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

31 December 2013

Rewind Llewyn Davis

I've been listening to the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack since the producers started streaming it in its entirety via NPR music on November 3rd. I like folk music, though, and I am generally excited to see either Chris Thile or Justin Timberlake on any CD ever. Old songs like the ones that fill Llewyn Davis connect with me somehow, and I absolutely love the most important song in the film, "Dink's Song". In any case, I felt predisposed to liking Llewyn simply for its music – that is, in addition to loving it simply because it's a Coen Brothers movie and, well, they don't actually ever make bad movies, just films that are more or less difficult to love.

I'll wager that most people are probably going to find Llewyn Davis one of the more "difficult to love" Coen films. I know I did. I am finding the best way to describe it as a A Serious Man meets O Brother Where Art Thou? (When I said this to my friend Justin he instantly quipped: O Serious Man Where Art Thou?) But in truth, Inside Llewyn Davis is quite serious. Its main character is a difficult man who spends the entirety of the movie further messing up his own already precarious life.

The film's structure, too, is difficult. The film begins, moves along for a bit, and then it fades to white. Is what we see next a flashback? The film doesn't tell us until much later, but one gets the sense that this has all happened before, that Llewyn Davis is spinning his wheels, continually making the same mistakes and not learning from them. Llewyn stays on his friends' sofas. He imposes on them. He eats their food. He makes very little money. And although it is snowing outside, he has no winter coat, no boots, and no intention of moving south any time soon. Llewyn tries to make music – tries to earn a living making music – but he has principles, see. He doesn't want to make the kind of music other people want to make. He wants to sing folk music. He is, in fact, great at singing folk music, and the early 1960s saw a kind of renaissance of folk music.

I really liked Llewyn, even if it isn't all that likable. I know men and women like Llewyn: difficult people who simply can't ever get their lives to make a kind of sense, who never can get a foothold but keep working hard at it, doing their best but continuing to make terrible, selfish decisions. And I liked him for all that. He's sympathetic and difficult, and I wanted to take him in and clean him up. I felt a little like his friends the Gorfeins, I guess.

Mr. Isaac as Llewyn Davis ("It's Welsh.")
Back to structure for a second: the whole thing is a riff on Joyce's Ulysses. Llewyn is a kind of depressed pícaro, traveling from New York to Chicago and back again. He comes across all kinds of shady and colorful characters on his travels, and he is joined by a cat (several cats, actually). I have been frustrated with the film's bookends since I saw the picture. My sister and I wondered why the film needs to repeat itself. We both initially thought this was a kind of structural flaw in the story, an unnecessary bit of Guillermo Arriaga-style dramaturgy. But the more I think about it, the more I think it is doing important thematic and emotional work. Things really are repeating. Things really are cyclical. He really does go back to doing the same thing over and over again. He keeps fucking up. He keeps going back to his sister's house when he runs out of money. He keeps running into orange tabbies. And the songs, too, come back. These are old, old tunes, and they are given a new life in his music. If the movie repeats itself, these songs, this man's decisions, repeat themselves too.

The appearance of Bob Dylan at the film's end said one other thing to me. Renaissances like the rejuvenation of folk music as a genre in the 1960s are paved by unhappy, struggling people like Llewyn Davis. These people do the thankless work of making space for people like Bob Dylan. There is no Bob Dylan without guys like Llewyn who perform the labor of teaching audiences about what is good, giving music a kind of cultural value, rediscovering songs that other people will make famous, playing guitar on other people's famous hit records. Inside Llewyn Davis gets to the struggles of people who end up never finding fame or fortune in the industries in which they labor, but who contributed deeply, on a grassroots level, to the USAmerican music scene.

I should mention, too, that the performances in Llewyn are pretty awesome, particularly Oscar Isaac's work. I really liked Isaac in W./E. and I absolutely could not stop talking about his work in Drive, and so I am glad that this actor will be getting more work and I hope to see more excellent performances from him.

29 December 2013

Labor Day - Bad Title, Worse Movie.

Labor Day is awful.

When I saw the first trailer, I thought: Oh, these performances look interesting, and I do love a nice coming-of-age tale about an awkward young man who loves his mother a little more than he probably should. The trailer also boasted a scene with a shootout (the little boy crouches on what looks like a sofa while bullets tear up the walls around him), as well as a scene with James Van Der Beek as a policeman who gets wise to the goings-on. Also, I love Kate Winslet, and I've liked all of Jason Reitman's films.

I am not quite sure at what point I started to get really angry at Labor Day, but it was pretty early on in the movie. See, the movie is narrated as a long-form flashback by the grown-up version of the young man in the movie. And that grown-up is Tobey Maguire, whose voice is stuck in the back of his throat at all times, as though he is still afraid he's going to get the wrong answer to a question in class.

Tobey Maguire, however, is not the main problem in Labor Day. The main problem with this film is the source material. Reitman's movie (he also penned the screenplay) is based on a novel by Joyce Maynard. OK, in truth, I cannot speak for the source material, but the screenplay is nothing but a series of romantic movie-clichés rolled into the service of a silly melodrama. Labor Day is basically a Zac Efron movie with older actors (I'm thinking particularly of The Lucky One). This film has A-list stars who get nominated for Academy Awards and is directed by a filmmaker who makes excellent, awards-level fare (Up in the Air, Thank You for Smoking, Young Adult), but Labor Day is nothing more than a bit of Nicholas Sparks fluff dressed up to look as though it might actually approach something akin to tragedy. This is a masquerade of a film. A romance novel pretending to be a drama.

More than a year ago I wrote a review of the Nichols Sparks/Zac Efron/Scott Hicks movie The Lucky One, and I called it "exhaustingly formulaic, unabashedly heteronormative, filled with inane dialogue, excruciatingly white, and cloyingly sentimental." I want to say all of those things again in reference to Labor Day except that this time the dialogue is worse –
K: I wish I could give you a family.
J: You already have. [clunk clunk clunk]
This is James Van Der Beek at TIFF.
Just an excuse for me to post this pic.
K: I don't want to lose you.
J: I'd trade 20 years in prison for another 5 days with you.
[To which my cousin Angela muttered "Well that's not very smart"]
the cast is whiter, the heteronormativity is even more pronounced, the misogyny is more outrageous, the sentiment is more forced, plus Labor Day doesn't have any fun, older festive aunts or grandmothers or anything like that to make sassy remarks and tell the woman she's in love before she even realizes it (this character is played by Blythe Danner in The Lucky One, but there's nothing similar to a figure like this in Labor Day).

