Take This Waltz

Within the first ten minutes of this movie, I sighed to myself. Is Take This Waltz another Blue Valentine (sad but good) or Revolutionary Road (sad but bad)? Am I going to hate both of the people in the central relationship by the time this is over? The short answer is “sort of.” I hated the one who was cheating, and the one she was cheating with, but for some stupid reason, I still wanted them to get together. Gross. Michelle Williams’ character, Margot, is 100% unlikeable. She’s needy, childish, boring and selfish. She doesn’t seem to be particularly self-sufficient, either, always overly-doting on her husband, Lou (Seth Rogen), for the sole purpose of getting attention back from him. Somehow he’s whipped into the relationship, and doesn’t seem to be getting anything out of it. He comes out the hero of this movie, having done nothing wrong but ultimately (spoiler alert!) not having to deal with her crap anymore. And he’s got an interesting, albiet screwed up, family to fall back on. (I loved, LOVED Sarah Silverman as Geraldine, his alcoholic sister. Some of her best acting work, to the point that I wish there could have been a separate movie made focusing on her story. Oh, well.) Which brings me to that spoiler alert. Margot spends the whole movie pining after her neighbor, whom she meets happenstance, and emotionally cheats on Lou with him for a long time before getting physical. But her behavior demonstrates very graphically how emotional cheating is so much worse than physical. The way she behaves with Daniel (Luke Kirby) is so despicable, because right off the bat, you know it’s not innocent. You know that the “look but don’t touch” rule is not even applicable here, because they’re beyond the level of undressing each other with their eyes. You know that they’re going to end up together, and you want them to just hook up in order to put poor Lou out of his undeserved misery. This movie felt very much like a play, in that I think it might have benefitted from being performed on a stage. Though there were so many gorgeous shots — the way director Sarah Polley used light, for example, was incredible, because the movie was so brightly, yellowly collored, and yet so psychologically dark; the pool scene between Margot and Daniel was also very lush, and a very creative way of depicting chemistry between two characters — the dialogue was often simple and a little heavy-handed, which on film just makes actors look like they’re overdoing it. On stage, emoting is what it’s all about. Polley’s script had touches of Eugene O’Neill in it, which is definitely a compliment, but putting it in movie form simultaneously doused the story in melodrama. As I watched this movie, and became more and more disgusted with myself for wanting Margot and Daniel to get together, I kept trying to figure out why. What could possibly justify their relationship? Maybe nothing. Maybe that was Polley’s point: Some people are just bad eggs, who don’t necessarily go around ruining everyone’s lives — just a select few — and that’s it. Or maybe her point was that a lot of marriages are total shams, and that people stay together because they don’t know what else is out there, or they feel compelled to stay together, to fake it, because they want to outlast the other one, and they’re too comfortable to risk change. Margot’s restlessness was so palpable that I couldn’t resist feeling a little sorry for her, even though I didn’t like her at all. She’d reached a clear plateau in her life, at a relatively early age, and because she hadn’t yet experienced much (at 28), she wasn’t sure where to go. Enter handsome stranger, exit previous life. All of a sudden, through some external force, she figured out that she could change her entire image of herself. She could rediscover intimacy, she could find different things comfortable. She’d no longer have to eat chicken for every meal. (Lou was a chef and a chicken cookbook author, of course.) I didn’t love this movie, but I guess I appreciated where it was coming from. Couples are interesting subjects for movies, as evidenced by the other two I mentioned at the start of this post. If you get too granular with the details, you run the risk of the story being mundane or immensely sad. (In the case of Take This Waltz, it was more mundane. The pillow talk between Lou and Margot made me a little nauseous.) If you gloss over the details, you have a shitty, superficial romantic comedy. Somewhere inbetween is a good movie.

Interstellar

I’m going to try something new on this blog. I’ve read through a lot of my recent posts, and I noticed that I qualify almost every single one of them with some sort of “hear me out” clause, begging the reader, whoever you are, to withhold judgement either of me or the piece of work I’m talking about. I never used to do that when I was writing for the newspaper; though, to be fair, no one ever commented on my work there, so I never had to defend myself. When I wrote for TV.com, however, dodging bullets from the comments section was part of the job, so maybe that’s what caused me to put my defenses up. Here, on my own blog, I’ve never had an issue with anyone making idiotic comments. You all seem like very nice, generally quiet people. And this is my blog, filled with my opinions. I shouldn’t have to apologize for any of them.

