The spring semester has ended (though I’m still teaching and taking a class) and summer approaches, which usually signifies, for me, the beginning of gorging on sun and books. However, this summer break, I’ve taken a different route, much to the chagrin of my brain and my tan, I’m sure. Lately, I’ve been hardcore tweaking on movies and TV series. While this binge has led me to neglect my reading and has, I believe, caused a mild case of ADD, I’ve been surprisingly satisfied – for the most part – with what I’ve been watching. So, I thought I’d take some time to share my recent experiences, tell you what’s on tap, and ask for any movie/TV show suggestions you might have to keep this addiction alive and well throughout the next two months.
Before you read on, please keep in mind the following: first, I am always a day late and a dollar short as far as pop culture is concerned; therefore, many of the movies listed here are not new, so don’t expect to be enlightened. Second, I’m not really a movie reviewer; I don’t speak the language. My basic solution to this problem is to take that which I am unfamiliar (the language of film) and discuss it in the ways in which I am familiar (the language of literature). So, while I can’t speak to great establishing shots or long takes, I can at least discuss themes and interesting characters. And, if I can’t do that, I’ll do what my students do when we talk about a text: simply tell you whether or not I liked it with no rationale whatsoever.
In no particular order, here we go:
Red State – In short, Kevin Smith abandons fart jokes and takes on the evangelical right-wing. We’ve seen Kevin Smith tackle organized religion previously in his 1999 movie Dogma, so I was a bit worried that this movie wouldn’t add anything new to his established conversation. Also, I was concerned that without the comedy crutches of bowel movements and blow jobs, Kevin Smith would be in over his head. But, I was surprised at how much I actually enjoyed this movie.
To my first point, the religious conversation in this movie is not necessarily new: Smith is still focusing on extremist Christian hypocrites, hell-bent (pun intended) on destroying anyone and anything antithetical to their vision. But, what sets this movie apart from Dogma is the tone. Dogma is preachy and sentimental, which in the end, makes you feel, in a weird sort of way, cleansed. When Alanis Morrisette appears as the quirky and childlike God, the viewer can’t help but get behind (reasonable) belief, especially belief that seems so innocent, so natural, and, well, so indie (or hipster, whichever you prefer). Red State, on the other hand, is preachy and scary and, thus, is the counter to Dogma. Belief is not a flower-crowned God doing headstands; instead, it is that which drives humans to the darkest parts of their nature.
To my second point, Smith did a fairly good job making a horror/thriller flick. He builds anxiety throughout the movie, much of it done through the actions of dialogue of Michael Parks, who plays the preacher/cult leader Abin Cooper. Cooper is so maniacal and myopic that he can deliver an articulate, inspiring sermon as his caged victims wail for their lives beside him on the church altar. He can murder without pause and then sit at his piano and sing a hymn virtually within the same breath. I won’t give away the ending, but the last scene of Parks really accentuates his madness in a funny, disturbing and Psycho-esq way.
Red State also has some interesting roles for its female cast members that contribute to the overall eeriness of the movie. Melissa Leo and Kerry Bishe, specifically, are significant parts of the action, which goes against the grain of the typical female role in a cult movie where women are typically being terrorized in some way, usually sexually. In fact, this might be the first time I’ve ever seen a cult leader not having sex with every female in his flock, and it might be this lack of cultish sexual domination and intimidation that allows these women to shine (darkly, in this case) a bit more.
Like most modern horror movies, Smith uses a lot of tropes from other classic horror/thriller movies, such as Psycho and Night of the Living Dead; and, as a horror fan, it’s always fun to spot those allusions. For someone making his first horror movie, it would be easy to latch onto those stock horror/thriller elements, but Kevin Smith puts his own touches on them, and he does just enough to keep Red State from being a cliché.
