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Me on Jezebel, or “Women Who Don’t Work” October 8, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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So Jezebel has done a riff on my article in Splice Today (“The Death of the Working Woman?”), and cited it again in another post this week! Thanks, Jezebel!

To be honest, the article was not my finest work. I was merely reacting to some personal observations: there are a lot of productive, innovative and super-talented women working in and outside of Hollywood, and only a few of them get the glam cover treatment of popular women’s magazines. But this wasn’t an academic study, just anecdotal observation; it may not even be true.

I am afraid — and was concerned about this before I sent it in — that the tone of the piece was too condescending. After all, who am I to speak about women, anyway? And what kinds of work am I valuing and devaluing? There’s also the issue of selection; after all, Tina Fey’s landed at least three covers over the years, and Michelle Obama, a great role model, probably has over a dozen under her fabulous belts.

Still, I do think there’s a difference between Kate Winslet and Lauren Conrad, or even Beyonce, who is crazy productive, and Jessica Simpson. But, eh, these are just my opinions, and I’m not an editor, nor am I the target market, so how do I know what sells (or should sell)!

Mostly, I’m conflicted about the article because I try not to police media images too much. Yes, I do it often. Not going to lie. These are fun articles to write. But in general I think it’s kind of boorish, even if exciting and scandalous. I think I came off particularly shrill in the Splice piece, and I’m not one to take such a hard line on the state of female employment. Oh well, c’est la vie. No takesies-backsies.

Oh yes, and I don’t have a problem with stay-at-home moms, if that wasn’t clear. Of course not! That paragraph is a distilled version of an ongoing academic discussion that I’d be happy to have with anyone who emails me.

Mika, Michael and The Celebrities That Would Be Gay July 29, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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UPDATE (3/8/10): It’s raining closet-fleeing celebrities! Sean Hayes has come out, awkwardly. He claims the gay community, through the gay media, put too much pressure on him. I disagree, of course. Regardless his reticence probably cost him a few jobs, though who knows; he’s a character actor. Is Matt Bomer next?

UPDATE (1/13/10): Michael Urie is now all the way out! Well, sort of. “…I’m not saying I’m gay now” and “I basically didn’t want to be labeled.” Might sound like another cop-out, but Advocate makes it clear: “When asked what letter in LGBTQ he identifies himself, Urie says Q, for queer.” Another one! Seems like my thesis on this is true. “Gay” is indeed dying.

UPDATE: Surprise! Mika has come out … as bisexual! This changes my thesis a bit — that his reluctance to be called “gay” was based solely on an ideological aversion to labels. Still, Mika’s “coming out” sounds a little defeatist: “call me bisexual.” He still doesn’t like labels. Oh well, bi he is!

Separated at birth? The difference between Mika (left) and Michael Urie's responses to questions about their sexuality

Separated at birth? The difference between Mika (left) and Michael Urie's responses to questions about their sexuality. Original at Splice.

ORIGINAL: Before writing this article I surprised myself with having to Google something: the last name of Oprah Winfrey’s partner, Stedman. You see, I only know of him as “Stedman.” I had no idea if that was his last name or his first. He is so shrouded in mystery I’d never cared to get the facts. (His name is Stedman Graham).

Oprah’s story is instructive because in all of show business, it’s one of the most persistent mysteries. Oprah talks about Stedman, though very rarely. For such a public person, Oprah has a tight hold on this part of her life, and she has every right to her privacy. Yet however private Oprah wants to be, we at least know that Stedman exists, and both Oprah and he have talked publicly about why they are not married.

My point: it’s possible for a celebrity to be honest and talk about their lives while still remaining ambiguous and private enough to do their jobs and be famous.

This conundrum of how to negotiate being a public persona and private person is at the heart of the debate over whether actors should or should not come out. Over 10 years since Ellen shocked the world, out actors have a mixed record. Rupert Everett is sad and hardly working, only getting headlines for saying crazy things about Michael Jackson and gaybies. Wanda Sykes is at the top of her game, as is Neil Patrick Harris, but TR Knight has been fired and Clay Aiken, well, let’s forget about that. Lance Bass post-N’Sync had no career to speak of, so all in all he’s fine; Wilson Cruz and other character actors get work as well.

Given this mixed history, it’s not surprising rising gay actors are hedging. The most shocking was Michael Urie‘s recent interview with New York magazine, in which he would not say he was gay. It reminded me of the ongoing debate around the singer Mika and his refusal to do the same, and the career of Sean Hayes. The waters for actors and entertainers today are troubling and hard to navigate, and I have sympathy for them. But still their answers are not satisfying, often unnerving, and I think it’s important to break down what’s really going on and talk about this issue in more nuanced ways than “they must come out for visibility!” or “they have a right to their privacy” and “gay actors don’t get jobs.” All these are pretty insufficient responses to a very important issue in media representation.

First: Are Mika and Michael lying? Well, no, not really. For his part, Urie looks like he’s trying to carve a middle road on the issue. He describes himself as a “member of the LGBT community.” He twitters things like “In the pride parade!!!! So much fun”—coincidentally on the same day the New York piece came out. Mika, on the other hand, isn’t saying much except he doesn’t like labels, which is basically a non-admission admission.

The details are important here. Gone are the days, we hope, when obviously gay actors simply say they are straight—it’s part of the reason I’m starting to believe Seacrest. Instead, the typical response today involves obfuscation or word play. Either celebrities refused to be asked or simply will not say. There are different ways of “not saying,” though. Sean Hayes appears to not want anyone to know, and his reluctance to just admit it comes to close to shame, or at least that’s how it sounds. Fans can smell someone uncomfortable in their own skin. Take this thought by AfterElton: “But at some point, I hear their nonsensical responses to the question, ‘Are you gay?’ and I start to roll my eyes. Sean Hayes may or may not be gay, but after a decade of his refusing to give a, uh, straight answer to a simple question, I’m not sure how much a fan I am of that particular actor anymore.” Staying in the closet now may actually be bad for your career, especially in an age where “personality” is such an important part of fame. Whether they like it or not, “stigma” is still an issue. Regular people deal with it every day. They will expect you to respond to it and declare who you are; otherwise they will do it for you.

Mika is not Sean Hayes. He comes off as someone who likely has relationships with men and has thought seriously about whether he wants to call that “gay”: “I will not talk about labels, and I will not talk about over-categorizing things, because labels are the one thing that I’ve never agreed with—simply because I just don’t fit into them in my own personal life.” In case you’re unaware, there’s a lot of confusion from older gays about the refusal of young people today to use the word “gay,” preferring “queer,” “SGL” (“same gender loving,” most common among blacks) or no label at all. I understand it. Today, “me” is the only label that matters, and it isn’t always narcissism. Often it’s about allowing for greater diversity and new kinds of relationships to form outside the labels of the Boomer generation. I sense that this is where Mika’s coming from. The sophistication he brings to the question tells me he’s not just in the closet — plus the fact he is generally strange and his music and aesthetic are beyond nonconformist.

Michael is different. Urie was pretty brazen in saying he doesn’t want to call himself gay because, basically, he wants to get roles. Sure, he said it’s because he’s an “artist.” I suppose. So was Jackson Pollock, but everyone knew at least he was married to Lee Krasner, an accomplished artist herself. I imagine Urie‘s phrasing will not pass muster with a lot of gays. Still, he too is not Sean Hayes. After all, in the streets of New York he’s much more out than someone like—allegedly!—Anderson Cooper. Of course, Urie, as an actor, is at a disadvantage. Mika has an entire history of singers before him who played with sexuality without being explicit—Elvis, Little Richard, David Bowie, Kiss, Pete Wentz, and on and on. Actors, because they have to inhabit many different personalities, do not get the same allowances.

Perhaps part of my frustration with Urie and Hayes comes from being black and seeing so many black people, men in particular, not identify with a label out of cowardice. I can tell the difference. When interviewing black YouTubers for a project, I was shocked by how none would identify with a sexuality other than straight. Half my sample refused to answer the question. Some, I know, had ideological reasons (similar to Mika‘s), but some were just hiding, hoping one day they would be Will Smith and not wanting to be haunted by a pre-fame interview.

Fear of losing jobs is not an excuse. Being an actor, gay or straight, is hard. Sure Rupert Everett has a right to be pissed. If he’d been straight, he might have been Hugh Grant (whereas Sean Hayes would never have been Brad Pitt). But history shows most celebrities, regardless of orientation, have short careers. The list of performers with viable careers longer than a decade is pretty short. Being cagey about sexuality won’t help; only talent and personality will. That’s why Ellen is still around. It’s why Madonna is Madonna.

Meanwhile, whether they like or not, becoming famous does require that entertainers abdicate some privacy and answer simple questions. Every celebrity has to deal with it, from Sean Penn to Meryl Streep. No one says you have to be Britney or Lindsay, the smallest detail of one’s life revealed on a weekly basis. But there is a base level of honesty. After all, people don’t listen to music only based on the music. If that were the case we wouldn’t have the music video. Will Smith’s fame is based on more than his movies. We consume media because we are consuming people. All public personae deal with this. Yes, Barack Obama had the right policy proposals and better speaking skills, but look at his favorable/unfavorable ratings versus McCain from last year and you realize a lot of people voted for him because they liked him as person; how many people really knew the details of his healthcare proposal on November 4?