It’s funny, I’ve been putting off writing about Interstellar precisely because I felt like the entire review was going to be me defending myself against people who found it inaccurate or overly saccharine or whatever. But most of the world has better things to do than to sit around reading a random chick’s random opinion of Interstellar. Now that I’ve attempted to get this new mindset into my head, and accepted the fact that I have a very small (but loyal, thanks very much!) group of readers, I feel much freer in expressing my relatively unimportant opinion.

Interstellar is not as good as Inception, but it sure is entertaining and mindfucky. And that’s the most I could want out of a Christopher Nolan movie. By those standards, it more than delivers. Nolan has been one of my favorite directors for some time now, and knowing that he thinks this deeply and profoundly all the time just makes me even more excited for what’s to come. I wonder how long it took him and his brother to hash out their thoughts on time travel and space travel, and then put it into a remotely comprehensible screenplay format. Probably lightyears.

A friend of mine pointed out the other day that Interstellar wouldn’t have happened for Matthew McConaughey were it not for Magic Mike, and I think she’s right. Magic Mike was the onset of the McConaughsance, and now we’re just coasting through the peak of it. Actually, maybe Interstellar indicates a slight denouement, only because I really think the trifecta of the aforementioned stripper movie, plus Dallas Buyers Club, plus True Detective, really is the apex of his career. And that’s a good thing! All of those works are remarkable achievements. Now it seems he’s entering into the dad-roles phase of his life, though he’s coupling this phase with an action phase. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here — he’s limited by his undeniable accent, whereas someone like Ben Affleck can get away with many different kinds of roles because he can play neutral, Boston, whatever. McConaughey, even with his range, is still Southern no matter what.

It took me about halfway through the movie to forget it was him. I think once I trusted him as a pilot, a scientist, a leader, and a father, I could let go of my image of him. Same goes for Anne Hathaway. Both have such recognizable faces, and while I applaud them for getting way outside their comfort zones, they just don’t seem like space types to me, at first anyway. Same went for Sandy in Gravity (which is also a better movie than this one). Blockbuster stars exist in this weird space where they can do whatever they want, but mostly the world just wants them to do the one thing they’re good at. I think it was the combination of Jessica Chastain coming in, as Murph, the older version of his daughter, and SPOILER ALERT Matt Damon making an appearance as an asshole astronaut stuck in indefinite hibernation on a faraway planet, that made me forget about the stars and focus on the actual stars. And the hugeness of it all.

This story has its holes, scientifically and structurally, but it also has real, genuine WOW moments that make you forget about those holes. Perhaps the most impactful was when Cooper (McConaughey) and Brand (Hathaway) poke around on Damon’s said remote planet, lose their 3rd crewmember in the process, and then return back to their ship to find that their 4th crew member (David Gyasi) has aged TWENTY-THREE YEARS. HOLY SHITBOX. He had been waiting for them for 23 years, because where they were, one hour was actually equal to seven Earth years. It puts the infinitely daunting task of space exploration into incredibly stark, impossible terms.

It was hard for me to follow basically everything related to Michael Caine in this movie. For one, he didn’t speak clearly. He mumbled a lot. The dialogue got lost because of the ambient noise in most of the scenes. I can appreciate an attempt to replicate space cacophony, but I cannot appreciate said replication when I can’t hear what else is going on. For another reason, his relationship to Cooper was never fully explained. It was obvious that Cooper revered the Professor (Caine), but how and when they worked together in the past remained a mystery. Furthermore, when Murph reveals that the Professor is a fuckup and a fraud, jeopardizing the importance of the space journey, it’s not completely clear why. Was he sacrificing everyone on Earth for the good of future generations? Was he saving only his daughter? Was he trying to build some sort of legacy? I love Michael Caine, but I don’t always buy him in these sorts of roles; I feel the same way about Morgan Freeman. There’s a certain undeniable goodness in both of them, especially at their current ages, which detracts from the characters they’re trying to play. Perhaps I would have picked up on the Prof’s maliciousness, or at the very least his ambiguity, had I not also gone into each scene thinking, That’s Michael Caine: Nolan’s Other Other Muse.

