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

29 December 2018

2018 Animated Movie Roundup

I have been puzzling over which films might be nominated in the five slots for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars. Last year you might remember that voters scraped the absolute bottom of the barrel. So few good animated movies came out that the members of the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch unironically nominated The Boss Baby and Ferdinand as somehow equal in quality to Coco. Their hands were tied, though. According to the rules for this category, if a certain number of animated features is released in any given year, there will be five nominees. The threshold was reached in 2017, but the quality was not.

This year, however, we're in a different situation. Early in the year, Wes Anderson's gorgeous (if twee) Isle of Dogs came out, and in June Pixar/Disney released Incredibles 2 (which does have a really awesome sequence where a baby fights a racoon but which ends up being only just fine). And here we are in December and Spider-man: into the Spider-verse, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and Mirai are all in theatres.

There are even two additional contenders for this category, as far as I can tell. Those are Nick Park's Early Man and Milorad Krstić's Ruben Brandt, Collector (which I want to see whether it gets nominated or not).
* * *
Through a stroke of sheer luck I managed to see Hosoda Mamoru's Mirai. It's playing in select cities (this week it's Oakland, Tucson, Vancouver, and a few others), and as soon as I heard about the movie I googled it and it was playing in Tallahassee, where I live. It screened twice only in one weekend via Fathom Events, and I secured myself a ticket knowing nothing about the movie.

...And it is one of my favorite things I saw this year. Mirai is the story of little two-year-old Kun, whose parents bring home a baby sister. The little boy is inevitably jealous, as his parents divert some of their attention to the little girl and away from him. In the world of Mirai, however, Kun is visited by a few impossible guests, including his sister as a middle-schooler. (The title of the movie, Mirai, is the girl's name, but it also means the future. In Japanese the title is a pun: 未来のミライ – Mirai from the Future.)

This is a magical, deeply moving film. It starts off simple, with the smallest of problems, but it becomes a gorgeous meditation on family connections, what we pass down through our familial lines, the histories of our ancestry, and the importance of letting small things go in favor of big relationships. I fell in love with this film and I can't recommend it enough.

* * *
And then there's the sequel to Wreck-it-Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet. The original film came out in 2012, so I have to confess to forgetting whether I liked it or not. This is actually why I keep a blog in the first place, because I can never remember why (or sometimes even whether) I liked a movie or not. In any case, I saw Ralph Breaks the Internet and thought it was very, very stupid.

It's worth saying, I think, that one of the reasons I really disliked this movie is that I think Sarah Silverman's acting is very bad. John C. Reilly is great – he's always great – and he plays his big, dumb character with sincerity and sensitivity. But Silverman is doing this phony little kid voice that a) doesn't sound like a little kid at all and b) sounds like an adult's commentary on a little kid. It's as though the entire performance is a kind of tongue-in-cheek critique of how stupid little kids are. (And I don't think kids are stupid at all, so I don't understand why this movie thinks they are.)

What annoyed me about it so much is that Ralph Breaks the Internet thinks its audience is stupid. The jokes are all stupid, the "lessons" it has to "teach" are all stupid, and although it purports to be a movie about the internet, it has nothing interesting to say about the internet at all. It is simply filled with a bunch of things we already know about the internet. Its plot is all clichés and its sentiments are all hackneyed. I haven't seen a lot of movies I've hated in 2018, but this is easily the worst thing I've seen all year. It doesn't even try to be a good movie.

Ralph Breaks the Internet is a complete and total waste of time. (Oh, I finally looked to see whether or not I liked the original Wreck-it-Ralph. Turns out, I didn't. I ranked it 73 out of 87 in 2012. Right below The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey.)

* * *
But why keep trashing Ralph Breaks the Internet when I could be talking about how fucking awesome Spider-man: into the Spider-verse is?

This. Movie. Is. So. Cool. There are numerous things to say about this, and I think the plot is inventive and fun, but Into the Spider-verse is, after all, a superhero movie, and so you already know the plot. An evil bad guy with lots of money or lots of spunk has invented some insane device in order to do something or other and destroy the world in the process. There is one small way to stop him, and stop him we must! Save the world! As you can probably surmise, the world does not get destroyed and the villain does not succeed. But this is just the plot, and if you've come to Into the Spider-verse for the plot, you're here for the wrong reasons.

The importance here is on the visuals, which are the coolest I've seen in maybe the last five years. This film is endlessly inventive, totally bizarre, and completely delightful. It has an awesome soundtrack, but mostly it just looks so cool. Into the Spider-verse replicates the look of a comic book in fascinating ways, as though you're inside a moving comic book. I saw it in 3D and I think that's an absolute must. The movie uses several comic book devices as it tells its story, and it continued to surprise me, throughout its entire length, including during its (very cool) end credits sequence.

I can't recommend this movie enough. I've put it at #3 for the year – above most of the year's "best" movies, including Roma, A Star Is Born, BlacKkKlansman, and Black Panther.

28 December 2018

Outlaw/King & BlacKkKlansman

I am in Los Angeles, and I'm trying to see as many movies as I can, which means I'm way behind on writing about the movies I've seen. Here are two 2018 movies I saw last month.

I really liked Outlaw/King. The fight sequences are great and numerous. And this violence is excellently done. (Sidebar, for me, "well done" violence means violence that the audience can't quite enjoy, violence that doesn't lie about the anguish it causes or the destruction of bodies and lives that it wreaks. I honestly didn't find Outlaw/King to be much more than an action movie set in the early 14th century, but it does that action very well, and it's a gripping, intense, and enjoyable film with a solid group of performers and an engaging plot. David Mackenzie, who directed 2016's Hell or High Water (with Pine and Ben Foster), directed the movie.

The acting in Outlaw/King is uniformly fine. Chris Pine is strangely subdued here. His usual wicked dynamism seems placed in check either by the fact that he's playing Robert the Bruce or perhaps by his lack of interest in his female co-star. It's puzzling. Florence Pugh, who was utter perfection in last year's Lady Macbeth is good here, but seems as subdued, in many ways, as Pine. Maybe this was a directorial thing? I think of all three of the main actors (the other is Aaron Taylor-Johnson) as wild-card performers who often opt for the outrageous in their work, but all of the acting in Outlaw/King is played quite straight. For me the main bright spot was Billy Howle's beautiful performance as the Prince of Wales, Edward (who would become Edward II). Howle was very good in (the boring) On Chesil Beach earlier this year, and is even better here.

Should we talk about Pine's peen? Almost all of the press surrounding Outlaw/King involved discussion of the fact that Pine has a scene in which he goes full frontal. But it's an eye-roll of a scene: a tiny moment in the movie. Don't watch the movie for Chris Pine's genitals. Watch for the action. It's great.
* * *
BlacKkKlansman is also great. I know Spike Lee can be a hit-or-miss director, and often his films don't feel produced as well as they should be, but there's no dying that Lee has a characteristic, clever, ironic style. I always enjoy his approach to movie-making, and Klansman uses this style in some beautiful ways.

