Voices from the Beyond

Today my friend M. called.  He lives in Oregon, and we spent a week together doing a workshop in like, 2009?  2010?.  He reminded me of my friend Steve, who I loved like a brother, and who disappeared from my life and community.  I told M. about this, and he said he felt an instant kinship with me.  He offered, I think, to be my new brother.

Anyhow, one week together at a workshop in Arizona, not even in the same group, and we still talk every couple months.  No awkwardness, just a jump right back into what’s really going on at the center of our lives.

I am so grateful for this.

So this morning, getting ready to go assist at Tristan Binns’ Iyengar Ropes class, then to the gym, then to meditation practice group, I just rest in one moment of utter gratitude.

I’ve adopted and been adopted by so many surrogate brothers.  I love the men in my life, their tenderness and the ways they secretly or not so secretly long for a safe place to land.  I hope, always, to be that place.  For me, being a feminist is somehow linked to this sister/brother thing that I had to break to learn how to really do.  I fight for my voice as a woman in a world that doesn’t always want to hear me.  And I listen to the men in my life, who are often terrified to speak.

And today, a day of yoga and Buddhism, I am grateful for all of it.  For my friend M., and my partner, the boy-girl one that she is, blurring all gender lines, teaching me that we can only define ourselves, and hope for a witness.

When I am open enough and wise enough to give this, I am grateful for everything.


Her: My Review

Let’s start with the obvious.  Any movie directed by or written and directed by Spike Jonze leaps into our collective cinematic consciousness with a quiet or not-so-quiet challenge to how we see, well, everything.  He creates with a different set of artistic tools and expectations, always incorporating the magical and the liminal while taking a look at what is dark in how we treat each other.

Her, focused so much on the interior life of Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), contains both magic and irony.  The movie plays with us.  From ghost writers of personal letters to OS (operating systems) that have the powers of gods, to the intrusion of happy flashbacks of love lost, the movie swirls in and out of the minute and intimate into the metaphysical, but always in a context, that, much like the 13 1/2 floor in Being John Malkovich, doesn’t quite exist in our real world.  I love magical realism, and the sense of realities and possibilities that are so close to our real world they seem to have a separate and palpable existence.  I’ve long admired Spike Jonze’s work just for his ability to make otherness a way to reflect realities we keep missing, though they are right in front of us.  He’s a brilliant and truly original filmmaker.  And Her is, in many ways, absolutely excellent.

If I may digress for a moment–and of course I can because I’m the god of this blog–I’d like to say that the year Being John Malkovich played in theatres (1999), was, like this year, a year of excellent movies.  American Beauty, Cider House Rules, The Insider, Magnolia, Boys Don’t Cry…the list goes on.  I made sure to see them all–and, while I liked the deeper emotional cut of American Beauty and Cider House Rules, I couldn’t ignore the fact that Being John Malkovich defined its own category.  The film approached story and meaning in a completely new way.  I paid more attention to Charlie Kaufman than to Spike Jonze at the time, but only a very particular director could have filmed that script, and Jonze was it.

So, Her.  Is.  Excellent.  Joaquim Phoenix delivers an incredibly nuanced and sensitive performance; Amy Adams’ vulnerability and authenticity match his, and Scarlet Johannsen (who I’ve loved since Manny and Lo–still worth seeing) makes Samantha, played only in voiceover, come fully alive in many dimensions.  The movie’s action doesn’t move in big climactic events, but in the revelation of impediments and challenges to intimacy and relationship.  The only flaw to this comes from the need for one character to change enough for the impediments to keep arising after each work-through…and it can feel a little contrived.  That said, I’m always relieved when screenplays leave formula behind in any way at all–and this did.

I also liked the way the flashbacks to Theodore’s marriage were shot.  Jonze holds the audience tight to Theodore’s point-of-view, and the flashbacks fall, one after another, in exactly the same way real memories appear in the mind–that’s a difficult simulation to accomplish and most movies don’t do it well at all.

