Thursday, January 16, 2020

Streaming Binge

Movies: Ready or Not, Hail Satan?, Support the Girls, Brittany Runs a Marathon

Here are some quick reviews of movies I've rented/watched on streaming lately. Enjoy!

***

Ready or Not

I was ready to completely write off this movie as...well, I don't know what. Something akin to a cheesy "Blumhouse production". But I kept hearing more and more about this thriller, in which a woman (Samara Weaving) marries into a rich family who made their money on games. It's tradition that everyone who marries into the family must select a random card with a game on it and play the game with the family at midnight on the eve of the wedding. 99% of the games are fine: Old Maid, Chess, Checkers...no big deal. But if the unlucky or bride or groom chooses the one bad card, Hide and Seek, well...let's just say the stakes become much higher.


Ready or Not is an "eat the rich" movie, where the moral is that rich people will do literally anything, include making murderous pacts with the devil, to keep their riches. Weaving is plucky as Grace, the bride who becomes the prey among a family of rich psychos who believe they must hunt her down and kill her...or all die, as part of the pact their grandfather made with a mysterious benefactor (the...devil???) Part of the fun is not knowing whether or not this "family curse" is real, or just bullshit--and hoping you might find out at the end. Darkly funny, Ready or Not is a very entertaining movie.

Grade: B+

***

Hail Satan?

This documentary is about the Satanic Temple, a "church" that really serves as more of a check and balance against the Christian right in the United States. The Satanic Temple advocates for religious freedom by basically challenging the religious right--so, most famously, they advocated for a statue of Baphomet to stand alongside a monument of the ten commandments on the Oklahoma State Capitol. Their reasoning? If Christianity gets a monument on the state capitol, surely other religions--such as Satanism--should have the same rights.

One might call the Satanic Temple trolls in action. They primarily exist to go head-to-head with fundamentalist Christianity. But their kind of "trolling" is a much-needed reality check in a country that supposedly believes in "separation of church and state"...except when it conveniently doesn't. That said, some of the Satanic Temple members are still white guys who think they know best. One of their members, a woman, is relieved of her duties as a high-ranking member of the Satanic Temple when she gets a little too radical. Even among Satanists, there are limits.

Grade: B

***

Support the Girls

Regina Hall plays Lisa, a manager at Double Whammies--a Hooters-esque sports bar that serves hot food, cold beer, and sexy babes. Over the course of a single day, Lisa has to deal with a burglar who gets caught in an air duct, new girls coming in for interviews, a manager who is not only an asshole but very stupid to boot, and her depressed husband whom she is trying to separate from.


Support the Girls is a slice-of-life film that is funny and heartwarming, but also very frustrating. Lisa sees the kind of sexism both she and the waitresses she is responsible for have to put up with, with very little recourse. The women who work at Double Whammies are generally the kind of folks living paycheck-to-paycheck and thus have to put up with rude comments, skimpy outfits, and tons of bullshit--all with a smile on their faces. Support the Girls is not a loud, flashy film, but it will stick with you when it's over...and hopefully encourage you to tip generously the next time you go out to eat.

Grade: A-

***

Brittany Runs a Marathon

Woof. Very mixed feelings about this one. Brittany Runs a Marathon is not a bad movie, but it's a movie that is benevolently fatphobic. What I mean by that is while the movie is not blatantly fat-shaming, it's very a much "all bodies are beautiful...as long as they're healthy!" type film. Jillian Bell plays Brittany Forgler, a hard-partying 28 year old. Brittany is "fat" according to New York City standards (in most parts of the country, she would be considered average). She goes to a doctor to try to scam an Adderall prescription and the doctor informs her that her BMI is too high and she needs to lose 40-50 pounds. Brittany has never heard of "BMI", which is the first clue that a non-fat, non-woman directed this film: every woman in the USA, especially every fat woman, knows what a BMI is because fat women know more about diet, health and weight than fucking anyone else. Why? Because we are forced to know it. Women are forced to know everything about calories, weight, metabolism, the "right" kind of snack (handful of almonds, amirite ladeez!?) Fat women know even more. There is no reality in which Brittany Forgler does not already know this information.


So she starts running, she starts losing weight, and her life improves. The movie tries really hard to no be fatphobic, but what do you call a film where a person loses weight and everything in her life gets better? Then, when Brittany hits a snag (she gets shin splits a month before the marathon), she reverts into a monster. She tells off her boyfriend, calling him a manboy. She commits a heinous act of fatphobia at a party for her brother-in-law's birthday where she tells a fat woman that her skinny boyfriend doesn't love her because "you can't love someone you don't respect". The movie treats this soul-crushing moment as something that is excusable/forgivable because 1) Brittany is drunk and 2) it's supposed to be her own self-hatred she is projecting. She writes a letter to the fat woman, apologizing, and the woman responds "I understand your pain". This is where the movie lost me. The cruelty with which Brittany treats this *total stranger* moves her from protagonist to irredeemable cunt in my book. I could no longer root for her. When she finally crosses that finish line at the end of the movie, I was rolling my eyes. It takes a lot of balls to have your protagonist say something so hurtful and, honestly, unforgivable and then use that to move the plot forward as if it was just another stepping stone in her journey to the skinny, self-loving good person she is inside.

