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

29 December 2016

Two Cartoons

Moana was totally delightful. I can't get behind Lin-Manuel Miranda's singing voice, but when he has time to polish his rhymes, he cranks out some great stuff – a highlight for me was The Rock's song "You're Welcome". I loved all the Polynesian mythology, the animation is fun, and the characters are great. I cried like five times.

Trolls is asinine. This is a movie based on a doll that used to be popular when I was a kid. What in the actual fuck. Honestly, I didn't mind one bit and thoroughly enjoyed myself. It doesn't take its own rainbows and glitter too seriously, and there is much to recommend by way of fun.

28 December 2016

Fences and Putting Theatre Onscreen

For me, Fences had two strikes against it before I got there. While I love many of Wilson's other plays (Two Trains, Seven Guitars, Piano Lesson) and obviously love the project of the Century Cycle itself, I've always found Fences a fairly clunky play (I don't care if it did win a Pulitzer). Fences, too, is one of Wilson's more realist dramas: his early plays like Fences, Ma Rainey and Jitney just don't have the bold theatricality of some of the later plays (Gem, Joe Turner, Hedley).

I was skeptical, too, of what I saw as Denzel Washington's leisurely, self-indulgent way of playing Fences' protagonist Troy Maxson. I've seen video of Washington onstage, and he took his time with that role. There was a YouTube video going around for awhile that compared the original Troy, James Earl Jones, with Washington scene for scene, and Jones's work is tighter, stronger, and more about the character than the actor; Washington played the part onstage like everyone was there to see him.

[Side note: I almost went to an early screening of this in Florida in early December, but I had stood in line for 90 minutes and then knew I was going to get stuck in the front row of the theatre, so I left without watching the movie. I figured my annoyance with the situation would disallow my enjoyment of the movie, and with the two strikes already against Fences in my head, I figured I shouldn't prejudice myself against this movie.]

But strikes or no strikes, Fences is superb. In fact, I surprised myself by loving it as much as I did. The film's central character, Troy Maxson, is not a likable man. He's difficult and frustrated and frequently ungenerous, and when he started in on his Wilsonian monologues, I felt my impatience rise in my chest, but almost immediately, Denzel Washington's brilliant performance won me over. His work is, honestly, masterful. He is impossible not to love. He is berating his son and causing his wife pain, but he's an extraordinary character. Lovable isn't the right word, but he is compelling, powerful, insistent on his own position in the world, and filled with grief – endless mourning, even – of having been forced to live during Jim Crow. The film takes place in Pittsburgh's Hill District, of course, where all but one of the plays in the Century Cycle are set, but Jim Crow was alive and well in the North, as well, and racist union practices, racist major league baseball restrictions, and racist policing practices have all restricted Troy's life in inexorable ways.

What is so genius about Wilson's work here – and this is on display perfectly in Washington's film – is that even though the play itself (and this is why he chooses realism as his form) is really about how racist circumstances and situations have shaped these men and women, his characters are beautiful, fully draw human beings who attempt to live out their dreams. What I mean to say is that Wilson is primarily interested in a kind of materialist analysis of the effects of racism on the lives of black people in the North, but his characterization is so superb that he also manages beautiful historical portraits of black folkways in the great tradition of Georgia Douglas Johnson and Sterling Brown.

Mr. Hornsby
Just a bit more to say. First off, this is the play made into a film. Washington keeps nearly everything from the stage version. It occasionally feels like a play, but mostly it doesn't. For the most part it feels dynamic and moves nicely. Fences looks less like a play than the most recent Woody Allen movie, for example. This is all due to Washington's directorial point of view, which is studied and smart and much much better than directorial efforts by actors that we have seen in the past (remember The Good Soldier?). Washington is a very good film director. He does not have a relaxed or direct gaze. The work is interesting and moves much more fluidly than films like Doubt and Proof and Into the Woods and that one where Michael Fassbender played Jung to Viggo Mortensen's Freud.

