Sisters

I suppose I knew Sisters would be disappointing from the previews, but I couldn’t not see it. The movie contains Tina and Amy and is written by Paula. I have a moral, genetic and gender obligation to support it.

Fey, Poehler and Pell are all incredible in their own rights, but the sum of their lady parts didn’t quite add up to “hilarious” here. While I do commend the opposite casting — Amy got to play the buttoned-up one this time and Tina got to be the hot mess — it didn’t seem like either of them really got into their characters enough for the whole situation to believable.

Instead, they committed at the beginning and let the zany antics cover them towards the end. Of course, the sisterly relationship and love between them was entirely, touchingly real, but the overall tone felt inconsistent. Maybe even a little lazy. It reeked of gimmick — hey, check out these two older ladies showing off their boobs and saying cuss words! Quite simply, they deserve better.

I get it, though. This movie must have been a blast to make. The two of them got to improvise together and destroy a house — Maura and Kate’s childhood home, which their parents were selling — and be powerful comedians. They certainly made me laugh, especially in how they handled the aforementioned switcheroo. I was pleased to see Tina trainwreck it as Kate, convincingly so, as a hairdresser single mom with many a notch on her bedpost and many a liquor in her cabinet. Amy rocked her pearls, capris and espadrilles well, too. The restraint she showed is indicative of her range — despite the fact that a character like Leslie Knope is also a go-getter like Maura, Knope wore on her sleeve what Maura kept tucked in like her shirts. Maura keeps her shit together precisely because Kate does not, and that dynamic would have been more interesting to explore — honestly, I could have sacrificed a few minutes of dressing-room montage for a chance to get to know both sisters better, and to explore the nostalgia that was strewn about the story. Ah, well.

The small pranks and moments scattered throughout — like the pop-ins from Kate and Maura’s high school friend Alex (Bobby Moynihan, ever the scene-stealer); the URST between Maura and James (Ike Barinholtz, whose chemistry with Poehler was dreamy); and Rachel Dratch, digging deeper into Debbie Downer territory as Kelly, another fmr. HS’er — were actually its strength. The subtlety, see, is where performers like Fey and Poehler really excel. They’re capable of going big, yes, but I think big resonates only when it’s with strong material, like so:

When they went big in Sisters, they wound up trying too hard. (Read: Falling through the ceiling, climbing on walls, other misplaced physical bits.) Perhaps they were trying to reel in a few other demographics, and figured these sorts of pranks would do the trick. (I hope the movie-going public gets sick of slapstick soon, because it’s bringing down our darlings.)

I’m just warning you is all. You’ll laugh a little, but mostly you’ll just think, “If only…”

Putney Swope

This movie had been on my iPhone “Notes” list — you know, the list for stuff that’s not on the streaming services you subscribe to — for a helluva long time, and when I finally rented it from the library and started watching, I was dumbfounded. Who told me about this fucking great, weird little flick? How did they know I’d like it so much? Where did this come from?

And then, after a bit of internetting, it hit me. I’m a regular listener of WTF with Marc Maron, and both Louis C.K. and Paul Thomas Anderson, in their episodes, lauded the shit out of this movie. I must’ve figured that, if two of my favorite people in Hollywood liked it, I sure would, too. I love when maths work out.

Honestly, this movie is a little tough to describe. It’s better seen. But I’ll give it a brief try. It’s satire, cutting into Madison Avenue like Mad Men, but not like Mad Men at all. Arnold Johnson plays the titular Swope, an ad firm’s one black executive, accidentally elected to take over the company after the chairman dies. He turns the place jive, as jive as it can be, and eliminates all harmful clients (like those that want to shill alcohol, tobacco, and the like). And then the government gets a whiff of them, and things get wild.

The man behind this whole thing, Robert Downey, Sr., actually plays the voice of Swope, while Johnson plays the body. It’s odd. But he clearly had a deeper vision for his movies, which I only learned about after watching this thing. How fascinating, and kind of sensible, that one of today’s biggest movie stars has countercultural lineage. Sr. was a huge part of the Absurdist movement in the 60s and 70s, bent on critiquing the establishment one movie at a time.

