November 30, 2013

Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure of interviewing a group of high school students competing for college scholarships. One of the questions on their applications asked about five influential books they had read, and students were to indicate whether the books they listed were assigned for class or read purely for pleasure.

Every female student except for one listed The Hunger Games on her list, and most of them had the book/series near the top of the list.

I have read the first of the three books and seen both of the first two movies. Mostly, I’m just glad that young girls and women have a character like Katniss available in popular culture.

Yes, I know she kills people when she has to, but this would not be an issue if she were male. See what I mean?

Katniss is strong, smart, resilient, nurturing, and a leader. How many times in blockbusters do we see women succeed on their strength and their smarts instead of their sexuality?

Yes, I know that the “romance” with Peeta figures into the storyline, but even this device breaks with convention when it comes to Katniss.

Read this:

Clever and compelling analysis, isn’t it? I like it when pop culture icons help us break down boundaries, challenge our preconceptions, and complicate gender roles.

The movie? Catching Fire is entertaining. Katniss rocks. Jennifer Lawrence rocks.

Of course, more than once when watching the film earlier this week, I thought, “Wow, wish I could see Winter’s Bone again for the first time.” It would be awfully hard to top that film or that role, the first time I saw Lawrence on film.

I wish some of the scholarship applicants I interview next year would bring up the strong, Ozark Mountain girl in Debra Granik’s 2010 film played by Lawrence. That’s a conversation I would relish.

Catching Fire



November 30, 2013

Stephen Frears doesn’t always make conventional movies, but he does make interesting films, including his latest – based on a true story – Philomena.

Some of my favorites among Frears’ films are My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, Dirty Pretty Things, Chéri, and now Philomena. This is quite a list, and it includes an impressive range of subjects and styles.

After seeing the harrowing 2002 film The Magdalene Sisters (written and directed by Peter Mullan) the oppression of “fallen” Irish girls was not surprising to me.

But, having an awareness of the history makes it is no less difficult to watch Pilomena’s pain as she recollects the past and searches for the son she was forced by the nuns to give up fifty years earlier, a son she has never acknowledged to her family and friends.

Judi Dench is thoroughly convincing as Philomena, a retired nurse of simple tastes and enduring faith. It is a joy to watch her inhabit the role with nuance and grace. She teams up with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan, who is Dench’s equal in his role) to try to locate her son. The interplay between the two very different people unfolds in believable and moving ways along their journey.

Sometimes a movie is not surprising and not innovative but still so beautifully crafted that it serves as a reminder of the endurance of classical storytelling when it is rendered at such a high level.

How refreshing it is to see a film this polished on every level – the script, the performances, the direction – to the point that there are no visible flaws, not even the slightest misstep.



November 30, 2013

I’m not sure I would have gone to see Last Vegas if my mother hadn’t wanted to see it. Probably not. She did, so we went this afternoon.

Yes, it’s predictable but also a bit funnier than the preview trailer suggests. The real entertainment comes from watching Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, Morgan Freeman, Michael Douglas, and Mary Steenburgen work together.

It’s fun.

Last Vegas

Check Out Our Huffington Post Op-Ed

November 27, 2013

Laura R. Linder and I wrote an op-ed piece about the decline of the sitcom Mike & Molly with plenty of feminism and a critique of the stereotyping of teacher characters.

Laura and I are co-authors of the book Teacher TV: Sixty Years of Teachers on Television and co-editors of the anthology The Sitcom Reader: America Viewed and Skewed.

Mike & Molly


November 24, 2013

The life story of Ron Woodroof is rich with dramatic potential, and Jean-Marc Vallée’s biographical film comes close to reaching it.

Woodruff was a renegade electrician/rodeo rider in Dallas, Texas whose drinking, drugging, and womanizing came to a screeching halt after he was diagnosed as HIV positive (and accepted the diagnosis) in 1985.

The homophobic cowboy, who was shunned by his friends and colleagues, eventually found a new community among others with the virus, mostly gay men, whom he helped by making available unapproved drugs and supplements that improved the health of many of them.

The title, Dallas Buyers Club, refers to the business Woodroof establishes to circumvent the law by giving drugs to members for free once they have paid the $400 monthly membership fee.

Much has been said about the strong performances (and weight loss) of Matthew McConaughey as Woodruff and Jared Leto as Rayon, an AIDS patient who eventually becomes Woodruff’s business partner.

While some have criticized Rayon’s character as a stereotypical, tragic, drag queen figure, I think her counterbalance to Woodruff’s Texas-sized homophobia and machismo works.

What doesn’t work quite so well for me as the film unfolds are pacing issues and some degree of repetitiveness. There are times when the film feels a little slow and predictable. This may reflect an effort to track the actual sequence of events, but some nips and tucks to help the film a little faster would improve the movie.

The interplay between Woodruff and doctor Eve Saks (Jennifer Garner) is also a little problematic, partly because she feels under-developed as a character, which makes her motivation opaque to viewers at times.

That may not matter so much in the end, however, because the film clearly belongs to McConaughey and Leto.

Dallas Buyers Club


November 23, 2013

I will not do justice to Blue Is The Warmest Color with this post because rather than reflect and carefully craft a response, I want to write about it quickly enough to urge you to see it.


To be fair, the film is frank – sexually and emotionally – and that means it is not for everyone.

But, the film is also a remarkable merger of director and actors, so much so that the top prize at Cannes was awarded (for the first time) to director Abdellatif Kechiche and to actors Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma).

Over the course of six or seven years, we watch Adèle transform from a French high school student who likes to read and wants to be a teacher into a young woman who has grappled with her sexuality, fallen in love, and suffered a heartbreak that marks her transition into independent adulthood.

With a running time of three hours, the film covers a lot of ground without ever striking a false note. Despite one particularly graphic (and protracted) sex scene, the film is extraordinarily nuanced and mostly focuses on small moments, authentic moments that don’t require words.

I don’t remember so many closeups – and such revelatory ones – since Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. I’m not joking. There were several times when I recollected mental images of the earlier French film (1928) while watching this film.

It would require watching the Dreyer film again to be sure, but I believe some similarity in facial shape between Maria Falconetti (Joan) and Léa Seydoux (Adèle’s lover Emma) along with the effective and loving use of closeups sparks the comparison.

At any rate, my favorite sequence (or at least the one I keep thinking about the most) in Blue Is The Warmest Color is a dinner party where Adèle makes the food, serves the food, and meets Emma’s friends, all better educated, wealthier, and more ambitious than Adèle.

This is an amazing sequence for its poignancy, including a scene with Adèle cleaning up dishes then talking with Emma in bed about her own ambitions, a sequence that says everything that needs to be revealed about the fault lines in their relationship.

The film is a visual and emotional triumph. Like I said: wow.

Blue Is The Warmest Color

TREME Back For Five Episodes

November 22, 2013

Episode for episode, I believe The Wire is the best television series ever produced. David Simon sets the series in Baltimore and adds terrific characters and engaging storylines alongside a sophisticated analysis of the major institutions that influence daily life in the city.

It’s not hard for me to convince people that The Wire is a brilliant series, but I find that fewer people feel the same way about Treme, a series co-created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer and set in New Orleans post-Katrina.

As fans of The Wire know, stories from this creative team are complex, intermingled, and rich with promise. The same is true of of Treme, which is about to launch an abbreviated, final season on HBO next month.

Listen to what I had to say about the series today on Triad Arts Weekend (scroll down for a link to the segment):

Watch the series. Maybe you’ll love Treme as much as I do!