The acting is top notch all around. Washington is superb. Davis is excellent. Russell Hornsby is fantastic. Stephen McKinley Henderson is great. It's a very, very good cast. Expect Oscar nominations for Washington and Davis for sure. (Davis is committing category fraud by running as supporting in what is unquestionably a lead performance.) But this will also be nominated for Best Picture, and, if they're not out of their minds, Best Director, as well.

22 December 2016

Nostalgia for Old Glamor

Hollywood loves itself, and movies about old Hollywood seem to arrive on the scene every year. Last year we had the abysmal Trumbo, but not so long ago, we had The Artist, which was delightful and went on to win Best Picture. And, incidentally, I really liked Hail, Caesar!, this year's Coen Brothers spectacle. This year's winner will be about Hollywood, too, (I'm talking about La La Land, obviously), but it will be a different kind of nostalgia trip that three movies I'm reporting on today were.

First, a movie that is already on DVD, Woody Allen's Café Society. Is this movie about café society in New York? I guess it is. But more importantly this movie is just bad. Jesse Eisenberg plays a young Jewish kid and neurotic Woody Allen surrogate, who falls in love with a woman he can't have. Fine. That part of the film is actually sort of interesting.

The really bad part is Steve Carrell as his movie-mogul uncle. The film is filled with name-dropping absurdities. Carrell informs us that "I'm expecting a call from Ginger Rogers" or some other nondescript idiocy. There are no actors in Kate Hepburn or Hedda Hopper drag, and actually I can't believe that I am about to say this, but I think the film could've been improved by that camp gesture that usually so annoys me. I say this because without actors in drag as famous people, Café Society feels like a hermetically sealed Woody Allen universe that has no attachment to reality in any way. I never for one moment believed Steve Carrell was a movie executive, I never believed he had lunch with Errol Flynn, and I never, for that matter, even believed he lived in Los Angeles.

As I've said before about this period of Woody Allen's career, I feel like Allen can still write a movie – the premise and ending of Café Society are intriguing – but he no longer knows how to direct one (cf. Magic in the Moonlight, Blue Jasmine, To Rome with Love). Café Society feels phony in the extreme, filled with caricatures on movie sets doing things that real people never do and saying words that sound like bad readings of a Woody Allen screenplay. I still feel an attachment to Allen's universes, and that's why I saw this, but if you care about yourself, you will skip this film.

* * *
And then there is Rules Don't Apply, the first film by the great Warren Beatty since 1998's Bulworth. (Honestly, how is that possible???). This is actually a fairly charming little movie, although it does wear out its welcome after awhile.

Ms. Collins and Mr. Ehrenreich
Beatty has said that Rules Don't Apply is not a film about Howard Hughes, but is instead a movie about two young people who get caught up in Hughes's world. The two have been damaged by Christianity so much that they feel like they can't love one another even though they do. All of this is true. the film is about that, but Rules Don't Apply has Howard Hughes in it, and Hughes is too large a character for the film to be about anything else. Rules becomes about Howard's strange peccadilloes, even if it wants to be an old-fashioned love story about two kids overcoming silly Christian mores. 

The storytelling here is charming, though. Lily Collins, Alden Ehrenreich, Beatty himself, Annette Bening, Matthew Broderick, Candice Bergen, and the other (numerous) actors who appear in the film are all absolutely delightful. And the whole thing has a delightful whimsy that didn't wear thin for me, even though the Rules as a whole feels fairly shallow. 

Perhaps most disappointing about Rules is that it isn't going to get any Oscar nominations. Or... well, actually, I actually think the song "The Rules Don't Apply" actually deserves a nomination, and may garner the film its only one. It's just not a deep enough movie, glamorous and cute as it was.

* * *
Last but certainly not least is Jackie from Chilean director Pablo Larraín, who has had three movies released in the U.S. in 2016 (The Club was earlier in the year and Neruda is in theatres now). 