I found a YouTube compilation of some of Swope’s one-liners, but these aren’t even my favorites …

.. these are:

“Mr. Swope, did you sleep with your wife before you were married?”
“Not a wink.”

“Who told you top open your mouth?”
“No one, it just happened.”

Just… see it. See it to break the monotony of movies-pandering-for-Oscars. (I’ll get to that in a future post.) See it to remember how great black and white movies are. See it to laugh a lot.

The Hateful Eight

I’ve decided that it’s very hard to like a movie when you despise the director. I’ve also decided that this is the QT movie that made me despise QT.

I generally really like his movies. Pulp Fiction is an undeniable masterpiece. Reservoir Dogs is a force to be reckoned with. Django Unchained made me laugh with its exaggerated absurdity. But this, this Hateful 8 business, this is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I have no other idiom for it; I just chose that one because it’s obvious and because camels are cute.

Everything you’ve read about the n-word usage is true — it’s rampant in this movie. So much so that, if it was ever questioned before, it’s abundantly clear here: QT has a fetish for using it. He gets off on it. He enjoys the sound of it, the effect it has standing alone or in machine-gun pattern, the power it gives and takes away. Of course, he thinks he has all the power by using it, and that he’s entitled to use it for whatever reason, and I’m not sure why society has bestowed upon him that power. He abuses it like no one ever has, and I’m not even sure what the point of it is anymore. The word has lost its shock value, at least in the context of his movies. The only possible justification I can come up with for dragging out this fetish the way he does is that maybe oversaturation is his point. By dousing his movie with the word, it loses its power and we don’t have to deal with it anymore as it phases itself out of the cultural lexicon.

Too bad we still will, because his next movie will be sprinkled with it like all the rest, and because that’s not how prejudice disappears. At best, he tried to impact change in an arrogant way. At worst, he thinks he’s the shit — and it’s probably the latter. It reads as a desperate cry for attention, when in fact we’re completely over the taboo — or in need for another, more complex delivery system of whatever message he was trying to send.

QT has another fetish that we all know about, and that’s violence. When he’s not having other characters call Major Marquis Warren (SLJ) the n-word, he’s having Warren and the other characters blow each other to pieces. I suppose this display is intended as dark comedy, and I certainly took it as such in the wonderful movies I mentioned earlier. But this time around, I absolutely couldn’t bear it. Daisy Domergue’s (Jennifer Jason Leigh) face was covered in blood for the entire movie for no discernable reason. When John Ruth (Kurt Russell) gets sick, the blood-vomit spurts out of his mouth like water out of a just-unblocked spigot, also for no discernable reason. When images like this are glorified in the eyes of entertainers and viewers alike, it’s no wonder that our country has deeply disturbing problems with mass shootings and gun control. Not everyone will “appreciate” the “irony” of the “humor” here — a few will take it at face value and use it as inspiration. If QT were part of some larger satire or parody or awareness or movement, or were writing a more pointed alt-history like he did in Django or Inglorious Basterds, I might be able to understand or even justify his choices in Hateful 8. But I can’t, because I don’t see any purpose behind it, just like I can’t get behind his language choices. At the end of the day, this is a self-indulgent movie about a bunch of assholes stuck in a room together for a few days.

There was one scene in particular that really pissed me off, but let me first say that I didn’t entirely hate the movie. I rather liked parts of it. The first half was quite lovely, actually — the shots were a lot more forlorn- and lonely-feeling than in previous QT movies. The dialogue was sparse but still clever. By doing the incredibly pretentious thing of starting the score 10 minutes before the movie — and deservedly so, because Ennio Morricone wrote it — QT forced his audience to focus and listen and get into the Western-watching mood. (I hate to give him credit for something, but I have to there.) He did another pretentious thing by providing us with an intermission, and credit is also due, because it was a three-hour movie. He knows that everyone has to pee, and I genuinely appreciate that. The acting was also superb and a joy to watch — a nice, albeit extremely male, selection of QT alumni (SLJ, Russell, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth) and relative newcomers (Leigh, Walton Goggins, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum, Demian Bichir) who seemed to enjoy each other’s company, despite their one job being to despise each other’s company.

