Sunday, November 29, 2015

A Girl Grows in Brooklyn

Movies: Brooklyn

It's rare for a film to be both sweet and earnest without being saccharine and pandering these days, but Brooklyn manages to do it--and beautifully so. Directed by John Crowley, adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby, and based on the novel by Colm Toibin, Brooklyn is the story of Eilis (pronounced "ay-lish") Lacey, a young Irish girl who travels to Brooklyn in 1952 to make a better life for herself than she could have in her country of birth. Sponsored by a kindly priest (Jim Broadbent), Eilis (played by the lovely Saoirse Ronan) has a room in a boardinghouse and a job as a shopgirl in a fancy department store. She is also enrolled in an evening bookkeeping class and has dreams of becoming an accountant.

But Eilis misses her mother and sister back home and feels awkward and out of place in America. That is, until she meets Tony (Emory Cohen), an Italian boy from a warm, blue collar family. Eilis and Tony fall hard and fast for each other, but then a tragedy calls Eilis back to Ireland, where her friends and family strongly encourage her to stay. She even has a handsome, wealthy suitor--Jim Farrell (Domnhall Gleeson). What's a girl to do?

But the love triangle at the heart of Brooklyn is only part of the story. Eilis' choice isn't so much between Jim and Tony, but between a comfortable, familiar life laid out before her in Ireland and an exciting, unsure life of independence in Brooklyn. It truly is a coming of age story where a young woman who is just beginning to get a sense of her own power and purpose in life has to make a life-altering decision.

There are a few things in particular that I love about Brooklyn:

1) It's woman-centered

Brooklyn is about a woman's journey in both love and life. In addition to Eilis' suitors, we see her interactions with her mother, sister, best friend, fellow boarders at the boarding house, and her boss at the department store (a delightful cameo by Jessica Pare--aka Megan Draper from Mad Men). Eilis may have to choose between two men, but women are just as, if not more important to her story. They offer her advice, friendship, and love--but also guilt and shame. She has complicated relationships with all of them, especially her mother. Brooklyn not only passes the Bechdel test, it transcends it.

Another thing I have to add: In Brooklyn, whatever choice Eilis' makes will ultimately hurt and disappoint someone. She is given the freedom to cause sadness in others in order to seek her own life, and is not punished for it. Let me repeat: a woman is not punished for choosing her choices, even if those choices may disappoint others. This is a big fucking deal, since most female characters exist for the sole purpose of soothing life's boo-boos and miseries in others.

2) The love story and life story are given equal weight

So many films are about a woman's path towards a man and the wedding altar. Although the love stor(ies) are not watered down one bit (see below), Eilis' "life story"--i.e. her job, education, family life, friendships, and general sense of adventure in a new country--are given equal weight in their role in her decision between the old (Ireland) and the new (Brooklyn). Eilis longs for love, as most people do, but she has a life beyond men which is explored in depth in Brooklyn.

3) The men are her equals--in different ways

Eilis' choice between Tony and Jim is not easy. Both men have a lot to offer her, as well drawbacks. Tony is warm, passionate, and--most importantly--is there for Eilis at a time when she feels lonely and homesick. He is "home" personified. But then there's Jim. Played by the incredibly handsome Domnhall Gleeson, Jim is exceptionally good-looking, educated (whereas Tony is barely literate), from a rich family (Tony's family is solidly blue collar), and in many ways is Eilis' equal. He also--most importantly--lives in Ireland, alongside Eilis' friends and family. Jim is "home" personified.

So with two men who represent "home", Eilis does not have an easy choice. She must choose which home she herself wants.

With its remarkable cast, beautiful cinematography and costumes, and open-hearted view of the life, Brooklyn is worth immersing yourself in. It's a love story without the cliche, a coming of age story without the melodrama, and a period piece that feels lived in. I can't say enough great things about this movie.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Silver Tongued

Movies: Do I Sound Gay?

Do I Sound Gay? is a documentary by journalist David Thorpe that explores the so-called "gay voice" or "gay accent". It's not the most substantial of documentaries, but it raises some interesting questions.

Thorpe interviews a number of celebrities about gay voices, including Dan Savage, David Sedaris, Margaret Cho, and Tim Gunn. Listening to their perspectives is far more interesting than listening to Thorpe talk to his own friends about his own insecurities surrounding his voice (his friends are basically like, "who cares?"). 

