Best New Views – October 2018

Not gonna lie to y’all: October was rough, and long. Somehow the last time I wrote in is both yesterday and also exactly 1,532 years ago. Luckily some of that is just because of the sheer amount of things that filled my life during the spookiest month of the year. Sure, there was the usual pumpkin goodies and candies and camaraderie, but there was also dozens of good episodes, movies, and people. (You’d think that last one would be covered in camaraderie, but hey! Whatever!)

Because the world was so hectic for October I didn’t get much of reading done (at least, not in the way that would show up here). But the good news is that I am mid-way through something like 4 books.

As if the world isn’t bleak enough (with mid-terms loooooooming on the horizon), beloved Filmstruck will be leaving us at the end of November. With any luck, when I next write you I’ll have plenty of older films to populate this list from a binge where and when I can.

So in lieu of getting back down to business:

In A Star is Born, Equality is Dead

I didn’t exactly know where to put A Star is Born on this list; on the one hand, I didn’t love it. On the other hand, I recognize that it was a strong enough movie that I had multiple fascinating discussions about it with people I love and trust throughout October. Luckily Manohla Dargis published this perfect piece at The New York Times, which dives into how exactly A Star is Born (arguably throughout the years) has failed the woman star of its narrative.

Shout Your Abortion

I don’t want to review this—how does on review a life story even work? Just go buy this book. Read it and be filled. Soak it in and put it back out in the world.

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

This show is utterly imperfect, and who the hell cares. Like Riverdale (which it shares a showrunner with), it’s a show that’s tangled and shoddy at times, and consistently fun to look at and take in.

220px-sydney_bristow_aliasAlias

I watched this show when one of my best friends loaned me her enormous box-set (as in, a literal golden box based on one of the relics from the show). In so many ways this show was an artifact of a bygone time: Dialogue laden with heavy exposition, a quaint conception of the government as indelible force for good, Bradley Cooper being shunted to the side.

But (not the first to say this), Alias is a crucial link between the TV era it was borne into and the one it would bow out to; a confirmation and heightening of the spy genre; a debut of the mystery box that would define at least the next 10 years of television.

God bless J-Gar and her inquisitive pout.

Frankenstein

Did I initially read this for a now-different upcoming project? Yes! Was I blown away in spite of it? Also yes.

It seems so odd that there was a world so hidden beyond “throw the switch!” and “I think you actually mean Frankenstein’s monster;” Frankenstein the novel is told so much differently than any of the adaptations I’ve ever heard of, and so at odds with its place in pop culture.

While reading (/listening, thanks to creative commons), I was grateful to have this New Yorker piece in the back of my mind.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

Over the summer me and my partner made a sort of plan to watch Tennessee Williams movies every time it was unbearably hot; Seattle’s summer, with all its smoke, made it a bit more interminable than we expected, so we didn’t get all the way down the list. So how refreshing it was to get to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in October, and find a surprising hit of the warmth of summer without the sweltering depression that can come with it (and Williams’ work).

This movie is a classic, with so much written about it that there’s not much I can add in a quick graf. But let me just say: My they are an attractive couple, and boy does Williams have a way of making the heat winds stir up a bunch of trouble fairly naturally.

Two of my favorite shows: Superstore and The Good Place

Superstore is back baby! And so is The Good Place! God bless! Thank god for great-ass comedies that are providing a safe space.

I’m a little on the fence about The Good Place‘s future, but I have nothing but faith in their ability to make me laugh and take me to new places.

And Superstore — perhaps Gomez best sums up my feelings about Deena, and everyone else:

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Youtube jam of the month: 

Honorable mentions:

Designing Women (1957)

The Maltese Falcon

The Guilty

Collette

 

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Best New Stuff – July 2018

 

 

GLOW Season 2

I always liked GLOW; I found it winning, and complicated in ways that most shows don’t let their women characters be. But its first season had some issues that I wouldn’t begrudge people for disliking — it had a diverse ensemble, but didn’t care to use much of it, for starters.