I particularly enjoyed the performances of Russell, Roth, Goggins and Bichir. Russell got to play this swarthy, controlling asshole bounty hunter, and I loved him for it. Roth put on a completely different British accent for his role as Oswaldo Mobray, and it made me appreciate his talents all the more. Goggins, amid a slough of talent, really brought energy to the film as Sheriff Chris Mannix, which could have gone stale with its one-room setting. And Bichir — well, he was my favorite. His character, Bob, wore a giant fur coat and delivered all the best one-liners and remained very mysterious until the bitter end. As far as I’m concerned, he stole the show by being subtle and indifferent in a room full of bloodthirsty lunatics.

Which brings me to my least favorite scene. It involves SLJ, QT’s ever-present, monotonous muse, who actually got a semi-meaty role to play this time around. (I swear he plays the same character, extremely well, in every movie. Let’s get him and Blythe Danner in a Nancy Myers flick and just see what happens.) Up until this scene, despite the language (the violence was mostly at the end), the movie played like Basterds and Django — a period piece with a distinct QT spin. Until! Warren went off on this frat-boy fueled, painfully anachronistic threat-rant to Smithers (Dern) about Smithers’ son sucking Warren’s big black cock. In addition to this being the catalyst for the obscene violence to start, it was also the precise moment that made me despise QT. It played into the immature hands of a subsection of QT’s audience — guys looking for a reason to keep laughing at homophobic dick jokes — and it took me completely out of whatever tenuously-established era I thought the movie was in. Once the violence switched on, and the ketchup packets started spewing, it was settled. I’d probably given QT the benefit of the doubt for too long, and it was time to stop. I thought he was better than that, but he’s not.

Changing My Mind

I think I love Zadie Smith, even if I don’t completely understand her.

A friend of mine lent me Changing My Mind, perhaps sensing I’d appreciate it, and she was correct. Knowing Smith is out there — and wishing I’d known sooner — is an extremely comforting thought. She goes about the world with the eyes and mind that, ideally, I covet. I have to settle with what I’ve got, but I can attempt to glean inspiration from what she’s got in the meantime. “Other people’s words are so important. And then without warning they stop being important, along with all those words of yours that their words prompted you to write” (p. 102). See, she gets me. Right?

This book is a collection of “occasional essays,” as she puts it. It’s stuff she already wrote and re-assembled under the admittedly transparent oh-shit-book-deal theme laid out in the title. And yet it’s a perfect theme, because it owns up to the fact that humans aren’t actually consistent about their opinions (shout out to R.W. Emerson), and observing one’s work grow and change over time is a great way of demonstrating that fact. People need to uphold this fact — nay, tenet — and shout it from the rooftops occasionally. Props to Smith for doing just that — the title is a literary neon sign.

So, the lack of understanding I mentioned before. Since this is variety of essays on very disparate topics, a few of them were bound to go over my head. This isn’t a bad thing, but I am in the unfortunate habit of reading all the exaggerated critic quotes at the start of best-sellers, and there were so many pull-quotes that claimed how clear and easygoing her writing was, how she could make the most obscure topic jump right off the page and into your brain. I found this to be only partially true. “Rereading Barthes and Nabokov” was a pretty tough text, because I know absolutely nothing about either author, and “Notes on Visconti’s Bellissima” made me feel downright stupid. I actually started to question the point of criticism — and of my own blog — because if a critic can’t make the work inclusive and decipherable, who can?

Yet when she wrote about Zora Neal Hurston, she drew me right in, so I guess I have to forgive her. (Besides, I’m sure there are plenty of readers who found the following excerpts extremely boring. To them, I say, “I get it” and “Go fuck yourself.”) “I had to admit that mythic language is startling when it’s good,” Smith says on p. 5 in “Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”. Her essay “E.M. Forster, Middle Manager” made me change my own mind halfway about something I thought was completely uninteresting when I started reading it. And in “Middlemarch and Everybody,” she gives a description of reading George Eliot that made me consider pausing her essay and picking up Eliot’s work instead. I didn’t, but I plan to. From p. 30: “… like the two hands of a piece for the piano, a contrapuntal structure is set in motion, in which many melodic lines make equal claim on our attention. The result is that famous Eliot effect, the narrative equivalent of surround sound.” Smith also let Eliot’s writing speak for itself on p. 32, which I found incredibly accurate and inspiring: “The first impulse of a young and ingenuous mind is to withhold the slightest sanction from that contains even a mixture of supposed error. When the soul is just liberated from the wretched giant’s bed of dogmas on which it has been racked and stretched ever since it began to think there is a feeling of exultation and strong hope.”

