(Pretty much my expression after the movie.)
So on the upside, Star Trek Into Darkness did a lot to win me over to the cult of Benedict Cumberbatch. But … (spoilers, and many questions):
So this was irritating. Last night I saw The Pretty One, Jenée LaMarque’s California version of Amélie (sweet, funny, a feature-length Anthropologie commercial; not the irritating part). The screening, at the Tribeca Film Festival, was followed by a Q&A (also not the irritating part), with the (pregnant) writer-director, the star (Zoe Kazan), many of the other cast members, a handful of producers and other crew members, including the costume designer. Kazan, in heels and a Heidi coronet-braid, ran the microphone back and forth down the conga line of cast and crew to make sure everyone could answer audience questions.
Also not the irritating part: Of the impressive dozen-person lineup on stage, about half of them, including the main creative types and at least some of the money types, were women. The film was about a woman, trying to figure out this whole life/family/romance/career/friendship thing. (Note where “romance” came in that list - central but not exclusive or even primary.) The Tribeca employee moderating the event and asking the bulk of the questions was a woman.
This was the irritating part: When the Tribeca moderator eventually asked a question about the romance in the film, she felt the need to excuse it, or excuse her asking of it, or something: “It’s something for the ladies,” she added. Right. The romance. Something for us ladies, because the rest of the film about figuring out how to be a sister and a daughter and a friend and a twin who may or may not be “the pretty one” obviously wasn’t “for the ladies.” The lady writer-director, lady star playing a lady main character, lady producer and lady costume designer weren’t there for the ladies and hadn’t said anything up to that point that could be “for the ladies.”
I’m being harsh. I’m sure it was just filler talk, one of those things you say when you’re on stage with a number of semi-famous and/or accomplished people and nervous about sounding smart with them. But it was still pretty depressing. Romance is only the province of “the ladies,” really? And apparently you can make an entire movie about what it actually means to be a lady, with ladies in front of and behind the camera, but unless it has a romantic subplot, none of it is actually going to be for, about or by us.
Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Probably my favorite romantic comedy of the last few years, starring: Frances McDormand, being awesome and broke and hungry and snarky and wise. Ciaran Hinds, proving that an older and thicker Captain Wentworth is still hot (at least until he turns into Bill Clinton). Amy Adams, wearing great clothes as she does her adorably ditzy thing. Lee Pace, whose character I largely forget but who plays the younger romantic hothead hero with dash and aplomb.
I was reminded of it tonight, at an event where my every attempt to pick up a plate was foiled by something more interesting happening; there’s a running gag in the movie about Miss Pettigrew never managing to eat anything, like a reverse Brad Pitt from Ocean’s 11.
It’s a wonderful, fizzy period costume piece with just enough sadness to make the happy ending earned. I love the set piece near the end, where McDormand’s Miss Pettigrew and Hinds’ Joe reminisce about the people they lost during the last war and brace for the new one, or the way the movie cares as much about the relationship between Miss Pettigrew and Adams’ flighty, well-meaning chorus-girl as it does about any of the romantic exploits. It’s worth a rewatch on the next snowy Saturday afternoon.
“Those cases weren’t given to women [investigators]. … We were too sympathetic.”
The Invisible War is one of those documentaries that are hard to decide to sit down and watch. It’s about rape in the military, and systematic coverups of rape in the military. It has lots of women facing the camera and telling horrific stories, and sometimes crying, and quietly talking about their depression and their post-traumatic stress and their suicide attempts.
It’s full of infuriating details: more than one woman says that when she went to her commanding officer and reported an attack, she was charged with adultery – not because she was married, but because her rapist was.
One thing that I thought director Kirby Dick did especially well was defining the crimes in his film as violence, human-on-human brutality, disassociated from any relationship to consensual sex. The film is largely framed by the story of Kori Cioca, a Coast Guard veteran whose attacker dislocated her jaw before he raped her. Years later, Cioca waits in vain for the Veterans Affairs office to respond to her claim and fund surgery to treat her. Her story makes it more difficult to sweep the issues away as just a rape problem, just a woman problem, just a sex problem – it’s none of those. One U.S. military officer brutally attacked another, resulting in a lifetime of physical problems, and the U.S. military responded by punishing the victim.