But season 2 — man, season 2 blew me away. What an exquisite way to expand on the concept of the first season, present two separate and totally fair conceptions of a coming out story, building and broadening the friendship at the core of it, expertly placing clues and pacing itself for the end of the season. This is a show to watch, more subversive in its portrayal of female life than something like The Handmaid’s Tale. Plus it’s got a truly kickin’ soundtrack.

Hereditary

I am not the sort of person who ascribes to the philosophy that a horror movie has to be scary, but if I was Hereditary would still hit the mark. The first 3/4 play out like an atmospheric stretching rack, until the final act really drives it home. It’s the sort of movie that’s impossible to market without audiences being familiar with it, even though it isn’t all that unfamiliar from horror movie touchstones. It’s just that the ambience is so enveloping, the execution so wholly authentic, it’s impossible to get the message across until the movie’s been seen.

But after you’ve seen it? Well, the dark of your bedroom will never be the same again.

God’s Favorite Customer – Father John Misty 

While last month (and a little of this month) is still dominated by Everything Is Love, I somehow missed the release of the latest FJM. Where before I had been kind of hot and cold on the folk star, I’m now enrapt by his crooning, which seems to covers everything from love songs to comedy pieces.

 

 

but the Youtube song of the month?  That’s Isakov all the way, baby. 

Best New Stuff – June 2018

Well golly, that was one helluva Pride wasn’t it? When we started the month everything seemed like a wide-open horizon. Now…well, it’s been a long month.

Writing about culture, in times like these can seem trivial. Unlike others, I don’t have any grand statements to opine about empathy machines or revealing who we really are; right now culture feels like a thing to do, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like the thing to do. I find more and more that I am explaining to people what actual representation looks like. It’s not always the stories in front of the camera, sometimes it’s the people behind the camera too — and the people who green light these things, and the people who shape political landscapes our art is born onto. That’s representation that we need to fight for, and that needs fighting for at the moment.

That being said, here are some things that just gave me life this month:

Nanette

Wow. There’s so much to say about Hannah Gadsby’s daring, groundbreaking, and gutting comedy special, but to put it succinctly: While the rest of the world was talking around talking about how to appropriately deal, as a society, with men who have hurt others, Nanette tackles it head on, forcing the issue in your face and elegantly circling the horses around you. By the end of the hourlong special, I was rapt, and the feeling has consumed me for days. Run don’t walk to your nearest Netflix outlet to hear on why Hannah Gadsby is the comic special to watch.

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The Good Fight

It’s become tired to say that something is (or will be) an important artifact of the Trump era. But leave it to the Kings (the writers behind this and The Good Wife) to find a way to make it wired, and—most importantly—fun. For all its pointed politics that can sometimes misstep or mis-swing, perhaps no scene has summed up like under this administration quite as much as a (liberal) judge getting a push alert to his smart watch, and uttering “Oh! This world!” and then continuing about the scene without a second thought. The Good Fight doesn’t always win its battles (its continuing blindspot for race relations, despite focusing on a Black law firm, is proof of that), but it did manage to be a fun 23 episodes, that didn’t pull back from the pulled-from-the-headlines nature the first show embraced—even as the headlines get more and more ludicrous.

For a Good Time, Call…

It’s hard to pull off a platonic love story between two female friends without it seeming too queer baiting, and For a Good Time, Call… definitely indulges those tendencies too. But by the end of this fun film, it’s clear that—on whatever level these women choose—they are soulmates, through and through. And their fights, to-dos, and deep affection finally reflect that of women friendships I know.

Plus, my god, they are funny.

APESH*T – Everything is Love

The release to end all releases. Once again Beyonce has stopped the world with a few Instagram posts, a video, and a full-fledged, long-awaited album with her husband. Everything is Love is neither of the artists strongest work, and coming off an album as strong and powerful as Lemonade it certainly falls short, just by nature of being more experimental and less nuanced. But the album has deceptive depth, and—honestly—all the songs are bops, in their own way. It would probably be better received if it had followed the self-titled album, but Everything is Love will likely hold more of a place in the zeitgeist than its initial response may reflect.

Also, I mean, this video, my god:

Ocean’s 8

It’s not perfect, it’s not ideal, and it won’t fix anything. But good lord did I need a movie full of competent women wearing kick-ass outfits pulling off a heist. I now own a velvet blazer, so Cate Blanchett’s propaganda worked.