Klansman is – how could it not be with its plot? – frequently good, campy fun. Lee approaches the 1970s as a time filled with racism, when law enforcement ignored the terrorist activities of the KKK and didn't bother them, but this approach is... fun. Normally I would find this kind of an attitude toward a serious issue to be annoying, but Lee never allows the stakes to evaporate. Racist bigotry is absurd, and the Klansmen in the movie are idiots whose logic makes no sense. But they're still dangerous. They still have guns. They still want Jewish and Black folks to die. Lee never lets us forget the stakes that are in operation in the 1970s.

A side note on camp. Lee sets the tone of this movie with a cameo from Isiah Whitlock, (a Lee alum – he was also in 25th Hour, Chi-Raq, She Hate Me, etc.) doing his famous bit from The Wire, in which he says sheeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit for so long it begins to sound like an aria. I screamed with laughter when this happened. This is Whitlock's only scene, but it sets the tone of BlacKkKlansman perfectly.

The acting is pretty great across the board, and Klansman may even end up with two Oscar nominations. I think my favorite performance in the movie was Ryan Eggold's, but Laura Harrier, Adam Driver, John David Washington (Denzel's son), and Topher Grace (as David Duke) are all excellent.

Where Lee really hits his film out of the park, though, is with the film's ending. I don't think it's spoiling anything to tell you that the end of BlacKkKlansman jumps forward to the racist violence during the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. There's the KKK again, doing what it's been doing since the 1970s, and... there's David Duke, speaking about "good white men" and Donald Trump in the same breath, forty years later. It's absolutely chilling, and if the movie has been funny and clever, and if we've been able to laugh derisively at the absurd racist antics of the Klan members in BlacKkKlansman, it's impossible to laugh at that same racism in 2017. It's a powerful movie.

17 December 2018

BoRhap Horseman

I saw Bohemian Rhapsody tonight. I had been avoiding it. The problems with both the script and the set were widely reported. Sacha Baron Cohen was supposed to play Mercury but quit the production. Then Rami Malek had director Bryan Singer fired during production. (Dexter Fletcher finished the shoot. Also, how is Bryan Singer still even working? Spacey fell hard but Singer is still around? Really?) Then BoRhap got terrible reviews. I thought the whole thing was sort of a train wreck. I don't usually like train wrecks. I don't even get pleasure out of watching things that people say are so bad they're good. So I was prepared to look away.

But then BoRhap became the most popular musical biopic of all time and made a ton of money and it became clear that Rami Malek is almost definitely getting a Best Actor nomination. Since I usually gamble on these sorts of things and try to pre-game these movies, I figured after the SAG nominations that I had to see BoRhap. It's almost certainly getting a best actor nomination, and it may also get nominations in sound mixing and costume design. It might even deserve those last two nominations.

It's worth saying, too, that I loved Ben Hardy in this movie. He plays Queen's drummer, Roger Taylor, and he's excellent.

The thing about BoRhap is that there's just not much to it. That's sort of odd to say for a movie that is 2 hours and 14 minutes, but there simply is not much of a plot: Queen gets famous and then... Queen stays famous. To be fair, most of the film is actually about Freddie Mercury and his weird relationship with his girlfriend–fiancée Mary. There are two very long scenes where Queen fights with a record producer about whether or not "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a good song. These pass for plot as well as for conflict in Anthony McCarten's screenplay, and I have to say that even though these scenes don't work, they do give the movie a kind of structure on which to hang a story.

Ben Hardy as Roger Taylor
The screenplay itself is pretty terrible. Just as one example, there's this really clunky sequence where Mercury's dad explains that their family is of Parsi heritage and, like, basically reads a little Wikipedia summary of Parsi ethnicity. The rest of it is your typical rock-star drama. Lead singer becomes too big for the band, turns to drugs and sex and easy living (more on this in a moment), and deserts his faithful brothers in the band who have been nothing but loyal. But then! He learns his lesson and comes crawling back. Humbled, he asks for forgiveness and his band forgives him. Then they give a reunion performance and everyone cries. You've seen this before. We all have. And here's a drinking game: take a shot every time a member of Queen says "we're a family".

But... and here is where we really run into trouble – at least for this viewer – BoRhap has a great deal of trouble dealing with Mercury's sexuality. BoRhap is rated PG-13. It's about 1970s rock stars and it is rated PG-13. This creates a very serious problem. The band doesn't do any hard drugs in this movie. Instead they drink a lot, pop a pill every once in a while, Roger Taylor has sex with multiple women, and Freddie Mercury... fucks guys on the sly. Well, he looks at them, anyway, and attends a lot of parties where other guys make out.

The villain swoops in
Homosexuality, however, is central to this movie. Since drugs or sex can't really be the obstacle that draws Mercury away from his band and his girlfriend, what the screenwriter instead has done is move homosexuality tout court into that role. So, there is this underlying force that threatens Queen at all points throughout the movie, and that threat is homosexuality – first in an inchoate form and then in the form of BoRhap's antagonist, Paul, who is, as far as this film is concerned, evil incarnate. Paul is the descendant of those old school gay vampires in Hollywood movies made in the 1940s and '50s, feeding off of Freddie and destroying him; he's a figure of two-dimensional homosexual predation. Queer desire is presented as illicit, troubling, seedy, and dangerous from its first introduction in the film. And BoRhap maintains this association throughout. Homosexuality is what disrupts Freddie and Mary's relationship; homosexuality breaks up Freddie and Queen; Freddie's homosexuality is the way the film indicates his lassitude and depression; and homosexuality is what finally kills Freddie. Homosexuality is structurally the film's villain: it is a haunting force that Freddie can't quit and that eventually destroys him. BoRhap goes so far as to present homosexuality as something separate from Freddie, like a terrible addiction. It's as though Freddie isn't gay, it's just that he struggles with being gay and is troubled by his sexuality, which torments him and won't let him alone.

Rami is as curious as I am
Now, this very well may be the way Mercury experienced his own sexuality – how should I know how he experienced it? – but the thing that bothers me is that this becomes the structure of the film, which uses homosexuality as the film's central obstacle and makes homosexuality itself into BoRhap's villainous force. I found this outrageously homophobic.

Still, Queen's music is great. And Malek has Mercury's physicality down perfectly. As boring (and offensive) as I thought the screenplay was, all the concert stuff is pure pleasure. It's impossible for me to be annoyed with great concert footage or shots of audiences singing along and loving their lives. (The middle-aged woman next to me in the theatre who alternated between checking her phone and singing along, seemed to me to feel the same way. She was there for the karaoke. The dialogue? Not so much.)

And it's hard not to think of "We Are the Champions" as a gay anthem, and despite the film's homophobia, the song still feels like that in act three when it appears in BoRhap. The direction even helps with that feeling a little.

Weirdly, in other words, even though the film is, on the one hand, homophobic, it also can't help but celebrate queerness as a lifestyle or as a performance. Mercury is flamboyant, outrageous, and, well... queeny, and if BoRhap tries to say that gay sex is bad, it still maintains a love for gay style. Bohemian Rhapsody celebrates that, at least, and there is definitely something to love in that celebration.