For all of its justified outrage, The Invisible War is effectively low-key – it doesn’t try too hard to tug at your heartstrings, it doesn’t embellish its interviews with swelling music. There are moments of humor, if usually of the bleak variety. (The military’s victim-blaming “prevention” ads, which warned women not to walk around bases without a buddy, got disbelieving laughs at my screening.) It’s a sad and angry film, but not an unrelentingly grim one.
I also saw watched the Oscar-nominated documentary in one of the best possible environments: with an audience in New York, with a panel discussion afterwards, including the director and Jessica Hinves, one of the survivors interviewed in the film. She was funny and cheerful and poised, and quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. when an audience member asked if she ever “thought about taking justice into [her] own hands.” The panel discussion was a reassuring end to the movie in some ways – we the audience could have a cathartic moment, applauding the survivors and expressing our outrage to people we knew shared that outrage. I’m glad I saw The Invisible War that way, and that I saw it at all – I’m not sure I would have picked it out to watch at home, on my own, as a break at the end of the workday or over the weekend. But it is very, very worth seeing.
“Advertise for ‘Iron Petticoats.’” “Use a double of Katharine Hepburn dressed in a Russian flyer’s uniform—provided one is available from local costumer.” And my favorite, “Sponsor a Red Garter Contest in which prizes are offered for the prettiest, most beruffled garters made by feminine newspaper readers.” — Some of the best suggestions in a two-page pamphlet MGM put together for movie theater owners in 1956, to help them sell the unhappy Hepburn-Bob Hope collaboration The Iron Petticoat.
This pamphlet was my favorite part of the New York Public Library’s “Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen.” The exhibition has a pretty great collection of trousers and dresses and the awful Maoist pantsuit things Hepburn decided to show off in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, plus set pictures and posters advertising her various plays and films. The show is almost exclusively devoted to Hepburn’s fashion sense and relationships with designers, with a weird lack of biographical information or context. (Spencer Tracy: A dude who shared the screen when Hepburn wore nine of these outfits.) But I was engrossed, more by the evidence of how the old Hollywood worked than by the clothes themselves. Go see it.
— So much to love in this A.O. Scott essay.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is the book equivalent of Mad Men: intellectually polished, impressively intricate, chilly and soulless.
In full disclosure, I haven’t finished reading the book yet; I have one chapter left. I’ve had one chapter left for about a week, since I ran smack into yet another narrative wall in the novel, wrenching me away from characters I’d almost started to care about and dropping me back in the lap of characters I’d now forgotten. It’s possible that the last 34 pages of Cloud Atlas will completely change my mind and make me realize what a brilliantly moving, important piece of literature this book is. But having barely slogged through the first half of “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” the Ye Olde Historical diary that opens and closes the book, I’m not holding out great hope for its conclusion.
This isn’t to say I disliked all of the book. I don’t mind abandoning novels that bore me, but Cloud Atlas - once my desire to compare it to the movie powered me past that great bore of a first chapter - has kept my interest sporadically, in almost alternating main characters. Adam Ewing? Don’t care. Robert Frobisher? Gradually started to care, with a neat segue into the much better Luisa Rey. And then the awful Timothy Cavendish, relieved by the superlative Sonmi-451, and then a plummet into the interminable Zachry. The trip back has been less fun, because I read Sonmi’s conclusion dreading the return to Cavendish, and now that I’ve finished Frobisher, I really am not interested in whatever happened to Adam Ewing, and what it all means in Mitchell’s grand matrix-y philosophy of past and present and future and reincarnation and whatever other grand intellectual things he’s trying to say with this very dazzling book.