1528406019661-3e6935b8e43ce5e189a9309d47097a4bHonorable mention: 

Incredibles 2

Fahrenheit 451

The Assassination of Gianni Versace

The Color Purple (the musical)

Rewind Review: ‘Interview with a Vampire’

Interview with a Vampire feels like the quintessential example of a bad book adaptation: You can tell there are big themes lurking in the background. There’s a sense that these emotions aren’t melodrama or camp but sincere. And yet, nothing about the movie is really able to connect.

Interview with a Vampire posterFor instance, the movie seems to revolve around the connection between Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt) and Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise), their sometimes diametrically opposed views on the afterlife and vampiric sensibilities. For the first two-thirds we follow as they banter between themselves, haphazardly drawing in victims and even a “daughter” in Claudia (Kirsten Dunst). Then the movie drops this plot line, in favor of a turn to Armand’s (Antonio Banderas) coven in Paris, only to return later with a flourish to the “central relationship.” In a book these chapters might feel a bit episodic, but in the movie there’s a lot more telling that Louis and Claudia digest the various pains of the world than there is showing you.

Instead the movie paints in broad strokes, favoring the book-translation that seems to name-check important plot points without paying much attention to the emotional weight of them.

Some of this is likely due to the casting. Young Brad Pitt clearly hasn’t discovered that he is a character actor in a leading man’s body—unlike co-star Tom Cruise, whose vivaciousness buoys nearly every scene initially. Pitt is utterly wooden; a precursor to Robert Pattinson’s later turn in Twilight. It’s clear that Louis de Pointe du Lac is tortured. But we, as an audience, mostly know that because he spends so much time communicating this in his voiceover, and sitting on the sidelines, peering into a world he understands but still doesn’t want to. Given his stiff and mopey state, it’s hard to believe that one of the through lines of the movie is that every vampire Louis comes in contact with yearns for his company above all.

It’s left to Cruise and Dunst to breathe some life into the film, and they each do so with great aplomb. Cruise manages a vibrant Lestat initially, seamlessly shifting between the vampire’s complicated desire for Louis as a dissimilar companion and his frustration with Louis’s inability to want to understand him. But it’s Dunst who manages to fully embody the complexities of the vampire lifestyle—not to mention the added complexities of her character, all as a child not nearly as aged as Claudia. Hers is the only performance that seems to be able to tap into the poetic and nuanced style of Anne Rice.

Otherwise, Rice’s novel and its shading is lost in a film that’s done away with subtlety and themes of grief in favor of what reads as gothic camp. Though its style and themes would certainly influence modern horror, and in particular vampire tales, Interview with a Vampire isn’t able to do much with the infinite lifetimes of its heroes. And we thought we could have it all.

Hunger Games is more than Battle Royale with Cheese

hunger-games-battle-royale-with-cheeseI’ve been thinking a lot about the common connection drawn between Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. I can’t speak to whether Suzanne Collins saw Battle Royale, was inspired by it, lifted it wholesale, or whatever. To me the only clear thing is that while the films/books share a lot of similarities, they’re interested in wildly different things.

The Hunger Games starts out with the spectacle of it all. The egregious event floats a sense of dread throughout Katniss’ thoughts and action; looming tall over what is otherwise an ordinary day. And it does so because that’s what it’s intended to do: The government (“The Capital”) puts on the Hunger Games because they need to teach the outer districts a lesson in obedience, using the brutality they force their children into as a way to keep the status quo. It’s what makes the ending of the first Hunger Games so powerful, even when it’s stripped of the same savageness that gives Battle Royale its bite due to the U.S. film’s PG-13 rating. Katniss has learned to make the system work for her. The ending is abrupt, as her and Peeta go home in deception, but it works because the entire movie has been building to it; all that spectacle, now used to cage her in a very different way.

For whatever spectacle there is to the titular Battle Royale, it’s not entirely clear in the movie. The beginning shows us that there’s immense press interest in the winner of the games, but somehow the students have never heard of it.