Sedaris, in particular, has a couple moments of honesty and vulnerability that are touching--such as his embarrassment when people call him "ma'am" on the phone or his shame-ridden delight when someone meets him and says "I didn't know you were gay." His comments get to the the heart of the matter: 1) the "gay accent" sounds effeminate to most people's ears and 2) a number of gay men are embarrassed by it for a variety of reasons, not least of which is, as Dan Savage bluntly explains, good old fashioned misogyny. Gay guys don't want to sound like women because being "like a woman" is humiliating for a man, no matter his sexual orientation.

Thorpe also visits a speech therapist who points out his habit of up-talking, which is the thing where it always sounds like you're asking a question even when you're making a statement. She also makes him aware of his tendency to hang on to his vowels. These are all speech patterns women tend to exhibit more than men. So, again, we have the female/gay male connection.

A theory that Thorpe points to is that people tend to pattern their speech on those they spend the most time with while growing up. So for some gay men, and many women, that's female relatives and friends. Thorpe gives the example of one of his gay friends who grew up with four brothers and thus sounds "the straightest of all of us".

I'm not a gay man, so I can't speak to that experience. But as a woman, I do know that women are given mixed messages about their speech. For example, we are taught not to sound too assertive, lest we alienate people and come off as bitchy. This is one reason why women up-talk, say "I'm sorry" a lot, or act self-deprecatingly. But then, we're also told that our speech patterns hold us back--by up-talking, apologizing, and having "vocal fry" (I'm probably most guilty of that last one), we come off as weak and ineffective. As with many aspects of womanhood, you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

This leads to a lot of interesting, and potentially upsetting questions. Why are gay men seen as "effeminate"? Is that something our culture thrusts upon them? Are gay men more "privileged" than women...or are they less privileged? And does amount of privilege really matter when both groups still struggle for dignity and equality? Growing up, I realized that straight men seemed to reserve a special anger/hatred/violence for "flaming" gay guys. Is this because those straight men hate women...or just hate other men who don't act masculine?

The answers to these questions aren't simple. Gender and sexuality don't fit neatly into boxes--there really is no concrete definition of what it means to be "masculine", "feminine", "gay", or "straight"...and I think most of us logically know this despite our efforts to categorize people for reasons both harmless (hey, I want to know if that cute guy is gay or straight before I ask him out!) or harmful.

Thorpe's documentary merely scratches the surface of this topic. It raises more questions than it answers, and it barely touches on other markers of gayness, like body language and clothing. It also briefly brings pop culture into the mix, using clips from old movies to show how gay characters have been portrayed as harmless, effeminate sidekicks and/or dangerous killers (children's movies are no exception--think Scar from The Lion King). But not until very recently have they been portrayed as normal human beings and/or heroes.

I'd love to see more work from Thorpe. Do I Sound Gay? is an more of an appetizer than a full meal.

Grade: B-

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Black and White and Red All Over

Movies: Crimson Peak

Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak isn't so much "good" as it is entertaining. The film has an enormous gothic sensibility, with a crumbling old mansion at its center; and like many gothic novels and films, the melodrama is rampant and, at times, hilarious.

Mia Wasikowska plays Edith Cushing, an aspiring writer who falls for delicate, pale Baronet Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). Thomas and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) are titled but poor, forced to travel the world all but begging for funds to help get Thomas' invention--a machine that pulls red clay from the ground so that it can be made into bricks--afloat. Despite the Sharpe's destitution and her father's distrust of the siblings, Edith falls for Thomas and the two get married and travel to England to Allerdale Hall, the Sharpe's family mansion which is in complete ruin. It's also filled with unsavory spirits.

To say that Crimson Peak is over the top is putting it lightly. The film has more plot holes than a moth-eaten negligee and enough half-baked metaphors to fill a 7th grade English class. Allerdale Hall is built on a red clay mine. Since the house is so old, it's slowly sinking into the ground, which means that the clay oozes through the floorboards looking, of course, like thick, red blood. Edith is a sensitive woman who has seen ghosts her whole life--so naturally she can't get a decent night's sleep in a place like Allerdale Hall--a veritable boarding house for ghosts (interestingly, the ghosts are all portrayed as having Nosferatu-like fingers and big, ol' titties [they're all lady ghosts, you see]). But despite seeing ghosts literally every second, Edith never thinks to actually leave Allerdale Hall--nor does she seem all that frightened to begin with.

The secrets of the house--and of the Sharpe siblings--is revealed slowly over the course of the film. When the big "twist" is revealed, it's not all that shocking. More of a confirmation of what the viewer was already expecting.