Jackie is an intense character study of Jacqueline Kennedy from just before the president is shot and killed to the end of his funeral procession. The form of the film is odd, though, and this is most clearly marked by Mica Levi's dissonant horror-film score, which either makes or breaks the film, depending on your perspective. But Jackie is not Jackie without this score. Levi's music is overwhelming, insistent, and always troubling. As Jackie interacts with Robert Kennedy, with Rose Kennedy, with Jack Valenti, with Lyndon Johnson, one has a constant sense of disturbance, disruption, even terror. It's a very jarring effect.

I thought Jackie was a weird movie. I rather appreciated what it was trying to do, but I can't say that I enjoyed it. I liked its version of character study – one that takes stock of a person in crisis and then makes judgments about her based on the decisions she made during this very difficult time. Jackie has a great deal of affection for its central figure, but is also deeply suspicious of her, sees her as fundamentally flawed, ambitious, vindictive, perhaps even shallow. This makes the whole thing complicated and interesting, certainly, but... well it just isn't all that pleasurable. I found myself growing impatient with Mrs. Kennedy, with her tics and her wealth and her pretensions ("I don't smoke", she tells a reporter, though she has been chainsmoking throughout the entire film).

Jackie is going to get a single Oscar nomination for Natalie Portman (and maybe could net one more for Costume Design), but I can't see this picture connecting with audiences in a big way.

In fairness to Larraín's movie, I will say that my central thought while watching the pageantry of Jack Kennedy's funeral was about how classy it all was. Say what you want about Jackie Kennedy, she had class. How far we have fallen! We are about to install the most vulgar, classless president in American history into the White House, and the new First Lady won't even be moving into the house where Jackie, Caroline, and John Jr. lived. It is very hard not to think about President-Elect Trump while watching Jackie, and it may be that, finally, that makes the movie difficult to watch.

More movies to come! I'm seeing lots of them.

17 December 2016

Morris from America

This comedy from Chad Hartigan was disappointing. All of the best bits were in the trailer.

14 December 2016

X-men: Apocalypse

I'm officially done watching these X-men: Origins movies. I totally want to see the new Logan movie that comes out in March, so I am not swearing off of the franchise altogether, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna sit through another narrative where a group of young mutants whom I barely know decide between the good mutant (James McAvoy) who wants to protect all of the humans from the random evil besetting the world and the the bad mutant (Michael Fassbender) who also wants to protect all of the humans from the random evil besetting the world.

The thing that really sucks about these stupid Origins movies, though, are the performances. They're just embarrassing. Jennifer Lawrence and James McAvoy have spent the majority of each one of these movies just weeping. Now, I know J-Law only knows how to look sullen in movies, but I am used to McAvoy being a bit more engaging. I don't know what happened to him with this franchise, but he seems only able to cry and tell Michael Fassbender that he loves him. (Not that I blame him for the latter.)

As for what this movie was about. I don't think I can even remember. Ancient Egypt. Apocalypse. End of the world. Tye Sheridan (love him even though this movie is dumb). Something something the secret to it all is actually Jean Grey something something. Wolverine cameo. Lachrymose actors. Crisis averted. World returns to normal. McAvoy and Fassbender say goodbye with some difficulty, while McAvoy looks smugly condescending and Fassbender looks bored.

Days of X-men past:
The Last Stand
Days of Future Past
The Wolverine

I'm not doing it again, I tell you.

13 December 2016

Summing Up 2016

1. What did you do in 2016 that you'd never done before?
Visited the Mayan temples at Cobá and Tulúm.
Went to Savannah to try to see some haunts.

