Feb 042019
 

The world doesn’t need me to say anything about the Harry Potter books. In fact, when I mentioned to my brother that I was going to read them along with my twelve-year old niece who is right obsessed with them, he suggested I was probably the only person on the planet who hadn’t yet. When I told him I hadn’t seen the movies after the first two, I’m not sure he knew what to say and just told me the third was his favorite.

All of which is to say that I’m reading these books more-or-less fresh and without much to influence the experience other than ambient cultural knowledge. So what do I think?

This first book is definitely for children, which makes it a quick read, but the characters are well done and the tone genuinely happy. I laughed aloud more than once. So it’s good, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.

Feb 032019
 

Despite the guns the women are carrying, this is quiet science fiction and reminded me of Arrival. As in that other movie, the framing here is military and the threat of violence looms, but here as in Arrival, violence is framed as failure rather than as a challenge to be overcome with stronger, more effective violence. Understanding the Other is the goal and jumping to conclusions—from fear, from greed, from paranoia—is the real danger. Part of the film’s power is that I’m not sure the story ends badly: transformation is life, no? The future?

In terms of its use of locations and the integration between the narrative and place, the film reminded me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979): both films rely on ordinary but ruined landscapes that offer few signs of the fantastic yet are recast by the narrative as menacing. The resulting tension manifests as a deep sense of dread organized around a basic confusion: is the danger of the scene objectively there in the world or is it all in the characters’ heads? Now there is obviously real danger here—a crocodile with shark teeth, a bear with a woman’s voice, a snake thing crawling beneath a man’s skin— but overall “the Shimmer” is banal space with strange plants. Yet not since The Shining have I found topiary so horrifying.

The movie is beautiful—even those topiary—and it wears its aesthetic and narrative influences on its sleeve. Alien looms large, especially in the darkest moments of body horror, but the horror evoked by certain famous news photographs is clearly a reference as well.

Ultimately, the film was a surprise and evoked the same reaction as I watched the credits as Passengers: why did none of the marketing or reviews give me a clue as to how good this movie would be? And again, I found myself wondering if we’ve lost our ability to imagine science fiction or fantasy films that are not action-adventure movies?

More personally, I love seeing Jennifer Jason Leigh perform and Tessa Thompson is becoming one of my favorite stars. So this movie was a treat.

Jan 312019
 

An extraordinary collection. Leach’s voice is allegorical and ironic, knowing yet naive, more poetry than prose, and cagey.

Near the middle point in an essay called “God” we learn that the people’s words—not the animals’—are like stones, hard to swallow and heavy and they say “God” and “God” and ”God” and it is too much to bear. God’s words are outdoors. They are the bat, the frog, the animals, the woman walking among them in the night.

Leach speaks his language, ornamenting it with a glorious, exuberant English, and in full-throated peals, hymns praise for a world.

But that is not all. Pandemonium is here too and a night sky and so very very many of the fireflakes that tug at a mind or a soul, fueling caprices. And this great bear we see is made of stars. And the beast feeding on jellyfish clinging to the sand is a star. And you? “You be the moon.”

Do you want to be? Because you can be, if you want to be. Here in these essays.

Be the moon.

Jan 302019
 

When I watched Glenn Close win her Golden Globe in January, I learned that the film The Wife was adapted from a novel of the same name. Googling, I learned it was by Meg Wolitzer, the author of The Interestings and the editor of last year’s excellent Best American Short Stories. (The “excellent” isn’t a given in the short story series–or at least, what counts often doesn’t match my taste. Wolitzer’s matched mine closely.) 

I ordered the novel and, reading it, realized that I like what Wolitzer does: careful, serious development of characters within relationships defined by history, and all of this handled without affectation or self-importance. She writes novels, and I’m going to read more of them.

Jan 302019
 

This film began screening on the festival circuits and in cinemas around the same time as Call Me By Your Name. So perhaps inevitably, many people I knew took sides, arguing that one or the other was extraordinary and the other dishonest posturing. Now I love a heated movie debate over a second pint as much as the next guy, but this particular one annoyed me for two reasons.