Similar to the Hunger Games, the Royale was instituted to keep students compliant after 800,000 of them once walked out and utterly disregarded the rules of Japanese society. The focus, by director Kinji Fukasaku, is much more on the institutions of society, rather than the human nature of the “spectacle” in The Hunger Games. He interrogates what adults’ roles in the lives of the next generation are, how they communicate with them, the heightened melodrama of stories that—had the students lived longer—would’ve been blips on a radar.

brvshungergames
Even the posters reveal a crucial difference: Fukasaku initially (and brilliantly) focused Battle Royale on the way teens move and react as a group. Collins plucks Katniss out as a distinctive “YA protagonist” type.

That last point is why the characters come off so differently from each other. The Hunger Games focuses on kids who have had to grow hard, who have needed to become tough in order to function in the world. Battle Royale is about kids who have trauma suddenly and unsuspectingly thrust upon them. The former is about PTSD and adults, the latter is premature death in kids.

Whatever similarities there are—which, don’t get me wrong, are a lot, between the “kids killing each other because the government demands it” angle and the two lovebirds making it out together against all odds—they seem to be starkly contrast when held side-by-side. Collins went through great lengths to separate the government in her book from the government of the present, even if the media environment seems remarkably similar. Fukasaku’s work seems like a direct indictment of the government of both past and (at the time) present Japan.

The Authorial Intent Battle Royale

Is there a right way to advise people to care about authorial intent? My instinct would be to tell most people that they can disregard it, but I think that—as a whole—that can rob us of some really fascinating perspectives.

Obviously without authorial intent movies can feel “of the moment” in the wrong (or at least, unintended) way. Battle Royale hit the U.S. at a time when it was recovering from its first school shooting; the notion of paying to watch kids killing kids seemed to fly in the face of the idea that violent culture breeds violent kids. And so it was largely “banned” and made difficult to access in the U.S.

Battle-Royale-Class-Photo-But in Japan it was a whole different ball game. Director Kinji Fukasaku came up during WWII, working in a munitions factory that kept getting bombed, as a 15-year-old (the same age as the students in his film). When bombs came the kids sometimes used each other as human shields, and survivors would be left to bury the dead. It made him “understand the limits of friendship,” and he realized that the government had lied to Japan about why they were even in the war to begin with.

“This was his film kind of giving a finger to the Japanese government,” said film critic Amy Nicholson on The Canon. “I love that the last film he made is [like] ‘You can’t trust adults, you can’t trust the government; they grind up kids and use them for meat.'”

This seems like a crucial block of knowledge to bring to a Battle Royale viewing; it colors the culture of Japan (which, during the movie’s release in the ’90s, was also going through some changes reflected in Battle Royale like high unemployment) as a post-war state, and informs viewers about how that makes Fukasaku feel. As authorial intent goes, this one is wide-reaching and savage. It touches on the war, the nation, and human (or at least, survivalist teen) nature.

But that only makes it all the more peculiar when directors like Christopher Nolan say that the wiretapping debate had no impact on their decision to give Batman the ability to wiretap the citizens of Gotham in The Dark Knight, or the clash of grassroots protesters versus the police just happened to make its foray into The Dark Knight Rises after #OccupyWallStreet. It seems disingenuous for audiences to implicitly trust that Nolan wasn’t affected by these things. It seems wrong to think that there’s no way the two worlds could bleed into each other.

Dark Knight Rises protest still
I mean, come ON

Which is what makes The Birth of a Nation controversy so irreconcilable. How can a movie, centered on a graphic rape, be trusted to be appropriately handled by someone who committed (alleged and murky) sexual assault? How can the audience react to a movie organically, knowing that fact in the back of their minds? Will they be able to divorce authorial intent and the creator from their viewing? Should they have to?

It’s easy to cast off a notion like Nolan’s when you see parallels in The Dark Knight trilogy. Incorporating Fukasaku’s past is a fascinating spotlight that only illuminates the statement of Battle Royale all the more. But with Nate Parker the line is murkier. And I’m not sure there’s an easy answer there.

Medium/Large: Episodic Moves in Television and Movies

Many television critics have been bemoaning the death of the episode in TV lately. As our culture shifts to online, streaming, and binge watching, the episode has become less of a chapter and more of a sentence in the seasonal books we watch. More and more the shows we watch resemble 10-hour movies rather than episodic television. The flip side of that is that our movies are starting to resemble the episodic television we’re more accustomed to.

