Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Movie Review: Philomena

Movie: Philomena (Stephen Frears, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Dame Judi Dench), Original Score, Adapted Screenplay

So, Philomena. An Irish girl named Philomena Lee (Judi Dench) gets pregnant as a teenager and her parents take her to one of the Magdalen laundries, where she has her baby and works off her indentured servitude. The nuns then adopt her little boy out without telling her. It's not until she's grown old and married and her children are grown that she ever reveals anything about the birth of her son, and starts her search for him in earnest, backed by Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a reporter in search of a story to redeem his career.

That the laundries were awful is really not in doubt. The Irish government came out in 2001 and finally admitted that they were a cultural abuse perpetrated on the women of Ireland by the Catholic Church and the government, who turned a blind eye to anything that happened there. That's not in the movie, where the term "Magdalen laundries" isn't even used, to my recollection. If you want to know what they were, though, look them up. You'll be horrified -- or you darn well ought to be. Also, this is based on a thing that really happened, though I haven't done extensive reading on Philomena Lee's story. But she and Martin Sixsmith are both real people, and if you were in the UK during the time this came out, you almost certainly heard about it.

I'm torn on where I stand on this film. On the one hand, Judi Dench and Steve Coogan are both delightful to watch -- and by that I don't mean it's a light-hearted romp, but that they really both inhabit the roles and make this more than the sob story it might have been. I'm not going to say it's not hard to watch in scenes -- it doesn't pull a number of its punches. But then, it's also tied with Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013) as being the official old people's Academy film of the year. I enjoyed Philomena, I'd recommend it to people (particularly older people, as I feel it targets that demographic pretty sharply), and I think it was really well done. I also like Stephen Frears' work as a general rule. That said... it's not the Best Picture, and I don't think I'd give Dame Judi Best Actress as much as I enjoy watching her performances. I've seen her do better, and that's a high bar to overcome.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Movie Review: Her

Movie: Her (Spike Jonze, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Original Score, Original Song ("The Moon Song"), Production Design, Original Screenplay (5 nominations total)

Her is a really intriguing film by Spike Jonze, who has done a number of intriguing films. The plot summary is that there's a guy who writes "handwritten" letters as part of a service for people he's never met. He has broken up with his wife (or rather, she broke up with him) and has been putting off signing his divorce papers. He's lonely and all the spark has gone out of his life -- he misses his wife, or at least he misses someone, and he can't seem to find anything on his own worth living for. About this time, an "intelligent" operating system is released. He upgrades his computer accordingly, and thus Samantha enters his life -- the name the AI gives herself. Oddly, the two fall in love with one another, with Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix) realizing that life's worth living and Samantha coming to terms with her unique situation and becoming more than anyone ever thought she'd be, including herself.

This film is a love story, I'll grant you, but it's not primarily a love story -- or if it is, it exists simultaneously with Theo's story of finding himself again and Samantha's story of learning what it is to exist as an individual, not simply as an extension of someone else or a tool. To that extent, I suppose you could say it's like a lot of good relationship films -- but Samantha's status as an AI complicates matters in unforeseen ways. All of these tracks proceed with roughly equal force, even though Theo is our point of view character and our interactions with Samantha are limited to his interactions with her. But similar stories are going on all throughout the background of this film -- Theo is not an outlier, and lots of people are coping with these changes. There are questions of self-realization, of the rights of non-bodied or differently bodied people, of where tools stop and people begin, of the inherent stability of a highly tech-based society and so forth. It may be a low-key science fiction film, but it definitely is a piece of very thoughtful science fiction, and thus achieves something rarely seen in the genre today.

Also, it's worth noting that I am involved in a relationship with a polyamorous man, and he has girlfriends. I have not, as yet, found anyone I am terribly interested in having a relationship with, though I could if I wanted. We all went to see it together, as we all get along and it sounded like fun. This movie hit us all in unexpected ways. It provides a thoughtful treatment of relationship models and how love is not a one-size-fits-all sort of thing. I won't say more than that -- you'll understand when you see it, and probably have strong feelings about that point in the movie that are worth thinking about.