Can the public handle a gay entertainer? Yes! Before Rosie mysteriously left The View, ratings were way up. Ellen is a hit show. How I Met Your Mother is one of the few successful comedies on network television. Is the list of gay successes short? Absolutely. But without more brave entertainers, it will continue to be.

I am not, however, an either/or kind of guy. I don’t believe in someone being only “gay” or “straight.” If, like Mika, you prefer the in-between spaces, that’s fine.

But I do have a standard, and it is a pretty low one. I would like to hear some ambiguous celebs say they would be called gay—indeed, wouldn’t mind—but don’t like the label. Already, a number of actors, most notably Jared Leto, have said as much (i.e., I don’t mind if you call me gay, it’s just not true). See the subtle difference? This response acknowledges and honors that many people do have trouble coming out, that stigma still exists, that being gay is still an issue and also acknowledges a celebrity’s right to try to shape their personal life and its perception. It acknowledges that with great power and at least a footnote in history comes great responsibility. After all, if it were easy to be famous, we would all be.

FILM: Homophobia = Boring July 16, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Little Ashes (Grade: B-), Brüno (Grade: B-)

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If I’ve learned anything in the last week, it’s that homophobia in film can be so terribly boring. Okay, I knew that already. Honestly, what is state of gay cinema if homophobia is not the cornerstone of every plot line? I don’t know; I think it looks a little like Shortbus. One thing I do know is Little Ashes and Brüno are not the future of queer cinema.

Little Ashes, which has been out a few weeks, is more commonly known as the “gay Robert Pattinson movie.” The Twilight star, who has the rare quality of being gorgeous and talented, plays a young Salvador Dalí, in school in Madrid in the 1920s with an illustrious cohort, including director Luis Buñuel and writer Federico García Lorca. It is such a stellar group of individuals that today all three are known solely by their last names.

Starting with such interesting figures in history, the film, inspired by supposedly real events, should have been interesting. Dalí, on his own, is enough of an eccentric to entertain for ninety minutes. But rather than go the Almodovar route in queer cinema, Little Ashes instead recalls Maurice, a fine but forgettable Merchant Ivory period piece from the 1980s.

That’s exactly where Little Ashes is stuck: the 1980s. It’s all parting glances (not to be confused with the awesome Parting Glances) and no release. The film dwells so long on unrequited love it fails to inspire anything but ennui. Worst is its depiction of homophobia. Little Ashes turns Buñuel into a raging homphobe and gives him a slew of uninteresting lines about the moral depravity of homosexuality. Yes, Spain at the time was supposed to be oppressive and Franco’s power was only growing, but many gay films and books have shown that, even in oppressive conditions, same-sex desire was still exciting — even more so, perhaps, that it was so forbidden. Little Ashes‘ focus on tragedy drains its subjects of all life, and in doing so drains us.

Brüno‘s problem is similar in some ways. Of course, the Sacha Baron Cohen knows how to have fun. At the very least, Cohen gives his audience that.

But for most of the movie all the jokes predicated on America’s homophobia are the weakest. There are a lot of reasons for this. For one, a lot of the presumed homophobia of Cohen’s targets is either incredibly dull — a group of redneck hunters are at worst “dismissive” of Brüno — or kind of sad. In truth, in a few instances, homophobia is explained away by professional codes: a martial arts instructor agrees to show Brüno how to beat up gays in part because, well, it’s his job to do what the customer asks, and the military men are harsh on Brüno mostly because, well, he’s not following the rules, not because he’s gay.

I’m not the only one who found Cohen’s depiction of American homophobia stale. The most homophobic thing about the movie may be Cohen himself, although I’ve known a few gays who, while not as exagerrated as Brüno (who is?) are similarly shallow, dumb and celebrity obsessed. Regardless, the GLAAD has put out a perfunctory hit on the movie. Some are wishing Brüno is the last salvo on decades of ludicrous depictions of gays in movies. Well, not so fast, but maybe we’re close.

The biggest proof homophobia is tired? Bruno’s box office numbers, already falling well short of expectations. It’s hard for lightening to strike twice. Borat may have been a one-hit wonder. Sure, some of the underperformance can be explained in other ways. While millions (of men) are willing to see a racist and sexist Kazakh reporter lampoon America on the left and right, who wants to watch an overly effeminate man prance around for ninety minutes doing the same and not as well? At least three men walked out of the screening I attended.Brüno does land one solid blow though, and it’s no wonder it’s saved for the last scene. I cannot say much except that “Straight Dave” and his transgression redeemed the movie considerably, showing how ridiculous it is to fear male-on-male sexuality. That’s right, I’m talking to you, the three guys who walked out of my screening.

Absent Straight Dave, however, people are looking for something new, another kind of homosexual who is neither Ennis del Mar, Jack McFarland or a figment of our historical imagination. Who is this magical homosexual? I can tell you he’s not in theaters right now.

TV: Rage Against the Doctors July 1, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Three new medically-themed shows arrive at just the right cultural moment. [Nurse Jackie (Grade: A-), Royal Pains (Grade: B), HawthoRNe (Grade: C+)]

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Americans hate journalists and bankers. As a journalist whose best friend is a banker, this sometimes gets under my skin. But it makes perfect sense, and far be it for me to begrudge someone their hate.

Medical professionals, on the other hand, get lots of respect. Nurses, according to some polls, are the most beloved of our nation’s workers. They are caring and make us feel better but don’t make the controversial calls or handle the billing. Doctors are highly rated too, but if you’ve been watching cable television this summer, you might not think so.

At least three shows, all breakout hits, explore how doctors and hospitals are terrible for healthcare, while nurses can do no—or very little—wrong. ER and Grey’s Anatomy these are not. No wonder cable is so hot right now.

Nurse Jackie, my favorite of the shows, follows the travails of Jackie (Edie Falco), a nurse who always knows better. Falco’s Jackie is crusty on the outside and soft on the inside, like the best of pastries. She abuses prescription drugs and cheats on her husband, but she is also an attentive mother, and, most importantly, very caring toward her patients, almost maternally so. She knows what to do before the doctors do. Meanwhile, the doctors are either childish pricks (Peter Facinelli’s Dr. Cooper) or overprivileged ice queens (Eve Best’s Dr. Elenor O’Hara). If they’re right, they are cold and uncaring to their patients; and then of course, they are wrong sometimes too. Right or wrong, they are jerks to the nice nurses. It’s a fun show, made better by the casting of super sexy Haaz Sleiman as a gay nurse.

The anti-doctor motif is a solid formula for Nurse Jackie, which Showtime has already renewed, making it another strong addition to the channel’s already solid lineup.

Another breakout is HawthoRNe, Jada Pinkett-Smith’s comeback show about another nurse, Christina Hawthorne, who is similarly amazing at her job. Like Jackie, Christina has a fatal flaw: a mistake she made caused her husband death. HawthoRNe plays with the same themes. Doctors are off playing golf instead of helping patients or make the wrong calls and then blame the nurses. The hospital bureaucracy blames nurses first and doctors later, meaning Christina’s job is harder to do and less prestigious. Less edgy than Nurse Jackie, HawthoRNe is less fun, an awkward compromise between network (think ER) and pay-cable aesthetics.

Yet by far this summer’s most surprising hit is Royal Pains, USA’s Mark Feuerstein starrer about an accomplished emergency room doctor fired for letting a billionaire hospital trustee die while saving a no-name black kid. A doctor we like, you wonder? Yes, we do like Feuerstein’s Hank Lawson, but only because he works outside the hospital system. Despite treating insanely rich Hamptons clients, Hank is noble because he has cut out the bureaucracy and the politics, getting to the heart of the problem without long lines or red tape (though he’s been known to use duct tape). His helpful associate, a super-nurse played by Reshma Shetty, is equally lovable and capable.

Why all the hate for doctors and hospitals? Cable networks simply got lucky and hit the right note at the right time. In our current healthcare battle, doctors are fast becoming the arch enemy. Most Americans are in favor of a government-run healthcare plan, but the American Medical Association, because doctors get less money for government patients, are vigorous opponents and have been for decades. It’s the kind of self-interest that is putting doctors in league with drug companies, who fear the government using its buying power to purchase drugs at lower prices, and insurers, who fear the loss of business if people flock to a public option. Already, stories are surfacing of doctors over-treating not only to protect their backsides but also to make more money. In a recent New Yorker article Atul Gawande wrote that hospitals “know that if their doctors bring in enough business—surgery, imaging, home-nursing referrals—they make money; and if they get the doctors to bring in more, they make more.” It gets worse: “Then there are the physicians who see their practice primarily as a revenue stream…They figure out ways to increase their high-margin work and decrease their low-margin work. This is a business, after all.”

