Reviews…or, Is My Opinion God?

Of course it is.  I am the deity of this blog, and don’t you forget it.

So, my reviews, in reverse order from what I’ve watched most recently back into the distant past of 2 months ago:

Hope Springs:  I have long thought that if a role didn’t depend on a great accent and physical interpretation, Meryl Streep just doesn’t look as talented.  I thought that when I saw her in the violin movie a million years ago, and I’ve thought it again.  In Hope Springs her character borders on caricature and sometimes downright crosses the line.  Tommy Lee Jones has an equally recognizable type, but he brings something beyond the recognizability–a journey of revelation into this shut down guy’s heart.  I loved his performance and love him, hated the writing (I’ve been married for 25 years and there’s a lot more beneath the surface than this writer seems to get) and knew ahead of time exactly what expression would appear on Meryl’s face.  Recommend:  skip it.

Other Desert Cities:  I have great admiration for Speakeasy as a theatre company–I like the plays they choose a great deal and love what they try to do for and with theatre.  So I hate to say that this play needed an intense rewrite (what happens to playwrights who have written for television?).  I’d heard a lot about Karen MacDonald–and I thought the character and her performance of all those complication and layers really stole the show.  Anne Gottlieb was probably miscast and overacted almost every single moment.  I’d skip this one, much as I hate to say it.

Les Mis:  I have written on FB about the redefining of the film musical, done here with great vision and commitment to the medium of film and to the close up used to reveal the bottom of human suffering.  Yes, the singing is raw and hard to hear.  Yes, Russell Crowe sucks.  But Anne Hathaway’s performance of I Dreamed a Dream will haunt me for years.  I think the film is imperfect and uneven and a great risk, and it gives me hope for the art of film-making…there are new creative ventures still to be made outside of special effects.  BRAVO!  Own it!

The Wire:  I am totally and completely IN LOVE.  Idris Elba is my new fantasy actor–okay, I loved him already from watching Luther (where his co-star Ruth Wilson is even better than he is).  But almost without exception this show stays true to the bone.  FANTASTIC!

The Impossible:  Do writers think we’re stupid?  And what’s with the critics saying this is the best film of the year?  Okay, a disaster film that really takes you inside the experience of disaster.  Showing a great deal of human kindness under pressure. And, okay, there isn’t a bad performance.  But there also isn’t a story.  NO STORY.  Which means no real revelation.  Disaster happens, people lose each other, find each other, over.  There isn’t a point of identification or an exploration of any one character’s humanity to the point of showing what people are capable of under terrible stress and calamity (okay, a little with the oldest son).  If you like to watch disaster, great. Cinematography, great.  But, again.  NO STORY.

Lincoln:  I’m not sure what keeps this from being the best film of the year.  Maybe it’s that we don’t like intellectual movies–because the story is about political chess moves, and the passion of Lincoln, and his goodness.  But here it is–I think Tony Kushner is one of the top 5 living writers, and to hear the gorgeous language in a film with that kind of performance by Daniel Day Lewis…see it.  It’s nice to remember courage, and artistry, and the thinking brain.  (But don’t go sleepy, because the film is really more like theatre, and you have to ENGAGE.)

Silver Linings Playbook:  You know, after the fact I forget how disturbing the movie was, because it has a typical Hollywood ending (cheapening what’s come before, and undermining the grit of the beginning and middle).  I think of it as a comedy.  But this is memory as revision, and the truth is that the grit and the neurosis and dysfunction of the movie are so real in the beginning that the movie is almost an indie.  I say that as a compliment.  Up until the stupid dance competition, the movie is excellent.  Bradley Cooper did okay, and the rest of the cast was much better than okay, with Jennifer Lawrence stealing the film as I suspect she will every film she’s ever in.  Anyhow, see it.  Try not to let the ending ruin it for you.

Argo:  I thought Ben Affleck was exceptional and don’t understand why he isn’t nominated for acting awards.  I thought everyone else was excellent, too, and the filming was excellent, but this is another Hollywood ending and I wasn’t on the edge of my seat…I knew what would happen, everyone did, but I didn’t get as interested in the machinations as I did with Lincoln.  I just knew what had to happen to make the next thing happen.  Good movie.  Worth seeing.  I admire Affleck and think he is underrated in many ways.  But, not enough surprise, sorry.

Marigold Hotel.  Judi Dench.  Maggie Smith.  Need I say more?  I don’t care about expected or unexpected, just about the most fantastic ensemble maybe ever.