But.  Yes, you know the but is coming.  My problem with the movie is, ironically, with its world view.  This movie aims to explore intimacy within non-intimacy.  There’s an inherent problem in my opinion: new relationships just aren’t that intimate.  All you’re doing, in the first year or two, is figuring out if you can actually reach each other.  I mean, sure, sometimes you know right away that you’re going to stick, but you still have to test the hypothesis, and even if you know you’re likely to stick, you’re still going to end up having to work through how to partner, how to resolve conflicts, and what to do when you trigger the hell out of each other.  A movie that explores early relationships doesn’t get at the essential personal and spiritual challenges of intimacy that come later.  I didn’t like that the film didn’t seem to know this.  Also, while the shots of people ignoring each other and totally involved with their phones disturbed in all the right ways, I’m not sure that the movie ultimately said about technology replacing human contact–especially because the OS, Samantha, seemed so real.  That theme, essential to the film, kept getting lost for me.

Then, and this is a spoiler, I don’t really believe that the spiritual evolution of any being, even one without a body, capable of holding 8,000 simultaneous conversations, means leaving all connections behind to go be in universal space.  I mean, maybe after I die and I enter universal space I’ll change my opinion, but by then I will no longer be able to blog.  (Or who knows…my opinions may break all barriers.)  I believe that human evolution, which is an evolution of consciousness, requires leaning into the difficulties of intimacy and loving.  We like to think that monks are the ones who evolve, living in silence, praying or meditating all the time, attempting to enter universal space while on this planet.  That seems to be the belief implicit in the movie’s understanding of evolution.  But I’m a woman, and a feminist, and I believe (and I find in the writings of contemporary Buddhist spiritual leaders) that it’s easy to believe in your own evolution after meditating for 6 months in silence, but just go back and spend a holiday with your family and presto change-o; you’re as f-ed up as everyone else.

So, the ending of the movie left me dissatisfied.  I mean, I get it, the humans end up with each other, with no real idea of how to connect, but I wanted more.  I thought that Spike Jonze opened up some great questions in a completely original way, but I didn’t buy his final answer as a real answer–not about intimacy, not about technology as its replacement.

But get this–the questions are so worth it that this might be my favorite movie of the season.  Enough Said might also be my favorite movie of the season, for it’s terribly intimate realism.  Every other movie I liked asked good questions.  Forgiveness or accountability–Philomena.  Ambition or a right-sized life–American Hustle.  I am, it seems, relentlessly dissatisfied with the answers…but I’m also completely happy to go along for the ride, if the story is told well.  Her is told well.  As are all the others I mentioned.  It’s been a good season.  (And 12 Years a Slave is the only movie left to review.)


PS–The idea of a consciousness that is more than an operating system becoming a kind of god isn’t new.  Orson Scott Card’s Jane in the Ender series is exactly the same kind of being.  Only she REALLY wants a body and eventually gets one.

Downton Abbey Returns–And so does SHERLOCK!

I swore after the ending episode of Downton Abbey last season that I wouldn’t watch it any more.  I mean, the actors are FANTASTIC.  There’s barely a weak link in the ensemble (the barely refers to Elizabeth McGovern), and outside of her, no unevenness whatsoever.  Plus, Maggie Smith–need I say more?

But.  But, but, but.  I find the lapses of creativity on the part of Julian Fellowes to be unforgivable.  I mean, I get that some of there’s an exodus on the part of some of the actors playing primary characters (frankly, that’s the real drama for me, and boy would I love to hear that story) and he has to figure out how to get rid of them.  But two tragic deaths immediately following births?  We’ve all complained all over Facebook and Twitter.  I hope he’s reading the complaints.  But I don’t think so.

Mind you, Fellowes created some fantastic expectations in the first two seasons, with the vast differences between pre-war and wartime life.  That allowed for tremendous creativity, for the changing of relationships, for death and sacrifice, for courage and cowardice.  War broke down social barriers–so interesting.  And some of the post-war plot lines were interesting as well–injuries, guilt, etc.

