August 25, 2012

The best thing about teaching (for me) is forging intellectual connections with students that benefit both of us.  Those interactions start in the classroom, but they don’t always end there.  One of the best things about Facebook is that it makes keeping in touch with former students so much easier than it used to be, and sometimes Facebook even helps continue the conversation that starts in the classroom.

I finally got around to seeing Brave last week.  Not that I didn’t feel the need to see it before (after all, I’m a feminist scholar as well as a critic), but the summer has been busier than usual.  Okay, that’s a lame excuse.

Still, when I got there, what I found thrilled me.  Finally, a Disney movie that doesn’t traffic in the tired and troublesome absent mother theme that I have belabored for years and years in my Film Theory and Criticism classes (to be honest, probably in most of my classes – it annoys me that much).  It’s just makes me, a mom, furious to see how storytellers have repeatedly made mothers uniformly dispensible.  What are we, worse than chopped liver?

Brave is a sharp departure from the major animated films that have preceded it; not only is there a strong female lead carrying the film, but the narrative is a tale of mother-daughter reconciliation.  Remarkable!

As I walked to my car after the matinee carrying a light heart and wearing a big smile, I thought of Erin McInnis, an excellent student of mine from a few years ago.

I recalled a paper conference we once conducted in my car while I was driving to pick up something I’d forgotten for class (thankfully that almost never happens, though it does make that particular meeting memorable for both of us).

Erin wanted to write her research paper on one of our shared pet peeves – the absent mother in Disney films and the implications of that construction in various narratives.  Her enthusiasm matched my own, which led me to feel a little maternal over the emerging project!

So, what did I do as soon as I got home from seeing Brave?  I Facebooked Erin to see if she’d seen the movie, feeling certain she would have.  Here’s part of our exchange; she wrote:

I was thrilled to see the mother/daughter narrative! I couldn’t believe all the people who were upset because they felt Pixar/Disney pulled a bait-and-switch on them between the trailers and the actual film! It needed some work, yes, but I was excited about the whole idea. And I found it interesting that usually it’s the central character that has to undergo the transformation to change themselves for the better but this time, she caused the change in someone else. I found it fascinating!

She is right!  Very interesting point that the mother character has the character arc in the film because this adds some complexity to the story and fits with contemporary audiences in ways that should resonate.

I also figured out from her post why I may have avoided going to see Brave at first.  From the preview trailer, it looked like another father-daughter story.  Aha!  It looked like the same old story, but it wasn’t.  If that’s a bait-and-switch, as Erin mentioned, I’ll take it!

Not as personal as a car conference, and it would have been nicer to have actually seen the movie with Erin or to have discussed it in person over a cup of tea or a glass of wine, but Facebook does facilitate continued connection for which I am grateful (even if I didn’t convert to Timeline until I was forced and still don’t like it – another pet peeve).

Regardless of the communication medium, however, I love it when my students turn out to be smarter than I am.  Their insights make me feel like I’m doing my job well.



August 19, 2012

Based on a true story (with a memoir and a documentary to prove it), Intouchables has been wildly popular in France, and it’s not hard to see why.

This story of a wealthy Parisian confined to a wheelchair with no use of his limbs who hires an immigrant from a housing project as his primary caregiver is funny and feels fresh.  As I watched the film, I couldn’t help but think how horrible a Hollywood remake would be because it is the little moments, the realistic seeming performances, and the minimal use of formulaic devices that make the film fun and emotionally satisfying.

I found the pacing a little choppy as the film draws to its close, but in light of how appealing the rest of the film is, I won’t quibble about that.

RUBY SPARKS and Woody Allen

August 19, 2012

Here’s the description of Ruby Sparks:  “A novelist struggling with writer’s block finds romance in a most unusual way: by creating a female character he thinks will love him, then willing her into existence.”

The premise leaves me cold for oh-so-many reasons.  I’m not saying I won’t ever see this movie, but I keep finding reasons to put it off.

Some of them are the same reasons that I’ve never loved a Woody Allen movie since before Mighty Aphrodite.  What was charming in Annie Hall and only mildly discomfiting in Manhattan with the older, more intellectual male molding the attractive, less sophisticated female became creepy by Mighty Aphrodite and beyond irritating (though sometimes dull) in Whatever Works.

Of course, Woody Allen has revisited different genres and employed a set of tropes in his work over time, and while I love some of his films passionately, there are many that simply do not work for me.  And, this is true more and more frequently as time goes on.

Before you say, “But what about Midnight in Paris?” let me say that to me it was mediocre Woody Allen, better than most of the recent works but not in the league of Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors or Interiors or…you get the idea.  There were some nice moments but, in the end, the film was a bit thin.

The metaphysical among his films (except Zelig) are usually my least favorite.

I found From Rome With Love less engaging and less thoughtfully conceptualized than Midnight in Paris.