Downton Abbey:  Season 1 was great, but by the end of season 2 I was getting a little sick of all the soap opera instead of really good new ideas.  I mean, can everyone quit picking on Bates, already?  I hate to say that the death of Lady Sybil is the best thing yet, but it is.  And I liked both the character and the actor.  At least it was a surprise.  I’d like more surprises, please.  Less groaning soap opera and some real insight instead.

Django Unchained–Haven’t seen it.  I’m a complete wimp when it comes to violence, so I unfortunately have never seen a Quentin Tarantino movie.

Zero Dark Thirty–See above.  I regret my inability to watch torture, but there you go.

Brave–Did Pixar Get It Right?

I try to only go to bad movies on purpose.  This means I sit in front of the 27 inch computer screen, (moving my head up and down like some strange bird, trying to get my trifocals in the right place) the light glaring right in my eyes, passionately reading review after review, trying to figure out ahead of time what I’ll disagree with.  Sometimes I look at Roger Ebert’s face before he got sick and remember Gene Siskel and the banter between the two of them.  Sometimes I mourn for the feminist paper Sojourner we used to have in Boston because that paper had a killer film critic who I really liked.

By the way, I googled feminist movie reviews and the site I found was pretty cliched.  We all know about Bound and Fried Green Tomatoes and all the other lesbian and pseudo lesbian movies because THERE AREN’T THAT MANY.

Back to Pixar.  The reviewers all claim that Brave’s protagonist is a boy in a dress, that the creators at Pixar could only imagine a girl wanting to do everything a boy can do.  Ummm…isn’t that basic reality?  I mean, I get that there are femmy straight girls who liked playing with Barbie’s and still want to have power, but as a tomboy, football-playing, competitive girl, I have to say I always wanted to do everything boys got to do.  Basically, Brave’s protagonist is ME, so if feminists have a problem with this, ummmm….HELLO!

And really, the core relationship in the movie is one of a girl with her controlling mother–is there something anti-feminist about that?  Because if there is I better shred everything I’ve ever written–or just about.  Foregrounding a mother/daughter relationship is about as women-centered as it gets.

And of course, the movie is gorgeous, even if we didn’t see it in 3-d, which I mourn deeply.  And the mother/daughter focus makes the plot unexpected in some ways–it’s not a love story, and you keep waiting for the boy to show up, and he never does, which is, frankly, pretty cool.  There’s also myth, magic and all things Celtic, which, as a Celt, I really dig.

Speaking of culture, it was really a riot to be surrounded by the crinkling of plastic bags, the smell of popcorn and that slightly sweaty summer kid smell that is both sweet and a little sour, the sounds of gasps, and bursts of laughter, and whispers all around us in the dark.  Once I went to see Dream Girls on Christmas Day–it was me, my partner, our queer friends, and the African American community…a packed theatre.  I loved hearing the women calling out at the screen, the “you tell ’em, girl,” their loud applause at different emotional or comic high points and at the end.  Sometimes, you just get lucky like this.  Going to a movie becomes something more wonderful than sitting with strangers in the dark.

Jump to the end of the story:  I liked the movie Brave.  It might not be the best movie Pixar has ever made, it might rely a little too much on cliche without the sneaky adult humor, but it did make me cry, and it’s basically about girls like me, who like to ride horses and shoot arrows and beat everyone at, well, everything.  So.  Tell my story, Pixar.  I’m not a boy in a skirt, or even very butch, but I have Merida’s fierce desire for freedom, her wildness and rebellion, her longing to determine her fate.  I might wish her more idiosyncratic and complicated (like Mulan), but I’ll take strong tomboy movies over romances any day of the week.

Not feminist?  I mean, really.

Ted OR Talking Bears Have Sex Too

There’s something admirable about making a movie so self-indulgent you put in anything funny that occurs to you.  It’s kind of like….well, writing this blog.

It’s also fun to see a movie set in Beantown, with some Boston accents, and with extras you recognize as your colleagues and students.

And, frankly, the bear is great.  If it were me, I’d get rid of the love story and just make it the bear’s one man show (the movie kind of IS Seth McFarlane’s one man show as he’s the writer, director and plays Ted).  Because everything that Seth McFarlane makes that bear do is so unexpected and funny, the bear is the one to watch.

Outside of that, the movie kind of sucks.  I’ve become pretty ambivalent about Marky Mark since The Fighter (in which he was so wooden they really could have picked him up and moved him around).  I retain this ambivalence after seeing Ted, because he looks like he’s only kissing Mila Kunis because the director told him to.  MILA KUNIS?!*!  She is incredibly hot!  What is the matter with him?  He has much better chemistry with the bear, even though I can kind of tell he’s looking at nothing some of the time.  His best moment in the movie is when he does the run through of girls names in a rat-a-tat-tat fashion.  Personally, I think Matt Damon would have killed in this part.  Marky Mark…well, I’m beginning to wonder if he can act.  (Though I liked him in I Heart Huckabees.)