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I had three resolutions last year: to finish writing my book, to cook through Ottolenghi's  Jerusalem, and to have noticeably bigger arms. I kept the first one. I mostly finished the second one. The third... well, although I did Insanity every day during the Summer, as soon as Fall rolled around I started slacking again. The job I have takes up an enormous amount of my time, and working out every day means not doing any of my own research. The arms, in other words, are not noticeably bigger. Maybe in the Spring I will figure out a better plan?
I'll probably make some resolutions for next year, but I need to think about it more.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes! Carlos and Danis had their son Owen. And Aaron and Kristen welcomed little Caleb.
And Mike and Brandee brought home baby Poet.
(After this was posted, my friends Rick and Jill welcomed their daughter Maura Alessandra.)

4. Did anyone close to you die?
No. But I am keenly feeling the loss of bisexual adult film star Alexander Gustavo, who took his own life on December 17th. [NSFW link to this story here.] And George Michael died on Christmas Day. I will, perhaps, write something more about these two deaths, which have really saddened me.

5. What countries did you visit?
México. Three friends and I went to Tulúm in the state of Quintana Roo for Spring Break. I saw many Mayan ruins. I laid on the beach. I did a Temazcal ceremony. I ate lots of ceviche. It was lovely.

6. What would you like to have in 2017 that you lacked in 2016?
A contract for book #1.

7. What dates from 2016 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
As much as I'd like to, it's going to be pretty difficult to forget election day of 2016, November 8th – the day we found out that a lot of people have decided to give up on liberalism in the U.S.
June 12th, too, is going to stick in my memory for a long time. The Pulse shooting, where 49 people (mostly queer people) lost their lives to a homophobic American terrorist, happened only 9 miles from my apartment. I had had a really fun weekend with my friend Adam, but woke up to horror on the news.
Also March 11th, the night before my birthday this year, was amazing. More on that below.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Finishing the first draft of The Violate Man this summer.
Doing the Insanity program again at age 35.
But let's be real with one another: 2016 has been a garbage fire of a year. Everyone agrees. Simply surviving it without going totally nuts is an achievement worth acknowledging.

9. What was your biggest failure?
I fail, frequently, to be patient with others. I have also failed, in many cases, to communicate to my friends how much I love them. It is easy for me to disappear into solitude. I need to be better about this.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
I didn't. I had a little tiny flare-up of the diverticulitis, but I went directly to my doctor, got on antibiotics, and we think it went away.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
I bought a beautiful new table.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
The heroic men and women who stood up against our government's plan for the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Senator Bernie Sanders.
Seth Meyers.
President Obama.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
American Democrats, who decided, as a group, to run a candidate far to the right of their supposed values. I am not trying to be a Monday morning quarterback, just noting that I was disappointed in the values of these Democrats.
American Republicans, who decided, more as a group than anyone thought, to elect a man whom everyone agrees is totally unqualified to run our government. It seems that many of these voters hate Hillary Clinton beyond all reason, or they are simply so tired of the American experiment that they wish to burn it all down. Fair enough, but to have chosen to elect this man is irresponsible in the extreme.
President-elect Donald Trump, who proved himself a racist, fascist demagogue incapable of leadership, sense, and even basic politeness.
The Christian Right, who apparently care only about fetuses, and care nothing for the lives of men, women, and children who are already alive. Honestly, the fact that American Christians have not moved boldly behind movements like Black Lives Matter as a group is astounding to me. I find it indefensible, in fact, and void of any logic whatsoever. How can potential lives matter more than actual ones? And I'm certainly not suggesting that this political group needs to choose between the two. What should shock us all is that they have.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Travel, actually, which, when I think about it, is a pretty good decision.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
ASTR 2016
Summer! Actually, I think the answer to this question is: the end of the school term.

16. What song will always remind you of 2016?
Frank Ocean's "Solo" was definitely the song I listened to most this year.
And although this song came out in 2009, the song that will probably remind me most of 2016 is RuPaul's "Cover Girl".

17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
a) happier or sadder? Happier
b) thinner or fatter? Fatter
c) richer or poorer? Richer. But that's saying nothing.