In this context the stunning success of HawthoRNeRoyal Pains and Nurse Jackie make sense. Divorced from the revenue stream, nurses and independent doctors seem altruistic. It’s no surprise most nurses’ associations support either a single-payer or some other public healthcare option.

The lesson? Maybe this summer Congress should be watching more cable TV.

TV: Not Your Tween’s High School Musical May 21, 2009

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If the creators keep things strange, Glee could be a great show. (Grade: B+)

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Twitter was all abuzz Tuesday night after Adam Lambert proved Kris Allen is about as interesting as a country biscuit. After Allen put America to sleep, we awoke to Fox’s latest bit of derivative television: Glee.

Glee follows the struggles of a group of teenage losers and their idealistic teacher as they try to revive a middle class high school’s show choir. It’s a good show, with the potential to be a great one if Fox and its creator Ryan Murphy go even farther, instead of doing what most shows do: devolve into mediocrity.

Regardless, you will see Glee this fall. Depending on if you’re an optimist or pessimist, Glee either missed or met expectations on its premiere after Idol on Tuesday. Either way, Fox has dropped many millions betting on this show, so they have to push forward. You should give it a try.

Glee is a return to form for Fox, which made its mark in the 1980s by challenging the original networks ABC, NBC and CBS with edgier and engaging programming. Marketed as High School Musical: The Series, Glee is actually much closer to Fox classics like Married with Children, The Simpsons, Family Guy and Malcolm in the Middle. It’s a distant cousin, but it’s definitely a relative.

If you tuned in expecting High School Musical, you instead received Camp, the 2003 movie about a musical theater camp where everyone is either gay or questioning, the grown-ups are either drunks or incompetent and every kid’s a loser; “we’re all losers,” the football jock concedes in the premiere. It’s not surprise that Glee creator Murphy made his name with Nip/Tuck and the film Running With Scissors. A fucked-up America is his thing.

Glee’s America isn’t so much fucked up as real, however. Geared toward tweens and younger adults, the show portrays a more realistic view of suburban, or exburban, life. But it’s behind on this trend. ABC Family is ahead of them with Greek and Secret Life of the American Teenager, both with plenty of gay subplots and misbehaving youngsters. If you watch those shows, the fact that Glee’s star gal Rachel (Lea Michele) has two gay parents, one black, one white, isn’t too shocking.

Still, Glee has punch. Characters include a molesting music teacher who becomes a drug dealer (marijuana), the obligatory lesbian coach (played by power-lesbian Jane Lynch), and an OCD counselor (Jayma Mays) who’s in love with the glee club’s hot supervisor, our protagonist (Matthew Morrison). The word “penis” is used, as is “Gaylord Weiner.” The football jock is dating the president of the Celibacy Club. The cast is multicultural, though the show boringly casts them as side characters. Some things never change, but at least the show is self-aware: our sassy black female stereotype (Amber Riley) says to football jock, “what are you bringing to the table, Justin Timberlake?”

There’s the rub. I hate Justin Timberlake, but most of America loves him. So our leads are in fact the high school jock (Cory Monteith) and the pretty, if unpopular, girl. There is an air of predictability hovering over Glee even as it tries to break the mold. All the formulas are still in place: sports guys are mean, teachers are weird, handicapped (Kevin McHale) and overweight kids are uncool. The true test of the show will be whether it can poke enough fun at itself, while still delivering earnest and heart-pounding musical numbers—the show ended predictably with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” If it remains aware of its own ridiculousness, only then will it hold my interest. For now, it at least has my attention, which is more than most shows can say these days.

FILM: Know Your Movie Arithmetic May 13, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Calculate whether or not you should see a movie

RottenTomatoes and Metacritic quantify film criticism, let's beat them at their own game.

RottenTomatoes and Metacritic quantify film criticism.

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Let's beat them at their own game.

I am smart enough to know numbers are just as fallible and slippery as opinions, but I’m coming out as a closet numbers-fetishist. I love polls. Statistics, graphs and charts are sexy. I am also know that movies are expensive these days, a serious investment for most people.

Metacritic and Rottentomatoes are saviors for number-lovers and serial moviegoers alike. Some people hate them because they quantify what shouldn’t be quantified: film criticism. But let’s be real: reviewers, myself included, are fickle. We see lots and lots of films. We have bad moods. We have vendettas (you heard me, Saw series!). Since we see so many movies we are inclined to be harsher than an average viewer. Reading one or two reviews can exaggerate biases and outliers. Meanwhile Metacritic and Rottentomatoes are pretty accurate: despite two different methodologies, most of the time they agree. (Both are based on a 0-100 scale, where 60-plus is good; Metacritic uses “points” while Rottentomatoes calculates the percentage of critics who wrote favorable reviews).

The problem with Metacritic and Rottentomatoes is they cannot account for your biases. So I’m going to take the quantification of film criticism to a ridiculous degree and devise a simple formula to tailor review sites to your tastes. Yes, it makes little sense. But it’s fun!

My formula is: Total Score + Director/Screenwriter (5 points)  + Actor (2-5 points)  + Genre (2 points) + Cinematographer (2 points) + Producer (2 points) + (Franchise (5 points) x 2) = Your Projected Score.

First, you take the total score on either Metacritic or Rottentomatoes. Directors and screenwriters are worth five points, plus or minus, depending on whether you like or dislike them. Lead actors you like or dislike are worth five points, while minor ones are worth two. Genres, cinematographers and producers are each worth two, while franchises are worth plus or minus five points multiplied by two.

It’s easy! Take Tyler Perry’s The Family That Preys. Critics gave it a 49 on Metacritic. But that’s not what I would’ve given it. I subtract 10 points for Tyler Perry writing and directing—I’m not a huge fan. I add four for the fabulous Kathy Bates and Alfre Woodard (not 10 points because they aren’t really lead actors in it). I subtract another 10 for the Madea franchise, just because, and another two because Tyler Perry produced as well. Drumroll: 31! I hated that movie; I was right to not have seen it in theaters.

The rationale is simple. Some aspects of films matter more than others. If you like—or hate—a director or screenwriter that usually means they have done something consistently you either like or hate. They are the film’s backbone, so they are worth the most. Franchises traffic in predictability, so even if everyone hates it, you’ll still see it. If you hate a franchise, any good reviews should be tempered with your hatred of the series and genre. All else is important but fickle. Some producers are consistent, like Judd Apatow, but most are not. A few cinematographers can deeply affect a movie experience despite the script and direction—Christopher Doyle comes to mind—but most cannot. Feel free to add extra points for hyper-specific genres: for instance, I would add 10 points for urban romantic comedies, my guilty pleasure.

It works pretty well. For me, Watchmen gained 17 points over the critical consensus because I liked the novel (Franchise + screenplay). Obsessedstayed at its dreadful 25 score because it is, in fact, a terrible movie, and Star Trek went from 85 to 89 because it’s so well done it is hard to regard it more highly than the critics.

My last test: my formula has me liking the forthcoming Limits of Control 20 points higher than the consensus (currently at 39 points!) That feels right to me—I’m very excited to see it. But can biases overrule a critical drubbing?

FILM: This Old French House: Summer Hours review May 8, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas)

Summer Hours tackles surprisingly rich themes for its superficially stereotypical setting and concerns. (Grade: A-)

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The marketing for Summer Hours traffics in well-worn French clichés: a summer house in the south, plenty of wine, and well-aged French people with useless jobs in the arts, academy and design. There are museums. There are disputes over what to do with expensive artwork.

But writer-director Olivier Assayas digs much deeper, making Summer Hours, now out in limited release, the most surprising movie I’ve seen so far this year. Assayas, equally at home with spectacle (Irma Vep), grit (Clean, Demonlover) and quiet romance (Sentimental Destinies), is one of the more limber directors working today; not an auteur, but assured nonetheless.

I thought I’d see a thoughtless, sunny French drama. Not so. Moving calmly but never slacking, Summer Hours manages to pack a lot in. It is a family drama first. It follows the problems of Frédéric (Assayas favorite Charles Berling), Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) as they grapple with the death of their mother, Helene, and the granduncle and world-famous artist Paul Berthier. They have to figure out what to do with their mother’s things, a house full of expensive and culturally significant works of art and furniture collected and created by Berthier. It’s so important the French government gets involved. Frédéric wants to keep their summer house with all its valuables, but Adrienne and Jérémie have other lives, marriages, children and jobs that take them outside of France and around the world. Frédéric teaches economics in France; he’s not going anywhere.

It sounds simple, maybe kind of boring. But it becomes rich. Summer Hours is about generational shifts. Their mother, Helene, lived in old France, where people painted gardens and sat at home. Her kids, however, live in a global world—Adrienne makes minimalist, mass-produced designer housewares, not her mother’s intricate silver teakettles—and they only visit the summer house twice a year. At the end of the film Frédéric’s teenage kids use the summer house one last time to throw a big party: smoking pot and listening to hip-hop, unaware of the history that’s gone by (a scene lyrically filmed with dignity in slow, sparsely-edited shots). History is ravenous, the movie suggests, and they are very few people who care to remember. Frédéric’s daughter, despite appearances, does. She seems to mourn the loss of her grandmother’s home. Those who do remember take it to heart.

