Ten Years Ago: Fever Pitch

10 Apr

In his 10YA debut, “Boston-born-and-raised lifelong Red Sox fan” Eric Maloney traces his fanaticism through this better-than-you-remember-it Americanization of Nick Hornby’s sports-and-romance autobiography. 

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Pardon my bias. As a Boston-born-and-raised lifelong Red Sox fan who has spent over a hundred days and nights at Fenway Park and dozens more to watch my team elsewhere as a visiting fan, I experience Fever Pitch through the eyes of a New Englander as well as a person who enjoys film, going to the movies, and talking about it. In the ten years since its release, my bias has resided in an incubator. Waking it up for a re-view and re-examination of what it means to me has been interesting. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, or as I’ll call it here, a Then, a Since, and a Now. I’ll give you mine as it pertains to the film, but first, a plot recap of the film.

Ben (Jimmy Fallon) is a romantic Sox fan of the highest order who teaches 9th grade geometry at East Boston High. Lindsey (Drew Barrymore) is an executive. Ben gets a case of the giddies when he takes his honor students to her office on a field trip. Even the kids pick up on it, to which a mildly frazzled Ben responds, “You think she’s out of my league? I don’t have the bat speed? I can hit her best cheese!” At times, I quite enjoy the dialogue and banter in this film. Ben’s character is established early, as Lindsey is sick and pukey on their first date and he takes care of her, putting her to bed and into her jammies, giving her bedside Gatorade, cleaning her toilet, brushing her dog’s teeth (he’d eaten some vomit), renting movies for the next day (she’s an Annie Hall person, he’s a Road House). At a party, Ben enjoys instant credibility among her male friends courtesy of his Red Sox season tickets, inherited from his Uncle Carl (Boston standup comic legend Lenny Clarke) who began taking him to games at age seven. Here and in the real world, a shared love of the Red Sox transcends social class and status. In contrast, as Lindsey’s friends have seen her relationships come and go and they’re understandably skeptical, looking for whatever must wrong with Ben, be it his lower-paying occupation or that he’s 30 and still single (though so is Lindsey), and thus our female lead doesn’t have it as easy.

As the relationship and baseball season play out, we see the Type-A Lindsey making concessions to facilitate things: Early on, she brushes off work while at the ballpark on Opening Day, reads books on the Red Sox to better understand her partner’s passion; later, she storms the field at Fenway to save him and their relationship (more on that later). Ben, the good-natured man-child, takes a little more time. His youthful inner self is demonstrated by his wardrobe comprising virtually all Sox jerseys and t-shirts, his apartment decked out floor to ceiling with memorabilia and team-logoed products from pillow cases and baseball mitt telephone to shower curtain and toothbrush holder, as well as the fact that he begins squealing gibberish while at dinner with Lindsey’s parents for the first time in order to avoid overhearing the next table’s party from discussing the ballgame’s outcome as he’s got it DVR’d at home. He recovers by using a personal day and taking her folks golfing the next morning at the prestigious country club at which Lindsey’s golf-cart-salesman dad lamented about never being able to get a tee time (one of Ben’s student’s dads is a groundskeeper on the course).

Later, he declines her invitation for a whirlwind trip to Paris because the Mariners are coming to town and the Sox are in the playoff hunt. As Lindsey appropriately says in that scene, “When your girlfriend asks you to go to Paris, YOU GO TO PARIS.” Planting a seed for further use, after bending a junior varsity player’s ear with his adult problem, the kid says, “You love the Sox, but have they ever loved you back?” Ben will later embrace the notion that they do, and he has argued with his Fenway Family that the team does love him back, but for now it takes a 9th grader to speak reason to his 30-year-old teacher. Ben is almost there. Digging the relationship’s grave, the couple enjoys a wonderful evening at a friend’sGatsby-themed 30th birthday party, which Ben later describes in bed as the greatest night of his life, until he gets a call from his friends who’ve attended the Sox-Yankees game in which Boston came back from a 7-0 deficit to score 8 runs in the bottom of the 9th inning, winning what is called the greatest comeback win in the team’s history, or as the local news reporter in the film describes the aftermath, “…nuns dancing on top of moving vehicles! Police toasting beer with underage children! Bedlam!” Ben freaks out over not being there with his Fenway Family, regrets his decision to have attended the party, and it’s Splitsville for him and Lindsey.

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While Lindsey moves on, Ben hits rock bottom and recovers. In my favorite scene of the film, his friends execute a reconnaissance mission as they race up the stairs to his apartment to find the nearly-catatonic sad sack in his underwear, pile of chicken wings on a TV tray, buffalo sauce on his face, windows covered (with Red Sox material) to keep the sunlight out, he’s watching the Buckner play repeatedly on VHS and listening to “The Man We Call Yaz” on vinyl, a musical tribute to Sox great Carl Yastrzemski done by the local AM radio station WHDH after the 1967 Impossible Dream season. They drag their mumbling friend into the shower and clean him up. Why is this my favorite scene? Not because the anesthesiologist Kevin (Willie Garson) attempts to shave Ben’s nuts in the shower (“Relax, I’m a doctor… well, if you don’t want me to…”). Save for the recon and shower, I’ve been to this place and I understand.

Ben has his revelation after a Red Sox loss, with his friends at Bill’s Bar where Sox stars Johnny Damon, Jason Varitek, and Trot Nixon are having dinner. While his buddies are offended that the players can enjoy dinner after losing an important game, Ben finds his center of gravity, defends the players on the basis of them having balance in their lives, and rushes out to see Lindsey at her apartment, where to his dismay she’s on what appears to be a double date. Soon after, she learns he’s so heartbroken that he’s selling his season tickets to her friend Chris. At the champagne celebration for having earned the big promotion she’s been working 90-hours a week for, Lindsey has her own revelation. She abruptly leaves the party for Fenway, where she buys a pair of scalped tickets for $600 to gain access to the ballpark, storms the field, reaches Ben just in time to block the sale, getting arrested in the process. Lindsey is a gamer. The Red Sox go on to win the World Series for the first time in 86 years and our couple lives happily ever after.

Each of our flawed lead characters enjoys revelation driven by their good-natured hearts. That’s why we spend the film rooting for their relationship to work out, and that’s why it ultimately does. Lindsey is the more logical, cerebral, adult character. Ben, the romantic soul, messes up like the goofball he is, and recovers multiple times. The film inspires us to ask foundational relationship questions: Do opposites attract? Can opposites work together? Should you try and change your partner into the person you think they can be, who you want them to be? Do you meet somewhere in the middle? Should you? Is it enough to love and accept someone for who and what they are, celebrating, supporting your differences? Home-hitting relationship stuff with a bunch of Red Sox content? I’m a sucker for it.

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

THEN, SINCE, and NOW.

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THEN:

I found Fever Pitch an agreeable-enough rom-com. Films of the genre, in a way, mostly seem the same to me: goofy boy whose inner child becomes something hopeful meets the smart and driven career woman, each learns to live with and love a slightly curbed version of the other. Add some hilarious friends like Marissa Jaret Winokur and Jack Kehler, funny parents, a dog, a few bits of witty banter, and a timely soundtrack into the mix, and you’ve got the ingredients for an enjoyable film. That said, my enjoyable experience with the film was largely based on the personal and cultural elements.

2004 was a magical time for any New Englander. For sports fans and nerds, guys and gals, kids and old folks alike, unconditional love of the Red Sox is an essential part of the community’s fabric. People who otherwise loathe sports are engaged in an eternally intimate relationship with the team, which in 2004 hadn’t won a World Series in 86 years but had lost a bunch in heartbreaking seven-game fashion in 1946, ’67, ’75, and ’86—not to mention the one-game playoff in ’78 (BUCKY F***ING DENT) and the 2003 American League Championship Series (goddamn Grady Little, goddamn Aaron Boone), both vs. the goddamn Yankees. The ’04 ALCS felt like more of the same. Sox were down three games to none, to the goddamn Yankees. No team had ever come back from 0-3. We were done, the series going back to the Bronx, no less. In the greatest comeback in sports history, the Sox ran the table, won the next four games to advance to the World Series, which they won in a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals. The euphoria from that time is impossible to describe. Not everyone’s grandparents lived to see it, but Nana & Grandpa Maloney did, and that counts for a lot. I spent weeks of summers and school breaks with grandpa, tending to his garden, walking, playing catch, watching the Sox on channel 38 with the audio from AM radio, listening to his tales of everything from pre-radio life to watching Babe Ruth, Harry the Hat, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, and a young Yaz play the game on Yawkey Way. Growing up, I’d feel the same romance for the players of the day. Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Luis Tiant, Bill Lee, George Scott, an older Yaz (I was at his final game in ’83)… I didn’t want to be president or an astronaut. I wanted to be Red Sox center fielder Fred Lynn.

At the time, the Red Sox were still the loveable losers of sports’ tragic comedy. Their story being a vehicle for a Hollywood rom-com, audiences embraced it. That it’s loosely based on a European football equivalent team playing a similar role in Nick Hornby’s autobiography probably explains the story’s sensibilities and balance as the love and sports stories serve one another. I enjoyed the American movie-going world at large celebrating this thing. We were the underdogs, finally winning The Big One. Nobody was rooting for us, but it seemed like the world loved that we finally got one. Folks across the land seemed happy for us.

Fever Pitch was an early date with my wife, a decidedly sports-uninterested woman. Watching together at Portland, Oregon’s Kennedy School, it registered on both fronts. A couple with some but not too much overlap in interests falling in love, my irrational relationship with Springsteen and my hometown sports teams paired with hers of roller derby, theater, and burlesque, it informed our dynamic. She’s not Lindsey, I’m not Ben, but the characters served our understanding of one another in some fashion.

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SINCE:

I didn’t watch Fever Pitch between Then and Now, other than a handful of scenes while channel surfing, never considering its story. I’d dismissed it as a cookie-cutter rom-com, which in many ways it is.

The Red Sox are no longer the lovable losers. They’ve won a couple more World Series, in ’07 and ’13 (the later coming after finishing in last place the prior year). Where folks seemed to enjoy their 2004 win, the masses are now tired of them being good. Such is life. The dynamic of ’04 is something I liken to the Macarena dance: an unforgettable moment, undeniably galvanizing in a way that you can only know if you’re old enough or were engaged with popular culture at the time. Otherwise, unless you’re a baseball fan or from New England, that 2004 moment is a short segment on a VH1 flashback show.

NOW:

Fever Pitch has aged far better than I’d estimated it would. Dialogue in the early scenes at Fenway offer a serviceable Readers Digest history lesson on the Red Sox, albeit very broad-brushed—it’s probably as much context as the uninitiated may need. I particularly enjoy Jack Kehler’s masterful turn as Al Waterman, “sponge guy” and the film’s narrator who, despite being a Philly native, offers a better Boston accent than Ben Affleck does in other films. My loathing for “Sweet Caroline” being played as a sing-a-long at the 7th inning stretch only runs deeper; I like the song, but Neil Diamond is a New York guy and it’s a creepy love song about a then-tween-aged Caroline Kennedy.

In addition to appreciating the characters and story as described above, in 2015 I find myself even more nostalgic for the film’s respectable dash of local color and the specific personal experiences it recalls. At Ben’s first game at age seven (same age as mine), he’s watching the same players warm up as I did throughout my youth. “By game’s end, Ben had become one of god’s most pathetic creatures: a Red Sox fan.” Ain’t that the truth. When Lindsey takes a foul ball to the squash while working on her laptop during a game, I’m reminded of being at a Sox-Mariners game in Seattle a few years ago. My brother and I went for a pop foul, we both lost it in the lights, it bounced off the dugout and into my hand, and I proceeded to celebrate on national television before looking down to see Ed had first taken that ball on the wrist, which was already big as a grapefruit and purple as Prince’s shoes. SafeCo Field personnel came down with an ice pack and bandage wrap (and an incident form), he’d live and I gave him the ball.

Though at times Craig Armstrong’s score sounds like that of a mid-grade sitcom, music by Boston-based recording artists the Dropkick Murphys, J. Geils Band, and Jonathan Richman are a nice touch. Small roles for locally based comics, each of whom I used to see in the clubs in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—Lenny Clarke as Uncle Carl, Kenny Rogerson as the scalper, Don Gavin as the cop, plus local sports anchor Bob Lobel and die-hard fan Stephen King, further the film’s residual success of bringing me back home. As the credits roll to the Dropkick Murphys’ instant classic “Tessie,” released during that 2004 playoff run, in my heart, I am home.

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Ten Years Ago: Kung Fu Hustle

10 Apr

Maccewill Yip finds himself frustrated with Stephen Chow’s highest-profile American release but manages to look optimistically toward the future with his new re-view of Kung Fu Hustle.

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II first watched Kung Fu Hustle when I couldn’t watch Sin City. Let me be more specific. I was hanging out with some friends, one of whom had a twin sister who was visiting and was joining us for the day to catch a movie. One other guy and I were considering Sin City. However, the twin sister heard about one plotline involving the character called the Yellow Bastard, enough to not want to see the film. We looked at the other options and, seeing thatKung Fu Hustle was playing, and having viewed the trailer for it earlier, I persuaded them towards the foreign film. The others sat down, not knowing what to expect. I, however, knew exactly what I was in for.

Being Chinese, I have seen my fair share of Stephen Chow films. Some I have seen from the VHS tapes my aunt brought home from her work in helping import Chinese movies to the U.S. Others by watching one of the local Bay Area Chinese network, KTSF 26, where they used to show full Chinese movies on Friday nights. Then there were some that were in the library, which had a handful of Asian films. There are some VCDs (early Chinese version of DVDs) and even a laserdisc in the mix as well. Out of all of them, it was Stephen Chow comedies that I have revisited the most, so yes, I knew what I was expecting that day.

Steven Chow is known to have led a genre of Chinese comedies called mo lei tau, meaning nonsensical. A lot of elements in American comedies are also in the vein of mo lei tau, but this Chinese genre has its own rhythm and sensibilities. The Wiki page describe it as such:

Its humour arises from the complex interplay of cultural subtleties significant in Hong Kong. Typical constituents of this humour include nonsensical parodies, juxtaposition of contrasts, sudden surprises in spoken dialogue and action and improbable and deliberate anachronisms.

In a way, it’s similar to the style of films Mel Brooks or the Zucker Brothers would do, but with a Chinese context. And martial arts. Lots of martial arts. He has been in lots of movies prior, but Stephen Chow’s mo lei tau period started from 1990. Since then, he had released or starred in at least two movies in every year throughout the nineties. I have not seen all of them, but many are the ones I’ve grown up and re-watched many times: Love on Delivery,Royal Tramp, Flirting Scholar, God of Cookery, etc. When it came to the next century, though, there were some changes.

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Before I can get into Kung Fu Hustle (which will for now be referred to as KFH), we have to talk about his previous film, Shaolin Soccer (2001). In a way, Shaolin Soccer should have been Stephen Chow’s introduction to the American audience. I had seen it when I was in high school on VCD and loved it. About a year or two later, I heard that Disney, under Miramax, had brought the U.S. distribution rights and was going to release it in theaters. I was excited because I remembered when the same thing happened to Zhang Yimou’s Heroand couldn’t wait to see Stephen Chow get his big U.S. premiere! However, as time went on, I heard news after terrible news. There was the cutting of scenes, the use of English dub voiceover (something that I just abhor in movies), delays in release, until ultimately never reaching the big screen. The only thing it got was a DVD release, mainly of the mangled U.S. cut of the film. All this trouble is most likely why when it came time for KFH to be distributed in the U.S., he had gone with Sony Classics, which did what Miramax should have done: release the film as is, with English subtitles.

Another reason I need to bring up Shaolin Soccer is because it was a turning point of Steven Chow: when he began using CGI. Chow’s movies are usually ridiculous and go to the absurd, and there are times it becomes cartoonish. He achieved most of this in the early days through practical effects, but once he was given the tools of computer generated imagery, he went wild! In Shaolin Soccer, you can see him start playing around with it, but with a little restraint; but once he got to KFH, he created characters that act like they came right out of the world of Looney Tunes. Like most directors, Chow’s turn into the world of CGI had good and bad side effects.  It freed him to be more ambitious with some of his projects and his vision, but he is beginning to rely a little too much on it. Examples can be seen in KFH itself. When it is clearly referencing cartoons, like his character’s attempt to run away from the Landlady who is chasing him on the roads outside the village, the rubbery computer effects gets a pass because the scene itself is wonderfully ridiculous. However, when we start to see some of the more serious fights, some of the computer models of the characters, at least to me, looks horrible and take me away from the gravity of the challenges those characters face. I know there are people who put in a lot of work into computer effects, but there’s just something for me about seeing practical effects that always add so much more. Probably because it seems more tangible, more hand-created. Unless done very well, CGI will almost always look a little too rubbery, or a little too plastic, and my personal uncanny valley reaction just have a little harder time accepting it, taking me away from the film.

As a showcase of Stephen Chow’s talents to the American audience, KFH worked wonderfully. The critics raved about its humor and creativity. Comedy god Bill Murray himself said in an interview that it was “the supreme achievement of the modern age in terms of comedy,” going as far as to say, “There should have been a day of mourning for American comedy the day that movie came out.” My own friends came out of the theater that day enjoying themselves and I was able to share some of his other films to them. KFHand Shaolin Soccer both broke box office records in Hong Kong. However, it seems that after 2000, his film output slowed down significantly. As mentioned earlier, Chow used to be in two or more films, and in some prolific years as many as eight or nine. However, he slowed down significantly during the new millennium. Other than KFH and Shaolin Soccer, the only other films he has listed in his filmography is CJ7 and The Founding of a Republic.CJ7 had decent reviews, but nowhere near the appraise he received for his past two films.The Founding of a Republic was pretty much a patriotic propaganda film that had nearly every Chinese actor and actress in it. It is sad to see that the start of his worldwide recognition might very well be at the end of his creative prime.

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Rewatching the film, I remembered the great parts that got the film acclaim during its U.S. release, but it also brought some other memories: of how I was slightly disappointed in it. Yes, I wrote a whole lot about wonderful reviews it received and all, and I do think it’s still a fun film, but my own personal feelings about the movie is that it fell short a little compared to his past films. In some part, it is the energy, the rhythm of the film. Ironically, many reviews talk about how much energy the film has, but I’ve seen that mentioned in reviews of lots of Chinese action films, like Infernal Affairs, or any collaboration between John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. An intensity that directors like Quentin Tarantino would try to copy. I feel like I see it a lot when I would revisit his past films, but it feels like it’s lacking a little in KFH.

Another drawback I see is that almost none of the relationships in the film had time to develop throughout the film. One reason is that there are just too many characters in the film. There are the gangsters, the villagers, the landlords, the secret martial artist tenants, the musician assassins, the Beast, the lollipop girl, and of course, Stephen Chow’s character and his partner. Yes, a lot of them had their moment, and they all seem like fully fleshed characters, but many of them leaves, get killed, or simply get forgotten before they can develop further. Theoretically, Chow is our protagonist, but there is so much that happens outside of his character that the focus gets muddled. Also, since he is not in the film as much, the relationships he develop seems rushed and forced, especially between his character and the mute lollipop girl he eventually falls in love with.