The performances aren't exactly bad in Labor Day, but there is nothing remotely approaching storytelling that makes even a little bit of sense here. The entire thing is, frankly, embarrassing. A little boy spends a long, Labor Day weekend with an escaped prisoner, and this man teaches him (apparently) all the things he will need to know in order to succeed later in life. Incidentally, we do find out why the man is in prison, and the film behaves as though what he did was somehow justifiable. The unabashed sexism in the film's apologia for its hero's crime is blatantly misogynist and horribly offensive.

This film is a chore. Avoid.

27 December 2013

The Past

You probably saw 2011's A Separation. It won the Best Foreign Language Oscar and it was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay that year. It was one of my top five films of 2011 and it was stellar, so I am assuming that you saw it.

If you did, then you remember that A Separation is the kind of domestic drama that builds and builds and builds until things feel unbearable – conflicts that at first seem like they might be simply solved are instead frustrated, exacerbated, compounded, until they seem completely impossible. A Separation might be considered a melodrama, a small story about the private feelings of only a few characters, but Farhadi's filmmaking transforms this kind of thing into high tragedy. I find myself caring desperately about his characters, studying them carefully, actively willing them to make the decision that I think will make them happier. Farhadi's work demands this kind of emotional investment in his beautifully rendered characters.

And so now I need to report that The Past (Le Passé) is completely on par with A Separation. This domestic drama is rooted in things that have happened before the film begins. As viewers we can only put the past together without ever totally understanding it. Farhadi's is a film about the past that doesn't contain any flashbacks. And this is one of the things The Past has to say: you can't figure it out. It's gone and what you thought you knew about it you're probably misremembering.

The Past is about all sorts of things, actually. In lots of ways it is also about how spaces contain us, change us, maybe drive us crazy. And it is also about trying to fix things that don't work, and how sometimes it is better not to try to fix what's broken.

The performances are excellent. Bérénice Bejo, Ali Mosaffa, Tahar Rahim, and Sabrina Ouazani are all amazing.

But The Past has not been shortlisted as a finalist for this year's Foreign Language Oscar despite being Iran's official submission. It is a glaring and strange omission that might mean that very few people see The Past. This would be a mistake. This film is one of the best of the year in any language.

23 December 2013

A Conversation about Nebraska

Because my friend Brian always posts pictures on Instagram and Twitter of all the movies he's seeing, I knew he had recently seen Nebraska. And because I love any excuse to talk to Brian about movies, I asked him to chat with me about Nebraska and hopefully be nicer/smarter about the movie than I am. Here we are:

Aaron: I thought the movie was pretty funny. Lots of comical stuff that I rather enjoyed. But, like most of Payne's movies, I thought it was sort of smug. It's funny watching this guy pathetically beg his girlfriend to move back in, and it's funny watching this woman harass this old man, and it's funny laughing at these brothers who have nothing to say to one another except to sit around and ask about cars that broke down in 1974. But, I get the feeling while I'm laughing at these situations that I'm laughing at how stupid these people are. Or rather at how much smarter I am than they are. Now, this may just be me – and maybe this says more about my own elevated sense of self-worth or something like that – but I felt like Nebraska just outright made fun of these people. The jokes are at their expense, as though Payne is just a bully poking fun at people who deserve just a little more kindness.

The other thing I want to say is that the movie is a good movie. I saw Nebraska in the same week as I saw Saving Mr. Banks and The Desolation of Smaug, and Nebraska is so much more skillfully made than the other two pictures. It is, in fact, expertly done. But it sort of left me hollow afterward. It hit all the notes it was supposed to hit, but I simply didn't connect with it very deeply. (This is, I think, how a lot of people felt about Haneke's The White Ribbon, to stick with black-and-white pictures.)

Brian: There's one tiny moment in the film that I keep thinking of – one which captures everything I liked about Nebraska.

We've been Woody's hometown for some time now, and we find ourselves again in the tv room at Ray and Martha's. The boys are in their spots, and Uncle Ray's in his. But it's the first time we see Aunt Martha joining them. Martha's sitting next to Ray but, rather than facing the tv, she's positioned to face the profiles of her two sons. See, the oversize sectional is way too big for the room, so they've horned the love seat section into the corner leaving just enough room for Aunt Martha's legs in the gap between. It'd clearly be a fuss for her to get up and out of her seat so, as is her way, Aunt Martha (as played with crystalline clarity by stage vet Mary Louise Wilson) just beams with delight to whoever wanders into the room as she hollers her enthusiastic chit-chattery over the blare of whatever rerun she and her men are watching.
Rance Howard and Mary Louise Wilson are just left of center in the frame.

The redolent layering of precise detail in this tiny moment captivates me and makes me somewhat inclined to defend Payne against claims of smugness. I like the vertiginous intimacy in Payne's work here. Payne forces us to stare long enough for the gaze to double back, in a way. I do remember laughing (fairly frequently) but not at many jokes at anybody's expense. What I mostly remember (aside from a few shocked guffaws) were abject giggles, mostly from my own embarrassment at my own reactions. In the end, I guess I liked how Payne's directorial hand forced me to notice not only the details of each tightly composed scene but also my own moment-to-moment discomfort in staring.

This queasiness might be why, when reflecting on the black and white cinematography, I found myself thinking not of Manhattan but of Night of the Living Dead.

Aaron: I love what you are saying about the specifics in the scene with Aunt Martha and everyone else watching The Golden Girls. This is when Nebraska is at its best: careful detail and intimate character study.