I don't know, honestly, if I expect Her to get any particular award, possibly with the exception of Original Screenplay, which it deserves hands down. I was touched by the performances, I appreciated the thoughtfulness, and I will most likely buy it to keep on my shelf and possibly teach from time to time. Overall, it's definitely one you should go see if you haven't. It's totally worth it.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Movie Non-Review: 12 Years a Slave and Gravity

It should be noted that, for reasons I could speculate have to do with my existence as a high functioning person with ASD but for which I have no proof, I have to work really hard at not getting overwhelmed with my emotional responses. I am either on, in which case I'm overly plugged into everything going on, or I'm off, in which case I'm uncomfortably objective but able to handle stuff.

This means I don't have an emotional buffer in movies. When all my sensory input is coming at me from the screen, I can very easily lose control of my emotional reaction, having feelings all out of proportion to what's going on -- or at least out of proportion to the reactions of those around me. I'm also super sensitive to low-frequency sounds, which can effectively induce panic attacks and headaches in me if I have prolonged exposure*. I effectively can't communicate under those circumstances, other than to get up and leave, which I do if necessary. I can't stim enough to make it bearable in a movie, so it puts me at a disadvantage. Some things, therefore, I only see at home if at all to avoid wasting the price of a ticket and alarming my friends.

As a result, these aren't really reviews. I'd like them to be reviews, but they aren't, for reasons that are perfectly good ones. Instead, they're discussions of the film from the bits and pieces I know about them, which will inevitably be inadequate but as I am definitely not going to see them before Oscars, this is what you get.

*This also means that in high stimulus environments, similar problems crop up. This happens more if I'm tired or otherwise stressed, but generally is manageable so long as I keep an eye on self-management and health.

Movie: 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2014).
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong'o), Costume Design, Best Director, Film Editing, Production Design, Adapted Screenplay (9 total).

I knew this film would be difficult to watch going in, but I also knew it would reward the people who saw it. I really like Ejiofor and I've done enough studying of the period to know what slave narratives are and what I was getting myself into. I got some food, had my knitting at hand, and settled in for what would be a harrowing but worthwhile 2 hours or so. After roughly 15 minutes, I threw in the towel and left the movie, unable to touch my food and barely avoiding really loud, noisy sobbing in front of people. I remained absent for the rest of the film, and felt I'd made the choice that was best for me. I did eventually regain my appetite enough to eat, but it was not a quick process.

12 Years a Slave does not pull any punches. It has no qualms about letting you experience something as close to the American slave experience as you can get in a film, in all its visceral horror but without exaggeration for its own sake. The performances, from what I saw, are stellar and I have no reason to suspect the other performances are any less. I honestly can't say that I'll ever get through this movie, though. As good as it is, I can't personally handle the emotional costs involved. If someone is teaching a slave narratives class, though, this is a must-include, particularly if students are having a hard time bridging the historical and cultural gap. Be warned, though, this movie induces strong reactions in pretty much everyone -- as well it should. Some lessons are just that way.

Movie: Gravity (Alfonso CuarĂ³n, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (Sandra Bullock), Cinematography, Best Director, Film Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Visual Effects (10 nominations total).

So, remember the low-frequency sound thing I mentioned above? Doesn't seem like it would come up much, does it? Overall, it's not a thing one generally runs into -- except in movies. That low-frequency sound is something that gets used a lot, carrying the following connotations: space, aliens, eldritch machinery, supervillains. As someone who likes genre films, you can see how my world has become more problematic since my sensitivity has increased. In film class, I had to skip the viewing of Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) because he uses that damn sound pretty much through the whole background to add tension and unease to the film, which it certainly did, as it made me nauseated and gave me a splitting headache in just a 10 minute clip. I'm sure somewhere he's gratified to know that his sound choices for the film are totally effective. The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) hit me with a similar problem, though this was unexpected. I made it through the last 20 minutes of the film, but just barely, and I had issues for a while afterward. I totally skipped Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012) for the same reason, with the blessing of my husband who loves me and understandably not really enjoy putting his wife back together after sound effects slay her.

And that brings us to Gravity. When Matt and my friends went, we wondered if I should go. I ended up not feeling well and deciding to be safe and skip it. Afterward, everyone said it was great and absolutely the right choice for me not to have gone. I would like to watch it on a smaller screen, where I can exert a greater amount of environmental control, but I almost certainly will not before the Oscars and, as good as it is and as many people have exhorted me to watch it, it may be a while regardless. When I know I'm going to have to really reach down deep for a neurological coping skill before seeing a movie, it robs me of a bit of enthusiasm for it. That said, everything I've seen -- clips, trailers, and reviews from friends -- tell me that this movie is phenomenal and I need to see it, particularly given my interest in feminism and sci-fi. It's definitely the meatiest role for a woman that's come along in a very long time. My biggest concern is that Bullock will be considered out of the running because she won for The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock, 2009) a few years back, a film achievement that pales in comparison this one.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Writing in the Year of Comprehensive Exams

The pic is from my yard last year, but it looks about the same this year (except more snow) so it works. Winter in Ohio, people!