Fuck this movie.

Grade: B- as a movie, but an F in my heart



Sunday, January 5, 2020

Cats; or, Stop Trying to Make Jellicle Happen

Movies: Cats

Oh, Cats. What can I say that hasn't already been said? It is known and accepted that Cats, the musical created by Andrew Lloyd Weber based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot is an embarrassing, yet mysteriously popular musical. Like Seinfeld, it is a show about nothing. Cats emerge and introduce themselves through song. One is chosen to go to the "Heaviside Layer" (heaven). End of show. How this show became one of the longest running on Broadway is something that will never be explained except that maybe people like cats? Even in the pre-Can Haz Cheezburger days, people liked to watch cats prowl around and be weird, I guess.

And so Tom Hooper brings this monstrosity to the silver screen. Cats is filled with talent: Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Jennifer Hudson, Idris Elba, and even Taylor Swift play roles of the titular felines. Plus there are a bunch of no-names who are great dancers, such as Francesca Hayward as Victoria and Steven McRae as Shimbleshanks (these cats all have really dumb names, btw. It's kind of their thing). The dancing and singing is pretty good, overall. The acting, well...these seasoned veterans of stage and screen try their best, but there is only so much polishing a cat turd can stand.



Ok, I'll level with you: Cats is kind of fun. It's a CGI nightmare in which the cats in question have human faces, human hands, human feet, and human butts...but fur (and no visible genitals). The scale makes no sense. These cats are simultaneously human-size to a mouse, but mouse-size to a human. Bustopher Jones (James Corden) is a fat cat at 25 pounds (or an "absolute unit" as my friend who saw the movie with me said), yet other cats appear to be kitten size in scale to everyday objects. Basically, whoever was in charge of the artistry of this movie didn't give a fuhhhhck. 

But despite the insane CGI (or maybe because of it), Cats is enjoyable in a Star Wars Holiday Special kind of way: it's so bizarre and weird that it's fun. Now, not all of it is equally fun. For example, there are some songs ("The Moment of Happiness", "The Addressing of Cats", "Gus the Theatre Cat") are boring as shit, while precious few ("Mr. Mistoffeeles", "Bustopher Jones", "Shimbleshanks") are actually fun. Did you guys know that this really famous musical has really bad music? Even the award-winning song "Memory" kind of sucks if I'm honest. If it were my choice of who wins the Jellicle Ball or whatever the fuck it is, I'd give it to Mr. Mistoffelees because he has hands down the best song in the show. 

Speaking of Mr. Mistoffelees, did you guys know that this is a magician nerd who (in this version of the story) gets the sexy girl (Victoria) in the end? I don't know how I feel about that. I kind of like Macavity (Idris Elba) the "bad" (but obviously sexier) cat who is also a magician but like an evil one.

Each cat has one attribute that is its personality: Victoria is the new girl, Mr. Mistoffelees is the nerd, Bustopher Jones is fat, Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) is also fat (I really related to her, not only because we share a name and are fat, but because if I were a cat I'd want to be a pampered-ass housecat), Macavity is evil, Rum Tug Tugger (Jason Derulo) is the cat that fucks, Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) is old, Shimbleshanks is gay as hell, etc. There's no real character building because with about 1,873 cats and only 2 hours, there's no time to commit to giving these cats three dimensions. 

Overall, Cats is just...it's a lot. I saw a movie last year called Climax where a dance troupe accidentally drinks LSD-spiked punch and simultaneously goes batshit. Cats is basically the same movie. In fact, there's a scene where Taylor Swift (I refuse to reveal her cat-name...she is Taylor Swift) forcefully spikes the cats with cat-nip. Like I said: same. movie. If you want to watch a movie that you know, in your heart of hearts, would be WAY better if you're high as fuck, Cats is a good option. 

Grade: C+

Friday, January 3, 2020

2019: The Best and the Rest

Movies: Best of

Hello, Dear Readers! It's that time of the year where I give you my opinion (which is the *correct* opinion, of course ;) ) on what I felt were the best movies of the previous year.

A couple notes:

  • Usually I wait until later in January to make this list, as I am typically still catching up on all the Oscar bait they push into theatres in late December. But, ah, I'm bored and want to do it now
  • There are a few movies that I suspect would make the list that I haven't seen yet. These include Parasite, Uncut Gems, and The Irishman. I'll probably see them eventually. I'm not as fanatical about seeing EVERY critically worshipped movie as I was years ago. I just go at my own pace now.
  • 2019 was, in my opinion, a "meh" year for movies, as was 2018. 2017, on the other hand, was a mind-blowing year for movies. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you--right, Christian? Not every year is going to have a high number of orgasmically great films. Overall, 2019 was good but not great.
  • I'm also going to list the movies I liked *the least* this year. Please note that this doesn't mean these movies were the shittiest of the year--they tend to be movies a lot of people like that just weren't my bag. That's why I call them "the rest" and not "the worst".
  • As I'm putting this list together, I'm seeing just how "white" these movies are, with the exception of Us. While I suppose it makes a certain amount of sense that I'd be attracted to movies by and about white women, since they reflect my experience of the world, this is certainly something to take into consideration and expand beyond my comfort zone in the coming years. 
Enough! Onward!

