Thursday, October 25, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook, A Review

Just saw this movie as a "special screening" with the writer of the novel in attendance for a post-flick Q&A. Really a very good film, and worth seeing.

Bradley Cooper plays Pat Solitano, a Philly man who is just being released from a mental hospital as the movie opens. He's been in for 8 months as a plea bargain for "an incident"--he came home early from work one day to find his wife in the shower with another man, and nearly beat the man to death. He's signed out by his mother AMA--against medical advice, and brought back to his parent's house.

Pat's dad is Robert DeNiro, a man who has his own issues with OCD and anger management. Dad has lost his job and is making money by running bets on Eagles football games. The family dynamic among the three of them is toxic and extremely believable--they are all trying to be heard over each other, all desperate to be understood, to connect, and they set each other off in the worst ways.

Pat's wife has distanced herself over the 8 months of the hospital stay, sold the house, and gotten a restraining order against her husband. Pat is convinced that he can pull himself back together, get healthy, get his job back, and reconcile with his wife. Then he meets Tiffany, the sister-in-law of his best friend.

Tiffany has her own issues--she's a very young widow of a cop, who acted out her grief by inappropriate sexual activity. She's living in a renovated garage behind her own parents' house, and she and Pat have a prickly relationship based on their inappropriate responses to their own wounds.

They are attracted, but damaged, and married to other people--more or less. In the end, Tiffany agrees to pass a letter to Pat's wife (which would violate the restraining order) but Pat has to agree to be her partner in a dance competition. Meanwhile, Pat's dad is trying to make enough money from bookmaking to open a restaurant, and he's convinced that if Pat will watch the games with him, the Eagles will win.

The final showdown happens after Dad makes an incredibly ill-considered bet and then blames Pat and his dancing with Tiffany as the cause of the Eagle's loss. (Like I said, Dad has mental problems too.) There is a "double or nothing parlay"--if the Eagles win against the Cowboys on December 28 and Pat and Tiffany score a 5/10 points in their dance competition, the restaurant dream will be saved.

Things get worse--Pat figures out that Tiffany wrote the letter supposedly from his wife, the wife shows up at the dance competition so Tiffany gets drunk, the competition is professional and the grading is really really hard--how is this going to work out?

There is a bit of Too Much Coincidence--the Eagles win their football game exactly as Tiffany and Pat are called to dance, the final score is exactly a 5, Pat's wife actually shows up and they manage to talk without any hostility at all, the bet itself is nonsensical--but it doesn't really matter. I was caught up and deeply engaged. Things end up happily, and the movie ends with all the characters at Mom and Dad's house to watch the Eagles in the playoffs.

I have never been a Bradley Cooper fan--he just is too fratty for my taste. I've never thought he was quite as handsome as he seemed to think he was, he was just a bit too smirky for my taste. Here, he is manic, he is uncontrolled, he is abashed, he is ineffectual, he is inappropriate, but he is sincere. There is nary a smirk in the entire movie.

As Tiffany, Jennifer Lawrence is brittle and damaged and fiesty and challenging and amazing. She is also so beautifully shot--all creamy skin and tilted cheekbones and juicy curves--she might as well be sculpted from ice cream.

Matthew Quick wrote the novel that David O. Russell adapted for the screenplay, and his story was quite inspirational in a wonderfully way. A high school teacher for 7 years, he was miserable. So with his wife he quit his job, sold the house, and moved to Massachusetts to live with his in-laws and spend the next three years in the basement trying to be a writer. "And I never in a million years imagined that the Weinstein Company would fly me around the country to talk to audiences about a movie." He talked about the way that writing a book is such a solitary endeavor and felt self-indulgent to do.

But then the actor who plays Bradley Cooper's therapist wrote him a letter. "And this guy has starred in like 400 Bollywood films, but he told me 'My dream has always been to work with Robert DeNiro.'" THAT is something Quick never imagined while writing in his in-laws' basement--that he would make somebody else's dream come true.

Definitely worth seeing.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Oswin Speculation--Doctor Who Redux

So the surprise introduction of Jenna-Lousie Coleman as Oswin Oswald in the series premiere Asylum of the Daleks raises the question: "How does a dead Dalek girl end up being the Doctor's companion?"



Anyway--when Jenna=Louise Coleman was introduced to us as the Companion to follow the Ponds, we were told she would be introduced in the Christmas episode, and her character would be named "Clara Oswald." There is also a promise of something "Victorian."

Obviously, that was not entirely true. But how much is true and how much is misdirection, and how do we get a Companion after she's been assimilated and then blown up along with the entire planet?

So I'm going to call it here. Here's my prediction, based on almost nothing other than what I have laid out above. I have no inside information, I have no particular insight, nor do I have any record of guessing correctly about anything. Ever. At any time.

My Prediction:

The Christmas episode will be an inversion of "The Nutcracker" (in which the protagonist is traditionally either "Clara" or "Marie.") It will be Victorian (the high tide mark for Christmas traditions) and Clara Oswald will be from the past--an ancestor of Oswin, much like Eve Myles played her Torchwood character's own great-great-grandmother in the Doctor Who episode The Unquiet Dead. My guess is that the Doctor will take the role of the Nutcracker, will take Clara to a sci-fi version of the Land of the Sugar Plum fairy, and she will come with him and he will have to NEVER tell her about her many generations removed descendant Oswald--but he will hint that he knows she is brave and smart and strong, because he has seen her DNA in the future.

Now I just have to remember to come back here at the end of the year/series and see how well I did!

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Doctor Who 7.1--Asylum of the Daleks

Whew! That was fun!

So! Asylum of the Daleks! Let's dig in, shall we?

Synopsis: Doctor meets with shady ginger lady who claims her daughter is trapped in a Dalek prison camp and she's been told the Doctor might be able to help. He's suspicious--how did she escape? No one escapes Dalek prisons. And they are meeting on Skaro, the Dalek home planet, which appears to have been rendered uninhabitable even by creatures hermetically sealed into tuna tins. (Sure, they are high tech tuna tins, but tins nonetheless). Shady ginger lady grows an eyestalk out of her forehead, and "the Doctor is acquired."

Amy Pond is on a high fashion shoot, interrupted by the appearance of her husband ("I don't have a husband!" she insists--wait. What?) with divorce papers for her to sign. We can see her sign "Williams." Rory leaves, and Amy's make-up assistant grows a blue eyestalk out of her forehead--"Amelia Pond is acquired!"

Rory's busdriver also has a blue light on his forehead--do you suppose the Daleks have replace all the London busdrivers?

Our brave trio reunites on a Dalek spaceship, which turns out to house the "Parliament of the Daleks." You can call it a parliament, I call it "Too Many Daleks."

This is quite a feat Moffat has pulled off. This may be more Daleks than even Russell T. Davies had ever assembled during his running of the series, and I don't think there was every a plot difficulty that Rusty didn't think could be solved by throwing more Daleks at it.

The Doctor screws his eyes closed, waiting for the fatal blast, but once again the Daleks have a surprise and a plan (cf. Victory of the Daleks from series 5): "You will save us" they say. They have an asylum, a planet where they dump the most damaged and ungovernable Daleks. The Daleks that all the other Daleks are scared of--that's how damaged they are. The Doctor asks "Why don't you just kill them?" Reasonable questions--Daleks kill everything. Daleks were prepared to eradicate reality just to get rid of non-Dalek lifeforms--what's to stop them from killing these criminal Daleks?

The answer comes out of the kind of twisted love that one would expect from this species--there is a terrible beauty in such hatred, and they will not destroy such a thing of beauty. And here the Doctor thought the Daleks couldn't possibly have found a new way to make him sick: to confuse hatred with beauty. "Perhaps that is why we are unable to kill you, Doctor." Oh snap! You kids, you're the Sam and Diane of the time vortex--just admit it.

Anyway, the ostensible plan is to launch the Doctor and requisite companions to the planet and lower the impenetrable force field so the mothership can explode the planet because there is someone (or something) down there who keeps playing Carmen at them and they don't like it. Should we nitpick the logical inconsistencies? How did something land on the planet through the impenetrable nano-techbabble-shield, and why (if it is impenetrable) do they think this thing could come back out? And how do they expect to get Doctor and Ponds through this impenetrable shield? And if it can only be turned off from the inside, how did it get turned on in the first instance?

No, let's just assume this was Moffat's hat tip to the dodgy science that is one of the hallmarks of this series, and move on. He's working in the venerable tradition of nearly half a century: don't stop to think, just keep running.

Screaming and falling, coming to in snow, meeting a guy in a white snowsuit who helps them look for Rory, until he and all his dessicated crew grow forehead eyestalks; seemingly dead Daleks of all shapes coming back to life, and "Souffle Girl"--Jenna-Louise Coleman in a well kept surprise appearance months before she was expected as the sole surviving member of the spaceship crash, Oswin. Oswin is a brilliant hacker who has tapped into the Dalek systems and guides Doctor and Ponds to safety, and asks to be rescued. Of course, she can't be. She wasn't just turned into a human puppet/zombie Dalek--she was brilliant so she got the full conversion. She is the maddest of the mad Daleks, kept in a solitary confinement even within the asylum, insisting on her own humanity and resisting the Dalek programming.