I think the reason I liked The Descendants so much was that I really felt that Payne cared for the characters in a way that didn't come through for me in Nebraska (or, indeed, in About Schmidt or Sideways). In Nebraska I felt distanced from the characters, even Will Forte, with whom I think the film sympathizes a lot. I saw the film as always just a little above that character, mocking him ever so slightly. I think the genuine warmth in The Descendants probably came from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. This isn't to say that I didn't laugh a lot in Nebraska. I did. I just felt a little gross afterward. This is probably exactly what you're talking about.

But I love this Night of the Living Dead comparison. Tell me what you mean. Did you feel haunted by Hawthorne, NE?

Brian: Not so much the haunting. More the abject, looming threat of morbidity. (Death's coming for ya, kiddo, and – blecch – it's nasty even in black&white and, yeah, there's no escaping it! Even in static longshots.) Nebraska captures the weird creepiness of returning to your hometown and lacquers onto that discombobulation the horror of seeing the fact of your parents (and, by extension, yourself) becoming old. I think that's why I keep going back to the metaphors of vertigo and queasiness. They evoke Will Forte's (and by extension the film's) guiding disequilibrium. Forte's David loves his father; he loathes his father. David is mortified by this corpse of a small town; he is fascinated by the clues this town might hold for the mysteries of his own life. He wants to be closer to his father; he is repulsed and repelled by his father. He remains his father's child even as he becomes his father's caregiver. Not unlike Woody's lucidity, the film moves abruptly in and out, with a vertiginous swoop. For me, the black and white permitted Nebraska to amplify the uneasy moral ambivalences that I've found so intriguing in Payne's previous films by placing them in starker and more vulnerable relief.

Mr. Odenkirk, Mr. Dern, Mr. Forte, and Ms. Squibb – a polite family drive

Aaron: The acting is great. I loved Will Forte and Bob Odenkirk, especially. But I can't get Bruce Dern out of my head either, and the movie has sort of stuck with me.

Brian: I sorta think the acting (while excellent and masterful and all that) was a bit off. Especially Dern.

Aaron: What do you mean the acting was off? How is it excellent and masterful and also off? Does that mean your favorite performance in the film was Stacy Keach's? Haha.

Brian: Oh. Ack. Stacy Keach. No. I don't even want to talk about that. No, I think the performances I liked best were Rance Howard and Mary Louise Wilson as Uncle Ray and Aunt Martha. Both for their simplicity and precision, but especially for the way their performances bridged the stylistic gap that separated the principals from the bit players in this film world. The principal beef I've always had with Payne hasn't been his by-the-book screenplaying but his seeming disinterest in having his excellent actors find a shared style. Going all the way back to Citizen Ruth, Laura Dern, Swoosie Kurtz and Burt Reynolds are all great, but they're just not in the same movie stylistically. And I feel I could make that same claim for every Payne movie I've seen since. Payne clearly loves actors, which is great but, unlike other actor-loving directors (like, say, Woody Allen or Mike White or Almodóvar or the Coens), Payne seems a bit overdazzled by these actor creatures, which ends up stymying him in key ways.

I do think Bruce Dern delivers an excellent portrait of a difficult and complicated man experiencing a precipitous cognitive decline. But I'm not sure he was always playing Woody. I mean, I saw Dern  – vividly, palpably – but I don't know if I ever saw Woody. Likewise, I delighted in June Squibb's brusquely comedic depiction of this terrifyingly tiny tyrant. But I didn't buy it for a second that she was his wife or their mother. Or that she used to be a hairdresser. (Indeed, Squibb plays a version this mini-gorgon much more plausibly and to much greater effect in a recent arc on the HBO comedy series Getting On.) Even so, I still say Squibb and Dern each delivered masterful performances but it was the director's job to make sure their characterizations illuminated the story, and I'm not sure Payne held up his end of the bargain there.

Aaron: Ooo yeah. OK. I see all of that. I think the reason I love Odenkirk's and Forte's performances is that they felt like they were really doing things. Really watching each other, really seeing the things you're talking about vis-à-via mortality and son-hood. There's something about Squibb that I found sort of grandstanding, I guess. I mean, she is funny, but she somehow doesn't seem human. This is a part of what I mean by the director not really loving his characters. She is a henpecking old harridan, but I feel like it would've been nice to be able to love her a little bit. I just never felt like I could. Even when she is sort of badass and powerful – when she tells the one sister to go fuck herself and all of that. She doesn't ever feel like a real person to me, only a cartoon version of a person. She's not rudely sketched, but she's caricatured all the same.

The two sons are so much simpler. They had more opportunity for honesty, I guess. (I really did love Dern, though, even if I think you're right about the actors not being a part of the same movie.)

I love reading your thoughts about things like this. You make me smarter. You want to close us out?

Brian: Thanks for the invitation to gab. And, yeah, Call me JanEEce.

22 December 2013

Enough Said and Moments of Realism

I really loved Enough Said.

My friend George and I have been talking recently about reality (or maybe realism?) in films. There is, often, very little of it. My friend and I were speaking about The Way Way Back and The Spectacular Now, mostly unsure about how to talk about how we thought the films got to something that seemed real in some kind of way. These things are difficult to pinpoint. Films tend to be glossy and heavily scripted, and they almost always star an actor or actress that I know at least from reputation. I buy into the movies, usually, and I don't worry too much about whether or not the movie is real. Whether or not it is real doesn't matter to me, actually, because it's a movie and I am watching it for reasons other than realism. Art, incidentally, (and this should be rather obvious) doesn't need to be real to address something powerful or meaningful.

Enough Said's plot reads to me as obviously constructed. It's a romantic comedy, and it works exactly like a standard romantic comedy ought to work. Girl meets boy, girl and boy get along for a while, girl and boy have a break-up, and then either girl and boy get back together at the end or girl finds someone new. Enough Said doesn't mess with this mold at all, but that doesn't stop it from having some amazingly real moments.

This is a romantic comedy about people in their forties. The romance is difficult because dating at that age comes with a lot of baggage. The jokes are funny because they understand something about the banality of getting old, the frustration of dealing with high-school-age kids, the panic of trying to find "the one" again. All of these things approach a kind of realness of situation, or the way life really works.