The last reason I feel KFH doesn’t hold up seems to be another contradiction against the critics: It’s a little less creative. Again, the U.S. critics were praising Chow over his creativity, but most had not seen his earlier movies. There are many great things in this movie, but it feels like it’s been done before, as well as it not being as wild and idiosyncratic as stuff he has done already. It could be that he’s simply running out of original ideas, which would probably explain both his slowed output after 2000 as well as the more subdued reviews to his following film, CJ7.

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II don’t want it to seem like I completely hated KFH. There are many things I still like about the film. The cartoon homages were wonderful and was some of the few places I appreciated the rubbery CGI effects. I liked some of the added little extra details, like his character’s reaction to his own firecracker to call the gang backup, or the little strings of fiber stuck under the musician assassin’s sharp, pointed nails when he clawed through the tailor’s fabric.  The perfect scene that encompasses both those elements is the one I mentioned earlier where he attempts to kill the Landlady by throwing knives at her, failing after several attempts, and ending with a Looney Tunes style chase. Here, since most of the action is deliberately cartoonish, I’m more accepting of the CGI, and it has some of the little details that I love, such as one of the stuck blade on his shoulder used as a rearview mirror. It’s one of those scenes that I can’t help but laugh myself silly and is something that is a wonder to behold:

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KFH, for what it is, still holds up. It still works as a great introduction to the films of Stephen Chow. What ultimately disappoints me is the feeling that there could have been something different or something more developed. Or it could simply be that I’m just spoiled by his past films. I personally think Shaolin Soccer is the better film in creativity, story, character development, etc., and if Miramax hadn’t fucked it up royally, then that would have been Stephen Chow’s proper introduction to American audiences, and KFH would be the follow-up film that would make people look back at his past works, or anticipate any future projects. He does have one coming called Tai Chi. Here’s hoping that all my criticism of his current creative descent is proven wrong.

Other Notes: 

-There were a couple of times when the line “Everybody has his reason” was used. Both times made me think about the French film Rules of the Game when the director/actor, Jean Renoir, uses the same line.

-The swirling clouds over the mental asylum reminds me of the one over Sigourney Weaver’s apartment building in Ghostbusters.

-As a movie memorabilia collector, I want that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Top Hatposter that Chow and the lollipop girl matched poses with.

-The better martial artist is always one who seems like he is using no effort to fight his or her opponent, who in turn is giving everything they’ve got.

-My Chinese is decent, so when I watch certain parts and read the subtitle, I don’t know if there was original intent by Chow to make a reference or if it’s just the subtitle translator having a little bit of fun. For instance, the “Great power comes great responsibility” line.

-There’s another part I didn’t know if intentional or not. When the Landlady reads the fortune to determine the fate of the secret martial artist tenants, a large bell is struck, which makes everybody around them cover their ears, except for the martial artists and the Landlady. Could that have been a little foreshadowing of her own talents?

-There’s a scene where Chow stomps and flattens a ball some kids were playing with, shouting, “No more soccer!” Many say that this is his response to everybody asking if there would be a sequel to Shaolin Soccer.

-At the very beginning, we see a gang leader leaving the police station after causing trouble. On the street, he is approached by a rival gang on both sides. The first gang leader, a Northerner who speaks Mandarin, pulls out a firework signal to call for backup. The subtitle translation of the rival gang leader, a Southerner who speaks Cantonese, reads as, “While you were in the police station, all your men have joined my gang.” However, what he actually tells them is, “While you were in the police station, all your men have learned to speak Cantonese.”

-There’s a short story by R.A. Lafferty titled “Frog on the Mountain” about a man on a hunting trip on another planet. The hunt consists of besting four animals, the last one called the Bater-Jeno, which, depending on the translation of the alien language, is either crag-ape or frog-man. I had recently read the story, so it was on my mind when I watched the scene when the Beast used his Toad-style technique. I also brought this up because I secretly wanted to share my newfound love of the works by R.A. Lafferty.

-I finally did see Sin City.

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Ten Years Ago: Sin City

8 Apr

Her red lipstick gleamed like rubies against the ink-black night. “Make sure to include images of Rosario Dawson and Carla Gugino,” she purred. “You can even make a caption that I requested that.” Here’s Maggie McMuffin with a ten-years-later look at Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City.

Film Title: Sin City.

Okay so despite being a comic books fan, I’ve never read much Frank Miller. I don’t think I’ve read anything he’s written that didn’t have Batman in it. I just wasn’t interested. And even the Batman stuff? Meh. Year One is not my thing, despite being an important piece of Bat-literature. Dark Knight Returns I liked more but not enough to read multiple times. Like that first time was a rollercoaster and after that it just became sort of funny? The Adventure of All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is brilliant. But not on purpose. I hated it until I started viewing it as bad fanfiction and then it became so balls-out crazy it was hilarious. It is the book that gave us ‘I’m the goddamned Batman’ after all. Also Bruce just steals tiny, traumatized Dick Grayson from the circus and then leaves him alone in the deepest parts of the Batcave to see if he can survive. IT’S GREAT.

That’s it. Beyond some of his contributions to Batman, I had no interest in Frank Miller. I’m a comics fan from the 2000s on so my generation knows him as ‘that guy who wrote some important stuff and then got REALLY RACIST AND CONSERVATIVE AND GROSS. Like, all of his clout comes from books that came out so long before I could even say the word “book.” He’s sort of a sad joke now. At least Alan Moore became a warlock. Frank Miller is just that dude who wrote Holy Terror.

And I wasn’t reading comics at all when Sin City came out ten years ago so I had no real reason to jump into the source material. I watched the film in my friend’s garage bedroom because he said it was really cool. And it was. I remember commenting that the opening sequence is the only thing I’ve seen Josh Hartnett do that made him seem worthwhile. I remember thinking Rosario Dawson was a babe. I remember seeing a Gilmore Girl and noting that she couldn’t act so much as she could stare endlessly with her blue eyes. Oh and the visuals. Visually, Sin City stuck with me. It stuck with everyone didn’t it? I mean, after it came out I remember people talking about it but did anyone do anything with it? Did we get copycat films? I know we sure as hell didn’t get the sequel within the window of relevance. Did anyone watch that sequel? With Lady Gaga? Can she act?

No really. She’s gonna be taking over for Jessica Lange on American Horror Story this season. I need to know if she can act.

But that’s it. I didn’t latch onto it. And even after I became a comic book nerd I didn’t read the books. I just didn’t really care enough about the noir thing to seek it out. Also, I’m just wary of comic books that prominently feature sex workers, especially when written by people like Frank Miller, because I don’t like watching sex workers get fridged.

But in looking back and having read reviews by other sex workers, the girls of Old Town aren’t so bad as far as representation goes. So really now my biggest issue with rewatching the movie is going to be getting sad over Brittany Murphy.

Really I don’t know why I volunteered for this movie. I don’t have any real connection to it other than it was something that looked cool that I watched in high school.

But I have time to kill. So I guess I can interrupt marathoning Steven Universe to watch it.

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Okay I watched the movie and we’re gonna talk about representation of women in films. This movie is not bad at it. It’s not. The women in this film are all fierce, capable, and strong, and for the most part they are loyal. There is hardly a woman in this film who falls on the side of antagonist or who is against other women. There’s very little girl hate in this film and a lot of female solidarity. Which is great and not the sort of thing you expect to see in a comic book movie.

But the stories aren’t about them. In fact, every single story (save for the thin bookends about Josh Hartnett’s hit man) are about men rescuing these women.

The first story, which is also the last story as it’s split into two parts, is about Bruce Willis’ cop character taking his last day on the job to go and stop a serial child rapist/murderer from killing Nancy Callahan. He succeeds, blowing off the guy’s ear, hand, and junk in the process. But because this asshole has a powerful senator father he goes all Draco Malfoy and sics his parents on Bruce Willis. We’re led to believe he gets shot to death but in the second half we learn he was thrown in jail for not playing along and confessing to the crimes himself. He eventually does because he thinks the now 19-year-old Nancy is being hurt and confesses to be let out to go find her. She’s totally a stripper now, which we actually learned earlier in another story. And she’s good and popular. Bruce Willis is a bit surprised by this “expecting a skinny little bookworm, too shy for her own good” but doesn’t make a thing of it. Then he realizes that it’s a trap! It was a trick and now the now super yellow pedophile knows where Nancy is and wants revenge. He drugs Nancy, beats the shit out of her, and taunts Bruce Willis, who eventually kills him this time. Also literally rips the guys new, scientifically grown junk off with his bare hands. Nancy, we are told, “grew up strong” and doesn’t scream once during her torture session. However, this strength is to make Bruce Willis proud because she sort of imprinted on him and is in love with him.

Bruce Willis ends up giving her a lovely speech about how he’s gonna be a big hero before killing himself to protect her.

The second story features Mickey Rourke made up to look like a comic character. It’s not bad, actually. The prosthetics in this film used to make people look like the more unrealistic characters pays off and fits into the aesthetic of the film. This is a film that looks purposefully unreal. Some segments do more work with it than others but overall it’s full of interesting choices and I was glad it extended to characters like Marv.

Marv spends the night with a gorgeous woman he has no business being with, only to wake up and find her dead in the bed beside him. Framed for her murder, he goes on a manhunt for whoever was responsible, citing that his reason for avenging her was that “she was nice to me.”

On the way, Marv meets Goldie’s sister Wendy and their fellow sex workers over in Old Town. Apparently Goldie learned that the most powerful man in the city, a high-ranking Catholic dude named Rourke (related to the rich senator and his pedophile son), was joining a creepy dude named Kevin in killing sex workers and eating them. Goldie had to go.

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While I like Marv’s motivations and his relationships with women and actually liked this story best, it was also the one that stuck out to me the most as being about the man. Wendy and the other women in Old Town are super capable of taking care of themselves. Wendy watched her sister get killed. She’s willing to die on her revenge mission. But instead we follow Marv and see him knock Wendy out so that he can torture and kill Kevin rather than letting Wendy do him in with a bullet to the brain. Marv is a violent, dangerous man who happens to have a soft spot for women and also a no-hurting-them code, but knocking out a vengeful sister doesn’t qualify, I guess.

Wendy eventually visits Marv in jail (he is also framed for the murders and cannibalism, only confessing once they threaten his mother) and spends the night before his execution with him, letting him call her Goldie since he’s confused and really loved that woman for that one night. While it’s sort of dumb and I want to be cynical about it, it’s actually played off really sweet and non-sexualized. While Marv and Goldie’s night together came complete with amble tit shots and a heart shaped bed, Wendy and Marv are simply shown curled up together on his jail cell cot, Wendy still wearing not only her clothes but also her trench coat.  

With the third story, we have Clive Owen not only trying to play white knight but causing more trouble because of it. At first he’s hanging with Brittany Murphy (a waitress named Shellie) at her place. Shellie is on one side of the door trying to get her asshole ‘boyfriend’ to go away. He’s violent, he hits her, he cheats on his wife, he drinks too much. Shellie is having none of it and tells Clive Owen to shut up and let her handle it. But eventually she does have to let Jackie Boy (a really terrifying Benicio Del Toro) in. She gets hit by him but takes it, threatens his friends, and is generally not a doormat. But Clive Owen threatens him in the bathroom and then, after getting him to leave, decides he should chase down these drunken assholes to stop them from killing someone. Shellie yells at him, but he doesn’t listen because the man knows best, sweetheart.

There’s a car chase and they end up in Old Town. Wendy’s not in this story and is never mentioned again, but we do meet the women she was with. Gail (super foxy Rosario Dawson who I cannot wait to see kick ass in Daredevil) is in charge and she’s already got an eye on the car. Her and her girls are setting a trap. and if Jackie Boy springs it, they’ll kill him and his crew. Which is exactly what happens after they harass and threaten one of the Old Town girls (Becky, played by Gilmore Girl).

Unfortunately, despite being a drunken abuser, Jackie Boy is a “goddamn hero cop,” and they have to get rid of the bodies before the truce between the cops and Old Town is broken. But there’s a spy and the mob find out and Gail gets kidnapped and there are more car chases and a fight in the sewers and the tar pits and eventually Clive Owen nearly dies but then gets saved and rescues Gail and then saves everyone by trapping the mob in an alley and just raining bullets on them! And while the sex workers are the ones who do most of the shooting, Clive Owen is the one who is the brains. But he’s also sad because Gail, the woman he is truly in love with, will never really be his because reasons that are never explained.

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The only story in this film that isn’t about a dude saving women is about a dude killing them. The opening of the film, which is paced well and also sets up the striking visuals. (There’s a shot of a woman’s green eyes being illuminated by a lighter flame and the green fades away after the fire is gone. It’s lovely.) Josh Hartnett, actually being interesting as an actor, finds a lone woman on a balcony and offers her a cigarette. He narrates about not knowing what she’s running from and then kills her and talks about cashing a check. At the end of the film, we see Becky, who was the Old Town spy, leaving the hospital after being shot and meeting him in an elevator. He offers her a cigarette, she ends her phone call, and our last shot is her making a facial expression that lets us know she knows she’s gonna die.

 

A note about the narration. The men do that A LOT. Constantly. Hartigan narrates about what he thinks they are doing to Nancy to get to him. Marv narrates about what could have been haunting Goldie to make her seek protection by hooking up with him (the scariest dude she could find). Clive Owen narrates about what the cops and the mob are gonna do to Old Town if Jackie Boy’s murder is discovered. The men in this film are constantly talking about all the bad things that could happen to the women but also how strong the women are and it gets to a point where you wonder why we don’t just have a movie about the women of Sin City. Why not a story about Wendy rampaging through the town, beating up men and getting information and then killing a priest in his bed? Why not the story of how Gail and her army of kickass sex workers clawed their way to ownership of Old Town? Why not Nancy getting to kill that yellow dude and saving Hartigan?

Look, this movie doesn’t damsel people. Even the women in distress are tough and get through it and endure. There’s even a few mentions of women being able to process trauma better than men. When Marv’s parole officer Lucille is kidnapped by cannibal Kevin and has to watch him eat her hand, she screams and yells about it to Marv and immediately says she needs a cigarette. “Dames,” Marv narrates. “Sometimes all they gotta do is let it out and a few buckets later you’d never know”.

This is a movie that goes on and on about how strong women are but undermines that by constantly having the men do the real saving. That isn’t progressive. It’s hardly a baby step. In some ways it’s worse because you’re saying that no matter how awesome a woman is, she’ll always need a man to do the cleaning up.

But that’s not what the movie is about. It’s actually a really cynical film about power structures fucking people over and needing to turn bad to survive. Even Bruce Willis’ Hartigan, who is a good cop trying to take down crooked politicians who let relatives run amok, mercilessly kills people with his bare hands. This is a film about semi good to bad people doing bad things to worse people. There’s no worries about morality. The ethics of this world are kill or be killed, be hard, and also do tons of illegal things. Which in a way, makes them okay. The only person we see expressing real shame at this lifestyle choices is Becky, who turns against Old Town because the mob has offered her ‘something you never could, a way out’. Even though the mob has threatened her mother, she would rather take a chance the mob will actually treat her fairly than have told Gail what was going on and gotten protection for her because she doesn’t want her mom knowing she’s a sex worker. Being outed for that is worse than ruining the lives of all the women she’s worked with, despite the fact that the Old Town workers seem incredibly close and content with how things are run there. I’m not saying people like Becky shouldn’t be allowed to quit sex work if it’s not what they want to be doing, I’m just saying don’t sell people out to the mob and potentially get all of them killed.

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I could also go on and on about how the sex workers in this film are actually pretty good representations. They’re caricatures and stock characters, sure. They don’t wear clothes, sure. Miho is a cool character who follow some racist tropes, definitely. But they take no shit, have their own turf, and are super loyal to and willing to kill for each other. They aren’t presented as any worse than the violent men of the movie for what they do, in fact they’re actually given a noble reason for their killing. I want a movie about them. Was the sequel more about them? If it was, please tell me so I can go watch it.

Also, aside from Becky, there’s nothing wrong with being a sex worker in this universe. Hartigan is surprised Nancy became a stripper but he’s not upset or disgusted by it. Marv didn’t know Goldie was a sex worker when he met her but he attests that it wouldn’t have changed how he felt and he gets really upset when other men in the film reduce her to words like ‘slut’ and ‘whore.’ Because Goldie was nice to him and that’s all that matters. He even says that with his face, with the violence written all over it, he “couldn’t even buy a woman” and he knows Goldie was just trying to use him for safety but damn, it sure felt nice to have someone by nice to him like she was.

Which, honestly, is a really common thing among sex worker clients. Mostly a lot of men just want to be told they’re okay, they’re desirable, and that being with them isn’t some giant chore. They just want reassurance. You give that to them, and they love you for it. They’re grateful. It’s the opposite of entitlement to women’s bodies and, while Marv does take it a bit far, it’s also kind of endearing. Also, it’s true to his character because his character is difficult to love and difficult to be around and there isn’t full redemption. His feelings for Goldie and his teaming up with her sister are touching but they aren’t enough to magically change him and I appreciate that even if Marv is the most violent Captain Save-A-Ho ever. I’m conflicted about it.

I’m not conflicted about Kevin mounting the heads of sex workers on the wall and his keeper using the ‘no one would miss them’ excuse. That’s some bullshit and it’s way too rooted in reality to be forgiven. That shit literally happens and has literally been said. It’s not stylistic violence like the blood splurts or someone being comically run through with a harpoon. It’s real and it’s bad.

Stylistically, of course, the film is great. The splashes of color are well chosen and so are the uses of lighting and silhouettes. Clive Owen’s whiteout silhouette falling through the darkness of the tar pit as he drowns is stunning, as are the shots of Hartigan leaving prison as it rains. But the performances are also standout. Jesica Alba plays Nancy as someone who is traumatized but still sweet, someone who really is the shy girl Hartigan was expecting (when she’s not on stage). Elijah Wood as the ever-smiling, never-speaking Kevin is unbelievably unsettling. Benicio Del Toro as Jackie Boy is also terrifying, downplaying his temper into a quiet storm that says ‘don’t fuck with me.’ Rosario Dawson as Gail is pretty much Catwoman in Year One but I don’t care because Rosario Dawson is perfect and babely and I honestly believe she would kill a man and then go clean the knife in her kitchen sink.

Sin City is an enjoyable little romp through violence and over-the-top dialogue but it’s not my favorite thing ever. It’s just way better than I could have hoped it could be. That said, my expectations were low to begin with and comic book movies and Frank Miller could still stand to make way for stories that give a louder voice to the female characters.

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Random Notes (A Best-Of Collection)

— Nope. I was right. Best thing Hartnett ever did.

— Why is Marley Shelton not in more things?

— Okay so he killed her and is sweet but he doesn’t know what she was running from. Maybe the guys who hired him to kill her? Just a guess.

CREDITS

— The people they cast actually do look a fair amount like the art for the most part. But prettier because this art, for the most part, does not make women look like they have pretty faces.

— The fuck did Tarantino special-direct?

[Editor’s Note: He directed the scene with Clive and Benicio driving. Tarantino is obsessed with shooting on film and was curious about Rodriguez’s insistence on going full digital, but later came around when he realized he could just shoot the two of them in front of a green screen, sitting on boxes, with no set, and have it still be a scene.]

