Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Five things. #thesick

1. I've been sick since the new year. It's been, like, a big heavy gloomy visitor sitting on my head. Picture that, if you will. Here are things I have missed: working out with my daughter. Working out, period. The flow of new year energy into new good habits (or at least that's how I imagine it would have been, had I not been sick). Cooking actual food instead of foraging for edibles. A jazz concert. Movies out. Back to school meetings (you decide if that was a plus or a minus). On the other hand, I have had some really serious naps. Naps galore. It's as if my body basically put its foot down (picture that if you will) and said: listen here you have not had enough sleep for a decade and I am putting my foot down, in a manner of speaking, and you are slowing doing right here and now and take that nap dammit fore I smite thee with a cough! and sick sneezing and all manner of congestion! And lo, it was so.

2. Things we've done while we were sick (of course, in the way of the unjust universe, the historian caught a bit of the sick with me): watched Stranger Things. Watched The OA. And now we're watching Schitt's Creek. I have finished Patti Smith's The M Train and am now reading Tana French, The Trespasser. That's when I'm not falling asleep for a giant nap again.

3. Having watched The OA and thus having been trapped into its weird and compelling story world, there was one whole day when I woke up, feeling I had dreamed The OA  dreams, and my day was thus The OA inflected. This was after we had finished The OA, so I would have had to start watching it over again. Which I might do, honestly.

4. Things that are hard to do when you're this sick: make a plan. Cook. Revise a poem. Write a syllabus. Get out of bed. Call a congressman or senator. Move from room to room without finding a place to lie down. I am not joking, America: this illness has been epic.

5. Today I put on my fox sweater and went to class to teach for the first time. I croaked out the key activities of the course and my enthusiasm for the course and how much I love teaching and so forth. I demonstrated key features of the Canvas site. I memorized their names. Then I went back to my office, fetched my coat and keys, and drove home. And took a three hour nap.

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

2016, the year in movies.

Here it is, the list of movies I saw in 2016. They are out of order, because I had to assemble this list through research and memory and correction and more memory. I have starred the movies I thought were worthwhile. I am not sorry I saw any of these movies. Your mileage may vary, probably because you have more demanding and exacting critical faculties than I do.

We saw fewer movies this year than we have in the past, partly because it has been a crazy year. I am committed to more movies in 2017, however, because more movies makes things better. I stand by this.


The list:


How to Be Single: This is not an auspicious beginning to the list, and it might actually be the first 2016 movie I saw in 2016 (I saw some 2015 movies that were released very late in that year early on in 2016 as well--are you keeping up with all the year-slinging I'm doing?) Anyway: I'm not quite sure why I saw this except that it appeared to be acceptable (see: low standards) and possibly amusing. Dakota Johnson plays the woman who needs to learn to be single after an unceremonious breakup. Her mentor is Rebel Wilson. Hijinks ensue. I will not recommend this movie to you, but I do like Dakota Johnson, and Rebel Wilson. This is the kind of movie that makes you wonder why there are not more good comic roles for women. Why, movie makers of the world? Why?


Hail, Caesar!: This was one of my favorites of the year, in part because it's set in a 50s era Hollywood studio, with a big ensemble cast, and although there are big stars in it, lots of actors and actresses get good bits in it, including Tilda Swinton playing two gossip-columnist sisters, George Clooney as a lunk-headed actor, Scarlett Johanssen as a mermaid-tail-wearing starlet, Alden Ehrenreich as a cowboy star who needs to transition to drawing room comedy, Ralph Fiennes as an extremely refined director of said comedies, and more. I will never forget the amazing song and dance number featuring Channing Tatum, "No Dames." And Josh Brolin crushes it as per usual, as the studio fixer. Some of my people find this a lesser effort by the Coens, but I don't even think that matters. It's effervescent and delightful and full of smarts as well.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: I wanted more from this film, in which Tina Fey plays a journalist on assignment in Afghanistan. The idea is, I think, to show something about the American misadventure in Afghanistan, the situation of women there, the situation of American female journalists vis a vis male journalists, etc. There was some sharp analysis and I always like Tina Fey, but in the end it felt weighted too much on the 'trials of the American woman' side of things--a side I am sympathetic to, of course--and making apologetic gestures toward the 'war is hell' side. Not successful, sorry to say.

Zootopia: I was lucky enough to see this movie twice, once with one set of grandchildren and once with another set of grandchildren, and each time I enjoyed it immensely. Jason Bateman is a treasure, here as the voice of a fox (foxes are the best). A story about the social compact and the tendency to fear the other. My son feels that the film's logic falls short when it comes to the predators who live in Zootopia. 'What do they eat? No, I'm serious!' This is a good question. However, I am leaving it alone, because the pleasures of this film are many--the DMV in Zootopia, for instance, is staffed by sloths. 