On the surface level these are driven by two different goals. Television is increasingly embracing the streaming platform’s structure of releasing a whole season in one go, which encourages long periods of watching, which doesn’t have as much need to break up the story into chunks like network television does. Movies, meanwhile, are caught up in the desire to be like Marvel, and create a shared cinematic universe. It’s the reason Captain America: Civil War is able to build on the characters, relationships, and events that people have been watching play out for almost a decade on the silver screen, or why The Force Awakens was able to exist paradoxically as a reboot, a sequel, and a retelling without fully standing on its own. star-wars-the-force-awakens-15-1200x630

But underneath it all it’s the same principle: To get people obsessed with your content. Marvel has always understood that building out narratives across issues and decades creates generations of fans. Star Wars invented modern blockbuster culture because it turned out to be a smash hit. Shows like BloodlineSense 8, and beyond are able to take advantage of the interest in telling long-form stories and connecting (deeply) with characters week-after-week to use whole seasons as pilots instead of one episode. And so they borrow strategies that worked for the other in order to build their medium up. Similar to the way genres have started to bleed into each other, formatting now is as well; blockbuster movies are more often than ever before just episodes of a longer story being told across a franchise, and television is just an imagined story that functions more like building a puzzle rather than a daisy chain each week.

Tights and T-Rexes:

Well guys Suicide Squad has come and gone, and at no point did it go over well with critics. But audiences—or some vocal portion of them—liked it, and are as unhappy with critics as the critics are with the movie. Which lead to some accusations in the raging rapids of Twitter and social media that critics are just shills for Marvel, or even that critics have no place in our lives.

I’ve gone on record as favoring Marvel, and I’ll admit that I share no excitement about seeing Dawn of Justice. But I think it’s possible for both critics and DC fans to exist in this world of ours.

Take The Witch. The movie was trumpeted by critics, beloved for being a return to arthouse horror and building dread without jump-scares. It boasts a high critical rating on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. But audiences weren’t so enthusiastic. I loved the film, but I’m not immodest enough to say that’s because it’s objectively one of the best movies of the year, let alone that some audiences are “just dumb” as some may argue.

Movies are such subjective experiences, built on the backs of so many people and for the enjoyment of even more I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a movie that everyone loves and could agree was an objectively good movie. So long as you’re able to appreciate what it is you enjoyed about the movie, reflect critically on that, what’s the harm? It’s ok for a movie to be good to you, and have all the elements you wanted from it and for critics to not agree.

I love dinosaurs, particularly of the underwater variety. So for myself, Jurassic World had everything I wanted and more. But I can also acknowledge that if you aren’t me, and weren’t flooded with adrenaline over the action sequences it’s a pretty subpar movie. Conversely, I like my horror films to really wig me out (while not being too gorey) and while It Follows gave others those feelings I wasn’t on board—no matter how much I appreciated the artistry of it. I’m a sucker for smart action films, so Marvel’s cinematic universe excites and thrills me, but that doesn’t mean A.O. Scott is wrong when he called it homogenous. It might mean that we value that differently in our enjoyment. Jurassic World dinosaur

To say that any one audience is “smarter” than another is gross and white-washes the issue. It’s more accurate (and kind) to say that your interests, values, and pleasure is simply stocked in different places. The whole idea of having a wide range of pop culture is that there’s something for everyone, not everything for someone.

When you read a critic’s review and it seems to be overly harsh or bashing on something you love, ask yourself: Is it? Is it just that we disagree? Is this a critic I have a trust and understanding with? Can I get over myself and just enjoy what I enjoy without validation?

Surprise! You already know.

Has surprise casting ever worked? I don’t mean like Kevin Spacey at the end of Se7en. More like casting a notable actor in a film (typically a reboot or franchise) as a rando new character before ultimately revealing that—surprise—they were this character all along. Think Benedict Cumberbatch as John Harrison Khan in Star Trek Into Darkness or Marion Cotillard as Miranda Talia Al-Ghul in The Dark Knight Rises.