But now it seems he doesn’t know what to do.  Rose has replaced Lady Sybil–same character.  Edna has replaced O’Brien (no one could possible believe they’d hire her again), and is establishing the old alliance O’Brien had with Barrows.  And everyone is cranky and seems to have forgotten the lessons they’d learned in earlier seasons (Lord Grantham thinks, suddenly, he has acquired financial sense?  Really?).

Downton Abbey is a soap opera.  But for a while it was a very good soap opera–intelligent and well-acted, if melodramatic.  But now–I was right to want to boycott this season (much as I’d love to see Lady Mary outsmart her father in every way and win a round for women everywhere…one of the great things about Downton is how smart the women are).  Unfortunately, my partner wants to watch it.  And okay, the other night I was a sucker for the physical affection of being wrapped in her arms, even though I had to watch Downton Abbey to get it.

Of course, then there’s Sherlock Holmes.  With Benedict Cumberbatch.  Here’s another example of, need I say more?  He’s rapidly become one of my top ten actors–I want to see everything he does.  His acting is inspired.  I’ve talked a lot about passion, commitment, character work, humanity, connection in my last several blogs–this guy has it all, and his portrayal of the modern Sherlock Holmes leaps off the small screen.  Driven, brilliant, impatient, rude, always sympathetic, even when he’s truly hurting people, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes has so much depth, is so entertaining…I don’t have enough superlatives.  On top of that, the writing is brilliant–witty, suspenseful, imaginative in the modernization of the original story.  I love Watson’s blog, his imaginary limp after being shot in the shoulder, the homoerotic hints the other characters throw at Holmes and Watson…it’s just so, so good.  So CLEVER.

So while Downton Abbey is definitely a miss (unless you’re willing to be driven crazy by Fellowes’ lack of creativity and bad storytelling in order to get two hours of warmth and cuddling, which I apparently am), Sherlock Holmes is a CANCEL EVERYTHING AND WATCH PBS.  Frankly, the show is filmed much as a movie would be–and so I nominate it for an Oscar in every category.

The Movies I Did Like: Enough Said, Philomena & American Hustle

Let it not be said that I only have critical and ambivalent in my repertoire.  There were 3 movies I liked so far (Dallas Buyers Club falls into my just okay category, though Jared Leto was FAB).  Here’s what I have to say about them:

Enough Said:  The star of Enough Said is writer/director Nicole Holofcener.  I don’t mean that the actors weren’t good.  But Nicole Holofcener is that rare voice in contemporary film-making: female-centered, blindingly intelligent, razing open the field of perception with attention to the details of ordinary lives and relationships.

The history of women-centered work contains within it these factors–the women are foregrounded instead of left in the background of men’s lives, domestic life is more the focus than the grand sweep of war, espionage, finance, etc., and sharp observation of relationships takes the place of more traditional plot builds with big dramatic events.  Think Pride and Prejudice vs. War and Peace.  Jane Austen, confined by her sex to the experience and observation of the lives around her, found within the details of those lives all the moral and spiritual questions that human beings face.  And she told her stories with wit.

The highest praise I can give Nicole Holofcener is to say that she is the Jane Austen of contemporary film-making.  Her work focuses very much on daily life, on relationships and intimacy–and make no mistake, her work contains real violence, though her violence reveals itself through words and decisions instead of guns and bombs.  What I love is that you can hear the audience moan and cringe as characters betray themselves and each other–she makes it that poignant and painful.

Enough Said is the story of Eva, a massage therapist and divorcee, who meets a man she actually likes.  Almost anything I say beyond that is a spoiler, so suffice it to say that the revelation and connection, the wit, the betrayals, the insight into criticism as violence and fear as the sabotager of love forces all of us to look at ourselves.  Julia Louise Dreyfus surprises with the best work I’ve ever seen her do, Catherine Keener is…well, Catherine Keener (she’s in every single one of Holofcener’s films), and James Gandolfini is charming and sweet–he’s my type (personally and romantically) and a Meisner actor so I was in love with him already and am sad that he can’t show us ourselves any longer.

