[A little more about Much Ado, Gatsby, Gravity, & Her]

Stephanie asked me to talk a little more about Her, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, & Much Ado, and then I got too long winded for the comment box. So I’m putting it here, a little informal, but you can pretend you’re eavesdropping.

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Much Ado About Nothing is fun, first of all. I saw it twice, first at the SIFF press screening, & second on the day I found out I was laid off, and it was the perfect distraction for that kind of a shitty day. Much Ado isn’t my favorite comedy (Twelfth Night, obviously, as if I could ever love best a comedy with no cross dressing), but it’s pretty high ranking, and I know the text pretty well. I also have some Opinions about it, like that in a modern update especially I’d like to see an older Beatrice & Benedick. Amy is basically the same age Emma was when she had the role, & she definitely made me forget she was too young.

It’s a no-budget, quick-shoot, Rolodex movie, and it shows. The music is terrible. Alexis is pure ham, and you do wind up spending time wondering who should have been Benedick. I haven’t worked out an answer yet. We need more screwball comedies on which to judge people. Thinking about stylized dialogue keeps taking me back to tv, & I just distracted myself thinking about Bradley Whitford, which is ridiculous, because he’d be just as hammy as Alexis. But it’d be pretty fun. Or this might be just because I watched nine episodes of Trophy Wife in the last 24 hours.

ANYWAY. Since it’s fast & friends, some stuff is great & some stuff isn’t. Great stuff other than Amy? A buncha boys: Clark Gregg, Fran Kranz, & Reed Diamond. Also Nathan Fillion & Tom Lenk’s security goons — they’ve both watched way too many 70s buddy cop movies, a far more effective bit than whatever the hell Michael Keaton & crew were doing in the Branagh version. Story-wise, some things don’t age so well in the modern update, but making it clear B&B had a sexual relationship pre-film was a good call.

I’d love to see this quickie Shakespeare business become a Thing, though. Do Twelfth Night next, please. OH THEY COULD HAVE OLIVIA WILLIAMS AS OLIVIA. Please make this happen. OH. And J August Richards as Orsino! This is a thing I did not know I needed until RIGHT THIS MINUTE. Who’s our extended Whedonverse Viola, though? That’s a question for the room.

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The Great Gatsby is a mess. A great big beautiful *interesting* mess. Baz got one thing dead right and that’s that Nick is stupid in love with Jay. Underlined & with an exclamation mark. A funny thing about Gatsby is that going into it I thought…Carey Mulligan is worth watching in anything. And I was wrong. I don’t know what Baz had her doing, but no.

Leo, however. There’s an amazing shot when he’s waiting for the reunion with Daisy at Nick’s, and he’s sitting in the overstuffed room, an astonishing combination of drenched cat & coiled spring. I know everyone is talking up his performance in The Wolf of Wall Street, but I really think Gatsby’s what I’m going to remember of him this year. That shot, & the pure joy when he’s tossing the shirts down to Daisy. I’m not sure how it’ll play on TV, though. I only saw it in 2D, but Baz likes his frame *packed*, & I think my TV is too small for that business.

(I read somewhere that Baz wants to do Hamlet next, to which I say OMG NO. If he must do a tragedy, I’d love to see his Sleep-No-More-esque Macbeth. Imagine that, but with a dose of pure Baz camp? Now *that* could be delicious. Or terrible. But I’d definitely go. It’d be *interesting*.)

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Speaking of TV being too small, Gravity! An astonishing piece of filmmaking technically, obviously, but also I have to give major props to Cuaron for cutting back, making a 90 minute movie when everyone is dragging shit out to 2.5 hours or more. Someone suggested to me that might be part of why I didn’t come out of it with a 3D headache, and that might be true, but I also think part of it is Cuaron’s joy in the long shot. This is not 90 minutes of frantic cutting. It’s 90 minutes of having time to sink into scenes, and 90 minutes where then the 3D gave depth to what space feels like.

There has been some criticism going around about the script and…I didn’t care. I mean, I noticed the cheesy bits, but I was not bothered. I loved that it was a big roller coaster effects movie about a woman in peril saving herself. I loved that she had lost things on Earth, had gone to space to escape that, and now had to make the choice, repeatedly, to live. I adored the whole gigantic obvious birth metaphor (I mean, my god, that shot when she’s first stripped off the suit & is gently turning in the fetal position… it’s stunning. I’m not going to forget that shot for a long time.)