STORY ONE

— Bruce Willis has a heart condition, must retire early. 30 years of cop. Getting ready to celebrate. BUT HE HAS ONE LOOSE END. HE’S GOTTA TIE IT UP. HE’S 60 THOUGH. NEARLY 60.

— The fuckl! Is that Matthew Lillard playing twins? MY LIFE — Bruce Willis is having so much trouble and says fuck off to stealth.

— Partner shoots him. Not fatally. But a lot. And near fatally. Willis stalls until backup comes so Nancy can’t get killed. They imprint on each other.

— “An old man dies. A little girl lives. Fair trade.”

STORY TWO

— Mickey Rourke’s faaaaaace

— Naked women. Tits and ass everywhere. Mickey Rourke spends a night with Goldie and it’s perfect and he loves her and he wakes up and she’s dead. He’s framed.

— He runs to Lucille. “She’s a dyke. God knows why. With that body of hers she could have any man she wants.” Well clearly she doesn’t want men, bro. That’s what ‘dyke’ means. She’s probably super happy with her psychiatrist girlfriend.

— She gives him pills. He explains stuff. He’s all excited about the prospect of ‘war.’ She’s like ‘dude, prison.’

— “Walk down the right back alley in Sin City and you can find anything.”

— “Dames. Sometimes all they gotta do is let it out and a few buckets later you’d never know.” Because now Lucille is fine.

— “The hell I’ve sent him to must seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.”

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STORY THREE

— Shellie’s place. Her abusive dude wants in and she says no. “The kind of total jerk loser who has to beat up on a girl to make himself feel like a man.” — She’s also got Clive Owen in there. He’s like ‘I can take care of it.’

— Shellie says she’s fucking black dudes and Benicio is like ‘I’m not racist’ but seriously he’s pissed.

— There is so much vocal fry in this movie.

— “The ladies are the law here.” Apparently the ladies in Old Town will just kill people.

— Oh they have ‘fag joints’ in Old Town. How progressive.

— “Us girls are safe as we can be, Lancelot.” Yeah! Fuck your savior complex!

— Good vocal work with the throat slit.

— I don’t think you can cough up tar like you do water.

— Car phones!

— This dude who got shot through with the harpoon is hilarious.

LAST STORY

— Yellow dude. Smells bad.

— Then a bloody letter with a finger.

— “Let me throw some clothes on.” She’s…uh…actually pretty clothed.

— Alba does play her like a bookworm though. She’s upfront about her feelings but her posture is a bit reserved when she’s not on stage.

— Yellow dude is not okay.

— He hates his dad for putting him through stuff trying to grow back his dick.

— The well-spoken thug is sort of funny. ”I can only express puzzlement that borders on alarm.”

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Ten Years Ago: Walk on Water

7 Apr

Max DeCurtins looks back at the Israeli film Walk on Water and assesses its attempts to be all things to all people amid the state of contemporary Israeli politics.

WalkOnWater1Where to begin? I set out to re-view Walk on Water, and what came out instead is a rather sprawling op-essay on Israel, political dysfunction, authorship and privacy, and community. In other words, several of the many reasons why so many people tune out any news that doesn’t come from the Daily Show. When I signed on to re-view this movie, I thought that I would simply watch it a few times and explore a few of its issues in a calm, considered manner. Little did I know that over the next three weeks I would be treated to a seemingly non-stop orgy of unbelievable Israel-related news. Seriously, I have never in my life seen so much American media coverage of Israel, not even when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. And so, over the course of the several weeks that I’ve been on-again off-again working on this, the theme of this re-view became: I can’t even. Truly, friends, I can’t even.

I rarely get to write about Israel anymore. Three and a half years ago, I wrote about Israel and the history of early music performance there and its implications (with especial emphasis on Bach . . . because Bach) in my master’s thesis, a document which—should it ever fall into my hands again—I feel certain I would promptly burn. Every subsequent year, it seems, I come across new items that lend credence to my topic and its potential to contribute an interesting veneer of something new on a very old, probably exhausted, subject. With nearly three and a half years of hindsight, I can look back in wonderment at my master’s program self and ask how I could have missed the warning signs of a toxic subject—the study of Western music in Israel—and an advisor who didn’t know the first thing about networking on behalf of his students—or didn’t care. It would take two rounds of rejections from every doctoral program that seemed competent before I realized that, on spec, no program would have me.

So, one has to exercise extreme caution when attaching one’s name to writings about Israel eventually destined for public consumption. Authorship seems increasingly permanent thanks to the continued erosion of privacy. If you write it, they will read it. Google’s “right to be forgotten” will never prove an adequate remedy for the worst instincts of people with access to a virtually limitless supply of media. If you write it, be prepared to own it. For this reason I feel comfortable letting that amorphous sphere known as my Facebook circle know where I stand on most domestic issues and politics, but I steadfastly refuse to post anything related to Israel.

Social media has had the curious, though perhaps not entirely unanticipated, effect of bringing our friends’ and acquaintances’ sense of judgment into sharper focus than I think most of us care to handle. The kid from college we all just thought a goofball turns out a raging neocon; the affable artist we knew in high school has become a left-wing conspiracy theorist or follower of junk science equally as unsavory as the right-winger’s denial of science altogether. I have to imagine that the things I post alter the way my friends and acquaintances see me, likely not always for the better.

News about Israel and Jews (note very carefully that I do not conflate the two) tends to spawn a fair number of Facebook posts that have me calling into question the judgment of quite a few of my peers. I have exactly one Facebook friend, a college acquaintance, who shares my pain as a silenced supporter of Israel the nation, and critic of Israeli policy. If anybody else from the Hillel circle reads this, it’s because they know me and know that this—not sparring in comments on Facebook—is my preferred platform.

All this is to say that I take this re-view very, very seriously. And also that I can’t even.

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I first saw Walk on Water at UCSB, in that great pumpkin, Campbell Hall, as part of a Hillel-sponsored group event of some kind. I remember a general feeling of excitement among the assembled group; unless you’re a particular type of movie buff, chances are you don’t see Israeli movies very often, and it can be very exciting to see “your people” represented on screen. W had just been “re-elected”—more like elected for the first time—and, though I and most people I knew felt despondent about the prospect of another four years of “compassionate conservatism,” U.S.-Israeli relations seemed solid.

American presidents and Israeli premiers have, in the past, enjoyed a relationship dynamic falling somewhere on the spectrum between cool professionalism and warm friendship. Not so Obama and Bibi Netanyahu. When I wrote this, John Boehner had just committed possibly one of the most idiotic acts of his tenure (and friends, that says something) by extending an invitation to Bibi to address a joint session of Congress for the thinly-veiled purpose of bashing Obama by criticizing his foreign policy, without having informed the White House and indeed paying little heed to the elections in Israel scheduled to take place two weeks later. Ron Dermer, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, claimed the dubious honor of co-conspirator in this spectacularly misguided and downright tawdry affair.

My lone kindred Facebook friend from my Hillel days made the obvious yet striking observation on the day of Netanyahu’s speech that it occurred not during primetime in the United States, when many millions of Americans would have tuned in to watch, but during primetime in Israel. And so, what began as my fury at yet another transgression in the Republican scorched earth plan to bring down a D/democratically-elected president, quickly turned into disbelief at the lengths to which Bibi would go to sway Israeli voters.

And then, a week later, came the letter. I can’t even.

In case you live in a cave and may have missed it, this would be the letter, signed by 47 of the 54 Republicans in the Senate, addressed to the most senior officials of the Iranian government. I don’t have column inches enough to talk about this one. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but damned if I didn’t think long and hard about whether Bibi might have played a role in making that letter happen, much in the same way that industry and corporate lobbyists send, via “legislative exchange” organizations, pre-packaged bills to state legislators. Fuming, I had a drink, wrote some code, and consoled myself that at least things couldn’t get any worse after this so-called open letter. But oh, no. They could, and they did.

My paternal grandfather, who passed away last year just a few months shy of his 97th birthday, always liked to play cards, and when my sister, my cousins and I were younger and learning how to be better players, he used to chide us whenever we hesitated too long in picking up or discarding cards, giving the appearance of contemplating how to deny victory to another player at the table. Never mess up your own hand, he’d admonish us, to try and screw up someone else’s hand. Just assemble the best hand you possibly can and play the game according to the rules. In other words, don’t overthink it and end up pissing in the well. Dragging yourself down to bring down someone else doesn’t work.

Bibi apparently never learned this lesson. Days before the election, he took a right turn so hard and so fast that a real vehicle would have lost control and wiped out. He explicitly dismissed Palestinian statehood on his watch. And he showed that he might, in fact, have just a touch of the crazy paranoid. He implied that “foreign organizations” conspired with the Israeli left, what of it still exists, to unseat him. Friends, let’s review who else has made similar claims: Vladimir Putin. Bashar al-Assad. Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nicolas Maduro. Nuri al-Maliki. Xi Jinping. The North Koreans. Robert Mugabe. In other words, autocrats, paranoid socialists (or former socialists), oligarchs, panderers and murderers. And the crazy, it just doesn’t stop there.

He made such an openly racist election plea, namely that right-wingers absolutely had to go out and vote for Likud because Israeli Arabs we going to the polls in droves, that even our benighted country would have unleashed an overwhelming barrage of withering criticism and pressure to resign. The blogger at Ottomans and Zionists put it better than I could ever hope: “The prime minister of any country should be nothing short of proud when more citizens vote, and exhorting only the right kind of citizen to get to the polls in order to counter the wrong sort of citizen is disgusting and unworthy of the leader of a democracy.” He spent huge sums of Israeli taxpayer money on new elections because, essentially, he didn’t really like the government he had and decided to go get himself a new one. To put it plainly, he dissolved the Israeli government so that he could form a new one in which he wouldn’t ever have to compromise, or even contemplate compromising. Imagine a Congress that could call new elections whenever the political winds seemed favorable, in which every bill could be enacted by reconciliation, and where all voting would always, invariably happen on party lines. This is the Knesset.

Naturally, less than 48 hours have passed since the election and Bibi has already begun trying to walk back his remarks, particularly in interviews with American reporters. The White House, reports the New York Times, seems “unimpressed.”

I can’t even.

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I know plenty of people who see Netanyahu as an underestimated leader destined for vindication. Unfortunately, all the available evidence simply does not support this. Bibi has had a total of nine years so far to effect some kind of change on the one issue he seems to elevate above all others. American presidents don’t get nine years in power, and they don’t have the luxury of focusing their attention on just one or two issues. Bibi has spent his time doing two things primarily: 1) asking for the United States (and, to a lesser extent, other world powers) to layer sanction after sanction on Iran, and 2) making certain that the United States would shoulder a large part of any military action against it. To me this sounds an awful lot like a high school kid trying to get someone else in the group project to do all the work. He has taken no risks and has, unsurprisingly, accomplished nothing. He has pounded on tables, shaken his fists, drawn red lines on posters . . . and accomplished nothing. If a window of opportunity ever existed to take military action against Iran’s nuclear assets, it closed a long time ago, when the effort was still nascent. Take it from us: bombing the fuck out of people to ensure “national security” just doesn’t work—if it ever did. Look, in America, if someone got a whole decade to focus on one or two goals, with massive resources to support the effort, we would expect that person to get something done. If nothing got done, we’d say: get the fuck outta here.

For some time now, American Jews who express even slight criticism of Israeli policies and politics often face immediate and widespread shaming from within the American Jewish community at large. Not critics of Israel, mind you. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this distinction. I support Israel. I do not support the right-wing, craven, cynical, un-nuanced, nationalist, quasi-religious psychosis that has positively rotted the Israeli government for many years. Israel has no credible political left to speak of; Labor has focused in recent years on domestic issues, Hatnua is essentially the party of Tzipi Livni’s supporters, and Meretz has no influence whatsoever. Centrist parties, which sometimes give voice, however minuscule, to concerns shared by the left, never last long in Israel; Kadima died when Ariel Sharon became a vegetable, and Yesh Atid—does it even still exist?—seems rapidly headed for irrelevance. A minister who simply doesn’t get on with Bibi, Moshe Kahlon, breaks away from Likud and forms his own party, stupidly named “kulanu,” which in Hebrew means “all of us.” The party, such as it is, exists for no reason except to give Kahlon leverage with Bibi, and the elections confirmed that: Journalists have, in the past several days, repeatedly referred to Kahlon as a “kingmaker”—someone who has the power to make or break Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Likud, merely right-wing, itself has never controlled enough Knesset seats to govern—or even come close. Yet Likud and its ultra-right-wing allies, Shas, UTJ, Yisrael Beteinu, and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, have what seems like an insurmountable hold on the Knesset. America, let Israel offer you an object lesson in the consequences of having no real, healthy political spectrum. America has a lunatic right with power; Israel has that and a silenced left with no power.

I can’t even.

Whenever I consume news and opinion about Israel, I find myself confronted with a maddening duality. Those who find fault with every piece about Israel published in a major journalistic outfit, who see pervasive anti-Israel bias in the press and in the world more generally, do nothing but communicate their own inability to see things in a nuanced way. And yet, they’re not entirely wrong. To date, the UN Security Council has passed several hundred resolutions condemning, or at the very least expressing dissatisfaction with, actions by Israel, its military, or members of its government. International media of every stripe often fixate disproportionately on events in Israel, most especially as they relate to tensions between Israel and the Arab world, the result being that even mundane news from Israel can get more attention from the media than the civilians in northern Mexico getting murdered left and right by drug cartels, the human rights abuses in (name your country), any one of a number of public health crises, the continuing nuclear contamination around Fukushima, or that epic island of trash floating around in the Pacific that’s visible from space.

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Peace negotiations fail time and again, and for this the Israeli government places blame squarely on the Arab world, and on the Palestinians in particular. This position is patently absurd; the Israeli government shares a huge amount of responsibility for failing to make any progress. Somebody has to take bold action, and Israel, as the most advanced power in the region, is in the best position to take it. And yet. Their position, too, is not entirely wrong. The Palestinian Authority has not leveled with its people about the reality of what a negotiated deal would be. The Arab world has largely failed to help the Palestinians in any meaningful way, preferring instead to use their plight to fuel anti-Western sentiment in their own countries.

Israelis often say that the world holds their country to a double standard; some of this is avoiding having to do any self-reflection. I think that Israel suffers, to a degree, from a 19th-century interpretation of the rules of war, and it chafes when this interpretation smacks into a 21st-century reality. It wants to be held to norms that have a long history but are short on acceptance in the Internet Age; in previous centuries, few would have argued the legitimacy of controlling territory decisively captured from neighbors during wartime, or of maintaining a naval blockade, or of building a barrier to keep out people who don’t like you.

Israel chafes at the sudden international rejection of what, for most of history, have been accepted practices for geopolitical entities in conflict, but the international community arguably indulges in some fantasies of its own, whether for reasons of political correctness or for some other reason altogether. The idea that Israel would return land of the Golan Heights, considered by the international community to be not lawfully part of the State of Israel, to Syria, a failed state, which is to say that the Golan Heights would quickly become lawless, is a little bit loony. And then there is Jerusalem. I guess I really don’t have anything to say about it except this: find me just one example in recorded history of a successful, functional division of a capital city between two nation-states, much less one with the religious significance of Jerusalem. It is neither ideology nor religious conviction that sustains this view; it is empiricism.

Let’s not mince words, though. We have known the basic profile of a negotiated deal for some time now. Israel would more or less withdraw to its 1967 borders, with the exception of the Golan Heights. The Palestinian state would be demilitarized. Only the very largest of settlements in the most intractable of locations would remain; these would become part of Israel and in exchange the Palestinian state would gain equal land area elsewhere along the West Bank. Though a highly questionable idea with no prior evidence to support it, Jerusalem would probably split into an Israeli western portion and a Palestinian eastern portion. Both sides would receive a boost in standing within the international community, which they both badly need. If both parties fail to make progress, Israel will sacrifice its democracy in order to maintain the status quo, and the Palestinians will not be held to proper account, as they should be. We know what has to happen, and we know what will happen if negotiations fail indefinitely. We’re just wasting time at this point.

Finally, I wish to say this: Israel has a huge array of impressive and wonderful credits to its name. Its engineers, researchers, and scientists have contributed outstanding advances in everything from agriculture to theoretical physics. It boasts delicious foods, booming arts communities, some stunning geography, and the world’s most secure airline. Jerusalem plays host every year to hordes of religious visitors of various faiths and, barely an hour away, Tel Aviv ranks as one of the world’s top LGBT destinations. Israel’s detractors have sometimes crowed that the media “pinkwash” Israel—that they [the media] promote Israel’s relatively good record on LGBT rights in order to distract attention from the country’s abuses in other areas. You know we live in strange times when a country gets flak for having a good record on gay rights as a cover for its failures on other things.

I can’t even.

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Now, on to the movie. That’s actually what I’m supposed to be doing, right? Writing a re-view of a movie.

Walk on Water touches upon more issues than I can count. The movie presents the viewer at one time or another issues related to: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, suicide, assassination, terrorism, homosexuality, the Holocaust, socialism, family conflict, and revenge. Because one movie can totally deal with all those things, right?

Not one to let even a minute go to waste, the movie opens with a Mossad agent, Eyal, assassinating a Hamas official in Istanbul. He gets picked up by a getaway car, and the last shot we get in the scene lingers on a close-up of the Hamas guy’s son, balloon and lollipop in hand, tears streaming down his face. You can tell already, this is going to be a happy romp of a film. Eyal flies back to Israel, and as the plane lands, the camera lingers on the hills overlooking Ben Gurion airport, on the other side of which lies the western edge of the West Bank; after disembarking, Eyal breaks away from the customs line and ducks into a private room, where his Mossad colleagues toast him for a job well done.

I have to say straight off that my re-view of Walk on Water owes a great deal to the fact that I’ve been to Israel twice since I first saw it at UCSB. You notice details, like the geographic situation of Ben Gurion airport or the bearded Orthodox Jews therein, ambling along with their plastic bags, that only make sense after you witness it firsthand. I think the same goes for any place that you’ve traveled, and for my part, it adds an extra layer to my movie-watching experience. But back to the story.

Eyal returns from the airport to find that his wife Iris has committed suicide. Some angst-filled, overwrought music for piano and strings plays as we watch him take in the scene, retrieve Iris’ suicide note, and call his boss, Menachem. (It’s a sad moment! Quick! Get a minor chord in first inversion followed by a step-removed diminished chord in inversion in here!) A few months later, Menachem gives him a new task: pose as a tour guide in order to gain the confidence of two grandchildren of a Nazi war criminal who, like so many others of that generation, went into hiding in Argentina. It’s clear that Menachem doesn’t see Eyal as fit for normal duty after such personal trauma, and he doesn’t tell Eyal the truth: hunting down this ex-Nazi is more Menachem’s priority than Mossad’s.

Eyal hates his assignment and regularly kvetches about it. In his eyes, Axel is nothing more than a naïve tree-hugger, and Axel’s sometimes simplistic lines don’t do much to shake this impression. Eyal rolls his eyes at kibbutz life, which many Israelis regard with the same level of derision that older generations of Americans had for the late Sixties. Israeli folk dancing has a long tradition, but the music has mostly shed its folk flavor for something closer to ‘90s pop, or even EDM. While Axel and Pia dance, Eyal goes snooping in Pia’s apartment, bugging it so that he can listen in on their conversation later. The music, again some amelodic, angst-ridden, overwrought cue for strings, tries to inject more tension into the scene than I can plausibly accept. We all know from the get-go that Eyal’s undercover; there’s no need to position him as a sinister figure, especially since we happen to know very well that he doesn’t take it seriously and doesn’t care about hunting for ex-Nazis.