So Summer Hours grapples with mortality. The mother has an interesting philosophy on life. When she dies, she says, the kids can sell all the objects in the house because they are filled with her memories, which die with her. She seems at peace with the fact that people won’t know her secrets—including a juicy family scandal—and all the memories that will go with her. She obviously wants her kids to know her history: she tells Frédéric many times about all the objects in the house, where they come from and what they’re worth. But she’s realistic. Death is death. History is unbiased.

Assayas reaches beyond quaint themes of family and death, though. He tackles globalization with Jérémie, who makes sneakers in China. Adrienne’s business is global as well, and her designs need to be minimalist enough to cross boundaries. All of their children look to America for inspiration; they go to English schools. They have no attachments to France. This is what globalization looks like on the ground. Their dead painter-uncle, the hidden center of all the drama, is becoming increasingly popular in the United States, which leads to arguments over whether his works should remain at home in France. France wants the notebooks of Paul Berthier. The Americans (Christie’s), they say, will “rip it up” and auction it off to the highest bidder. The question is raised implicitly: Is this the end of France? The breaking down of the house and the selling of its assets feels like the death of a kind of nostalgia for old France: bucolic, and withered at the walls of globalization. The house and the dead mother become elegantly metaphorical.

There is so much more in the film—the economic collapse, memory, even the sanctity of the art object—that makes Summer Hours feel more alive and bracing than it actually looks like on the surface. It is so elegant and delicate in its direction; Assayas cleverly masks all the drama and pathos driving his characters’ emotions and curious actions. Much more than your typical frothy French bobo flick.

Summer Hours, directed by Olivier Assayas. IFC Films, 103 minutes. Now playing in limited release.

FILM: Recession Film Formula: Mad Men May 6, 2009

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Angry Men Helm This Year’s Breakout Hits

By Aymar Jean Christian

Wolverine: Angry Blue Collar Worker Mad at the Government

Wolverine: Angry Blue Collar Worker Mad at the Government

Summer movies are upon us, and with a full five months of blockbusters, we’re beginning to see what a hit is in this economy.

Let’s take note of the breakouts so far: KnowingPaul Blart: Mall CopTaken,Fast and Furious, and now Wolverine. Notice a trend? All have angry or embattled (white) men as protagonists. Another surprise hit, Race to Witch Mountain, is a kid’s movie with former angry man The Rock as its lead. The notable exception to this rule is Observe and Report, which is really too arty and strange for a mass audience anyway.

Who are the angriest people in America, right now? The persistent influence of Rush Limbaugh even as Democrats took over Congress, and the rise in Fox News’ ratings—slaughtering MSNBC and CNN and dominating cable TV in general, second only to USA—provides the obvious answer: working class men. It has gotten so bad MSNBC has decided Keith Olbermann is not mad or working class enough, so they hired politico, and former football player, Ed Schultz. Some are calling it a “he-cession.” Men represent over 80 percent of the current job losses; the unemployment rate of black men is 15 percent.

Male protagonists heading blockbusters is not a trend; it’s the norm, really. But the movies above had pretty low expectations: hence the early, pre-summer releases. Despite being generally bad, they have performed quite well. Recessions and depressions are good for Hollywood, the saying goes, but it’s more complicated than that. First, let’s remember the larger issues Hollywood faces these days: home theater systems, Netflix, iTunes, and the cost of going to the movies (with snacks and drinks, taking the family out to the movies is a pricey affair). Second, let’s also remember that the most notable films from Hollywood’s Depression boom were spectacles likeScarface or Busby Berkley’s films.

This makes Wolverine‘s spectacular, if expected, open of $158 million worldwide all the more notable. Most superhero movies open well these days, at least those with proven box office pull like X-Men franchise.Wolverine’s formula, however, was particularly canny. Bravo to Gavin Hood and its marketers. The movie? Well, I give it a C-, and that’s just because I adore superhero flicks.

It’s not hard to see how the recession factors into Wolverine’s plot and setup. Logan is Mr. Blue Collar. He wears flannel. He’s a lumberjack who wants a simple life: hot babe who’s also a schoolteacher, and a house in the forest. The big militaristic government takes it away from him. Even though you need to see the movie to know this, Logan’s anger (is there any moment in the trailer when he’s not angry?) is the perfect cipher for the tens of thousands of unemployed men bearing the brunt of the recession. Wolverine traffics in anti-government and anti-institutional sentiments. It’s overbearingly Western (think “maverick”) in its feel. Will.I.Am wears a cowboy hat for chrissakes. Paging Joe the Plumber!

Sure, there have been other non-angry-white-men movies out this year: Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes To Jail has been his biggest success yet, and He’s Just Not That Into You did all right (women have to see something).

Matched with special effects, it’s no mystery why movie like Wolverine and Knowing have done well. It will be interesting to see how Star Trek does this weekend, given its men are less angry, more pretty and idealistic. Chris Pine is the fantasy of teenage girls and bi-curious boys, after all, not blue collar men. Will J.J. Abrams’ film, with its gorgeous, glowing (blinding, apparently) optimism fare similarly as well as Wolverine‘s hairy, ugly darkness? Do special effects films need a dash of cynicism, despair and vitriol to pop in this economy? Stay tuned.

FILM: Il Divo: If Scorsese Married Welles… April 30, 2009

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Il Divo is the best political mafia movie in years. (Grade: A-)

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It’s a cliché to label directors as sons and daughters of other ones, but it seems appropriate in the case of Paolo Sorrentino, because his films are so concerned with style—lighting, framing, camerawork—and creating a viewing experience that his technique instantly recalls classics. Sorrentino is the celebrated director from Europe you haven’t heard of. After you see Il Divo, out this week in only one theater, and I hope with plans for more, you’ll remember his name.

Most people compare his style to that of Martin Scorsese. It’s an appropriate comparison. Sorrentino loves to swoop into scenes with a dramatic flourish, zooming into characters’ faces clockwise and counterclockwise. His focus on bad men and the mob also begs the comparison to Scorsese and Orson Welles, perhaps also Brian DePalma. All three know how to depict the rage and angst of men whose worlds are filled with chaos, violence and misdeeds. His prior films—including L’uomo in piu (Man on Top), The Family Friend, andConsequences of Love—showcase leading men who have committed a wrong or whose lives are surrounded by despair. Sound dreary? None of them are. One word consistently applied to Sorrentino’s work is “stylish.” You will never be bored watching his films. He has the gift of Scorsese and Wes Anderson: he’s able to create a film technically sophisticated and wildly entertaining. Sadly, many are not available in US-formatted DVD.

Il Divo is the story of Giulio Andreotti, one of Italy’s most notorious politicians who has held numerous top positions in the government, including prime minister, and whose tenacious hold on power and connections to the mob (and high profile deaths and assassinations) make him a figure readymade for the Citizen Kane treatment. Sorrentino has fun with Andreotti, as much fun as can be had with a murderous and power-hungry despot; he films Andreotti’s inner circle, mostly political henchmen, in mob movie fashion, using red subtitles to announce their names and nicknames.

But the movie is ultimately serious. Andreotti (Tony Servillo, who has starred in many of Sorrentino films) is stoic, near emotionless throughout. He is banal, like a German SS guard, and, like those guards, evil. Weighed down by years of wrongdoing, Sorrentino—who writes and directs most of his movies—suggests he’s grappling with guilt: an opening shot zooms into Andreotti with acupuncture needles in his face. Another memorable scene has Andreotti pacing about his house like a madman, driven to insanity by his crimes.

Andreotti is the apotheosis of Sorrentino’s maddening protagonists. In The Family Friend, a loan shark similarly feels enslaved by his crimes—rape and usury chief among them. Not as impenetrable as Andreotti, the loan shark is a monstrous old man—almost literally a hunchback—who we manage to pity for his incredible loneliness and allergy to virtue. In Consequences of Love, Sorrentino brings us a man enslaved by his own trials with the mob who must learn to open his life to other people. We never really “know” these men, but Sorrentino draws us into their stories visually and makes us care, at least, about what happens to them, even if we hope they fail.

Il Divo is infectious; the music is fantastic, diverse and stimulating, the editing sharp. It has a major flaw, but one with a solution: for American audience members new to Andreotti’s story, the film can be irritatingly unclear: Sorrentino assumes his audience is generally familiar with main characters and the general story. I had a terrible time following the jumps in time and certain plot details. I strongly suggest anyone planning to see the movie spend 30 minutes with Google and Wikipedia to become familiar with Italian politics and government, Andreotti, his history and his close associates. It is a must.

That said, Il Divo is the most exciting political drama I’ve seen in years. Inventive and bracing, it is latest installment from one of the best filmmakers working today.

FILM: The Soloist (review) April 24, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Save Journalism and This Homeless Guy

Do your duty and see The Soloist.

