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.

kranks6

Ten Years Ago: The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie

21 Nov

Kelly Buetter lets a hyperactive, talking spongemonster teach her lessons about remaining young at heart in the face of adulthood in this week’s re-view.

We, the general populace of cartoon-watching adults, are absolutely spoiled. As I sit here, I am listening to the dulcet tones of moonshine-addled redneck squids while, on deck, I have cartoons about an adventurer and his shape-shifting dog, three kick-ass superheroines, and a show where two kids tricked the grim reaper into being their best friend forever. I could probably find a cartoon exploring every crazy, ridiculous, stupid premise that pops into my mind. But these cartoons would never have had a place in the world if the shows before them sucked. Thus, we must pay homage to them. The Simpsons, Looney Tunes, Ren & Stimpy, all giants in their respective fields. And then there was SpongeBob.

To tell you the whole story about The Sponge would take far too long, so instead I will tell you my personal experience. When the first episode of SpongeBob came out, I was nine years old. I had been an instant fan, looking for any excuse to use the Jacques Cousteau voice or sing SpongeBob’s version of the Krusty Krab Pizza jingle (you’d understand if you watched the show). So early on, there really was not all that much merchandise based around SpongeBob, so I had to find any and all posters and T-Shirts at Hot Topic. Around ’99, Hot Topic was still that kinda-scary store in the mall, and I was always waaay too embarrassed to be around so many *Gulp* teenagers (who would totally think I was a little kid and way too dorky and OMGPLEASEDON’THATEME) to go in. So, I had to have my mom do it. Yes, truly, there is no better way to feel cool then to make your bouffanted, dew-drop glassed, mom-jeans wearing mom to go in an purchase a shirt for you because you’re too much of a chicken. I could feel the leather jacket on my back and sunglasses on my face right then, boy howdy.

Fast forward to 2004, and The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie is coming out. I am currently in my freshman year of high school, and although it is cool to like cartoons, it is kinda not cool to still like obviously kids cartoons. Most of my friends had discovered anime at this point, or at most, watched most of the [adult swim] lineup. But I was certainly still curious, and so I went with my brother to a matinee. And I loved it. As someone who appreciates adult humor in cartoons, every single little nod, from SpongeBob and Patrick getting drunk on ice cream to The Hoff’s glorious appearance to Patrick in fishnets at the end, every joke was exactly what I was looking for.

And man, if watching this movie again isn’t like reliving 15 all over again.

The plot goes like this: SpongeBob, a fry cook at the Krusty Krab, wants to be promoted to manager of the new second location his boss, Mr. Krabs, is building. Instead, Mr. Krabs appoints Squidward, the dour co-worker and neighbor of SpongeBob, as manager. Meanwhile, Plankton, owner of the Chum Bucket and Mr. Krab’s rival, has a plot to steal the formula for Krabby Patties (and then to take over the world) by stealing King Neptune’s crown and framing Mr. Krabs for it. Crown stolen, they find out that it has been sold to someone in the dangerous Shell City, and SpongeBob and Patrick must steal it back.

Now, that’s what happens. But the biggest concern of the film itself, as is the biggest concern of most of the film’s viewers, is maturity. SpongeBob is considered to be immature (or a “goofy goober”). He has never been able to get his driver’s license, he isn’t thought of as mature enough to manage the Krusty Krab 2, and no one thinks that he will be able to face the perils involved in finding and returning Neptune’s crown. In fact, SpongeBob and Patrick start to lose faith in themselves halfway through, and Mindy (Neptune’s daughter) has to give them “magic moustaches” to make them official Men who will be able to finish the journey. So of course, they lose their moustaches and realize that the ability was in them all along, blah blah blah. We as kids (and kids-at-heart) are supposed to see that we can do anything, even if we like doing silly stuff. But my favorite thing this movie shows us is that there are absolutely no adults in this movie. Adult One, Mr. Krabs, is only looking out for himself and his money, instead of maturely concerning himself with the welfare of others. Adult Two, King Neptune, petulantly wields his power over anyone who dares to point out that he is going bald (played to a T by the himself-thinning Jeffrey Tambor). Even magical mermaid Mindy, future queen (played bafflingly by Scarlett Johansson), instead of going and getting the crown her ownself, with magic, instead makes SpongeBob and Patrick go for her. (To be fair, it is his movie, but one would hope a magic mermaid could do more, you know, magic.)

The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie not only examines what it means to be someone treated as immature, but shows that no one is immune from immaturity.

Every person around my age (of the “Millenials” or “Gen Y” or Gen YOLO or WTFever) has been informed that they were too immature, too ridiculous, too self-obsessed. Like SpongeBob, we beg to be taken seriously and seen as worthy of attention. We struggle with school (and the debt that comes with it), we change industries, we move mountains. But still, those movers and shakers are seen as less-than. We haven’t achieved as much as our parents, we haven’t paid our dues.

What, however, of our parents? Hadn’t they heard the same thing? They are our gods, the people we look to for guidance and for approval. They teach us to be adults. But, like Mr. Krabs or King Neptune, they are fallible. Everyone remembers the first time they caught their parents failing, and they finally realized that they are not in fact the superheroes we imagined them to be, but the human beings they really are. But I must ask, what is the great thing about being an adult anyway? Who among us actually wants to be the grownup?