Mila Kunis–well, she just doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie.  Her character is poorly written, she’s playing to a romantic opposite who is completely unconvincing, and while looking at her remains truly enjoyable, and you can tell she can really act, well, like I said.  She doesn’t have much to do.

Here’s the spoiler:  watching a teddy bear hump everything in sight, constantly smoke a bong, have sex in the back of a grocery store with the hot blonde clerk, do coke, swear more than any character maybe ever and speak with a heavy Boston accent…is just kind of great.  The fart jokes, the politically incorrect thread that runs through the movie, and watching Giovanni Ribisi bump and grind (his character is gay) as well as be a psycho teddy bear stalker is also sort of fun.  If relatively stupid once you’re in on the joke.

Truthfully, I wish we’d gone to see another movie.  I love stadium seating and on major holidays my partner and I love to do movie lowbrow, but really, the Kendall called to us and we didn’t listen.  Plus, I have decided that I no longer agree with Roger Ebert about anything, since he gave this movie 4 stars.  I’d give it 2.  Or maybe 1.5.

Next up:  Brave in 3d?  Or a trip to the Kendall to see any of the several indies that just look really good?  If the weekend is a scorcher, you’ll find out.

Apocalyptic Plot Twists

If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s unbelievably contrived plots.  Take, for example, that terrible UGH movie, Forces of Nature, with Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck in 1999.  I mean, it was so terrible that I still remember it 10 years later.  They basically run into one contrived and ridiculous disaster after another, and though I think Sandra Bullock is a hugely underrated actress and wasted on most of the movies she’s done, not even her charm could save this one.  UGH.

But, in the mood for a little depression, my partner and I went and saw Seeking a Friend for the End of the World this weekend.  She wanted to go see this house around the block that uses less than zero energy and it was the only movie we could make and still do the open house.  Plus, we both kind of like Steve Carell.

The best place to start with this movie is its theme–the world is ending in 3 weeks.  Every human being on earth (as well as all other creatures) is going to die at the same moment.  This is incontrovertible (and, thank whatever/whoever, they don’t do a turnaround on this).  There’s something very brave about a writer/director taking on the idea of dying well, and really examining all the ways people come at an inevitable end.  I’m happy to say that Lorene Scafaria allows us to see what we already know–that some people come at it with violence, some with denial, some with a desire to control (and so hire a hit man), some with despair, some with hedonism, some with hope of making meaning.  The wisdom of this vision, and the terrible sadness of mortality–because every living thing does die, if not all at once–permeate the movie.  So, yay, Lorene Scafaria.  This is a heavy hitter of a movie in many ways.

And, of course, Steve Carell plays a man whose life has been pretty empty up until the impending apocalypse–a part he does just so well.  His wife (played by his real wife, though she has no lines) leaves him within seconds of hearing the announcement and his sadness and sense of meaninglessness–and his odd integrity in refusing to escape from this–is touching.  Kiera Knightly, who I recently saw in A Dangerous Method and flat out HATED, is, well, Kiera Knightly.  She’s easy on the eyes, she loves to cry and hit emotions too hard, she has moments and is charming.  So, I didn’t hate her in this.  I just liked him a ton better.

But, and now we come to the real question of the film–what the hell is the dog doing in this movie?  He doesn’t have any lines, he doesn’t have a purpose, he doesn’t have a role in the plot or even the theme.  I mean, I don’t have anything against dogs even though my partner has been fighting me on getting one for 3 years now (because she rightly assumes she’d have to do all the nasty work), but this dog needs a dramatic action.  Absurd as it sounds, it just does.

And, real question, how stupid does Lorene Scafaria think I am?  There are some real bell-ringers in this movie in terms of VERY CONTRIVED PLOT LET’S-GET-FROM-HERE-TO-THERE-WE-CAN’T-FIGURE-OUT-ANY-OTHER-WAY.  I mean, it’s set up that Knightly’s character is hyper-somniac, afraid she’s going to sleep through the apocalypse.  At first, it seems sort of charmingly neurotic if inessential, but toward the end of the movie you realize there’s a plot twist that turns on the fact that she can’t wake up without help…and it’s a true groaner.  Similarly, that a minor character just happens to have a satellite phone so Knightly can call home to Europe (how is the phone at the other end working, one wonders).  There are more.  My partner and I kept looking at each other, wanting to shout,  “come on!” at Scafaria.