Oh, and John Goodman is in RS as well…for some, that alone makes the movie worth watching.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
George Washington and Pariah – I’m lumping these two together because I’m a big fan of coming of age stories, and these might be two of the best ones I’ve seen in recent memory. I gravitate toward coming of age stories because I believe that adolescence is the truest portrait of our human selves, no matter what age we are, with its constant conflicts of fears and hopes, dreams and dreams deferred, individuality and conformity, desire and ennui. And, the two main characters of these movies, George and Alike (pronounced ah-lee-kay — though I think the spelling ALIKE is pretty interesting in terms of what her movie’s about) respectively, while on the fringes of their respective environments (George has a physical ailment and Alike is a lesbian), capture these tensions beautifully. Additionally, both movies are character studies. There’s not a ton of plot in either one, so be prepared for a slow pace. Although both films deal with some heavy issues (poverty, race, sexuality, complex family and friendship dynamics), I cannot think of any word to describe these movies other than sweet. And, I don’t mean disgustingly, sticky sweet. I mean endearingly sweet. I mean sweet as in I was on the verge of tears consistently throughout both movies, not because anything particularly sad happens (though there are sad moments in each) but because the characters are so heartbreakingly honest and real that they just took my breath away.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars for both
X Men First Class – I was surprised by how much I liked this movie. I am not an action or superhero movie fan by nature, but I actually thought this movie was smart, visually stimulating, and entertaining. Plus, at this point, I could watch Michael Fassbender read the newspaper for two hours, so anything he’s in is a win for me.
X Men hooked me with the opening scene. My action/superhero movie schema is so limited that I think each one is going to begin like Star Wars in a galaxy far, far away; so when X Men opened with dark, gripping, and very realistic scene from Nazi-occupied Poland, I felt immediately grounded. As the movie progressed, it did not let up on this blurring of historical fiction and pure fantasy. Though we’re dealing with superheroes, super powers, and super villains, much of the central plot of the movie deals with Cold War issues and the Bay of Pigs, which, for someone like me who needs to keep at least one big toe firmly planted on Earth, help keep the movie from being over-the-top fantastical.
Storyline aside (because who can keep up, really?), I thought the movie also touched on a lot of important themes of identity and self-acceptance – especially with Jennifer Lawrence’s character Raven/Mystique and Nicholas Hoult’s character Hank McCoy/Beast – and self-reflection and maturation – with Michael Fassbender’s character Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. Like George Washington and Pariah, X Men could be seen as a coming of age story as well. Even non-superhero fans like me can get with that program.
Overall, I would say that this is a good superhero movie for people who don’t particularly like superhero movies.
Rating: 4 out 5 stars
Chernobyl Diaries – Speaking of the Russians, I wonder: Do the Russians make nearly as many movies about evil Americans as Americans do about evil Russians? I digress…
In any case, don’t see this movie. Good premise, eerie setting, subpar yet not loathsome characters, but massively poor execution. Not once did I feel the sense of dread or doom that I should have had watching a movie situated in such a bleak and isolated location. There is something to be said for the slow burn of the monster reveal (hell, we don’t see Bruce the shark in Jaws for the first hour of the movie), but there has to be…something. There has to be a tease that at least indicates what this monster could or might be. In Jaws, we know something is eating people in the water. We can only assume it’s a shark, but we don’t know for sure. In Chernobyl Diaries, we understand that something evil looms, but so many options are thrown at us in the first hour (a fish, a bear, wild dogs), that, after a while, we’re not even sure there’s an actual monster to be had. I was fed so many lines of bullshit that I started not to care who or what was out there.
And, the ending: even if unexpected, way too easy. Total and complete cop out.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Take Shelter – Junot Diaz once said to a crowd of students at Montgomery County Community College, “Being a man is exhausting,” and I often use this line to open my unit on masculinity with my composition students. We talk about the pressure men feel to meet the expectations put on them by our traditional definitions of manliness and the consequences of those pressures. We talk about stress, anger, and violence; we talk about male health issues, such as the increased risks of heart attacks, strokes, and brain aneurisms; and we talk about the statistical reality of men typically dying at younger ages than women. Take Shelter is a movie that addresses these pressures on men and the oftentimes maddening repercussions thereof.
Michael Shannon, as Curtis, is fantastic. He is at once a very traditional manly man – the breadwinner, the protector – and a vulnerable head case – replete with visions, nightmares, and almost constant paranoia. It is fair to say that his anxiety is a result of the pressure to be the ideal husband and father. Knowing that the fate of his family resides on his shoulders literally drives him nuts. However, Curtis’s insanity is not over the top. He does not become a monster, and there is never a point when we stop sympathizing with him, no matter how looney toons he gets. In fact, his insanity is so even-keeled that I found myself thinking that his paranoia and visions are true, while everyone else who can’t see what he sees is insane.
I also really liked Jessica Chastain, as Curtis’s wife Samantha. Her character in Take Shelter is similar to the role she played in Tree of Life: very soft, angelic, and almost other-worldly. In Take Shelter, she has more lines than she had in Tree of Life, which gives her more significance. She certainly doesn’t carry the movie, but she’s plays a good, supportive, and honest wife to Curtis, and, overall, I think she’s pretty damn strong in the face of potentially losing her husband to a mental breakdown.