In a last ditch effort, she accesses the Dalek central control pathway and wipes all memories of the Doctor. She sends him to join the Ponds on the transporter deck and lowers the impenetrable shield, assuring the destruction of the planet. The Doctor transports the three of them inside the TARDIS back on the mother ship, and pops out to gloat. But wait! The Daleks don't recognize him. "It's me! The Doctor!" No information on any such being in their banks. No Doctor, no "Predator," no "Oncoming Storm." Oswin wiped all the Dalek memories. Epic series reboot for the win!

The Awesome:
  • Forehead eyestalks. Creepy!
  • "How much trouble are we in, Mr. Pond? On a scale of one to ten? [Beat] Eleven." I love when Eleven calls himself out like that!
  • Zombie skeleton Daleks reminded me of the victims from Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
  • Oswin's dress has to be a call back to Lt. Uhura's uniform from Star Trek: TOS. Where else would that asymmetrical neckline have come from?
  • Oswin.  
  • "Making souffles? At the Daleks?"
  • Love the newest most empathetic view of Daleks ever--Amy sees them as just people, including a little girl pirouetting in a pink tutu and tiara. At first, I thought these were people from her past--the assistant from the photo shoot, for example, or herself when she was still Little Amelia. Daleks have inner lives maybe? They can be more than just implacable Bad Guys?
  • Amy's anger and hurt erupting in her declaration "I didn't kick you out. I gave you up." Ponds 4 evah!
  • Daleks with their Oswin amnesia: "Doctor who? Doctor who? DOCTOR WHO?"
The Questionable:
  • Too many Daleks. Honestly, large numbers of Daleks are not necessarily scary if they are all refusing to attack. One homocidal Dalek is scarier than however many thousands of inert ones.
  • Why do Daleks have a parliament? Do they debate whether or not to exterminate? Is there a Loyal Opposition that has been elected on a platform on No Extermination? What are the political issues in Dalek life anyway?
  • Have Daleks abandoned their superiority and adopted Cybermen tactics of assimilation? Oswin's "conversion" looked a lot like Craig Owen fighting off his conversion in Closing Time last season. (I love you, Moffat, but keep your villains straight, okay? 
  • Also, Steven Moffat? I love you. I love what you are doing with Who, as well as Sherlock and even Jekyll. But you need to drop a couple of writing tics. "Wibbly wobbly timey wimey" was brilliant, but let it go. Seeing both "humany wumany" in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe right before the broadcast of Asylum where you inserted "explode-y wode-y"--you are diluting the brilliance of the first outing. Stop using it. It's not cute, and it's retroactively degrading the brilliance of Blink. Don't do that.
Fun things to notice:
  • All the Daleks in the Parliament are the same make/model--gold and sleek--none of controversial iDaleks from Victory of the Daleks apparently were electable.
  • The pre-airing promise that the episode would show "every Dalek from every era. EVER." is apparently technically met in the various Daleks kept in the asylum. But since most of them are basically stage dressing, there isn't really any kind of debate over which one is the *best* Dalek, which I would have enjoyed seeing played out. But this is why we have DVRs and the ability to freeze images. (But I think I spotted a camo painted WWII era one from Victory of the Daleks in the Intensive Care sequence.)
  • Oswin is definitely giving off The Girl Who Waited vibes. Which is great--I really liked The Girl Who Waited. 
  • Is Oswin's designation of Rory as "The Nose" and the Doctor as "The Chin" a payback to the time in The Impossible Astronaut when he called his companions "The Nose" (Rory), "Legs" (Amy) and "Mrs. Robinson" (River Song)? Now they all have "code names."
Finally--did anybody see this? My new favorite game is now "Dalek Bingo."


Sunday, July 29, 2012

Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux a la Reine), A Review

Of course you go to see this movie to see Versailles. Add in the ineffably gorgeous Diane Kruger as Marie Antoinette and a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 90% and it's a no-brainer. So I went to see it yesterday. And it's good. . .enough. I can recommend it, but I have some qualms about the story it is telling.

In brief, the movie covers three days after the storming of the Bastille (July 14-18, 1789) from the perspective of a minor member of the staff at the royal palace. Sidonie Laborde is the Queen's Reader, summoned on occasions to read books and plays at the queen's whim. She has unparalleled intimacy when closeted with the queen, but is only called now and again.  Then the French Revolution begins in earnest, with the storming of the Bastille, and the hundreds of people whose lives are at stake are caught with no reliable sources of information, no way to assess what is happening, and no way to protect themselves. It's a view of the privileged life of Versailles as a mixed bag of pros and cons. Sure, it's better than being poor and starving in the countryside, but it's an incredibly circumscribed and powerless life for most of the people who live there.

The first day shows a "typical" day at Versailles--Sidonie is called to read to Marie Antoinette, who is sleeping at Petit Trianon, her get-away on the grounds of the palace. Sidonie is hurried to the queen's bedroom, berated for her delay and chastised for her choice of material by the lady in waiting--only to be greeted by the queen with a bright smile and a compliment on how quickly she has arrived. Sidonie offers the Austrian sermon recommended by the lady in waiting (the funeral oration for Marie Theresa, who I believe is the queen's mother). Marie Antoinette pouts that it's too boring. Eventually Sidonie offers her own choice (which had been roundly discredited by the lady in waiting) and MA says while she likes that, a play would be better. We next see the queen (still in her nightgown, gorgeously disarrayed around her creamy shoulders) cuddled up to trade lines with Sidonie. However, MA is quickly distracted with ideas for a new dress design, fashion papers are called for, and eventually Sidonie is no longer on the queen's radar in the least. She is hustled out of the building and sent back to her quarters.

Given the prosaic nature of Sidonie's daily life, being on contact with the queen must have been a heady rush, like stumbling into a fairy tale. The queen even takes it upon herself to offer rosewood water to soothe Sidonie's mosquito bites, rubbing the balm into the sores herself, describing Sidonie's arms as "perfectly pudgy." How boring to go back to her small life, and small gossip, and rats and bugs and dark rooms. The next morning, however, there is electrifying news--the king was awakened at 2 a.m. and no one knows why. Could it be that he was sick? No, the cousin who sleeps at the foot of the king's bed has let it be known that it was not illness, it was a messenger. Could it be--? Perhaps it was--? The information trickles so slowly down to Sidonie's level, through different levels of rank and privilege, with cautions of secrecy and threats if the information leaks. Sidonie trades a chore (embroidering a dahlia for the queen) for information, and then gets further confirmation from the palace librarian.

But this only raises further questions: are the rebels headed to the palace? Are we safe? Will the royal family flee? Is this a time to worry about taking care of yourself, or is it best to put your trust in the king and cabinet? If you flee, will you be able to return or will it be viewed as a traitorous abandonment?  Several nights are passed with courtiers and servants wandering the halls holding candles and seeking information and counsel. What to do? What will happen? Some choose to flee under cover of night; one lady steals from the queen's luggage as she packs, believing that the monarchy has now fallen. One woman hangs herself to escape the future.

Sidonie declares that she will stay with the queen--and finds herself used as bait by the queen. The Duchess de Polignac must escape, and Sidonie is ordered by the queen to dress as the Duchess and sacrifice herself if the coach is stopped. The duke and duchess are disguised as a maid and valet, and Sidonie is to take the fall if they are detained. Her devotion to the queen means nothing compared to the queen's devotion to her favorite. The scene where she is dressed in Polignac's dress is loaded with meaning--the dress will fit, because their bodies are nearly identical. The movie had previously shown us the duchess's nude, sleeping body, now we see Sidonie's, which is just as lovely, just as young and vital, and the cold uncaring expression in the queen's eyes says more about class privilege and resentment than the rest of the movie could. Sidonie is a lovely, as young, as vulnerable, as worthy of love as the duchess, and the queen does not--can not--see it because Sidonie is not a "real" person, only a pawn to secure the duchess's safety.

The escape is set in motion, and the carriage is stopped, but Sidonie successfully negotiates the encounter and they travel on to Switzerland and freedom--but Sidonie was the queen's reader. Who will she be now?

I loved seeing Versailles inhabited and getting glimpses of how the entire society functioned--we saw the entire hierarchy, from the king down to the rats in the garden. You saw how power concentrated in the absolute monarchs made everyone else powerless--a throwaway line about one aristocrat who lived in a "rat hole" when he had a beautiful chateau in the country, all for the "chance to see the king pass in the Hall of Mirrors twice a week." Sidonie and her friends are more or less prisoners of their rooms, since they need to be found when called for. So many people exist as merely cogs in the machine that is royal service--such a reckless waste of human talent and agency--in the service of lives of the king and queen that they themselves don't seem to enjoy either. It's just the way things are--and so the promise/threat of the oncoming revolution is not all terrible, if it frees all these people from the tyranny of The Way Things Are Done.