And on that note, who cares what our parents think? Who cares what all the rest of the grownups think? We are finally reaching the point of enlightenment that being an adult sucks, and so we should stop doing that. If we hate striving to impress our parents, we should stop doing that! If we hate listening to lite jazz and watching interpretive dance we should stop doing that!

I walked out of that theater in 2004, realizing that just because I was on the cusp of becoming a young adult did not mean I had to put away childish things. It just meant that to keep enjoying them, I had to be proud of them.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go slip into my feety pajamas and watch cartoons. I hear Gravity Falls is rad as heck.

NOTES SELECTIONS

Movie poster near concessions, “The innermost limits of pure fun”

374 consecutive employee of the month awards (If this is a monthly award, SpongeBob has been working there 31 years)

Somehow an anthropomorphic peanut is WAY less creepy then Chuck E Cheese

Tom Kenny does every voice ever. We should start a show were Tom Kenny and Rob Paulsen just do every single voice

How is Mr. Krabs on fire?

Creepy laughter torture

Ten Years Ago: Kinsey

19 Nov

Despite some evidence to the contrary in her re-view of Bill Condon’s Kinsey, Megan Bertelsen would like readers to note that she did actually like the film as a film.

Kinsey’s Speedy Mustache Ride to Moral Oblivion

I approached re-viewing Bill Condon’s 2004 biopic on Alfred Kinsey, Jr with a fair amount of excitement. And a rum and coke. Well, two. One for Timothy Curry’s performance as a simpering servant of prurience and prudery and one for Timothy Hutton’s anachronistic but fabulously louche portrayal of an ambulatory porn-star mustache.

Kinsey is a meandering tale based loosely upon the life of the zoologist turned patron saint of sexuality studies (particularly for those who deem Freud a driveling douchebag whose impact upon the study of eroticism and human interaction has been immeasurably detrimental to the field’s potential). Kinsey’s body of work still represents the most comprehensive study of sexuality in the U.S. ever undertaken—but Kinsey isn’t particularly concerned with that.

Instead, the film hangs its hat inoffensively on an expiating the sins of the father theme. Ultimately, it’s a flick which reduces a fascinating sociocultural phenomenon and opportunity to interrogate the ideological underpinnings of research methodology to a bland morality tale concerned with a tragic hero’s doomed recapitulation of his father’s sins by reenacting his father’s obsession with sexual behavior and its impact upon society. I’m definitely not saying that I hoped the film would indulge of the fantasy of scientist as cipher, boldly dredging Truth from the dark depths of the unknown. This narrative frame/origin story was present—and equally depressing in its dull simplicity.

Rather, I was interested in what the film afforded at its best moments. The film is intercut with black and white sequences in which the Kinseys are having their own sexual histories taken. These sequences constitute a micronarrative which simultaneously binds Alfred Kinsey into his work, pulls upon the legitimacy of documentarism, and cuts the bodies of interviewees into mouths, eyes, errant tics at the corner of the lips, before undermining the ostensible naturalism by demonstrating that Kinsey and his wife are training their research assistants in interview techniques. These sequences could have been used as a frame for a far more interesting film.

Unfortunately, they are instead subordinated to a predictable biopic narrative in which Kinsey tragically duplicates his father’s life out of a lack of engagement with emotional realities. That’s not to say it doesn’t make a few lunges at being a more interesting film. The film just never quite breaks free of the affective structures which characterize its genre.

When I saw promotional material for Kinsey, my ever-optimistic brain substituted “Kinsey Report” for “Kinsey.” I fantasized about an exploration of methodology, contemporary norms, anything, really, drawing on the resources of film as a form to present and contextualize Kinsey’s body of work and its legacy for sex nerds like me. AWhere the Buffalo Roam for sexology.

And, really, I knew this was absurd—like expecting a Hunter S. Thompson film to focus more on his coverage of racialized housing segregation or the criminalization of poverty than on drugs.

2004 Me, starry-eyed sociology buff and sex-obsessive flat out ignored that small, cautionary voice. I’d sighed over the limited theatrical release of the film, then increasingly twitchily awaited the DVD release. I was anxious, but my expectations were not unreasonable. I knew the dangers of building up a serious anticipatory charge over a film. After all, I had come of age in dark days for geeky folk: in those grim months between the release of The Phantom Menace and Highlander:  Endgame.

I was prepared to be generous. However, Kinsey had so enraged me so much upon my initial viewing that I’d been unable to finish it.

Normally, I’d no more leave a movie unfinished than I would a book. So, as I re-watchedKinsey, I was most interested in figuring out why I would leave a fairly decent flick unwatched for a decade? Re-watching confirmed that the acting and dialogue more than compensate for the uninspired, unobtrusively competent Oscar-bait cinematography. Laura Linney and Liam Neeson as Clara Mackmillan and Alfred Kinsey manage to pull off not only the most convincingly awkward sex scene I’ve ever seen, but also what I consider the rarest of on-screen feats:  an interesting romance. Oh, certainly, there’s a dull courtship bit to sit through, but it’s not insufferably twee, and they pick up steam subsequently.