(Grade: B-)

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Here in Philadelphia, it feels like The Soloist has been on our minds for months. Los Angeles Times reporter Steve Lopez’s book has been this year’s “one book, one Philadelphia” choice—citywide book club—and so the movie has enjoyed a sustained manufactured buzz campaign.

Imagine my surprise then when I walked into the theater for the advance screening and it wasn’t even full. Foreseeing a Slumdog-like bonanza, I’d arrived extra early, but my friends and I got a seat without so much as a quibble. Part of this was location (they picked a theater farthest from Philadelphia’s African-American community), but part of it is about the movie itself: The Soloist is one of those movies you don’t really want to see. You feel you should see it, so you go and do your duty. Maybe this is why the distributor delayed its release twice, pulling it out of last year’s Oscar race. Times are tough and no one wants to spend two hours watching a homeless guy.

The Soloist turns out to be a fine movie, one that could have earned Jamie Foxx an actor/supporting actor nomination—it may still—but one that, the morning after, fails to inspire much more than quiet reverence. Like State of Play, it is a film as much about the newspaper as its sources, though it is mostly concerns our society’s demands to see individual talent rewarded with an apartment and stable livelihood, rather than on the street playing for hobos and passers-by, who apparently really need classical music.

The writing, adapted from Lopez’s book based on his “reporting” of homeless cellist Nathanial Ayers (Jamie Foxx), is mostly solid. Ayers, who attended Julliard before dropping out in the 1970s, sounds as funny as he is insightful and haunting, despite having some form of schizophrenia. His endless streams of dialogue offer up hard-to-believe quips and wise nuggets of truth like, “I used to sleep on Wall Street but it was too dirty” and “God is on the other side of that wall.” Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.) on the other hand writes for a living, so we expect his lines to be good. He narrates the movie through the columns he writes for the Times, which allows the director to class up the film with some semi-pompous language.

Downey’s Lopez is lonely, nearly homeless himself. He’s unshaven. He hasn’t unpacked his fancy L.A. home. There are two incidents of him covered in urine. He’s a rich, lonely hobo, which makes him perfect for Ayers and fits into a nice narrative about how Ayers changed him, not the other way around: “To be there with him [listening to an orchestra for the first time in 30 years] like that…I’ve never loved anything the way he loves music.” Kind of cheesy.

Of course with the LA Times going down in flames he might be a hobo soon. Throughout the film we see reporters leaving the office with boxes and editors delivering exit packages. Unlike State of Play, this isn’t an exaggeration. The Tribune Company really was gutting the Times then. Yet while State of Play has an argument that journalism needs newspapers for expensive, source-heavy reporting, it’s simply untrue that long-form human-interest stories like the “homeless Julliard alum” are in danger. That’s crazy; it’s cheap and entertaining reporting.

Director Joe Wright, whose Atonement was one of the most crisply and assuredly directed Hollywood films of last year, does a fine job too. Yet I agree with some critics that his slick style might have detracted from the film’s emotional rawness—I didn’t see anyone crying. He does a good job bring home core themes: the solitariness of bourgeois life versus the communal—though horrible—nature of the street; how Ayers’ schizophrenia is made worse by his racial difference; the juxtaposition of high culture with Los Angeles. At times Wright lays it on too thick: when Ayers plays a good cello for the first time, his camera follows pigeons from Skid Row as the fly around the city like doves. But he gets points elsewhere, especially in his visual and aural presentation of schizophrenia.

So The Soloist will not blow you away, but it won’t bore you either, which is the real danger in sentimental movies like this. Without a grander story, director Joe Wright’s technique is underserved, making the only draw Jamie Foxx, who assured me once again that he actually can act. After The Kingdom and Miami Vice, a guy can forget.

YOUTUBE: Better Off “Fred” April 10, 2009

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Better Off “Fred”

By Aymar Jean Christian

What can network TV learn from the runaway success of a no-budget YouTube sensation?

 

I have six subscribers to my YouTube channel, so you can imagine my jealousy when the news broke that the most popular YouTuber, “Fred,” became the first vlogger on the site to reach one million subscribers. When I last gave a presentation on YouTube at a conference, he was at 950,000, so it was only a matter of time, but I didn’t think it would happen this quickly.

Not enough has been written about Fred, the ADD-afflicted six-year-old character who reached this milestone in less than a year. Sure, CNN hascovered him, as have a few other blogs, but Fred is, at this moment, a sensation who is rewriting the rules of online television, marketing and promotion.

Excuse the pun in the title of this article, but it is interesting to contrast “Fred’s” success with a program like ABC’s Better Off Ted, a well-liked show that seems destined for the chopping block. Once compared to Arrested Development in the Chicago Sun-Times, and deemed “clever satire” by The Hollywood ReporterBetter Off Ted is a good show whose failure makes little sense unless you understand the changing nature of comedy and media production.

Like most network TV shows, Better Off Ted is merely a pastiche of other shows we’ve seen before: zany workplace comedies like Scrubs30 Rock, and Ally McBeal, mixed with the witty slapstick of more avant-garde TV programming like Arrested Development. I can imagine the network’s pitch meeting right now: “It’s Ally McBeal meets Arrested Development, and we can get Portia de Rossi! She hasn’t done anything since we cancelled those two shows faster than our subscription to the Times.” This is everything that’s wrong with television, and that’s coming from someone who watches an embarrassingly high number of shows. Television has become so derivative that ABC actually redid a once-cancelled comedy, Cupid, which unfortunately might get cancelled as well.

Television networks are doing some interesting things, I’m the first to admit, but mostly in drama and not often enough. The now-cancelled Kings is evidence of a network taking a huge chance. But innovative comedy is hard to find, and if I hear of another cop show I’m going to vomit on my remote. Of course, pay cable is doing better. Contrast In the Motherhood and Cupid with Showtime’s United States of Tara—a show easily adaptable to network primetime—and the difference becomes clear. Reviving TV comedy is a top priority in the business, as nearly half of the pilots being produced for next year will be comedies.

So back to “Fred.” Fred, played by 15-year-old Lucas Cruikshank, has created a genuinely new entertainment form. His high-pitched, accelerated voice is addictive. The show’s fast pace and short length are guaranteed to hold any young person’s attention span, and his obvious idiocy is ironic enough to deflect criticism. Moreover, Cruikshank has reinvigorated traditional promotion models—releasing videos late in the week to encourage weekend buzz among his audience of tweens. His hard work has paid off. Between product placements—the film City of Ember and mobile device Zipit have appeared—and revenue from YouTube’s partner program, Cruikshank reportedly makes well into six figures a year, tens of thousands of dollars a month. 

Filmed in his house in the Midwest, I imagine Fred costs virtually nothing to produce. His filming techniques are rudimentary. Unlike network TV shows, whose production costs start in the millions and increase as bigger stars are included, Fred is cheap entertainment. But he has done something new, and the TV world would be wise to pay attention (though there are unsubstantiated rumors of show or movie in the works).

Conservative by nature, corporations do not like to take huge risks, but in order to retain their dwindling audiences, they’re going to have to go crazy and stop taking their meds, just like Fred.

FILM: The Brothers Bloom April 1, 2009

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Con Artists fall in love. Sound familiar?

 

 

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By Aymar Jean Christian

If you want to know whether you’ll like The Brothers Bloom, ask yourself if a character aroused by routine weather patterns would annoy or excite you.

A bolt of lightning strikes outside the train car window. The young woman, visibly drunk and lying on a bed next to our sad protagonist, exclaims: “I love thunderstorms!” She starts to gyrate. She starts to yell. Lying on her stomach, she states, flatly: “I’m horny.”

If the above scenario doesn’t make you chuckle, pique your interest or at least make you think “what the hell?” in a good way, then maybe The Brothers Bloom is not for you. If on the other hand, you have a zest for the picaresque and the peculiar, then The Brothers Bloom is the quirky adventure film you’ve been waiting for since the The Darjeeling Limited

Director Rian Johnson (Brick) has executed a taut and brisk film about a team of con artists and their winsome mark, Penelope (Rachel Weisz). The whole charade works, of course, only if you like movies that wink and smile at a rate of one quip per minute. I do!

Unlike Brick, a similarly stylish movie filled with characters who were smarter and more cunning than you, The Brothers Bloom takes almost nothing seriously. The film is filled with well-constructed shots and visual gags. In a running gag, something ridiculous happens in the background—a falling tree, aimless camel, towed car—while something serious occurs in the foreground. One clever shot had Bloom’s (Adrien Brody) head superimposed over a graffiti sketch of a man aiming a gun to his head; his brother, Stephen (Mark Ruffalo), opens the graffitied door and slams it, setting off a “bang!” like a gunshot. Trust me, it’s smart. Throughout the film there are innumerable nods to Scorsese and Wes Anderson, enough to keep even the most ADD-inflicted viewer entertained.

Even with all this going on, though, Bloom lacks suspense. What holds our interest is not so much the plot—which is forgettable—as the characters’ hijinks and snappy interactions. Every time we think the movie is beginning to drag, get too serious or become predictable, Johnson pulls us back in with some visually pleasing or otherwise diversionary spectacle.