But the most real thing in this movie is the relationship at its center. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini have the most amazing chemistry. They are both so funny and perfect together, and their first kiss is so amazingly real and honest that my laughter moved from laughing at the situation to the kind of shocked laughter that comes when you can't believe that something is happening. These performances are some of the best of the year. For me, this is great acting: no histrionics; no big fight scenes; no rivers of tears; just simple behavior, the realness of everyday.

When Nicole Holofcener's Friends with Money (which I liked very much) came out, Kenneth Turan called her the Jane Austen of Los Angeles, a title I love and one that fits perfectly (except that I like Holofcener a lot more than I ever liked Jane Austen). But Enough Said works instead like a kind of feminist Angeleno, Woody Allen comedy. In fact, this movie combines the Austenian qualities – the keen observation of the daily lives of middle-class white folks, the difficulties of relationships – with Woody Allen at his best – good jokes, great relationships, broad farce – but focuses on a middle-aged woman from Los Angeles trying to find love again while her daughter leaves for college. This is lovable stuff and very funny.

20 December 2013

Summing Up 2013

1. What did you do in 2013 that you'd never done before?
Watched Florida State with the ACC championship. Taught a class of PhD students. Insanity.

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
I don't think I actually did. I had resolved to write two chapters of my book, but instead I decided to send a chapter out for publication and work on another article. These things have worked out, so now I will turn back to the book in 2014. I did resolve to get much better at French, and I have definitely done that. Resolution for 2014, though, is to get back into shape. I have let myself gain some winter weight at the end of 2013.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes! My friends Danny & Ashley had a beautiful baby girl named Arlene Gail. She is gorgeous. And my friends Jill & Mike had a son just a couple days ago named Emerson Allen. I get to meet him in March.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
My dear friend Irma lost her canine companion Texas. We also lost one of the most important people in Queer Theory this year: José Esteban Muñoz. Both deaths were truly heartbreaking.

5. What countries did you visit?
None this year.

6. What would you like to have in 2014 that you lacked in 2013?
I need a place I can call home. Moving around like a nomad is fine, and the schools where I have been working have been fun, helpful, educational, and exciting. But I'd like to start dwelling somewhere.

7. What dates from 2013 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
Bill & Meghan's wedding, of course! It was August 31st and it was a weekend of splendiforous events.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

9. What was your biggest failure?
My failure to find a tenure-track position for 2013-2014. It all is working out, of course, but it felt awful at the time. The job market is no fun, y'all.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
Nothing too horrible.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A ticket to the ACC championship game in Charlotte, NC on December 7th. Go Noles!

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
I have been so proud of my sons Dayne and Jordan this year. They are doing their thing: working hard and making lives and careers for themselves in new cities.
Edward Snowden and anyone else who fights the multiple apparatuses of the State.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
The U.S. Congress, as usual. What a bunch of idiots.
The State of Florida.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Paying off my car, which I finally did last month.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Visiting California. Seeing Arlene for the first time. Hanging out with Cruz and Sofia. Meghan and Bill's wedding. The annual meeting of the American Society for Theatre Research in Dallas (so many good friends!).

16. What song will always remind you of 2013?
Robin Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell's "Blurred Lines".  
I feel so lucky
You wanna hug me
What rhymes with "hug me"?

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

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Okay, this is crazy, but my favorite things to do are read and watch movies. I wish I could manage to do those things way more than I do. I am becoming more of an introvert as I get older, and reading and seeing films feed me in a particular way that I find comforting and exciting. At this stage in my career, I am not allowed to read as much as I'd like: I am supposed to be publishing, which means I have to write more and read less.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
Evaluating myself based upon the often arbitrary demands of the current job market. I also wish I spent less time in meetings run by people who do not value other people's time.
I also wish I'd done less complaining about the demands of the current job market. And less complaining in general. (Except for all the complaining I've done about people who don't value the time of others. Those complaints are merited.)

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
In California! I'm here right now, in fact. It is warm and I am comfortable and happy, baking cookies, hanging out with my parents, visiting with my friends, playing with my sobrinos, and going to the cinema with my sister.

21. Did you fall in love in 2013?

22. How many one-night stands?
Four. Three were awesome; the other one wasn't bad per se, but I only did it because I knew it would be a fun story to tell later.

23. What was your favorite TV program?
Orange Is the New Black.

24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
A couple of truly heinous students. Yes.

25. What was the best book you read?
The first two volumes of Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Swann's Way and Within a Budding Grove. I'm almost finished with the third, The Guermantes Way. I'm listening to this epically long novel on audiobook in the translation by C.K. Scott Moncrieff, and it is enriching my life considerably.
I would also recommend Boccaccio's Decameron from the fourteenth century, which I finally read. It reads very swiftly and is endlessly entertaining.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
I know nothing about music, but I spent my year listening to Justin Timberlake and James Blake.

27. What was the best piece of theatre you saw?
Back to Back Theatre's Ganesh versus the Third Reich
John Tiffany's production of The Glass Menagerie with Cherry Jones and Brian J. Smith is a close runner-up. I saw it at the the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.
(But honestly I didn't go to the theatre very much this year.)

28. What did you want and get?
To be published in a top-tier journal. The article isn't out yet, but it will be soon. And I am finished with all of my edits, including extensive conversations with the copy-editor.
29. What did you want and not get?
I really was hoping for a job last year, and I did not get one. The 2014 season is a whole different ballgame, though. Things look great.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
The Great Beauty followed by Blue Is the Warmest Color

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
My friends Katie, Viktor, and Yasser took me out to a restaurant in White River Junction, and then we had beers at an underground dive bar there afterward. It was very very nice.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
A nicer kitchen.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2013?
Dress up. Always dress up. A pair of great shoes has the power to separate you from the city you might be consigned to live in.

34. What kept you sane?
Rounds of Say the Same Thing with Deborah and Jordan.
Chats with Patrick McKelvey, Kate Bredeson, and Joe Cermatori.
After-work drinks with my colleagues at Florida State.
Shopping trips with my mother.
Hikes in Virginia, New Hampshire, and Vermont with Caleb.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?
Chris Messina

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
Politics in the U.S. is broken. I have been yelling about it for what feels like at least ten years, but the Congress just gets worse. The thing I paid attention to the most this year was the trial of George Zimmerman. It felt like a kind of Floridian Dreyfus Case: I would rather cross the street than speak  to someone who thought George Zimmerman ought to go free.