Beyond this, the film features Veronica Cartwright, John Lithgow, Timothy freaking Curry, and sex as attention-grabbing, if vastly underutilized, resources. As the film progressed, however, I was increasingly reminded that 2014 Me is no better at watching biopics than 2004 Me had been.

When Kinsey came out, I absolutely did not do biopics. I harbored a monumental disinterest in the narrative pruning of lives which biographical work almost necessarily entails—and, really, a bristling disdain for the tedious reconstruction of figures who had done interesting things as intelligible characters for assumed viewers who lacked the empathic capacity to see a person as real or interesting until they had been presented as similar to the people assumed to constitute a viewing audience.

Now, as then, it’s not a lack of facticity or comprehensive presentation that bothers the flat-out-fuck out of me. Rather, it’s the attempt to compress a figure to an ostensibly comprehensive characterization, a grand explanation for everything they may have been and done. A negation of everything that doesn’t fit the structure—a denial of the lived experience, save as can be articulated through a narrative arc structured by the pompously unwieldy pretensions of documentarian legitimacy which stave off any acknowledgement that such undertaking must be deemed, to some extent, fictional.

But really, fuck the academi-speak. This re-view immediately allowed me to confirm that while I find biopics interesting as a concept, they will apparently never be my cup of entertainment tea. But, I went in prepared this time. Between booze and lowered expectations, I hoped calm, forgiving, 2014 me would be able to watch the film with, at the very least, a different sort of irritation than 2004 Me.

I couldn’t help but note, this time around, that Kinsey is a film at war with itself. It gathers up all sorts of aesthetic capital and errant moralizing, then throws it indiscriminately at the viewer’s head as though hoping something, anything, will stick. This can be done effectively—it just isn’t in this instance. I hadn’t noticed this flailing in any conscious way the first time around, and even in re-view, it made me more sad about lost cinematic opportunities than angry over its awkwardness.

This profusion did, however, draw my attention even more strongly to the abysmal narrative which reduced an interesting subject to a clear cause and effect chain grounded in intergenerational strife and…*sigh.* I nearly stopped the film again at the point I had when it originally came out, and for the same reasons.

Specifically, the nadir of the biopic’s mandatory “protagonist plummets into the depths” component featured Laura Linney entering a bathroom to find a distraught and distracted Liam Neeson sitting on the edge of a bathtub, blood dripping from beneath his terry cloth robe. Neeson’s response to Linney’s demands to know where the blood is coming from ended the film for 2004 Me.

He looked up, vague, huge, sheep eyes shining with Oscar-fodder agony—and with just enough befuddled alienation to suggest declining capacity for autonomy (as conventionally understood). He stated he’d pierced his foreskin in an attempt to understand why it afforded pleasure for one of his research subjects. But that there’d been no pleasure.

This could have been presented within the context of other experimentation. Really, in a thousand other ways. Instead, it represented rock bottom. A fall. A fundamental deviation from the “normal” with which the film is preoccupied. It reeked of the narrative need for any excessive deviance from social norms to be punished. The need to frame outliers as tragic heroes. As doomed—not by material conditions, but by their own built-in flaws.

The clumsy pathologization of eroticism, framed by the way Kinsey and his research team had increasingly been portrayed as debauched and unethical or incompetent was an easy out for the film. After all, why delve into the ways in which socialization and economic actualities inflect and compromise research when one can simply default to condemning eroticism as a gateway to decline?

Thank goodness I stopped watching when I did. Had I persisted through the film’s final sequence, 2004 Me would probably have gone on a flat-out rampage. Not content to follow the tired deviance-ends-in tragedy formula which characterizes the way in which so many cultural artifacts address people and behavior on the margins, the film closes on Kinsey embracing sustained heteronormative domesticity as fundamentally natural, beautiful, and the cure for his emotional ills. I don’t even. Just. Argh.

Early in the film, Neeson informs Timothy Hutton, who plays a member of his research team, that Hutton needs to shave his (fairly impressive) mustache. That facial hair represents deceit and obfuscation. The hidden. The corrupt. He points out that the villain of a film always has a mustache. Hilariously, the villains in Kinsey do all, at one point or another, sport a mustache, whereas Kinsey’s allies are clean shaven. As a background conceit this is funny, if a little self-consciously clever. It’s unfortunate that the overall narrative structure of the film is confined by the same moral conflations as the film’s central running gag.

Free-Floating Thoughts

–Poster:  “Lets talk about sex”—precious little of this beyond that which is used for titillation and distancing. So much material, wasted.

–Don’t make judgments=Don’t allow a judgment to show

–Timothy Curry, Timothy Curry for fuck’s sake, as the villain, embodiment of prurience and hindbound assaults on capital-S-Science(!)

–Framing Kinsey’s work as a preoccupation/obsession almost entirely in terms of a mirror for his father (Lithgow) is an easy out.

Actually, I would have happily watched an entire film featuring John Lithgow describing technological advance as society’s descent into lust-addled damnation. The film peaked for me when he characterized the zipper as, “Speedy access to moral oblivion.”