Axel, for some reason, takes an immediate interest in setting up his sister with his tour guide—you know, as you do. And so, despite the fact that Eyal’s demeanor is drier than California’s water table and Pia’s hiding from her own emotional demons, we find Eyal and Pia at a chic restaurant in Tel Aviv. This scene confused me to no end. Axel obviously set them up, but just as soon as we think that Eyal and Pia are on a proper date, we see Axel appear, chatting and flirting with the Palestinian waiter, Rafik. I don’t know how it works with siblings, but even in my limited experience I feel certain that if you fix up two friends on a date, you don’t accompany them.

So, not only does this heteronormative date suddenly get thrown off when we realize that Axel is along for the ride, but to make things even more interesting, Axel says he has directions to “the hottest dance party in town.” Now, I’m no expert, but I’m pretty sure people don’t say shit like that anymore. Anyway, Rafik’s directions lead them to TLV, a well-known gay club named for Ben Gurion airport’s call letters. Axel quickly finds Rafik and gets down to business, and Pia goes off to dance, leaving her stuff with Eyal. Rather quickly, he realizes what kind of place he’s just walked into, and it doesn’t take long before he beats a hasty path to the door. I understand him—if only because I’m no fan of clubs myself, which means that whenever I find myself at one, I’m usually contemplating ways to make my escape. After the cover, the lines, the expensive drinks, the yelling over the sound system, I’m supposed to make sure all the little aspects of my body language communicate that I’m available? I can’t even. Ain’t nobody got time for that.

I give Eytan Fox, the popular and openly gay director of Walk on Water, credit for his straightforward and light approach to portraying gayness and playing on homoeroticism on film. Axel and Eyal shower together after their dip in the Dead Sea; Eyal has the usual straight-guy questions about gay sex, which he asks Axel in a gay bar in Berlin; he defends Axel’s drag friends from an assault in the Berlin subway station. And, in a way, Eytan Fox shows us on screen a glimpse of the process by which many have come to accept and feel comfortable with LGBT people: by knowing them in person and being open to seeing that they have the same needs, fears, and desires as everyone else. After the night in TLV, Eyal complains to Menachem that he should have been informed about Axel being gay, but what he’s really saying is the same thing he’s been complaining about to Menachem all along: give it up, they’re just two people with family issues, nobody cares anymore about settling scores with half-dead ex-Nazis. Menachem sends Eyal to Berlin nonetheless, to attend the birthday party for Axel’s father.

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SPOILER ALERT

The party, a distinctly early twentieth-century affair, finally puts Axel in direct conflict with his parents. Eyal seems to take it all in stride until the ex-Nazi grandfather shows up, at which points Eyal loses his shit and leaves to go see Menachem. Axel’s mother, Segret, states with almost comical forthrightness that Eyal could be a Mossad agent—which we all know to be true. Menachem, for his part, goes all Oedipal on Eyal and exhorts him to assassinate the grandfather in part to avenge Eyal’s mother, a Holocaust survivor. This exchange, along with the scene in the coffee shop, finally brings Menachem’s relationship to Eyal into focus: that of a coercive, abusive stepfather. Given the course of recent events in Israel, I read this relationship, though not explicitly emphasized in the movie, as a mild metaphor for how some on the far right in Israel view the United States’ relationship with their country. They perceive, correctly to some degree, that the United States wants negotiated deals with Iran and the Palestinians more than Israel does, and has tried to coerce Israel’s assent to American diplomatic initiatives.

Anyway, Eyal, who hitherto hasn’t expressed any interest at all in settling Holocaust-era scores, returns to Axel’s family’s mansion and—rather clumsily, it seems—heads straight for the grandfather, leaving the bedroom door ajar as he prepares to deliver a lethal injection. This, I must say, bugs the shit out of me. Why should an experienced Mossad agent, a consummate professional, suddenly get so sloppy as to leave the door open while conducting an assassination? Would Jason Bourne? Would James Bond?

Because Eyal leaves the door ajar, of course Axel walks in on him. Eyal, unable to see his mission through, walks out the door (and presumably disposes of his lethal syringe somewhere on the way back to his room), leaving Axel behind with the grandfather. And that’s when it happens. Axel takes a moment to look at the frail old man sleeping in front of him, and then coolly shuts off the life support and watches his grandfather die in front of him. Believe me when I say that neither I nor anyone else sitting in Campbell hall saw that one coming.

I can remember distinctly the audience reaction to Walk on Water’s great plot twist. And it is a great plot twist. One could almost feel the collective mind-fuck reverberating through the skulls of us arrogant sophomores. Oh hey, look at Axel, hippie do-gooder, coolly murder his own grandfather. When I watch Eyal and Axel’s final scene together, I find it difficult not to imagine Eyal starting off with: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.”  And I think, in a way, the power of that scene, coming, as it does, so close to the end of the movie, does much to prop up the rather abrupt, and somewhat weak, conclusion of the story.

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After Eyal’s confession, we get a short epilogue set two years in the future, in which not only have Eyal and Pia become an item, but they have gotten married and had a baby boy. Ten years ago, the Eyal-Pia relationship tested the limits of my suspension of disbelief; ten years later, I feel like it puts the movie in serious danger of going over the top. And let’s be honest, the movie doesn’t spend very much time developing a storyline for the two of them; that’s not its focus. We get a scene here, a suggestion there. Eyal doesn’t look like the kind of guy who minds eating pizza at his desk while listening to audio feed from his bug planted in Pia’s apartment. And I, for one, resent the implication that it requires a relationship to make Eyal realize that killing is bad and that he doesn’t want to do it anymore, as he had confessed tearfully to Axel in the previous scene. Dude, you should be able to figure out all on your own that assassinating people isn’t all that great. Moreover, I don’t think anyone who’s ever been in a serious relationship would call it a remedy for one’s own issues. Of the problems with this epilogue, I think we can all agree that voice-over narration of a character writing is not the world’s strongest storytelling device. Walk on Water only does it a little bit, but it grates on me just as much as Amy Adams’ constant voice-over in Julie & Julia or Sarah Jessica Parker’s in Sex and the City—what of it I have seen.

The movie seems like it tries hard to be many things to many people. To liberal Jews like me, it wants to showcase the dehumanization that invariably results from decades of killing and mistrust. Eyal’s blunt pronouncements about the Palestinians and the suicide bombings by their extremist factions try very hard to paint a picture of a people, “our” people, that we can’t recognize or support because of the views they hold. (“What’s to think?” Eyal says. “They’re animals.”) Eyal’s altercation with Rafik’s uncle in his Jerusalem shop stall means to show how Israel treats the Palestinians in general. And to liberal Jews like me, the movie also tries to urge the Jewish community not to invoke the specter of the Holocaust at every turn, especially as an excuse for failing to make any progress in the present. To members of the LGBT community and allies, it wants to show how knowing someone who identifies as LGBT breeds tolerance. To peaceniks in general, the movie presents Axel and his positive personality, and a whole lot of Springsteen. With so many target audiences, Walk on Waternever quite comes together as a cohesive whole. Lior Ashkenazi’s average performance contributes to this, and the script sometimes shows weaknesses.

Usually, re-viewing movies for 10YA shines a spotlight at how different my life, or the world, is from the time that the movie in question came out. Not so this time. Re-viewing Walk on Water ten years later made me realize just how little difference ten years has made to the state of things. Israel has the same prime minister, a brilliant politician and calculating shmuck who, despite his wits, hasn’t gotten anything done during his time in power and has only dug himself into a hole with his eleventh-hour electioneering. The Palestinian Authority still has the same president, who hasn’t taken any real action himself either, and whose appeals to the UN show how little he knows about the low opinion Israelis have of that body. Most of the same players, from Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk to Tzipi Livni and Saeb Erekat, are still involved. There’s a saying about trying the same things over and over and expecting a different result.

In other words: I can’t even.

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Ten Years Ago: The Wedding Date

10 Feb

Maggie McMuffin shares a movie date memory from her history of queerness and analyzes sex worker representation in the Debra Messing film The Wedding Date.

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Yes, I watched Will & Grace as a high schooler. I was an awkward redhead with a gay best frenemy. Of course, I have since learned that if you are going to be anyone on that show you are going to be Jack and Karen but at the time I thought Debra Messing was more my speed. This, combined with my love of rom-coms set in England, led to me being interested in seeingThe Wedding Date when I was 14 or 15 years old. I went and saw it with my mom and liked it enough to see it a second time when the opportunity arose.

And what an opportunity.

My aforementioned gay best frenemy (now just a friend), Brian, was going on his first date with another dude (Brian was way better about coming out early than I was). Clearly a big deal that was complicated by us living in a conservative town with a naval base. On that base was a theater, that theater was playing The Wedding Date, and our two young homosexuals didn’t feel they could go alone.

So Brian brought me, and his date brought a lady friend. The boys sat in the middle and we sat on the outside. Boys paid for the date and got to hold hands the whole time while seemingly on a double date with two girls. (In retrospect, I’m pretty sure that other woman was also not straight.)

When I told my dad about this his response was “You managed to get a guy to pay for a date that you would never have to put out for? Good job!”

So while I don’t remember a ton about this movie (but still a decent amount. Certainly more than some of the other films I’ve re-viewed), it has a special place in my heart and my history of queerness and, in a weird way, my eventual entry into sex work.

At the time I didn’t know all that though. It was just a funny story that featured some bitterness about love (I was all about love-bitterness in high school and still am today!) and awkward people and a British setting. All of that is secondary to my current thoughts of  ‘AND A MALE SEX WORKER WHO CATERS TO WOMEN.’

Seriously. That very rarely happens in pop culture (and life) and I don’t really care about the other stuff in this movie. I mean, maybe it’ll still be funny ten years later or maybe now it’ll piss me off because, barring Tyrion and Shae in Game of Thrones (seasons 1-3 only), I hate stories where a sex worker gets together with a client because even though it sometimes, on occasion, very, very rarely happens, I don’t want there to be movies out there encouraging the idea because, no, the stripper does not want to go on a date with you stop asking for the love of god.

But I doubt this can be as bad as Pretty Woman so let’s go to a wedding!

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We open with a wedding invitation to ‘Kat Ellis and Guest’ which is a quick way to tell us that Kat (Messing) is SINGLE. Also her sister is getting married. The invitation is super boring and basic so they throw some rose petals onto it. This transitions directly into a montage of Male Escorts ads in a black and white classified section. There are a lot of them. And I paused on the first two screens to see what was up and they’re all actually written in a different voice and style. I could not find any jokes hidden in there. Way to go whoever put that together.

The ads must be good because next we get a shot of New York with a voice over by Nick Mercer (Dermot Mulroney), giving a pep talk to Kat about how he’s going to be late to their international flight and she needs to send him his ticket and also she should stop freaking out. But Kat loves freaking out! So we are treated to her packing last-minute for this trip to England, taking a quick break to look at some picture of her and a dude. We also see where she got this idea to hire Nick because the camera pans to a magazine article called “HIRE YOUR DATE. THE NEW WAY TO DATE.” This is important because Kat is going to carry this article around with her for the rest of the film and consult it. A relative will too. Because middle class white people love reading stories about sex workers.

Speaking of, as we learn on the plane (which Kat boards with, like, nine pieces of luggage 15 minutes before takeoff because even though it’s a post 9/11 world she works for Virgin Air and can do that I guess? Could you just put nine pieces of luggage on a plane 10 years ago and not get charged 50 bucks for each one?), Kat and Nick have never met. But she has his full legal name. And the screening process he covers later in the movie is pretty shaky. But sure, he’s just gonna board an international flight with some random woman. I don’t know if male escorts who see women do that or not but if they do I hate them for getting to live in such a safe world. You couldn’t pay me enough to get on a plane with some dude I’ve never met. Hell, even getting sat next to a dude on a plane during a regular flight makes me glare.

Anyway, Kat fills Nick in on her family by telling him that it is not like on sitcoms where ‘everyone is out of their mind but they’re family so at the end of the day you love them.’ Totally not like that. But she has a stepdad and she loves him a lot.

They land and Kat insists that she change because Nick’s tie matches her dress. They change at a pub and she goes through everything. This, and lots of other moments in the first 45 minutes of the film, really serve to highlight how nervous Kat is and Debra Messing plays it off well. This isn’t comically falling over and being an adorable klutz. Messing plays Kat like a woman who is genuinely two seconds away from having a panic attack over anything not being perfect, someone who is deeply worried about what people think of her. Oddly enough, at no point does the film fall into tropes about her job being an issue or how people constantly try to set her up on dates. Rather, as someone who lives an ocean away from the rest of her family and the place she grew up (which seems to be London since it’s an unnamed large English city) they instead make references to her previous engagement that fell apart and to the fact that “she was very popular with the boys in school.”

And since Kat’s ex who dumped her is the best man at this wedding, people are actually pretty understanding of her being nervous at this thing. I mean, it’s super awkward and it gets more awkward as the movie progresses and we learn why he dumped her.

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Anyway, we get to the wedding and meet everyone. Kat’s blunt mother, her adorable and attention grabbing sister Amy (played by Amy Adams pre-leading lady upgrade), her sister’s fiancé Ed (Jack Davenport) who is actually a decent guy, Kat’s stepdad, the ex, Jeffrey, and Kat’s cousin TJ who quickly becomes a slutty comic relief character by entering and making a joke about having multiple gynecologists.

We follow all these people for the weekend. Kat pays Nick in a coat closet at the first event because I guess there wasn’t ever any time on the 16-hour plane ride. They are placed in the same bedroom at her parent’s house which is awkward because Kat finds sex for money “morally repugnant” and totally isn’t doing that except she totally will bang Nick by the end of this movie. Anyway, it’s really bad. Kat asks Nick questions about things he said in the article. Because, surprise! He was the escort they interviewed for the article and Kat’s friend at the magazine told her how to find him! Professionalism! Nick is not impressed and trolls Kat on every question, up to making up a story about his mother being a stripper who was really inappropriate with him. But the real answer is that it’s not about sex and he wants to give people company.

Honestly, with the exception of the eventual romance, Nick isn’t a poorly written sex worker. He gets eyeroll-y at the shit Kat pulls. He’s good at lying and calming Kat down, as well as maneuvering social situations they end up in to make Kat look good in front of her ex. There’s even a thing later on where he tells Kat he hates anchovies and four scenes later he’s eating some that are offered to him so as to fit in more. And then there’s this exchange at the bachelorette party, where all the ladies faun over him.

“Must be great, being paid just for being you.”

“Who says I’m being me?”

By the way, the romance is weeeeiiird. Like, he spends one day with Kat (where he is often annoyed and insulted by her) before the feelings kick in? And then they go to the stag and hen parties. Nick spends time with Jeffrey and learns he’s sad and in love with someone (we are led to believe it is Kat) but also Ed, who he learns has never had a fight with Amy. Ever. Like ever ever. They are the perfect couple.

Meanwhile, Kat gets super wasted with the ladies. Her sister gets all teary and talks about having second thoughts about marriage. “I shouldn’t be allowed to get married,” she cries, and hugs Kat really intensely and keeps repeating she loves her even if they haven’t always gotten along.

I’m sure you can see where that’s going.

Kat stops by an ATM on the way home and bangs Nick in her stepdad’s boat. She does not pay up front. She does not pay at all because she wakes up asking what happened and Nick, ever the gentleman, tells her nothing. (Even though she was super drunk so even if she was the aggressor, he should have said no because consent, dude. If someone who was putting up a pillow wall between you the night before and was afraid of seeing your penis shows up drunk and starts undressing you, you get that bitch some water and put her to bed and not like that.) But then he acts all snippy and find the money but Kat is like ‘What’s the deal, you said nothing happened?’ and also says she didn’t want to seem like she was expecting freebies, which is the first considerate thing she ever says about Nick’s job.  Nick gets upset and says he would have told her if he was going to charge her and nooooooope. Nope. Nope. Debra Messing is cute and all but there’s no way I buy that the escort who has known her for 36 hours is taken enough to just give it to her for free. Especially since he apparently charges $2000 per sexing? Like, no. No.

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But the night does a lot to boost Kat’s confidence. After this she’s visibly surer of herself. And when she is drunk and seducing Nick, she’s genuinely hot. Like, you can see the young heartbreaker Kat was before she got her heartbroken and became self-conscious.

Speaking of getting her heart broken, we learn about that at the rehearsal dinner. After a great dinner where everyone is getting along, Kat’s ex follows her into the wine cellar and starts trying to tell her something. By this point she’s reclaimed her confidence and doesn’t care what he has to say because she’s over him. Then he blurts out that he slept with Amy and Kat goes stone face angry. She walks upstairs and Amy, TJ, and Nick (Amy told Nick all this earlier when he walked in on Jeffrey hounding her about it) immediately know what’s up. Knowing that other people know just makes Kat angry enough to wander off into the nearby village while Ed, still in the dark about the affair, keeps asking what is going on.

We unfortunately have to sit through a scene where a wet Kat and Nick (like there was thunder and we never saw rain but both of them were clearly rained on? I think there might be an MPAA guideline that lovers arguing in England have to be rained on before they can express their feelings) snipe at each other and Kat is like ‘I believed all of this!’ and Nick is like ‘You can’t call me a liar! You dragged me out here to lie to people!’ And Kat tells him:

“I was so desperate for everyone to think I was happy that I paid 6,000 dollars for a lie and at the end of the day the only one who ended up falling for it was me. I wish I could say it was worth it.”

This is all the worse because Nick asked Kat’s dad for permission to date her earlier. Because he’s in love with her now. And it makes no sense but Mulroney actually does play off being hurt well. Hell, even if Nick wasn’t in love with Kat that would be a fucked up thing to say. It’s basically Kat getting mad at him for him being good at his job and her being bad at understanding the boundaries of their arrangement.

They split up and Ed let’s Nick stay in their boat house. Kat goes home and Amy thanks her for not outing her because she wants to tell Ed. She was just waiting for the right moment.

“You should really time it right. So that when you tell him you were repeatedly screwing his best friend he won’t feel like the whole world is collapsing around him and there’s no escape because you tricked him into marrying you.”

Kat is DONE. Kat will do the wedding, she’ll give a speech, and she’ll spend the next day acting like everything is fine and all that happened was that she and Nick got in a fight “but right now, tonight, I’m not gonna pretend it’s okay.”

I’m…I’m kind of amazed. There isn’t a tagged on shot of Kat feeling bad after her sister leaves in tears. And Amy Adams plays Amy like someone who fully understands that what she’s done is wrong. I mean, we’ve spent this whole film watching her express guilt and anxiety over something and now that it’s out in the open Amy is pretty broken. This whole scene is just COLD. Like, even though this a rom-com moments like this are played more like a straight forward drama and when we lead into the wedding prep montage of the next day, we’re shown the awkwardness rather than getting beat over the head with it. Things like Kat and Amy’s mother always being between them and Kat dropping her smile as soon as the photographer exits.

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But someone is gonna get told something and that someone is Ed. Amy comes clean at the church before the ceremony can start and Ed’s response is first sadness and then to go find his best man and chase him down with the full intent to beat the shit out of him.