I am bad at time management. I'm not as bad as I used to be (and for those who know me and are good at it, there's your shot of horror for the day) but I'm still like an old car with a sticky transmission -- it goes, but never smoothly. That said, this year I am forced to get my shit together as never before -- because in October, I take my qualifying exams.

Now, for those not initiated into the funhouse that is grad school, qualifying exams are the exams you take to prove you know enough about your speciality to be something of a subject expert -- certainly enough to teach it. Unlike comprehensive exams, which demand that you know everything about everything in your field, qualifying exams only demand that you know most things about the areas you're in which you are specializing. You set the reading list, you do all the research, and you answer the questions you find compelling -- well, and that your committee also finds compelling. You're proving your ability to do quality research and know your shit sufficiently to teach it to someone else. And those are in October for me.

I also have coursework (but only one class), so that's a drain on my time. I also have teaching, which I love but requires prep and time. I also have freelance work, some of which I agreed to last year, to supplement my income. I also have my family, and my kids, and my husband, and his family, and our friends -- all of which are necessary to keep me sane and able to focus. This is, putting it mildly, a lot of things to focus on. I'm also trying to start going back to the gym regularly, and barring the weather I've been doing okay at it. There's room for improvement, but that's yet another scheduling thing I'm trying to incorporate -- and that's even more necessary, because the process for prepping for exams is spectacularly sedentary, and I'm trying to keep body and soul together and lose weight, not gain it.

Now, as might be apparent... that's a lot of stuff to juggle. At the very least, that's a lot of stuff to juggle for me. And I'm bad at juggling. Things get dropped. I have Matt to help me, but that's a help, not a fix. He can't catch things for me, he can just remind me when something headed towards me. This means that I'm having to try to police my boundaries carefully about what I sign on for, what I can fit in, and that's... hard. I hear this from other grad students, btw, about having to make sure to be selfish because otherwise the work just doesn't get done. But it's hard. There's selfish and then there's not making enough money. There's selfish and then there's not spending time with the people who recharge me. There's selfish and then there's not getting my commitments met. I'm having to say no to things I don't want to say no to, and I'm having to say it now rather than later... and that really, really sucks. Not as much as saying it later, but more than saying yes -- yes is easy. No is the one that's hard.

I can get up every day and write something, but writing the thing that doesn't pay me, that is necessary for my career but not for the short-term in my bank account -- that's horrifying. It is the fear of the broke writer, that paralyzing focus on the short term project, the one with dollars attached to it. And when you have loved ones who need the money too? How can you make any other choice? And yet here I am, making that choice, and it fills me with anxiety.

If I'm slow to answer -- if I seem to hermit -- if I say no when you expect a yes -- please know it's me, not you. I can't afford to say no, not really, but I also can't afford to fuck up everything I've worked so hard for by not prioritizing it. I can't afford to let the long-term goal pass me by in favor of the short-term catch. I have a really big ball up in the air along with all the smaller ones, and if I don't track its progress -- if I let myself forget that it's up there -- then I'm completely screwed when it lands on my head and explodes. So be patient and bear with me while I write a word at a time that no one but me will see. It's the way of things.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Movie Review: Captain Phillips

Movie: Captain Phillips (Paul Greengrass, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Barkhad Abdi), Film Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing, Adapted Screenplay (6 Nominations Total)

Captain Phillips is the story of commercial ship's captain Richard Phillips and his (and his ship's) encounter with Somali pirates, in which he was taken hostage. It's adapted from his book, A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea. If you dig into it, there's some controversy over this "true" story as to how accurately it was reported by Phillips in his book and in the movie, and whether or not it should have been told this way. I'm not taking a position on that, as I've neither read the book nor dug into the background, but if that matters to you at all, you might consider doing so. Certainly taking Hollywood as the last word on anything historical is almost always a fool's game.