Everybody Wants Some!!: We had an argument about this film the other night. My son and son-in-law thought it was limp and forgettable. My daughter and I enjoyed it immensely. 'It's like an updated Dazed and Confused," I said, since Richard Linklater directed both films. 'There's no way it is anywhere NEAR as good as Dazed and Confused," said my son. I think that's possibly a fair point. However: I found this film lovely and enjoyable, loose and made to please. That's not nothing, in these dark times.

The Boss: Yes, yes, everyone made fun of me because I saw this movie. Tough darts, farmers. I saw it alone because (a) I love Melissa McCarthy and (b) I really, really love Kristen Bell, and (c) I'm not going to inflict this sort of thing on unwilling others. This is not a movie for the ages, it hardly needs saying. But it made me laugh and Kristen Bell gets a nice guy at the end, and Melissa McCarthy shapes up as a human being by getting in touch with her feelings and, oh well, I can't defend it. It was the movie product I needed to get by, and I got by, the end. I'm not starring it, I hope you can see that I'm trying to be honest.

Keanu: I watched this film with my son whilst he was recovering from a surgical procedure. It was on Netflix. It stars Key & Peele. It made me laugh a lot of the time, and also there were some stupid stretches. The basic premise is that these two middle class men get balled up somehow in a drug lord's enterprises, all to rescue a tiny kitten that has been stolen. Hijinks ensue, obviously. Because it's a drug lord, the gunplay is fairly extensive. Only you know whether this will amuse or exhaust you. I was about fifty-fifty.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping: We saw this film at a dollar movie in the summertime, a period of recovery and difficulty, and becaus it was pretty freaking amusing, it was perfect. It's a mockumentary about a pop star who becomes a solo act, extracting himself from the boy group that grounded him. The pop star is Andy Samberg. The solo act is full of hilarious (for the most part) excesses, and the songs are pretty funny. Afterwards we had pizza. I regard this as a successful date, the movie being imperfect as most comedies are, but with lots of laughs in it, thus meeting the standard for comedies (Standard One: A Comedy Must Make You Laugh). Good enough.

The Secret Life of Pets: OR, the time grandma took the kids, just the kids, not their mom, to the movies. It is an epic tale, that involves popcorn and the theater with the recliner seats and (in the actual movie plot) the adoption of a dog, which upsets the dog who happened to be there first, so the first dog runs away and everything goes to hell until all the animals in the apartment building unite to find the runaway dog and phew. There is a gang of alley cats and other street animals that complicate things. Anyway: this day of going to the movies with grandma will live on in legend and lore despite, or because of, the movie, who cares? It was the best.

Ghostbusters: Let me say that I straight up loved this movie. I saw it twice, then again over the holidays with my son. I love that it was a movie about friendship, it was a movie about loyalty, it was a movie that starred four fantastic female characters, and their arsenal of ghost busting weapons. Also a crazy lab and some excellent dancing. I love the original for sure, but I'll be proud to watch both with my grandkids. 

A Hologram for the King: This was a not bad at all movie that I enjoyed a lot. Stars Tom Hanks as a guy who is selling--literally--a hologram teleconferencing system to the Saudi government. He and his team are taken out to a city being built in a remote area--evidently a version of King Abdullah Economic City--and then they wait. And wait, and wait, and wait for a representative of the government to show up. He also meets a woman, and a tentative romance ensues. It's directed by Tom Tykwer, of Run Lola Run, which is the main reason I thought this could be good. It is good, if a bit amble-y.

Jason Bourne: I hoped and planned and hoped and planned to see this movie from the moment it was released, all summering. It became, for probably no good reason, the emblem of 'summer action movie' for me. No one wanted to see it with me, or they'd already seen it. In the end, I saw it by myself. It fit rather precisely the 'summer action movie' criteria. It was sturdy, and pleasurable in its sturdiness, except for an absurd vehicular chase scene near the very end, which ended in the two antagonists fighting in hand to hand combat anyway. Jeez, guys, just save yourself the trouble. I have a policy--no movies where all manner of shit gets blown up, only to have the hero walk away, the background lurid with sheets of flame, while a power ballad plays. Subtract the power ballad and the sheets of flame, and that was the end of this movie. That's my takeaway, sorry Jason B.