–Film is deeply invested in the linkage between embodied life and the environment as realm of sociality. Legitimizing sexual behaviors by framing them as natural, by virtue…weird shifting between emphasis on diversity and alterity and normalcy.

–Why on earth did the screenwriter think this film needed a villain?! Let alone three??? Casting Timothy Curry as Kinsey’s nemesis? Too motherfucking easy. Lone black actor used to establish Curry’s villainy (as manifest in closet jokes, classism and racism)

–Preoccupation with penis size, thickness of hymen, blah blah blah

Ten Years Ago: The Polar Express

19 Nov

Resident musicologist Max DeCurtins contemplates the American character of Christmas music, hurdy-gurdy playing hobos, and what it’s like to be a Jew watching The Polar Express in his re-view of Robert Zemeckis’s mo-cap fantasy.

As a Jew, I have a platonic fascination with all things related to Christmas. While I can’t speak for any other Jewry of the world, I think most people know that American Jews love Christmas. (We don’t love having to dip into our personal reserves of paid time off to observe our holidays while Christians never need to worry about using their personal or vacation time to observe their holidays, but that’s a matter for another re-view.) Like many American Jews, I don’t come by my Jewish heritage from both parents; I come from a mixed family. Count me among the lucky; were I ever to make aliyah to Israel, the Israeli government would consider me Jewish because my mother is Jewish, and Judaism is a religion inherited, by law, through the maternal line. I know many fellow Jews, dating back to my days as a very involved student at UCSB Hillel, who would not get the same treatment from the Israeli government because they inherited their Judaism from their fathers. Previous generations of American Jews (my mother among them) don’t necessarily find Christmas so attractive because it evokes memories of experiencing—if not outright anti-Semitic sentiment—the feeling of being different from everyone else. It’s why, to this day, my mother has never liked having a Christmas tree in the house, even though my father probably does (presuming, of course, that he can get past the $50 or $60 price tag for a Douglas Fir, which I think entirely reasonable for a few weeks of seasonal beauty in the house). And let’s not forget, of course, that Christmas is a co-opted holiday, which puts it on some questionable moral ground.

That said, something about Christmas still fascinates me. I think because—despite the WASPy assumptions about Christmas that reside in the popular imagination of Americans—the ideal Christmas world depicts a quiet, polite, family-oriented environment enveloped in pillowy snowbanks where we slow down and take the time to appreciate a seasonal change and the good things in life: elegant decorations, friendly company, good food, time not spent at work. Mind you, we find the reality of Christmas in the world located some several thousand light-years away, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a nice thing to think about.

With climate change already wreaking havoc with certain areas (and I think of my parched home state of California), this kind of seasonally indulgent Christmas seems more and more like a fantasy. And yet, I think, in some ways it proves a somewhat useful fantasy, because it holds the allure of what benefit we might derive from slowing down our lives, a benefit that we might yet attain if we could only reform ourselves, and that’s why it endures. What doesn’t, however, endure so well is The Polar Express. Ten years later, I see a movie with an impressive pedigree—Chris van Allsburg, Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks, Alan Silvestri—that fails to fulfill the potential greatness that these formidable talents lend their work. It’s the little engine that…almost could.

The Polar Express does a magnificent job of realizing the world of Chris van Allsburg’s book, but somehow it makes for a bizarre and sometimes creepy movie. I should say, rather, that the writers and producers (which include van Allsburg) somehow failed to create a potentially great story for a movie to tell. Americana lives at the heart of this story; set in Grand Rapids, MI, there’s a more-than-implied paean to the American manufacturing behemoth that powered middle-class jobs that enabled people like the protagonist’s parents to buy a house in the suburbs and have the vaunted one boy, one girl nuclear family. The department store that the train passes on its way out of town (bearing, by the way, a distinctly Jewish-sounding name) has a distinct place in American history, evoking a time of fewer TV channels and greater cultural homogeneity. In short, it’s the kind of America that glossed over many injustices but made for excellent nostalgia; nostalgia that the American right has taken up and twisted into irrationality.

What I can’t decide, though, is whether this story, and the movie’s interpretation of it, is, at its core, an apologist take on religion. The protagonist, ever full of doubt, constantly asks the question: “Are you sure?” This, if we read between the obviously widely-spaced lines, clearly means: Are you satisfied with the answer that God is leading you down the right path? Doubt runs deep as a theme in the movie, and I wish I could find a broader message in this theme, such as the crippling effect of doubt that goes unchecked by the belief that we can surmount whatever obstacle currently obstructs our path. If we sit on our couches, paralyzed by self-doubt and fear, we’ll never get anywhere. When Santa finally does emerge, the protagonist has to make a leap of faith before he can hear the bell ring, but the leap of faith isn’t necessarily in service of anything. Belief offers us some help when it comes time to make important decisions: whether to take that job and move to a different city or country, whether to invest money into something, whether to have a baby despite a slight risk of some inheritable issue. These things all benefit from a leap of faith telling us that, after doing as much homework as we possibly can, our decisions will turn out all right in the end. This, I think, could have been a wonderfully useful message to emerge from the movie. Alas, The Polar Express never projects this message beyond a religious mapping; belief in Santa seems to be the beginning and the end of the protagonist’s journey.