Phillips is played by Tom Hanks, who does a very nice job -- an understated performance right up until the end, where we see him live out some of the shock of his character's experience, and then it goes from simply good to really affecting, particularly if you've ever been close to someone when they've come out of something traumatic. Hanks isn't honored this time with a Best Acting nomination; some call it a snub, but I'm not convinced of that. I think if the field were a little bigger, he'd be included. I just don't know that thus far his performance was one to push one of the others out of the way -- his character, despite providing the name of the movie and being about his experience, is one who stays in the background as much as possible, watching and planning and directing. This is one of the reasons, btw, that his co-star, Barkhad Abdi, has so much room to shine -- and shine he does.

One of the things that Greengrass does not shy away from in this film, to his credit, is rather unflinchingly showing us the rock and the hard place that Muse (Abdi), leader of the Somali pirate boat that boards the freighter, is caught between. All the pirates' reliance on khat (the leaves they chew) to keep hunger away, Muse's skeletal frame, the appearance by the forces of the warlord of the area, the repeated desperation of  Muse's situation, not only for himself but his men (and presumably his loved ones back on land)... this is not a good place to be. Phillips tries to understand Muse but can't, and we can't really blame him -- we saw the Somali shore and the rush to hide the children, not him. He doesn't get what's going on and he won't. Muse's eventual capture is almost a relief, because there is a small voice inside that thinks "at least in prison he'll be out of this hell," which frankly is a hell of a thing to think.

Abdi takes full advantage of the role; we like him despite the fact that we're very sure he can and will kill if he has to. He takes what in lesser hands might have been a tissue paper bad guy and fills him so full of life that it seems his far-too-slender frame might burst from that much determination and pain. His character is a man who should have been so much more than he was, had he been born in another land or another time. He frankly should beat Bradley Cooper hands down. I'm not certain he will, but he should.

I don't see Captain Phillips winning Best Picture. It's not that it's a bad movie -- it's actually very good -- but it's not one of those films that sticks with you. Still, despite my initial reluctance to see it, I enjoyed it and I'd recommend it. I don't think I'd watch it again, but it was worth my time.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Movie Review: The Croods

Movie: The Croods (Kirk DeMicco, Chris Sanders, 2013)
Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Film (1 nomination total)

So there's a teen neanderthal girl named Eep who chafes under her father's restrictive rules (that, which unnecessarily harsh, likely do keep them alive as all their neighbors have been killed off). One day, she meets a teenage boy named Guy (who looks a bit more homo sapiens) who tells her the end of the world is coming and leaves her a shell to call him with -- oh, and he knows how to make fire. Sure enough, there's an earthquake and their cave is destroyed and thus begins the merry adventure to try to find a place that isn't going to be all blown to bits and eaten by lava. Along the way we get some personal growth, family togetherness, a large parrot-cat-like creature, a sloth with dramatic tendencies, some last-minute sacrifice, and a happy ending. Sorry if that spoiled it for you.

To be honest, I wasn't terribly a fan of this movie. Eep's the one who drags her family out and saves them, but as soon as she meets Guy, it kind of becomes the story of him and her father, Grug. The fact that the story recenters away from her, that I'm not sure it passes the Bechdel as a result (or if so, only barely) and that most of the humor is physical (and what isn't is kinda gender-role-tastic) means that I largely sat and stared at it the whole time rather than getting into it. It's not my kinda thing, but then I'm largely okay with not being the target audience.

On the one hand, the animation is gorgeous, or at least the backgrounds and animals are. The story leaves me flat, however, and I feel that the last leg of the film is kind of at sea, as though once the characters had reached their primary goal and it didn't solve their problems, and there's a nice sacrificial role, they couldn't let the sadness stand and had to invent tacked on solutions to get a nice happy ending. I have no problem with a happy ending, especially in an animated film, but forced is forced.

Honestly, in so far as the gender concerns go... that may be endemic to Dreamworks Animation. They tell boy-centered stories with aplomb. The girl-centered stories are a bit more hit or miss, with the hits being largely co-productions with Aardman (and even there, the girls are placed primarily as strong secondary characters). I think really just this film promoting Eep as the central character and following Brave (Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell, 2011) and even Frozen (Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee, 2013) made me expect more from it than it was prepared to deliver. Currently at the bottom of my list for Best Animated Feature, and I'll be disappointed if it wins.