Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Graduate School is Crazy.

So, I woke up this morning with the clear, unalienable insight that my decision back in 2010 to go to graduate school was completely insane. I mean it, off the rockers nuts. No one with a smidgen of sanity and mental/emotional wherewithall would have attempted it. Heck, going through with it was even more so, born of the stubbornness that led my ancestors to fuck off from parts familiar to lands they knew not of -- better the devil you haven't met yet than the one at your heels.

So, yes. Crazy. Utterly bonkers. Still is. There is nothing sane about what I'm doing -- nothing. I'm doing it because it makes me happy and it's what I really want to do, but even within that, practicality would be far better served by me doing what my mom suggested and becoming a med tech somewhere. I am the most impractical of things, a scholar and teacher in an age that values neither; I am the misfit in Christmas Town.

That said... I think there's a risk in making sanity and practicality the primary virtues in life. There is a danger of consigning all our actions to the scale of the mundane. And I am a hypocrite when I say this, because I don't really want my children to do dangerous things for the sake of dreams... or rather, I do, so long as they have back-up plans and parachutes and contingencies, which I like to think is my job as a mom but might simply be me panicking my mom panic.

The real truth, for all that I am crazy to be doing what I am doing, at my age and my point in a career, is that all the best things in my life have come from the insanity I am perpetuating out of sheer stubbornness. My relationship with my husband, my sense of self-worth, the work I'm doing that I believe in, the stability in my life as contrasted with my previous existence... it all comes down to that crazy thing. This is not to say there's no downside (most of which is filed under the crazy heading), and I feel those downsides keenly enough. It's just that the awesomeness succeeds in counterbalancing it. If I weren't happy, I would quit. Knowing that makes all the difference.

So... yeah. Crazy. But crazy can be a good thing. Crazy can be what lets you climb mountains instead of follow trails. Crazy can be what makes great out of good. Crazy is also what makes things blow up in your face, so plan your crazy carefully and keep a fire extinguisher close at hand. But someday crazy is worth the risk. Choose wisely -- or don't, but keep your insane, crazy wits close about you in any case.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Movie Review: August: Osage County

Movie: August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Supporting Actress (Julia Roberts) (2 nominations total)

August: Osage County (and that's pronounced "O-sāj," second syllable like the herb) is based on the play by Tracy Letts, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The synopsis of the plot is that a man dies and his children and widow come together in the family home in rural Oklahoma and confront some of the family demons.

This movie was filmed at least in part in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. I have never been to Pawhuska, but I've been to the area. There is nothing around there. The closest town that might be easily accessible is Vinita, which is right off I-40. It boasts two ATMs, only one of which was working on my last trip through. The turnpike gate for Vinita only accepts cash. There is a Braums which has a surprising variety of gluten free options in its mini grocery, but I purchased neither food nor ice cream from that establishment.

Pawhuska's most recent census puts the population at around 3600 people, last the internet knew. It is the capital of the Osage Nation, according to Wikipedia. I have no doubt this is true, but have not accessed the Osage Nation's website to verify this.

Mr. Letts is originally from Tulsa and grew up in Durant, so these facts are well familiar to him, in the abstract historical sense if not in my concrete knowledge of 3 weeks ago. The movie is a testament to this fact, as the crew, casting people, and voice coaches all contributed to making sure it got the stifling emptiness of this area absolutely right.

I am not unbiased in watching this movie. It was really good, and the performances were spot on, and yet I kept getting caught up by little things. Barbara (Julia Roberts), the oldest daughter refers to the plains as a "spiritual affliction, like the blues." Do I ever understand that; I love my home state and yet when I go back, I feel like I can't breathe, like there is so much emptiness that it will swallow me, all unwilling, wiping me and all of my efforts and talents off the face of the world, and I will never make it out again. I resent that. And yet... and yet. It's beautiful, in its way. It shines golden, and I know that there are good things there. I miss it, even as I know I can't ever live there again. I hear the voice of another bitter, sad Oklahoma expatriate in the words of Tracy Letts, and I feel its echo painfully in my own heart.

Maudlin thoughts of birthplaces aside. the movie holds a lot of pain, and a lot of love held at arms length, wielded like a knife. Addiction and the petty ugliness of its associated minor mental illnesses is pretty barefaced in this movie, as well as the pain of being the loved one of a person struggling with these problems. I was reminded of so many people I knew growing up as I watched this; so many people who fought with so much pain and self-inflicted and external suckage, all with those accents, with those words, with those phrases. Johnna (played by Misty Updike) provided all the oxygen in this film for me; the scenes she was in let me breathe again, and I was grateful for her (an amazing performance, btw, the moreso for being so quiet). This is a female driven film, and it is a masterpiece of ensemble work and deserves, I think, more attention than it's gotten.