I really, really enjoyed Casey Affleck in this movie, and I imagine he won’t get much credit for his subtle role as the older version of Coop’s son, Tom. While Murph let her mind run wild, Tom kept close to the ground, close to his grandfather (John Lithgow), and maintained a steady head in a world that was clearly coming apart in front of him. He, along with Jessica Chastain, really pulled me into this story, and made me think about what kinds of sacrifices I’d make in that situation. Would I try to harness whatever intelligence I had to do research? Would I fight to maintain some sense of normalcy in my life? I don’t know. But I think the two of them struck a nice balance between wildly differing coping mechanisms for the end of the world. They were at extremes, but they didn’t overemphasize that. They just let their circumstances play out. Obviously, science and Murph wins.

Or was it Coop who won? I don’t want to give away the ending, not because it’s amazing, but because it’s interesting. It’s completely illogical, but it certainly adds fuel to the brain fire that this movie ignites. And even though the special effects were weird and maybe the 70mm viewing I saw screwed with this scene in particular, I still enjoyed being rendered speechless at the end.

Also: Definitely not going to space unless I have to.

It’s Always Something

Any lady who likes comedy likes Gilda, right? I mean, anyone who likes comedy likes Gilda, but especially any lady. Because she wasn’t a lady. She was FUNNY. She had the best hair and the most grace and the least-existent vanity.

I picked up her book pretty ignorantly, not realizing that it was mostly about her battle with cancer. And as I read it, there were times when I didn’t want to finish it. I didn’t want to know what would happen, because I know what ultimately happened. The world lost a genius, one of the many we’ve lost, and it’s a downright rotten feeling to read about it from her own perspective, knowing that you ultimately know more than she did.

But it’s also incredibly enlightening to read it from her perspective. It’s obvious that she gained a lightness about her situation as it was nearing the end; in fact, it’s incredible that she was able to pour that lightness into writing an entire book, but that only speaks to her ferocity. At times, it even felt like she was writing it from beyond the grave, like she had come to such an incredible peace about the whole thing that she was able to step outside of herself and watch it happen to someone else.

It happened to her, though. She fought cancer and surgery and chemo and radiation and dieting and everything for years, and it always seems to happen to the wrong people. Not that it ever happens to the right person, but in her case, it feels like she was stolen from us. I mean, this is a woman who, in the midst of it all, tried meditation: “I had hear about mantras and all that, but all I could think of was I would have to take my contact lenses out to do that because I can’t keep my eyes closed that long with them in; they start to hurt” (p. 83). I love that.

As she battled ovarian cancer, and learned more about the biology of it, it was clear that part of her comedy mind was being replaced by her science mind. Not that she was less funny, but she became more… normal. Really. She learned as much as possible about her case, and of course, reacted to it in a very emotional way, but ultimately harnessed that emotional depth to do as much good as possible. She made people laugh when it was right, and stayed serious when it was right, even though doctors and nurses “wait, expecting me to be funny” (p. 63). And she let herself be stronger, realizing “that you can choose whatever way you want to visualize the battle going on inside your body” (p. 127).

It was tough to read the first-person narrative of one of my heroes’ demise, but ultimately, I feel closer to her. I’m not even sure I can say that, but I do. I feel like I know an infinitely small fraction of her experience, and that knowledge is a powerful thing. She demonstrates just how productive and alive you can be, even when you’re dying, and how much you can learn about yourself in the process. I just wish we all could have seen and heard more from her.

Here are two more favorites. What a delightful woman.

p. 59 // “… always inside me was an introspective poet who never was patient enough to write and wait for a response.”

p. 199 // “People whimpering and hovering over me made me feel like I was dying. People yelling at me made me feel alive.”

gilda

In Bruges

This movie is like Sideways or The Trip, except about going on the lam. And there is a little person and a lot of blood.