I mentioned that the movie, though adapted from a classic children’s book, also comes off as bizarre and, at times, rather creepy. The hurdy-gurdy-“Good King Wenceslaus”-playing hobo appears at various points throughout the film, helping the protagonist avoid danger and saving him from near-disaster, but that doesn’t make his character any less creepy. And Santa’s city at the North Pole had me thinking more of the Overlook Hotel than of Christmas Town. I can imagine few things creepier than a track of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” skipping and echoing throughout a cavernous empty space, as happens when the three children—who don’t even seem to like each other all that much—get out of the caboose and start making their way back to the square. All of these things tie back to the central issue of doubt with which the protagonist struggles, of course, but even in context they seem like creepy ways to depict doubt.

Just as The Polar Express strains against a limited storyline, so too does the visual rendering display its limitations. For all the rich detailing in the landscapes and architecture, the characters themselves display remarkably poor rendering, which might seem like a natural quirk of history given that CGI movies have existed for less than twenty years, but even in 2004 we had already had two Star Wars prequels, all of the Lord of the Rings films, andPirates of the Caribbean, among other specimens featuring well-executed CGI work. It seems to me that Sony would have done better to have contracted the animation to a studio more experienced than Imageworks, at least with regard to mo-cap work.

The voice characterizations fare far better, demonstrating once again that Tom Hanks, who plays what seems like half the characters in the movie, is an indefatigable badass. The elves’ voices in particular inject much-needed levity to counteract the creepiness of their characters’ graphics. The mixture of Jersey and New York accents for the elves on the ground and the British accent for the elves piloting the blimp craft that hauls Santa’s bag of toys makes for a bit of Tim Burton-esque creativity that certainly helped the movie’s case through several re-views.

The Polar Express joins a long list of movies whose flagrant violations of the laws of Newtonian physics color my father’s impression of them, and not for the better. I think he sees such patently absurd mishandling of physics as symptomatic of Americans’ deplorable dearth of proficiency in science. Given that I hold similar views about Americans’ musical education, I can’t entirely blame him. Even granted that, The Polar Express still presents some flatly impossible feats of physics, which I find highly ironic given that CGI animation depends intimately on virtual objects being assigned physical properties and informed by algorithms that utilize physics in minute detail. The movie highlights such tricky aspects of CGI physics, such as the punched paper flakes wafting down from the Conductor’s hole-puncher. Some sequences—such as the tracking of the leading girl’s ticket as it flies away from the train, gets moved by wolves, regurgitated by birds, and eventually ends up back on the train—simply weigh down the movie with unnecessary diversions.

The movie does, however, feature some rather beautiful shots, and here I think specifically of the train sloughing around on the ice as it approaches the narrow gap where the tracks reappear. We get a wide-angle shot from the perspective of the upcoming tracks, and see a majestic sweep of the train’s headlight. The splash of the water as the train soars up out of the valley onto the tracks feels fairly magical, and I think CGI movies have a particular ability to capture this kind of expressive imagination in a way that live action movies don’t. To further emphasize the emotional peak we’ve just reached, the orchestra lets loose with a full tutti. And speaking of the score…

American-ness also finds itself woven throughout the score. The score for The Polar Express, where it doesn’t rely on Christmas songs composed in the first half of the twentieth century, takes a fair amount of inspiration from two Russian composers, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky. In places I hear resemblances to The Nutcracker, though I couldn’t say exactly where, as about three-quarters of the ballet never makes it into recordings of the work. Elsewhere, I hear references to Stravinsky’s Firebird ballet, particularly the closing sequence in which the palace of Kashchei disappears. I think a majority of the American public remains incredibly unaware of just how recently their musical idea of Christmas came into being. Our great-grandparents’ generation did not know The Nutcracker; it did not premiere in the United States until 1944, in San Francisco. Rightly or wrongly, The Nutcracker provides for a significant portion of the operating budget of most ballet companies in the United States, just as Christmas shopping provides a significant portion of annual revenue for many retailers, and I think to most Americans, The Nutcracker is Christmas. It certainly explains why the music for most every Christmas movie references The Nutcracker in some way. Christmas music, whether in the form of ballet, carols, or other types of pops orchestral music, seems to occupy its own sonic space, and somehow, no matter the composer, it still ends up sounding like Christmas music.

Alan Silvestri sounds curiously like himself in this score, and the score itself bears some interesting resemblances to the score for Back to the Future, perhaps Silvestri’s best-known work: the little runs of scales in the harp and the celesta that introduce a longer passage of music, for example. And as much as some of the orchestration and thematic elements borrow from Russian music, another influence makes itself very much felt throughout the score, that of Aaron Copland. Aaron Copland—a Jew from New York who composed mostly avant-garde music—has come to represent American-ness in “classical” music, largely on the basis of hisRodeo Dances. This musical ideal took form at the opening ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, not long after 9/11, when we needed to express national solidarity. These days, this music most often sees performance by pops orchestras, tainted, perhaps, by its associations with what many musicians and music historians have come to see as a political-cultural agenda. Though I don’t feel like The Polar Express pushes such an agenda, its score and Copland’s music do share one element in common: widespread use of the clarinet.