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Hiking. Hanging out with friends. Reading.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Teaching. I like it and all, but boy do I sure spend a lot of time doing it.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
I'll be in Los Angeles. I can't wait.

21. Did you fall in love in 2016?
Uh... no.

22. How many one-night stands?
Every year I forget to keep track of this. I think that's probably because I think keeping track is sort of sex-negative. At least 3 – an improvement on last year!

23. What was your favorite TV program?
I watched way more television this year than I have in the last decade. I watched season two of American Crime for work (it was good!), but more importantly, 2016 was the year that I got hooked on RuPaul's Drag Race. A student sent me a video of an episode of the All Stars 2 season, and it was totally compelling. Now I'm watching my way backwards. I've seen seasons 8, 7, and most of 6. I am honestly not that interested in the cattiness of the queens, and I think the worst part of the show is the judges' completely inane puns during the runway sequences. But I love watching these gay men interact with one another and tell their stories. It's really beautiful.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
Last year I was like "Who has time to hate people?" but this year has brought out a lot of bullshit. I still don't think I hate anyone. But I have definitely run across one or two folks in the course of my job whom I find completely unbearable.

25. What was the best book you read?
Nick Salvato's Obstruction is a beautifully written book about writing and the work and blockages involved in creativity.
I fell in love with a couple of great plays, too: Jackie Sibblies Drury's We Are Proud to Present a Presentation about the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, from the German Südwestafrika, between the Years 1884–1915 and Chantal Bilodeau's Sila.
I have been disappointed in many of the contemporary novels I've read recently, but not disappointed at all with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah.
And as for classics, I loved Invisible Cities and 2001: a Space Odyssey.
Oh! One more. Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts. It's surprising and beautiful.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
James Vincent McMorrow. (Thanks, Kody!)

27. What was the best piece of theatre you saw?
I saw very little good theatre this year, but at Orlando Fringe I saw a little piece called Darlings by a group called Animal Engine that I really loved.

28. What did you want and get?
Attention from a publisher.
A new album from Frank Ocean.
A new movie from Pedro Almodóvar.
Oscar nominations for Charlotte Rampling and David Lang.
An Oscar for Son of Saul.
Legalization of marijuana in several states.

29. What did you want and not get?
The dismantling of American prisons.
I mean, look, I'd like a lot of things – increased police accountability, an end to violent American colonialism, an attempted mitigation of the destruction we are causing to the planet, more liberty for individuals in this country. I understand that these things are not priorities for many USAmericans. So I try to keep my desires in check.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
It's still early December, but so far it is Embrace of the Serpent.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 35 and spent the day in Tulúm, México. Three friends and I joined four strangers for a Temazcal sweat-lodge ceremony the night before my birthday, and we sweated and sweated in a room filled with red-hot stones. The Temazcal is supposed to be a way of connecting with the earth and connecting with the elements. It is designed, as well, for the participants to get rid of things they no longer wish to carry and then restrengthen themselves before joining the outside world again. The ceremony took almost everything out of me, and I needed help standing as I got out of the lodge. My friends and I all had similarly powerful experiences, and we realized we were all too frail to go back to town immediately, so we walked out onto the beach at night and sat on the sand quietly feeling the wind and the surf. It was a powerful way to ring in thirty-five.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
Someone with whom to share it.
But then again, maybe not. I am very used to living alone, at this point. I'm not sure I could manage another person taking up space here.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2016?
Terrible. I don't think I went shopping once.