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I had mostly been waiting to see Her before I could finalize my wrap-up. It was weirdly important to me that I saw it before the end of the year. It’s interesting, given how “everything good” supposedly comes out in the fall, that aside from Her, my top three films came out in the first half of the year. Upstream Color played Seattle in April, Frances Ha opened in May, & Before Midnight in June. It’s also interesting to me that all four are unconventional romances*. In some ways, Her is the most conventional of them all. It’s a warm, gorgeously shot boy-meets-girl. Just… the girl is an OS. Nobody’s perfect.

Today I was kicking around the idea of the manic pixie dream girl in regards to it, as that’s clearly the type of impossible relationship Theodore wants, and the challenge comes when Samantha, the OS, grows beyond childlike romance. There’s also a great contrast between the memories of his relationship with his ex-wife (basically, them playing games & playing house) & the actual woman we meet later in the film (Rooney Mara, awesome as always).

I had a conversation with a friend not that long ago where I got to deliver that classic line from Sleepless in Seattle: “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” The question of technology isn’t the point of the film; it’s the excuse. The point is any relationship worth having is going to be messy, messy with bodies, needs, emotions, people growing and changing. The question is: does Theodore want to be in love with an actual person?

Because, of course he’s going to fall in love with a woman who is literally always available, who anticipates his every need, who gently goads him into becoming his better self. But what does he give her? Humanity. We learn about her processing speed in their first conversation, and then he immediately dismisses it, but I sat there thinking about how *slow* life would must seem to her. All the time waiting for people to sleep and eat and think. It’d be cruel to expect her to limit herself to the pace of that life, when she could be filling her time with learning, developing, creating. But when we (person or OS!) learn, we change, and when someone learns as quickly as Samantha does, that change is equally rapid.

So, it’s not about falling in love with your phone, or laptop, or whatever. It’s about how hard it is to stay in love with *people*. It’s about the hard work of a relationship when one or the other is changing. It’s about discovering that there are other facets to your partner, and finding out how you feel about that. It’s about discovering the limits to what you can ask of another person, and deciding if it’s okay that there are places you can’t go together.

There’s just so much to say about this film. Visually: the style & color, the fashion, the slightly future but still very familiar technology. The supporting cast: Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, & Chris Pratt as slightly!future Chris Pratt, all so great. Thinking through the implications of Theodore’s job: creating handwritten letters for other people, basically a relationship surrogate. I think if this actually becomes a profitable arena in the near future, I want to get in on the ground floor. I decided that fan fiction was a great training ground, & I am looking forward to getting an apartment as gorgeous as Theodore’s.

And I can’t say enough about Joaquin Phoenix’s gorgeous, utterly open performance. So much of acting is listening, and for any other relationship movie you’d see that other face at some point. But here, it’s him all the time, in these long shots giving us plenty of time to focus on everything that’s happening to him.

So. It’s pretty great. You should all see it. The end, it must be admitted, is a little handwavy. I totally did not care. There was enough. Jonze earned a little handwaving.

* Upstream Color is a romance disguised as an experimental scifi film, Frances Ha is a romcom about when best friends break up, & Before Midnight is what happens after the happily ever after.

[Five Things About Austenland]

The first feature from Napoleon Dynamite cowriter Jerusha Hess, Austenland is the story of Jane (Keri Russell), a 30-something Jane Austen obsessive who spends her life savings on a trip to Austenland. It’s a fully immersive Jane Austen experience, and perhaps it doesn’t go exactly as she had intended.

1) The film is pointedly awkward, as you’d expect from part of the Dynamite team, but it’s affectionately and not painfully so. I spent some time wincing, but none hiding behind my scarf. In a lot of ways it’s a fantasy summer camp film, & thus goes weirdly well with this throwback coming of age film summer we’re having. Jane is basically in a state of arrested development.

2) I definitely spent a lot of time gasping “WAIT WHAT” & having check-in glances with the fine ladies I attended with. Protip: see this movie with fun ladies. First because it is a fun lady movie to see with your favorite fun ladies, but also because it is so weirdly over-the-top you’ll need to make sure you didn’t hallucinate any of it.

3) The soundtrack is practically pure 80s mixtape, which works and which is also hilarious.