It’s hard not to admire, in a freshman crit-lit seminar sort of way. Mitchell skips easily, showily from historical epistles to hard-boiled 70’s thriller to a futuristic Aldous Huxley pastiche to an apocalyptic pidgin folk-story. He’s very accomplished. But every time I start to lose myself in the story, to become subsumed in the message rather than having the message whacked over my head with birthmarks and dreams and sextets, Mitchell yanks me back by switching characters. I could have easily spent an entire novel in the futuristic “corpocracy” of Korea, where clones are bred and then butchered and “pureblood” humans are endowed with “Souls” that track them and require them to spend a certain amount of their salaries every day. The semantics alone of this world are dazzling, and the clone narrator is the most fully-realized and sympathetic of all of Mitchell’s protagonists. But on the verge of her execution, she gets rushed off-stage to watch a movie about the bumbling Cavendish, and Mitchell again pulls me out of his story.
I first started reading this book because I wanted to compare it to its new movie adaptation. And I was hoping, before reading it, that the directors of the first Matrix movie and Run Lola Run would deliver a kinetic, sparky science-fiction film with just enough philosophy underneath the dazzle. Now I’m afraid it will be the other way around.
I’ll still see the movie. But now that I’ve read their source material, I’m bracing for something from the directors of the last Matrix movie and The Princess and the Warrior.
My love of good time-travel stories is well-documented, so I tried as much as possible to manage my expectations around Looper and its time-travel veneer. No, the ending doesn’t hold up if you think about it for more than a minute, and surprisingly, I don’t particularly mind – it’s not really trying to be that kind of story. But I did enjoy several other things about this really very strange movie. Spoilers about the ending, Jeff Daniels’ bathrobes and Madeleine L’Engle novels.
1) But seriously, the mob boss wears pajamas. He’s the world-weary, jocular mentor who’s almost too tired to crush your fingers, but Daniels’ character’s wardrobe is full-on hilarious, whether it’s a red velour bathrobe or the gold sequins pajama suit. I especially loved the entire mini-conversation with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s main character justifying the wardrobe, in which Daniels plays pretty much the old dude in the track suit kvetching, “You hipsters with your suspenders and your skinny ties, you think you’re so stylish but you’re really just a century out of date. Why not wear what I wear and be comfortable?”
2) The awful power of suggestion. In retrospect, Looper is a lot less gory than I think it is. That’s almost entirely due to the great, chilling scene where Paul Dano’s future self is summoned to his execution by his present self’s mob torturers. You don’t actually see any blood or destruction of Dano – you see his future self’s fingers disappear one by one, then his nose, then his tongue, then his feet and his limbs. By the time he opens the door to a kill shot and a bloody sheet draped over Dano’s body, you don’t need to have seen the actual destruction of that body – you’ve already seen its after-effects, and your imagination can fill in the rest to haunting effect
3) Emily Blunt has sexual agency. I kind of loved how the movie handled the inevitable hookup between Gordon-Levitt’s hunted assassin and Blunt’s steely farm owner. She’s horny and she decides to summon the somewhat attractive fugitive hanging out in her barn. He’s happy to oblige, but the evening doesn’t turn into a sappy romantic interlude – the movie’s not that sentimental, and Gordon-Levitt’s character frankly doesn’t deserve it. For a film that had some extremely questionable gender politics otherwise (did Bruce Willis’ wife even have a name?), it was nice to see a female character put events in motion.
4) Surprise Garret Dillahunt You might know him from Deadwood, The Sarah Connor Chronicles or the currently-airing Raising Hope, but Dillahunt seems like both the hardest-working actor in Hollywood and also one of the most adept at staying under the radar. He can make good guys slightly menacing and bad guys slightly sympathetic (or just nightmarish, as Roman Nevikov on Life). His nuance is amazing, and he turned the plot-tastic role of Jesse the Looper-hunter into an almost-sympathetic part – which makes the scene where he’s murdered at the hands of the child Rainmaker all the more interesting.