The ruse works well until the end when our eyes have become accustomed to the bright flashes of virtuoso filmmaking and we realize that we have no real attachments to the characters. It’s not the actors. All the actors are what they need to be: Weisz is adorable and sympathetic, Brody is brooding, Ruffalo is commanding, and Rinko Kikuchi is devilishly imperious. They aren’t much more than that, but for most, that’s all they will need to be. The movie is so clever—more in style than in plot—that their existential crises function only as icing on the director’s lavishly constructed cake. 

Bloom is a filmmaker’s film. The lighting, the editing, the camerawork, even the costumes are all supremely planned. Everything pleases the eye. Not a moment is drab or sloppily put together.

The Brothers Bloom is fun, which, like Duplicity, makes this con-artist caper a recession-ready bonbon tossed deftly into the eager mouths of gluttonous moviegoers like myself. Empty calories, yes, but there’s a reason we eat sweets.

The Brothers Bloom, directed by Rian Johnson. Now doing the festival rounds; out in wide release May 29.

FILM: Don’t Feel Sorry For Julia Roberts March 30, 2009

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Duplicity‘s lukewarm box office showing doesn’t have anything to do with her age.

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By Aymar Jean Christian

I saw Duplicity this weekend, and, like everyone else, I liked it. It’s a smart and stylish corporate caper, and a great vehicle for Julia Roberts. She chose her comeback well.

But the stage is set for a Roberts pity party. Why? Because poor old Duplicity didn’t debut at #1 last week—this week, its gross has dropped almost half and dropped to fifth place. Knowing and Race to Witch Mountain beat it out in the box office. Maybe, in this economic climate when going to a movie is a welcome escape, Americans probably just wanted to spend more money on flashier, more frivolous fare—special effects offer more bang for the buck. It seems critics and publications all over the Internet are intent on making Duplicity‘s poor showing about Roberts’ age.

Don’t buy it!

No doubt, Hollywood is a rough place for older women—and women in general. A cursory look at last year’s top-grossing movies shows that vast majority are either children’s movies or male-led. It’s always been this way.

Yet Hollywood makes a lot of money from older women, as opposed to less-predictable younger ones. Meryl Streep, for instance, has been on a career high in the past few years. Both Devil Wears Prada and Mamma Mia! made obscene amounts of money, nearly $1 billion for those two movies alone. Diane Keaton (Something’s Gotta Give), Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Diane Lane (Nights in Rodanthe) have had their recent successes too.

Perhaps women who are transitioning, as Roberts is, from young to old (two different markets), have the bigger problem. But that argument doesn’t hold water, either. The 11th highest grossing movie of last year in the U.S. was Sex and the City: The Movie. I was shocked and delighted at how many people of all ages were eager to see a movie where every woman was over 40—at the end of the film, single Samantha turns 50. Part of the genius of Sex and the City, it’s been remarked, was that it created the fantasy that women can get more beautiful and glamorous as they age. People love to see that. Without a doubt, actresses near or already 40 have had success both on the big and small screen: Jennifer Aniston, Tina Fey, Cameron Diaz, Halle Berry, Cate Blanchett, Teri Hatcher, Calista Flockhart, to name just a few.

Some argue that Roberts is simply old-fashioned, not old. Given Aniston’s success, I don’t see how that’s a viable argument. It may simply be that Julia Roberts has changed too much or lost her relevance. All actors need to stay active to remain relevant and headline popular movies, and Roberts does look different now. Her face has grown subtly harsher, but, in my opinion, much more beautiful and sophisticated. A similar thing happened to Meg Ryan, who, presumably because of plastic surgery, became less relatable as she aged. It’s one reason among many The Women didn’t do well at the box office. Maybe America simply decided it doesn’t like her anymore. Just look at Nicole Kidman.

Hollywood is a harsh business, audiences are fickle, and the box office is unpredictable. There are many reasons Julia Roberts may not have the draw she once had. I still think she has potential for further success, but even if she has lost it, I think age is a much less significant cause than the regular phenomenon of a celebrity suddenly losing their power in an age where stars are a dime a dozen.

FILM: (500) Days of Summer: Review March 27, 2009

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(500) Days of Summer Cuts Through Cynicism

The festival hit is a charming romantic comedy that does well by the maligned genre. (Grade: A-)

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By Aymar Jean Christian

Making an original romantic comedy is like making original chocolate chip cookies. There are a lot of decent chocolate chip cookies in bakeries around the world, but not many original ones. Too few ingredients to choose from and not much wiggle room. So when a rom-com approaches perfection, a critic has to shrug off the hype and clap his hands.

(500) Days of Summer is that kind of film, much-hyped yet still deserving. Haters will say it’s too cute by half, a cheap remix of Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally, or, with its killer soundtrack, Garden State. I won’t lie; it is those things. It is the kind of movie that lends itself to this kind of review: “…it is a fairly unoriginal, quite conventional movie that is designed to specifically appeal to people who think they’re very original and not at all conventional.” Huh? (500) Days of Summer is so well choreographed and consciously adorable it will attract these kinds of haters. Some would even call it pretentious, with its glaring shout-outs to everything from Belle and Sebastian to The Seventh Seal.

I say shut up and just admit you enjoyed it. Let’s be real: (500) is an undeniably well-written, well-edited, witty, slick, charming and stylish. You will love it. Let yourself go.

(500) follows the relationship between two people in Los Angeles. As in Alex Holdridge’s In Search of Midnight Kiss, director Marc Webb’s L.A. is a cozy city where people take public transport. Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a believer in true love, while Summer (Zooey Deschanel) is a third-wave feminist of sorts who just wants to have fun. Like the recent Reprise, we experience their relationship in fast-paced pieces, jumping from the beginning, middle and end in a random order. This piecemeal, time-based approach to filmmaking encourages the comparisons to Annie Hall and When Harry Met Sally, but Tom and Summer’s romance is much more casual and complicated than the ones in those movies. It’s never really clear they’re in a relationship, or that she likes him. We are meant to believe they have a connection because the both like The Smiths and share other obscure interests. It’s the Facebook way of dating: if your profiles match up, you go out. The movie feels fresh and should resonate with anyone under 30 who has dated anyone in the past decade. The randomness of the whole process, matched by the film’s grab-bag style, is spot-on.

Their relationship is so random I won’t venture a summary. I will say that rising indie stars Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt mesh well. He is, as we’ve come to expect (The Loookout, Brick, Mysterious Skin) familiarly sullen, and she is, as we’ve come to expect (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Yes Man) familiarly sunny and aloof. Once again, it’s all very cute, but still very believable.

Some of my pet-peeve alarms did sound. The first is the focus on Tom’s feelings and existential trajectory. I’m yearning for more skillful indie rom-coms like this to give equal footing—if not primary footing—to the psyche of the female lead. There are examples, of course, most notably Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress and Jennifer Westfeldt’s films. But the whole “I’m a twentysomething male who’s in a job I hate and can’t find the right woman” is so clichéd, so Two Lovers and Zach Braff, it’s starting to rub me the wrong way. According to these movies, young men today are completely impotent and weak (think of the movies mentioned in this review, including In Search of Midnight KissReprise, any Braff movie, add in Judd Apatow’s films) and women are abrasives bitches ((500) literally starts by calling a woman a bitch) who at first want sex and careers, only to marry someone else when they turn 30. One character in (500) calls Tom “gay” for having feelings, and later in the film Tom bites back at Summer saying: “You never wanted to be anybody’s girlfriend and now your somebody’s wife.” Translation: die third-wave feminist bitch! It’s a bit reductive.

But it gets points for sidestepping many more of my other pet peeves, including those crimes committed by the other “young indie relationships” genre, mumblecore. The characters are appropriately driven to succeed—unlike many mumblecore depictions—and well dressed. They are believable, both in how poised they are and, at the same time, how clueless they are. I saw a lot of my friends and myself in (500)‘s characters.

(500) is a solid answer to what many unmarried, urban twentysomethings are asking for in their romance films. Even when it’s waxing fantastical or being a bit too playful, it’s still sharp and funny. I’m sure it will find an audience this summer among those who’d rather not brave the new Harry Potter movie (its competition July 17). For Annie Hall circa 2009, (500) is near flawless.

FILM: Tokyo! Review March 13, 2009

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Kafka in Japan

Tokyo! is easily the weirdest movie in the recent trend of omnibus films. (Grade: C)

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By Aymar Jean Christian

Why the sudden interest in shorts and cities? This year’s Oscar-nominated short films have made over $600,000 in just about a month, which is an incredibly large amount of cash for a genre that never makes any money at all (some claim iTunes is changing that). Paris, je t’aime, meanwhile raked in a few million two years ago, and its producer is releasing a “sequel,” New York, I Love You, shortly. (I can’t wait.)