The clarinet has always struck me as a particularly “American” sound. It features prominently in Copland’s well-known ballet and orchestral suite Appalachian Spring. Without getting too subjective—if that’s possible when talking about music—the sound of the clarinet evokes youth, simplicity, and wonderment. Having a cylindrical air column, as the flute does as well, the clarinet produces a uniquely plaintive and sometimes child-like tone, unlike the incisive and complex sound of the oboe, which has a conical air column. Americans didn’t invent the clarinet, of course; the Europeans did, but Americans found new uses for it in jazz and blues. The score for The Polar Express closely allies the clarinet with Billy, the boy from the poor end of town who must find new friends to help him navigate unexpected challenges.

While I don’t care for any of the songs composed for the film (as opposed to the iconic Christmas songs recorded by the likes of Bing Crosby), I do think the score overall counts as one of the better aspects of The Polar Express. Like the story and the animation, it too is not without its flaws and limitations. To me, the movie stands as a classic example of a film that held a lot of promise, and maybe even proved memorable in some ways, but that otherwise fell short of its potential.

Ten Years Ago: Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

14 Nov

In her re-view of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Maggie McMuffin reveals her fervent anglophilia and Hugh Grant-philia.

Quick question: Would you rather have to put up with a child obsessed with werewolves or a child who becomes an unbearable anglophile?

Trick question! Because if you were my mother, you had to go through both.

Like many American girls, I went through a phase of lusting after older British men. The pasty hunks that Britain churned out during the 1990s were my sexual bread and butter for the last two and a half years of high school, placing me squarely in the company of middle aged women everywhere. Sometimes this led to great things (seeing An Awfully Big Adventure, a movie I would otherwise have missed) and sometimes it led to not so great things (that day I viewed The English Patient and Schindler’s List back to back). Mostly it just meant watching period films and literary adaptations in the hopes of seeing some dude in a wet shirt.

It also meant watching both Bridget Jones movies a lot.

I mean, come on, it had Hugh Grant and Colin Firth fighting each other. It had a London backdrop which, to a small town high schooler, seemed so beyond hip. And it featured a narrator who was awkward and less than perfect but still going after sex. Because Bridget Jones may not have always had a life worth aspiring to, but damn it she presented a future I felt I could achieve. And even when her life wasn’t perfect, it seemed much better than my life. My high school relationship drama was much more Wuthering Heights than Pride and Prejudice, so Bridget’s life seemed like a goddamn dream to me. I read the books. I watched the films. I affected a terrible accent. My best friend and I would carry journals around and write stuff all the time (her way more than me because I’m lazy). When I went off to college, the Bridget Jones books were two that I packed for my teeny dorm room and I opened to random pages to read passages when I felt overwhelmed. I would watch either film whenever it was on television, considering it a gift from the syndication gods. Maybe that’s why I’ve seen Edge of Reason more than the first film.

As I’ve grown up, my life has become awesome in its own way. Like really. My life is fucking grand. Still sometimes full of drama because I’m 24 but it’s different now. I don’t romanticize it like I did in high school where I thought being mature meant having problems. I just hate drama now and while I often have a hard time getting out of it, I still turn to writing to get through it. Something about putting my problems on paper (or computer screen) makes it easier for me to process and I owe that coping mechanism to Bridget Jones.

I left her behind a few years ago. The books are in my mom’s storage unit. The films have gone unwatched. Let’s see if Hugh Grant still does it for me.

This movie is supposed to be Bridget and Mark Darcy’s ‘happily ever after.’ Which is odd because they’ve only been dating 6 weeks, 4 days, and 7 hours. “Or 71 ecstatic shags.” Like, I know they’ve known each other their whole lives but that’s still a very brief time to be dating. Especially since the first movie told us Bridget has spent a good portion of their lives disliking Mark immensely. But hey, they’re heavy in the honeymoon stage. They’ve given things up for each other (or at least Mark thinks Bridget has given up smoking ‘which is practically the same thing’), Mark loves Bridget’s ‘wobbly bits,’ and they’re super adorable. But a relationship without drama is not a relationship worth watching for two hours so let’s get down to petty squabbles.

Okay, they aren’t entirely petty. These are real concerns. Bridget thinks that Mark looks down on her because she doesn’t fit in with his peers, a bunch of upper class lawyer types who think that charitable giving is detrimental to society and encourages people to want to be poor. When she criticizes them at a big function or brings up class issues or isn’t as smart about some things, he doesn’t stand up for her. Sure, he loves her ‘just the way she is,’ but he’s way more prone to proving that in private which honestly isn’t good enough.

Also, someone plants it in Bridget’s head that he’s cheating on her with a 22 year-old ‘with legs up to here.’ Rebecca is quite attractive and, due to being a coworker, constantly hangs out with Mark. Bridget gets a little jealous which turns into very jealous, and when she confronts Mark about the possibility, he doesn’t see where she’s coming from and it turns into this big thing. Mark is upset over the lack of trust and Bridget jumping to conclusions. Maybe he doesn’t tell her she’s wrong because he feels he shouldn’t have to.