So it’s not like either of those movies at all, actually, but I do love making a stretch of a comparison. Actually, though, the not-so-gentle bromances in all of them are very similar. There’s always a struggle for respect, a lady’s affection to win or be distracted by, and a secret to keep. It’s just a matter of balancing those things accordingly. In the case of In Bruges, the last in that list is the heaviest weighted.

These two bros, Ken (Brendan Gleeson) and Ray (Colin Farrell), have done something truly awful, so their boss, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), sends them to Bruges to hide out. I find it particularly interesting that all three of the actors cast in this movie’s major roles have maybe the most innocent faces in Hollywood, and yet their faces morph, somehow, into the faces of guilt-ridden blokes who are also capable of murder. Farrell’s face, in particular, really stretches and emotes in this movie. His eyebrows show so much; you want to hate him because he committed the worst crime of all (no spoilers), but you see what his own mind has done to him, you see what his mouth spouts, and you understand his pain, and you feel terrible for him. His eyebrows soak up all the sympathy you give. Gleeson has a jolly look about him, but he is empty of it, tamping down his emotions save for a few scenes. He’s the strongest of the three characters, the most adaptable to icky situations. He’s the only of the three hitmen you’d want on your side. And Ralph… well, I love him, but ever since The Grand Budapest Hotel, I think I just prefer him as a comedic lead. His face is too soft. But he does have a certain unidentifiable European authority that aids him as Harry.

To say that Bruges is the fourth character in this guys’ night out would be disgusting and hilarious, so I’m keeping it in. It’s not so much the fourth character as a backdrop that Ray uses as a punching bag and Ken breathes in deeply and Harry could care less about. Despite the bloodshed – and there is quite a bit – the city escapes beautiful. It’s an advertisement for the city, somehow. “Come here, and we’ll show you a good time. You’ll be fine. Stay away from Irish men, though.”

The way the actors speak takes on a certain rhythm, but it’s one that’s accented by silence, too. This script is tight, and it leaves a lot to those facial expressions and even an occasional visual joke or cue. Yet it doesn’t suffer from trying to be overly artsy. I expected to laugh out loud more, but maybe I held back because of how many “dark” comedies I’ve seen. My jadedness doesn’t take away from the film’s originality, though. I’m just an arse.

What a delightful film containing delightful performances. And what an odd, twisted, poetic story. Bravo, Martin McDonagh.

The Color Purple (the book)

I had never read it, but now I’ve read it, and I feel different.

It’s pointless to write about a book that has a history and a long list of accolades and a reputation that precedes it. I can’t tell you anything that you don’t already know about it. But I can tell you how my experience with it was.

I feel like I’m in on a secret that everyone actually already knows, but is really good at keeping. I feel like I know way more about heartbreak and pain, even though I’ve never experienced anything close to what Celie and Nettie experienced. I never thought that a fiction book could feel more firsthand than an autobiography, but this one does, and that’s one of the many reasons why it won the Pulitzer. It’s a work of art, in the way that 12 Years A Slave or Schindler’s List is. Out of tragedy comes beauty, somehow.

I wouldn’t trade places with any of the characters in this book, but there are times when I wish I could truly fathom what they went through, or what any tragic hero goes through. The lives of real and fictional heroes are poetic, haunting, phenomenal. They define extraordinary. The story of someone ordinary like Celie living life with her mental burdens – illegitimate children, fucked up marriage, closeted homosexuality, faraway family – is so powerful because of the way she talks about it. This wretched existence is normal to her, so her prayers to God, as letters in the book, feel so grounded and balanced. She never takes herself too seriously, which is maybe her greatest fault and one reason for her general hesitance. Instead of living the truth, she spends much of her life living a lie and desperately clinging to the truth in private. Maybe that’s the definition of suffering.

These passages hit me particularly hard, because of their eloquence and simplicity. Of course, the whole book is a study in those two adjectives, but these stood out.

p. 175 // “She talk and she talk, trying to budge me way from blasphemy. But I blaspheme much as I want to.”

p. 178 // “It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found it.”

p. 238 // “Here us is, I thought, two old fools left over from love, keeping each other company under the stars.”