The writing and directing are excellent from start to finish, and while none of the performances are perfect, the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.  This is the smartest movie out this season–like Jane Austen, a combination of insight, wit, and heartbreak.  A+++.

Philomena:  Here, I will start with acting.  Judi Dench is my favorite actress.  Period.  I fantasize about writing a script for her and casting myself so I can sit across from her for one minute.  I’m jealous that Steve Coogan actually got to do that.

Dame Judi Dench’s acting in Philomena stands out as fully human.  Now, I didn’t think her Irish accent was impeccable, especially in the beginning of the film.  And, looking back, I spent some time confused about her origins in general.  (Mind you, I saw the film with a friend of mine from Ireland, and he said, “As a native speaker, I have to say that the accent mistakes were few, and the work she did to be physically smaller, with the gestures of an Irish woman of that generation, were perfect.”  He also said he’d be willing to, “Watch that woman fold her underwear,” so I think he might love Judi Dench even more than I do if that’s possible.  I was more critical.)

Anyhow, I think character work, as defined as taking on the accent, physicality and gestures of someone of a certain ethnicity or social background, is tougher than people think.  As the film went on, I believed more and more in Judi Dench’s choices, and in her Irishness.  What I love is that she knows how to inhabit a character in a way that is calibrated–she doesn’t expect the mannerisms and accent to do the work for her, she doesn’t appear to be thinking about them (as, this season, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence and Meryl Streep did).  She does just enough, and her ability to be fully human never falters.  I was silently screaming for the bad to not happen because I was so on her side in Philomena, my heart broke with her, and I could feel, from the screen, her suffering…and I joined it, because I couldn’t not.  I can’t tell you how rare I find this to be, and how, finding it, how little I’m willing to settle for anything else.

Of course, the movie itself, the writing especially, fell short of Nicole Holofcener’s kind of insight.  I have to question whether this is intrinsic to the creation of the bio-pic.  I just never accepted Philomena’s forgiveness or practice of the religion that had harmed her–I never accepted the world view of the movie.  I find this to be true in bio-pics, especially if the subject is 1) still alive or 2) beloved and famous.  I occasionally fell out of the movie saying, “Come on!  People just aren’t like that!”  And whether it’s the fault of the genre or the writing itself, which could, I would argue, have convinced me if it was better done, the fact remains that I fell out of the movie.  Can’t blame Judi Dench–it was the words, not her delivery, that made me fall out.

Still, I spent much more time fully engaged than outside the story thinking about its lack of understanding of human reactions.  And Steve Coogan was smart enough to strongly develop the polarized points-of-view about forgiveness, letting go and injustice, and then bring them together, so that I couldn’t and didn’t want to write off the movie as a whole.  Irish nuns, unwed mothers, a search for family…it’s great stuff for a story, and the movie came so close to making sense of a big human question.  Since I have a personal interest in the nature of forgiveness–which I still regularly seek to understand–I wish it had said more, but it was very, very good.  A-.

American Hustle:  Here’s the scoop on American Hustle–fantastic ensemble, standout performances by Christian Bale (he’s one of the best alive) and Amy Adams, interesting and multi-layered conflicts, a strong female lead in a story about con men, FBI, politicians and the mob–what’s not to like?  This movie keeps you on the edge of your seat, and there are points in which you truly have no idea how anything is going to resolve–it could go one of many ways.  Perhaps that’s the rarest experience with American Hustle–that someone like me, who can sit in a movie and state, out loud, where the story is at in the screenplay format (plot point 1, pinch point 2), became so engrossed all I could think was, “Where is this going?”