The problem I have with this movie, however, is that is suffers from a weird sort of  "male gaze" problem. Ostensibly, this is the story of women--Marie Antoinette's attempts to save herself, her family, and her friends; Sidonie's awakening to the charms and horrors of royal privilege; the various paths taken by women under stress--the lady in waiting who steals the queen's clothing to finance herself, the woman who hangs herself to escape the coming revolution. The ways the various maids and female servants make lives for themselves--taking lovers, making marriages, exchanging information for favors. This is a story about women who are all in various ways and degrees powerless. When you run through the events of the movie, the men are generally seen at a distance, formal bodies in finery, but (with the exception of the palace librarian) not terribly relevant to these lives.

Yet, the women of this movie are oddly sexually performative, as though they are acting out a man's fantasy of how women would act in the absence of men, and it felt weirdly voyeuristic. Like it was the costume drama/historical classy version of  the peep-hole scene in Porky's. Marie Antoinette brings up the Duchess de Polignac with Sidonie with the very oddly phrased "Have you ever desired a woman?" Pause, pause, pause so the audience can imagine that MA is actually coming onto Sidonie and that Sidonie is sexually attracted to MA. Then she goes on with the next lines, including how much she is attracted to Polignac's youth. Of course (thanks Wikipedia!) the real Polignac was six years older than Marie Antoinette--so we have this counter-factual monologue about sexual desire--there is no subtext, no hint that MA might be speaking about some other form of attraction. No, it's straight up hetero-normative description of sexual desire, with the mostly unacknowledged "fact" that it's a woman delivering the lines.

Later, MA sends Sidonie to fetch Polignac, but the duchess has taken opium to sleep and cannot be waked. Sidonie walks into the bedroom and finds the duchess sleeping nude, her arms over her head, her bedclothes artfully disarrayed, looking like a version of The Naked Maja, only asleep. For no credible reason that I could see, other than sexual jealousy, Sidonie pulls down the sheet to reveal the duchess's entire body, and gazes at it. After a discreet amount of ogling, the duchess rolls over, so we get her ass as well. At one point, Polignac comes sashaying up to Marie Antoinette in the Hall of Mirrors, in front of the entire assembled population of the palace, looking every bit like she's parading on a catwalk. It's a weirdly modern gait--again, highly performative, and then the two of them gaze into each other's eyes and walk off with their arms around each other. The court gasps. No ambiguity here!

So it felt like there were these two different narratives going on in parallel: the one that I was interested in, which was the nature of life at Versailles and the way that privilege did not equate with power; and this sort of heated sexual fantasy about lesbianism, decadence, and corsets.

Apparently, there was a lot of resentment at the time around Polignac precisely because she was such a favorite, and there were whispers that her relationship with MA was sexual, although there is no proof. But this movie doesn't toy with ambiguity--it is all but declared that the two women were lovers, and that Sidonie's fascination with MA had to do with sexual longing, rather than the many many other elements that one could imagine. I mean, this young, poor servant finds her life periodically punctuated by close association with the Queen of fricking France--a woman of such power, beauty, and wealth that it must have seemed like magic. To reduce the complex relationships of a sophisticated society into just sex feels reductive.

Of course, the specter of Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette has to be addressed. Both were filmed on location at Versailles, both deal with the same historical characters, but they are very different movies. Farewell, My Queen is very claustrophobic, largely taking place in unadorned corridors, small rooms, poorly lighted locations. It's in many ways about the limits of absolute royal power, and what it takes to sustain and operate a system like Versailles. Coppola's movie focuses on the little girl inside the costume of Queen of France, striving to create sympathy for a very young woman thrust into a place that made no sense and where she was not accepted and so she tried to carve out some happiness for herself in the midst of the pomp and protocol of France. Farewell, My Queen really turns the story around to focus on the way these historical moments were experienced by those who really could only catch glimpses of it.

Worth seeing, very absorbing, but tonally a bit off-kilter. In French, with subtitles.

Photo credit: and Treasure for Your Pleasure

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Things That I Like. Or, Things Are Different Than They Used to Be

So, back in the olden days, when the drinking age was only 19, it wasn't hard to be a wine snob. Really! All you had to do was say something snotty about California wines, be condescending about Boone's Farm ("Kool Aid for Sorority Girls" was a good place to start), and categorically refuse to drink anything that came with a screw top or in a box.

See? Easy peasy.

How things have changed.

Now, it's all about "California root stock saved the French wine industry" and "California wines beat French wines and are complex and subtle" and "screw tops are more environmentally friendly plus they do a better job of keeping air out of the bottle."

Plus--now box wines are no longer a joke.

There are lots of reasons, and some of them have to do with the fact that ALL the cool kids are blending varietals now in order to get a better wine, or a more consistent taste, or smoothing out the variations in grape production. But the best thing about box wine nowdays?

You can buy your own favorite kind of wine, and you never have to share it and you (almost) never have to throw it out. Look, even for an Evil person like me, it's hard to drink and entire bottle of wine by myself at one sitting. And as soon as you have to share a bottle, you have to negotiate what you are going to drink. Does the other person want red or white? Chardonnay or riesling? Oaked or unoaked? Sparkling or still? Viognier or Pinot Grigio? What if you don't finish the wine, even with two (or more) of you? What if you like your red wine chilled to Coca-cola temperatures?

With box wines, you get your choice, you don't have to share, and it keeps and keeps and keeps. You don't need to worry about oxidation, because the bag inside the box has been vacuum sealed and there's no risk. You don't end up with a $30+ bottle reduced to cooking wine--or vinegar!!--because you didn't come back the next morning and finish it up with breakfast.

Turns out that just about everything we thought we knew about wine was wrong.

Except for Boone's Farm. That's still Kool-Aid for sorority chicks.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Roman Holiday at the Guthrie Theater, a Review

So I apparently need to take a break from seeing plays at the Guthrie Theater, because I am not enjoying them. They are not able to overcome the killing deadness of my heart, I guess. So it's time to look elsewhere for theatrical experiences, because I am not getting much out of what is happening there.

I can certainly appreciate all the effort that went into mounting this, as well as the way the cast sang and danced its collective heart out. The costumes were exquisite, the sets were more technologically sophisticated that we are used to seeing on the proscenium stage. The play itself is a lovely portmanteau--take the screenplay from the Audrey Hepburn-Cary Grant souffle Roman Holiday and dress it up in some Cole Porter tunes, and hey presto! A brand new stage musical! One that trades on the current infatuation with 1960s style, that has glamor bred into its very DNA, that's familiar to the largely geriatric demographic that supports regional theater these days.

You can imagine a stereotypical Hollywood producer chomping on his enormous cigar and growling "It's going to be the biggest thing since nickel Havanas!"

But then the reality hits, and the souffle deflates. The story--is stale and rather static. It's An American in Paris set in Rome. It's original purpose was as a travelogue dressed up in couture and a love story. Filmed entirely on location, rather than on soundstage sets, it gave a post-WWII audience a chance to actually see a city that most of them would never travel to.

The story (of the play, which may or may not deviate from the movie, which I've never seen) is the unlikely meeting between Princess Anne, the heir of a unnamed kingdom, and Joe Bradley, an American newspaper reporter working in Rome, who secretly wants to be a songwriter. Anne, worn out from a grueling good will tour of European capitals, escapes one night from her bedroom and ends up in a trattoria where Joe is celebrating his upcoming appointment with a Broadway producer who wants to hear his songs. Anne has been given a sedative before her escape, and she falls asleep. Joe assumes she's drunk and takes her back to his apartment to sober her up with some espresso in hopes of finding out her address so he can return her to her home. She falls asleep before he can brew the coffee, and the next morning he recognizes her from the local newspaper reporting that "The Princess is ill and has canceled all her appearances." Smelling a real exclusive, he squires her around the city, visiting all the tourist locations she's never been able to see. By the end of the day, he's fallen for her charms and decided that he can't sell her out, but at least now he as a subject for his Broadway play.

Like I said, it's a travelogue, and a lot of production cash went into developing a diorama of an apartment for Joe--which actually looks more like a Spanish colonial style guesthouse at Chateau Marmont, but who's quibbling? It rolls forward on a silent platform and then retreats so the scrim can drop. It's quite charming, like a little dollhouse for a Daddy doll who wears a suit, tie, and hat, and a Mommy doll in a crinoline skirt and shirtwaist. Which is to say, it's a lot of twee that nearly overwhelms the actors. There is a trompe d'oeil approximation of the Trevi Fountain which rises up from below the stage, and really fails to look like more than the two dimensional object that it is. From straight on, the tricked out shadows and lights are effective enough, but it so thoroughly fails to fill the three dimensional space that a fountain should command that it really fails to be remotely convincing that this is any place special.