5) Cid IS Charles Wallace Murry. Looper had a few clever nods to notable time-travel stories, including the scenes when Bruce Willis decides to murder the three kids who could grow up into the story’s villain. It’s an even darker take on the first Terminator movie, when the machines sent a killer robot back to kill all the Sarah Connors who could potentially give birth to their nemesis – at least those women were adults and had a slightly better chance of defending themselves. But Bruce Willis, a character we’re inclined to sympathize with, kills one defenseless boy and tries to kill two other children. The other clever nod – maybe unintentional – was when Rainmaker Cid, a child destined to grow up into an all-powerful villain, is saved from that fate by his mother’s love. I couldn’t help but thinking of L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, in which young genius Charles Wallace is saved from becoming a part of the villainous, all-powerful IT by the power of his sister’s love. And I’d like the movie’s somewhat cheesy resolution better if it’s an intentional homage to L’Engle’s book.
Arbitrage is a movie obsessed with money – having it, wanting it, losing it. It’s a movie whose seductive, loathsome protagonist believes that money can solve everything. It’s a movie that, depressingly, proves him right.
“Money isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” So says that antihero, a Bernie Madoff Lite played by Richard Gere and his best Jamie Dimon hair. Like Madoff, Gere’s Robert Miller embroils his closest family members in his financial scams. Like Dimon, who Gere name-checked in pretty much every related interview, Miller is a charming, confident master of the universe unaccustomed to being told “no.”
And the thing is, he gets away with it. We let him get away with it. Arbitrage is to the Occupy Wall Street era what Margin Call was to the financial crisis, a quiet thriller in which the bad guys win. It’s an amazing cynical movie about the corrupting influence of money, a sleek, barbed story about the fallout of the financial crisis told largely from the perspective of the 1%. And like Margin Call, Arbitrage is a movie that makes its audience complicit in rooting for the 1%.
It doesn’t give us many alternatives. Miller’s servants – yes, he has live-in servants — are faceless. The cop pursuing him is a rumpled everyman you want to sympathize with, until it turns out that he’s as ruthless about bending the rules as the Wall Street criminal he’s trying to catch.
And then there’s Jimmy Grant, the fundamentally decent man whose life ambition is to open an Applebee’s. Jimmy is one of two potential heroes in Arbitrage, the only significant have-not character, the only significant character of color, the person that Miller half-praises and half-condemns as “not like us.” When Miller returns to his life, wheedling favors and dangling payoffs, Jimmy remains heroic for as long as he can, telling Miller that he can’t be bought.
Until he can, in the most wrenching scene of the movie, when he caves and takes Miller’s money. It’s probably the smart decision, but that scene kills the audience’s last, best hope for the 99% to eke out a moral victory over Miller and all he represents.
The other potential hero is Miller’s “naïve” and “innocent” daughter Brooke, his firm’s oblivious chief investment officer, who belatedly discovers his financial fraud. (Brit Marling wears a bridal store’s worth of virginal white dresses, in contrast to the scarlet of Miller’s mistress and the grey of Miller’s knowing wife, in case you didn’t get the memo on how pure and innocent Brooke is.)
One of my favorite scenes in Arbitrage is her mother urging Brooke to do what’s best for her, rather than becoming complicit in her father’s wrongdoing. I wish we had seen the fallout of that scene, Brooke wrestling with her decision, before she apparently decides to keep her father’s secrets and to share his guilt. Her anguished look in the movie’s last scene made me think of Mark Madoff, who helped report his father’s Ponzi scheme and who hanged himself two years later.
But Miller survives, along with his philosophy. Even as his wife backs him into giving up their shared wealth and lavish lifestyle, she acknowledges that it’s an empty sacrifice, that he doubtless has offshore accounts for a rainy day. Miller might lose his mistress, his marriage and his daughter’s trust in him, but his money endures.
“You think that money can solve everything,” Jimmy spits at Miller. According to Arbitrage, it does.