Tokyo!, a three-part compilation by directors Michel Gondry, Leos Carax and Bong Joon-ho, openly exploits this trend: “In the tradition of such films as New York Stories, Night on Earth, Paris Je T’Aime and its forthcoming sequel New York, I Love You, Tokyo! addresses the timeless question of whether we shape cities, or if cities shape us.” Why the sudden interest in cities? Maybe it’s because none of us can afford to live in them anymore.

Unlike Paris, je t’aime, which had more realistic or at least pseudo-realistic vignettes, Tokyo! is all Kafka: surrealistic and strange. Michel Gondry turns a young woman into a chair; Leos Carax creates a goblin terrorizing the city; and Bong Joon-ho imagines a man who never leaves his house. It’s a mix bag—typical for short collections of this sort—that actually works as a film. Unfortunately, not all of the parts deliver the goods.

The star on this trio is Bong Joon-ho (director of The Host), whose short is quiet, controlled and perhaps the most revealing about Tokyo and urban life in general. The issue is hikikomori, a phenomenon prevalent in Japan in which people reside in their homes for weeks, months, even years. Bong’s protagonist has not left his house for over a decade. Of course, modern urban life allows for this kind of phenomenon. In the city, everything can be delivered, from food to laundry, even love can be found without leaving the house—though Bong avoids this convenience (our protagonist must leave to find love). With Bong’s treatment, his amber tones and carefully constructed angles, we understand why someone would want to stay inside: there is order indoors, a kind of perfection, unlike the outdoors, crazy as the weeds that envelope the hikikomori’s house. Committed to staying inside, he treats his practice as much as an art as a way of life. Much like the hunger artist in Kafka’s short story, the hikikomori deprives himself of something the world takes for granted: the chance to venture out into the world. His dedication to doing what we cannot makes us all the more aware of what we do instinctively.

Next is Carax’s “Merde”—French for “shit”—In which the French director creates a monster for our times: a sewer-dwelling, hideous creature that initially bothers pedestrians with petty acts of theft but escalates into violent mass killing. The analogy to the modern jihadist is clear and undeniable. Once arrested, the goblin cannot be understood; we don’t know why he does what he does. Only three people in the world understand his language, and none live in Japan. After a drawn out trial and tortuous (to watch) interrogations, we do find out why he kills, but it doesn’t mean much. Carax is dead-on, if not a bit heavy-handed, about how a culture treats those it cannot understand and whose very existence and actions challenge it. It’s not a brilliant observation, really. The tyranny of the state and its society is well documented. But Carax captures our current moment perfectly. If only he’d taken a bit more from Kafka and paced it quicker, with a touch more whimsy.

When Kafka changed his everyman into a large insect, he perfectly channeled the anxieties of modernization in the Western world. If only Gondry were as sharp. In turning a young woman—who is unspectacular, untalented, unambitious—into a chair, Gondry barely stirs a feeling from his audience. Always playful, Gondry’s short is bizarre enough to please fans (of which I am one) but uninteresting in retrospect. A short film does not need to be many things: witty, insightful or well-crafted are the basic expectations. Gondry achieves none of these, though he comes very close the latter. After it was over I asked myself, “Who cares?” and quickly forgot it. A metamorphosis should signify something significantly; otherwise, why bother?

Tokyo! is worth it if you love surrealism, Japan and quirky filmmaking. If you don’t, just read Kafka.

TV: How Not to Fail a TV Show March 12, 2009

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TV: How Not to Fail a TV Show

The series finale disappointed fans. Why?

The series finale disappointed fans. Why?

By Aymar Jean Christian

You may not know we lost an important show this past week: The L Word. The series was among the most inconsistent on television. Each season would have a new focus and tone; characters would completely change personalities; wardrobes would magically improve. Still, it was a landmark, well-acted show that served us well.

But now its fan base is all shook up over the series finale. The final season was a “whodunit” mystery that in the end did not answer its original query, “Who killed Jenny?” Me: I say it’s pretty clear the lesbian movie star did it, but whatever. People want closure.

But do we really? Sometimes, closure is boring; sometimes we desperately need it. Who cares who killed Jenny? We all wanted her dead.

Here’s my five-step guide to ending a successful series. With popular shows ER and Scrubs ending this year, and several others either on the chopping block (Ugly Betty) or abruptly cut off and expected to air final episodes (Pushing Daisies, maybe Lipstick Jungle), the networks need my advice. Desperately.

1. Stay away from non-narrative montages
: The L Word did this and it was lame. They showed all the characters walking across the Los Angeles skyline like divas on a catwalk, set to show’s rock-and-roll theme song. What? Mortal enemies were smiling at each other. People who’d just broken up were holding hands. It made no sense. Lipstick Jungle‘s abrupt, alleged series finale tacked on a two-minute “best of” montage. How patronizing. Just end the damn thing.

2. Bring back old characters: Everyone says this is cheesy, but admit it, you love it. The much-derided Seinfeld finale did this well. I know, don’t hang me; I actually liked the Seinfeld finale. For shows with lots of small, recurring characters, it allows us to reminisce, if done smartly and with finesse.

3. Don’t get Ross and Rachel back together: Try not to pair two star-crossed lovers in the end if it’s what viewers are expecting. The Friends finale was boring as hell. Ross and Rachel get together? Get out! Sex and the City‘s finale did this, but did it well: there was no guarantee Carrie would end up with Big—HBO had shot two other endings, presumably one in which she’s single. Plus, they shot it well: Carrie walked alone in the final shot, the implication being that she’s still an independent woman. Closure, in this case, was skillfully accomplished. Ross and Rachel: closure to please the crowd.

4. Be boring, if you must
: I’m not a Sopranos fan (I never caught up), but it seemed to me that, for such a dramatic show, a dull ending was thoroughly appropriate. Complicated shows sometimes need ambivalent endings. Often doing the right thing means giving fans what they don’t want. This only works for high-concept or artful TV shows. ER, this is not for you.

5. Go out for coffee: The best endings are often the most intimate and simple. Here again, Seinfeld got it right: the last shot of the four friends talking about nonsense in a jail cell was fitting and charming. Ditto for Will & Grace, in which Will and Grace reconcile after years of estrangement by going out for coffee. Heaven.

Perhaps there are no rules for a series finale. Maybe the best rule is for the fans: expect nothing. If it’s good, you won’t expect it. If it’s bad, you were prepared.

TV: The Importance of Being Pretty March 3, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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UPDATE (7/30): EW‘s Ausiello now confirms an extensive Betty makeover is being tested among audiences by ABC! A month after I wrote this original piece, Silvio Horta, the brains behind Betty, suggested these changes would be on the way.

UPDATE 2: Ugly Betty moving to Fridays, after ABC flirted with canceling it.

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If you care about TV ratings, you know about 18-49 year olds. They, apparently, are the only people in America who watch primetime television and buy anything. If you’re older, you don’t spend money, except on cruises. If you’re younger, you only watch Miley Cyrus.

If you want to know whether your favorite TV show will survive, watch the 18-49s. TV by the Numbers , also known as Nirvana for TV junkies, compiles a list of shows likely to be cancelled or renewed based on the show’s relative performance among its network’s 18-49 demographic.

One such show on the chopping block is Ugly Betty. Among the shows on ABC that still have a pulse, Betty ranks among its poorest performers among 18-49 year olds. I watch the show religiously, but I’m loyal like that. If I commit to the first season of a show, I’ll stick through it until the end. Most people aren’t so loyal. This is odd. Betty is an ideal 18-49 show. So why is Brothers and Sisters beating it?

From a member of the 18-49, I’m going to give ABC-and any other network-some advice on how to revive a how. It’s simple: make Betty pretty.

People want to see pretty people on television. Sorry, it’s just the truth. How else do you explain Grey’s Anatomy and, even more mysteriously, Desperate Housewives beating Betty in the key demo? On those shows, everyone’s pretty! There’s someone for everyone. (Me: Kevin McKidd and Charles and Max Carver; I like redheads.)

Betty needs a makeover. Sure, people stuck with the show in the beginning because the writing was good, the concept was fresh, and let’s be honest, the end of Sex and the City and the release of The Devil Wears Prada left a stylishly big hole in our hearts.

But those days are over, and it’s getting a little tired to watch Betty in the same glasses and braces-braces still!-wearing mismatched designer clothes. (The great Patricia Field does the costuming, so it’s expensive but “poorly” put together. Does ABC think we’re stupid?). Young people care about fashion. It’s folly to think otherwise. A smart girl like Betty would’ve bought contacts, removed the braces and paid for a new hairstyle by now. Plus, no one in New York, even girls from Queens, dresses that badly. Yes, the show is all about exaggeration, but this form of exaggeration is grating to the eye. Betty’s appearance is made even more obvious since everyone around her is becoming ever more fashionable; even ugly duckling best friend Christina is now voguish.

Ugly Betty was a good idea, but as the rating show, making her pretty is the only way to stay on the air.

FILM: SCARY TREND ALERT: Obama Biopics December 9, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Apparently Hollywood wants to make a movie about the 44th president before he even takes office.

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Photo by Matthias Winkelmann.