First, there still aren’t enough smart movies about gay experiences, even today with all the progress of the past few decades. Yet, here, suddenly, are two great movies out at the same time, and rather than rejoicing and reveling, the conversation becomes a fight over which one “counts” and which one doesn’t, often based on something as ridiculous as whether we see dick or we don’t. (Yes, Merchant Ivory, as much as I love him, made himself a stooge for the wrong side of these dust-ups.) Now, again, don’t get me wrong. Arguing the relative merits of dick versus no-dick over a second pint can be fun, but when that pint is gone, I want everyone to come together to thank the cinema gods that we have both options beautifully projected on our screens and I want us to enjoy them both.

Second, too often, the debate seemed to ignore how different the two films’ stories are. Call Me by Your Name is a classic and moving story of coming out and first love. God’s Own Country is a movie about a young man—very much out to himself and seemingly out-ish to family and friends—finding love, unexpectedly, across lines of cultural and regional prejudice and then struggling to turn that love into a stable relationship. The man’s sexual habits, his unhappy family situation and his general immaturity all threaten to sabotage the budding relationship. The film’s deep beauty emerges from his honest confrontation of his shortcomings and genuine efforts to overcome them.

What I love about Call Me by Your Name is the nuanced portrait of the amorous freedoms of the green space, which I think of as a realm of magic and possibility evoked by countrysides and forests seemingly untouched by social systems consigned for a moment to an “elsewhere” hidden beneath the horizon.

What I love about God’s Own Country is its willingness to acknowledge the need for apologies, to imagine their intricate difficulties, and to trust in their power to heal. I watched its last fifteen minutes waiting over and over for the sad parting shot I expected it would use to skip out before the heavy work of making things right had to be confronted, but that shot never came, and the two men end their story together in a farmhouse trying to make a life from what they find there. The beauty of it left me overwhelmed, but—and I guess this is the final example of my point—that beauty takes nothing away from the equally beautiful but fundamentally different closing shot of Call Me by Your Name‘s Elio crying silently by the fire as his heart breaks for the first time.

…despite their posturing I’m guessing (hoping?) my friends understood that as well.

Jan 292019
 

A familiar classic that I watched on the fly the other night. It’s a Cold War paranoid fantasy perfect in both its conception and execution. This is not news.

What caught my attention throughout the film was—unexpectedly and disorientingly—Dana Wynter’s costumes, which are just great. She enters the movie in a beautiful sleeveless confection with a bodice that reminded me of tissue paper stuffed into a gift bag.

Why is she wearing this fancy affair mid-afternoon in this sleepy California town? But then she slips on the matching shrug jacket and everything makes sense. What had seemed like a provocation becomes a smart and snappy ensemble perfect for slipping into and out of this store and then that one. And there are so very many errands to run. Wynter however has the look of someone ready to tackle and to conquer her to-do list. With this much spunk, it’s no wonder Kevin McCarthy looks at her the way he does.

The least interesting of her dresses was a classic black number with gloves and a fur stole that she wore for the souper manqué in the second act. It’s beautiful but depressingly appropriate. Still, watching her walk away from a fresh martini to stare anxiously at a budding (haha) human form made me wish my sleepy Quebec town had a fancy restaurant so that the Beav and I could drop in for elegant nights out.

Scene from the 1956 movie Invasion of The Body Snatchers, starrring (L-R) King Donovan, Kevin McCarthy and Dana Wynter. Carolyn Jones is in the background. (Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Later Wynter wears a sweater tucked into a belted skirt, a look introduced to me by Olivia Newton-John singing “Summer Nights” in Grease. I fell in love with it then and have never recovered. Wynter considers this an outfit made for running from emotionless alien mobs. Excepting the heels and the hose, perhaps it is.