Her film criticism is pretty spot-on, too — an impressive feat for someone who doesn’t consider herself a film critic. Skewering actor Jason Schwartzman in Shopgirl, Smith notes, “He cannot say a line without mentally enclosing it in quotation marks” (p. 183). And in describing Felicity Huffman’s performance in Transamerica, Smith says she “has exactly the careful, over stylized physical movements used by those who aspire to the feminine and feel they do not naturally possess it” (p. 209), an interesting observation especially considering Huffman herself has been very public about her own insecurities with her appearance. As for the movie itself, Smith sums it up well: “To watch this film go through its paces is a reminder that all cultures, no matter how alternative, petrify into cliche in the end” (p. 208).

She covers broader cinematic topics as well. “Hepburn and Garbo” reveres both women equally, but I was particularly struck by the portion on Hepburn. Smith’s observations about how Hepburn carried herself and moved through Hollywood with an impenetrable, undeniable masculine femininity are so unique and flattering that I wish the subject could be around to read them herself. “Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend” is pretty amusing, too — Smith is unapologetic about her very removed, very British perspective, and I found myself identifying with its apathy very strongly.

Actually, I identified with her British perspective basically any time she mentioned it. On the movie Brief Encounter: “It’s not that the English don’t want true love or self-knowledge. Rather, unlike our European cousins, we will not easily give up the real for the dream” (p. 193). Amen! And comedian Russell Kane, who had “a typically British ressentiment for those very people his sensibilities have moved him toward,” she elaborated, “You start out wanting people to laugh in exactly the places you mean them to laugh, then they always laugh where you want them to laugh — then you start to hate them for it” (p. 247).

Her most touching piece, undoubtedly, was “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace,” someone whom she clearly loved and understood better than most people — which, sadly, still isn’t much. “Wallace saw his own gifts — not as a natural resource to be exploited but as a suspicious facility to be interrogated,” she notes on p. 256. What an ethereal awareness he had, then, and what accomplishments he amassed despite of it. She writes the whole essay in his lengthily-claused, heavily-footnoted, severly-self-conscious style, a true tribute if ever there was one. And she peppers it with his sorts of rhetorical questions: “What is confession worth if what we want from it is not absolution but admiration for having confessed?” (p. 271). That kind of writing should make us all the more thankful that she’s around to ask them, even if he isn’t anymore.

The Big Short

The Big Short will go down in history with movies like The Big Sleep, The Big Chill, and Big, as a great movie with the word “big” in the title, the plot of which remains largely ambiguous until you actually watch it.

Jokes! Anyway. To say The Big Short is wonderful and heartbreaking would be inaccurate, so I won’t say that. The Big Short is… complex. At times it’s satirical, and therefore hilariously funny. At other times, it’s painfully real, and therefore deeply disturbing. It’s a movie that I wish could represent American movies at an international competi– oh wait, I guess it is nominated for a few Oscars. Whatever, that’s not exactly what I mean. What I mean is, The Big Short is American in its humor and drama whilst also skewering the worst things about America. It gets the best things right and the worst things even righter.

The thing is, I didn’t understand all of it. “Finance” is not a topic with which I’m familiar, nor do I really choose to be, so a good deal of it went over my head, and my friend who watched the movie with me did his best to explain it to me without mansplaining it to me. (He did well.) But Adam McKay and Charles Randolph (and Michael Lewis, the original author) anticipated this eye-glazing-over effect of the heart of the film and countered it by [1] interspersing the film with transparent, plot-adjacent celebrity cameo buzzword explanations from the likes of Selena Gomez, Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain and [2] making the plot portion of the film as crystal clear as possible. The mere fact that the film was a little confusing underscores the point of it all, anyway — millions of people got duped by bunk terminology and malicious billionaires and were too ashamed/ignorant to ask questions/know better, and thus the housing crisis was born. See, right there, the perfect marriage of satire and reality.