The stage flat manages to approximate the central figure in its niche, but misses all the statuary in front and further fails to even hint at the substantial water basin in front. (Photo from here.) Of course, I suspect the actual fountain is larger than the entire proscenium stage, but the problem is--it's just unimpressive as stagecraft. In the age of Google Street View and image searches and inexpensive trans-Atlantic air fares--this story really doesn't have a reason to exist unless the characters get pumped up, or the conflict becomes more meaningful, or something.

Thus the justification for the Cole Porter tunes. Because musical romance would elevate the travelogue into something transcendent. And you would think Cole Porter would be up to the task. You would be wrong.

Maybe it was the musical choices--most of them were what I would characterize as C-list songs. "Experiment"? "I'm Giving A Ball Tonight"? Have you even heard of most of these? I can answer that for you, and the answer is "no." There is good reason for that. They are fine, workmanlike songs, but not the kind of unforgettable numbers that abound in a show like Anything Goes. At least, not for the first three-quarters of the show. By the last half of the last act we get "Everytime We Say Goodbye," "Just One of Those Things," and "Night and Day," but by then it is far far too late, and a couple of good songs can't save the production.

Maybe the songs are better than I could tell from their performance, but there was such a heavy reliance on the Porteresque forced rhymes that midway through "Experiment" I was wincing before the pun was delivered because they arrived with depressing regularity. And "I'm Giving A Ball Tonight" might have been a fine song, but it really didn't benefit from repeating its verse--it felt like padding. The relentlessly cheerful orchestration tended make all the songs sound the same (with a few exceptions, at the end of the show, see above re: too bloody late).

There were some lively dance numbers featuring a large ensemble, but by the end of the show, the "big, emotional numbers" tended to rely on the discredited "park and bark" model of staging. Poor Princess Anne--her character had very little to do by the end of the play except stand in one place and look with puppy dog eyes while Joe belted out yet another pun-laden tune. 

The best part of the production were the Great Broads, Michele Barber as the princess's aunt, and Christina Baldwin as Francesca, the spitfire Italian cabaret singer who was delightfully styled to the Sophia Loren archetype and who gave crackling energy and comic timing to an otherwise rather dour story.

So, is it worth seeing? If you don't have anything better to do, it's not horrible, although I was bored well before intermission, so I can't actually recommend it.

The larger problem is that I obviously need to seek out different cultural outlets, because I am not having any success with the tent-pole events that define current culture. It's just that I want to like this stuff. I really want to go to the mainstream plays, the blockbuster movies, the popular television shows and I really want to like them. I want the built in cultural conversation that attends things that are popular, and at least that stuff is easy to find. That stuff comes with its own communities of affinity who discuss and evaluate and lovingly parody and mash-up and play with these properties. But because I don't enjoy Roman Holiday, or its equivalent, I end up bitter and disappointed and I don't get to participate in the fandom conversation anyway.

So my goal is obviously to search the less central pop cultural events and try to crack open that black heart that way.

On Playing Skyrim

Have you heard about this game? It's a huge game, set in a quasi-medieval semi-Nordic/Scandinavian land that is experiencing the return of dragons. It's swords and sorcery to the nth degree, and totally not my kind of thing.

So why am I playing it?

Because I have read about this game as a breakthrough in gaming--and entirely non-linear adventure game, in which the player can control the experience. I get to choose what quests to take on, I get to decide what order to do them. The game doesn't lead me through a single narrative in a specific order, and that intrigued me enormously. What kind of story telling could you create, if you didn't have to be limited to a single narration?

I am not much of a gamer generally, I am a reader. I am deeply engaged in what stories tell us about ourselves and how they can give us visceral understanding of lives that are different from our own. Books, movies, television; and now, possibly computer gaming?

Before I get into the inevitable squawking (the heart, it remains cold and dead) I do want to acknowledge some of the remarkable achievements of this game. To begin with, it is outrageously gorgeous. The landscapes are amazingly beautiful, and the way the light changes over the course of the day is exquisite. Honestly, this is high praise from somebody who refuses to go camping. Some of my favorite time spent in this game is just wandering around the environments, looking up at the night sky (two moons! the Aurora Borealis! the sunsets!), bobbing in the rivers, as the visual field breaks the surface of the water. Truly gorgeous stuff.

The music is also wonderful, sweeping, epic at times, quietly moody and melancholy at others. It fills in and underlays the environment without overpowering it. Delightful to listen to. The voice work is solid, and although there are some exaggerated characters I don't particularly care for, I won't complain about that either. Even the sound effects of footsteps is carefully done, subtly changing as my character moves from paved roads to grassy meadows to snow fields. So much has been done to make the experience of this game effectively immersive. Playing it in a dark room on a large screen TV is an amazing experience.

The non-linearity as as promised as well. In my first iteration of the game, I made it out of the "training" portion and my companion recommended that I should head to a nearby town and talk to his brother the blacksmith. Instead, I went the opposite direction and tried to avoid whatever I was asked to do. There are some limitations to this liberty; for example, I met some witches who were far to strong for me, and so I just died over and over again, which effectively blocked me from that particular quest. I also think that had I successfully climbed the mountain to the dragon's lair, I'd never have had the weaponry or skills necessary to do anything but die a fiery death.

But there are plenty of quests, large or small, that one can accept or decline--delivering letters to lovers, joining the imperial guard, seeking out new scrolls for the library at the college of magic. Even if the game is not entirely non-linear (and really, I didn't expect that), it's sufficiently non-linear for the characters to have a realistic appearance of free will.

So with all that said--why is Skyrim so disappointing?  And the answer for me is simple--the storytelling simply fails to live up to the standards set by the other elements of this remarkable game. Because while there is an overarching narrative--the return of the dragons--and several complicating sub-arcs (the conflict between the Imperial government and the rebellious Stormcloaks, the fractures caused by the banning of a single religion in an otherwise pan-theistic world, the indications tensions between the various races and ethicities), the game basically comes down to "Meet new people, kill them and loot the corpses."

Sure, there are subtleties that justify the killings--these are bandits, these are zombies, these are vampires, these are people who attacked you first. Even so, these "stories" are sketchy at best. What you spend an ungodly amount of time doing is figuring out just how you are going to kill them: two-handed battle axe versus steel sword and hide shield, or maybe bursts of magical flame. The the more you use any particular weapon, the better you get at it, and thus you can kill more people faster, and take on the even more dangerous characters.

A couple of nights ago I decided that I was going to learn magic at the college, and I spent a (game-time) night traveling north on foot to the college at Winterheld. I could see the location on a map, but the route isn't marked and I had to simply strike out in the general direction, guided by the on-screen compass. Of course, the game landscape is not just beautifully rendered, but is also geographically complicated, and there is no straight-line course to follow. So I looked to the landscape for clues--animal paths, the remains of paved roads, gaps in the rocky terrain. And as I ran along, I would "discover" locations that were inevitably dens of bandits, or vampires, or zombies, or something where the whole point was to go in, kill everybody, and then loot their corpses and anything else in the vicinity. But I didn't want to do that, so instead I would get the notification that I had discovered a new location, I would use internet walkthroughs to determine if there was any other reason to visit the place, and (since there never was) then run away as fast as possible to avoid being killed.

In this manner, I reached the magical college, where I collected two spells before being sent out to explore an archeological excavation. And here's where the game completely lost me, because guess what? The point of this location is to kill zombies and loot.

Now, this isn't just a matter of stumbling on an abandoned fort that has been adopted by bandits, this is a location being explored by the academics of the college who are seeking information about the ancient culture and their knowledge of magic. You and your classmates are led there by your  professor and given tasks. And yet, once in this dig, you end up grabbing any artifacts you can find, as well as looting corpses--both the ones you kill and the ones that were buried their eons ago. Because this is basically a necropolis, and there are sarcophagi and wall niches holding ancient bodies. There are burial urns scattered around. And periodically, as you enter new rooms (intent, as you are, on looting the place) occasionally a couple of draigur (Skyrim zombies, basically) try to stop you.

So, let's put this in some broader context. Imagine this is Egypt, and you are in the Valley of the Kings. For millenia, the Egyptian Pharaohs have been sealed in their tombs, surrounded by their grave goods, part of a vanished culture and the objects of now-forgotten religious beliefs and rituals. What goods are present, how they were arranged, what was considered valuable and necessary for a trip to the afterlife provides information about a culture now lost to time. Many of the items are intrinsically valuable--gold, jewels, alabaster. All of them are priceless for the information they can give modern scholars about the past.

So, when something like Tutankhamen's tomb is discovered, Harold Carter should have brought in a handful of freshman students (none majoring in Egyptology or archeology, but maybe business majors looking for careers in finance--because they understand gold, right?) and just turning them loose. "Hey--just run on ahead and see what you can find. Go ahead and pocket any coins or gold bits for your own use. Since, hey! Private tuition can be really expensive, and what better way to pay for tutoring than using ancient coins for their face value!"