2019: The Best

10) Booksmart (B+)

It's really a shame that this funny, sweet, and irreverent ode to female friendship didn't get more attention and accolades. Beanie Feldstein's Molly was one of the funniest characters of the year (Kaitlyn Dever as Amy was good too, but Beanie is more my speed) with her mix of snobbish disdain for the philistines she goes to school with and the feverish desire to experience the things they have experienced while she was busy being a straight-A student. 

9) Knives Out (B+)

A star-studded cast, turns and twists galore, and a huge "fuck you" to rich, white assholes who think they "own" The United States of America--what's not to love? While I don't think Knives Out is a movie I'll revisit often, it was a wildly entertaining, hilarious film-going experience.


Elisabeth Moss is slaying it these days. While her role as Offred/June in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is becoming a bit tiresome, her talent for playing fierce women is undeniable. In Her Smell, Moss plays the deeply unlikeable Becky Something, the lead singer of a 90s era grrrl punk band Something She. But Kathleen Hanna Becky is not--she is a nightmare to work with, a neglectful mother, and a drug-and-alcohol abuser. Where her bandmates and ex-husband have outgrown their excessive ways as they age into their 40s, Becky has only become more unhinged. Her Smell is the story of Becky's fall from grace and her quiet quest for redemption.




7) In Fabric (B+)

Directed by one of my favorite visionaries, Peter Strickland, In Fabric is a bat-shit crazy ride from start to finish. It's the tale of a killer dress. No, not like the one from the urban legend where a girl dies because the dress was worn by a dead girl and is saturated in embalming fluid. This dress is controlled by a coven of witches who run a very strange department store. The film could be read as a commentary on mindless consumerism, or it could simply be seen as another homage to psycho-sexual 1970s Italian giallo films, which Strickland is clearly fond of. Either way, it's an unforgettable ride into madness and dark, twisted humor.

6) Rocketman (A-)

I was fully prepared to write off this musical about Elton John's life as a cheesy biopic that lionizes its subject...but goddamn if I didn't cry during it. Taron Egerton captures the vulnerability of young, closeted Elton and the self-pitying drama of the older, drugged-up Elton. The musical numbers are used to highlight important moments in Elton's life: "I Want Love" reveals the loneliness of Elton's childhood home life, "Honky Cat" struts and preens as Elton and his alpha-asshole lover, John Reid, spend Elton's newfound fortune in the most glitzy ways imaginable, and "Rocket Man" shows Elton at his lowest--attempting suicide after a drug binge. While Rocketman can be cheesy at times (what musicals--or biopics--aren't?), the story of a queer, wildly talented man who has a shot at redemption is hard to resist.

5) The Lighthouse (A-)

After In Fabric, The Lighthouse was the wackiest film I saw in 2019--and I mean that in a good way. This darkly humorous fever dream about two lighthouse keepers who might or might not be going insane was everything I hoped it would be. The acting is everything in The Lighthouse: Willem Dafoe is turned up to 11 as a crazy-eyed, barnacle-encrusted old sea salt, spouting monologues and lines that sound like the were written in a turn of the century penny dreadful. Robert Pattinson is the perfect foil to Dafoe and a very unreliable narrator, especially when he finally starts drinking liquor at the encouragement of Dafoe. The Lighthouse is hard to classify: it is horror, it is comedy, it is historical fiction. But mostly, it is a fairytale dreamed up by a dark and unhinged mind.



4) Us (A-)

Here we have another horror fairytale. In fact, the villain of the movie, Red, tells her story to her doppelgänger, Adelaide (both played brilliantly by Lupita Nyong'o), starting with "once upon a time, there was a little girl..." While not quite the same level of pure genius as Get Out, Jordan Peele's sophomore effort is a solidly chilling (and funny!) horror film that, like so many movies in 2019, has an "eat the rich" message. In this case, the "rich" are those who live above ground and the "poor" are the "Tethered"-- doppelgängers/clones that were part of a government experiment that was abandoned, only to have terrible consequences once the clones found a way to come out of their underground lairs. When asked who they are, Red (the only Tethered able to talk) says "we are Americans". What is Peele trying to say? Some interpretations have suggested this is a story about how immigrants are treated in the United States. But my interpretation is that it's a tale about privilege and how in order for one person to live a life of luxury, another must inevitably suffer.