And, the ending: interesting…definitely not a cop out.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Shame – Superhero, psychologist, sex addict, it matters not: Michael Fassbender is awesome. This movie is a tough one though, mainly because it puts you in a weird and creepy position as a viewer. If you say that you “like” a movie about sex addiction or sympathize with a character that has a sex addiction, what does that say about you as a person? This question is played out vicariously through what we think about Fassbender’s character, Brandon, who, indeed, has a sex addiction. Does the addiction say something larger about him as a person? Is it justified, in general, to equate a behavior with a person’s overall character?
I think a lot of people will watch this movie because there is a lot of sex, and there is a lot of full frontal nudity of both Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. However, I challenge those viewers to say that these views are arousing in any way. This movie is so complicated in its portrayal of sex and sexuality that it’s virtually impossible to be turned on by these characters or their explicit acts.
The last ten minutes of this movie reminded me a lot of the ending of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, mainly for its montage of lurid action that leaves you feeling slimy and sad.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
We Need to Talk About Kevin – In all fairness, I knew that I was going to be hyper-critical of this movie because I liked the book so much. I tried the best I could to look at it without comparing/contrasting it too much with the novel, but I found myself doing just that all the way through. I was really disappointed with this movie because it sacrificed so many of the larger and more important themes of the book – anxiety about and resentment toward motherhood and domestic life, for example – in favor of trying to make a dark and artsy film. And, I resented the film for that.
I also think that the movie sacrificed the storyline itself. I found myself thinking that had I not read the book first, I would have been confused, if not entirely lost, during this movie. This was a complaint I had about The Hunger Games as well. I know it’s hard to take a long book or a series and condense it into a 90-120 minute film, but without the development of the characters and their back stories, the entire groundwork is lost. For example, you don’t really get much in the way of Eva’s career before she gives birth to Kevin. It’s important to know that Eva – played excellently by Tilda Swinton – ran a successful business and traveled the world extensively because that ties in to a lot of her angst toward her life as mother and wife. It’s also lost that Franklin, her husband, is the complete opposite in terms of his allegiance to America, to the American dream, to tradition, and to the family. John C. Reilly plays a good, naïve, oafish Franklin, which is in line with the novel, but you don’t get much context for him from the movie, and that’s important because it plays into the way they raise their son, their views of their son’s behavior, and eventually to the downfall of their marriage. Also, the movie neglects a lot of scenes with Eva and Kevin at the juvenile detention facility that, in the book, reveals a lot about their relationship. In the movie, there are only two scenes in the detention center, one of which mother and son don’t speak at all, which says something about them in and of itself, but doesn’t quite paint the full picture that Lionel Shriver does with her novel .
There is a silver lining, though: I found myself a new (slightly younger) celebrity crush. Trust me when I say that the world would benefit from seeing way more of Ezra Miller (Kevin) in future; he’s a decent actor and one really good-looking kid.
Rating: 3 out 5 stars
So, what’s on tap? Here’s what I hope to be watching over the next few weeks:
1. I’m a bit skeptical about it, but I have to see Prometheus if for no other reason than to look at Michael Fassbender and Idris Elba for two hours. I’m trying not to be negative here, but I’m preparing myself for a movie that will be visually stunning but lacking substance, which is the complete opposite experience I have when I watch Alien (especially if you watch Alien now when the technology from 1979 looks so juvenile).
2. My interest in fairytales is a trail of breadcrumbs leading me right to the doors of Snow White and the Huntsman and Brave. I’m looking for a change of pace as far as these types of movies go, so I hope they can deliver.
3. I’m on the warpath to watch everything Michael Fassbender has ever been in, so coming soon in the Netflix queue is Hunger, which, like Shame, is also directed by Steve McQueen.
4. One of my favorite podcasts, Filmspotting, did a “top 5 losing my mind movies” list, which inspired me to add Repulsion, Shock Corridor, Vertigo, and Bug to my Netflix queue. I’ve tried to space them out, though, so that I don’t actually lose my mind.
5. I’ve also been adding new TV series into my life (Sherlock = awesome; The Killing = good enough to keep me interested), so continuing in that vein, coming up I’ll be watching season 1 of Boardwalk Empire (at the behest of some friends) and series 1 of Luther (at the behest of my loins, which want to see Idris Elba).
So, Readers, what are you watching right now? Feel free to post comments with your own movie/TV show suggestions.