I mean! Sure, most Egyptian tombs were looted, usually soon after they were sealed by men who had worked on the tombs. And that's a tragedy because of the loss to our understanding of the culture of this great (and long lasting) nation. But it's also kind of understandable, since many tomb thieves needed the gold more than the corpses did. So the trade in stolen artifacts is a double-edged sword: the loss to world culture is incalcuable, but many of the people who engage in that trade really are desperately poor and the money goes to support the living rather than decorating the dead.

So you might find the situation in Egypt to be regrettable, but understandable. Knowledge is lost when artifacts are stolen and sold on the black market, but there are people who are also trying to understand and preserve the past and who conduct their archeological explorations with precision and care.

In contrast, Skyrim sends you to a site of unparalleled import--the professor keeps exclaiming about how unique it is, how the burial practices are unlike any he has encountered before. But the game is designed so that you will loot the corpses and throw away anything you don't want, with no attempts at documentation. It's bad enough that you murder bandits and leave their bodies lying around as you scavenge anything of value--it's even worse to desecrate a heritage site.

This may be where I stop playing this game. Because this is where I realize that what I am looking for in a game is to engage at a deeper level in the narrative of the land. I want to explore the dig for information, not just for loose gold coins. I want to understand the religious beliefs that inform the burial practices, not just fight sword-wielding zombies. I want a game that has a story that matches the standards set by the design and art and music of this amazing world. I want more than killing and looting, and that's my personal quest.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Magic Mike, Encore

I just finished listening to the commentary about this movie by the pundits of Slate's Culture Gabfest, and one again they have demonstrated why I listen to them. It's worth listening to--only about 12 minutes worth, and I was left wanting them to keep talking and say more!

[Link to the Culture Gabfest is here.]

I rather glibly quipped that Magic Mike  was Up in the Air with Thongs. Stephen Metcalf had a similar take--he felt that every scene, every dialogue outside the strip club itself was a devestating portrait of how people have to hustle in this economy and what they have to do to make ends meet in a shattered economy. He pointed out (and I'm embarrassed that I didn't see this myself) that the early scenes at the construction site was a portrait of non-union employment. None of these guys has any benefits, has any training, has any safety net. They are all hired off of CraigsList, and they all work for ten bucks an hour.

So this makes me think about the nature of a post-union economy. These guys aren't qualified to do the work they have been hired to do--Adam shows up in sneakers, not workboots--and it's implied that Mike has to rustle up a new crew every day. Adam quits/gets fired over taking a second can of Pepsi off the site at the end of his first day. Mike has to teach him how to do the work. This is simply an unsustainable economic model for the contractor. (It's also unsustainable for the workers, but we will take that as a given for now.) In the immediate aftermath of union busting "right to work" movements, you have a pool of experienced, conscientious, well-trained workers who are getting squeezed (screwed) by the systematic cuts in pay and benefits. The squeeze works for a while (possibly even a decade or two) because those guys are still around and still want/need to work. But as that old guard ages out of the field--who's left?

Adam, that's who. A guy who is unqualified to even do the work, and who cares so little for the job that he jeopardizes it --and the princely sum of $80 a day--for a can of soda that he could buy for less than a $1.30.  And the contractor is operating on such minimal margins (or is such a control freak, or has such disrespect for the people he's been able to hire) that he fires Adam for taking that can, which probably only cost him about a quarter.*

The movie never shows us what happens the next day. We never see Mike go back to the site. We never see how much time Mike has to spend every damn day rustling up enough guys of any competence level. But I'm guessing the next day's crew is even less talented. Because who would stick around to do that job if they could make more money doing something else--like stripping, and then selling drugs?

At some point, the "utter casualization of labor" (as Metcalf put it) will result in a workforce so utterly unqualified to actually do the work, that something is going to have to change. Whatever that will be, it probably won't be a return of the unions, in their traditional form. It might be the return of technical colleges, probably on a for-profit model. It might be the rise of employer-provided training and retention programs (which would require employers to once again offer attractive benefits and pensions to make it worthwhile for employees to remain at the job). It might be a wholesale reversal of our thinking about immigration--maybe we will stop seeing them as a threat, and recognize our current immegration "problem" as the potential workforce of hard-working, family-centric, culturally conservative, religious economic entrepreneurs that they are. 

Metcalf also mentioned the "demasculinazation" at work in this movie. That for all the hustling Mike is shown doing, what he really makes his money at is a performance of the kind of hyper-masculinity that is no longer available outside the club. Think about it--how many of the acts are based around the kind of "man's jobs" that are really no longer valued outside that club: construction worker, fireman, soldier, cowboy. These are archetypes of maleness that really have no role to play in the hustler economy because they just don't pay enough to sustain families and a middle class existence. (I'm being overly broad here--maybe it would be more accurate to say that they are no longer aspirational jobs, that culturally they are no longer relevant in the way they once were.) Instead of performing these actual jobs, the men of Magic Mike turn them into stage offerings to women, who respond not with actual lust, but with hooting and laughing.

After listening to this, I am convinced that this is a deeply thoughtful movie, and that the brilliance of it is that it's slipping the medicine in under the bright candy coating, so you don't object. Maybe you don't notice it either, but I don't think Soderbergh is worried about that. Magic Mike is a good-time, party people movie, and it can be enjoyed entirely on the level of watching very pretty men with very pretty muscles flaunt their beauty. At the same time, the real hopelessness of that as a career, the real lack of social stability from that economic model gets shown to us over and over. And that's going to get itself into the cultural conversation.

Which explains something to me about the cinematography. I was struck by the odd sepia tones of everything that happens outside the club. Sure, I get that you might want to have some visual variety--but why do you want that visual variety? What does that mean that the inside of the club is so visually appealing and outside is so--bland? Certainly, that's not how I think of Florida. To me, Florida sunshine is almost too bright, the architecture and the flora and the clothing is saturated and vivid. In contrast to the pale weak light of Minnesota (especially in the winter) where bright colors just look garish and eye-searing, Florida light makes color come alive.

And if the story is that stripping is ultimately a dead-end for a guy like Mike, who has to grow up and move on, then it's more logical that the club would start to reveal the tawdriness under the slick lighting. The real world should reveal itself as a better place to be precisely because it is real. Certainly, popular culture is rife with seedy strip clubs were the veneer of glamor has already worn so thin that anyone fooled by the illusion
is either willfully blind or in denial.

I think Soderbergh is doing something different here. Reality is hard, it's a long slog toward uncertain rewards. There is no certainty that effort will be rewarded, only that effort is inevitable. The club offers the illusion that talent will pay off, that there is a better life available. After all, all the women are young, well-groomed, compliant in playing the roles assigned to them by the club--they cheer, they offer money, they respect the dancers, they participate when pulled up on-stage. There are no gay men in this bar to challenge that cheery illusion. However attractive it appears, however, the club only actually supports the life-style aspirations of one guy--the owner. Everybody else gets a smaller slice of the pie, and eventually they will have to move on due to age, physical condition, maturity. There is only one guy in seven or eight (given the cast of the movie that is) who can make a true living at this life, and he's the guy who owns the real estate. So Soderbergh shows us a legitimately attractive club, with a hazy, browned-out "real life" and so cues us into the exact experience of life that Adam and Mike have. Life is better in the club, and Adam is young enough that he doesn't see the illusion. Mike does, and by the end of the movie, even he sees that he has to re-think his life entirely--and that hazy browned-out world is hard to see clearly.

BUT! There is plenty of joy and casual fun in this movie that that story can slip by you entirely if you want it to. And even that is a message of the movie. I tell you, I am loving this movie in retrospect more and more.

Photos from Filmofilia.
*I'm assuming that Adam buys his cold can of Pepsi at a 7-11 or similar convenience store, while the contractor buys cases at Sam's Club--because of course Adam can't afford a Sam's Club membership, and he's not the kind of guy who plans ahead and goes to the grocery store. Thus the differential cost of that can of Pepsi. Of course, in some sense, that can just cost Adam $20,000, because that's about what $10/hour annualizes to.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Magic Mike, a Review

So Steven Soderburgh and Channing Tatum have made a male stripper movie. This was not something I was necessarily on-board for, but it turns out it's quite fun and not only on the Linda Holmes Index.*

*Linda Holmes Index calculates how hot it has to be before you will go see a movie for the air conditioning. Named for the host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour and host of the pop culture blog Monkey See--which are both definitely worth the time you waste with them.

Of course, if it hadn't been shoved down our throats for the last seventeen years that this was the Channing Tatum STRIPPER MOVIE, we might have shared a little more curiosity about the first ten minutes of the story. We could have been in Alex Pettyfer's shoes, following Channing Tatum's character around, thinking we are just club hopping, and finding out that he's A STRIPPER! Trying to get women to come to his MALE STRIPPER SHOW!!

So, in case you have been living in a convent with no access to the Internet and a life of enforced celibacy, I will summarize the plot. CHANNING TATUM IS A MALE STRIPPER!!!