3) Little Women (A)

Greta Gerwig's Little Women was the movie I most looked forward to in 2019--and not just because The Internet's Boyfriend, Timothee Chalamet, played poor little rich fuckboi Laurie. Little Women is not my favorite book of all time (I didn't even read it until college), but there is something about the story, which is both wholesome and subversive, forward-thinking and old-fashioned, feminist and feminine, that manages to continue to attract readers over 150 years after its publication. The story has something for everyone: Christian morals (*true* Christian morals, like caring for the poor and loving others), pretty dresses, love stories, sisterhood, an acid-tongued spinster aunt, and an ink-stained independent thinker. Gerwig's interpretation is true to the text while slightly subverting the tale by putting more emphasis on Jo March's truest love of all: writing. It plays up her (and Laurie's) gender non-conformity and plays down her "happily married" ending--while still allowing enough room for the more romantic viewer to believe that Jo gets both her man AND her book (AND her school for BOTH sexes--a deviation from the text). This version of Little Women is also not afraid to look the character's imperfections in the face: Laurie is a privileged, condescending man child...who is also sensitive and lonely. Amy is a vain and spiteful little brat...who grows up to be wise and kind. Meg is blinded by beautiful things and riches...but realizes what's really important in the end. And Jo is militantly against marriage...but also feels lonely and comes to see the value love can add to one's life. I really like this because, like real people, the characters in Little Women--even saintly Marmee--are not perfect and have strengths and weaknesses. 

2) Gloria Bell (A)

I feel like I'm the only person I know who saw this lovely, empowering film by Sebastian Leilo. Leilo remakes his own film, 2013's Gloria, here and sets it in the United States instead of Chile. Other than that, the story is the same: Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore, luminous) is a woman in her 50s. She's divorced, her children are grown, but she is not alone and she's not unhappy. She's a single lady who goes to bars where other singles her age meet up and dance (and fukkk). This is where she meets kindly, sensitive Arnold (John Turturro). But Arnold is not the DILF-y dreamboat he seems. He has serious issues and baggage that, when they come to light, could be devastating for Gloria. But no, Gloria Bell is a strong, adventurous woman who knows her worth. Leilo is a cisgender man, but he has a knack for writing women (both cis and trans) really well. Between Gloria Bell, A Fantastic Woman, and Disobedience, he has more than gained my respect as a director who relishes in creating complicated female characters who go through real struggles--but who never let the world hold them down.

1) Midsommar (A+)

I saw Midsommar three times in the theatre and rented it once within a 6 month period. Each time, I watched it with different friends and each time I was afraid said friends would be pissed that I had them watch such a fucked up movie. But hey, I'm still friends with all of them! Even with that stupidly gory ritual suicide scene that anyone who has seen the film knows and shudders to remember. Midsommar is Ari Aster's follow-up to 2018's Hereditary, which I loved. But, in my opinion, Midsommar is an even greater expression of the director's considerable talent. Like Hereditary, the real horror of Midsommar is grief, not ghouls, ghosts, demons, or cults. While all those things are scary, grief is real, inescapable, devastating...and coming for us all. Florence Pugh plays Dani, who experiences a wildly tragic event 6 months before her good-for-nothing boyfriend, Christian, invites her last minute on a trip to Sweden with his friends. His university pals are studying the rare, midsummer rituals carried out only every 90 years by a small commune in Sweden where one of the friends, Pelle, grew up. As Dani, Christian, and their friends bake under the 24-hour sun, strange things start to happen. But Christian and Dani are almost too distracted by their relationship falling to pieces to notice. It's not until the end when we realize that maybe, despite the fucked-upness of the situation, this whole trip was the best thing that could happen to Dani. As she watches the last tethers to her past literally go up in flames, her smile suggests that she is now truly home.



2019: My Least Favorites

3) Jojo Rabbit (C)

Because of Jojo Rabbit's strong first act, it is the best of my least favorites. Sadly, the biting satire of the first 30 minutes of Taika Waititi's Nazi-lampooning dramedy doesn't last and the film quickly turns into a slushy "feel good" movie about accepting others. NO. FUCK THAT BULLSHIT. I signed up to watch Waititi play an imaginary version of Hitler and to watch Nazis make fools of themselves. I did not sign up for a fucking milquetoast after-school special (in which...spoiler, spoiler spoiler...

...

spoiler...

THE MOM FUCKING DIES!?!?

...end spoiler

Jojo Rabbit is the biggest bait-and-switch of 2019. It wants to have its strudel and eat it too. I went in expecting The Producers and came out realizing I'd been fooled into seeing The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: an overly earnest, "childlike" look at genocide. While genocide can be satirized and mocked, in my opinion, it cannot be turned into a pat fable about how friendship conquers all. Also, some of the Nazis in this movie are "good Nazis". Fuck that--the only good Nazi is a dead one. 

2) The Souvenir (C)

The critical acclaim for Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir puzzles me. It's almost as if a boring and pretentious film automatically gets labeled as great. But despite a strong performance by Honor Swinton Byrne, The Souvenir is not great: it's boring, pretentious, and fucking annoying. A young woman, Julie (Byrne), goes to film school in early 80s England. She also begins seeing a rich fuckboi, Anthony (Tom Burke) who has a condescending attitude and, as it turns out, a heroin addiction. Despite Anthony treating Julie horribly--even stealing her stuff to fund his drug habit--she keeps forgiving him and taking him back until the inevitable happens (he dies of a drug overdose, and not a single viewer is sad about it because he's a real piece of shit and the movie doesn't even try to make you care for him). Now, while one might argue that this is realistic because young people fall into bad relationships all the time, it's just so. fucking. boring. We don't CARE about these characters so it's very hard to empathize. The Souvenir is a total snooze. Feel free to skip.

1) Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (D)

Not scary. Plot is absurd. Boring. I guess it's meant for kids? Skip the movie and read the books--with the original drawings--instead.

2019: Notable Mentions

Coulda been better if the director wasn't such a prick: 
Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (B)

Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood is a good movie, because all Quentin Tarantino movies are good movies. Hell, Inglorius Basterds is one of my all-time faves! With talent like Leo and Brad at the helm, you know the film can't be bad. But I tire of QT's bullshit. His films used to focus on strong women (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill [albeit he treated Uma Thurman like shit]) and he kept peeling strong women away from his recent films. Django Unchained had one female lead and she was 100% a damsel to be rescued. But OUaTiH is a new level because in this movie, women are either silent or murdered violently by men. Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate and exists to look pretty and prop her bare feet up. There are two women and one man who are part of Charles Manson's cult who, in this revisionist story, accidentally enter Rick Dalton's house (Leo), a washed up actor who lives next door to Tate and Roman Polanski. Both Rick and his stunt-double, Cliff Booth (Brad) are high as a kite and they beat the shit out of and murder the intruders. Now, of course, the intruders are bad guys--in real life they killed 8 months pregnant Tate! But with the knowledge that QT is a misogynist who has treated his leading ladies like they are literally disposable, it's less pleasant to watch Brad Pitt beat up a teenage girl. This movies stinks of male bullshit. Yes, it's "good"...but it's also shitty.

Biggest freakout:
Climax (B-)

Gaspar Noe's frenetic movie about a troupe of dancers who accidentally drink LSD-spiked punch and go bananas is...a lot. It's not as fun as it sounds. There's a lot of screaming and fucking and running around. If you want to watch a movie that feels like a waking nightmare, by all means check out Climax. I'm just still amused by the guy who left in the middle of the movie, while yelling (for all in the theatre to hear), "this is bullshit!". Too weird for you, buddy?

Best use of Fiona Apple's Criminal:
Hustlers (B+)

It felt...criminal...to let Lorene Scafaria's based-on-true-events tale of strippers who stole from the rich and gave to themselves go unmentioned, even if it didn't make my final cut. Hustlers is fun and female-fronted, with great performances by J. Lo and Constance Wu. Along with Knives Out, Ready or Not, Us, and Parasite, it follows the big trend of "fuck the rich/privileged" of 2019. But unlike those other movies, this one actually happened. Sure, they got caught, but they fucked over a bunch of rich, white guys before the pigs busted 'em. Yeah, yeah..what they did (drug men and run up their credit cards) wasn't "technically" "legal"...but the way sex workers, blue collar workers, and women workers are treated in this dumb country that thinks it's better than it actually is...well, it's a crime. They've been bad, bad girls...but unlike Apple's song, I don't believe it's a sad, sad world when a woman breaks a boy just because she can.

Best movie that didn't come out in 2019, but I watched in 2019:
First Reformed (A)

I have to give a quick shout-out to Paul Schrader's beautiful and complex film about faith, hope, and depression. It's not a flashy film, but it grapples with some of the biggest questions in life, such as how to stand up against injustice even if injustice pays your bills, and how to go on in life when you truly believe the future won't be better. The answer, it seems, is love. Or rather, there is no answer--there's only the feeling of another human being holding on to you as you both freefall into the great unknown.

***

That's all folks! Best wishes in 2020!






Sunday, December 29, 2019

Damned Scribbling Women

Movies: Little Women

Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel, Little Women, is more complex and insightful than many folks give it credit for. A basic interpretation of the text is that it's a domestic story of four sisters who grow up during the Civil War and learn moral lessons at the feet of their loving mother, Marmee, and eventually all fall in love and marry (except for poor Beth who is too pure for this world). The novel could easily be read as saccharine, preachy, and anti-feminist (there are also numerous occasions in the novel where a women is lectured to by a man: the sordid stories Jo writes to earn a living are bluntly criticized by Professor Bhaer, and Meg is lectured by Laurie when she becomes too involved in fussy outfits and mindless small talk at Sally's debutante ball). Not exactly a "you go girl" book, right?

Wellllll...

Louisa May Alcott was, for one thing, a very forward-thinking woman for her time. Raised by transcendentalist parents in Concord, Massachusetts, Alcott advocated for the abolition of slavery and for women's suffrage. She never married. She, like her heroine and fictional doppelgänger, Jo March, wrote sordid stories to pay the bills. It is impossible to read Little Women without considering the author's life and moral values and how they play a role in the plot. For one thing, Jo March is a women who is willing to face a life of loneliness and near-poverty to feed her passion for writing and be true to herself. There's even an interpretation--which I made up, but also probably others have figured out as well--that Jo is queer. Her adamance that she'll never marry, and the words she uses when she turn's down Laurie's marriage proposal (I'm paraphrasing, but something to the effect of "I wish I loved you the way you love me") suggests that she can't love men in that way. Of course, we all know she ends up with Bhaer, but there's plenty to suggest that if Alcott had her druthers, she would have let Jo become the "spinster" she was destined to be (perhaps in a "Boston marriage" with another woman?).