16 December 2018

Schtonk (1992)

Schtonk was stupid. This is a farcical comedy about the Hitler diaries. I guess it was a little funny, but not really my style. I think what sort of irked me about it is that it just sort of treats all of these people who are really interested in old Third Reich memorabilia or Hitler artifacts as though they are just very silly. Like, how silly and laughable that someone would want Hitler's diaries! To my mind, all of this humor – and as I say, I didn't really think it was funny anyway – prevents us from getting to something that seems to me to be much more sinister.

13 December 2018

Alice's Restaurant (1969)

Alice's Restaurant (the movie) is based on an Arlo Guthrie song called "Alice's Restaurant Massacree", and the movie also stars Arlo Guthrie as a version of himself. The film feels unique and special, and once you listen to the song you'll see how all of this is possible.  

Alice's Restaurant is rather unlike anything I've seen, I think. It is excellently directed and a superb portrait of late 1960s culture. This is an Arthur Penn film, but it isn't like any Arthur Penn you know. A definite curiosity. I am not sure I can recommend it, but I quite enjoyed it.

12 December 2018

2018 Acting Nominations

Just some quick thoughts on these categories now that lots of groups have weighed in with their choices.

Best Actor
Right now, the locks are Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Christian Bale (Vice), and Viggo Mortensen (Green Book) with Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) in a less-secure fourth slot. It might seem like Bale is less secure, but the Academy loves Christian Bale and they love Adam McKay. Bale, you might recall, got a supporting actor nomination for The Big Short, and the movie was nominated for all sorts of awards. The fifth slot belongs to either Ethan Hawke (First Reformed) – he's the critics' favorite – or John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) who is, after all, Denzel Washington's son. I don't know which of these it could go to – and it may be that Malek's slot is less secure than I think and Washington and Hawke get in and Malek doesn't (my preference). Rounding out the possibilities in this category are Willem Dafoe (At Eternity's Gate), Lin-Manuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns), and Robert Redford (The Old Man and the Gun) – all are unlikely.

Best Actress
The locks are Glenn Close (The Wife), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), and Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born). I just want to say that Sony Pictures Classics has been doing a great job with this Glenn Close campaign. The Washington DC critics were the only group who mentioned Close, but here we are in mid-December and the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild both nominated her. And The Wife is back in theatres everywhere. Well done. Slot 4 goes (deservedly) to Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?), I think. As for slot 5, the options are: Toni Collette (Hereditary), Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Regina Hall (Support the Girls), Nicole Kidman (Destroyer), Rosamund Pike (A Private War), and Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns). Strangely, I think Blunt will end up in this slot. But maybe someone else will emerge in the next month.

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali (Green Book), Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy) all seem like sure things here, although as we move into early January, I expect Chalamet will become less secure. The fifth slot will go to either Steven Yeun (Burning), Sam Rockwell (Vice), Michael B. Jordan (Black Panther) or – the likeliest candidate – Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman).

Best Supporting Actress
The Screen Actors Guild for some reason threw a curveball this morning and didn't nominate Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) in this category, even though she seems like a sure bet. Both Rachel Weisz (The Favourite) and Emma Stone (The Favourite) are also locks. Amy Adams (Vice) looks like she'll fill the fourth slot here. That leaves one more nomination, but no one can seem to agree who should get it. The most likely seems to be Elizabeth Debicki (Widows), but also mentioned so far have been Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), Nicole Kidman (Boy Erased), Claire Foy (First Man), Emily Blunt (A Quiet Place), Zoe Kazan (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), and Cynthia Erivo (Bad Times at the El Royale).

11 December 2018

Summing Up 2018

1. What did you do in 2018 that you'd never done before?
I had my first book published. That was cool. It's weird for me to think of this as my first book, but that's what it is, and I enjoyed working with Routledge, and I am glad this little volume is out in the world. It was fun to write and it is fun to see it in print.

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
Last year I didn't post a "Summing Up 2017" list. The main reason for that is that I was fairly unhappy last December, and I felt like I just didn't have the energy to sum up anything. My job felt like a dead-end place, my book hadn't found a publisher yet, and I had no time to write because my work schedule was so grueling. My main plan for getting out of that funk was that I was going to do P90X in January. So I worked out every day in the Spring term – by myself, which is crazy! – and my mood improved considerably. I didn't get any writing done in the Spring, but I was much happier. So, I guess we can say that I kept that new year's resolution for sure.
Resolutions for 2019? I want to read a lot more. I plan to send out one article for each semester – so two total in 2019 – and I want to read as much as possible.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Tearrance Chisholm and Latia Stokes had their baby Arson Ali Tyrell on November 28th!

4. Did anyone close to you die?
No. But Tony Hoagland, one of my favorite poets, died in October at age 64.

5. What countries did you visit?
México. In 2016, my friend Mark and I went with two friends to Tulúm, Quintana Roo, and we decided to go back this year, this time with two different friends. We visited Chichen Itzá, swam in a cenote, laid on the beach, went snorkeling, spotted some manatees, and happily spent time together.

6. What would you like to have in 2019 that you lacked in 2018?
I need to re-landscape my backyard. Since I left Tallahassee FL for Hanover NH in 2012, I had been renting out my home to tenants. Not all of them were great, and none of them took care of the backyard with any regularity. It looks a bit of a mess at this point, and I need to spend some time and money and get it in a shape that I like.

7. What dates from 2018 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
On April 29th, my friends Matt & Jill got married and I flew to Philadelphia with my friends Walt, Jeanne, Katie, Chris, and George, and we celebrated. It was a beautiful wedding; there was great food; there was excellent dancing; I drank a million manhattans; and I ripped my pants during the reception. They stayed ripped when we went to the afterparty. The entire trip to Philly was amazing: I got to see Deborah Hartranft, visit the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Eastern State Penitentiary historic site.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Getting my new job at Florida State and succeeding in my first term here.
I also did P90X twice through – and I did almost every one of these workouts by myself.

9. What was your biggest failure?
I failed big-time with a guy I dated in June and July. I failed myself and I failed him. More on this below at #21.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
No big illnesses or injuries this year.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
I bought a new French-door-style refrigerator that cost a small fortune but has made my life immeasurably better. (Story: when I moved back into the house they had replaced my old side-by-side refrigerator with a cheap model barely six feet tall that had a freezer on the top and a refrigerator on the bottom. I used it for three days before rebelling completely and demanding, in the style of Oscar Wilde: either this fridge goes or I go. I can understand wanting a freezer on the top if you have children, but otherwise, I find this layout baffling. Why do I want groceries at my feet?)