Okay, there is slightly more than that. Channing Tatum plays Mike Lane, a thirty-something Tampa man who has entrepreneurial dreams and an affable manner. Not to mention muscles and dance moves. So between working construction, (apparently) owning a car detailing service, and building custom furniture from beach debris (!), he is the second in command at a male strip review. And once we establish his stripper job, we never go back to any of the other "jobs" he has. (We do get to see him turned down for a bank loan to launch his furniture business--we never actually see him ever *make* any furniture.) Because why? Because this is not a movie about a guy hustling in a crappy economy to make his dreams come true, this is a STRIPPER MOVIE.

Okay, secondarily, it is about a charming guy trying to get it together in a crappy economy, one who has business dreams, but crucially lacks the knowledge of what it would take to actually get ahead. In the scene at the bank, he gets turned down for having a bad credit score. He could take the cute loan officer's advice and get into a program to improve that number, but he doesn't seem to understand how important that score is to achieving his dreams. There is a lot of talk about "equity" in the new stripper club, but I'm not sure anybody knows what that means in a cash business. It's also not clear that for all his "businesses" that he is anything more than a tricked out handyman. So he's got dreams, he's got 80% of what it would take to achieve them, but he doesn't have any clue about the missing 20% that is going to make those dreams unachievable.

But Soderbergh doesn't really care about that. This isn't Up in the Air in a Thong--or maybe it is, since the most interesting part is what it takes to actually be a stripper. That's what the bulk of the film is about, that's what the ladies in the theater came to see, that's where the colors and lights and glamor of the movie are concentrated.  And it is interesting, and full of pretty men with muscles and dance moves and hairless, oiled bodies. In case you weren't sure what you were going to be getting with this movie--see above, re: convent, lack of internet access, etc.--within the first three minutes of the movie you get to see Channing Tatum's magnificently muscled butt as he climbs out of bed and heads to the bathroom.

He then goes to a job laying tile roofs for the endless new construction in Florida, and there he meets Adam (Alex Pettyfer) who is a complete noob, so Mike shows him how to do the job, and gives him a hand when his car won't start. Later that night, the two run into each other, and Mike drags Adam along, pushing him into talking to some girls at the bar. Turns out he's wrangling audience members to come to the strip club--which we already knew about because UNRELENTING INTERNET INFORMATION. So there isn't the kind of "Oh, this isn't what I thought it was going to be about" which is what Adam's arc is. Instead it's more of "when are we going to get to the club?"  But what the scene does show is Mike's easy good nature, and establishes that the stripping is also going to be good natured and fun, not sleazy and desperate. In fact, the entirety of Mike's life is a "go along to get along." His charm is what has allowed him to achieve as much as he has (however much that actually is); it's his foot in the door, the opening that allows him to introduce his talents.

But it's not enough. As the movie progresses, Adam ends up stripping and loving the life of easy cash, alcohol and women. He tries to leverage his own situation by dealing drugs, but since Adam is a screw-up, that goes almost as badly as it can. Mike ends up paying off Adam's debt, nearly depleting his savings and probably giving up his furniture dreams. Somehow, this doesn't come off as a major change in his life, and it's not clear that Soderbergh considered the drug subplot to be actually central to the movie.

So what is central to this movie? Well, obviously, it's the stripping. It's almost like a "slice of life" documentary rather than a "movie about the turning point in a man's life." If not for Adam and the drug debt, there's not much fraying to Mike's life at all, really. He seems pretty happy, he's got a nice place to live, he's got a sweet car, he's got easy access to beautiful women--he's kind of living in a timeless bubble that has probably enveloped him since he was 19, just like Adam.

There are hints that he wants a different life, that he's finally maturing enough that what he has isn't going to be enough for the long term. His friend with benefits, played by Olivia Munn, gets engaged, ending that part of his life. The strip club is moving to Miami, so he needs to decide if he's going to move with it or stay in Tampa. And, because this is Hollywood, there is a girl.

Played by nepotism candidate Cody Horn, she's Adam's big sister, and so Mike continues to mentor Adam in part for her sake. The reviews have generally not been kind to her character or Horn's acting ability, and I get that. She's able to banter with Mike well enough, but there's no there there. Which makes the ending kind of unsuccessful.


Mike abruptly decides to leave stripping, to stay in Tampa. He shows up at Brooke's house with only that decision and nothing else  Some reviewers (a phrase which here means Tara Ariano on Extra Hot Great--love you guys!) don't see what Mike sees in her that he would give up his life for her. And while I totally understand that criticism, I think there is something more subtle, more Soderberghian going on. Will Mike and Brooke be soul mates and is this their One True Love. No way in hell. They will be lucky to last more than a year. But! What Brooke does do for Mike is show him that he can be vulnerable, he can be something other than perfectly charming and accommodating, and he can still be accepted.

This is where those first scenes are so very important. Mike gets saddled at a construction site with a guy who not only doesn't know how to do the job, but arrives wearing sneakers--clearly a guy who is not even capable of recognizing the safety precautions he needs to take for his own sake. (This is Adam, in case that wasn't clear.) Mike teaches him how to do the job, and rescues him from himself  when Adam's car won't start, and again that night when Adam can't get into a club. Mike remains affable, charming, and puts up with repeated instances of Adam's fuckwittery. So it's really no surprise that Adam screws up a sorority dance gig by giving one of the women a pill, which leads to a fight, which leads to the two of them having to leave without getting paid. Again, Mike covers for him with their boss. Then, when it turns out that Adam left behind the drugs he was supposed to sell, Mike pays off the debt, again saving Adam from himself. He doesn't even challenge the thugs about the amount Adam owes them--Adam lead him to believe that it was $1000 worth of Ecstasy, the thugs tell him it was $10,000. Mike doesn't challenge, doesn't argue--he remains affable and "in control" of the situation, even as it spirals out of control around him.

Brooke doesn't see Mike as the successful, fun guy he presents himself as. She sees him as the guy who got her idiot brother into a lifestyle that was beneath Adam's talents, and which seduced him with the easy cash and glamor into remaining an indolent screw-up. Brooke sees Mike's mistakes with Adam, and she calls him on them. For a guy used to taking his clothes off in front of women, this is actually a new experience, because she sees him for what he is. There is even a scene when she screams at him "I see you, I see you." [At least, I think this is in this movie--it's been two days now, and I am forgetting some of the details.]

She does. She sees him in his imperfection, past the glossy glamor he projects, and she is still able to accept him as worthwhile. I think this is an entirely new experience for him, and it comes at the time when his life isn't holding together quite the way it used to. This is the thin edge of the wedge that is his maturation--this is the beginning of the time when he learns that he is not going to be able to stay young and golden forever, and that the coming changes are going to be harder than he expected. Having someone--even someone as two-dimentional as Cody Horn's Brooke--able to see and accept him for who he really is inside is exactly what he needs at this moment.

So there is a great film lurking inside the shiny carapace of Magic Mike. There is also a crowd-pleasing fantasy of what male stripping could be (but probably isn't, actually, not in real life). Like Mike's actual life, the glossy surface is appealing, but ultimately is unsustainable. Soderbergh has given us the story of the first cracks in that facade, and has traced the trajectory. Mike will not fall hard and fast, but he will have to change, and it's up to him to control that new trajectory.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Random Thoughts

Went to see the Soderburgh/Tatum movie Magic Mike today. Not many men in the theater. No large groups of women. . .although a few groups of large women.

Not a movie I would have wanted to see with either my mother or my daughters, especially. That didn't stop some women from bringing a teen-aged daughter with them. Did they think it was a PG movie? Of course, seeing it with your mother/daughter gives an extra 3D kick to the "ick factor" when Adam's sister comes to see him dance. . . .

How the heck do you program previews for a movie like Magic Mike? I guess you just throw a bunch of stuff up and see what sticks. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in sex therapy for geriatics rom-com? Yes! Many in the theater thought they might like to see that! Horror movies about kids possessed by demons and paranormal experiments gone horribly wrong? Not really the right crowd. Oddly, not many straight white males between the ages of 15-24 at a screening of Magic Mike.

Let's play a game! Which of the following is the title of a movie previewed before Magic Mike, and which is the name of a New Wave band from the 1980s?

The Words
The Pretenders
The Silencers
The Possession
The The
The Apparition
The Association

(Answer: Numbers 1, 4 and 6 were the names of movies that I saw the previews for today. Numbers 2,3 and 5 are/were New Wave bands. Number 7 was a band from the 1960s. I thought we had moved beyond the whole "definite article + noun" naming thing back when it had become a cliche.)

Is Cody Horn the knock-off handbag of Elizabeth Banks' Coach purse? Discuss.

Up next--an actual review of Magic Mike.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Adjustment Bureau, A Review

Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is an ooooooold movie and nobody bothered to go see it in the theaters so why review it now, get over it and move on. Ooooo, look! Prometheus!