TJ trips Jeffrey during the initial chase, btw. Because TJ, despite being a minor character, is pretty awesome.

So Ed is chasing Jeffrey and Jeffrey says they slept together before Ed and Kat got together. Ed doesn’t care because it still means Jeffrey cheated on Kat. Ed is a good person.

While this goes down everyone waits at the church. Kat and her stepdad have a heart to heart where he talks about that article because I guess he found it or something. And he gives Kat a really nice pep talk where he doesn’t say he knows how she and Nick met but he totally knows how she and Kat met. And that Kat shouldn’t care what people think because if she loves him and he loves her, then she should be with Nick. And this scene would be great if it made any sense whatsoever for Nick and Kat to be in love. Because it’s someone saying ‘So your loved one is a sex worker and people may give you shit for that. Fuck them. Do what makes you happy.’

Kat agrees and goes to the boat house to find that Nick has left her a letter and a full refund and is going back to New York. Except he totally runs into Ed and Jeffrey on the way there and gives Ed a ride after Jeffrey gets away.

On the way back, Ed upgrades Nick to best man after Nick convinces him to give Amy a second chance. Nick and Kat make up. (“I would rather fight with you than make love with anyone else.” Ew. You were doing so well, movie.) Amy and Ed get married. Kat gives a speech that makes Amy all teary. Because Amy is, at this point, feeling pretty fucking lucky.

There are some words saying what happened after the movie. Amy and Ed have great makeup sex, TJ gets laid, and Nick quits his job (what?) and “took Kat on their first date. Nick paid.” (WHAT?) Oh and Jeffrey is shown working out naked in view of a hot woman because he “learned absolutely nothing.”

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This movie isn’t terrible. And honestly, even though the romance annoys me it unfolded in such a way that I’m not completely pissed off.

What I do wish though is that this rom-com didn’t have that romance but kept the growth Kat achieved with Nick’s help. People do get help from sex workers. People gain confidence from us, whether we’re escorts, strippers, surrogates (how Nick started out), PSO’s, etc. This job is about more than sex. There’s a scene in the film where Nick acts like he’s gonna get sexy but just gives Kat a very blunt pep talk and breaks her shell open just enough that she can pull herself the rest of the way out.

And while it’s good that there was a non-pushy scene where Kat was told it’s okay and not shameful to date sex workers, it does bother me that she ended up with Nick. Sometimes people develop relationships with their preferred sex worker and it can be truly special and meaningful and it does not have to lead to dating. Usually it does not lead to dating because sex workers need to make money. Like, you don’t go out for drinks with your therapist after appointments. So it would have been good to have this movie end with Kat telling Nick thank you for helping her and him affirming that she did a lot of growing that weekend and that he was happy to help. And then Kat could have moved on from Jeffrey and perhaps tried dating again and going back to being her previously fabulous slutty self rather than getting over him by jumping into a relationship with someone else she just met. Especially someone who she doesn’t fully get along with. Yeah, he’s hot. Yeah, he’s nice to her. But there are enough moments in the first half of their weekend where Nick is inwardly reminding himself that he’s getting paid 6,000 dollars to be on this trip.

Also, Nick likes his job. He says he does. More than once. And even though it’s not all about the money, he makes a TON of money. There is no reason for him to quit that job to be with someone who finds that job “morally repugnant” (oh and despite Kat’s growth, she never is shown as getting less judgmental about full service work) and then to fucking pay for the first date. Dude doesn’t have an income anymore and Kat does. Make her keep paying.

But aside from that, I liked the movie. The characters are more than the usual 2D rom-com stock and the cast puts in good performances. The foreshadowing is there but not overwhelming. This isn’t a great movie and its tone is often stuck between being an actual comedy and being a drama which meant I was often letting it drift off into background noise. Like, there are some funny lines, but I have a hard time saying this script is funny enough as a whole to be labeled a comedy. I would say that if you’ve ever got a sick day and want something easy to watch, this might be a good choice.

Though I am wondering if Nick is ever gonna tell Kat that he had sex with her when she was blackout drunk. They don’t include that part in the epilogue.

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Ten Years Ago: Les Choristes

21 Jan

Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins re-views one of his favorite French-language films,Les Choristes, and contemplates the state of music education.

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Let me begin this re-view by saying that, among all the films I’ve re-viewed for 10YA, Les Choristes probably represents one of the best in raw quality of storytelling. This re-view therefore doesn’t spend much time recapping the storyline. Possibly owing to that fact, I’ve had a really hard time deciding what I actually want to say about the film. Except, of course, that you should see it.

Les Choristes, a film that explores the transformative power of music, naturally invites comparisons to perhaps the only other example of this kind of film that most people can conjure, Mr. Holland’s Opus. While not exactly analogous, they both shine a spotlight on the value of music education, with particular emphasis on the figure of the music educator. Since music educators, as a rule, don’t get an ounce of respect in our society, I appreciate the fact that once every twenty years some creative filmmaker out there musters the courage to make a film celebrating a type of educator stuck with the short end of the stick in a profession that itself has the short end of the stick. In other words, merely by dint of its subject, this film has stuck with me even though I haven’t once watched it in the last ten years. As I’ve remarked in previous re-views of French films, the title Les Choristes loses something in translation; rendered in English as “The Chorus,” the title takes on a subtlety of phrase when translated literally as “The Choristers,” meaning the schoolboys. Because, in the end, the film is really about them.

Les Choristes makes use of an interesting, doubly-framed frame story. Pierre Morhange, one of those rare people who has made a successful career as a classical musician, receives news of the death of his mother Violette and travels home to small-town France. After the funeral, a visitor arrives: Pépinot, a former classmate of Pierre’s from Fond de l’Etang, an oppressive boys’ boarding school, who bears a gift for Pierre from the school’s onetime supervisor, Clement Mathieu. Pépinot produces an old class photo, and as Pierre gazes at it, a favorite passage of mine from Roger Peyrefitte’s novel Les Amitiés Particulières, the story of a highly homoerotic relationship between two boys at a Catholic boarding school, immediately came to mind:

“Ces hommes n’avaient qu’un témoignage en leur faveur et ils l’avaient probablement oublié : c’étaient leurs photographies d’autrefois, encadrées dans le couloir du premier étage. Georges se rappelait tel minois ébouriffé sur un grand col rabattu, tel autre si gentil, si délicat, tel autre au contraire, si effronté, et celui-là qui avait un regard mystérieux. Ces garçons n’existaient plus. Leurs visages avaient été remplacés par ces visages d’hommes, sur lesquels la vie, la laideur, l’uniformité, le rasoir étaient passés.”

“These men had but one testimony in their favor and they’d probably forgotten it: their photos from the past, framed in the hallway of the first floor. Georges recalled such a pretty, ruffled little face atop a large turned-down collar; another so gentle, so delicate; another contrarian, so affronted; and that one there, with a mysterious look. Those boys no longer existed. Their faces had been replaced by the faces of men, over which life, ugliness, uniformity, and the razor had passed.”

The photo is, however, not the gift. The late Clement Mathieu bequeathed the diary of his days as supervisor at Fond de l’Etang to Pépinot, who seems to understand that Mathieu ultimately intended the book for Pierre, the student who took Mathieu’s original gift of musical training and changed his life with it. Pierre and Pépinot enjoy a shared reverie as Pierre reads from the diary; the narrator’s voice then becomes Mathieu’s, and we arrive at the inner framing of the story of Les Choristes.

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Clement Mathieu’s diary begins the day he arrives at Fond de l’Etang. The outgoing supervisor, the man whose job Mathieu inherits, paints a picture of misery at the boarding school and flees as fast as he can. Let me pause and reflect for a moment on the fact that I don’t know anything about boarding schools, except that wherever they appear in literature abuse, corruption, and sexual assault usually follow close behind. Nor do I know anything about private religious schools. I grew up attending public schools well-financed by local property taxes, with the properties in question costing, on average, somewhere north of $1.2 million. I attended one of the top public universities in the country, also generously financed, in this case by the state of California (less so these days, but that’s for another re-view). Not until I moved to Boston for graduate school did I finally attend a private educational institution, and admittedly at that point in one’s academic career, the public/private distinction doesn’t really impact much save how the school can spend certain funds and what they have to report and to whom. Needless to say, I’ve never known a school environment as anything less than a fairly liberal setting.

Fond de l’Etang represents the opposite of all that. The director, Rachin, knows nothing about education, resents his occupation, and turns that resentment into a domineering cruelty that he inflicts on the boys and the staff alike. The film sets him up as the primary antagonist, but in my re-view I found that he contributed little tension to the story. He’s an ass, and not much more. Mathieu, unwilling to play by Rachin’s rules, quickly becomes a worthy foil to Rachin early in the film, and he deftly wins favor with the boys by turning their own pranks on them, laughing with them, and above all, respecting them. With this bond between Mathieu and the boys established, Rachin can’t do much to antagonize or disrupt it. The other obvious antagonist, Mondain, plays a temporary role of possibly sociopathic but otherwise typical mouthy teenager, and likewise doesn’t contribute much tension to the story. In reality, Mathieu’s chorus doesn’t face threats from any of these external actors; the real threat comes from within, from the culture of apathy, neglect, and devaluation of education that Rachin has managed to create and enforce through his staff.

Indeed, as often as this repressive culture gives the film serious weight, it sometimes also makes for some seriously sardonic scenes. For example, when Mondain first arrives at Fond de l’Etang, the representative who delivered him describes to Rachin all the tests Mondain’s previous institution has administered to him. This moment immediately takes on a dark humor for any American born since about 1980, because as the rep rattles off the names of different tests, Rachin nods furiously, as if to say “Oh yes, jolly good! The more tests the better!” We know perfectly well, however, that he doesn’t have a fucking clue what any of those tests supposedly measure. Rachin, a raging incompetent, puts blind faith in a bunch of wonks whose policy prescription of tests smacks of incompetence as well. We all know standardized tests. As a barometric indicator of anything but standardized test-taking skills they prove essentially worthless, while wasting immense sums of money and exacting a toll on the well-being of students and teachers alike. It’s both funny and enormously sad.

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Besides highlighting things that make us aware of our failing system of education, Les Choristes reminds us of the fact that our stereotypes of boys and the ways we treat them have barely evolved in well over half a century. From the first, Rachin and his staff insist to Mathieu that the boys understand only the policy, sloppily borrowed from Newton’s laws of motion, that every action taken by the boys will have an opposite (and likely unequal) reaction. Luckily, postwar France didn’t have Ritalin, or probably each and every last one of the boys would have his own medication regimen. Rachin clearly sees punishment as something that all boys inherently need; he’s a male Trunchbull with his own version of the Chokey. As a society, we’ve graduated from beating boys into submission simply to drugging them instead.

Fortunately, Les Choristes shows us what can happen when we turn away from this model of thinking, a model that sees boys (and indeed all children) as liabilities that need to acquire the discipline necessary to become an adult, discipline gained through a system of reward and punishment. George Lakoff, a linguist and political scholar, calls this model of parenting—and boarding school staff especially function as surrogate parents—the “Strict Father” model, and besides being a crucial component of Lakoff’s prototypical conservative worldview, it’s also a highly ineffective approach to child-rearing. Mathieu takes a more respectful approach, and while the film’s major plotline turns on whether Mathieu’s investment in Morhange will succeed or fail, it also shows that sometimes breaking the rules, anathema to Rachin and Lakoff’s “Strict Father” model, leads to positive change. Mathieu’s defiance of Rachin, his dedication to providing some form of music education, leads directly to an improved quality of life for the boys. And, toward the end of the film, his decision to take the boys out of school for a day ends up saving all of them from the fire that damages Fond de l’Etang.

As I mentioned in the opening of this re-view, Les Choristes counts as possibly the finest quality film I’ve ever re-viewed for 10YA. It seems to have two layers for everything: two layers of frame story, two narrative strands in third person (one directed at the boys, and the other more personal to Mathieu) inhabiting the same narrative voice, two types of antagonist, two levels of relationship between Mathieu and the boys (one between Mathieu and the chorus, and a more private one between Mathieu and Morhange), two facets to Mathieu’s interactions with Violette (one romantic and one more professional), and two ways to read what the chorus does. On the surface, the chorus acts as an alternative methodology for establishing discipline; this we might call the El Sistema layer—El Sistema being a generously-funded program of Venezuela’s petroregime that subsidizes youth orchestras all over the country as a means, for want of better words, of keeping kids out of trouble. Despite some questionable aspects of its context, El Sistema does produce some fine musicians—Gustavo Dudamel, anyone?—and deserves admiration and emulation. Underneath this layer, Mathieu’s chorus of schoolboys (and its success) fights back against a cultural slant that codes singing—particularly less “mainstream” styles of singing, such as choral music and musicals—as insufficiently masculine behavior. Indeed, the particularities of male singers, whether boy sopranos, adult falsettists, or adult men who sing soprano or countertenor in chest voice (i.e., not in a falsetto), have an undeniable queerness about them. Because deconstructing and analyzing the cultural politics of music would take a whole separate re-view—if not an article or book chapter—I’ll say only that because nearly all of us consume music, the queerness of the male voice proves relatively easy to perceive.

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Music history has had a complicated relationship with boys’ voices. The main thing to know is that it is really fucking hard to get boys to produce a sound comparable in polish and tone to one attainable to a trained adult. On account of this and other, secondary sources (pay records, for example), more than a few musicologists have suggested that boys in the 15th through 18th centuries did not actually sing much of music with which they have been credited with singing. The struggle to obtain that unique sound represents perhaps the ultimate biological fool’s errand: even if you can manage to get there, you have but the flash of a few short years before the boy’s voice will break and the sound you worked so hard to craft will disappear forever. With an ever-earlier onset of puberty nowadays, abetted by the preponderance of chemicals now found throughout every area of industrialized life, the phenomenon of the boy soprano seems likely to disappear. This makes it all the more remarkable that Les Choristes features an actual trained soprano, Jean-Baptiste Maunier, in the role of Pierre Morhange (an older actor portrays him in the frame story). His full talents finally make an appearance in the denouement of Les Choristes, which features two verses of a chorus from the opera Hippolyte et Aricie by Jean-Philippe Rameau, an early 18th century composer, extracted and arranged over a century later by Joseph Noyon. Rather than discuss this music, I will instead conclude this re-view by leaving you faithful 10YA readers with lyrics and a link to YouTube. Of this final performance, Mathieu remarks in his narration (at the end of the clip): “In Morhange’s eyes, which carefully followed my every gesture, I read all at once a multitude of things: pride, the joy of having been pardoned, but also something truly new for him—a feeling of recognition, of belonging.”

Ô Nuit ! Viens apporter à la terre

Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.

L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,

Si doux est le concert de tes voix

chantant l’espérance,

Si grand est ton pouvoir transformant tout

en rêve heureux.

(O Night! Come, spread across the earth

The calm enchantment of your mystery.

Sweet is the shadow that accompanies you,

Sweet is the concert of your voices

singing hope,

How great is your power, transforming all

in a happy dream.)

Ô Nuit ! Ô laisse encore à la terre

Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.

L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,

Est-il une beauté aussi belle que le rêve ?

Est-il de vérité plus douce que l’espérance ?

(O Night! Let stay yet upon on the earth

The calm enchantment of your mystery.

Sweet is the shadow that accompanies you;

Is there any beauty greater than the dream?

Is there any truth sweeter than hope?)

Free-Floating Thoughts

Morhange’s mother’s name is Violette, the French equivalent of the Italian Violetta, and it’s noted that she’s not like the other boys’ mothers—namely, she’s young and beautiful, and the implication here is that she had something of a freewheeling young adulthood, which came to an end with the arrival of Pierre. In a movie about music, I can’t help but read this as a clear reference to La Traviata; thankfully, Les Choristes spares us any run-in with the libiamochorus.

Almost immediately upon his arrival at Fond de l’Etang, Mathieu gets the nickname crâne d’obus, “Baldy.” As someone who experienced significant hair loss in his early twenties, I can only hope that in my middle age I will own my image as well as Mathieu does.

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Ten Years Ago: The Phantom of the Opera

28 Dec

Maggie McMuffin feels a deep and unshakeable shame for once loving Andrew Lloyd Webber’s campy-but-not-campy-enough Phantom of the Opera.

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This fucking movie.

I’m 15 or about to turn 15 when it comes out. I see it three times in theaters. It is a masterpiece to me and gets me really into musical theatre. I am a 15-year-old drama kid who hasn’t yet discovered Rent and decided that that must be the best musical ever.

Phantom leads to Les Mis, leads to Miss Saigon, leads to Cats, leads to all those overblown ‘80s musicals and some of the ones in the ‘90s. I even listen to Aspects of Love, which is a terrible Andrew Lloyd Webber musical but I feel it has some great solos. ‘There is More to Love’ is one of my favorite musical theatre songs to this day.

I just…

I’m trying to think of anything I can say about how much I used to love this movie but all I can say is that, in my defense, I was 15 and desperate to sing well. I was frequently involved in love triangles. I worked so hard on school plays that one day I passed out in the bathroom during fourth period from malnutrition. And me and my friends left offerings to the ghost of our cafetorium, who we blamed for the curtain getting stuck, props going missing, odd noises, and that day that the lights turned off and every door in the vicinity slammed shut.

No really. That last one was pretty scary. Non-automatic doors just slamming shut in quick, rhythmic succession? There may be a scientific explanation for it about wind and air pressure but a simpler explanation is just GHOST.

It didn’t take me long to realize how dumb this movie is because the musical it’s based on is dumb. The book the musical is based off of is dumb. Not as dumb as the Susan Kay prequel-sequel-retelling but close.

And yes I read that. I read that and watched multiple shitty adaptations of the original book and god help me I even wrote fan fiction and did roleplaying on Neopets for this.

I was 15. I was entranced by the magic of theatre. Or something.

Loyal readers, feel free to vote on if this is better or worse than my obsession with werewolves. Because this? This isn’t a story a young girl should get wrapped up in unless it’s jokingly. I mean, this is a musical about stalkers and daddy issues. It’s about people tossing an ingénue around and leaving her traumatized. Or more traumatized because Christine is clearly not over her father’s death that happened YEARS AGO. Like, this is a young woman who men need to leave the fuck alone because she’s working through some stuff.

So I’m not expecting much from this movie except to laugh and to still love the supporting cast. Because Minnie Driver playing an opera diva? I am here for that. But mostly I’m thinking about how at 15 it was really exciting to see a 14-year-old playing a lead in a major musical. Now that I’m 25 (I did the rewatch on my birthday and the day after. Seemed fitting to do a retrospect then) all I can think is WHO THOUGHT IT WAS A GOOD IDEA TO CAST A 16-YEAR-OLD IN A FILM WHERE SHE HAS TO MAKE OUT WITH TWO 35-YEAR-OLDS.

WHAT THE FUCK, HOLLYWOOD.

THERE IS META AND THERE IS UNCOMFORTABLE.

Okay. Let’s start this trainwreck.

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We open on Black and White Paris in 1919. The movie starts super quiet. It’s a trick so you turn up the volume and then once the overture starts your entire apartment floor knows you’re spending Christmas Eve watching this awful movie.