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
I was really proud of my graduate students at UCF this year – especially Terence Lee.
All of my friends who had books published this year. You are awesome.
My fitness guru–crushes Colin Land and Jeff Kurtz.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Donald Trump's, obviously, but also so many of Trump's haters, who seem to be filled only with rage against this man and seem resistant to thinking about the more pernicious problems of conservatism, neoliberalism, and the Democratic Party in the U.S. Trump is terrible, certainly, but so is much of our government. Pretending like Trump is the only problem is a depressing red herring.
Republican voters also continue to make me sad and bewildered. I am no Democrat, as most of you know, and so I understand resistance to that party, but to vote Republican at this juncture in history is to concede that that party's support of racism, police brutality, political corruption, corporate oligarchy, nationalism, environmental destruction, military despotism, and neo-colonialism is a good thing. How is it that so many people are on the side of all of these evil things?

14. Where did most of your money go?
Taxes. Seriously. I just looked at my checkbook and over 21% of my expenses went to taxes. I am officially middle class, I guess.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Dates with J.
Quitting my old job at UCF.
The American Society of Theatre Research conference – which ended up getting mostly canceled.
Going back to Tulúm.
Closing night of As You Like It, which involved an enormous Endstation Theatre Company reunion.
Any time I went to have dim sum.

16. What song will always remind you of 2018?
The Barr Brothers - "Even the Darkness Has Arms"

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?

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Sitting in meetings with obstructionist co-workers.

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
Headed to California on the 17th of December, where I will holiday with my family.

21. Did you fall in love in 2018?
I did. I started dating a Christian guy in Virginia in early June. He is a bit younger than me, but we got along great, and I had a pretty wonderful time with him. We spent great evenings walking around downtown Lynchburg. He held my hand and kissed me as much as he could. We talked and walked and made love and went on hikes and looked around museums and explored bookstores together. He even took me around Liberty's campus and put his arms around me and showed me the campus. It was great. We spent 7 weeks with one another, and then he decided that after I left Virginia and moved back to Florida he was going to give a good Christian life a try again. For him, our relationship was something that he didn't want either to continue or to repeat. He tried to make me feel better about this in his way – he thought it might make it hurt less for me to know that I would be the last guy he dated. And he liked me a lot – we had great sex, great conversations, great connection. But he doesn't want to be a gay man. He believes homosexuality and Christianity are mutually exclusive. It was pretty hard for me to disagree with this, since I mostly agree.
I thought I would be ok when I left Virginia, but I missed J way more than I expected, and I wasn't ready to be done with our relationship.
I would try to communicate with him, and he would reply curtly. But then I sort of moved into a place of desperation and sadness with our relationship. While my life was going great in every other way, I couldn't make this man want to be with me. I just kept hoping he would want to come back. I visited Virginia a week ago, and J told me, politely but firmly, that he didn't want to see me. And now I feel like I finally understand that and can take that in.
I want J to be happy. I wish him only the best. I hope he can find the peace that he is trying to find. I wanted, desperately, for him to want us to be together. But I know now that I pushed him too hard, asked too much. He will have to come to his own conclusions about queerness and his relationship with it.
About a decade ago I fell in love with a different guy during a summer in Virginia. That guy pulled at my heart for years afterward, but now I can see him or look at a picture of him and just smile, without the pain of wishing our relationship was something else. And I know that I'll reach that at some point with J. For now, though, I'm going to try to love him the way he is asking me to love him: by leaving him alone to figure things out.

22. How many one-night stands?
One. Oops. This number is sort of sad.
Update as of 12/11: Two.

23. What was your favorite TV program?
I only watched RuPaul's Drag Race season 10, RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars season 3, and the final season of The Leftovers. I loved all of them.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
I have tried hard to resist this, but I'm afraid so.

25. What was the best book you read?
I keep track of this on GoodReads.
André Aciman's Call Me by Your Name
Hillary Miller's Drop Dead: Performance in Crisis, 1970s New York 
Two classics: Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey and E.M. Forster's Maurice.
One book of poetry: Chen Chen's When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
Also... I had never before read Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One, and, well, everyone aside from me already knew this, but it's easily one of Shakespeare's best plays.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Mostly I just listened to Max Richter, Philip Glass, and Ryuichi Sakamoto on repeat. Oh and Giuseppe Verdi.
But I guess the last third of my year involved me listening to a great deal of Robyn's album Honey.

27. What was the best piece of theatre you saw?
Dominic Cooke's revival of Sondheim and Goldman's Follies. It was astounding.

28. What did you want and get?
An amazing new job. An advance contract for The Violate Man. A vacation with Mark. An incredible second date with J. An unexpected summer of fun hanging out with friends (especially Matt and Hubbard).

29. What did you want and not get?
Basically everyone I voted for in November. Florida, man. Folks are a mess here.
Several guys who clearly swiped left when I swiped right. Haha.
Shangela as the winner of All Stars 3.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
So far it's Daniela Thomas's Vazante. But since I apparently love ranking black-and-white South American films about colonialism in my #1 slot (see El Abrazo de la Serpiente) and I haven't seen Roma yet, I may be changing my tune later this month. In truth, there are currently fifty films on the list of movies I still want to see from 2018, and who knows what gems are out there.
Update from 12/31: Kore-eda Hirokazu's Shoplifters. It's perfect.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 37. I worked out, I packed for México, and my friends Walt and Jeanne had me over for dinner. It was great.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
I am not sure, honestly. This was a very satisfying year. I wish I had traveled more, honestly, and I wish the airport here flew to more places. I also wish there were more opportunities for good cultural activities in Tallahassee – theatre, concerts, dance, film. That would be nice. But I guess I'm going to have to get used to that.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2018?
Wear a tie when you teach. When you're not teaching, a tightly fitting polo goes nicely with a pair of biceps.

34. What kept you sane?
Group chat with Patrick, Alex, and Ryan.
Cocktail hour with Tate.
Texting with Kody.
Foucault and Seneca, as always.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Beck Bennett

Riz Ahmed

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Have we legalized marijuana everywhere yet? This is absurd.

37. Whom did you miss?

38. Who was the best new person you met?
My new colleagues at Florida State. Especially Tarik, Chari, Sukanya, Meredith, Jason, Jessica, Allison, Greg, and Antonia.

39. Tell us a valuable life-lesson you learned in 2018:
Almost everything we say that we have to do is something that we are, in fact, choosing to do. In other words, we actually have reasons for doing the things that we don't really want to do – usually because of some trade-off or to lay the groundwork for something else down the road. I've learned that it is imperative to look at these tasks not as burdens or things that we don't have a choice about. I do have a choice, and I'm actively choosing to do this thing for reasons I understand. When I look at these undesirable tasks in this way, I begin to see a bigger picture, and my work on these tasks seems less like drudgery and more like something that is very important because it is going to lead me to what I actually want.

40. Share an important quote from 2018:
Sometimes we are asked
to get good at something we have
no talent for,
or we excel at something we will never
have the opportunity to prove.

Often we ask ourselves
to make absolute sense
out of what just happens,
and in this way, what we are practicing

is suffering,
which everybody practices,
but strangely few of us
grow graceful in.

—from “Self-Improvement” by Tony Hoagland

10 December 2018

John Apple Jack (2013)

I felt like watching something silly and gay this morning and I got what I asked for.