37. Whom did you miss?
This year was another year of missing everyone. I divided my time between Florida, Virginia, and New Hampshire, and traveled all over. So I missed my friends in Los Angeles, missed my friends in New York, my friends in Seattle, my friends in Tallahassee, and my friends in Lynchburg.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Katie Bland

39. Tell us a valuable life-lesson you learned in 2013:
A couple of really important things:
1) I thought by switching careers from performance to something else I was moving into a less cutthroat career path. Not true. Finding a job is difficult no matter what you're doing. So if you want to be a performer, work hard and keep doing it. I wasn't cut out to be a performer, and my new career path is a much better one for my sensibilities, but trying to get a good job is exactly like auditioning and constantly facing rejection.

2) Friendships are great. Focus as much as you can on the ones who are around you every day. The ones from earlier in your life won't go away completely, they will just change in level of importance. I learned this year that for extroverts, being around people is energizing, but for introverts, being around people saps energy from us and being alone rebuilds our stores of energy. I have a lot of great friends, and I am very very grateful for them, but I have started to become closer and closer to friends around whom I feel more energized, relaxed, and encouraged.

3) Say yes to challenges or things that might seem a little difficult. Some of my favorite experiences this year (the ACC game, the Capitol Truffle Collection, traveling to Virginia for Sonnets and Chocolates) have been from deciding to do something whole-hog that actually was kinda inconvenient.

40. Share an important quote from 2013:
How dreary a monotony must pervade those people's lives who, from indolence or timidity, drive in their carriages straight to the doors of friends whom they have got to know without having first dreamt of knowing them, without ever daring on the way to stop and examine what arouses their desire.
À la Recherche, volume 2

16 December 2013

Desolation and Dragons

Last year, my friend Caleb and I shared one of our really nerdy conversations about The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey. (For the record, we have a lot of incredibly complex conversations about Tolkien lore, and we do this fairly often.) So, of course, we both have already seen the second installment of The Hobbit, which Jackson and co. are calling The Desolation of Smaug. Here is some of our conversation about Hobbit #2. I have tried to link anything that might demand more knowledge of Tolkien's books.

Caleb: We went opening night at midnight. Because I still had hope. But I feel the credits should've read based on characters created by J.R.R. Tolkien. I actually think Peter Jackson improved a lot of the story and closed up some of the gaps with Lord of the Rings. And brought the piece in line with the rest of the canon. But it's about 99.95% action and people kicking ass and about .05% story on screen.

Aaron: I agree with you that the plot of The Hobbit is actually improved by all of the stuff with Gandalf running around and trying to figure out what's happening with Sauron. The thing is, that the movie just sort of doesn't feel like anything. I mean, running, running, running. Escape the orcs, escape the wood-elves, escape the men, escape the dragon. In order to what? The idea that the dwarves are going to get back some kind of ancestral homeland just seems sort of preposterously unattainable, doesn't it? And the film never lets us hang out with the dwarves at home – there is that one moment where Glóin shows us portraits of his son and his wife. And they tried to do this a little with Bard and his three wee ones (did we hear the word "da" enough times?). But I want to see these worlds without duress! We get this a little whenever we're in Rivendell in Lord of the Rings and in the first Hobbit, and we get this when we see the Shire, but in Desolation of Smaug, there just isn't much of anything to root for.

Caleb: I do think that Jackson fixed the tone issues with The Hobbit. Bilbo singing and calling the spiders “attercop” has always been a little lame. Glad that was cut. Although Fran Walsh is failing in her research if she wrote “This sword is from Gondolin! My kin!” since Legolas is not of Noldorin ancestry. 

The tie-ins with Gandalf’s search for the necromancer are perfect. That helps us understand the rise of the Dark Lord. Although what was that terrible shot where we see Sauron’s silhouette fade into the eye over and over like a terrible music video. Does the audience really need a beating with the Obvious Bat there? I’m feeling bruised.

I did like that we see Dol Guldur. I’m confused about the hanging cages, though, since it’s always described as “pits”. I suspect that Gandalf will find Thráin II there in the pits since we know that he is missing and died in the pits “in madness and torment” when the last ring was taken from him. I would love to see that thread tied up. I really liked the tombs of the Nazgûl although I’m sure that the Witch King has never been entombed as he has never died. I really don’t know much about the other 8 other than they were living men so I assume they had bodies that could have been put in a tomb. But they are wraiths now and have no true physical form. So why are the iron bars bent? No idea.

Gandalf and Radagast confer
Aaron: I'm totally with you on Gandalf and the necromancer: the stuff with Gandalf figuring out that the evil in the south of the forest is more than he had thought it was. It is interesting and created a much darker, scarier tone for the film. Which was great. Except that Jackson makes those sections of the movie just as bland as the rest of the film. Gandalf looks around at stuff (that we don't recognize), he sees a sign on a tree (for which the viewer has no context), he goes to Dol Guldur and apparently sees things (that we don't see), and so there is nothing for us to figure out as an audience. No mystery, no clues, no puzzle. Gandalf doesn't quite know, and then – bang! – he knows. McKellen's delivery, too, has gotten more drawn out and ponderous as this series continues. "You'll neeeeeeddddd ittttt," he tells Bilbo. It's like Alan Rickman's delivery as Snape.

Caleb: I think the dialog is the worst part. It’s 80% action film cliches (“How do we know we can trust him? We have no choice!” “I thought you were an orc. If I were an orc, you would be dead.”) There’s just no ring of authenticity. Gandalf says "We must force his hand…”. Force his hand is an analogy from poker which makes no sense in the world of the piece. When you read the dialog from The Annals of the Kings and Rulers: Durin’s Folk, the dialog between Gandalf and Thorin in the Prancing Pony is actually pretty good. And I think Jackson knew the dialog was bad and so, like George Lucas before him, decided you might not notice how bad the dialog is if all of the dialog takes place in the middle of insane special effects. That scene between Bilbo and Smaug didn’t need to be set with Bilbo flying all around the crazy piles of gold. That could have been a scene of actual acting. I would have loved that. After tons of running around and jumping and shooting, we have a still, tense scene between those characters before we see the dragon’s full size. But nope, let’s just cover our dialog with green screens and the audience won’t notice that Smaug has no motivation anymore.