The Light Between Oceans: Big sobs. Baby lost at sea, found by miserable isolated couple who live on an island, who take it as their own, and then havoc ensues because the birth mother is still alive and grief-stricken. It's beautifully shot and well acted, handsomely designed, etc. It's an emotional story, very sad, but I felt removed from it, in part because the character of the slightly unhinged wife, the lonely one on the island, was both sort of appalling and also, probably, a little too close for comfort. This is a very old-fashioned story, told very straightforwardly. I didn't love it, but it was good.

Sully: I know others might disagree with me, but I thought this was solid. Solid performances, compelling narrative. It got a little bit expository near the end, and also didactic. But the procedural elements of it--how people arrive at their judgments, how we interpret data to make a coherent element--that was fascinating to me, and so I valued this film.

The Magnificent Seven: Denzel Washington on a horse is the main reason to see this. Plus Ethan Hawke as a morally unsteady sharpshooter. Also Chris Pratt. Fine, I admit the tipping point for me in seeing this film was a lordly and enormous Vincent D'Onofrio, one of the seven, who is splendid beyond measure. Peter Sarsgaard plays a villain suffused with ennui, because, you know, imposing your will on the land and the people so that you can wreak profit is so exhausting. The ending was way too bullet-ridden, but till then I was pretty happy with this film.

Arrival: This was quite wonderful, I thought. An alien visitation to earth, in the form of giant pods hovering in the sky at several locations all over the world, throws everything on earth into chaos. There are sounds, and intelligence officials think they might be language, a message. So they go to fetch a linguist, who is Amy Adams. All the thinking and processing that is represented in the film is one of the wonderful things about it. Adams gives a beautiful performance--radiant with emotion and intelligence. The way the aliens themselves are depicted is also wonderful, and their visual communication. The logic of the film's endgame would bear rewatching--I don't know, maybe it's a little hokey. The most powerful and lingering effects of the film for me were its searching energies, the desire of its protagonist to communicate over the most difficult barriers.  

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find them: I saw this twice, once with my son in a Massachusetts theater, once with the historian, who wanted to see it to be able to discuss it with grandsons. Some people have suggested that it was basically a world-building exercise, with a not fully compelling story of its own, preparatory to future installments. I can see that. Yet I found myself enjoying the world-building, enjoying it greatly, and the four central characters--Newt Scamander himself; a scapegrace American wizarding official former aurora Tina; her sister Queenie; and a non-mag--that's Muggle to you--baker named Jacob--were completely delightful to me. Of course the wizarding world is in turmoil over what its relationship to the non magical world should be, and that's the source of the plot's energy--that, and a bunch of magical creatures who escape Newt's enchanted valise. Ezra Miller plays a rather heartbreaking magical youth. I really liked this film--you will know yourself whether it's your cup of tea, I'm sure.

The Edge of Seventeen: I wish movies like this were always in theaters--character driven, acted with verve and wit, well written, domestic comedy dramas, starring Hailey Steinfeld. I'm serious--I might want to specifically require Ms. Steinfeld, because she was wonderful in this--spiteful, smart, funny. But everyone is great in this film, and that's the joy of it, that and the writing, which gives them all wonderful things to say and do. Special shout out to Blake Jenner, who, in this film and in Everybody Wants Some!!, beautifully impersonates feckless but benign young manhood.

Sing Street: I saw this movie at least four times in the theater, possibly five, and another time on DVD when we were in Scotland. That's because it is absolutely wonderful and impossible to entirely capture. I recognized precisely one actor in it, Aiden Gillen, who plays the father of a falling-apart Irish family. Everyone else was entirely unknown to me, which made what came of the movie all the more delightful. The youngest son, Conor, of the falling-apart family decides to form a band to impress a girl, and under the tutelage of his brother and in partnership with his bunny- (the rabbit) loving mate, writes songs that cover a spectrum of 80s style pop. The songs get progressively more wonderful and there's an undecidability in the performances--is the band as good as it thinks it is becoming, or is this filtered through Conor's longing to have a way to make a mark in the world? It. Is. So. Good. If I could see it in a theater again right now, I would rush to do so. 

Certain Women: Another of Kelly Reichardt's taciturn masterpieces. (See: Wendy and Lucy.) Set in Montana, this one has three very loosely interwoven stories, each featuring an independent and difficult woman. My favorite was the one featuring Kristen Stewart, playing a new lawyer who signs up to do community service, presentations on educational law to a small cohort of teachers in a far away town. She meets a lonely farmhand who happens into the first presentation, a young woman who becomes smitten with Stewart. It's all done with such delicacy and beauty. The farmhand, played by (to me) unknown Lily Gladstone, is indelible. This movie is deliberate--some would say slow--but I loved it.