Spike Lee stopped by my office yesterday for a chat. Okay, he didn’t come to see me. He spoke to an undergraduate class at Penn about his movies, black film and, of course, sports. At some point while discussing how hard it was for black directors to find funding for movies that aren’t Soul Plane or Get Rich or Die Tryin’, he mentioned something very scary:

There are several scripts floating around Hollywood about…Barack Obama.

NOOOOOOOO!!!!

I hope I heard wrong, but I don’t think so. Lee dropped that little bombshell when asked if he would ever direct an Obama flick. He wouldn’t, he said, because it’s already being done. He has other projects in mind, including a planned Joe Louis biopic.

Current events and biopics are great film staples, and audiences are used to seeing presidents on the big screen. Heck, Frost/Nixon is out this week to rave reviews. But the iconic Nixon, a perennial symbol of corruption, is long dead. Sure, there have been many movie Nixons, but it was at least 10 years after his resignation before big movie portrayals started rolling out, and Hollywood released Oliver Stone’s Nixon after the former president’s death.

Plus, the pillaging of current events has reaped mixed results. The paltry $30 million grossed by Stone’s W. proves the senselessness in making movies of sitting presidents. If BoxOfficeMojo is correct, Primary Colors didn’t fare much better. The post-9/11 movies have ranged from spectacular to so-so; I have avoided most of them. United 93 had me crying more than I ever have during a film. While I didn’t see Stone’s World Trade Center (Oliver Stone, what’s going on!) and The Great New Wonderful, the latter received solid reviews but the former’s were mixed. A truly great 9/11 movie will take years; the event is still too fresh.

Obama is far, far too fresh for a film. Please, hasn’t the past year provided enough spectacle and drama! Honestly, any film made about Obama now would fall flat. No actor could match his already boundless persona—t-shirts in Harlem have christened him the figurative son of either King, Kennedy or Lincoln. No director could match the excitement and anxiety of the longest campaign in history. All the events, both petty and weighty, are too ripe. Indeed, I’ve spent hours on YouTube reminiscing over dozens of countdown and reaction clips from election night. They’re riveting, more raw and visceral than any blockbuster could achieve at the moment. How can a film beat The View the day after, when Sherri Shepherd cried over being able to tell her son he had “no limitations”? Or journalist Keli Goff explaining on BET how her grandmother and mother picked cotton and got spit on but now get to see the country elect one of them?

It is now officially cliché to say the story of Obama’s candidacy is so improbable “it would be laughed out of a Hollywood pitch meeting for its sheer degree of incredibility,” as New York Magazine wrote after Obama’s grandmother died a day before the election and after Obama subsequently shed his first public tears (narrative symmetry with Hillary letting it rip before New Hampshire). See all this drama? Best to wait until the end of an Obama movie is not his election but his accomplishments—and failures.

Hollywood: be wise, follow cliché and laugh all Obama film projects out of the room, at least for the next 25 years. That’s how long it will take for the sheer grandiosity of the event to distill. Then you can go crazy, as I’m sure you will.

FILM: Buy A Projector November 17, 2008

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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My New Love

In praise of that forgotten home entertainment system, the projector.

Projector_large

A projector in 1958. Photo from the Library of Congress, via bobster1985.

By Aymar Jean Christian

I have no idea why people spend thousands of dollars on a flat screen TVs. Okay, I have some idea: the picture is the clearest and brightest and most colorful in the history of media! I will admit it’s pretty cool to watch sports on these things, and I don’t even like sports. So a flat screen is nice. But I just got a projector this week, and I have to say: I’m in love. That’s right, I’m in love with a machine.

So why am I plugging the projector? Let me explain.

Movie critics and Hollywood alike have been running around like headless chickens fretting the death of the cinema for the past few years. By “the cinema,” I mean being in a movie theater and overspending on tickets and popcorn. They have some cause for concern. Adjusted for inflation, only six of the top 50 highest grossing movies in America were made in the last decade. The most successful one after 2000, The Dark Knight, only ranks at 27 (Gone With The Wind, made in 1939, is still number one, with Star Wars not too far behind.)

What’s the big deal? Well, first, theater tickets are how movies have always made money—that’s Hollywood’s problem. On the other hand critics, and some auteur directors like David Lynch, worry that people aren’t seeing movies the way they are “supposed” to be seen: B-I-G.

I say, stop worrying. First, Hollywood knows DVD sales and international box office returns are compensating for the slack at the domestic box office. But more importantly, I’d argue people are watching movies how they’re “supposed” to be seen (though really, what’s so wrong about watching a film on an iPod, David?). Flat screen TVs are decent enough and provide at least some semblance of a cinematic experience, though I still don’t get all the hype.

Projectors, to get to my point, are a great way to go. Yes, some of them are just as pricey as flat screens, but not necessarily. I bought mine off a colleague for $350; an additional speaker system cost me $100, because what’s the use of a big picture without big sound? For half the price of a smaller flat screen I got an image two or three times the size.

Plus, it hooks up to my laptop. All of a sudden I don’t need to blow money on Apple TV. Last week I streamed an episode of Pushing Daisies from ABC.com to my projector and found out the show was surprisingly cinematic, with lots of color and some fun editing. I can download a TV show or movie on iTunes or even stream movies from Hulu.com or Netflix.com, and watch it B-I-G. My movie-viewing options are now much more varied, much more convenient, and much closer to the “real thing.” Not a bad deal!

There are some drawbacks, don’t get me wrong. Having a projector adds more cords and complicates the viewing process a bit, and the cheaper projectors, like the one I have, doesn’t show a clear picture in daylight.

But the gains outweigh the losses. Projected movies, to me, are about escapism. The room is dark and you don’t have to think about deadlines and drama. And projectors are more social than flat screens. Projected images are an “event” you do with friends, like going to the movies. A grand, majestic screen you can watch with friends that even makes network TV exciting? My new love is a giver.

A flat screen is just a TV.

FILM: Watching Difficult Movies November 13, 2008

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A Couple Movies To Fight Over

http://www.splicetoday.com/moving-pictures/a-couple-movies-to-fight-over

When in doubt, go to a challenging movie over an easily graspable one.

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Sometimes I think the best movies are the most challenging. Sure, a nice Hollywood blockbuster is satisfying, but the movies that stick are the ones that leave me confused, angry or upset. Movies that have left me dumbfounded in the past? From My Dinner with Andre, which is just a 90-minute conversation, to Jacques Tati’s Play Time, which has almost no dialogue and no close-ups, there are some movies that either makes you throw something at the screen or take an aspirin to calm you down.

These days, tough movies are few and far between, but there are some easy ways to spot them.

First, look at the reviews. If a movie has truly mixed reviews, you’ve a got a winner. I’m talking about when a few critics call it the worst movie ever made and a few call it brilliant. Lucky for you, there is one such movie out right now: Synecdoche, New York. Charlie Kaufman is the go-to guy for mindfucks right now, so this is no surprise. Most films have mixed reviews, but sometimes the contrast between those who love and hate it is so stark you have to get yourself to a theater to find out what all the fuss is about.

Of Synecdoche, Manohla Dargis at The New York Times said: “To say that Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York is one of the best films of the year or even one closest to my heart is such a pathetic response to its soaring ambition that I might as well pack it in right now.” Wow, what an endorsement! But The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane—one of my favorite critics—said, instead, that, “there has long been a strain of sorry lassitude in Kaufman’s work, and here it sickens into the morbid…In short, what is Synecdoche, New York about?”

The problem with Synecdoche is that you need to think of Jean Baudrillard to know what it’s about. If you miss this—that the film is actually about debunking the postmodernist impulse to focus on representations, simulacra and how nothing is real—then you’re lost. It’s so obscure. I love it!

Other recent movies like this have been, Miracle at St. Anna, Cloverfield, Southland Tales, Across the Universe, The Matrix Revolutions, Magnolia, Youth Without Youth. These are movies, saddled by high ambitions and too many ideas that people fight over them. What could be more fun?

The second thing to look for is more obvious: the director and screenwriter. Plenty of directors and screenwriters give themselves the license to be ridiculous and overwrought, and their movies are what I want to see. Seeing a film by the late Stanley Kubrick, for example, would almost guarantee you something to talk about, and more recently Terry Gilliam and Paul Thomas Anderson have been satisfyingly challenging.

I would argue that a movie opening in limited release this week, A Christmas Tale by French director Arnaud Desplechin, which I saw at this year’s New York Film Festival, might qualify. I say this because Desplechin provoked me a bit with his Kings and Queen, about a woman who is beautiful but soulless—well, maybe not soulless, but just self-centered, it’s complicated.

I thought A Christmas Tale would be a lovely French family story, complete with cute dinners, scintillating conversation and storybook townhouses. It turned out to be much more complex. Desplechin really makes his audience question what binds families and friends together. The movie jumps from character to character, showing their grudges and anxieties, so much so you wonder if anyone is happy or sane. The eldest daughter, played by Anne Consigny, is the most maddening. She’s angry and bitter for most of the film and we have no idea why.

It was difficult to watch, but I loved every moment.

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