What’s truly sad is the fact that the movie builds so well…the relationship between Carell’s and Knightly’s characters grows seamlessly as they hit the road and encounter the usual set of challenges and characters.  It’s meaningful to watch their growing closeness as the world comes closer to ending.  It’s a smart contrast.  It could have made for a great movie.

But the false plot devices and the one cliched encounter (with a relative, trying not to do a spoiler), and the extra little bit at the end after the great gesture of love (that really does give meaning to all our lives) undermine the depth of the movie as a whole.  So it’s not a great movie.  It is a movie that makes you feel, makes you question what it is to be human, makes you feel the grief of our short lives…the images have haunted me for two days now.  Of course, there’s humor, but it is a tragedy in the true sense of the word.

I just wish Scafaria had been a little braver in letting her story unfold, and ending it at the moment of greatest tragedy and nobility.  I mean, she shows us so many shades of humanity, gives us the nature of love…why did the story have to be less than it wanted to be?

I’m glad I saw it–I mean, it did serve up it’s promised ration of depression.  But this week I’m going back to the Kendall for my usual diet of independent films.  They may not be great, but they assume a modicum of intelligence on my part, which I greatly appreciate.

Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles Made the List

On the rather long list of people I am in love with is Jennifer Nettles.  I fell for her totally and completely the first time I saw her on PBS.  I said to my partner, “Come see!  This woman is made of joy!”

I don’t even really like country music and I watched the whole program, because Nettles’ sense of fun was so infectious.  I hadn’t ever seen a musician do what she did–and it filled the living room, the way it must have filled the auditorium.

This was, of course, before Sugarland and Nettles made it big.  I’ve kept half an eye on her, to see if she would be changed by fame.  Sometimes I thought her voice sounded kind of nasal.  I thought there was too much twang.  But I never got tired of watching her.

So yesterday, when I was zoning out of everything I should have been doing and watching Internet tv, Hulu gave me the option to watch Duets, and I was like, what the hell.  I haven’t wanted to watch the show, mind you.  Like, all we need is more reality tv.

I was wrong.  Kelly Clarkson remains completely herself and very spontaneous in what she says, which is great.  But Jennifer Nettles–it’s truly amazing to watch her work a duet.  She is entirely generous in the arrangement (she sings much less than her contestants), and in performance she calibrates her voice so she never overpowers her partner.  The episode I watched had two incredibly moving ballads (both by the guys working with her), and she was so genuinely kind to them, so empowering, I was like, Is this even for real?  I mean, ON TELEVISION, someone is truly partnering someone else?

Kelly Clarkson is also very empowering BTW, but the two male coaches (John Legend and Robin something or other) sometimes even sing more than their contestants!  But it’s the way Jennifer Nettles connects, the way she joins with her mentees, that’s so outstanding.  I have to ask, Does she have Meisner training?

Regardless, she has remained herself, relatively ego-free for the business she’s in, feet on the ground, available to the people around her…at least that’s how it looks.

In other words, it can be done.

Thank you, Jennifer Nettles, for exemplifying grace.  It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?  The most awake Buddhist monks are joyful.  The more joy, the more depth and compassion.  (And, BTW, the woman can really sing…so clear when she’s not singing country.)

Anyhow, in my own quest for grace, it’s probably a good thing that I gave up wearing black and being “Ms. Dark Side,” all sharp and sardonic at, what?  22?

Jack Black show us BERNIE

I’ve never been much for mockumentaries.  People talking to the camera bores me.  I like action and narrative drive or non-linear weird storytelling and epiphany.

I went to see Bernie anyway.

I have always been ambivalent about Jack Black.  I have seen him on late night television with a raging cold and he was still the funniest interview ever.  I’ve also seen him in School of Rock (shoot me, I was having a bad day and wanted pure escapism) and that terrible movie The Holiday, in which Kate Winslet wiped everyone off the screen (see my last blog about British actors…and I forgot to mention her!  Sorry Kate!  I’m in love with you, too!).  It’s clear Jack Black’s comedic talents are off the charts, and just as clear he can’t connect with another actor to save his life.

But I read the reviews, and it was well-received, so I went.  And you know, it was a great role for Jack Black!  Yes, he could have cut a little deeper with his emotional reality, but he wasn’t required to actually connect with anyone in most scenes, and his character work and physicality were pretty stellar.  Every once in a while you get reminded that certain roles can play to an actor’s strengths and help you to forget his very big weaknesses.