Knowing that Adam McKay had his hands all over this movie — writing and directing — makes me very, very happy. This is Will Ferrell’s comedy and business partner, yes, but this is also a guy with a specific comedic vision that clearly digs deeper than the bro comedies he’s had his hands all over before. I’m sure he’ll continue to make them because they’re what the people want, but I hope this cuts a clearer path between comedy and drama. The two really shouldn’t be so segregated, neither in front of nor behind the camera. The best works capture both well, and this movie is a prime example of it. The Big Short could have easily been over-wrought with sweeping music or a douchey, macho tone, but it wasn’t. It was played perfectly on the page and on the screen.

Well, one guy was over-wrought, but we all know who that is. Christian “The Actor” Bale, of course, who makes everything about Acting, even when it is not about Acting. As Michael Burry, the hedge funder who was one of the first to uncover the actual Short, he made every scene about himself, which is what he always does. I can’t stand it. He wasn’t bad, he was just… Bale. Whatever. Everyone else was superb, somehow towing the line between egotistical maniac and cog in the machine and hopeless human. I particularly loved Steve Carell as another hedge funder who also uncovers the Short around the same time, Mark Baum — who, by the way, started out as a special variant of egotistical maniac, but grew and morphed over the course of the crisis into an extremely sympathetic guy. And Brad Pitt brought out his nerdy side to play Ben Rickert, a reclusive ex-banker who helps two young guns get involved in the game, too. You’ve also got Ryan Gosling, Max Greenfield, Marisa Tomei, Hamish Linklater, and a slough of other (white) people populating the high-stress, high-stakes, absurd world of banking and making it nauseatingly, overwhelmingly believable. (And yes, in my world, “believable” means “speaking Sorkinese.”)

By the time the proverbial levee broke, and the devastation of the late-2000’s housing/banking/financial crisis washed over me at the end of the movie, I had laughed a great deal more than I expected to, but not so much that I didn’t feel the crushing blow. Hearing this absolutely perfect song over the credits mollified the feeling a little, though.

The movie is constructed in such a way that, even though you know what’s coming because you’ve sat in the theater for 90 minutes and you were alive when it happened, it still hits you. I’m thankful I was too focused on getting through college, and had the luxury to focus on it, even if it prolonged my naïveté. I’m thankful that it’s a cautionary tale for me, too. It’s the kind of problem that sucks you in, drags you down, and piles on the trauma — and it did so to millions of people. Let’s not do it again.

The Usual Suspects

Really trying to pop culturally catch up, folks. Hope it’s working to my advantage. I’ve been wanting to know who and what the hell Keyser Soze is for a very long time, and now I know. I also know who McManus is, and that is gratifying in its own way.

This movie was wonderful, even if it was built up a little (okay, a lot) for me by several very trustworthy people. My main beef is that it made me feel stupid because I couldn’t fully grasp the plot. I got the sense that The Suspects decided to do their heist thing because the police rounded them up for no good reason, but I’m not entirely sure. I suppose it doesn’t matter too much, but the way that they all came to work together didn’t feel very organic. It certainly wasn’t like every other heist movie, which I can appreciate, and I love a script with a lot of twists and turns. I just got stuck in a few corkscrews. (I was able to follow Inception, which is why this is still sticking in my craw.)

Yeah, okay, the plot is important. But the acting is even more important, as far as I’m concerned. Stephen Baldwin (who could play the sibling of Felicity Huffman, in addition to the sibling of his own siblings) with his baby blues and his manic temperament — combined with the gorgeous, unexpectedly sweeping score by John Ottman — basically kick the otherwise #CHILL energy level up very high. He contrasts nicely with everyone else’s surface-level apathy — Kevin Pollak’s Todd seems like he’d rather be doing something else the entire time, Gabriel Byrne’s Dean Keaton (a terrible name played by an actor who I only just realized resembles Glenn Howerton) hides his insecurity behind a flippant ego, and Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint can’t get too far with a bum leg and arm, even if his mouth moves faster than most others run. They’re all brilliant.