But despite the ridiculousness of the whole premise, Crimson Peak is good, mildly spooky fun (it's a good scary movie for people who can barely tolerate scary movies). And it is absolutely gorgeous. The fact that red, blood-like clay leaks through every crevice of the mansion is certainly a ham-fisted metaphor for violence and decay, but damn if it doesn't look beautiful and haunting on the big screen. And the ridiculous, high-necked gowns that Chastain and Wasikowska wear should have their own museum exhibit.

So: mediocre film, good fun, and Tom Hiddleston's ass. It's not the worst night you could have at the movies.

Grade: B-

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A Brilliant Asshole

Movies: Steve Jobs

Some of the promotional materials for Steve Jobs ask "Can a great man be good?" Indeed, this is the question at the center of the beautifully filmed, theatrically paced movie.

I don't know a lot about Steve Jobs. I know he wore black turtlenecks and died of cancer--cancer that was initially curable, though he refused traditional Western treatments for it. So really, Jobs was killed by his own hubris, which, in Greek tragedy style, is incredibly appropriate given that he was brimming with self-importance.

Jobs was an asshole. A brilliant asshole. Which is a label we give, almost reverently, to Great Men (Great Women are dismissed as "bitches", but that seems to be changing).

This biopic was written by exactly the correct person to write it: Aaron Sorkin, master of the "walk and talk", a man with a love for Great Men (and the Women Who Stand Beside Them, But Not Too Close as to Gain Their Own Glory). Sorkin writes condescending assholes really well, and his script for Steve Jobs is excellent--witty, fast-paced, informative but not expository.

However, the movie transcends Sorkin-dom because director Danny Boyle at is also at the helm. Boyle's films are edgy and gorgeous. Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, 127 Hours: they're nervy, edgy, and cool. Boyle takes Sorkin's intellectual script and shakes it up with scenes filmed at skewed angles, or softens it with scenes of a young girl wandering among Christmas lights in the bowels of the symphony hall where Jobs launched one of his greatest failures: the NeXT computer. Together, Boyle and Sorkin create a film that is arty and intellectual, dreamy and down-to-earth, soft and hard.

That young girl is Lisa Brennan. Lisa was Jobs' daughter, though he denied paternity for years (although he bought Lisa and her mother, Chrisann, a house and paid child support). The beating heart of Steve Jobs is Jobs' relationship with Lisa. The film suggests that once Jobs realized Lisa was a very intelligent girl, he started accepting that maybe, in fact, she was his.

Jobs is played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender doesn't really look like Jobs at all. He's too square-jawed, handsome, and masculine. But he nails Jobs' nasally, soft-spoken tone of voice. Fassbender, who is also known as a brilliant asshole (albeit in the world of acting, not computers), is surprisingly appropriate to take on the role of a man who is very soft-spoken and perhaps even a bit wimpy-looking, but is aggressive and off-putting to even his close confidants. One of those confidants is Joanna Hoffman (played just fucking wonderfully and perfectly by Kate Winslet), his marketing executive and the only person who is able to hold her own around him.

The film is divided into three 40 minute acts: in 1984 at the launch of the Apple Macintosh, in 1988 at the launch of the NeXT computer, and in 1998 at the launch of the iMac. The action during these acts is almost all "behind the scenes". Jobs interacts with the same people each time: Hoffman, Lisa and her mother, John Sculley (played by Jeff Daniels)--who was the Apple CEO from 1983 to 1993 and played a major role in ousting Jobs from his own company--and Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen). In each of these acts we see the various power struggles Jobs had with those closest to him and we also learn a bit about the history of Apple.

Steve Jobs doesn't set out to give all the entire arc of Jobs' life and achievements, but rather a glimpse into a few key moments in his career. Biopics that try to show ALL of someone's life often fail since they can only scratch the surface of each life event. By focusing on literally three days in Jobs' life and his interactions with just a handful of people, we learn more about the man than we would if the film tried to cram his entire life into 2 hours.

Unless you are 1) a Steve Jobs fanatic and/or 2) a film buff who wants to see the film for its dream-team collaborators, Steve Jobs probably won't interest you all that much. But, for what it is, Steve Jobs is a great film and fitting tribute to a complex and difficult man.

Grade: B+

PS: for whatever it's worth, I'm typing out this review on a MacBook Air...and I fucking love my MacBook Air.