34. What kept you sane?
Travel. This year I traveled much more than I usually do. It always makes me anxious, still, but my trips to México, to Chicago, to Minneapolis, to Ft. Lauderdale, and to Savannah this year were all so necessary to my well being. Living far away from friends means that one needs to pack a bag and go see them every once in a while. I did not go to Virginia this year, even though I usually spend much of my summer there, and instead I went to lots of other places. I am sure it was the right decision.
And group chats. I have one on facebook with my friends Alex, Ryan, and Patrick. It definitely keeps me sane. Those three help me navigate the absurdity of academic listservs, job market woes, and publishing anxiety with generosity and grace. I love them. But I have 2 group chats via SMS as well: a group of high school friends who share jokes and ridiculous products for sale, and one called "Firing on All Six Cylinders" with a group of roommates from grad school. I need all of them in order to keep an even keel.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
 Colin Kaepernick

Alden Ehrenreich

 Danell Leyva

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Black lives matter. Say it. And keep saying it. And if you can't say it, or don't want to say it, let's talk about why that is.

37. Whom did you miss?
More than anyone else, my colleagues in the Northeast.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Deborah Hartranft

39. Tell us a valuable life-lesson you learned in 2016:
Stop volunteering for things! You have enough to do on your own; you don't need to go making more work for yourself by trying to help people out. It is nice to be a nice person, but really you need to protect yourself.

40. Share an important quote from 2016:
"Regard everything that lies around you like the luggage in a hotel room. You must move on. You came in at nature's behest, and you are going back the same way. You are not allowed to take out more than you brought in, or rather, the main part of what you brought in with you into life must be laid aside."
Seneca the Younger, Letters on Ethics 102.24-25.

11 December 2016


Antonio Campos's Christine is not an easy film. It follows a very depressed young professional who is working as a television news reporter in Sarasota, Florida, a very small television market where she reports on things like strawberry festivals and local chickens and crises related to county-line disputes. The depressed Christine can't seem to gain any kind of traction with her difficult boss, and she is also consistently saying the wrong thing in confrontations with him, making things even more difficult for her then they already are.

I watched Christine last Thursday night in a theatre completely empty of other patrons, and I couldn't quite blame audiences for not showing up for this movie. As I say, it is not easy to watch. In fact, much of it is downright uncomfortable. Rebecca Hall's fierce performance as the eponymous Christine never gets bogged down with trying to make the audience love her. Instead she pushes the awkwardness to the extreme. Christine is difficult to watch because Christine herself is so unbearable. She's rude and unlovable, nasty to her competitors and over-compensatingly abrupt with the people she likes. This is a portrait of a woman going through a breakdown, something she finds insanely difficult to master.

As the film's third act began, though, I started to wonder but where is this all headed? How does one end a film like this? I am an idiot and did not realize that the story of Christine is the true story of reporter Christine Chubbuck, whose story became household knowledge in 1974. In any case, the film follows the story of the real Christine, and the film ended in a way that I found completely surprising and totally justified. (Incidentally the film's denouement is pretty near perfect.)

But the standout here is not the difficult subject matter of Christine, but the skill with which Rebecca Hall plays this fascinating character. Hall's performance is extraordinary; she tears into the part remorselessly, and refuses to pity Christine, even as she sympathizes with her and loves her. It is one of the best performances of the year, and the picture is worth seeing just for her. If, however, my lack of companions at the theatre last Thursday night is any indication, don't look for Hall to garner her first Oscar nomination come January. Christine's complex and difficult subject matter is not going to find audiences queuing up to see it.

06 December 2016

The Handmaiden

Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden (아가씨) is sexy and surprising and mysterious. It is also beautifully composed and gorgeously directed, while also managing to be quite funny on occasion. This is an erotic lesbian thriller with many nods to the Marquis de Sade that also stars the gorgeous (and brilliant) Ha Jung-woo. It is a mystery film that changes genre at least once and still revealed secrets all the way up to its great ending. Absolutely not to be missed!
Ha Jung-woo

03 December 2016

The Riot Club

Distasteful. This is supposed to be a portrait of masculinity run amok, corruption, and the absolute contempt of the wealthy for those classed lower than themselves. It is certainly that. What the film doesn't do is actually tell us anything we do not already know. Worse yet, either director Lone Scherfig expects us to enjoy all of this pathetic masculinity or it wishes us to love hating it. This is entertainment? I just hated it.