When people complain about how bad gay movies are, this is the kind of thing they're describing. John Apple Jack has a rather cute premise, actually, and Kent Leung is sexy as hell (obviously, he's the reason I chose this dumb gay movie over the twenty other dumb gay movies available to stream), but the movie is made so poorly, the acting is so bad, the jokes are so stupid, the script so preposterous, that it is impossible even really to laugh at the film's humor.

This movie is not good.

But I still thought it was cute, honestly.

How can I be mad at something this guileless? Plus, watching two guys fall in love is still something I want to see. (Even if they are both obviously straight guys and don't do a good job of letting us think they're gay.)

Han Solo Jr.

Solo was cute. I think it was maybe a little too cute. And Solo is way more of a dependent film than Rogue One was. I'm sure there were tons of references in this movie to the first trilogy, but I don't know those films well enough to get the in-joking. Still, Alden Ehrenreich remains a dynamic performer, and there were some very exciting setpieces in this movie. (That train sequence was amazing!) I liked a lot of it.

09 December 2018

Sorry to Bother You

Sorry to Bother You thinks it is a lot cooler than it is. It is cool, actually, and quite funny at times, but it thinks its allegories are clever (and they're not) and it mostly deals in clichés. This is a visually interesting movie, but really it isn't much more than that. I'm ranking this as high as I am because a good chunk of the movie is really quite incisive about racism. But, also, Spike Lee made a movie this year, and this film isn't BlacKkKlansman, even though Boots Riley clearly is emulating much of Lee's style.

05 December 2018

McQueen's First Bad Film

End of the year awards are being given by critics groups and I'm behind. I feel more behind than usual.

One film that isn't on any end-of-the-year lists yet, though, is Widows. No one has mentioned it so far, although perhaps that is about to change as the Golden Globes drop their nominees on Thursday.

Why so serious, Ms. Davis?
But Widows totally didn't work for me, and I guess I understand why it isn't standing out for critics. Steve McQueen's new movie is his least interesting film to date. It was a labor of love for him, he says, since he fell in love with the miniseries on which it is based in the 1980s when he was a kid, but Widows is really nothing more than a genre picture, and it doesn't quite do its genre very well. It's filled with solid twists and reversals (the script is by Gillian Flynn), but for me it never really took off.

I think the reason for this is that almost all of the main characters in Widows are miscast. Colin Farrell, Cynthia Erivo, and Elizabeth Debicki work well, and all three are good in the movie (Debicki, in fact, is best in show). But Viola Davis, Liam Neeson, Michelle Rodriguez, and especially Daniel Kaluuya are all miscast to my mind.

Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Debicki
It's odd because I thought the supporting actors were almost uniformly great. I loved Lukas Haas and Carrie Coon and Jon Michael Hill and Garrett Dillahunt (love seeing him) and Jacki Weaver and Brian Tyree Henry and (of course) Jon Bernthal. There's never enough Jon Bernthal. In anything.

But the main cast... Viola Davis is too serious. Way too serious. She never lets us see her let loose. She's tightly wound the whole movie... so much so that it seems impossible – and I never for a moment believed – that she could or would try the crime she tries in the film. Michelle Rodriguez is great. I love her. But did I believe that she ran a dress shop and gave all her money to her husband for years and years? Did I believe that she could easily be cowed by a bitchy mother in law? I did not. Do I believe Liam Neeson could play a criminal? Of course. He's made a career on revenging father movies. But in Widows, Neeson's acting just can't quite manage what McQueen asks of him.

Mr. Kaluuya and Mr. Henry
And then there's Daniel Kaluuya, who plays the film's very scary hitman, a man who terrifies character after character with simple verbal threats, a man who stabs numerous people just for fun, who kills some scared kids who are just rapping by themselves in a back room. Trouble is, Kaluuya isn't the least bit terrifying. He's shorter than every character he tries to intimidate in Widows, and he dances around and spends so much time posturing, that I found his entire portrayal utterly without credibility. He's almost friendly. It doesn't work even a little.

There are several bright spots. The much-vaunted shot of Chicago from the hood of Colin Farrell's car is pretty great (and I love McQueen's technique of not allowing the audience in on a conversation so that we pay attention to something else – he used this in Hunger, too). I also liked the film's interest in corrupt Chicago politics. And I didn't understand Cynthia Erivo's character at all, but she has a few great scenes. Elizabeth Debicki gets all the best scenes, and she turns her character out beautifully. But none of these bright spots outweighs the sheer length of Widows, which never really picks up steam and hits a stride. It just seems to go on and on without building tension, without speeding up at all, and without articulating any real stakes. It's a Gillian Flynn machine, in other words, that runs on cruise control and never kicks into high gear. I was, quite frankly, bored.

25 November 2018

Boy Erased

Joel Edgerton's Boy Erased is pretty good. It has its problems. But if you're me, and you grew up in a Baptist house afraid you might be gay, it's pretty intense. I cried so many times that I lost count.

The plot works like this. Young Jared (Lucas Hedges) says goodbye to his mom and dad (Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe) and enrolls in a program that promises to help him get rid of his homosexuality and return to the love of the Christian god. Most of the movie involves time spent in sessions of this conversion therapy – which are all legitimately insane but wouldn't quite sound insane to the ear of a good Christian boy like I was growing up.

Christianity and other spiritual practices already involve accepting things that don't seem rational and making sense of things that apparently contradict one another. And these are desperate young people who really don't want to be gay, so they are willing to try anything that promises the possibility of normal heterosexuality. So the idea that, say, making a list of the different "sins" practiced by members of one's family or learning how to hit a baseball might help a person get rid of same-sex attraction (that's what they call it) can seem like a great idea. At the very least, one can see why someone would be willing to commit to a program like this. The Baptist church has made homosexuality into the unpardonable sin par excellence, so nothing can be off the table when it comes to trying to change a gay kid into a straight kid.

I'm about to say something that I think might be controversial.

I honestly can't say that the gay conversion therapy in Boy Erased seemed that crazy to me in Baptist terms. None of the activities practiced in the therapy sessions seemed any more or less coercive, violent, bullying, shame-inducing, or insane than anything I experienced in church growing up. I'm really grateful my parents never sent me to any gay conversion camp (Thanks, mom and dad!); that would have totally sucked. But – although the film doesn't have anything to say about this – church life is actually like a constant gay conversion therapy in miniature. An effeminate boy feels constant pressure to behave in more masculine ways, to walk differently, talk differently, bend his body differently, firm up his handshake, tell certain kinds of jokes, play every sport possible, and pursue young women romantically. All while, of course, learning the scriptures and going to church all the time. In fact, if a boy does get a little too interested in masculine pursuits like girls or sports and thus slacks off in his more important spiritual duties, this is mostly ok with everyone. There is nothing, see, worse than homosexuality, except, perhaps, like, straight-up Satanism. So, yes, Boy Erased is a document of a terrible ordeal that several kids are made to endure because of their alleged sexual desires, but I would say that every kid growing up in the Baptist church feels these pressures, and queer kids in the Baptist church are made to feel them acutely.