Fine. Yes. So it's a year old and I saw it on HBO. Too bad--I'm posting about it!

The story. Matt Damon plays a young rising political star, who meets Emily Blunt and immediately recognizes her as The One. She may feel the same way. But! There are Men in Hats, lead by the dapper John Slattery/Roger Sterling who are some kind of bureaucratic heavenly host, who have to keep steering humankind back onto track. Turns out that if Matt and Emily stay together, the Plan will be thwarted and. . .what, exactly? Who knows, but kind of bad, apparently. (We get hints--when the Adjusters stepped back, the world got the Dark Ages. So they intervened, gave humanity the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, spent 400 years teaching us how to grow properly. They stepped back and we invented WWI, the Great Depression, the Holocaust and the Cuban Missile Crisis. They forgot to mention the mullet and Nickleback.) The Men in Hats won't let it happen.

There are also carrots to go with that stick--if he gives her up, Matt Damon will eventually be president, and Emily Blunt will be the leading choreographer of the age. If he doesn't give her up, Matt will destroy his own dreams and hers as well. So he tries giving her up, but it political success isn't fulfilling enough. But she's getting married! Matt Damon has to enlist his own personal Man in Hat to help him evade all the other Men in Hats. Can he get to her in time?

But of course. True Love Always Conquers All in Hollywood Movies.

Love Emily Blunt. Too bad she's more an accessory than a full human being, a kind of manic pixie dream girl who at least gets some token dreams of her own. However, she is of interest to the Men in Hats only in so far as she either helps or hinders Matt Damon from becoming President. She inspires him to go off message in a concession speech early in the movie which allows him to continue to be a viable candidate four years later. But then the Men in Hats see that she will make him happy and he won't have that drive to fill his empty center caused by the deaths of all his immediate family--so they have to keep them apart.

Bechdel test? I don't see it passing--even when she's performing with her experimental dance troupe, Emily Blunt is the only female. There may be a technical pass, as she's heading into her wedding at the courthouse, she turns to her maid of honor and excuses herself to go to the bathroom. Hey--at least it's not about a man!

Matt Damon--still youthful looking, but not the most charismatic I've seen him.

John Slattery--dapperly ominous. Not something you see from a lot of villains generally. He's got a lovely weariness to him, but I don't really buy him as a bureaucrat.

Terence Stamp as the District Manager of the Men in Hats. (Yes, I made up that title. He's higher up in the hierarchy, but not by much.) Is he the go-to when you can't get Malcolm MacDowell? Are they Two Stars, One Slot? Discuss

Final summation? Acting is fine, writing is not up to par. The "ordinary reality" doesn't ring quite true, so the fact that there's surreal disruption isn't as jarring as it should be--it all feels slightly off. The concept that angels have to constantly intercede with humanity to keep God's plan on track is so high concept, but fails to really conform to mainstream theology about the nature of humanity, the nature of God, and the limits of free will. So the theology is off, the "reality" is off, the idea is a hoot but the last 15 minutes feels like the "race for your love" cliche.

B-, but Emily Blunt gets an A.

Moonrise Kingdom, A Review

Saw Wes Anderson's latest movie Moonrise Kingdom on a whim last weekend. I might best be described as "agnostic" about his work--I have seen The Royal Tennenbaums and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and liked them well enough, but not so much that I was compelled to devour his entire oeuvre. I am a fan of Bill Murray, which might make you think I would have gone out of my way to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, but then you would be wrong. And I have never seen Rushmore, although I have an idea that Murray might be in it?

So, I'm not in a position to completely explicate the precise location of this latest movie in Anderson's development as an artiste. On the other hand, I am not jaded about his quirks and tropes. I am a casual movie-goer who likes the discipline of sitting in a dark room where I cannot be interrupted, and I go to be told a story. Moonrise Kingdom entertained me and gave me some lovely things to look at and told me a story about people I had not already seen. Plus there was a refreshing lack of car crashes, fireballs, and snarky one-liners delivered before murdering another human being.

The story is simple: In September of 1965,  twelve year old Suzy Bishop lives on the Maine-like island of "New Penzance" with her distant parents (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and three younger brothers. Twelve year old Sam Shukusky is on the island as a "Khaki Scout"--highly decorated and disliked by all the other boys. The two met the previous year, at a performance of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludd" where Suzy played a raven. They wrote letters to each other and plotted to run away together. Sam brings his survivalist knowledge acquired during his years as a Khaki Scout, as well as the requisite gear. Suzy brings half a dozen large library books and a battery operated record player. Plus extra batteries. Between them, they make an idyllic existence that lasts only a short while. But while it lasts, they live with a sureness of purpose and an unshakeable belief in their love for each other that is both highly stylized and fundamentally true about first love.

In contrast, the adults in the movie are at best befuddled, all of them more than a little lost in their own lives. Suzy's parents share a roof and little else. Bruce Willis plays the chief of the Island police force: he seems ill equipped to handle the case of the missing children, and his "affair" with Frances McDormand seems to consist of sharing cigarettes and the occasional handshake. Edward Norton is the Khaki Scout leader who "loses" first Sam, and ultimately his entire troop. The only truly competent adult is Tilda Swinton, as "Social Services" who is dispatched to the island to "intake" Sam and find him a new placement--most probably an orphanage.

So what happens? Sam and Suzy run away and camp for a few days across the island. The Khaki Scouts and police mobilize to find them. Suzy is sent home, and Sam is sent to bunk with Bruce Willis until he can be sent to Social Services on the mainland. However, the rest of the scouts have a change of heart, and decide to re-unite the young lovers and help them escape. They enlist the help of Cousin Ben (Jason Schwartzman) who also marries them in a brief Scout-Jamboree type ceremony, while explicitly acknowledging that due to their youth, lack of parental consent, and other problems, the ceremony has no legal force but may have some moral effect. The kids then sail to a larger island, where the Khaki Scouts are assembling for a summer's end celebration. There is another chase, a major storm, flooding, some heroic saves, and ultimately resolution. Suzy remains at home, where Sam visits her, driven surreptitiously by his new [foster? adoptive?] father, Bruce Willis.

The joy in the movie is in the details--which is probably self-evident, given that it is a Wes Anderson film. The opening scene pans through Suzy's home, each room as squared and tidy as a doll house. When Sam is discovered missing from his tiny tent, Scout Master Edward Norton finds a hole cut in the canvas and covered by a map, like the escape route from Shawshank Redemption. One night, as the scouts are helping them escape, Suzy reads to the whole troop from one of her books, in a scene reminiscent of Wendy telling bedtime stories to the Lost Boys in Peter Pan.

The island is lovely, the acting is extremely low key, the plot is largely incidental to the visual beauty--even the campsites Sam sets up make little objective sense. Why put Suzy's suitcase there? But the style is in service to the overarching nostalgia of the theme--this is what a first love feels like, and these are the artifacts of that time that evoke that memory. So the period props--the record player, the library books, the clumsy suitcase, the badly stenciled scouting equipment--are deployed as totems of a time that exists only in memory, that can only be roughly re-created, just as the feeling of being twelve and on an adventure can only be vaguely understood by the adults in the movie or communicated to a movie-going audience.

Worth seeing? I'd recommend it--it's lovely storytelling in a highly fictive fashion, using the inherent realism of movies to de-familiarize the visual and making it all feel like the stories Suzy reads aloud around the campfire.

Also--the charming official website for the movie is worth exploring.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Amen Corner at the Guthrie Theater, a review

First--let's acknowledge that I am apparently dead to joy. My cold dead heart keeps interfering with my ability to engage emotionally with movies, books, and now theater. I am also informed that the fact that I don't care for lychee is further evidence of my emotional stuntedness. Or maybe I am just too old and crotchety to do anything but yell at the kids these days to get off my lawn. Either one.

Second--my quarrel is with the play, and possibly the decision to stage it at all. The acting was uniformly excellent, and the music was outstanding. The stage set was detailed and effective, the costumes were perfect. As a period piece, as a cultural artifact of African-American experience, it was a perfectly presented 1954 play.

That said--this is the first play James Baldwin wrote, and it focuses on a pivotal week in the life of Margaret Alexander, a pastor in a tiny church in 1954 Harlem. Margaret, called Maggie, is a charismatic leader of a "praise Jesus" testifying type of church, who seems to have a truly sanctified life. She preaches against cards, liquor, and jazz music, even specifically warning one of the congregants not to take a job driving a truck for a liquor company so as not to enable alcoholism in others and not to jeopardize his own salvation. Her 18 year old son David plays piano for the services, and they live downstairs in the building with Maggie's sister Odessa. As the play opens, we see a church service that ends with a collection taken to send Maggie to spend a week in Philadelphia ministering to a sister church with a dying pastor.

Into this situation comes Maggie's husband and David's father, a jazz trumpeter named Luke, who is dying of tuberculosis. In front of several members of the board of elders, Luke reveals that Maggie is the one who left him, rather than the other way around. He then collapses, and gets installed in a bedroom where he is expected to die within days. Maggie leaves for Philadelphia, and in her absence everything changes.