So perhaps the star here is David O. Russell, who takes the crime genre somewhere new and original, and even includes some of the detailed emotional violence that Nicole Holofcener describes (in a very different world).  The psychological assault implicit in the cons, the lies, the betrayals and the stupidity, makes the story and characters relatable even while the world is over the top.  I love David O. Russell’s vision in general–it’s psychologically dark, and very contemporary–always aware of mental illness and fragility in a modern way, always understanding the power of love to save us, always understanding how we want to take revenge when those we love hurt us.  I like him best when he’s inside the screwed up ways people relate and dislike him most when he ends his dark movies happily and betrays his own stories (I loved Silver Linings Playbook except for the stupid dance contest and how that ends the movie).  In American Hustle the film-making and shots, the style of the acting, go fully frantic (like the sports fanaticism in Silver Linings Playbook), ramping up the pace, the stakes and the excitement to a mad sort of suspense.  The ending this time is mixed–good people suffer and other people go free.  I have referenced this movie over and over in my other blogs because I found it to be artistically impressive and innovative.  I hope David O. Russell stays true to his own vision, because like Nicole Holofcener, he has a strong point-of-view and real insight into human relationships.  A++.




Blue Jasmine: Not Really a Review

I have boycotted Woody Allen movies since Crimes and Misdemeanors, which offended me so deeply I walked out of the movie theatre.

I think that might be the only time I’ve ever done that.

And that was before he seduced his adopted daughter and went to court and all the other gross things he did.  Not that those things surprised me.  The misogyny in his movies is so incredibly overt, there’s not much in the way of oppression of women he could do that would surprise me.

Of course, over the years, my friends, who tend to like indies, as I do, and to like quirk, as I do, keep saying, oh, this movie’s different, blah, blah, blah.  I don’t ever really believe I’d like the any movie he’s created, but it has, occasionally, made me doubt.

So, here it is, award season, and I’d heard such great things about Blue Jasmine, and got the DVD for free.  I felt enough obligation to watch for the SAG awards, that I gave it a shot.  It took about 5 minutes for me to know that I wasn’t going to like the portrayal of Jasmine, and after 10 I shut the thing off.  My partner came in, plugged in some headphones, and watched the rest.  She told me it didn’t get better, and the portrayal of women was as bad as ever.  From what I watched, I also didn’t like Cate Blanchett’s work.  What I have to say is much like my last review of Jennifer Lawrence–I saw Oscar and Lucinda, an early movie with Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes.  I thought they were both fantastic, and that Cate Blanchett’s commitment and passion were outstanding.  But over her career, I’ve found she often gets swallowed by her character work.  I would have much preferred Naomi Watts, whose humanity comes through much more.

So, not really a review.  Just a renewed commitment to boycott Woody Allen.  And, of course, another comment about American Hustle–David O. Russell gives us a female character who is complicated, intelligent and strong.  Woody Allen could take a lesson and basically learn that there are women who are complicated, intelligent, strong and possessed of human goodness.

Another BTW–while I might be critical of Cate Blanchett, I saw Ralph Fiennes in Faith Healer on Broadway and he blew the top of my head off.  Amazing.

Review: This Season with Jennifer Lawrence

Last year she completely blew me away with both The Hunger Games and with Silver Linings Playbook.  This year, not so much.

Mind you, Jennifer Lawrence is an actress of commitment and passion.  That hasn’t changed.  She’s vitally alive.  So what was the difference between winter 2012 and winter 2013?  I mean, she did a sequel to the Hunger Games and worked with David O. Russell again on American Hustle.  She’s nominated again.

Only I don’t think she should be.

And here it is.  I’m reminded of Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinnie, which won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.  Marisa Tomei played that role with the same kind of commitment and passion that Lawrence brings to her work.  The difference is that Marisa Tomei, as Mona Lisa Vito, was right for the role.  She has a New York accent, she had the physicality, she had not one millisecond that wasn’t completely believable. You couldn’t and can’t think of that movie without saying Wow about her.  Wow, wow, wow.  She deserved that Oscar.