August 17, 2012

Finally a movie to get my sister off to the cinema!  It’s hard to believe sometimes that we are related because she goes to the movies twice in a good year and once in an average year.

We scheduled a movie date two weeks ago for my mother (who is a moviegoer), my sister, and me to see Hope Springs and – overall – a good time was had by all this evening.

Director David Frankel and writer Vanessa Taylor both come to Hope Springs with several TV series under their respective belts (not the envelope-pushing kind), but this film turns out to be a smidge or two above expectations because of the indelible performances delivered by Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep as a married couple in need of some intensive therapy after 30 years of growing apart.

Watching Tommy Lee Jones inhabit a detached yet angry accountant, Arnold, is worth investing the admission price and the 100 minutes of running time.  Actually, the performance given by his eyes and his mouth alone are worth that investment!

And, hey, that Meryl Streep is no slouch either as his frustrated and insecure wife, Kay.  The other main character, their therapist, is played by a luminous (yes, that’s the word I meant to use) and subdued Steve Carell.

While I was watching the film, I remembered something a good friend of mine, a wise poet, once said to me, “What do we see in the person we love?”  At the time, I tried hard but with no luck to figure out a meaningful answer before she provided it, “We see the person we love.”

I think she is right.  Love is inexplicable.

And, it can be complex.  I think Hope Springs goes into some surprisingly dark emotional spaces to try to help this estranged couple, Kay and Arnold, figure out whether or not there is a way back to the connection they once shared.

There are funny moments and sad moments, but there is not much of the cookie cutter cuteness that, from seeing the preview trailer, I feared might mar the film.

Though we all like the movie, there is one point of divergence between my sister’s read on it and mine:  the music.  She likes the contemporary pop/adult alternative tunes (probably chosen to try to market to a younger demographic), but to me these songs seem clumsy, intrusive, and not-quite-right as a soundtrack.  Hers is probably the more popular perspective.

Even though it was a bit spot on in terms of context and content, I did like the use of diegetic sound in one scene when Art plays Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

Hey, I have that song on my iPod, too…I might listen to it now.


August 17, 2012

I love Jeremy Renner and Rachel Weisz in their roles in this, the latest of the Bourne franchise.  There are some pacing problems for me early in the film (a bit slow though never dull), but once the lead characters go on the lam (really, this is not a spoiler, is it?) the movie really takes off and benefits from a breathtaking cycle chase sequence and a growing heat between the leads.  Worth seeing.


August 17, 2012

I wish it had been a little funnier and a lot smarter…not that there aren’t some good ideas embedded in the film because there are…but it could have been a more sophisticated analysis of the sorry state of American politics.


August 15, 2012

This will be an unpopular response to a film that has become a critical darling, but I’m ambivalent about Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Three things about it I really like:  (1) the performances are wonderful, (2) the production design is spectacular, (3) other visual elements are often lovely.

Three things about it I don’t like:  (1) the narration (which dominates early parts of the film) is far too precocious for this character to be believable, (2) the second half of the film is too choppy, (3) the film really needs a unifying thesis (or something that is arguably a well-reasoned premise).

And, as a parent, I kept thinking, “Get this child out of the bathtub.”  Children of six cannot make informed decisions about the types of things we are supposed to believe (believe the filmmakers lead us there) are magical and right for Hushpuppy.

While watching it, I occasionally thought about a film I did love – another film about but not for children – Where The Wild Thing Are.

I just revisited my previous blog post about Spike Jonze’s adaptation of the beloved Maurice Sendak book.  This is part of what I wrote:

Up until now, Jonze is probably best-known for two collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, the movies Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.  I have to say that I think Adaptation is brilliant – and I don’t use that word very often.

I probably wouldn’t use the word brilliant as an overall description for Where The Wild Things Are, but the film does have moments, mostly small moments, of brilliance.  The scenes before and after Max’s dream journey are flawless, absolutely flawless.   This is a movie about children not so much a movie for children, and the film captures perfectly the exploding emotions the little boy experiences as well as his inability to figure out what to do with those feelings.

It is his interactions among the wild things he encounters during his dream journey that give Max an opportunity to work through some of the things that are bothering him at home and at school.  This is an atypical fantasy sequence involving a child.  The palette in this dream world is filled with earth tones that give Max’s fantastic journey a curious sort of realism.

Arguably, the small moments of brilliance in Beasts of the Southern Wild – if you find them there – are mostly found in Quvenzhané Wallis who plays six-year-old Hushpuppy, found in her face, in her being, in her bearing, and in her voice.

The film doesn’t have to offer me something presented as the Truth (after all, I’m a relativist trading nuanced arguments and in dynamic truths), but it should give me something I can argue is a truth.  Make sense?

Happy to discuss further if anyone wants to engage me.  I liked it…but didn’t love it.