The congregation begins to question her leadership, sparked by the situation with her husband. What kind of woman leaves her marriage? What kind of woman leaves her dying husband--and if she couldn't bring him to accept Jesus and the sanctified life, why were they allowing her to lead them? And just how much does it cost to go to Philadelphia anyway--that collection was over $40, and it only costs $3 if you go by bus. Maggie's obligation to her family should take precedence over her job, even if her job is God, shouldn't it? The bitterness grows--Brother Boxer is only trying to provide for his family, why shouldn't he take that truck driving job?

Meanwhile, David is facing his own crisis of conscience. He's nearly adult now, and studying music, and his mother's circumscribed world of church and home is no longer enough for him. The appearance of his father gives him a tangible model for a different kind of life, and he longs to go out into the world. He doesn't want to hurt his mother, but he also can't live the life she envisions for him, where he stays forever and eventually takes over the church.

At three and a half hours, this is just too much play. The structure shows its age, and it creaks more than a little bit. The testifyin' and amenin' at the beginning goes on well beyond what the audience needs to get the context. The self-satisfaction of the congregation smells hypocritical well before the cracks start to appear, which unbalances the message. These people aren't struggling with profound questions and self-doubt. They are spoiled and self-satisfied, angry at being berated by a woman, eager to turn on her and seize power and control from her at the first sign of weakness. Which makes the whole "give you life to God" appear less like a legitimate spiritual quest and more like self-medication to deal with the pain of life.  The cracks in Maggie's facade of holiness don't occasion any soul searching--it's more like "Mean Girls Goes to Church." It's purely a power struggle for tiny stakes (the leadership of an impoverished organization) rather than a search for the transcendent.

Luke's appearance raises a kind of weird dichotomy, that's hard to really take seriously in 2012. Can contemporary audiences really take seriously a claim that jazz is "devil's music" and even listening to it is to risk damnation? Seriously? I understand that may have been a real issue back when the play was written--the strict divide between church music and popular music made Ray Charles deeply controversial, bringing gospel tropes to his music the way he did. Now, it just seems like a quaint belief that carries no moral force.

Ultimately, the play works through several layers of superficial conflict to the real question--do you live in the world and accept all the joy and pain, or do you hide from it--and find out that hiding doesn't protect you like you thought it would. Maggie and Luke had a second child who died as a baby, and the pain of that loss was more than Maggie could bear. She fled to New York and struck a bargain with God--she would deny herself anything remotely connected to worldly pleasure, and he would keep her safe from pain.

Of course, God doesn't work like that, and so David grew up anyway and Maggie couldn't keep him "out of the world." He leaves to join a combo, touring and playing music. The congregation rejects Maggie's total control over their lives, and vote her out as pastor. Luke dies, and Maggie realizes that she never stopped loving him. She confronts her own deepest fears, and wonders whether she threw her life away, now that she has lost her church, her husband and her son--couldn't she have done better living some other way? She mounts the pulpit at the (hostile) church and recognizes that loving God means loving "all his Children" with all their faults. She goes back downstairs and curls up against Luke's body as the lights go out.

The play owes great debts to Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. The entire David plot is basically The Glass Menagerie in Harlem--the domineering mother, the son's need to establish his independent identity. I guess the church plays the role of the crippled sister. Everybody has a monologue moment of crisis, a series of set pieces that follow each other like pearls on a string, and the play ain't over until everybody has had their solo. The creakiness of the format just gets louder the longer the play carries on.

Nor is it possible to swallow some of the basic assumptions that fuel the plot--at least for me. Apparently it's acceptable for a woman to have a career if her husband has left her; it is not acceptable for a woman to have a career if she leaves her husband. That betrays a fundamental failure as a woman, and marks her as unworthy to be a pastor. The sinfulness of jazz music is not explained, just assumed, and so it comes off as a silly prejudice equivalent to the kind of things mocked in The Music Man:

Mothers of River City! Heed the warning before it's too late! 
Watch for the tell-tale sign of corruption! The moment your son leaves the house, 
Does he rebuckle his knickerbockers below the knee? 
Is there a nicotine stain on his index finger? 
A dime novel hidden in the corn crib? 
Is he starting to memorize jokes from Capt. Billy's Whiz Bang? 
Are certain words creeping into his conversation? Words like "swell?"  
And "so's your old man?"
 I mean, the music they sing in church is syncopated and swinging, not all that far removed from jazz, a point underscored by the fact that Luke is able to play along at least once.

The issues here are big ones, and they continue to affect us. How does one deal with the loss of a child? It's obvious that the pain of that was so great that Maggie literally could not face going through it again and in a era where birth control was probably sketchy at best, it's not clear that she could have avoided another pregnancy if she had stayed. She felt that she couldn't rely on Luke--and there is evidence that he did his best, but she wanted him to be more consistent that he was. When she couldn't take his inconsistency, she turned to religion--who is more reliable than the omniscient, omnipotent God?

The problem for contemporary understanding is that the play doesn't really get all the way down to Maggie's character, on her specific issues. I would be interested in a play that explored the deep divide between what she needed from her husband and what he was able to give her--and how she responded to that. What were her options, realistically? Luke claimed that he still loved her, and Maggie seemed to feel that she had never stopped loving him, and their decade apart was caused by her fear and pain, based on the text of the play. Was that really a waste? Where is she going to go from here? Those are the real questions of the play, and by asking them but not answering them, Amen Corner seems to be making an argument that African-American church life is merely the opiate of the oppressed and powerless, a place to hide that will ultimately fail its members. Kind of bleak, really, but also something the play told us in the first scene, with all the congregants and their posturing sanctity. The message had been delivered in the first ten minutes--the extra three and a quarter hours wasn't really necessary.

But the music? The music was GREAT!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Warning: Schmoopy Sincerity Ahead. Abort! Abort!

With a post title like that, you must be here for the sappy sentimentality. Well, here you go, as promised.

Today was the final assembly of Elder Daughter's high school career, and it was awards day. Did you know that some high schools actually still give out academic recognition awards? I thought it was something they only did in English all-boy public schools and Monty Python sketches.

But such things still exist at my kids' school, and today was the day. And it was a day of some anxiety, because she is a very smart kid and a very responsible and committed kid, who has struggled with depression and other issues, and still managed to show up every day and be reliable and thoughtful and deeply engaged with learning.

Over the four years of high school, she has been a solid and reliable member of the school orchestra, anchoring the second violin section for four years; one of the few, the proud, the egregiously outnumbered altos in the extra-curricular choir and chamber choir; as the second (or third) level character in the plays. She's rarely been given solos, she hasn't been asked to conduct, she hasn't had showy lead roles, and she's never quite had the opportunity to burst into full color on stage in a way I see her doing at home regularly. She's been solid, reliable, she's always stepped up and performed beautifully, in a supporting role kind of way.
Yesterday, she was anticipating the awards and who would win them, preparing herself to not be recognized with a theater award because other seniors had done slightly more performances, had slightly more hours invested in the program. I saw her struggling to set her own expectations, to rank herself with the other seniors so as to not be disappointed or emotional during this assembly, and my heart broke for her a little bit. Because she is wonderful, but also quiet, unassuming, never self-aggrandizing, and so easy to overlook--as she had been, a little bit.

(I am aware that I am her mother and so of course I think this--everybody's mother feels this way, that their own precious darling specially gifted prodigies are not well served by the education establishment blah blah blah. Sure--that's true. But you try watching your kid preemptively manage disappointment and not get verklempt.)

The drama awards went to all the usual suspects exactly as she had suspected, not to her. Then the orchestra leader stood up and recognized the concert-mistress, and there was an award for a girl who had also accompanied the spring musical. Then there was another award. One that recognized that "You have played in the orchestra since middle school and also played in the chamber orchestra. You sang with the choir and the chamber choir. You have performed characters from tragedy to comedy. I am pleased to present the Somebody V. Something award to--" and it was my girl.

She had no idea this was coming, and I had no idea that it was coming and it felt so right. It was not about her being a diva, it was not about her snagging all the solos, or her starring in all the plays. It captured who she has been--supportive, reliable, talented, dedicated, there. Not only that, but it was awarded by three of the major faculty figures in her life: the choir director, the orchestra director, and the theater director. It was the only award that spanned all three fields.

Back when we were looking at kindergarten programs, we tried to be clear-eyed about her strengths and her weaknesses, and at the time we said "No matter what school she ends up in, she will be fine. But she will always be the kid who does well and doesn't cause problems, and in a large public school classroom, she will be invisible. At this school, she will be seen."

Today, she was seen. And my broken heart broke again a little bit, for the gift that she had of teachers who saw her and loved her for who she is.

[In an anti-climactic coda here, I will also report that she won the highest honor for her Chinese studies as well--the other major academic love of her life. After some serious hard times over the last few years, she got some important validation and she deserved it.]