Moonlight: I saw this film twice--once with the historian at the SLFS, once with my son back in Amherst at the Amherst Cinema. Each time it was revelatory. Three actors play the same character--once as a grade schooler, once as a high schooler, once as a grown but still young man. The boy's circumstances are dire, and he suffers, particularly in the middle section, at the hands of bullying peers. It's a film about identity and naming and friendship. It is surpassingly beautiful. There are scenes in it that I will never forget, simply because of their beauty, which matches the subtle and humane representation of emotion. One of my all time favorites, and certainly one of the very best this year.

Hell or High Water: This was my choice for a birthday movie, and let me say, it was everything I hoped it would be and more. A, Jeff Bridges. Second of all, caper/heist movie with a (more or less) morally serious point. D, Chris Pine and Ben Foster as brother bank robbers. It was un-flashy and solid, so not, for instance, No Country for Old Men--not brilliant like that, but good. Really good, and totally worth your time. If there were one movie, at any given time, that met these criteria--Jeff Bridges, caper/heist, variable other up and comers, solid, good--I would be ecstatic. 

Finding Dory: Just lovely. Beautiful animation and a moving story. 

Love & Friendship: How come I never thought of Whit Stillman, assiduous documenter of the mores of a certain, possibly slightly fictitious, class, as a Jane Austen adaptor? Well, here it is, and it's quite wonderful. Kate Beckinsale plays a grasping widow, Lady Susan, who seeks a husband for herself, and, if she can manage it, her daughter. It is effervescent and sharp and very funny. Chloe Sevigny plays one of Lady Susan's confidantes and is perfect as well. 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople: We saw three movies about boys right in a row, all of them quite wonderful. This was one of them. Set in New Zealand, it focuses on a boy who has been identified as a delinquent (abandoned by his mother), Ricky Baker, who is placed in a foster home, where he thrives until the maternal figure dies, leaving him with a curmudgeonly Hector who wants only to be left alone. They go into the bush and a manhunt ensues. It's grittier than you'd think, but also charming, and not in a lightweight kind of way. I loved it.

Little Men: Another of the boy trifecta, an excellent, quietly observed film about two boys who become friends, even as their parents struggle to resolve a consequential conflict. Everyone is excellent, but especially Pauline Garcia (of Gloria) and Greg Kinnear, one of the boys' fathers. Poignant, without a hint of overreaching.

Morris from America: The third of the boy trifecta, this was probably my favorite. Morris lives with his father in Heidelberg, where the dad, played by Craig Robinson, is coaching a soccer team for a European club. The mother has died. Morris is an adolescent, so he and his father struggle to communicate, leaving the boy sometimes to fend for himself emotionally. He wants to be a rapper, meets a beautiful German girl who finds him exotic (he is black), gets a shot at rapping at a club, and in general does the things that boys do in coming of age films--break rules, scare their parents, keep things to themselves. What makes this film beautiful is the attention to its details of environment and character, and a truly beautiful performance by Robinson as the father. In a just world, this role would be a total game changer for him.

April and the Extraordinary World: Animated *and* sci-fi/steampunk *and* French. The world is running on coal power--so it's an alternative history of science, also--and scientists are disappearing and the world is on the verge of war, etc. The plot is too complicated to summarize, in my opinion. In other news, I may be sick right now. Nonetheless! This was worth seeing and enjoyable and certainly not dumb--I hope my adjectives give you a sense of whether it's up your alley or not.

Queen of Katwe: This film might seem to have been built entirely of cliches: a poor child in a poor part of a big city in an African nation struggles, then learns to read and to play chess and in turn makes a better life for herself and her family. Except it lives and breathes in the details--in the barely-a-shelter in which the family first makes its home, in the hairs' breadth between making it and not that is their economic circumstance, in the matter of fact decision that's barely even a decision about who gets educated and who does not. All these details make a vivid world for the characters--who portray a version of a true story--to live in and to bloom into view. Phiona, the main character, the girl who learns chess, is a wonderful character, but so is her mother, played by Lupita Nyong'o, and her teacher, played by David Oyelowo. I loved that this world was barely peopled by whites. I saw this movie twice and I stand by it.

A Bigger Splash: I looked forward to this movie so much: Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Matthias Schoenaerts, Dakota Johnson, in a little intrigue menage a quatre, set on an Italian island. Swinton plays a rock star, as is clearly only appropriate, and Schoenaerts is her boyfriend. Fiennes shows up with Johnson--he is her ex, and Johnson is his daughter. Everything gets twisty and emotionally complicated from here. I loved it, even though I'm not quite sure what it added up to, partly because of the earthy, European decadence of it all. It was like a delicious treat with a bitter element in it. The director also made I Am Love with Swinton a few years ago. 