At this point fandoms have become accustomed to the studio’s schtick: There’s no such thing as adding a new character to an established franchise, they’re only there if it’s a bait-and-switch. Whether it seems to happen because they want to withhold some plot development later on (see Dark Knight Rises) or they want to be able to justify not casting a POC (Star Trek Into Darkness, and arguably Iron Man 3) without fan outrage, it’s a common enough practice that audiences—especially those that leak, clamor, and obsess over anything released by the studios regarding franchises—aren’t buying it anymore.

KhanSequel_FEAT-970x545.pngI’m all for spoiler warnings and avoiding knowing the plot ahead of time before movies (if that’s what you want, I don’t really see the harm in reasonably facilitating that for yourself). But too often it seems producers just straight up lie in order to avoid—what, controversy? Discussion? All they’re really doing is hoping the can is kicked far enough down the road that viewers will be more sympathetic, or at least understanding, of the artistic junket choices they made. But in my experiences no one likes feeling conned. And when these experiences don’t pay off artistically it makes it all the worse. It’s too simple to say that witholding information like this should enhance a viewing experience not dampen it, because that’s probably what creators thought they were doing with Talia and Khan.

But compared to something like (to grab another Spacey-villain-reveal joint) The Usual Suspects, where the person pulling the strings the whole time is played in a bit of misdirection—even acknowledged misdirection, as we see Spacey orchestrate the initial robberies even as he tells us that it was someone else. It’s nuggets like that that can create repeat and rewarding viewing experiences. Compare that to trying to reboot and slip a villain in under the radar in an established franchise under the wire while keeping it under wraps that it’s what you’re doing and the game is considerably more dicey (and as we’ve seen in both Rises and Into Darkness, prone to failure and letdown).

Perhaps the latest comes with the news that Zendaya won’t be playing a random “Michelle” in Spiderman: Homecoming, she’ll be playing none other than the red-headed heartthrob Mary-Jane. Though I’m hardpressed to believe that (if the rumors are true) there’s any real reason Marvel would withhold this information other than to have a couple more months without the ire of racists on the internet directed towards them, at least for once it’s being used to get a person of color into a white role, rather than the other way around.

The Artist and the Work: A Separation

As the world awaits Nate Parker’s highly touted The Birth of a Nation, it was only a matter of time before the media went antsy and digging. Parker, to his credit, tried to own the story, but I imagine that in the week or so since it’s spiraled beyond what he may have expected: In attempting to acknowledge and defend against rape allegations that were made against him and a friend (and coworker) in college, Parker has invited in more awareness to his past.

Whether he thought that would be enough to clean house I can’t say. What does seem clear was he was unaware the internet would be so vigilant about the ways in which he actively played up his life since: The “importance” of the movie he’s bringing to the world; the fact that he mentioned his wife and four daughters multiple times (after inviting the journalist into his home strewn with remnants of a family life); the ultimate fate of the woman who made the accusations; the notorious failure of the criminal justice system when it comes to sexual assault.*

EraserheadAnd so fans, interested parties, and pop culture connoisseurs are once again plunged into the debate: Can you separate the work of the artist from the artist? Should you always?

In a perfect world I want to say yes. It’s possible to duck into a theater, a show, or a book without knowing the creator’s politics, without ever being influenced by them. Theoretically they are utterly separate; like how David Lynch maintains that the married-too-young and father-too-fast period of his 20s had nothing to do with his work on Eraserhead, a movie that (amongst other interpretations) is about a young man grappling with an unexpected pregnancy.

But in execution I haven’t much found it to be possible. As if it weren’t enough that many of the people who insist on the Chinese wall don’t seem to have any skin in the game in this sense, there’s seldom a piece of art that you can’t examine at least some sort of message or motivation for. And I’m not sure I think we should strip it of that. Cultural context matters. The atmosphere around production and artistic decisions is compelling, it furthers philosophies, and it adds to the significance of it all.

I’m not sure whether Nate Parker will effect my viewing of Birth of a Nation. I can’t be certain where the hammer will ultimately fall for me on the issue of artist vs. art. All I know is it seems far too simple to just try to hide under the rug.

 

*I don’t mean to reinforce or express my own personal belief here. Just trying to flag the major sticking points for a lot of people I read.