Of course, none of the actors including Shirley MacLaine could compete with the real folks from Texas making their debut in this movie.  I truly thought they were all real and all knew Bernie Tiede.  Their turns of speech, their prejudices, the view into small town Texan life stole the movie.  The relationship between Bernie and Marjorie doesn’t have enough depth to compete.

Did I like the movie?  It’s hard to like something so disturbing.  I think it’s worth seeing, that it’s darkly funny, and that the real Texans are wonderful.  I think Jack Black’s character work was excellent, even though I never forgot for a second he was acting.  I think that Shirley MacLaine has had a hell of a lot of plastic surgery.

And I think that it’s unfortunate that I understand too well the insecurities of a woman who believes she is not worthy of being loved and so controls away the only love being offered….and a man who needs so desperately to be liked that he puts up with her abuse until the rage inside him explodes and he has to kill her.  There is a lot of all of us in these extremes, and I wish the movie had dug deeper, made it funnier, made us see more deeply.  We get shown a lot of presentational scenes and the meaning of those scenes is clear.  But movies and movie acting are usually much richer in subtlety, and no genre can do subtlety as well as black comedy…a genre I love, love, love.

See the movie.  Decide which character you are.  And then squirm for a while.  That’s always a good time.

People I Am in Love with Starting with…

Judi Dench.  It cannot be overstated:  I am madly, truly, deeply, emphatically, insanely in love with Judi Dench.

Nevermind that she’s my favorite actress and has been for like, eternity.  I also think she’s the most beautiful woman in the world.  I say this after going to see The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel last night, and falling deeply under the spell of her warmth, grace and inner beauty yet again.  And that laugh!  That easy, affectionate, joyous, so-willing-to-enjoy-and-be amused laugh.  I mean, yes, she’s still wonderful to look at–that white hair, blazing blue eyes, tanned skin (she’s in India) and incredible bone structure.  (And I love the wardrobe.) But really, she has what I wish Meryl Streep had, which is more humanity than she can possibly hold in her own skin.  She fills the screen with it, and it is a humanity so rich in love that I leave every performance glad I belong to the species.

Like I said, it cannot be overstated.

As for the movie, it’s too sweet, and the characters are types, and you know, in this case, those things just don’t matter.  India, as a character, as a world, is so fascinating, and these veteran actors are just so damn good, all you care about is watching them do magic.  That much talent in one movie is something to swoon over.  Plus, think how good they’d have to be for me to forgive the director (John Madden, Shakespeare in Love) for taking the camera off Dame Judi for a flat second (and he has directed her again and again, lucky him).

Really, this blog is just an excuse to revel in talking about my major talent and humanity crush on Dench, so I might as well just say her name about 50,000 times and get it over with.

Or I could say that I just prefer British actors to American.  And fine, there are some youngish actors I really like, like Maggie Gyllenhaal (her brother’s not bad either), Mark Ruffalo (his performance in You Can Count on Me is still one of the best I’ve ever seen), Michael C. Hall (my favorite actor from 6 Feet Under and so deserving of his role on Dexter, which requires such range), Vera Farmiga, not to mention Viola Davis, who is my favorite American actor and has the humanity that Dench has but also a stream of real rage, sadness and passion in her roles.  I like Phillip Seymour Hoffman and James Gandolfini as well and I even like Sandra Bullock and Selma Hayek (so under-rated, think Frida).

But then think of Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith…or the less well known Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), Idris Elba or Ruth Wilson (these last two from Luther, and they are great together and Ruth Wilson is AMAZING and absolutely to watch.  The problem is that for the most part, you put any American actor next to one from the UK and the American may look talented, but he or she often also looks immature, not so well-layered, not so committed, and definitely not as generous to his or her ensemble.  It’s very difficult to find a single American movie with the uniform level of excellence in acting we find in all of the major league television and film from the UK.

I’m not an Anglophile.  I may be a Judi Dench-ophile, but you know, love is love.  I’d really love to know what they’re doing over there that we’re missing, or is just that pop culture undermines the deeper values of making cinema or any art form.  (Of course it does in this country.  Hollywood sucks.)

Anyhow, back to Judi.  And back.  And back.  See the movie.  I’ll probably be there, at the Kendall, swooning, even though my partner is jealous, so it will have to be when she’s at work.

And look for my upcoming blog on Yo-Yo Ma who I saw on PBS doing the Goat Rodeo Sessions and fell for immediately and again.  The man is made of joy. As with Dame Judi, I’d just like to sit in a room with him and absorb that through my skin.  He wouldn’t even have to say hello.  (Which is good, because he probably wouldn’t.)