Now, in American Hustle (a much better movie than My Cousin Vinnie) Jennifer Lawrence plays Rosalyn Rosenfeld with commitment and passion.  I understand that many (if not all) of the scenes were improvised–and she has a kind of wildness that is right for the character and the tone of the movie.  But I was aware she was Jennifer Lawrence the whole time, and I kept thinking about nuances that didn’t seem believable–and that she looked kind of young for the part.  See, when an actor is not thinking, then I’m just believing.  I didn’t believe.  Sorry, Jennifer.  And I also didn’t find the kind of chemistry with the other actors…Jennifer Lawrence started to look more like Meryl Streep, so involved in character work the other actors often became…well people to act at, rather than respond to.

I wish I had better things to say about the Hunger Games.  Now, I didn’t like the movie Mockingjay as well as Catching Fire, and this was true of the books as well.  In Book One, Katniss has something to fight for–her own life as well as her own soul.  There are great dramatic questions–how much will she betray herself to survive and will she survive?  In Book Two, her life is at stake again, but since we’ve already been-there-done-that, and since she’s not willing to participate in any creative or collaborative strategy with Peeta or the other tributes because she has PTSD and is actually fairly debilitated, the dramatic question is simply this–what’s the dramatic question?

This leaves an actor at a bit of a loss, especially if commitment and passion are that actor’s strengths.  Jennifer Lawrence seems like a victim, and it’s hard to be on her side–other people are fighting so much harder.  This is in the writing, but it makes Lawrence look bad…and, to contrast with another actor again, think Mary Louise Parker, who can make any moment interesting because you know she’s always trying to figure something out.  Katniss doesn’t have much to do or much forward motion, which is a real problem for an actor.  Jennifer Lawrence didn’t figure it out well.  She didn’t bring Parker’s kind of inner life and struggle to the role…which was the only thing that could have saved it from the writing.

I’m sure she’ll be great again…she’s a major talent.  But this wasn’t her year.

PS–Amy Adams was FAB in American Hustle (as was Christian Bale) and I liked Jemma Malone in Hunger Games better than I’ve liked her anything, ever.

Movie Reviews: Captain Phillips and Nebraska

Tom Hanks again.  Really.

Actually I liked him much better as Captain Phillips than as Walt Disney, which is not to say that I liked him all that much.  I didn’t.  But I didn’t like the writing or the movie much either, so there we go.

Why is this nominated for any awards?  I don’t get it.

Here’s what I have to say:  if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the movie.  It tells pretty much the entire story, because there’s really not much story.  And what the trailer hints at–some kind of interesting Stockholm syndrome (identifying with one’s captors) relationship that reveals twisted and connected humanity under the worst circumstances–the movie fails to deliver.

Enough said, really.  It was a nothing of a movie.  If you want suspense this season, see American Hustle.  There’s story, humanity, originality, wildly spontaneous acting.  In this…well, Hanks has a one good scene at the end, and Barkhad Adbi is great throughout, but it’s just not enough.  At all.

In comparison, Nebraska is excellent.  And, Nebraska is just excellent, period.  It’s very funny, and I love the way it sometimes just lets an image say so much.  For example, there’s a long held moment of the men in the family watching television.  None of them are reacting to the game–they are just all watching.  And you know everything about this family, and how men are taught to be, and how absurd it is, and it’s hilarious.  And brilliant.

This is a movie that’s incredibly human, very funny, original in the corner of the world it reveals, aching in what it says about the meaningless and meaning of human life, and truly touching.  I love that it’s in black and white, I love the slowness of the action and the way it lets you really see the characters and who they are.  See it.  Vote for it.  I mean, okay, there’s no star performance like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street, but sometimes an ensemble working so well, and a writer/director having something real to say make a movie just as good.  Or better.  Nebraska is that movie.