The other structural element to the film is a set of flashbacks to earlier sections in Jared's life – all while he is an older teenager. These include sequences with a high school girlfriend, a Christian crush at college, and a Canadian painter. These are all intriguing, but I am not going to say anything about them because of spoilers. One of the sections is, in fact, very surprising.

But the film is not, as it turns out, very surprising. It mostly feels conventional. It's a very typical story – something like Thelma from a couple years ago – of a gay kid learning to be ok with being gay (although how he learned that is unclear, even apostrophized by the filmmakers) and then trying to deal with his mostly homophobic parents.

Edgerton's direction is not great either (although his performance in the film is quite good). The whole thing is very somber in tone, and the film is almost completely unbroken by humor of any kind – even though Kidman does her best to lighten the mood occasionally. A more confident filmmaker would have included more moments of humor, and so the fault is mostly with Edgerton's inexperience, I think. But also (and I also complained about this in my We the Animals review), the filmmaking has almost nothing gay about it, either. This is a film about a gay kid that is almost completely unrelated to gay culture. Even Jared's desire for his college friend Henry is rendered only through Lucas Hedges' facial expressions. The camera does nothing to tell us how much Jared desires Henry or what he wants from Henry. (There is, for example, this great sequence when the two go for a run together and Henry lifts his arms to stretch, and Jared sneaks a glance at his exposed belly. The camera shows us nothing – only Jared in medium shot looking furtively at his friend. Edgerton's camera, in other words, doesn't identify with Jared's desires; it stays outside of them, observing them without seeming really to understand.) The only campy moment in Boy Erased is in a single title-card at the end of the film – it is a good joke, but I could've used a bit more of this in Edgerton's relentless movie.

Edgerton also uses slow-motion way more than he needs it, contributing to the overall ponderousness of Boy Erased but not really contributing at all to our understanding of Jared and his journey toward reckoning with his same-sex attractions. But this is actually the point. The purpose of Edgerton's movie is a kind of public service announcement about how terrible gay conversion therapy is. Further, Boy Erased is a film designed to tell people about how awful gay conversion therapy is while not saying terrible things about Christianity or the Baptist church and not being a gay film. This is a mainstream film for mainstream audiences designed to change people's minds about gay conversion therapy and get some laws passed banning the practice. These are, perhaps, noble aims, and I haven't anything negative to say about them, but they make for a stilted film that doesn't hang together as nicely as it might.

The acting is great, though. I liked Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, and I loved him in Lady Bird, but he carries Boy Erased and does it wonderfully. He gives a beautiful, vulnerable performance, and I believed every second of it. I also really loved Russell Crowe, who is, I know, great in everything. Nicole Kidman (who I also love) is the only one who feels out of place here. She is acting a little too much, as though she is just too different from her character to play her quite without comment. Cherry Jones makes a fabulous cameo and has a great scene. Edgerton himself is also pretty great. Xavier Dolan has actually rather a large part, but I found him distracting. I see him way too much as a sort of outspoken enfant terrible of gay Canadian cinema for me to believe him as a kid who really wants to go back to being a good hetero Christian.

As for Oscar nominations... I don't know. I am skeptical. I don't think this movie is very good, even though my own adolescence made the whole thing deeply moving. I can see Hedges getting some Oscar buzz as the main character, but I have trouble seeing him with a Best Actor nomination. I am fairly certain that Troye Sivan (who also plays one of the kids doing the conversion therapy) wrote an original song for the movie (it is, of course, also quite ponderous). These two seem like the only real shots Boy Erased has for nominations. Nothing else really stands out.

(Sidebar: if you know me and you have seen the movie, you know that there is also something that I should be talking about here that I am not talking about. This is the surprising section to which I alluded above. I don't want to spoil that plot point, so I'll talk about it at another time.)

The Memphis Belle: a Story of a Flying Fortress

The Memphis Belle is fairly conventional pro-war, anti-German propaganda, but the footage is awesome and the whole thing feels very personal and exciting. I especially like the animated sequences that are incorporated into this and other documentaries from this period during the War.

I watched it, remastered, at a Veterans Day situation at school with mostly military folks in attendance. That was a decidedly weird situation, let me tell you. All of that nationalism really makes me uncomfortable. But I was grateful for the opportunity to see the film.

Summer 1993

This Catalan film was very good for most of its running time – a quiet little character study in grief. And then the last ten minutes are extraordinary. Summer 1993 really hit home for me at the end. It's an amazing ending that knocks this film out of the park for me.

The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers is Jacques Audiard's first English language film, and it has lots of great stuff in it. It's a sensitive, thinking man's western – but maybe more of a feeling man's western than anything else. In any case, it moves away from much of the genre's standard tropes.

And yet... it doesn't quite succeed. Jake Gyllenhaal is miscast, or at the very least plays his role in a stilted kind of way (and I love Jake Gyllenhaal). The Sisters Brothers is also occasionally too slow, and it doesn't fully develop its focus on its most enigmatic character (a typically genius Riz Ahmed), even if it does end up taking us to some great places.

I suppose its worst sin is that it can't live up to Audiard's previous stuff. I know that it's not fair to say that The Sisters Brothers is no Un Prophète, but... well, it's no Un Prophète. In fact, I'd say that Audiard is at his best in Sisters Brothers when he's leaning fully in to the criminal activities of his protagonists or fully in to the emotional nuances of his characters.

Still, act three is marvelous; I found myself quite moved throughout The Sisters Brothers' third act. And the final sequence is absolute perfection.

L'Amant Double

Double Lover is sexy and troubling and strange. It surprised me numerous times. It is François Ozon's particular brand of twisted erotic thriller. This definitely will not everyone's cup of tea, but I loved it. And I think I am realizing that Ozon is one of my favorite directors. His brain just works in a way that makes a great deal of sense to me. I love this man's movies. His Frantz was one of my favorite movies from last year, and now L'Amant Double, which is so different from Frantz, is one of my favorites this year.

22 November 2018

We the Animals

I am disappointed to report that Jeremiah Zagar's film adaptation of We the Animals is not good.

There are going to be some spoilers below, so if you haven't read the novel and don't want it spoiled, you better stop now and go get the book. It's great!

It was always going to be a little strange to adapt Justin Torres' coming-of-age novel to the screen. The form of Torres' book is a set of somewhat disconnected short stories – each section describing different moments in the childhood and adolescence of three brothers and their fluctuating relationships with their mother and father.

But Zagar opts for an approach that actually avoids the coming of age that is central to the Bildungsroman in the first place. Instead of Jonah, the narrator, starting off at age 6, as he does in the novel, he starts off at age 9. He turns 10 in the movie, but the little guy doesn't get any older than that. Jonah is played, for the entirety of the film by nine-year-old Evan Rosado in his first film role.