The law enforcement side is brilliant, too — seeing Dan Hedaya and Chazz Palminteri play for the legit side, rather than the gangster side, is a refreshing flip. I’m sure they’re thankful for the money they’ve made portraying mafia men, but I’m also sure they’re glad to be rid of the stereotype, even for one measly great movie. Giancarlo “Gus Fring” Esposito is solid, too, as is the immortal Pete Postlethwaite, who I realized resembles one of my coworkers and now can’t unthink that thought. But my absolute, complete favorite actor and character in this movie is Benicio del Toro as Fred Fenster. He is Snoop from The Wire meets Bob Dylan meets I don’t even know what.

Any and every time he spoke, I was glued to the screen, partially because I was trying to hear him, and partially because he was making me laugh so hard. Keep being you, guy.

The Suspects are a little cheesy — they hold their guns to the side, they get macho with each other, they don’t really consider consequences — but they’re also incredibly unique. They do understand teamwork and efficiency because they don’t ask a lot of questions — which explains why they were able to stay in Soze’s world for as long as they did, since they didn’t even bother figuring out who he was — and they don’t bother with completing the job perfectly. They are true misfits, and they wouldn’t really fit in with regular heisters, teamsters, gangsters, whomever. They are actually quite unusual, and that makes them legendary.

Magnolia

I needed this one. Especially after Inherent Vice. I needed to expand my PTA universe, and I needed to be reminded why I love him. Magnolia was just what I needed.

No character in this movie is living his or her best possible life. In fact, quite the opposite. Former Quiz Kid Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) is essentially a dramatic version of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, working at an electronics store and deluding himself into thinking he’s at peace. Current quiz kid Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) would rather not be showboated on television. Phil Pharma spends his days caring for an old, bitter, semi-sedated motherfucker (Jason Robards) married to a trophy wife of sorts (Julianne Moore), superficially content but clearly internally wrenched by the lifetime of medical do-gooding he’s put upon himself. Officer Jim (John C. Reilly) may be the first outright mediocre, borderline shitty cop that I’d still view as a hero, because he’s played by such a likable actor. His love interest, Claudia (Melora Walters, not to be confused with the one other Melora I’ve ever heard of) really likes drugs. Her father (Philip Baker “Bookman!” Hall) may be the most emotionally unequipped man ever to host a children’s television show. And Frank T.J. Mackey, well, he’s the best thing that ever happened to Tom Cruise.

Magnolia is like a backwards, twisted Babel or Crash. It’s the kind of movie where everyone’s connected, but unlike in the other two, no one’s doing anything significant enough for the connections to be truly meaningful. The lives that are at stake aren’t actually high-stakes. They’re all small people, at their absolute worst, doing no one any favors, except maybe for Phil. They just coexist in a sad, sick, supernatural, slightly Biblical world, and they likely keep coexisting in it long after the movie ends.

There isn’t really a conventionally satisfying resolution to this movie, but it felt incredibly whole anyway. Instead of changing each other’s lives, the characters help each other out — Jim saves Donnie when he gets into an accident, Claudia enlightens her mother about her father’s demons, her father’s ailments allow Stanley a bathroom break — and then move on. Or maybe not. We don’t know for sure. The only certainty is that they all coexist on the same plane, for the same four minutes, singing Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” in a diegetic chorus. (This scene is at once disorienting and comforting — I like to imagine grown adults singing to themselves while other grown adults are in the room. It almost makes me think I could do it myself, because I’ve seen it in a movie. Almost.) And then they disperse.

The one connection that is meaningful is Mackey’s to the old motherfucker. It’s a spoiler, but maybe one that’s not too surprising. Mackey, a perfect sleazy mix of Tony Robbins and All Porn Stars and Tom Cruise, reinvented himself to become this perfect Human Dick hybrid. He
took on a new name, a new past, a new future, and it all comes crashing down in a straightforward TV interview. He then has to return home to confront his ailing father and remember who he once was. He got an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for his cockiness and his man bun. We should all be so lucky.

Magnolia truly seems to come out of thin air, and disappear back into it. It’s not my favorite movie, but it’s precisely why Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite director.

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