Gillian Armstrong's 1994 film adaptation of Little Women remains one of the most beloved films, well, probably ever. It's a movie that made my dad cry, you guys. So one might ask why Greta Gerwig had to go and fix something that ain't broke. Well, because good stories deserve retelling. And good directors and actors can make an old story feel fresh and uncover new feelings toward a story many of us know by heart. After all, Armstrong's version of Little Women was the fifth film adaptation of the story. So people bitching about another remake should really consider: what if the adaptations had stopped before Armstrong's masterpiece?

Gerwig makes a couple big changes to the plot structure. For one, she begins the story not at the beginning ("Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents!") but in the middle, when Jo (Saoirse Ronan, excellent as always) is living in a New York City boarding house and writing. The framing of the story is that Jo is called back to her home in Concord after Beth (Elizabeth Scanlen) takes a turn for the worse). The plot hopscotches back and forth between past and present.

Gerwig makes the controversial decision to keep all the same actors between the "older" scenes and "newer" ones. This is actually a decision that took away from the film. For example, in the "earlier" scenes, Amy is supposed to be 13 years old. Florence Pugh, an amazing talent, plays Amy. Anyone who has seen Pugh act knows that this bitch ain't 13 years old--she has a notably husky voice for one thing. The Armstrong version basically did the same thing, but Armstrong had two different actresses play Amy since her character has the most dramatic jump in age between the older and newer scenes (in the sense that Amy goes from the cusp of pubescence into adulthood, whereas Jo and Meg go from late teens to adulthood). That said, I love Florence Pugh and I thought she was excellent in the role.



I also liked Gerwig's decision to cast Timothee Chalamet and Louis Garrel as Lauie Laurence and Frederich Bhaer, respectively. Chalamet's Laurie is the right age for the character, who is about the same age as Jo. He is playful, goofy, and--often--conceited. Chalamet, who is an unbelievable talent, hits all the right notes to play the "fuckboy next door", as one review put it. Laurie is a very imperfect man. He is rich, yet is annoyed with riches. He is educated, yet chooses to live life adrift. He loves the March girls, yet he mansplains at them quite a bit. But there is no reason for the film to shy away from showing Laurie to be a product of his time and upbringing--it also reveals why he is a better match for Amy, who is very similar to Laurie in her vanity and desire for/understanding of the finer things in life than for Jo, who genuinely doesn't care about those same things.

And I liked Louis Garrel as Bhaer because he's closer in age to Jo than Gabriel Byrne was to Winona Ryder and he plays Bhaer as quiet and notably foreign--a stranger in the strange land of America. He is a good match for Jo, who needs a strong man of few words to absorb her frenetic energy. Jo needs someone willing to not fight her for the spotlight (as Laurie would have done)--and Bhaer, the introverted intellectual, is just the man to let her shine in her quirkiness.

But Gerwig's version even teases with a bit of "did they or didn't they", at the end of movie--lightly suggesting that maybe Jo *didn't* end up with Bhaer, but "wrote" the ending for her character in her novel to appease her publisher (Me? I think they end up together. But I'm a romantic at heart).

As for Jo March--wow, I have rarely felt kinship to a character as I did to her, in this adaptation specifically. Jo's whole deal is that she remains true to herself, her feelings, and her passions even when it seems the world is punishing her for it. I'm a woman who sometimes worries that my choices, my politics, and my opinions have alienated me from whole swathes of people. My refrain in life has been "I want to be loud and opinionated and assertive...and I want everyone to like me". It's a hard lesson to learn that you sometimes can't be liked by all, and also be unapologetically yourself. When Jo has a heart-to-heart with her mother about knowing that women have brains and souls and are meant for more than just love, yet she is lonely and wants to be loved--I felt that in my bones, y'all. I totally understand her. To be a feminist, to be adamant that women are not just playthings and accessories for men, yet to also want romantic love like anyone else, is a real tightrope walk. And I think that's why I root for Jo and Bhaer at the end because I want Jo to have everything she wants: a school, a book, AND a lover. Of all the heroines in all the great works of literature, who is more deserving than the fiery, uncompromising, hair-selling, ink-stained Jo March?

So, I guess what I'm saying is that Little Women (both the book and this movie) has some flaws, but it remains a powerful story of sisterhood, family, community, passion, and virtue--not virtue in the modern, Christian sense, but virtue in the sense of finding the balance of staying true to yourself, while being flexible enough to change, grow, and do right by those you love.

Grade: A

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Slice of the Pie

Movie: Knives Out

Believe the hype: Rian Johnson's Agatha Christie-esque murder mystery Knives Out is as fun, clever, and star-studded as you've heard. If you're sick of reboots, remakes, sequels, and Star Wars, Knives Out might just be the ticket to escape movie-going boredom.

Christopher Plummer plays Harlen Thrombey, a celebrated and extremely wealthy mystery novelist. The morning after his 85th birthday party, his housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, hilarious in a small role) finds the old man dead in his study: he slit his throat the night before.