The trouble with this is that the story of We the Animals hinges on a sexual coming of age. In the novel, Jonah and his brothers are inseparable, basically one person. They do everything together. But Jonah grows apart in some ways – against his own will. And he becomes sexually attracted to men. When his family finds out, they kick him out of the house. This section of the book is painful, but it follows immediately after Jonah's first sexual experience, and so the family's rejection in Torres' novel feels... well, less important. Jonah has already found something else, something maybe even more important and better. The scene in the novel in which he first has sex with a man is extraordinary. It's beautifully written and is easily my favorite section in the book. He has sex with a stranger, but he feels baptized, turned inside out and made into a man. It's a gorgeous sequence.

Raúl Castillo and Evan Rosado
This is simply not possible with a nine-year-old actor. For the film to work the way the book works, we would need at least two actors for each of the boys. We would have to watch them grow up in the movie. Zagar opts out of this for reasons I don't really understand, and the result of this is that the movie's plot becomes totally nonsensical. Little Jonah is just a ten-year-old. He doesn't have sex with a stranger. He doesn't come of age. He doesn't become anything. He's ten. He doesn't do anything, really, to which anyone might object except to draw some pictures. His brothers are too young really to reject him, and there's no reason his parents wouldn't dismiss his behaviors as the behaviors of a child. Still, in Zagar's movie they do reject him, even though the film can't really explain why they would, and then Jonah, I guess, runs away from home again. It doesn't make sense and it doesn't work.

I recognize that I am being hard on this film, and I know that films aren't the same things as books, but I actually am just not sure why Zagar decided to make this story at all. It feels to me like he simply didn't understand the book... or at least didn't understand the book's treatment of sexuality. Having this adorable nine-year-old at the center just makes the whole thing so strange – and so nonsexual. And in a fashion that seems typical of mainstream LGBT politics, what is sex in Torres' novel becomes love in Zagar's film. We the Animals understands gay sexuality as a kind of essence, something that gay people are. For me this is a basically anti-queer aesthetic, a straight-people way of interpreting queer sexuality. And it's a way of not confronting something central to most people's fears about queer sexuality; see, once a film like this has decided that gay people are a "kind of people", then it no longer has to think about the sex that gay people have. So instead of the sexual baptism by a strange bus driver at a truck stop that Torres wrote, we get, in Zagar's film, a little boy who stares longingly at an older boy and works up the courage to give him a kiss. It's sweet, to be sure, but it's a poor adaptation of a beautifully rejuvenative original.

19 November 2018

Two Foreign Language Entries

Two of this year's foreign language submissions. I saw both of them at the Tallahassee Film Society, and I'm very grateful that the TFS exists. I loved both of these films!

The Cakemaker (Der Kuchenmacher) (האופה-מברלין) is Israel's submission. It's a beautiful film, filled with gorgeous images of food and a love of sensuality. I'll say just a little about its plot. A young Berliner begins an affair with a man from Israel who is in town a lot for work. When his (married) lover dies, he decides to go to Jerusalem to look for answers... or maybe just to be closer to his lover or to be with his memories. The Cakemaker is a tender, sad meditation on loss and love; I was really moved by it. Israeli-German filmmaker Ofir Raul Graizer's movie is in Hebrew, German, and English. It's his first feature. The score is beautiful; the script is surprising. The two central performances are astounding, and the supporting work is also great. I loved this movie.

The UK's submission is called I Am Not a Witch. This is the first feature film by the Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni. I Am Not a Witch is the story of a young girl who is accused of being a witch by some villagers in Zambia. She is then taken to a witch camp, filled with old women, who work in the fields and otherwise labor for the Zambian government. They are also a tourist attraction: folks come to gawk at them and take pictures. I Am Not a Witch is a colorful, beautiful film. Young Shula (our 8-year-old witch) falls in with a government official, who exploits her and manipulates her "predictions" and "intuitions" with a superstitious population, many of whom actually seem to believe in the witch's powers. Nyoni's film is shocking but beautifully made, and it doesn't become overly sentimental or treat its character as though they're fools. This is an excellent film.

16 November 2018

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952)

I am not totally sure why I was as bored by The Snows of Kilimanjaro as I was, but it struck me as an extraordinarily static film with only melodramatic content. Its much vaunted cinematography and its beautiful images of Africa and its fauna were only there for decoration, and what they were decorating wasn't interesting at all. It's a shame, too, because I basically Ava Gardner is perfect in everything. Truth be told, she is also great in this, but the film is worthless.

14 November 2018


Hereditary was scary and also batshit crazy. It's a bit too much like Rosemary's Baby for my taste, but the first hour is aces and it has some great performances.


Even though this is of gay interest, and I was looking forward to it, I found Disobedience kinda boring.

It's the filmmaking, really. Sebastián Lelio, who made the fabulous Gloria, made last year's A Fantastic Woman, which was also boring. Now he has made Disobedience, and he somehow has coaxed wooden performances out of his actors, Rachel Weisz, Rachel McAdams, and Alessandro Nivola. I am not sure what has happened to Lelio, but everything here seems unimaginative and flat.

One example: near the end of the movie, we are without underscoring as we attend the Hesped and watch the women get seated. This all takes about a minute. Then the music begins and we watch Nivola make a decision while the music from the funeral happens. It would've been quite moving to hear the funeral music under all of this – the usual way of editing sound since Soderbergh's Sex, Lies & Videotape - but Lelio instead opts for a kind of Naturalism to the film's detriment.

Gabriel and the Mountain

I found Gabriel e a Montanha to be a fascinating character study. It's also gorgeously shot, and it also concerns itself with the people in Zambia, Kenya, Malawi, and Tanzania who encountered Gabriel at the end of his life. I really enjoyed this.

28 October 2018

Will Glenn Close Finally Get an Oscar?

The Wife is fine. This is a story about a woman who is married to a very, very famous writer – perhaps the best writer of his generation. From the beginning of the film, however, something seems not quite right. The writer includes his wife in conversations when he can, and is always sure to thank her when he wins awards, but his wife seems unsettled, uncomfortable with recognition. Something is just off about all of it. He's not really a bad guy, either – he's played by Jonathan Price – he just doesn't seem quite aware of the fact that his wife is uncomfortable with his fame and accolades.

The plot of The Wife, such as it is, is very, very simple, and the movie has few surprises in store for its viewers. The trouble with this, is that The Wife is designed to be a movie that does surprise its viewers. There are at least two big reveals in the film (and maybe a third), but neither of them actually lands as a surprise. They both feel completely inevitable in The Wife's melodramatic universe.

Jane Anderson's script and Björn Runge's direction are what are at fault here. But what else is there in a film aside from acting and directing, you might ask?

There is Glenn Close, of course, who is going to try to score a well-deserved 6th Oscar nomination for this part (and an eventual win?).

The trouble is that the entire premise of The Wife feels contrived and, well, to put it bluntly, I found the whole thing completely preposterous. I just didn't buy it. Close is very, very good. But the movie simply didn't work for me. What does that mean for Close's chances? I tend to think it sinks them, but who knows. A nomination seems inevitable, but I don't this mediocre movie can pull of a win for her.