 Aaron: You are exactly right. I haven't read this book in a dog's age, but Bilbo's titles – Underhill, barrel-rider, etc. – are meant to trick Smaug, yes? You don't give the dragon your real name because he will use it to destroy you. We know Bilbo can't die because he's in The Lord of the Rings, but at least the stakes could've been raised considerably.

Caleb: Yes! Without a true scene between Smaug and Bilbo, it's very unclear why the dragon decides to attack Laketown, especially when the dwarves, his true enemies, are within the mountain. In the book, Bilbo accidentally tricks Smaug into thinking he a man from Laketown. He's playing at riddles and calls himself "The barrel-rider" which makes Smaug think the Lakemen are trying to steal his gold. He has no idea that the dwarves have arrived. If he knew that the heir of Thráin had returned, Smaug would never have left the mountain until he was dead. In the film, it's as though he just gets distracted and decides to burn up a town... weak motivation which again, makes you lose faith in the characters. 

Aaron: I want to say, too, that the Steven Spielberg moves really started to piss me off this time. I know Jackson adores Spielberg and his many endings (we all laughed at how many times those first couple of movies ended). But, the dwarves all lose hope and then Bilbo shows up to save them from the spiders, then the dwarves all lose hope again in the prisons of the wood-elves, and then Bilbo shows up. The dwarves almost get caught sneaking into Laketown, then (surprise!) they don't get caught. There are no stakes here. Who cares if they get caught? When they did get caught the Master of Laketown threw them a party. But then the dwarves give up again. We can't find the keyhole to the door on the side of the mountain! Guess our quest's over! Who is falling for these little mini-cliffhangers? I'll tell you: exactly no one. So why is the film filled with this phony nonsense?

Caleb: I agree. They give up after 35 seconds of trying to open the hidden door: the characters lose all credibility. Would Thorin really come all this way, fight all of these ridiculous white orcs and then give up his life’s quest after a small setback like that? It makes no sense. It’s very hard to feel anything for a character who is so visible a slave to the writer’s emotional manipulation. And I don’t really want to talk about Thorin’s “plan” to fight the dragon by covering him in molten gold… I mean wow, even for a man with no plan, that was terrible. Maybe next time he’ll try to light the dragon on fire to kill it. Hot gold? Really? That just made him a total idiot. At least the book just made him blind and arrogant to dealing with the dragon.

Aaron: But... we got to see a dragon covered in molten gold! In truth (and you knew this would be the case) I loved absolutely every second of Smaug. The effects were wonderful, I loved when he breathed fire, I loved Benedict Cumberbatch's voice, and I loved Smaug's arrogant, smug, murderous attitude.

Caleb: I think that “Legolas Kicks Everyone’s Ass” just needs to be it’s own film. It’s a distracting plot line (if such long string of action sequences can be called a “plot line") from this movie. I’ve created a graph of Legolas’ screen time [to the right]. Also I’m pretty sure that Bilbo can’t swim or at least not very well. In the film though, he was the Michael Phelps of white-water free styling.

Aaron: It's the style of the movie that I just can't get past. He's filmed it with a hundred of these micro-cliffhangers – none of which we ever take seriously. I mean, did anyone in the film actually die? A real action movie kills off its cast members as the movie progresses. So that there are stakes to the fake action that is happening on screen. In Desolation, every single person in the film is basically as invulnerable as Gandalf.

Caleb: Not entirely true... Don't forget that touching moment when Legolas stems his bleeding nose and ponders the mortality of the Eldar in Middle Earth for at least 0.36 seconds. And then continues his one-elf quest to punch to death all of the orcs.

Aaron: Wow, you disliked this movie so much more than I. I just thought there was not much to it.

Caleb: No, I actually enjoyed watching the film. The pace is good and there's more than enough action to keep you entertained. I just wish there was a story.

15 December 2013

Way More than a Spoonful

I was prepared to quite dislike Saving Mr. Banks. I find it really difficult to deal with performances that look really broad or appear to comment on their characters to an enormous extent. Such is the case with the trailer for John Lee Hancock's tale about P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, meeting Walt Disney as he tries in 1963 to make what would become the iconic musical film with Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.

Let's not lie, this is adorable.
Saving Mr. Banks works in an identical way to a cartoon from earlier this year: Monsters University. In Mr. Banks, the film is entirely dependent upon us knowing and loving the 1964 film. Banks can easily assume that we have seen and love that film, and so the film is filled with in-jokes and references, many of which are quite funny.

But the whole thing is so overtly cloying and treacly! Mrs. Travers is an uptight, awful woman who hates everything about Los Angeles and wants nothing to do with the way Walt Disney does business. She hates cartoons, she hates musicals, she hates fairy dust, and she thinks Disney is a money-grubbing capitalist son-of-a-bitch who wants to stuff Mary Poppins into his enormous dynastic machine.

And we're supposed to A) think Mrs. Travers is wrong and B) laugh at her, while also, C) knowing she'll eventually come around to Walt's point of view, and D) hoping she learns a lesson. This for me is the film's most important problem. We know from the beginning what ends up happening. We know they make the movie. And we know the movie turns out to be delightful. We've seen it! In other words, we know that Mrs. Travers is wrong. The whole time. It isn't that she might be right or her fears make a kind of sense or anything like that. We know that she is wrong. And so she deserves our laughter. Walt Disney is right. Mrs. Travers is being an uptight, fun-hating killjoy and we can feel superior to her throughout Saving Mr. Banks.