4) The production value is appropriately awful. By which I mean, Austenland would obviously have a low budget, so there are awful fake animals everywhere & they clearly bought some of the statuary in bulk. Seriously, there could be a drinking game around the one holding a teacup.

5) The cast is ridiculous. Austenland is run by Dr Quinn Medicine Woman, & the other campers include Jennifer Coolidge is doing her new money American bit & having more fun than anyone else. Plus Bret McKenzie as the dreamboat farmhand, former Howling Commando [1] JJ Feild as the Darcy stand-in [2], & Gaius Baltar as the military man.

(I just looked up the proprietor’s husband — hey-it’s-that-guy Rupert Vansittart — because I could not place him, but I could absolutely hear him delivering the line “damn fine filly”. And I was right — he was in Four Weddings & a Funeral. Playing in many ways the same lecherous fellow.)

So, is it good? No, not really. But it is a damned entertaining summer camp popcorn movie for Austenites, deconstructing the fantasy & revelling in it at the same time.

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[1] He’s the second Howling Commando I’ve seen Russell work with this year, as I just plowed through “The Americans”.

[2] As a side note, I would be delighted if someday this modernizing Austen spirit delivered me some Persuasion. I see your Mr Darcy, guys, but Captain Wentworth forever, is what I am saying.

[The To Do List]

To my disappointment, The To Do List is not the Movie Made For Me that its YA-novel-esque poster art promised, let alone a Movie Made For Me in the same way The Heat was (srsly). I didn’t love it, but am still pleased it exists.

Written & directed by Maggie Carey, it’s the story of Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza), a valedictorian who decides she needs to acquire sexual experience before college. Being the goal-oriented lady she is, she puts together a list of acts she’d like to try and then goes about the work of checking them off. In some ways it’s a descendant of the Down With Love philosophy; she’s looking to have sex the way a man does: a la carte.

For those of you who grew up on teen sex comedies, it is absolutely made for you [1]. It is a teen sex comedy, but even better because it is starring a lady! Who talks to other ladies! Lady teens! And their desires! Fantastic!

While it is certainly concerning that Brandy’s self worth is bound up in her sexual experience or lack thereof [2], it’s also refreshing to have a teen heroine (and her friends, played by Alia Shawkat & Sarah Steele) who are very open about what they want and are not conflating their self worth with their relationship status. Brandy’s not looking for a boyfriend, after all, even if one might be looking for her. She’s looking to get down with Scott Porter, and whoever else might be interested in helping her check items off her list along the way.

The pinnacle of this for me is a scene where she’s been asked out by a guy who thinks she’ll be an easy mark. It turns out, though, that what he really wants is to get some pointers in the oral sex department. He has a to do list of his own, and inasmuch as he’s using her, they’re using each other, him to improve his skills and her to learn how to articulate her desires. I loved it SO MUCH.

Two other points that were key to my enjoyment:

* Her parents are played by Connie Britton & Clark Gregg, which … I don’t know about you, but Tami Taylor & Phil Coulson sound like pretty much the ultimate power BFF. They’d take over the damn world. Someone write that for me please.

* It was an early 90s period piece. The music, the clothes, the hair, the fucking step aerobics and Snackwells, it was all there. Judging by the audience I saw it with, it was all put in solely for me, but I am okay with that. 90s, man, I am glad you are over.

It’s not a flick I see myself revisiting, but it’s definitely worth a look in, especially if you grew up watching teen sex comedies instead of classic musicals like I did. The casting bench is deep and excellent (I didn’t even touch on Andy Samberg, for example, who killed it as a grunge musician), and I cannot give enough props to the creative ladies in front of & behind the camera telling lady stories.

I can’t wait to see what Maggie Carey does next.

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[1] I am making an assumption here that there is a level where the film works better if you’ve seen the right movies. Regardless, this should not have been a hindrance for me. A better film would have been satisfying on all levels. After all, Galaxy Quest is one of my favorite movies even though I’ve never seen any Star Trek. Also, Sunday I sat through the entire Cornetto Trilogy, which I love even though I can probably count the referenced films I’ve seen on one hand.

[2] I’m not entirely sure that her self worth *is* bound up in this, except insofar as sex is seen as the Next Step. She’s done literally everything else she needs to prepare for college, and so she treats sexual experiences like she would a summer reading list.

[SIFF Week One]

…part one.