Loving: Directed by Jeff Nichols, who has fast become one of my favorite directors. He plays it entirely straight here, which works perfectly, since his strategy is to emphasize the ordinary lives of Mildred and Richard Loving, and the fact that what they want is also ordinary: to raise their children where they want to, and to be with each other. The movie has a deliberate pace, and I think it works perfectly. The two lead performances, by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Nega, are things of beauty. 

Born to be Blue: Based loosely on the life of Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter and singer. There are some controversies about parts of the story that are simply made up, and bear no relation to Baker's biography. Evidently, the director and writer did this deliberately, calling the film 'semi-factual, semi fictional.' What works best in the film is Ethan Hawke's performance, which is beautiful and improvisatory. That and the music, which is, as ever, ineffable.  

Midnight Special: A Jeff Nichols film. It is fantastic until, maybe, the end, but maybe that ending is okay. You'll have to decide for yourself.  The parents of a child who has telekinetic powers are collaborating with a friend to spirit the child away from a religious cult, and the cult wants the kid back. That's the backbone of the plot, and the movie is about, I think, love and the desire for transcendence, with a dark and a light-filled version of each, and both are scary and imperiled. Starring the incredible, ineffable Michael Shannon, who is a treasure and also is maybe my movie star boyfriend, shh don't tell. Sam Shepard as the creepy cult daddy. Superb. This was one of the highlights of my year.

Maggie’s Plan: In Maggie's Plan, Ethan Hawke plays the part you'd have predicted he'd be playing forever ago, when he was young and insufferable. I mean that in a good way. I find that nearly always these days, Ethan Hawke is a pleasure as an actor. Maybe he's embraced his general insufferability and now has made it part of his actorly toolkit. All I'm saying is, he is great in this, he was great in The Magnificent Seven, and really really good in Born to be Blue. Having dispensed with that: Ethan Hawke is not even the main thing in this movie. He is the man who is husband to a sexy European economist, played delightfully by Julianne Moore; he becomes Greta Gerwig's husband and they have a child together. After awhile, Greta decides that Ethan--a ficto-critical anthropologist, and yes, that is really a thing--is not in love with her and she tries to set him and Julianne back on the path to love. It is hilarious and a little bit like a Midsummer Night's Dream, and I loved this movie a lot. I saw it twice--once with my oldest best friend in NoCal, once with the historian. I would see it again, and that's the truth. Special note: Julianne Moore wears the most fabulous collection of skins and pelts that it can't even be adequately described. She is magnificent.

Anomalisa: This film was released in 2015 but I saw it in 2016. It is a stop motion animated sad comedy. It might be hard to reckon that a movie featuring puppets having sex would have anything serious to say, but it does. It's a tricky one, but it's also literally like no other thing I have ever seen. Directed and written by Charlie Kaufman. 

⭑The Hateful Eight: Another film released late in 2015 that I saw in 2016. It's maybe two thirds of a pretty great Tarantino film, which I think by now should explain everything. It's gorgeous cinematically, and features super talky performances by some of Tarantino's favorites--Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen--and Kurt Russell, Walton Goggins (who was basically born to do this), Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Bruce Dern. Great performances to a person. It's a fantasia about race and violence and dominance. I suppose that, by now, I ought to be more than agnostic on the question of whether Tarantino's style and method of inquiry add up to anything. I turned to my son, whom I saw this film with, when the gore launched full force. He shrugged, which I took to mean, "What'd you expect?" and he was right. 

Miles Ahead: Don Cheadle in a superb performance as Miles Davis. Evidently, the addition of the Ewan McGregor character was prerequisite to getting the film made--McGregor plays a journalist (fictional) who wants to write about Davis during a period in the 1970s when he wasn't recording or performing much, if at all.  The news, as you might predict, is Cheadle's performance. It's gorgeous and nuanced and scary and transcendent. Music's not bad either.

Hello my name is Doris: This is a film with many charms, including a really wonderful performance by Sally Fields as Doris, a shy woman who falls for a much younger co-worker--Max Greenfield, another of the charms of this film (very cute!). Tyne Daly plays Doris's good friend Roz. I love movies where friendship is a crucial element for how people live their lives. This film is not a big deal, but it is good, solid, funny, and sweet, and worth seeing.