Seems like a straightforward suicide to Detective Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield), but the appearance of private investigator and southern gentleman Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) suggests something else is going on. Blanc doesn't even know who hired him: he simply received a directive to investigate Thrombey's death and an envelope of cash a couple days after the alleged suicide. As Blanc begins to dig into the Thrombey family dynamics, it appears that nearly everyone has a motive to off the old man--except for Thrombey's loyal nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who--conveniently for Blanc--has a very strange quirk: she pukes when she tells a lie.

Blanc insists that Marta work with him to discover whether or not Thrombey really killed himself, or if something is, as Blanc states, "afoot".

To reveal the motives of the different Thrombey family members would be to spoil the plot (or bore those who have already seen it), so I'll hold off on that. I will say Knives Out worked really well for me because 1) it wasn't too difficult to follow (I struggle with "heist" movies for this very reason), 2) it actually fooled me (I predicted one ending and, well, was wrong), and 3) it was funny and entertaining as fuck--mostly due to the talented ensemble cast. Starring everyone from Jamie Lee Curtis to Toni Collette to Michael Shannon, the sheer volume of talent is overwhelming. And everyone fits into their role like a hand in a glove, even when playing against type. For example, Chris Evans--Captain America himself--is a standout as Ransom, the douche-y, wildly entitled grandson of Thrombey. His pretty boy looks serve him well in the role of a man who has looks, smarts, and money but is a total waste of a human being.


Speaking of entitlement, Knives Out contains a not-so-hidden commentary on America's current (and shameful) treatment of immigrants. Marta is an immigrant (the family keeps messing up where she's from--some say Ecuador, others say Uruguay) and is told time and again that she is "like family" to the Thrombey's...but when the shit hits the fan, it's clear that she is less of a family member to them than Thrombey's dogs are. Knives Out rubs the audience's face in rich, white, American hypocrisy--various family members keep insisting that they "built something from nothing" when it's clear they've been given a huge assist from grandpa. Compare that to Marta, who truly is trying to build a home for herself and her mother from almost literally nothing. Conservatives will probably go apeshit over this movie, if they even deign to see something other than a God's Not Dead sequel and I couldn't be happier about that since anti-immigration conservatives are loathsome racists who deserve to have their seed wiped from the earth. Vote blue in 2020, kids!

I'll end by saying: go see Knives Out. Despite the fact that an old man dies a violent death, it's a lighthearted, hilarious, fun movie that will have you guessing and leave you smiling.

Grade: B+


Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Dressed to Kill

Movie: In Fabric

No director pays beautiful homage to giallo films like Peter Strickland. Since I first saw his masterpiece, The Duke of Burgundy, I have been obsessed with his films. Strickland sets his stories in vague locations and times. For example, The Duke of Burgundy appears to take place somewhere in Europe, sometime in the late 1960s...however, the world it occupies has no men and no children. As in, men and children don't exist. In building such a world, the Strickland jolts us from our comfort zone and gives us no cultural markers on which to rely. The Duke of Burgundy focuses on two women in a Dominant/submissive relationship...but can we call them lesbians if men don't exist? Can we call it a Dom/sub relationship if, as it appears in the film, all the people in this movie are in such relationships?

Strickland's latest horror/comedy, In Fabric, is just as timeless but even stranger than The Duke of Burgundy. The movie is about killer dress that seems to do the bidding of a coven of witches who live in the basement of a department store. So right off the bat, I'm like: 1) weird and 2) wow, this reminds me a LOT of the OG giallo film, Suspiria. The cinematography and music pay direct homage to Dario Argento's classic horror tale of a ballet school run by witches.

Shelia Woolchapel (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, giving the film a much-needed straight man to react to all this weirdness) is divorced, in her 50s, living with her ungrateful son, Vince (Jaygann Ayeh), and his hyper-sexual girlfriend, Gwen (Gwendoline Christie...yes, Brienne of Tarth). She is lonely and frustrated. She puts a personal ad in the newspaper and, when she has a date on the books, goes to Dentley & Soper's department store to find a new dress. And find one she does: in "artery red", the dress is a size smaller than Shelia's measurements, yet fits perfectly (Sisterhood of the Traveling Killer Dress?). Never mind the fact that it gives Sheila a nasty rash right away.

Meanwhile, the ladies who work at the department store wash an anatomically correct mannequin in the basement while some old dude looks on and masturbates. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Other weird shit happens: the dress makes Sheila's washing machine "go bananas". A dog attacks the dress and rips it, but then later that evening...the dress is no longer ripped (!!!). The dress watches Gwen and Vince have kinky sex and then attacks Gwen. The dress slinks down a staircase. If this all sounds ridiculous, well... ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Eventually, the dress makes its way to a new owner: Reg Speaks (Leo Bill), a chinless washing-machine repair man who is having a stag party to celebrate his upcoming nuptials to Babs (Haley Squires). His friends force him to put on the dress as part of the fun and games of stag night. Later, Babs finds the dress and puts it on. It fits both her and Reg perfectly, despite different body types. And they both come to tragic ends.