(Note: He should. He’s been cheated on and Bridget was cheated on in the last film. Given the history of both these characters, I do think he should have dignified it with a response rather than getting huffy. But then I’ve also been in that situation with partners where a lack of trust plus a lot of evidence that I was right about built up into me needing to just get some reassurances. But this is a modern update of Mr. Darcy so, you know, repressed emotions and all that.)

The other big fight that happens occurs on their mini-break (Bridget Jones movies have taught me that mini-breaks are big deals romantically) where, while trying to come down off a ski mountain, Bridget realizes she hasn’t had her period in nearly two months. What follows is a hilarious scene where she tries obtaining a pregnancy test by miming sex and her stomach growing while speaking in fractured German. After that we get a three-minute argument between her and Mark. They’re both pretty happy about the prospect of a child until they start daydreaming about names and schools, and it turns into this class issue where Bridget makes fun of boarding school twits who are raised to have sticks up their asses (Mark is one of those) and Mark derides public schools for being too lenient and preaching expression over knowledge.

Mark brings up a very good point: “What would be mad would be having a child if his parents can’t have a single conversation without shouting at each other.”

The pregnancy test turns up negative and they both give halfhearted ‘oh how sad’ grumblings before sleeping on opposite sides of the bed for the night.

I realized around this point that I hadn’t seen this film since before I started really dating. I was a late bloomer and didn’t have my first boyfriend/partner/whatever until I was 21. And I recently got out of a relationship that was full of its own ‘ecstatic shags’ but also featured frequent arguments over, well, pretty much everything. So while in high school I thought Bridget and Mark seemed a bit bumpy but ultimately a pair to root for, now I’m thinking that they really should break up. They could be decent friends. They’re obviously going to see each other, having parents who are friends and often inviting them to holiday parties. They could even have sex with one another. But as a long-term relationship, it’s the sort of opposites attract scenario that lends itself to romantic comedies more than reality. Still, at least this movie is being pretty honest about fighting. And Zellweger and Firth have the right chemistry to go seamlessly from gooey and cute to bickering about things. Everything falls apart quickly and these scenes feel quite natural.

Meanwhile, back in London and Bridget’s workplace, Daniel Cleaver has reared his stupidly pretty head and is hitting on Bridget in the workplace. When her and Mark do break up (nearly right after saying I Love You for the first time) he’s ready to strike. She resists him, though, because while he is charming, he’s also a jerk.

By the way, the answer to ‘does Hugh Grant still do it for me’ is a resounding yes. I am embarrassed by how hot I find him in this. He’s slick, charismatic, transparent, and I just want to pull his perfect hair and fuck him. And you know what, there are way more problematic British hotties out there (looking at you, Fassbender) so I’m just gonna roll with this. Everyone be prepared to roll with me. Are we rolling? Good. Let’s get to Thailand.

Oh yeah, they go to Thailand. Daniel has a new show (because publishing is dead and everyone works on TV now) about travelling and Bridget gets assigned to be his partner to bring in male viewers. There’s no commentary on how it’s pretty rad that a 33-year-old woman who owns that she will ‘always be a little bit fat’ is the woman they decide will bring in male viewers but that’s what I’m here for. It’s awesome.

But Bridget’s friends Gaius Baltar, Moaning Myrtle, and (the third one but has that actress done much else?) say she can’t go alone because Daniel Cleaver is a sexy, sexy snake in the sexy grass and so Shazza (the third actress who I can’t attach to other pop culture properties) goes alone with her. They split up on the plane. Shazza goes and hangs with Jed, a young cute dude, and Bridget gets pulled into first by Daniel. He immediately lays on the smarm-charm and requests (false) dirty stories. Bridget is flattered and sort of into it but also against it because she knows better.

He spends the rest of the trip trying to bang her and almost succeeds, with his talk of being in ‘shag therapy’ and being a ‘changed man’ and reciting her poetry and junk. As they work on their travel show, Bridget covers food and temples and other stuff while Daniel goes to a massage parlor. Because if you go to Thailand you have to mention the sex industry. Which is also how Daniel fails to bed Bridget. Even after he overcomes her hesitancy to sleep with someone new because it really marks the end of her and Mark, a Thai sex worker comes to his hotel. She won’t leave because, well, Daniel called her and also called another woman the night before (and apparently tipped really well) so she knows she’s got the right room. He offers a ‘I’m game if you are’ to Bridget but Bridget is so not game and leaves.

(Spoiler alert: Daniel, ever consistent in his love of getting laid, still sleeps with the sex worker. It’s implied he does this even after learning she’s a trans woman. So just remember that if you’re transphobic or a shitty customer to sex workers, you are worse than one of the most dickish characters Hugh Grant has ever played.)

And now it’s time to go back home to London. Shazza’s young buck has given her a ‘fertility snake bowl’ that Bridget ends up throwing in her bag. Unbeknownst to our merry heroines, the snake bowl is filled with cocaine and Bridget is arrested at the airport. She’s thrown in Thai prison, told it may be only ten years if she’s lucky, and waits.