Intervention: This is kind of like The Big Chill, in that it's a big ensemble movie where long-time friends get together for a long weekend, in this case, in order to confront their unhappily married friends and tell them to split up for the sake of their happiness. Not everyone is on board, though. Melanie Lynskey gives a vivid performance as the chief instigator of the titular intervention. It never feels like enough is at stake in this film for it to matter, or for a viewer to remember. 

The Mermaid: Totally odd eco-sic-fi-fantasy-romance from China. A mermaid assassin is sent to kill a mega-businessman, because his company is destroying mermaid habitat with their use of sonar. Instead, though, they fall in love. Terrible complications and intrigue. In the end, the sonar gets turned off and there's a weird but happy ending. I'm assuming that there's an audience for this film. Well, actually, I went to it, so.

La la land: I found this film perfectly delightful and will probably go see it again. I've heard people suggest that maybe it's too trivial for these times, and other critiques along those lines. I can appreciate that. What I loved in this film was the sense that dancing and singing could just be a part of life--I guess in a way that's the inherent possibility of a musical. The dancing in particular I loved--it seemed to arise from the natural style of movement of the leads, both of whom are excellent. Anyway, I loved it, it's one of my favorites of the year.

Nocturnal Animals: I didn't love the ending of this, but I loved pretty much everything else about it--its formal qualities, the look, the great beauty of the style. I thought the two male leads--Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Shannon--were pretty much superb, and Aaron Taylor Johnson made a truly scary bad guy (the actor I thought of as too pretty in Anna Karenina a few years ago--pretty impressive here). I loved the story within the story especially. This isn't a perfect film, although it has a perfect sheen--I felt the Amy Adams character was too lax a construction, too passive--but it was worthwhile and engrossing. 

Moana: We got to see this with kids and grandkids the day after Christmas and man, did I ever love it. Moana is a chief who has to figure out why things are going wrong on her island. Her dad is very firm on the point that no one should voyage beyond the reef, but beyond the reef is where the solution to the problems apparently lies. She finds the demigod Maui, and after some chicanery, they team up to restore the heart to the mother (you'll just have to see the movie--it's some mythological business), which turns everything around. Some beautiful songs and an inspiring female character. I would happily watch this with grandchildren again and again.

Rogue One: This was an epic cinematic event for us, because the historian decided that he wanted to see it so he could talk to grandchildren about it. I thought this film was interesting within the Star Wars universe--its war was more like a Star Wars Meets Saving Private Ryan, the war being fought as a land war. More brutal and prolonged, less aerial, less full of daring dives and swoops. Even so, the band of soldiers was moving to me, in particular Donny Yen as a blind monk and Chiang Wen as his friend. But really, they were all very good. I loved K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, mordant and sarcastic--my favorite droid ever, I think. Afterward, the historian noted that this sort of film is really 'not his thing,' but we went out afterward with said grandchildren and ate Greek food and discussed the film, and that really is his thing, big time.

Manchester by the Sea: I thought this was beautiful and heartbreaking. Casey Affleck, of course, gives a great performance as Lee, the broken man called upon after his brother's death to be his nephew's guardian. But one performance was, I thought, nearly as crucial, and that was Kyle Chandler's, as the older brother. We see him only in flashbacks, but the flashbacks are represented as seamless with the present--the past is as vivid, torturously so, for Lee, as the present, and perhaps more so. The film is naturalistic, raw, suffused with the necessity and power of the ordinary. I loved this film.

Sing: Like American Idol, but in Zootopia. This movie so exceeded my hopes for it--it was funny and smart and full of heart. Saw it with children and grandchildren. I'll be glad to see it again, in a heartbeat.

Dr. Strange: I would never have seen this film if my son hadn't been in town--we snagged a late show and I'm so glad we did. I enjoyed it tremendously--it's trippy and philosophical and it has Tilda Swinton as an ancient sorceror/mystic. Benedict Cumberbatch speaks in a grating American accent, which, I think, suits his grating, narcissistic character. He comes around, though, at least a little bit, saves the world, etc. Just FYI, it turns out that the world can be turned into an Escher puzzle when the bad sorcerers are in town, so watch out for that. 

City of Gold: This documentary about the food writer and critic Jonathan Gold was wonderful and moving. The film makes the case that writing about food is, essentially, writing about culture itself; that eating the foods in cafes and strip mall restaurants all over the Los Angeles valley is, in essence, to take in the fantastic diversity of its cultures and peoples who live there. You get a sense of how a narrow focus--food and restaurants--gives one the opportunity for a glory of a perspective. 