27 October 2018

The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci is a great political satirist – I loved his 2009 film In the Loop – and The Death of Stalin is occasionally very, very funny.

Jason Isaacs is great, as usual, and Andrea Riseborough (as she is in almost every movie she's in) is best in show here, and Rupert Friend is also excellent. The other players are all great - Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, and Steve Buscemi.

Of course, because the film is describing life under totalitarianism, much of what we are watching is totally absurd (artists like Václav Havel and Sławomir Mrożek taught us this).

But Iannucci's film is uneven throughout. I found it hard to laugh at the people being senselessly assassinated by Lavrenti Beria and his men. It's designed to be funny, but it just didn't strike me as such. As I say, there was lots of funny stuff in the film, and the performances are great, but the tone seemed off to me. Totalitarianism in principle is very funny, and maybe if we were focusing only on bureaucracy I would have been able to enjoy myself more, but after all, many many people are being killed and tortured. I think it's sort of hard to oscillate between these two extremes.

Magyarok (Magyars)

Magyarok is respectable and moving. It's one of those post-1960s nationalist films that were made all over Eastern Europe during that time (Magyarok was made in 1978 and released in the US in 1981). At first I thought this would be a kind of you-ignored-the-Nazis-at-your-peril kind of movie, but it isn't that at all. Instead it's a powerful portrait of poor farmers in a small town in Hungary and what the war machine did to them.

22 October 2018

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach just doesn't work. It's a little tragedy of a story, based on a novella by Ian McEwan, and I can see why this story about a tragic love affair would be deeply moving on the page.

On film, however, On Chesil Beach feels clunky, as though the director isn't quite sure which moments are the important moments. Because of this, the film speeds up and slows down at times that don't quite make sense.

The movie really consists of a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards so that the entire thing relates to the film's present in ways that are mysterious and should be intriguing, but the filmmaker doesn't alert us to this convention in any real way. And so because we can never really tell if we are watching a sequence before or after the film's present, this never even really registers as a puzzle we ought to be solving. In other words, I think the film is supposed to be a bit of a puzzle – what is the before and after of this love affair and how does memory play tricks on us when we love someone? – but the film doesn't mark these shifts in a way that makes clear sense at all, and so it doesn't work.

This movie has beautiful makeup and solid acting. But the direction and the writing are poor, I'm afraid.

21 October 2018

Faraon (1966)

Pharaoh (Faraon) is pretty amazing. The filmmaking is just stunning, and the plot is totally gripping. This is an extraordinary film about corruption and religious foolishness. I really adored it.

20 October 2018

I Set My Own Standards

I tweeted recently that I have been feeling minimized by some people in my life, treated as though my ideas were not valuable. This has been on my mind for the last week because of some interactions with colleagues and coworkers, and some of my friends have helped me think with clarity about my experience, so I think I'd like to write a little of this out today. In the first place, because I think many of my friends (and certainly my graduate students) in the academy have experienced similar feelings and, in the second place, because in some ways, I have found productive ways of moving past those feelings that others may find helpful.

The story is this:
I have a colleague who always treats me as though I'm a pretty face. Whenever I talk to this person I  feel slightly tolerated or looked down on. This person likes me, certainly, is happy to see me, we get along, etc. But when I am around, this person never fails to, for example, interrupt me when I am talking in order to say how cute I am or (this happened) call to me from across the room at a conference with the phrase "you're so hot". These are compliments, of course, or are largely intended as such. But the context in which these compliments are given is always a professional one, right? So they are compliments given out of context. I don't really want to be hot or cute in a professional setting, and each time this happens, it feels as though there is also a concomitant dismissal of me as a scholar. Something like "thank goodness we can at least look at him because he doesn't have anything to say" or like a man using the phrase "little lady" to speak down to a woman.

I talked with a friend about this and he wondered why this person had any power over me at all. "How interesting", he said, "that you let this person get to you".

The thing is that this person actually has no power over me. But this treatment taps into two larger sets of feelings. One is the general fear that many academics have that all of their ideas are dumb, and that they have nothing important to say. This very well may be true, and most of us worry that it is true a lot of the time. The other is a more general infantilization or condescension that I often feel where I work because of the way faculty who outrank me talk to me. I won't detail any stories about this, but suffice it to say that frequently faculty members with higher ranks will treat me as though I simply do not and cannot understand the particular problem we're discussing because of my age. Not everyone who outranks me does this, of course, but it does happen frequently. (Also, can we just note that I am not young? I'm younger, certainly, than some of my colleagues, but no spring chicken.)

How I Deal with This

In many ways, these feelings are basic to being a younger person in any field – inadequacy, stupidity, lack of seriousness – and the way I have dealt with these feelings is to set standards for myself that are different from those that others have for me. I have worked hard to develop personal standards and goals that are not attached to the people closest to me – my parents, my major professors from graduate school, and my colleagues at work. In other words, the first places I always look for approval are outside of my immediate circles.

Let me use writing as an example. I made very specific goals for myself in regard to which places I want to be published, what kind of writing I want to do, how many pieces I want out in the world, and when I want them done. These are personal goals, and I purposefully shifted them so that they were different from the goals of my colleagues, my College, my parents, and my professors from graduate school. In this way I separated what I want from what other people wanted of me. This might seem scary or dangerous when we think about tenure – about making sure that our work is legible for the other folks in our department or college or whatever, but I have found that my own goals and standards are actually much higher than my college's goals or standards. From the start of my career I have aimed at getting tenure not at the place where I worked but at a place where the requirements for tenure are much higher. This isn't because I wanted to leave my job; it was a way of shifting my standards so that I didn't feel as though I was working on someone else's timeline or for someone else's goals.

This means that my chief fear about not reaching one of my goals is never that I might let someone else down but rather that I might let myself down. My motivation for not letting myself down is very different than it is when I'm using other people as motivation. I am both more strict with myself and more generous with myself, and I also remove the wonder out of the equation. Are my parents, teachers, colleagues proud of me? Impressed with me? If I ask those questions I can never really trust or know the answer. If I ask those questions of myself I always can.

This is why it is important that these goals be concrete and achievable. It is important that goals are not nebulous. Other people's goals for us are nebulous. Our goals for ourselves must be graspable. We must know what achieving them looks like so that we can recognize (and celebrate) when we've achieved them.

I suppose I have more to say about all of this – and perhaps when I think of other things, I will write them here, but for now I think it is important to say that the fact that I have achieved a great many of my goals, that I have attained a position in my field of which I feel proud, doesn't stop me from occasionally feeling minimized or infantilized by those people in my life who treat me that way. But because I have my own goals, my own standards against which to measure my success, all it took was a little reminder from a friend that I am doing what I set out to do, and I was able to dismiss those feelings of inadequacy. In fact, because I set my own standards, I was able, mentally, to move quickly to a place where I recognize those other people's treatment of me as reflective of their own inadequacies and not about me at all.