* The Punk Singer is easily the most important film I’ve seen at festival so far. A documentary about Bikini Kill & Le Tigre lead singer Kathleen Hanna, it tackles feminism (obviously), music, writing, health, women’s voices, the importance of riot grrl to other artists (especially Nirvana & the Beastie Boys), the media’s desire to force marginalized voices into a narrative, and more. Really fantastic stuff, and I hope it gets distribution. I saw it with a press screening crowd (“It’s not my kind of music, but that was really great!”) & I bet it kills with an audience of fans. Also, this is a weird thing to mention — but the correct aspect ratio in archival footage was such a relief.

* What Maisie Knew is excellent & intense, but I would really love to know why the filmmakers chose to make a quite significant change from the source material. It makes me think they didn’t get the point of the book at all, in the end. Based on the James novel, but updated to current day New York, it follows six year old Maisie who is treated not as a person, but as a pawn in the breakup of her parents (Julianne Moore & Steve Coogan). Onata Aprile is stunning in the title role. (And in case you worry excessively about this sort of thing, Maisie never comes to *physical* harm. At least in the film. Her ACE score is whole other story.)

It comes out in Seattle this weekend, so I’d love for more people to see it so we can discuss it. It inspired me to read the book, because I had so many feelings about the ending.

* After Winter Spring is a documentary shot over three years, following family farms in France as they struggle to adjust to a world increasingly hostile to family farming. It’s a good story, and the families are great (they range from idealistic newcomers to folks who have worked the land for generations), but I was turned off a bit by the unnecessary Eat Pray Love-esque narration. I would have preferred title cards or less self-asserting narration.

* Inequality for All is basically Robert Reich’s An Inconvenient Truth, a 101 course on wealth distribution in America. Told through lecture, graphics, and interviews, it’s information we all have (at least, if we’ve been paying a tiny bit of attention), but presented in a concise & clear format. So now what are we going to do about it? Screens this Sunday & Monday at SIFF.

[SIFF Weekend One]

Let’s do this thing! Capsule reviews of SIFF 2013, weekend one, minus anything that will be going up on Manga Bookshelf, and…GO:

* Much Ado About Nothing is exactly what it looks like: a fun Rolodex movie. Standouts include Amy Acker, Clark Gregg, and the Nathan Fillion/Tom Lenk double team of ridiculousness who’ve seen one too many cop movies. It’s in a modern setting, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, and Alexis Denisof is a bit of a ham (but then, so is Benedick), and in the end it’s just dang charming. More low-budget Whedon surprises like this, please!

* Five Dances follows a young gay man as he begins working on a performance with a group of dancers in New York. The dialogue is lacking (as is sometimes the delivery), which is fine because the dialogue is not the point. The gorgeous (and beautifully shot) dancing is, and it was right of director Alan Brown to trust these dancers to tell the story of their work together and the complexities of the changing relationships between them.

* Concussion stars Robin Weigert, best known to me as Calamity Jane from Deadwood, but also virtually unrecognizable if you only know her from there. Inspired in part by the elite call girl portion of The Vagina Monologues, it’s a body-positive, sex-positive, sex-work positive film that is also a portrait of a midlife crisis in the context of an upper class lesbian marriage. Halfway through SIFF, it’s still my favorite feature. Easily best actress, too.

* Secret #1 is a secret, obviously, but here’s a Mad Lib style review: it was interesting, but afterwards we thought perhaps we would have liked it better if it had been a _____ of _____ narrated by _____, especially if it focused on the internal life of _____. I’m pretty sure I didn’t give anything away with that.

* Middleton is an affable, opposites attract film about two parents (Andy Garcia & Vera Farmiga) who meet as they’re touring a small college with their children. It doesn’t break any new ground, except insofar as it’s about an older couple, which of course, is groundbreaking in its own way. Perfect ending, shot like a sun-dappled college recruitment pamphlet, and (to our surprise) featuring Vera’s sister Taissa as her daughter.

* Inspired by true events, as the kids say, The Deep portrays an incident from 1984 where an Icelandic fishing boat capsized and a single fisherman managed the considered-impossible task of swimming many hours to safety. Iceland’s submission to the Academy Awards, it was naturalistic & engaging (especially once I adjusted my personal pacing expectations from the incident to the incident plus the aftermath, both personal and public.)

So, clearly my favorite of the lot was Concussion, with no duds in the first weekend. What did you love?