But before the overture starts we have old man Raoul getting wheeled into the opera house which is…maybe operational again? It looks awful but they mentioned workshops so I don’t know? And there is a Madame Giry there but it’s probably Meg but we don’t know because she never speaks. Her and Raoul have a bidding war over some monkey music box and Raoul wins. I guess he wants it because Christine talked about it once? Even though this prop does not feature in the story in any significant way AT ALL.

Then they lift the chandelier and the overture actually starts AND IT IS ON. WE GOT COLOR. WE GOT LOUD SOUNDS. WE’VE GOT EVERY AUDIENCE MEMBER BEING EAR-FUCKED BY SYNTHESIZERS. REMEMBER MUSICAL THEATRE IN THE ‘80S? WELL YOU FUCKING WILL.

ALSO IT’S 1861 NOW. SO YOU KNOW.

The dust is all blown away and things rebuild themselves and okay this isn’t so bad. But much like the opening credits of Watchmen, everything is just downhill from here.

We sweep through backstage, visually meeting everyone important and totally not important, as the company rehearses for Hannibal, an opera that is sadly about the historical figure and not an adaptation of Bryan Fuller’s brilliant TV show.

The old manager interrupts to say that rumors of him leaving are true, here are his replacements, he’s going to Australia. Things get sabotaged. The Phantom sends a letter saying hi to the new managers, demanding money, and requesting his private box be left open as always. Carlotta, played with great ham by Minnie Driver, throws multiple tantrums.

I am…unsure what to call how Carlotta is portrayed. Is it old school racist against Italians? Because she speaks fractured ‘English’ (in quotes because technically these characters are speaking French) in a heavy accent. What’s weird is the one line we hear her speak on stage, unsung, is very precise and perfect. But a lot of things about Carlotta don’t make sense. Like why everyone seems to think she’s a bad singer but she’s been the lead soprano for five seasons. Or why people put up with her if she’s apparently untalented. She’s not. She’s maybe not the best actor or the most grounded performer but she’s not bad.

But it doesn’t matter because Madame Giry is like ‘hey, my almost daughter can sing’ and the manager are like ‘she’s very pretty’ (actual line) and she does. And…wow. I remember Emmy Rossum’s voice being much better. Like it’s not terrible. She’d do fine at karaoke. But this is not the voice of someone who could play Christine on stage let alone someone who should be playing any character who can believably carry an opera.

But what do I know. Christine is a hit. At the premiere Raoul, dashing patron of the opera, recognizes her from their childhood. They were sweethearts.

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Meanwhile the Phantom, having earlier mentioned he has a private box at all shows, is listening to Christine from the sewers because that makes sense.

Later on he abducts her with help from Madame Giry. Earlier Madame Giry wouldn’t let the managers near her daughter or Christine but the creepy recluse who lives in the basement and has been giving her voice lessons because Christine thinks he’s a literal angel? Oh that’s fine.

Here we hit one of the big changes from the stage version. In that one Madame Giry knew who the Phantom was and she delivered letters but she wasn’t so complicit in things. Here she’s leading Raoul into traps and locking Christine in rooms. It’s not a good change by any means. On the other hand, we get Miranda Richardson playing her and a fun game is to take a shot every time you can see her regretting the life choices that led her to being in this film.

Anyway, after Christine has given her best friend Meg exposition about the Angel of Music and how even though he father died years ago (I’m gonna guess 7-10 years prior to this) she fully believes his death bed promise of sending an angel to watch over her. Because when she got here there was this voice coming out of the walls and then it started giving her voice lessons and isn’t this great?

Meg, played by some Australian actress who is really committed to making Meg as aggressively doll like as possible, tells Christine that’s banana town.

Christine also tells Raoul about the angel and his reaction is ‘cool story, babe, let’s get dinner’. He won’t take no for an answer and while he goes to get the car, the Phantom shows up in a mirror and chastises Christine. She is obviously frightened so he relaxes her by…hypnotizing her with his voice?

I don’t know. There’s suddenly smoke. Christine has changed into a sheer dressing gown for some reason. She goes all blank faced and walks super slowly as he sings to her. Raoul bangs on the locked door as this happens and she doesn’t notice.

AND THEN WE GET THE THEME SONG AND A TRAVEL MONTAGE.

WALL SCONCES SHAPED LIKE ARMS.

WIND BLOWING THROUGH THE UNDERGROUND.

THERE’S A HORSE. THE HORSE LEADS TO A BOAT.

CHRISTINE’S HAIR HAS GOTTEN BIGGER AND SHE’S SUDDENLY WEARING MORE EYE MAKEUP.

THERE ARE GREEK STATUES BUILT INTO THE SEWERS.

CHRISTINE’S GOWN SPLITS OPEN, REVEALING ALL THE LEG AND ALSO THAT SHE IS WEARING WHAT APPEAR TO BE MODERN THIGH HIGH STOCKINGS.

CANDLES EVERYWHERE.

CANDLES ON THE FLOOR.

CANDLES ON THE WALLS.

CANDLES RISING FROM THE WATER ALREADY LIT.

GOT THAT BITCH SOME CANDLES. BITCHES LOVE CANDLES.

We dock. The Phantom sings ‘Music of the Night’ and again, Gerard Butler isn’t a terrible singer but oh man it is clear he’s a smoker and had no vocal training before this film. But he is trying so hard. And I guess if Emmy Rossum also can’t sing as well as someone in this role should at least they match?

Too bad Patrick Wilson is better than both of them, being the Tony nominee and all. But he’s still a weird choice because the musicals he’s done are nothing like Phantom stylistically. But I don’t care because I would tap that and also this has given us a film where you can imagine King Leonidas and Nite Owl fighting over a lady.

Anyway. The Phantom sings his big song and Christine is all hypnotized (you can tell because she’s slack jawed and her eyeliner gets even thicker) and he shows her around.

LOOK MY CANDLES.

LOOK COVERED MIRRORS.

LOOK A DIORAMA OF YOUR PERFORMANCE TONIGHT.

LOOK A REAL DOLL VERSION OF YOU WEARING A WEDDING DRESS.

She passes out and he takes her to a bed shaped like a swan (admittedly quite cool and I want one). It’s pretty creepy but he closes some curtains around her. But then he watches her through them. Creeeeeeeeepy.

Meanwhile, back above ground, Meg is investigating. She’s still in costume for some reason even though it’s clearly hours later. She finds the dressing room empty, a mirror open, and a dark passage. She goes in and the hallway is not full of smoke and fancy candle holders. Just rats and dampness. Her mom finds and stops her and at this point it becomes clear that Meg is the only person to give an actual fuck about Christine’s well being so of course we will be seeing far less of her from here on out.

Back to the sewers, Christine has woken up. Her lip gloss is fresh and her stockings are missing and I remember writing fan fiction in high school to humorously explain this continuity error. I’m guessing it was an error rather than an implication of things I don’t want to think about.

Our fair damsel sings of memory loss and cheerfully goes up to the Phantom and just takes his mask off. He flips out and terrifies her. We get a quick glimpse of the disappointing makeup job of his ‘abhorrent face’ and this is about the time I really start regretting volunteering for this.

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We cut back to the future, as this film does several times to show Raoul taking a car ride somewhere and glancing out the window at things that give him vague memories. And I’m just wondering how much money was tanked on putting people in old age makeup, making additional costumes and sets, and shooting these sequences rather than, I don’t know, just editing in a transition?

But I guess there’s a plan for the end which isn’t a good plan but it means there was thought or something. And I’m using ‘thought’ loosely because a lot of things in this movie seem to lack thought and care.

Which reminds me, the characters are doing stuff again.

There’s a sequence where EVERYONE got a letter. CARLOTTA GETS A LETTER. RAOUL GETS A LETTER. MANAGERS GET A LETTER. EVERYBODY GETS A LETTER.

And it’s all demands and junk about Carlotta getting demoted and Christine getting her roles. Carlotta throws a musical tantrum this time and the managers grovel and there’s a whole song about it where Minnie Driver gets to wear a big poofy pink outfit and I love it and nothing in this number makes sense, as I mentioned before. Because if the public prefers Christine and the technicians prefer Christine and the managers prefer Christine and the new patron wants to fuck Christine THEN WHY DO THEY CARE IF CARLOTTA QUITS.

But they do for some reason and she goes on in the lead and this leads to the Phantom crashing the performance, messing with Carlotta’s voice, and killing a dude who followed him and then dropping him onstage while the ballet dancers stall. In the mayhem Christine finds Raoul and is like ‘the roof is safe!’ and they go up there and Christine fills him in on getting abducted and aroused but mostly terrified. And how his sewer home is super dark even though he has a bajillion candles. They declare their love with a duet as the Phantom listens from behind a gargoyle and then gets super pissed when they’ve left. He cries and weeps and whines and then runs up another gargoyle and declares vengeance.

I decide that since this is the act break in the stage version, it’s a good time to take a break. I’m just gonna cleanse my palette and take a break because this movie is bad.

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I do not restart the movie for 36 hours. I have other things that are better uses of my time, like it being my goddamn birthday and wanting to do anything other than watch this movie and thinking back to how at 15 I thought this movie was worth seeing in the theater three or four times. Worth paying for even. Speaking of, there’s an issue with my Amazon rental and I have to pay for this thing a second time, unknowingly using up $3.27 off a gift card I redeemed today. That gift card money deserved a better fate.

It’s Christmas now, by the way. I’m spending my last bit of Christmas on this movie.

Now back to the most boring trainwreck ever.

There’s more black and white nonsense before we move on to a masquerade and people saying it’s been three months of peace. Because when a guy who seemingly lives in your theater kills someone and then disappears it’s safe to assume that he’s just gone forever.

Christine and Raoul are engaged now but she doesn’t want anyone to know so she hides a massive ring by putting it on a chain around her neck and letting it fall to just above her cleavage. And then she frenches Raoul on the dance floor anyway. And is every kiss between two French people a French kiss? I think I’ve put more thought into this question than anyone put into this script.

Everyone is wearing masks and costumes that are pretty sweet. Except Madame Giry who threw chopsticks in her hair, a shawl over her shoulders, and is I guess just going as that goth girl who thinks ‘geisha’ is an acceptable Halloween costume. (IT’S NOT.)

Phantom shows up with a fancy new mask that is not as cool as the one from the stage version and a super long cape and says he wrote an opera. He tells Carlotta to learn to act and Piangi to lose weight, which is just…Dude. You cannot complain about the world being rude to you about your little sunburnt face and then body shame a guy in front of all his peers. Not cool, Phantom.

Oh and he also creeps on Christine, says she needs to come back for lessons, and then rips her engagement ring off of her before SMOKE BOMBing out.

Raoul runs back in with a sword and jumps into the trap door Phantom used. He winds up in a room full of spinning mirrors and a noose, which is a reference to the novel. Luckily Madame Giry read the source material because she pops in and gets Raoul out of there. He demands some answers and she tells us the backstory.

When she was ‘very young’ and still in training her and the other ballet students went to a circus show and saw ‘the devil’s child.’ It’s the Phantom, his face gets shown off and he lives in a cage. After people leave he strangles his boss-captor and mini-Giry helps him escape and set up in the basement. But in the walls and junk because I guess getting him a tech job would have been too difficult or something.

Also, this raises one of the most important questions about the cast:

Raoul and Christine were childhood sweethearts.

Madame Giry and the Phantom are childhood murder-accomplices.

Raoul and the Phantom are played by actors of a similar age. Emmy Rossum is way younger than both of them. Miranda Richardson is older.

The ages don’t line up and it bothers me. Because it’s bad enough they tried making the Phantom hot but they could have made him hot and older if that was so important. Because he should be older. He should be like 50-something. Raoul is less of an issue for me but seriously Gerard Butler just had no business being cast as the Phantom. Apparently Hugh Jackman was going to audition but Van Helsing prevented that from happening. I can’t say I’m necessarily upset by that, especially since Jackman would have made a better Raoul, and it wouldn’t have solved the age problem but it’s a parallel universe I would like to visit and I’m sorry, I’m off-track again I just cannot pay attention to this movie. It’s so bad, you guys. It’s so boring. How is this film not campier?

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Anyway, we cut back to black and white again and this time Raoul is watching a deer running alongside the road. Deer + arrogant, abusive European geniuses just makes me think ofHannibal and I wonder if we could get the show’s cast to sing songs from the musical version and I am so sorry I keep doing this.

Anyway, Raoul is going to a cemetery. In the past, Christine is also going to a cemetery. She sneaks past Raoul who is asleep by her door and pays some dude to drive her there. While she runs back inside to get dressed the Phantom knocks this dude out and takes his place. Christine, probably distracted by the cleavage she’s sporting in her mourning gear, doesn’t notice. Raoul wakes up as they are pulling away and leaps onto horseback to pursue. He must have hit some red lights because he doesn’t show up until Christine has sung a solo to her father, walked slowly up to his MASSIVE CRYPT (How rich of a composer was he? Clearly not rich enough to leave his daughter money for a therapist), and gets vocally hypnotized by the Phantom again who is now just pretending to be the Angel of Music AND her dad AND also admitting he’s himself and Christine is buying it and walking towards the glowing red gate and she really needs some help. She needs professional help because there are layers to the fucked up going on here.

Anyway, Raoul and the Phantom sword fight. Raoul is gonna kill Phantom but Christine is all ‘not like this’ and they escape back to the opera house because I guess running away just isn’t an option when you’re an aristocrat and that is why they all get killed when revolutions happen.

But now there’s a plan! The plan is to do Phantom’s opera and use Christine as bait! They’ll just make sure the cops are there with guns and it’ll all be fine. Christine has some reservations about this plan. Like if she’ll be safe.

Where is Meg? Meg is Christine’s best friend. They’re like sisters. Look, I know you hate passing the Bechdel Test, Film and Theatre, but this is a case where it makes no sense for the women to not be talking to each other. You cannot give your damaged female lead a best friend she’s known for half her life who lives and works with her and is willing to go down some mystery mirror hallway for her friend and not show her being supportive about a rampaging stalker. At least throw in a line about Christine getting too wrapped up in Raoul to pay attention to her friends or something.

Anyway, there’s an opera. It’s awful. The music is harsh and staccato and the scene leading into the duet does not match up with it. I mean, they set it up like the lead is going to take advantage of this young woman who he will basically trick into sleeping with him. But then the music goes right into a sexy duet, no seduction needed.

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They sing the sexy duet. It’s the best singing both Rossum and Butler do the entire film. Phantom sings the duet with Christine because he kills Piangi and takes his place on stage and no one seems to notice this for a while. Which is off since Piangi is round and short and older and Gerard Butler is…not. But whatever. Christine and the Phantom sing unsubtle metaphors, Raoul tears up watching them, no one does anything and then Christine tears off the Phantom’s mask again. We see his face clearly for the first time and it is a letdown. Schumacher directed a Batman film that featured Two Face and those effects were better than this. Did you spend too much money on candles to pay a makeup effects artist? Because that is just some red-red blush thrown over some half assed eyebrow putty.

Phantom abducts Christine again. He drops the chandelier (which really does make more sense as a climax thing than an act break thing), Raoul finds Madame Giry and asks for help. Meg tries to help and Madame Giry tells her to stay back. Meg does and stops other people from following but they form a mob pretty quickly so oh well.Madame Giry leads Raoul down some stairs and then says she can’t go further. He thanks her, walks two steps, and falls through a trapdoor and into a water death trap. We get a sequence of Patrick Wilson in his thin white shirt and tight pants fighting to free himself. And he does!

And I hate this whole thing. It’s a change from the stage musical I do not like. I mentioned Madame Giry just handing Christine to the Phantom but in the stage show she leads Raoul to the edge of the sewer lake and they literally can’t go further but Raoul is like ‘no, I gotta save my lady’ and dives into the water. Because contrary to what a lot of fans of this musical say, Raoul is a goddamn hero.

I mean, aside from making this plan that got us all into this current mess.

Back at the sewer-house, the Phantom has made Christine put on the Real Doll’s wedding gown and is preparing to give her the ring he stole.

REALLY?

YOU’RE GONNA GIVE HER THE RING THAT ANOTHER GUY GAVE HER AND THAT YOU STOLE.

YOU ARE THE WORST.

Christine also says a line that shows ‘marital rape’ has gone on her list of fears but we’re just gonna gloss over that like we gloss over everything. Raoul shows up and the Phantom ties him up and during the next musical sequence of everyone singing at once so you can hardly tell what anyone is saying the Phantom keeps tying Raoul up and it’s almost comedic because it just never stops.

Phantom blackmails Christine. He’ll kill Raoul unless she pledges loves to him. Raoul uses precious air to say that it doesn’t matter if she lets him live because she’ll always love him and not Phantom and I really admire Raoul’s smarm here.

Christine frenches the Phantom and this makes him happy enough to yell at them to go. He also says to not tell anyone about him and I think it’s a bit late for that, dude. You sort of told everyone about you. Multiple times. Through various means. You sort of wrote a terrible opera and made people perform it for you. People know about you, bro.

Christine comes back quickly to give him the ring (I guess if I were her I wouldn’t want it anymore either) and they share looks and then she runs back to get on a boat with Raoul. She looks back and the Phantom sings one last time before smashing all the mirrors and leaving through a secret hallway.
The mob shows up. Meg rushes ahead and finds the Phantom’s main mask. The monkey music box is sitting next to it and Meg doesn’t take any notice of it because that music box isn’t actually important at all.

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One last visit to black and white land where Raoul, his driver, and his nun go to Christine’s grave and lay down the music bow. We learn Christine died at the age of 63 and her and Raoul had children. We also learn the Phantom outlived her because there’s a rose on the grave with the engagement ring on it.

Raoul looks around but there’s nothing so he looks back at the rose. The petals grow red and we pan back to it being on a different sort of…is it a film screen? This is how the movie opened up too. It’s like a movie screen but there’s a candle (seriously what is with all the candles) in front of it? It’s a mini movie screen? Or a painting? But it moves?

Oh thank god it’s credits time.

The original song ‘Learn to be Lonely’ plays. It’s sung by Minnie Driver since she didn’t sing in the movie. Because she knew she couldn’t. Just like Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds knew they couldn’t sing so they spoke-sang their songs and it worked. There are ways around a lack of singing talent but those really work best for supporting comedic roles not leads. Which is why I hope Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler are never in musicals again.

This movie was a waste of my time and I want to go back in time and shake my past self. The musical isn’t good. The movie isn’t good. Nothing about this is good. But I’ve seen enough bootlegs of Broadway casts having fun with this show to know it can be enjoyable.

The problem with this movie is that it took itself too seriously when really it should have pushed itself. This film was originally planned in 1989 (making it as old as me) with Joel Schumacher still directing because ALW liked The Lost Boys. Basically this movie could have been super ‘80s coke-fueled magic but instead we waited 15 years and got this watered down snooze fest that could put you to sleep even while blaring organs at you. By the time this movie was made, the musical was past its true cultural relevance and the adaptation of it either needed to be perfect and great (which is nigh impossible because, as I’ve said, the musical is not good) or it needed to poke fun at itself. It needed to go full balls out camp. Really push into so bad it’s good territory, which granted is hard to stumble into by accident but you know who has done that?

Joel Schumacher.