Better get on seeing that movie.

Someday, Someday, Maybe

I’ve been a devotee of Lauren Graham’s ever since she uttered the words, “I ate the fuzzy Certs. They tasted like keys.” And I realize that it wasn’t her who wrote them, but (probably) Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of Gilmore Girls. And I realize that it wasn’t her who said those words, but her character, Lorelai Gilmore. Those technicalities don’t matter, though, because only Lauren Graham could have played that other LG, and only she could have delivered those words the way she did. There was something inexplicably cool and trustworthy about her. I didn’t necessarily want her to be my mom, though I’m sure plenty of viewers did, but I desperately wanted to live in a world where she was a real person. Though the two LG’s are separate people, the real one definitely shares the best characteristics with her fictional counterpart. The beauty, the brains, the wit. In case you can’t tell, I really admire Lauren Graham.

So it should come as no surprise that I read her debut novel, Someday, Someday, Maybe and I loved it. Granted, it was an easy read, written for young adults — and I almost wish that the language and complexity had been heightened for regular old adults, because I know Graham is capable of it — but for a debut piece of published prose, wow. I don’t know how much of the story is based on her real life, and I don’t even think it matters, but it’s clear that it comes from a very personal, specific place. Graham’s main character, Franny, is a mid-twenties struggling actor in New York. As a young adult, I could see this story being inspirational. As an actual adult in the age range of the main character, it hits on something else altogether. It’s like a chronicle of what I feel, and what I imagine I might feel in the future. I don’t want to be an actress, but I have related goals and self-doubts, and it’s scary and comforting to know that someone successful did, too. Franny has a way of being self-deprecating that’s so relatable without being pathetic or whiny. She’s inconsistent, like a real person. She has a fascinating backstory that’s accounted for, but doesn’t explain absolutely everything about her. She tows the line between true art and monetary success regularly, and struggles with the decisions she makes. She’s interested in certain guys for believable reasons, and the choice in her prescribed love triangle is not obvious. She’s truly multidimensional.

I related especially closely to Franny’s general social graces but specific attention to certain social cues. There is a scene in which she and her actor love interest, James, act out a romantic scene together, but she hadn’t prepared or read the scene all the way through, so she thought James was coming on to her, when really he was just saying lines from the scene. It’s brilliant. And even though it’s something I can’t literally relate to, because I’m not an actor, I felt like I could literally relate to the misreading of the situation. The getting-in-too-deep and needing to save yourself. The extreme self consciousness and thrill of trying to play catchup for the fear that the other person wouldn’t notice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that described in a book before, but when Graham wrote it out, it felt like she had been inside my head before she did it.

Her language is concise and straightforward and hilarious, and she doesn’t spend a lot of time being imprecise or wishy-washy. That’s another thing I’ve always liked about her, when I’ve seen her in interviews, and it comes through in her writing. When daydreaming about the aforementioned James, she says, “Maybe he grew up on a farm in Texas, or Georgia. Maybe he had chores in the barn every day, and helped his father harvest corn” (p. 46). And when she actually pursues him, she is surprised by her own success: “I have been forthright and bold, like a woman with actual confidence would be, and in return for my bravery I have received a direct and pleasing answer” (p. 181). Her inner thoughts are nerdy, but they come out glibly, and so it’s impossible not to like her.

She also makes acting, something so foreign to most people, very easy to understand, at least from an aspirational standpoint. Regarding The Phantom of the Opera, she describes the frustration of the people in the show in a way that most viewers never would have thought about: “I imagine being in the cast of that show and having to listen to people talk about the chandelier as their favorite part” (p. 77). She also describes being a perceived minority in a sea of majority egoists: “I wonder what that’s like, to never worry about filling the silence” (p. 78). Another favorite, along the same lines: “I’m too concerned with feeling good to be willing to feel as bad as I should to be successful” (p. 150).

The book ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, perhaps to indicate that there’s more to come, but it’s also a pretty satisfying way to leave Franny, too. In the end, she’s comfortable with ambiguity because she knows she can handle it. And ambiguity, as Graham proves with this excellent book, turns out to be pretty lucrative if you know how to work it.