It's a hard movie to watch. It will likely be less so for someone who isn't me, but possibly moreso for those who personally suffered from the demons trapped within the movie's fictional Pawhuska walls. It was funny in places, when it meant to be, and I highly recommend that you see it. But at the same time, I can't say I'll see it again. Thinking about it feels like something pressing on my chest, and that's not particularly pleasant. Meryl Streep was really, really good, as was Julia Roberts, and I'm glad they were both in it. I don't know that I'd choose them for their respective categories, though. Should either of them get the award, however, I would not feel that things had gone amiss.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Movie Review: Nebraska

Movie: Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Bruce Dern), Best Supporting Actress (June Squibb), Cinematography, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (6 nominations total)

Alexander Payne, who previously brought us About Schmidt (2002), Sideways (2004), and The Descendants (2011), is back on Academy radar with Nebraska, a story about an old man who wants desperately for one good thing to happen to him so he feels like he's got a purpose again, and the trials this unreasoning request puts his family through, his youngest son in particular. Bruce Dern does a really convincing turn as an alcoholic old man from Billings, Woody Grant, who gets one of those magazine contest announcements in the mail declaring that he might have won a million dollars, and he's determined to go to Nebraska (where he was from) to collect. Against the wishes of his wife and oldest son (and mostly just to stop his attempts to escape and walk there by himself), his youngest son takes a few days off work and they roadtrip from Montana to Nebraska, stopping off to see family along the way. Once there, David (played by Will Forte) learns a lot about his family and his father's past, including secrets that, though long since robbed of their power to harm, he might have been better off not knowing. David's realization that nothing's certain, that nothing's quite as black and white as the visuals of the film we're given, lets him find equilibrium by the end, but despite his role as the PoV character, the story is really Woody's.

Payne's choice to give us black and white is interesting -- in keeping, I think, with the landscape, which in the winter while they were there would be effectively sepia toned anyway. The story is deceptively hopeful -- bleak as it is upon first encounter, there's life underneath. The prairies are a good fit for this film in that respect -- Payne evidently knows about life in the middle of nowhere and he brings that to the movie in spades. He's also not afraid to let silence do his work for him. Nothing seems rushed in this film, and those spaces hold empty multitudes.

Personally, the family scenes in this film were hard for me to watch -- they weren't bad, they were just close reminders of places I've lived and people I've loved. Apparently some group dynamics don't change. I've lived in places where the grain elevators are the defining feature of the town, where curbs don't exist, and where you feel like if you walk a block over, into the field, that you'll have fallen off the face of civilization. Payne captured that, and the result was squirm-inducing for me, caught between fond recollection and wanting to get away as quickly as possible. The acting in this film was really good -- June Squibb was pretty darn delightful and stole every scene she was in. Comparing this and Jennifer Lawrence's performances, I can say that I'd flatly hand it to Ms. Squibb. At the same time, I find that the movie falls flat for me even though I think it's really well done and that it's worth seeing once. I guess, for me, there's not enough in the back roads of Nebraska to make me want to come back, or regret escaping once the trip is over, no matter how well executed it was.

Next up: August: Osage County.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Movie Review: Despicable Me 2

Movie: Despicable Me 2 (Pierre Coffin, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature

So, if you've seen the first Despicable Me movie, you know it's an oddly charming film about a villain who ends up changing his ways due to three little orphan girls. They get a bizarre but well-meaning father, he gets a family that isn't a side effect of trying to steal bigger and better things, and everyone lives happily ever after, more or less. Also, there are small yellow pill-shaped minions with whom he has a surprisingly healthy employer/benevolent dictator relationship. He knows them all by name, gives them reasonable work benefits, and if they're all a bit silly -- well, Gru is too. The minions are an inspired creation, by the way, and while Steve Carell's voicework and the story itself is sweet and cute and smart enough to be worthwhile, the minions and the small touches they add are really the best and most memorable parts of the film.

Despicable Me 2 picks up not all that long after the first movie left off, with just enough time for Gru and his adopted daughters to settle into their lives together. Gru gets recruited by a heroic organization to help track down a horrible chemical that transforms living beings into ravenous monsters. He's assigned an overeager young agent named Lucy as a partner (who's both useful and annoying) and -- well, let's just say that love and family win in the end.

Just like in the first movie, the visuals are awesome. The running joke of the minions might have fallen flat in a second movie, but the director (who also voices the minions) keeps it going without making the mistake of focusing solely on them and ignoring the rest of the film. I could wish that the movie didn't end up damseling Lucy by the end, but she's not the only one, so I suppose that's acceptable. The little girls are sweet, the ongoing fascination in these films with fabric textures is impressive (seriously, the knitted garments are everywhere and they're amazing), and it's funny without being cloying or dumb. It's not the best kids' movie ever, but it's far from the worst. I don't know that I'd pick it for best animated feature, but I'd be secretly kind of pleased if the little yellow guys walked away with an Oscar. Definitely worth seeing, though, no matter what.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

It's Oscar Season!

