's score would be easy to get with a little work, it seems to me.

03 December 2014

Two in Black and White

Another foreign film shot entirely in black and white? In fact, aside from Ida, I've seen two others like this recently.

Jan Ole Gerster's A Coffee in Berlin, originally released in Germany as Oh Boy, is a beautiful character study with a gorgeous central performance by actor Tom Schilling. The film is very funny with a kind of running joke about not ever being able to get a simple cup of coffee. The real topic of the film is disaffection and the difficulties of deciding what to do with one's life. The main character Niko is a confused young man, but the movie itself looks at the people in his world with growing alarm. Niko's world is populated with strange people, most of whom are incredibly unhappy.

But A Coffee in Berlin is an enormously pleasurable experience, filled with funny moments and tiny bits of wisdom. It is a clever, intriguing comedy-drama that also manages to assess "success" as it is sold to the young by those who have "achieved" it.

Jan Troell's Dom över Död Man, released in the U.S. as The Last Sentence, struck me as much less successful. I don't think I was particularly exhausted when I went to watch Troell's film or not, but I came away from it thinking that even though I like slow films, Troell's films are often much too slow for me. Troell is interested in the slow burn, but The Last Sentence is a film that, for me, never actually went anywhere. The main character is a man who is writing against the Nazis in pre-war and then in wartime Sweden.

The man has lots of enemies, of course, but Dom över Död Man is less about his railings against Hitler and his anti-Semitism than it is about his affair with the woman who owns his newspaper, the way this slowly kills his wife, and the ways that he deals with his mistress and his mistress's husband. All of this is complex and sad. And it has everything to do with getting very old and losing interest in everything in which one thought one had an interest, but it ends up not being all that, well, interesting. I was annoyed by this old man and his inability to see how much he was hurting everyone, and I was annoyed by the fact that all of this only seemed to make him suffer more. And I suppose this is the way of Swedish cinema, but I found The Last Sentence a difficult slog.

02 December 2014

The Theory of Everything

It would be silly to try to evaluate The Theory of Everything as an actual film. It is a movie so interested in being an Oscar contender and so obviously filmed with "Oscar" in mind, that it only makes sense to talk about Everything as it pertains to Oscar.

This isn't to say that Everything isn't enjoyable at times. It is. But the first half of the film is a generic English love story, and the second half of the film – although we only know the characters because of the parts they generally play in the love-story genre – is a disability narrative that plays up all of the old tropes of disabilities you'd expect from a Hallmark movie.

Eddie Redmayne hits all of the right notes as Stephen Hawking, and he looks the part, his wiry frame and Jan Sewell's makeup combining to convince us that we are looking at the famous physicist.

Felicity Jones is less convincing as Hawking's wife, mostly because she looks about thirty years old throughout the film's entirety (i.e. her actual age). The transformation of Stephen Hawking over time is so vivid and concretely realized that it looks odd to see his wife looking the same age as when he met her at Cambridge when they were both kids. All of this is odd because Everything is ostensibly her story, based on the memoir of Jane Hawking herself. And although the film can't help but be about her more than it is about him, it appears that the filmmakers resisted that as much as they could, attempting to make this the Stephen Hawking story. It is a strange marriage that feels like a struggle throughout.

Mr. Lloyd
For me the standout performance in the movie was by a guy named Harry Lloyd. He plays Hawking's friend at graduate school, and he is the first person to be told that Hawking has two years to live. His work in this sequence is perfect. One sees everything in his face. It is a gorgeously honest performance.

In the film's second act, Charlie Cox is introduced and Everything gets a little queer. It was here where my companions and I perked up at the possibilities of the movie. Maybe, we thought, we are in for something a little different. But the movie can't really manage its own queerness. Uncomfortable in its non-generic territory, it returns us to genre by picking a new genre: this time the overcoming-disability-supercrip narrative so often described by critical disability studies.

But the script, I wager, has some legs for an Oscar nomination, and once audiences see Everything their heartstrings (as it were) are going to be tugged. The score could get an Oscar nomination, as well. I would also expect the two leads to snag nominations. I'm betting four nominations, no wins. And if you don't care about  the Oscars, go ahead and skip this one altogether.