There is a second story haunting Mr. Banks and that story is P.L. Travers' childhood relationship with her own father. These sequences take place in Australia where the family is basically penniless. Her father is a wonderful dreamer of a man, who is (as it happens) also an alcoholic. Little P.L. Travers adores her father and wants to save him, but being a child, she of course has no idea how to do that. I actually loved every single sequence in Australia. In contrast to the hyper-Disney point of view of the main story, these Australia sequences have a nostalgic feel but also a kind of weight. There are stakes in this storyline: the love of a daughter for a father, a mother's relationship with her children, the ability of a man to take responsibility for his choices even though he is a free spirit. And Colin Farrell as the real "Mr. Banks" is just perfect. It is one of my favorite performances of the year. (Incidentally, I love that Farrell is playing character roles instead of leading men these days: it allows him to show off his considerable talent without the burden of carrying a film by himself.)

In other words, the movie isn't without things to love. Even in the 1963 sequences, there is some fun stuff: Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman Brothers are lovely: just the right note of cartoon and earnestness (perhaps because they are a pair). They are a nice contrast to the exhaustingly absurd performances of Bradley Whitford, Tom Hanks, and Melanie Paxson. And by the end of Mr. Banks I sort of loved Mrs. Travers even if she was a cartoon. I love the book, and so I want to love her. I had come around to the film so much that near the end when Mickey Mouse appeared at the Mann's Chinese Theatre, I found him charming. But then during the screening of Mary Poppins, Mrs. Travers tells Mr. Disney that "she can't abide cartoons" and I thought to myself and yet this whole film is more of a cartoon than the original Mary Poppins. Saving Mr. Banks gives us a whole cupful of sugar when only a spoonful was needed.

11 December 2013

The Hunt

Thomas Vinterberg's hard-hitting melodrama The Hunt is finally on DVD. (I keep calling this film La Chasse in my head because I first heard about it a year ago when I was in Paris and that's what all the posters said. This is actually quite confusing since it is a Danish film not a French one.)

The Hunt stars the great Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen and his performance is understated and devastating. In this movie, Lucas, a mild-mannered, good-hearted, recently divorced kindergarten teacher with a teenage son is accused of sexual misconduct with one of the children at his school.

This is truly a witch hunt, in which the hysteria of the adults in the small town where Lucas teaches grows to an unbearable pitch. The movie, in fact, becomes frustrating to watch, and terribly painful as this man's life gets destroyed by the inability for anyone to speak calmly or without prejudice about the topic at hand. The hunt is also a metaphor (and significant setpiece) in the film: Lucas hunts deer with his friends and hopes to give his son a family heirloom rifle as soon as he is old enough to get a hunting license.

In the vein of Vinterberg's former Dogme-95 style, the drama is tightly focused on the interiors of its carefully drawn characters. We come to understand these people, and (at least for me) to be afraid of the things that they will do. We know them very well, and the portrayals are honest and terrifying. There is so much powerlessness in the film. Things simply get out of hand. And when a child is involved there is even less that can be controlled. Can the child remember things accurately? Do we know what children feel? Whether children tell the truth? We know for sure that children do not understand their own feelings (we barely understand our feelings as adults). But do we know whether children can even speak accurately about what happened? The whole thing is scary, and Vinterberg spins the tale as one of quiet dread, headed almost inexorably toward tragedy.

The excellent Mr. Mikkelsen
And what is a pervert? Who is this abnormal bogeyman that exists outside of society and has no place with in it? As for that question, The Hunt remains rather silent. Vinterberg's movie is about an innocent man accused of something he most definitely did not do. The film asks no questions about people who might do such things or who identify with behaviors considered abnormal. I read a great book on the topic fairly recently entitled Erotic Innocence: the Culture of Child Molesting. James Kinkaid's argument is that we as a culture invent these terrifying images of deviant child predators coming to get our children. We are obsessed with sex (of course we are) and fixated, in fact, on the sex of our own children, and so we fabricate bogeymen who stand in for our own unacknowledged desires for our children. (A great example: Florida Representative Katie Edwards and Florida Senator Kelli Stargel recently proposed a law in Florida that would ban "sex offenders" – the term covers a wide array of people – from viewing pornography of any kind while on probation. Not only are these legislators on the wrong side of Fascism and freedom of thought, they are on the wrong side of common sense and simple human decency.)

But there are no sex offenders or perverts in The Hunt. Instead – and this is what Vinterberg's film does  well – there are only hysterical adults, people who are not the least bit interested in their children, but are focused instead on themselves, their own problems, their own fears, their own self-righteousness about the world. The characters in The Hunt aren't interested in protecting children, in caring for children, even in listening to what children have to say. Instead, they are interested in projecting their own neuroses, desires, and troubles away from anyone but themselves. The Hunt is a portrait of a difficult world gone crazy.

I want to say, too, that The Hunt ends perfectly, with an excellently tense encounter between Lucas and his accuser and then a haunting finale that drove home Vinterberg's meditation on hysteria's lasting effects. This is very good stuff.

08 December 2013

Guest Commentary: War of the Worlds

I got an email from my buddy Rick a couple days ago about Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds that is too good not to post. I am going to call it a guest commentary.
Here's Rick:
I'm sitting here with Jill watching Spielberg's War of the Worlds. I remember when this movie came out a decade ago, people were all, "Wow, it's such an allegory for 9/11, and the terror we felt on that day!"

I don't think this movie has anything to do with 9/11. 9/11 was about a group of people from the third world turning our own technology against us and destroying the most potent symbols of American power and capitalism.

In this movie, gleaming, silvery towers rise out of the ground and destroy a happy, working-class, Sesame-Street style neighborhood. It's 9/11 in reverse.

Spielberg even gives away the game early in the movie: as Tom Cruise and his kids are fleeing the carnage, Dakota Fanning shrieks, "Is it the terrorists???"

No, baby. It's private equity.

Also, the ending of the movie makes the message unmistakeable: Dockworker Cruise, after having traveled through the American equivalent of Occupied France, delivers Fanning to his ex-wife's front door in a leafy, patrician Boston neighborhood. Some cars are a little out of place, but otherwise things look normal. A genteel older couple, the woman in pearls, answers the door along with the ex-wife. "Oh, it's that stevedore ex-husband of yours," you can imagine them saying. "My, that was a rough night, wasn't it?"