This Is Where I Leave You

The cast of this movie is kind of unreal. Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Timothy Olyphant, Rose Byrne, Connie Britton, Ben Schwartz… I dearly love the work that these actors have done, and I generally follow them into whatever movie or television worlds they choose to inhabit. Seeing This Is Where I Leave You was a no-brainer for me.

My reaction to it, however, is more complicated. I liked the parts, but not the sum of them. The whole of this layered family story felt incomplete, rushed, unsatisfying. It’s a bummer to write that down, too.

I wanted to love this movie. I wanted to believe that some of my favorite actors were Jew-ish (emphasis on the ish) siblings sitting shiva for their father’s death. But I just couldn’t do it. Corey Stoll, cast as eldest brother Paul Altman, was maybe the most believable in his role. He had tense authority, major jealousy issues, and pent-up regrets abound. He also really looked like the older sibling. Bateman, though, as middle brother Judd, didn’t sell me on his my-wife-left-me story. The parts of the movie where Bateman was serious and unhappy, I bought. But the second he turned on the Bateman smile and the Bateman timing, Judd disappeared and I had to reconcile this two-sided man with an unfortunate personal life and Jason Bateman’s superb comedic talent. Judd didn’t seem like a whole person. And neither did Tina Fey’s Wendy. Fey’s humor is so well-established at this point that even though her serious scenes were powerful, I couldn’t put together her meddling-sister remarks with her witty feistiness. Wendy was two people in one body. So was Adam Driver’s Phillip, the youngest, fuck-up-iest sibling. He rolled up to his father’s funeral in a Porsche, oozing confidence. But the second he was meant to crack jokes, he turned into Adam Driver, guy who plays Adam on Girls, bumbling and pausing and losing his cockiness. Of course, maybe the two-sidedness of these characters was meant to show how people have many facets, or that being around your siblings takes you to a different mental place, but the contrasts were too stark. It seemed as if the director just said, during lighthearted scenes, “Do your thing.” Everyone’s got gold in their comedy coffers, but this wasn’t the right movie to cash in.

The same argument can also be made for Ben Schwartz’s Rabbi Grodner, whom the Altman family took to poking fun at throughout the movie. He was basically only comic relief, and was superb at it, but he was Ben Schwartz in a yarmulke. It didn’t seem like a role so much as a cameo. No rabbi could be that cool, except Ben Schwartz himself. Connie Britton as Tracy, Phillip’s older, loaded, gorgeous girlfriend was supposed to be a stretch, story-wise, but it was too much of one. Timothy Olyphant as Wendy’s ex-boyfriend still living across the street from their childhood home: dreamy and too convenient.

Considering the amount of heightened family drama that happens over the seven days, and the amount of messiness that that would entail, this movie came out very tidy. Every plot point had a specific, almost predictable purpose, every loose end was tied up, every romantic action had an equal and opposite reaction. Judd’s “Have you ever been to Maine?” non-sequitur in the middle of the movie basically telegraphed his arc for the rest of it. Wendy’s longing looks at Olyphant’s Horry showed us exactly where her marriage was headed. The fact that Judd had dated Paul’s wife (the forever-sidekicked Kathryn Hahn) when they were younger led to a scene I’m sure you could write in your head right now. Though I like that none of the characters tried desperately to get anyone to like them, I wish I had had something to latch onto besides my loyalty to the actors.

The only character, and actor for that matter, who truly surprised me in this movie was Jane Fonda. Her story felt familiar — she was like Margaret Chenowith on Six Feet Under, trading the privacy of her childrens’ childhood for a lucrative book deal — but she was so much less threatening than Margaret, so much more oversexed and lax about everything, that she ended up earning my sympathy more than anyone else. And her scenes with each of her children contained the right amount of sincerity and humor, something that cannot necessarily be said for the rest of the film.

I didn’t leave this movie completely unsatisfied; I saw a bevy of my favorite actors trying something new and making one family’s sad week into a communal, amusing, relatable experience. But I expected so much more.

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