Wynter’s best outfit appears only briefly early on, and for reasons I cannot fathom, the Internet doesn’t care enough to have produced a single still of the scene. McCarthy has stayed the night and when he gets up Wynter is making breakfast in the kitchen. She cracks eggs at the stove for an omelette as they talk and is wearing a cowboy shirt tucked into high waisted jeans. It is pure butch play, casually done with cool disregard. The scene lasts only a minute but was the high point of my screening. If I can figure out how to pull a still from the iTunes movie I’ve purchased, I’ll post it. But for now, the outfit will remain undocumented. Alas.

Jan 222019
 

One of the most moving films I’ve seen in a long time. The narration—multimedia, impressionistic—was thrilling and the performances offered up by the youngest son and his father are just extraordinary.

On a personal level, I have near unbounded sympathy for young, lonely characters who, naively and without pretensions, live a rich imaginative life and are made to suffer for it. The final scene of the boy collecting his journals and drawings from the garbage and then walking off across the field broke my heart.

Jan 202019
 

What I didn’t know going into this movie was that it was a kind of docu-fiction: real people playing characters with different surnames who live the experiences the actors have lived themselves. It’s an interesting set-up: not, I think, because of grand epistemological implications but because it creates a context for non-actors to give extraordinary performances within a crafted narrative.

The star here, Brady Jandreau, resembles a very young Heath Ledger often enough for it to be unsettling yet he brings enough depth to his role to keep the resonance from obliterating him (as by all rights it should). This is a western, which means it’s a film about being a man in American culture, but the familiar generic iconography is held at bay. The landscapes are beautiful but seldom soar and seldom feel metaphorical. Brady is just a young man in the middle of nowhere with no money and few prospects, who’s had the one thing he loved and was good at, taken from him by bad luck. Now he’s got to figure out what to do.

I found two aspects of his story extremely moving. The first was the two scenes where we see Brady training horses: the first horse had never been ridden before and was terrified; the second had been badly trained and now bucked fought. In both cases, Brady’s attention to their expressions, his patience and his steady hand, look like love. Genuine, full-blown love. The care he shows these animals reveals that he is a good man. This is the ballast for the film.

The second set of moving scenes is of Brady working in the local pharmacy or grocery store. As he explains to an acquaintance, money wasn’t coming in so he took a job. This is what was available. Despite the situations thrown at him by people who see him as he works—for example, when he’s recognized by two boys who have watched him ride and view him as a hero—Brady’s reactions have little to do with pride. He’s working and seems to feel no embarrassment over the kind of work he does. Instead, his exchanges with other people at work, which I’d expected the film to frame as humiliations, serve as reminders of the work he loved which is no longer possible. The emotions at play are sadness and grief rather than shame or anger. The film’s realism is grounded in this choice of emotions.

All of which is to say that this film is beautiful and I enjoyed it a lot.

Jan 132019
 

One of the books in this series showed up in a “best of” list on Ars Technica and it looked interesting enough that I ordered the first in the series. It showed up recently but I’ve been busy and it sat on my desk untouched.

Then today, after a long six days of work with another starting up again tomorrow, I saw it and decided to give it a whirl. Ten pages in, I’d already laughed out loud hard enough to get choked and have to get some water.

The set-up is simple: Murderbot is shy and doesn’t like being around people because they get awkward and that makes him awkward and sorting through the layers just isn’t worth it because ultimately he doesn’t much care about their problems. He’s downloaded hundreds of hours of shows and he’d just like to watch them in peace. Unfortunately he’s got to go through the motions and do his job, otherwise someone’s going to figure out he’s hacked his governor module and is a free agent.

So these humans he’s with on this mission? They wind up in trouble on a faraway planet and they aren’t terrible and he kinda likes them. So he helps them survive the murderous plots of a rival survey group, and they in turn wind up helping him.

The whole thing was light funny and more-or-less perfect for a quick read on a lazy Sunday by the fire. On a more serious note, the few glimpses we have of the the mysterious larger context dominated by the Company and the rest of the economic and political powers gives plenty of hints that this is a story happening in the world that Google and Facebook built: a capitalistic panopticon become simply “the way things are.”