For the record, I recall liking the film. Thoughts here.

04 December 2013

Angels and Old Irish Ladies

Stephen Frears' Philomena is a star vehicle. This is the only real approach to the movie that makes any sense, as far as I can tell. I say this mostly because there simply isn't much to this movie. An old woman's son was taken from her when he was very small and when she was just a teenager.

By evil nuns.

And now, fifty years later, she tries to find out what happened to him.

This is a small story, and one I rather thought would be more emotional affecting than I eventually found it to be. In its favor, Frears's film admits its "human-interest-story angle" up front. It's not as though the filmmakers are pretending they're not tugging at my heartstrings. But, then, the tale never quite takes off. It's a true story, and that's probably a large part of its trouble. The filmmakers needed to be true to the book on which the tale is based and so they felt bad about changing things and (as a consequence) didn't quite hit all the emotional points they might've hit.

There is a long stretch of film where her son's partner won't see her. Why? There could've been some quality emotional payoffs in there that are left untapped. The film avoids other interesting avenues of inquiry, as well: a young woman who doesn't want to know anything about her birth mother, a possible reunion between Philomena and other mothers whose babies were taken from them, the joys of adopted families. The film leaves any big ideas alone, really, and tells, instead, the story of this one character.

And Philomena is a character, make no mistake. She says things like "in England we have Indians instead of Mexicans and everybody loves curry." What? And she reads silly romance novels and relates the stories to her companions as though they're Flaubert. She sees the good in everyone and thinks everyone is out to help everyone else (she apparently did not go through TSA security upon arrival in the United States).

Ms. Dench
(definite Oscar nomination this year)
I had more difficulty with Philomena's moral point of view. The film can't decide whether to forgive people or be angry about what these evil nuns did and continue to do. We have two characters, an angry one and a forgiving one, but which one is right? The film wants it both ways. We should be angry and we should also forgive. But this point of view is not only toothless, it's ethically untenable. Philomena acts as though the point of view of these evil nuns is a relic of the past, as though there is only one frail, lonely person left in all of Christendom who thinks sex is evil, the pain of childbirth is a punishment for sin, or HIV is a punishment for going against the will of the god. But this isn't true at all! This point of view pervades our societies across the globe. So it is all fine and well for Philomena to forgive the evil nuns, but what about the mothers whose children the nuns are still hiding from them? And what about the Catholic church's continued ludicrousness toward female sexuality? And what about trying to fix the evil that they've done? Philomena comes down on the side of the institution here: forgive and forget and try to focus on Jesus. Yeah. No thanks.

Judi Dench is wonderful. As much of a cartoon as this character might have been, Dench plays Philomena straight at every moment, never judging her, never commenting on her. It is a beautiful performance, quiet and sad and very, very lovely. I didn't always like this character, but Dench is stunning.

02 December 2013

The Snow Queen: Thoughts on Frozen

About Disney's Frozen:

1. Frozen is a musical! After all the complaints I've made about faux musicals like Brother Bear where the characters' feelings are expressed through music but the characters don't actually sing, Frozen has its characters belting. The movie's story is told through song. The plot advances through song. It's wonderful.

2. And they cast singers. No Hollywood community-theatre version of a musical here: Frozen stars Idina Menzel (Wicked), Jonathan Groff (Spring Awakening), Josh Gad (Book of Mormon), Santino Fontana (Cinderella), and Maia Nkenge Wilson (Book of Mormon). The only Hollywood star is Kristen Bell, who, incidentally sings beautifully.

3. The only bad part about this is that the film eventually stops being a musical. There is room for an awesome eleven-o'clock number like "The Mob Song" (that "Kill the Beast" tune) in Beauty and the Beast, but Frozen is done with songs by the time we get to the final section of the movie. It's a pity. Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez's songs are great; giving us more of them would have made the film even better.

4. Frozen is a kind of spoof on the traditional princess story. In a good way. It has the same kind of silly Disney-princess in-jokes as Tangled (the film looks like Tangled, too). Love at first sight, the true love's kiss, and "the one" all come in for criticism in Frozen, and the filmmakers gentle poking at these ideas is good fun and quite funny.

5. The film also looks really cool. The snow is beautiful and the art direction looks great.

6. The script is a bit of a mess, though. There are plot holes galore: Why didn't the trolls help Elsa deal with her powers? How does love solve everyone's problems? Why couldn't Elsa at least talk to Anna, you know, through the door? (Surely, they could've played twenty questions at the very least.) What does Elsa eat up there on North Mountain? Why did Elsa need to take off her gloves to hold the scepter? Why didn't Professor Xavier come and take her to his mutant school?

7. There is an adorable baby reindeer. Seriously, he is the cutest thing.

8. There is also a snowman (played by Josh Gad), who has a totally different look than the other characters. It was cool that he looked like this, and he was way less annoying in the film than he was in that teaser trailer where he's falling apart all over the ice. But the trolls, too, have a different, less realistic look than the rest of the Frozen's characters, and that didn't really make much sense.

9. I think the music is the showcase here. The first real song, "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?", is heartbreaking and funny by turns, and also tells a beautiful story in a very short amount of time. It is a perfect use of a song in a movie: on the level of Aladdin's "One Jump Ahead". Okay, I overstate. "One Jump Ahead" is a brilliant song and "Snowman" is not nearly as perfect as that, but look at the sparkle of these lyrics:
Do you wanna build a snowman?
Come on, let's go and play.
I never see you anymore,
Come out the door;
It's like you've gone away.
We used to be best buddies,
And now we're not;
I wish you would tell me why.
Do you wanna build a snowman?
(It doesn't have to be a snowman.)
Okay, bye
10. I loved that the movie was about true love being love between sisters. This is a movie about young women coming into their own. This is not a movie about true love or any of that nonsense. Instead, two sisters learn to deal with something that has torn them apart. The most important relationship in Frozen is a sororal one. And unlike Brave, Frozen doesn't propose to instruct young women about correct modes of behavior, focusing instead on the love between sisters as a priority. This is extraordinary for a Princess movie.