If he had taken this film to the lengths he took Batman Forever and Batman and Robin this film could have been hilariously bad. One review said that Schumacher used ‘disco overkill’ on this film but that’s not true. A) Phantom of the Paradise exists so we have a point of reference for a disco overkill adaptation of this story, and B) Batman and Robin exists so we have a point of reference for Schumacher’s overkill.This film needed more overkill. But no. Everyone had to complain about Batman and Robin for YEARS. You all had to make jokes about bat credit cards and rubber nipples, breaking Schumacher’s spirit so that he no longer had the confidence to commit to bad ideas. Now he only makes mediocre bad films instead of stunningly bad films. We could have had an awesome mess with this movie and instead we got this slow moving shit fest.

I hope you’re all happy.

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Ten Years Ago: The Aviator

22 Dec

Stevi Costa considers representations of disability, Sandy Powell’s amazing costume work, critiques of celebrity culture, and the use of jazz standards in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator.

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I’m going to begin this review by stating clearly that I love Leonardo DiCaprio. As a tween, I naturally had a giant crush on him thanks to Titanic and Romeo + Juliet. But I have aged as has Leo, and while I admire the perfection of his young heart-shaped face, I have also become a great defender of Leonardo DiCaprio the man. I like his man face. I like his scruff and stubble. I like his man-bun. But I like these things mostly because I believe, as Martin Scorsese does, that DiCaprio is a great actor. I think he is one of the finest American talents my generation will see, and I hope that one day we speak of him the way our parents spoke of great actors like Paul Newman or Marlon Brando or Robert De Niro (or whom they still speak). But in spite of a career littered with good and great performances, DiCaprio has yet to earn an Oscar for any of them. I thought 2014 and Wolf of Wall Street would be his year because it would have made up for his loss 10 years prior for Scorsese’s The Aviator, but Matthew McConaughey took home the trophy instead, just like Jamie Foxx did ten years ago.

So I re-watched The Aviator with an eye on DiCaprio’s performance as filmmaker and aviation mogul Howard Hughes. The film itself is a standard, but well-written, biopic. It walks us through Hughes’ life from the 1927-1928 filming of his incredibly expensive WWI picture Hell’s Angels all the way through the flight of The Hercules aka The Spruce Goose, a gargantuan aircraft that now resides at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in Oregon. The events the film shows – the making of various motion pictures, the crafting of airplanes – are why Hughes is famous, and so this narrative trajectory seems fitting. It shows his drive for perfection and his willingness to throw money at a crazy dream. It posits Hughes as a Great American, a national type driven by a quest for exceptionalism that stands at odds with the national standard. Throughout the film, Hughes’ ambition and innovation is mocked by other Hollywood directors, by his aviation team, and by the FBI, but Hughes prevails in all cases. Like the Hercules, Hughes can fly in spite of naysayers and adversity.

And, of course, because this is a biopic, adversity is the other half of Hughes story. Scorsese’s film, scripted by John Logan, narrates Hughes’ achievements in filmmaking and aviation as driven not only by his enterprising nature and quest for perfection, but because of his obsessive compulsive disorder. The film’s first scene is of young Howard being carefully bathed by his mother while she lectures him not to go near a certain part of town in which there has been a Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E (which she makes him practice spelling). This seems an odd bookend, given that the next shot is of a 1927 Hughes shooting airplane combat scenes for Hell’s Angels, but it also attempts to psychologize Hughes’ OCD and insinuates that his perfectionism is not something he overcomes in order to be a great man, but something that enables him to be a great man. There are, however, times in which Hughes really, truly struggles to manage living with OCD, and this opening sequence in the candle-lit bathtub sets up a really wonderful visual parallel to the later scenes where Hughes locks himself for months in his screening room, watching only reels of the desert, refusing human contact, and peeing in a neat row of empty milk bottles.

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In 2004, I wouldn’t have been conscious enough of disability politics to really know, or be able to articulate, how The Aviator’s portrayal of Hughes’ OCD reads to viewers. On the one hand, the film participates in the typical Oscar-bait tradition of allowing an actor like DiCaprio to show his chops by playing a person with a disability. It’s easy to argue that an able-bodied actor playing a person with a physical disability is problematic, but I will always blame this on the types of narratives we tell about disability rather than the fact that actors exist and are doing their jobs. Narratives about disability, written by able-bodied people, tend to see disability as inspirational to the able-bodied, and, as playwright Christopher Shinn noted in The Atlantic earlier this year, it reassures audiences of their normalcy when they can see able-bodied Daniel Day-Lewis walk to the podium to receive his award for playing paralyzed Christy Brown in My Left Foot. It is comforting for able-bodied people to know: 1) that disability is a temporary state, which the plasticity of the actor’s body, and his or her ability to convincingly be disabled one minute and able-bodied the next implies to the able-bodied viewer; and 2) that the narrative about disability asserts the disabled person overcomes their disability to achieve greatness. Biopics tend to be the worst perpetrators of these kind of troublesome narratives, both because they show people overcoming disabilities to do great things and because they require the plasticity of the actor’s body in order to do so.

Playing mental illness is a little bit different. Mental illness, like OCD, is an invisible disability. Hundreds of us suffer from depression, anxiety, OCD, and other mental illnesses that can be and are at times disabling. But because narratives about mental illness are less bodily, they focus less on disability as something to overcome. They tend to feel less “inspirational” and because audiences cannot know if the actor also experiences mental illness because they cannot read the signs of disability on the body, there is less reassurance involved for viewers after the film. So because of this, the challenge the actor faces is how to render something invisible into something visible. How do you show an audience what it’s like to be faced with an unclean doorknob and be out of paper towels when you have OCD? How do you communicate, silently, the discomfort you might have when Errol Flynn steals a dollop of carefully arranged food off your plate?

DiCaprio does it by skillfully manipulating the muscles in his face to create tiny twinges of displeasure or discomfort. He furrows his brow just so, blinks his blue eyes fiercely, and crinkles his lips. He translates Hughes’ OCD into a series of legible ticks, which progress into uncontrollable verbal patterns that he must clasp his hands over his mouth to stop as Hughes loses control at the most stressful and triggering portions of his life. What DiCaprio’s face does in The Aviator is allow non-disabled audience members a point of identification and understanding with his character’s mental state. It helps us recognize a disability that would otherwise go unread, or be considered merely an eccentricity by Hughes’ various peers and paramours.  Hughes was also partially deaf, and his deafness factors in to his discomfort in a number of social situations in the film, but although Hepburn bonds with him over his deafness, this aspect of Hughes’ as a disabled man is not the focus of the film.

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Clearly, this is a role where playing a person with a disability allows DiCaprio to show his chops, but I find it much less problematic than many other disability narratives because I don’t think the narrative pushes audiences to think that Hughes was a success in spite of his disability. The opening two shots I described above, combined with numerous scenes of Hughes taking his time to reshoot a scene to get it right, or taking ages to choose a wheel for an aircraft, show that Hughes’ fastidiousness, resulting from his OCD, was actually a driving factor in his success.

The film does, though, show a number of times in which Hughes struggled with his OCD. There are at least three more scenes in which Hughes feels the need to retreat to a public restroom and wash his hands with the same soap his mother used in the opening scene as a response to a stressful situation. There is also a scene in which he impulsively burns all of his clothes after Katharine Hepburn (brilliantly played by Cate Blanchett, who took home an Oscar for the role) leaves him for Spencer Tracy. And then there is the extended sequence in which Hughes locks himself in his screening room and spends several months there, naked and alone, watching his films, drinking milk, recording messages to his staff with highly specific instructions, and peeing in empty milk jars. These scenes do not strike me as impediments (save for the screening room scenes) that Hughes must overcome, but rather as honest management tactics of the disorder, and spikes and spirals within the disorder. Because the majority of the film is about Hughes’ life and his exceptionalism, his disability seems like it’s a part of that, rather than an impediment to it.

But I didn’t actually sign up to re-view The Aviator because of its representation of disability. I signed up to review The Aviator because Sandy Powell’s costume design, combined with Dante Feretti’s set design, makes it one of the gorgeous films I’ve ever seen. The golf outfit that Cate Blanchett wears on Hepburn’s first date with Hughes? That’s how you win Oscars, friends. That and all of Ava Gardener’s hats.

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I also signed up to re-view this film because it was so much about celebrity culture that part of the allure of seeing it in 2004 was watching celebrities play other celebrities. In addition to seeing DiCaprio play Hughes, we also get treated to Blanchett as Hepburn, Kate Beckinsale as Ava Gardner (purring like Marilyn Monroe), Jude Law as Errol Flynn, and Gwen Stefani deliver two lines as Jean Harlow. And because nightclub culture was a big part of early 20th century society, we’re also treated to a number of musical guests playing the entertainment at the Coconut Grove, and all of them happen to be Wainwrights: Loudon Wainwright plays Dixieland jazz, Martha Wainwright sings a torch song, and Rufus Wainwright delivers my favorite rendition of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” to date. The film delights in these cameos and castings because it’s like Hollywood is rubbing elbows with itself. It’s both navel-gazing and nostalgic at the same time, and the film itself doesn’t shy away from critiquing what celebrity culture might do to a person. When Hughes walks Harlow down the red carpet at the Hell’s Angels premiere, they crush blown flashbulbs with their shoes as the cameras flash around them. Harlow smiles and Hughes winces. Tabloids spin at the screen when Hughes is accused of seeing multiple women at once. He shies away from Hepburn’s ex-husband’s home movie camera. Although Hughes likes being behind the camera, it’s clear that being the center of attention is triggering for Hughes, and offers that his reclusive days hiding in his screening room are actually a great alternative to being consumed by cameras all the time. As Hepburn herself says of fame, “There’s no decency in it.”

But the thing that really struck me during my recent re-view of The Aviator was the evocative use of several jazz standards. When Hughes takes Hepburn flying for the first time, the glide over Los Angeles to the strains of Benny Goodman’s “Moonglow.” The film ends with the flight of the Spruce Goose to Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade.” The choice of moon-themed songs here for important flights in Hughes’ life is perhaps a bit on the nose, but also both songs have a loveliness and a lightness that must be what Hughes feels like in control of an airplane. These are sharply contrasted to three sequences set to Artie Shaw’s “Nightmare,” which anchor moments in the film where Hughes loses control. The first time “Nightmare” is used is the sequence in which Hughes burns all of his clothing after Hepburn leaves him. This sequence is perfectly timed to the length of the song (2:32), and the flames of the clothing pile roar upward around DiCaprio on the final trumpet notes from Shaw. “Nightmare” is used again as the FBI raid Hughes’ house to confiscate his financial records, but the song fades out into a conversation between Alan Alda’s Sen. Brewster and Hughes. After Hughes leaves the room, “Nightmare” begins again as he crumbles in the hallway, and fades perfectly into the soundtrack of the next scene: Hughes, naked and alone, a projection of the desert flickering over his body in the screening room. If the moon songs underscore Hughes at his best, “Nightmare” provides the soundscape for Hughes own nightmares – the triggers that send him into OCD spirals he cannot control. Is this also on the nose? Yes. But I’m willing to bet that most viewers in 2004 are pretty unfamiliar with jazz standards from the Big Band era, so this strikes me as a bit of Howard Shore’s own nostalgia for the past, a gift for those of us who recognize it. And goddamn do I love “Nightmare,” so it was a pleasant surprise to hear it so many times in this film.

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Other fun surprises in The Aviator:

Alec Baldwin doing a Jack Donaghey warm-up as PanAm’s Juan Tripp.

Kellie Garner, who would go on to play a stewardess-spy on the short-lived Pan Am, playing a baby escort Hughes went around with for a while.

Adam Scott is Hughes’s associate producer Johnny Meyer. He’s wearing a mustache and I can’t fathom it.

Frances Conroy is Katherine Hepburn’s mother. Frances Conroy continues to corner the market on bitchy old ladies and I am most definitely going to model my old ladyhood after her career.

Another AHS actor, Danny Huston, is in this. He wears a hat and a suit like every other guy in this movie.

Brent “Data” Spiner is in this as an airplane exec. I spend most of my free time rewatchingST:TNG, so I can’t handle him playing a human being.

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Ten Years Ago: Million Dollar Baby

19 Dec

Jessica Campbell rewatches 2004 Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby for the first time since theatres and addresses memories of Terri Schiavo and Oregon’s 1994 Death with Dignity Act.

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If you haven’t seen Million Dollar Baby, please don’t read this re-view. Go watch it, and then you can read on if you want. Consider this a spoiler alert, and take my word for it that the unsullied viewing experience will be worth it.

No, really, go watch it. I just returned the University of Washington library DVD copy, if that helps anyone.

I’ve written about a handful of movies for this blog, and each time I had plenty to say about how my first look at the movie differed from the viewing a decade later, because of intervening events in culture, or moviedom, or sometimes my own life. Well, other than the obvious “this time I knew what was going to happen,” I don’t have a darned thing to say about that this time. Million Dollar Baby hasn’t aged a day. (Apparently Clint Eastwood hasn’t either; the 84-year-old director/actor/writer/composer/you-name-it has directed nine feature films since then, the latest of which, American Sniper, comes out this winter.) Million Dollar Babywon four Academy Awards—Best Picture, Best Director for Eastwood, Best Actress for Hilary Swank, and Best Supporting Actor for Morgan Freeman. It was a good year for Best Picture nominees; I cried at Finding Neverland, smiled at Sideways, hummed at Ray, and nearly jumped out of my seat with glee at Cate Blanchett’s channeling of Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator. But I left the theater speechless after Million Dollar Baby. In part, I think it has stayed the same for me because there isn’t much in my own life that matches the external/situational material of the plot. And in part it’s because the movie is just so full and so compelling—or perhaps the better word is “merciless”—in its own right.

For the first hour and a half, Million Dollar Baby is a boxing movie. Well, a boxing movie with more Yeats and more wistful touches to the score than most, but still. It’s exciting and suspenseful in the way any decent sports movie is, just with a lot more going on outside the ring. (I don’t even remember what was happening in Cinderella Man except that it had something to do with the Depression, right?) Anyway, Million Dollar Baby sports (see what I did there?) the familiar Rocky arc. 31-year-old Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) starts working out at Frankie Dunn’s (Eastwood) boxing gym in hopes that he will take her on as a trainee. No matter how many times he growls, “I don’t train girls,” she smiles back and, a little while later, asks again. Swank manages to make her seem sweet and polite even when she’s pushing relentlessly. She soon wins over Frankie’s old friend and assistant of sorts, Scrap (Morgan Freeman), and eventually wears Frankie down, too. Maggie lacks experience but is very good (there wouldn’t be a movie otherwise, of course), and she skyrockets under Frankie’s tutelage. During her rise, we meet her god-awful family; apparently working her way out of a trailer park was nothing compared to contending with a selfish mother who tears her down constantly. Margo Martindale must have less than five minutes of screen time, but it’s plenty long enough to induce cringing. Maybe the mother and siblings are presented as a little too horrible; in a movie with some extremely complex characters, it’s jarring to run into people left entirely unredeemed.

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Of course, Maggie isn’t very complicated either. She tells Frankie early on that boxing is the only thing she ever enjoyed doing. Clearly it’s also the only thing she pays much attention to. She has no secrets from the past, no love interest (God bless you for that, Clint Eastwood), no motivations at all except for doing that one thing she loves as often and as well as she can. The movie is similarly focused. We never see flashbacks, and only occasionally shots of characters in their homes. Scrap’s boxing past is revealed through a few lines. We get the most side material about Frankie, but even that is very restrained. We learn that he loves to read Yeats, that he goes to Mass every morning, that he lives alone, and that he has a daughter who ignores his frequent letters because she will not forgive him for something. We never meet the daughter or even find out what caused the breach. Ultimately, Eastwood seems more interested in Frankie than in Maggie. In contrast to her simplicity, Frankie is apparently capable of treating other people with great callousness and with great kindness. It can be hard to tell which to expect in a given situation, or even to tell which he’s inflicting once it’s happening. Eastwood seems to have a self-replenishing supply of gravel in his throat that forces you to learn to read the tiniest changes to his face or tone of voice.

Maggie learns, of course. There’s clearly a surrogate father-daughter aspect to their relationship. I only thought the movie overstated that once, when Maggie takes Frankie to a diner near her hometown and tells him she used to go there with her father before he died. The rest of the time it seems perfectly natural. And, like the whole boxing plot, it leads to what the movie is ultimately about (now SERIOUSLY stop reading if you haven’t seen it and ignored my earlier entreaty): Frankie’s moral dilemma. I hadn’t watched Million Dollar Babysince seeing it in theaters; it was interesting to note how much more vividly I remembered the final half hour than everything that came before it. I thoroughly enjoyed the boxing movie part—a lot of lines are funny as hell, for one thing, which I’d completely forgotten—but the final sequence floored me so much that it overpowered my recollection of the movie as well. A refresher, in case by some amnesiac event you’ve forgotten: Maggie gets her title shot and is holding her own against the opponent, until said opponent, upset that a round went to Maggie, punches her basically from behind when they’re supposed to be heading to their corners. Maggie falls and hits her head/neck against her stool in such a way that she is instantly and irrevocably paralyzed from the neck down.

And just like that, the boxing movie becomes a hospital movie. What I love about this is that it’s true to life. In most movies that are primarily about an illness or death, you get just enough exposition to “establish sympathy” and then most of the time is spent in the medical realm. But in real life, you’re going about your business, focused on something else, then suddenly something terrible happens and your life is overwhelmed by doctor jargon and IVs, and the whole world is hospital-white. This is the jarring experience we get in Million Dollar Baby.Because you’ve invested not just a few minutes but a full hour and a half in Maggie’s life, you experience her injury more like she does.

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We don’t get a sense of how long Maggie sticks it out in the rehab center before she asks Frankie to help her die, but clearly not very. In 2004, I heard that some people who had lived in similar states of paralysis for years were criticizing the movie for the relative speed with which she gave up. Remember Terri Schiavo? We were still in the thick of that monstrosity of a cultural and political debate when Million Dollar Baby was released. I’m not going to tell you what I thought about the Terri Schiavo case and why. Suffice it to say that it was on my mind a lot at the time, and watching this movie ten years later really brought it all back. Because I was still in Catholic high school in 2004, the Schiavo case and even, to a lesser extent, Eastwood’s film were hot topics of discussion. End-of-life issues are hard partly because they’re bound up with people’s religious beliefs, obviously. But it’s also because they force people to think about what life actually is. How in the world are we supposed to answer that? Maggie answers it easily—as the film previously established, all she wants to do is box. If she can’t do that, her life isn’t her life anymore. Frankie (probably like most viewers) has a much harder time.

I’m from Oregon, which in 2004 was the only state in the country in which assisted suicide was legal. There had been a MUCH-debated but ultimately unsuccessful initiative to repeal Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act in 1997, and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft instigated a judicial hubbub in the early 2000s. All this is to say that Million Dollar Baby tackled an issue that was very much in the national discussion at the time and very, very much under discussion in my state. And to its credit, it is not the least bit sensationalist. There’s no melodrama in Maggie’s request, Frankie’s tortuous decision-making process, or the final death. There’s hardly any movie at all after Frankie grants Maggie’s request. Eastwood does not seem to me to be making any particular statement about end-of-life issues, beyond “they’re really, really hard.” The film does not wrangle your sympathies in one direction or another as Frankie tries to decide what to do. His priest, predictably, simply says, “You know you can’t do it.” But Frankie responds that he feels like he’s killing Maggie either way—literally bringing about her death, or condemning her to a slow decay that will kill her spirit.