This is a brief sequence and I was thinking maybe it would be more racist than I remembered but it was pretty okay. Sure, the Thai people speak in heavily accented English and that’s a problem but the women in the prison are very lovely and Bridget teaches them the correct words to ‘Like a Virgin.’ She trades her bra for cigarettes. There’s a lot of solidarity. Sure, the story is still based around our white lead, but primarily Bridget is upset about being in jail period, not being in Thai jail specifically. And it’s not some hellish experience that has her wasting away; it’s just a generally shitty one as I’m sure being thrown in prison for accidental drug muling would be. And when she leaves, thanks to some assistance from Mark Darcy (who claims to just be a messenger here but he totally isn’t, don’t act like that’s the case), she brings everyone gifts. It is a touch white-centric and there’s a scene where the women in prison tell stories of abusive boyfriends, making Bridget have an epiphany that Mark’s an okay dude** (which smacks of ‘thank you kindly POC for making me appreciate my life’), but ultimately this whole section of the film could have been way, way worse.

(**However, we should note that okay dude =/= okay boyfriend. And if your standard for good boyfriend is ‘he didn’t hit me or get me addicted to heroin,’ then you need to learn to love yourself more.)

Bridget heads home. On her way, we get one of the best scenes in the film as Mark confronts Daniel in an art gallery about abandoning Bridget at the airport. He challenges Daniel to a duel and they end up fighting like men who do not know how to fight. It’s awkward and they end up in a fountain. Of all the redone/callback jokes to the first film, this is the most important.

Bridget gets home, learns about Mark getting her out, rushes to his home, and finds Rebecca. We learn Rebecca is a lesbian and is actually quite taken with Bridget. She kisses her and Bridget is like nope, totally straight. One time I watched this movie at my grandma’s house and she came home right before this scene. During the kiss she declared ‘Those two women must be lesbians.’ And she said the word really dramatically and that’s always stuck with me. Maybe because my grandma didn’t tend to acknowledge gay people? Like ever? I tried explaining that Bridget isn’t, just Rebecca, but hey lesbians aren’t…oh why am I bothering, grandma doesn’t care. Now I’m wondering if my mom ever told my grandma that I’m not straight and, if she did, if my grandma’s reaction was similar.

Back to the film. Bridget gets in a cab, takes a ‘quick’ detour to find the right outfit, rushes to Mark’s work, declares her love for him, he proposes and we….still don’t see them get married. The movie actually ends with them walking through a cemetery after Bridget’s parents renew their vows and Bridget narrates that ‘happiness is possible. Even when you are 33 and have a bottom the size of two bowling balls.’

So does this movie hold up?

Some of the phone stuff is dated. I realized that no one is ever really going to have to deal with calling their boyfriend to tell him his bottom is adorable and then find out they’re on speaker to some ambassadors. We have texting now. Texting will solve these problems.

And honestly, even though I didn’t get the ‘need to be married’ thing as a teenager, I really don’t get it now. Like, seriously, Bridget and Mark shouldn’t get married. They definitely shouldn’t have a kid unless they both sit down and do some heavy compromising. It’s clear that they love each other very much, but love isn’t enough to save a relationship. And I wish the movie actually went there because it’s not entirely unrealistic about everything else.

And as a romantic comedy lead? Bridget’s pretty great. I still find her absolutely relatable. She’s not just quirky; she’s self-assured and confident but we also get to see her doubting herself in private. And while she does want to get married and be in a relationship, she wants to do it on her terms. She calls Mark out on his shit and how he treats her. She refuses to give Daniel Cleaver another go and consistently fights her attraction to him despite the fact that, once they start flirting, she’s really comfortable around him. (And depending on how you take one scene, he’s better in bed than Mark.) They laugh over his continued love of her granny panties and the tease each other in a way that is unlike her having to stand up against his workplace harassment. But she tells him she doesn’t just want to shag anymore. Sure, he’d be great for that, but it and he are not what she wants and she’s not going to fuck some guy who doesn’t appreciate her as more than a sexual partner.

Bridget’s also always giving herself pep talks, which I like. She tells herself she’s doing amazing journalism, even though they’re fluff pieces. Bridget, despite her body image issues and feeling like a loser in love, believes in herself in a way that a lot of the people around her don’t, and even when her love life fails, she doesn’t stop believing in herself entirely. That’s pretty great.

Other notes

— There are magic mushrooms in Thailand, courtesy of Shazza and her dude. The scene where Bridget frolics in the ocean, patting her face and saying ‘pretty, pretty’ is my favorite thing Renee Zellweger has ever done.

— Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy three times is always going to be his legacy. And I remember on the DVD there’s a bonus feature where Zellweger interviews him as Bridget Jones and won’t let up about the pond-diving scene. Apparently it was a spur of the moment thing and is mostly improvised and it was hilarious. It’s also based on a scene in the book that didn’t make it into the film because, well, you can’t have Colin Firth play a character and himself. I guess.

— I’ve rolled with the ‘still finding Hugh Grant attractive thing’ through this whole review, but I would really like it to stop now. I’m both too old and too young for this.

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