Captain Fantastic: A film about certainty and doubt in the practice of parenting. Or maybe it's a film about how people should live their lives. But maybe the most important thing is that it's a story of one family, where the parents have decided to remove the family from mass culture, living on the side of a mountain where the kids learn by reading and by discourse with their dad, and also learn survival skills, like killing and dressing game. The mother is absent because she's in a facility for a mental illness--news comes that she has died. From there, the family goes back into society to deal with a funeral, the mother's conservative family, and all manner of repercussions. I thought the film was beautiful and thought provoking and, of course, heartbreaking--as is, you know, raising a family, no matter where you do it.

LATE ADDITIONS:

Mad Max Fury Road: Another 2015 movie I saw in 2016. I forgot that I totally saw this this summer when my youngest son was here and basically bullied me into it. Wow, so much better than I thought--which is to say, I thought it would probably have redeeming parts but too much violence, but the whole of it, spectacle and noise and all, added up to so much more. I loved this movie. Grannies with rifles, Charlize Theron as Furiosa, Tom Hardy as Max, Nicholas Hoult as Nux--so great.

The Dressmaker: We saw this slightly hot mess in the early fall and quite loved it. It was all the movies rolled into one: a revenge drama, a romance, a comedy, a melodrama, all held together by two vivid performances from Kate Winslet, who plays the dressmaker of the title, and Judy Davis as her mother. Liam Hemsworth plays a big handsome fellow so convincingly, it's almost as if he were a big handsome...oh, right. Hugo Weaving has a good part as the cross-dressing constable.

Deaf Jam: This movie was part of the ReelAbilities Film Festival that was sponsored by the CWC this year. This was a great documentary, about Aneta, a teen who is deaf, who learns about ASL poetry, who then enters the slam poetry scene, partnering up with a Palestinian spoken word poet who is hearing. How they figure out the meshing of their two styles into a new kind of performance is mesmerizing and galvanizing. So glad I saw this! 

Carol: Another 2015-er I saw in 2016. I wanted to but did not love this film. I think the director, Todd Haynes, is amazing, and I truly adored Far from Heaven. This felt more decorous than passionate to me, despite the heaving of bosoms. The clothes are exquisite. 

Movies I missed, or that I still want to see: 

Jackie
Louder than bombs
Chevalier
The Lobster
Embrace of the Serpent
Paterson
The Fits
Elle
Miss Sloane
Demon
Other People
Don’t Think Twice
The Nice Guys
American Honey
20th Century Women
13th
Fences
Hidden Figures
Silence
Toni Erdmann
Julieta

Tell me: what were your favorite movies this year? 

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Seven theses on time travel.

1.

I was looking for a book at The King's English bookshop--The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood--by James Gleick. I wanted to give it as a gift. Anne H. The Great helped me--she looked it up, although it wasn't on the shelves. She told me they could order it, and then mentioned that Gleick had a new book out as well--on time travel.

"Time travel?" I said. Yep, time travel:
Nowadays we voyage through time so easily and so well, in our dreams and in our art. Time travel feels like an ancient tradition, rooted in old mythologies, old as gods and dragons. It isn’t. Though the ancients imagined immortality and rebirth and lands of the dead time machines were beyond their ken. Time travel is a fantasy of the modern era. When Wells in his lamp-lit room imagined a time machine, he also invented a new mode of thought.
 Why not before? And why now?

2.

I was talking with my son about his dissertation project, as he planned and brainstormed the structure of this complex piece of research and writing. He's talking to a musician, who has played with everyone and is story-laden. This man, my son hypothesizes, offers a counter definition of what a musical education might look like.

How will he construct this narrative, which is, at least in part, clearly not his alone? Will he write with his co-investigator, and what might the with look like in this case? How will he organize the piece, when his method is critical narrative, and the co-investigator is twice his age, with what might be understood to be a surplus of story? What ideas could he use to frame each chapter.

"I'm actually thinking about time travel," he said, with a self-deprecating shrug.

3.

We have a group of grandsons who are wizard video makers: they make video essays about their obsessions, critical and speculative investigations into their favorite stories, stop motion animations, and sometimes just straight up narrative films. I was showing some of these films to another couple of grandsons, including one that was a self-defined lo fi time travel story. In this video, the time machine in question was a tricked out toaster, which took the traveler hurtling into unknown and uncontrollable future destinations, and just as disorientingly into the past.

I've lately been thinking about the holidays as a time machine, the hurtle-y, lurch-y kind, where you're taken back into a past of ancient battles with long ago laid down weapons, or into a future where nothing feels certain. Sort of like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, but more melancholy. Sometimes, even, this time machine takes me briefly into pasts that feel lovely, like the Christmas our three oldest all got bicycles and I tied ribbons around each crayon in an entire box, and hung them on the tree, and and we painted the living room the palest, glowiest shade of pink. Possibly, not all of these happened the same Christmas, but remembering all of it feels like a shadow box of happiness, one I can look into, but where I may not stay.