In Fabric is...to put it mildly...not for everyone. It's weird even by my standards and I like weird movies. It is dreamlike and artsy and sexual, but not in a sexy way. There is a lot of shit that goes unexplained--like, who are the women in the basement of the department store? Who is the man who jacks off to a mannequin? Why a killer dress? Is this all a metaphor for capitalism run amok? Who knows! When I say In Fabric is dreamlike, I literally mean that it is very much like being in a dream: there are familiar objects, places, and events, but they are all a little off. For example, Sheila works at a bank (very normal) where she is chastised by her bosses for not having a "meaningful" enough handshake (wut). Sheila's son, Vince, has the hairdo and clothes of a young man living in 2019, but everything else in Sheila's part of the film looks like the late 1970s. Everything is familiar yet confoundingly strange--just like a dream. The timeline doesn't make sense either--just like a dream. And symbolism, color, and sound are more important than plot--just like in a dream.

So, I recommend this movie to cinephiles, especially those who like Peter Strickland. Most other viewers may find themselves out of their depth. Unlike the killer dress itself, this movie won't fit everyone.

Grade: B+


Monday, November 25, 2019

Non-Toxic Masculinity

Movies: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

It's no wonder two films about Fred Rogers have come out over the past couple years. In these deeply troubling times where anger and fear have sucked in even the gentlest souls, we are collectively aching for a person who represents something even greater and more profound than the life he lived.

Fred Rogers, it has been said, was no saint. But goddamn if he wasn't close. The Presbyterian minister-turned children's television host seemed to be equal parts therapist, artist, pastor, and social worker. His goal on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was to help children manage their emotions in healthy ways. To do this, he listened to children and cared about what they cared about. He validated all their emotions and explained techniques to express those emotions outwardly without hurting others.

After we saw A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, my friend and I discussed the similarities in how Rogers lived his life and Buddhist practice. Fred Rogers prayed and meditated daily, he swam laps, he wrote letters to people. He wasn't naturally just a good person--he practiced at being kind. That's the key term: practice. Much like there is a difference between taking a yoga class and having a yoga practice, there is a difference between a random act of kindness and having a kindness practice.

But, ironically, Beautiful Day isn't actually about Fred Rogers--it's about Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys), a writer for Esquire magazine whose boss charges him with writing a piece on Fred Rogers for the "Heroes" issue. Vogel finds this absurd since he considers himself both a hard-hitting investigative journalist and also a cranky cynic. Turns out, he needs this assignment very much.

Estranged from his father, Jerry (Chris Cooper), and newly a father himself, Lloyd appears to be on the verge of some kind of breakdown. His anger, cynicism, and coldness have driven him for years--but now his father is trying to get back into his life, and his infant son needs a role model. The angry Lloyd is no longer acceptable. And when he starts talking to Fred Rogers, someone actually listens to him and validates his feelings.

Of course, Rogers is played by perhaps the kindest public figure currently alive, Tom Hanks. Although Hanks eventually blends in to the role of Rogers, you never for one moment forget you're watching Tom Hanks. But maybe it doesn't really matter. In fact, maybe it's fitting that such a beloved actor portrays such a beloved man--it almost feels symbolic and intentional, a double-dose of kindness in one character.

Beautiful Day walks a fine line between genuine and overly sincere, and it doesn't always fall on the right side of the line--but that doesn't take away from the moments of grace than inhabit the film. There's a scene where Rogers asks Lloyd to have a moment of silence with him before a meal, and the scene plays out in real time with Hanks looking into the camera directly for a few moments. The people sitting behind me laughed uncomfortably at this and I wish they hadn't, because as cheesy as it was, it was also effective.

The film, directed by Marielle Heller (a fantastically talented director), is a perfect companion piece to last year's Won't You Be My Neighbor? The latter, a documentary about Rogers' life, is the better film and I legit bawled during it. It's better, in my opinion, because it uses a lot of footage from the show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood which clearly demonstrates Rogers' way of talking with children about everything from disabilities to war. But Beautiful Day expands Fred Rogers' philosophy outward and shows how even the most cynical among us have the ability to soften, to forgive, and to allow ourselves to feel emotions that we so desperately want to avoid. That's another connection between Buddhism and Rogersism: not avoiding emotions like sadness and anger, but actually feeling them. It's terrifying, but it's necessary in order to not let your emotions control you.

I myself have been going through dark times since, hmm, I'd say mid-2016 (I wonder why??), and I fully empathize with Vogel's character (a stand-in for the real writer of the Esquire article, Tom Junod). Not in terms of the exact challenges Vogel faces, but in terms of his bottomless pit of anger. I understand what it is to be angry, because I am often very angry. I'm a bit of an odd duck because I'm also very optimistic, friendly, and emotionally intelligent...except when I'm not, of course. But I think my anger comes from a place of giving a shit--about other people, about myself, and about the world. And when you care, you become vulnerable. And anger feels better than despair.

So what I'm saying is that when I'm not seeking out catharsis in the form of movies like Hereditary and Midsommar, which match my internal scream, I seek out innocence, wholesomeness, and kindness. I seek out warm blankets and my mother's hand tickling my back. I avoid people who match my sarcasm and cynicism and try to find people who encourage my kind side. I seek out movies like this one, because I, like everyone else, need balance and sincerity. Too much sincerity and I roll my eyes, but too little and shrivel in the cold. So wait until a very cold day and go see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which will warm your soul right up.

Grade: B