Okay, so Matt and I and friends are into Oscars. We watch all the nominated movies we can squeeze in between the announcement and the show, we plan a big dinner with one dish inspired by each of the Best Picture nominations -- it's a thing.

As a means of writing something on a semi-constant basis, I'm gonna review the Oscar nominated movies I see. The first one, for today, is American Hustle.

Film: American Hustle (David O. Russell, 2013)

Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Christian Bale), Best Supporting Actor (Bradley Cooper), Best Actress (Amy Adams), Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Lawrence), Best Director (David O. Russell), Film Editing, Production Design, and Original Screenplay. 9 nominations total.

American Hustle is an amazing ensemble film, as evidenced by the list above. It's a hell of a costume piece, with the music, production, editing, and acting really coming together to tell a love story of broken people who somehow make each other a little better finding their way together among people who somehow seem to make each other worse. It's funny, yes, and there's some drama, and the hair alone is a period train wreck of epic and fantastic proportions. That love story is essentially over top of a caper film, though, and the audience does well to remember that everyone in this is, essentially, running a con.

David O. Russell is, of course, the director of Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees, The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and now this. It's fair, I think, to say he's an Academy darling. More than that, though... I think he's just really good at what he does. He's also got a hell of an editing sense and although the movie jumps around in time and moves back and forth and around... it does a darn good job of keeping it all flowing. Also of note, it passes the Bechdel effortlessly, which is saying a lot for a movie with really only two female roles to speak of -- Bradley Cooper's movie mom gets a few lines, and his movie fiance gets nothing. For being a caper flick, the movie's really grounded in the domestic lives of its characters, which is a refreshing change that goes a long way toward closing the distance between the audience and the world of the film, making us care what happens to the characters in ways that caper films typically never touch.

Christian Bale was amazing, but then he usually is. How did I not know this man could do puppy dog eyes with the best of them? Bradley Cooper was good, but I feel like both I've seen aspects of this performance before from him and like his work wasn't all that memorable. I'd far rather have seen the nomination go to Jeremy Renner, who was phenomenal in his role as the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. Amy Adams was really good. I don't think she'll get it, but I wouldn't be sad if she did. And Jennifer Lawrence... so here's the thing. We saw this as a double feature with Catching Fire, because I'm a fan and I hadn't seen it yet, so it was double the Jennifer Lawrence day. It never once, not ONCE, occurred to me that I was watching the same actress while I watched her. Nothing I see her in reminds me of anything else she's done. I'm not going to say she's going to get it. There are reasons, and I haven't seen the other films yet. But every time she's on the screen, she impresses the hell out of me, and I respect her immensely for that.

So, yeah. Loved the movie. Probably won't purchase it later, unless I want to use it to teach, as it's more an experience than entertainment, and our personal collection leans more toward the latter. That said, you never know. I felt the same way about Silver Linings Playbook, and yet the more time passes, the more I think I'd like to see it again. So we'll see. But yes, go see it. You'll thank me.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Movie Review: Frozen

So I went to see Frozen this weekend with my family. I enjoyed the movie more than I'd expected. Of course, it's hard not to enjoy something with Idina Menzel singing in it. I thought the voices and music were really well done. I liked that the relationships were complicated, and I appreciated that the snowman was linked to their past together as children, and not just something completely random. I also liked that the snowman Elsa made to act as her guard was very different from Olaf, but not so much so that you couldn't see a relationship between them.

That said, what was really a gorgeous story was, in my opinion, not helped by the addition of an entire song for Olaf -- one that I didn't didn't serve a sufficient role in the overall plot. I couldn't get past the feeling that Olaf was sort of leftover from a previous version of this movie that was a lot more cutesy than the finished product.

Snowmen aside, though, I felt that it was a really lovely movie. It's been a long time since I felt any sort of magic at a kids' movie, Disney or not, but they had it here, due in no small part to the amazing use of music in the film, particularly in the first half. I love that although Kristoff could, perhaps, have saved Anna, he didn't need to. And honestly, the film doesn't encourage you to believe that he was the solution to Anna's predicament, at least not yet. It's not a love-at-first-sight sort of story. It's refreshing, really.

Also, Kristoff's expressions and body language AND sense of humor resembles my son, William, far too much for his comfort. :) That was highly entertaining.

So yeah, go see Frozen. Even better, go see it when it's a stage musical, as it's bound to be. I'm sure it'll be absolutely fabulous.