4.

This year, I found this recipe card, written out for my by my mother decades ago:
















It is my grandmother's recipe. I have made my own adaptations over the years--I use dried fruit instead of candied, for instance--but when I bake it in my own house, cut a slice and put it on a small plate, and take a bite, I feel like I am eating my own past.

5.

I think that longing for the past is a kind of sickness.

6.

That said, sometimes, when the sickness visits, there is nothing but to lie down with it, submit to it, until it passes.

7.

Last night, we saw fireworks in the sky. In the murky air, flashing flowers, their petals falling in bits of ephemeral fire. After midnight, we took the dog out for his last walk of the night. A neighbor, part of a big family that likes to gather in epic numbers for holidays, called to us from across the street. "Happy New Year, neighbor!" We returned the greeting and walked on.

Some of our neighbors have already taken down their holiday lights, including one house that I especially liked, because there were purple and pink lights in among the blue, red, and green. I was sorry to see them gone. I was kind of counting on them being up a little longer.

And now it's the first day of the new year, and so concludes this year's episode of the serialized narrative The Holidays: An Annual, along with the episode 2016, latest installment of The Years of Our Lives. Today, two sons are on their respective ways home, going in opposite directions. The sun is out. Maybe in a day or two it will snow, and the particulates in the air will come down with it.

I'm here, writing, in my chair. This moment, right now.

Why not before? And why now?

This moment, right now.


Friday, December 23, 2016

The airing of grievances.

Today, at the gym, I ran across this, whilst resting between chest press sets:

via @betches (on Instagram), via @instaseinfeld

























I thought: hey, FESTIVUS! Because I'm a Christmas celebrator, I rarely think of Festivus (for the rest of us). But I did think this: hey, I do have a few grievances. To wit:

1) I am not getting enough sleep, even though school is out. Oh, Bruiser, you magnificent aging beast, the very epitome of an old dog who cannot, will not learn new tricks, such as sleeping until seven.

2) Hey, after baking some babka before seven (the loaves had been rising slowly all night), I fell asleep until 10, what the hell. All the flex just flew out of my day.

(--chocolate babka, fyi:

this is one of the more attractive baked goods I have ever made,
if I do say so myself. Also, I believe that the first place I ever even
heard about babka was on Seinfeld. Also fyi: I wrote about the Seinfeld/
babka connection here.



















3) I drove in such a dreamy (/sleep-deprived? you be the judge) state that I missed my freeway exit once and had to drive through hella traffic, and almost missed a different exit, on my way to the gym. Yes, I gave myself a talking to, but that dreamy (/sleep-deprived?) state persisted.

4) Straight up Christmas melancholy. I basically doubled down on it by listening to Carrie & Lowell on my way to an appointment. Just straight up said, shoot the melancholy right into my ears to the universe.

5) Rider to Item #4: Children live so far away. If that is not a legitimate grievance, I don't know what is!

Still, I baked that babka. I ate a piece warm, and it was sublime. I restored myself a little with that morning nap. I had lunch with a friend, drove through the hella traffic to buy the very last groceries (tempting fate, right there) I'll need for Christmas. I worked out.

I finished my chest presses. I looked up at one of the giant TVs.  Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer are all together, Kramer yet again proving to be a guinea pig in excess, this time drinking several shots of Hennigan's scotch, so Elaine and Jerry can see if they can smell it on him. Jerry buzzes George up. Kramer lunges at him.

"HEY." he says, pulling George in close by the crook of the elbow. "I'm going to tell you what I think. I know you don't care what I think, but I'm going to tell you. I think you..." there's some dramatic pausing--"...are terrific."

I was never much of a Seinfeld fan, even though I watched it plenty, and laughed at it plenty. The fact is, this episode, with the scotch and the drinking and the declaration of feelings--I don't even know where it occurs in the overall Seinfeldian arc. I did find myself stitching it into my version of the Festivus celebratory practices--the airing of grievances, the feats of strength, the Festivus miracles. Fellow-feeling? Possibly a Festivus miracle.

Hey, you there: I'm going to tell you what I think. You might not even care what I think. But I'm going to tell you. I think you...are terrific. I hope you have some babka, or failing that, some other delicious baked good, and sweet dreams, and a nap, should one be necessary if a beloved dog wakes you before there's light.

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