From one angle, the scope of the movie is Maggie’s boxing career. Its beginning, its heyday, its cost, and ultimately the early death that its centrality to her worldview drives her to. From another angle, and I think this one is more important to Eastwood, the scope is Frankie’s morality. Eastwood clearly does not want us to judge, negatively or positively, Frankie’s life as a whole, since we could only do that if we knew what had happened with his daughter. His dilemma with respect to Maggie is the main event. The problematic past with his daughter pulls him in both directions: he doesn’t want to do anything else “wrong” because he apparently has before and is paying dearly, but he doesn’t want to disappoint or cause suffering to another daughter figure. Characteristically, Maggie takes matters into her own hands after his initial refusal, attempting multiple times to bite her tongue enough to bleed to death. This development changes the balance of the dilemma, I think, because Frankie has no reason to believe she won’t succeed at something like that sooner or later. If she is going to bring about her own death, it might as well be less painfully; and so he brings in the huge dose of adrenaline to put in her IV.

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Frankie walks out of the rehab center that night, and that’s the last we see of him. The film isn’t about what the rest of his life is like, whether he regrets his decision, whether he sees his daughter again, etc. It has the sensibility of a short story—which makes sense, given that it’s based on one of the same title by F. X. Toole (which I confess I haven’t read). That could seem strange in a feature film, but for me it works just fine. The voiceover narration, which I assume is also there because of the prose source material, works primarily because the voice is Morgan Freeman’s. Nobody has a voice like his. It’s comforting, and the result is that Scrap becomes something of a Greek chorus. We do find out at the very end that what Scrap has been narrating all this time is a letter to Frankie’s daughter, which helpfully gives us a reason for the voiceover narration’s existence. Scrap doesn’t have much of a function as a character, except for revealing a few things about Frankie’s past and creating occasions for Frankie to express himself. But Freeman is always a reassuring presence. Scrap is by turns funny and angry and compassionate, always seeing everything—so real that he seems inevitable.

There are a few other characters—Frankie’s pre-Maggie golden boy, a couple of boxing managers, several cocky young men who haunt the gym. Over ten years, I forgot about them all. But they’re like the whole boxing plot: crucial to the building of the world Eastwood insists we feel crashing down around Maggie. That world and its fall utterly convinced me just as much this time as in 2004. The screenplay (by Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed Crashthe next year) is funny, evocative, and efficient. The boxing plot just sweeps you right along until it slams you into a wall. I don’t believe Eastwood uses slow-motion for any other event besides the punch that sends Maggie into paralysis. It’s a clear signal that everything is going to change at that moment. The plummet is vertiginous as hell and not easy to stand up from even as a viewer. Make sure you have a whiskey or a dog on hand for comfort, but steel yourself and watch it again.

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Ten Years Ago: Christmas with the Kranks

18 Dec

Contributor Bri Lafond enlisted in the help of her friend Jim Seals for her re-view of the Grisham/Columbus/Roth holiday laffer Christmas with the Kranks. It does not sound like they had a good time.

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Bio (written by moi):

Jim Seals is a disenfranchised writer and aficionado of nerdy shit (we’re talking full-on Trekkie with a side of RPGs). He is my long-suffering best friend who has to sit through all the terrible movies I (for the most part) enjoy. As such, he is well on his way to transforming into the cantankerous Walt from this horrible movie (which even I didn’t like).

Christmas with the Kranks is a ho-hum mess.

Based on John Grisham’s 2001 novella Skipping Christmas, the film’s central thesis details the alleged comedic misadventures of one Luther Krank (Tim Allen), a middle-aged curmudgeon of indeterminate occupation, as he opts out of the exorbitant rituals of Christmas for a cost-saving cruise. Luther is matched with his aged wife (Jamie Lee Curtis), whose role vacillates from accomplice to foil at a moment’s notice, and is beset by a dictatorial ward boss, meddling neighbors, a vindictive (albeit suicidal) inanimate Christmas decoration, and his own lack of common sense.

The Krank household is short one as their daughter Blair (she of Veronica Mars, though not Veronica, fame) has joined the Peace Corps. Her destination: Peru, and she leaves on Thanksgiving weekend. Leaving the airport, Luther is drenched when he is caught up in a deluge while making multiple runs into the local grocer at his wife’s urging and has the film’s inciting incident when he espies an advertisement for a Caribbean cruise, complete with smiling models and a sign that asks if he is tired of the rain. From there wheels are set in motion as the Kranks forgo the season’s needless expenditures and copious rituals, including the Krank annual Christmas Eve celebration. That is until Blair calls and tells them she’s coming home. “Hijinks” ensue.

Paper-thin plot and inconsistent characterization aside, the film’s cardinal sin is in its pacing. Clocking in at 98 minutes, Christmas with the Kranks takes no chances and goes to the tried-and-true Hollywood standard of a three act structure: Act One introduces us to our two main characters, the Kranks, and ends with Luther smugly distributing to his coworkers a “skipping Christmas” memorandum, which sees Allen spelling out the entire plot to the lowest common denominator in the audience; Act Two sees the couple beset with various comedic set pieces all perpetrated by various disapproving third parties; Act Three sees the couple at odds as each tries to slam together a last minute Christmas Eve celebration for the sake of their prodigal daughter.

Where this three-act structure breaks down is in its execution. The opening two acts, which chronologically speaking covers the time from the Sunday following Thanksgiving—when Blair leaves—up to and including the morning of Christmas Eve—when Blair calls home—is no longer than half an hour, combined. This is in stark contrast to the film’s hour long concluding act, which covers the twelve hours leading to Blair’s return home. It is as if Editor Nick Moore, the assistant editor on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, finished cutting together Acts One and Two, looked at his watch, remembered that this was supposed to be a theatrical release and not a one-hour TV special, and feverishly started padding out the remainder of the film. As a consequence the last act is an odd, ethereal mixture of hurried nothingness as we blow through one “hilarious” antic after another, all the while dutifully calling back to another person that Luther somehow managed to piss off in the previous half hour.

kranks2Yet, never fear, gentle audience member, if one happens to leave the room to, say, reaffirm one’s sanity and is somehow lost amid all the triteness upon their return, one need only ask: How supportive is Jamie Lee Curtis in this moment? Of all the characters, Curtis’ Nora is all over the map. She is so inconsistent that her character arc is less a carefully laid out progression of events and evolving character motivations and more cinematic whiplash writ large. When Luther sells his plan to her, and the audience, for the first time, she listens with a skeptical ear. She voices some not unreasonable concerns—such as discontinuing their annual donations to the church and hospital—and is met with an unreasonable and entirely arbitrary response in return thanks to Luther’s one recurring character trait. However, when those concerns are met, she wholeheartedly signs on to the plan. By the time Luther issues his memorandum, she is an enthusiastic supporter. The subsequent act does see her character question this support somewhat; however, the continued pressure from interested third parties, all of whom have little to gain in their endeavors, does nothing save strengthen her resolve. A resolve that evaporates entirely upon one phone call from her daughter, after which she reverts to the same nagging shrew that sent her husband in the pouring rain not once, but twice for a bar of white chocolate from the grocer’s butcher. In fact, in the third act, she disowns the trip entirely, calling it his “stupid plan.” Nora is either at one didactic extreme or another with no middle ground to transition the narrative between the two.

In competition for the award of Least Consistent Character in a Major Motion Picture Featuring Tim Allen and Christmas is Dan Aykroyd’s Vic Frohmeyer. Much like Curtis’ Nora, Frohmeyer is whatever Screenwriter Chris Columbus needs him to be for that particular scene to work. He is either the sly manipulator, as seen when he quietly engages Luther on what Blair’s absence will mean for the entire neighborhood this Christmas, to domineering thug when he is leading a gang across the street and proceeds to bellicosely shout at Nora, demanding she releases a Christmas decoration, to overly enthusiastic assistant as he exclaims “I better go help Luther!” when the lights go out for the entire neighborhood. This tonal dissonance leads to a distinct lack of a through line. His character’s all-time worst moment is when the filmmakers insult our collective intelligence and expect us to buy into Frohmeyer’s Frank Capra-esque speech near the middle of the third act. Up until this point, we have only seen Aykroyd as a local bully; he has not helped anyone in the neighborhood. But now Columbus needs to somehow end this nightmare exercise in yuletide sadism and has Frohmeyer use an open ambulance as a dais and lecture the entire neighborhood on how great a human being Blair is and that everyone is needed now to make her Christmas magical, in spite of their mixed emotions towards Luther. I suppose we are to intuit from this sequence that the entire movie has seen him doing what he thinks is best for the entire neighborhood, but this is lost in all of Aykroyd’s bluster and posturing.

While none of the remainder of the supporting cast quite reach either Nora Krank or Vic Frohmeyer level of inconsistency, all fall squarely into the category of poorly drawn, one-note caricatures. There are the Scheels, Walt and Bev; he is the cantankerous meddler and she is the cancerous patron saint of good-humor. There’s Patrick Breen’s uncredited character, the effeminate small-time printer who Nora jilts and is seen playing Irish pan pipes at film’s end (because… effeminate, I guess?). We have Wes Trogden, the one black neighbor with actual speaking lines in this entire film, who has that go-to-knee slapper of “man afraid of wife” characteristic. There’s also the rapscallion Spike Frohmeyer (he of Malcolm in the Middle, though not Malcolm, fame), and a couple other forgettables who only stand out on multiple viewings (endured solely for a Ten Years Ago review) thrown in for good measure.

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Then there’s Santa Claus. Yes, it would not be a Tim Allen Christmas movie without Old Nick. This time around, Kris Kringle is played by Austin Pendleton. This is where the movie leaves realism in the rearview mirror and starts merging into the oncoming magical realism lane. We are introduced to Santa during the film’s inciting incident. Here he is seen as nothing more than a roadside Santa selling umbrellas. He attempts to sell one to Luther, who turns him down twice, thus setting up the scene’s all too obvious punchline when he is subsequently soaked with a Niagara-level cascade of water. Then Santa vanishes. He does not turn up again until much later as “Marty” when Nora is purchasing a crate of pinot noir. No one knows who he is, but he has an almost encyclopedic—if not downright supernatural—knowledge of all the characters in the film, and is seen interacting with random strangers with a level of intimacy rarely afford to street corner vendors. The film ends with “Marty” dressed as Santa Claus knocking out a would-be criminal with an umbrella much to the amazement of Luther. If the film had ended his runner there, that would have been an odd addition, one that could have easily ended on Moore’s cutting room floor, but the film doubles down. The last shot, which is an exterior on the Kranks’ house, is of “Marty’s” VW bug taking to the air care of a sledding team of reindeer and racing towards camera.

The inclusion of Santa is not the film’s sole dalliance with magical realism troupes. The Christmas decoration that the Frohmeyers are so obsessed with, this 7’ Frosty the Snowman that belongs to the Kranks, is alive. Not only is he alive, he is also suicidal. We are not physically introduced to the Kranks’ Snowman until later in the film’s ponderous running time. While more screen time than was needed is given to discussing Frosty’s existence and Luther’s refusal to release him, it is not until a gaggle of carolers come, loudly singing Gene Autrey’s “Frosty the Snowman,” that the Kranks, fleeing into the basement of all places, see this monstrosity. In the background we hear “came to life one day” as we see an upward shot on the decoration’s garish countenance. The lighting here is fitting a B-horror film; the subtext is plainly spoken here. Once he has established Frosty, Director Joe Roth continuously cuts to these reaction shots of the creature, each time to lighting changes to invoke a different emotion. Sadly, Roth, like all impertinent children, cannot leave well enough alone and what could have been misconstrued as subtext becomes text. When Luther is attempted to mount the snowman precariously on the rooftop, the object’s coal gaze lights up crimson red, as if those coals are burning, when it starts teetering close toward Luther. Luther begins talking to the creature, begging it to go the other direction. The Snowman takes the plunge, sending Luther down with him, and shatters on the ground below. The last shot on this particular decoration is of Spike standing over him, mournfully, as the coals go out. (Also, it should be noted that as we see Santa’s exit, a CGI snowman on another house is waving us a fond farewell—just in case there was room for any doubt as to the liveliness of a 7’ Frosty the Snowman decoration; thank you, lowest common denominator.)

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Lastly, there is Luther Krank. Krank’s second line in the movie is a complaint, when he mutters that Blair chose the worst travel day of the year. He spends no time with his daughter; he fails to even to tell her he loves her when she leaves and instead merely awkwardly stands there, hemming and hawing with Allen’s copious chins waggling about. Luther is a small man and that is almost all you need to know about him. Although we are never told what his occupation is we are told that he has not made partner yet. (With Grisham’s involvement, we can safely assume lawyer; way to be creative there.) He despises people whose names are not Luther Krank and is seen manufacturing conflict where none is needed with his boorish pigheadedness and total lack of social graces whatsoever. For instance, I have commented on his memorandum earlier, which he hands out to his entire office (including a random bike deliveryman that was passing through to the set of Premium Rush), declining his involvement in the Christmas season. Now, that memorandum did not need to exist, nor should it have been so gleefully thrown around as if he did not care. Luther’s personal life is his own and did not need to be the fodder of water cooler chitchat. If he should have told anyone, it would most likely be his own personal assistant, but that would require him to talk to her as if she was a person, which he seems entirely incapable of doing. No, instead of conversing, he closes his office door and writes this snide memorandum that serves no other point than to manufacture tension in the workplace. (Even his discussions with Nora are awkward and caustic, ending in a glib bon mot that misses the mark of humor entirely.) This habitual need to artificially create conflict is a pattern of behavior that is seen throughout the entire film. For all intents and purposes, he is his own worst enemy.

I suppose now is the time where I wrap this Christmas present of a review up with a neat bow. Perhaps a clever witticism to leave the reader with a smile on their visage? No, I think not. Christmas with the Kranks simply isn’t worth the effort; it is the cinematic equivalent of opening a festive, yuletide sweater from your least favorite aunt the day after Christmas; it might have all the colors of the season, but you truly do hope moths devour it before next year.

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Free-Floating Thoughts (Mostly Bri here)

-Screenwriter/producer Chris Columbus? Oh: this might be decent! Oh, wait… this movie is from 2004. We’re fucked.

-I want all you readers to know that we did some extensive research for this particular re-view. And by “extensive research,” I mean we looked at a calendar. So: Blair is leaving the Sunday after Thanksgiving to go to Peru for the Peace Corps. When the Kranks get back to the house, it is already in full-on Christmas mode with decorations up all over the house. The Sunday after Thanksgiving in 2004 fell on November 29, yet Nora is already decked out in her ubiquitous “Christmas vest” and the house is fully decorated inside. Not completely outside the realm of possibility, I suppose, but that Christmas vest is going to look pretty sorry if Nora plans on wearing it for a month straight.

-Who spends $67 on “ornament repair”? Ever? In their lives? Much less as an annual expenditure?

-Everyone in this movie is a psychopath. That one guy who was an alien in Galaxy Quest—a much better Tim Allen movie—full on closes down his boutique stationary store to stalk Nora into a restaurant and announce to her friends (Caroline Rhea and Felicity Huffman, in the first of their two whole scenes in this movie) that Nora isn’t buying Christmas cards or invitations this year. After Nora explains the situation and that she and Luther are leaving on Christmas day for their vacation, Felicity Huffman has the gall to say: “Oh, well you can still have your party then.” The movie wants us to side with Nora’s friends and see that the Kranks are being selfish, but if I were at this restaurant, with a creepy dude continuing to stare me down from another table and my friends acting bitchy that I’m not throwing a party that they can attend, I’d be like, “Biiiiiiitch: throw your own party with the rest of your broke down Wisteria Lane crones!”

-The “rules” for this skipped Christmas are completely arbitrary and dependent on what the plot needs them to be at any given moment. We’ve established early on that the Kranks will continue their charitable donations for the year (despite Luther’s miserly objections), yet when faced with the Boy Scouts’ annual Christmas tree sales and later with the local police’s annual calendar sales, Luther doubles down and antagonizes both groups. How hard would it be to throw the Scouts’ $20 as a donation and say “No thanks” to a tree? Would it kill Luther to buy a $20 calendar which the police officers (Cheech Marin and Jake Busey) make clear is going to help with charitable activities? Boo.

-There are some bizarre throwaway lines throughout the movie that I’m pretty sure were ad-libbed. For example, shortly before escorting Nora to the tanning salon (where “hilarity” is sure to ensue), Luther complains that he’s never again going to “an Irish pub with fish tacos.”

-There is this stupid runner throughout the movie of Luther having an adversarial relationship with Walt and Bev’s cat. Luther accidentally steps on the cat multiple times and everyone brushes it off as wacky. Having had a cat that lost half her tail after it was stepped on by an errant trick-or-treater one Halloween, I personally have some objections to this being trotted out as “comedic,” but the very cheap-looking CGI rendering of the cat encased in ice is just insulting.

-“We made the front page!” Okay, so, Luther and Nora’s “skipped Christmas” is enough to make the front page of what appears to be a fairly large suburb of (I think) Chicago, accompanied by a production still from the movie showing Luther and Nora in their hilariously tiny bathing suits at the tanning salon. I’m not going to go into all the things that are wrong with this (there are far, far too many), but I will say that the props’ department did a fairly good job putting together a realistic-looking prop for a fairly small scene.

-Are you ready for some symbolism? As Nora reads How the Grinch Stole Christmas to a group of mildly sick-looking children in a hospital, Luther comes in to show off his newly-Botoxed face and lobster-red tan. The Botox (the effects of which last for precisely one scene) is supposed to make Luther appear Grinch-like, but he resembles nothing more than Lucifer himself by way of Miami Vice.

-If I have to hear the words “Hickory Honey Ham” one more time, I may fucking scream.

-Cheech Marin—as in the Cheech Marin—has the god-damned nerve to write “N. Reeky” in place of “Enrique” on the sign they use to pick up Blair and her fiancé at the airport.

-Speaking of Enrique, when Blair calls to say she’s coming home and, by the way, she’s engaged, Blair says to her parents: “You remember him. We went to Brown together. You used to call him ‘Rick’.” This is all seemingly done in ADR, and I have a sneaking suspicion this was added in much later in production because they didn’t want Blair to look like too much of a dumb whore for getting engaged after less than a month of meeting this Peruvian guy. Because what are the odds that she would be in Peru with a Peruvian guy who she happened to know before? But didn’t have a prior romantic relationship with? Moreover, when Enrique finally shows up at the Kranks later in the movie, Luther says, “It’s nice to meet you.” Why do I care about this? This movie is terrible.

-Luther has to learn his lesson, right? So we have this thrown together Christmas Eve party happening and Luther is sulking at the kitchen table when he sees that across the street crotchety Walt and cancer-angel Bev are eating alone. He takes over A GODDAMNED HICKORY HONEY HAM to wish them a merry Christmas when, at this point, he should be walking over there to give them the tickets for the Caribbean cruise which he knows he’s not going to get to go on. However, this clearly wasn’t cinematic enough: the director has to get Luther into the middle of the snow-covered street, literally standing at a crossroads between this poor elderly couple and the joyous celebration occurring in his own home, so that the camera can pull back into a wide shot for the trailer. SYMBOLISM! Ugh: this movie is the worst.

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