Archive for July 2012

Olympic-Sized Discrimination from Japan

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I'm not gonna beat around the bush. Japan's Olympic authorities booked their male football (soccer) team on business class on Japan Airlines, and sent Nadeshiko, the female team, to London on economy.

I could lead you around this story with pretty words and carefully disguised anger, but the facts speak pretty loudly for themselves:

Nadeshiko Japan won the World Cup last year, and are expected to win medals in the Olympic Games.

Nadeshiko's won lucrative advertising deals with top sports brands, which the male team has not.

Nadeshiko won the people's honour award from the Japanese government for giving hope and inspiration to the Japanese populous after widespread destruction caused by last year's natural disasters.

The male team fits none of those criteria: they've never won the World Cup, nor are they expected to come anywhere near the awards podium in London. There are no significant differences in size or height between the male and female players.

The only justification for this segregation is sexism, pure and simple. I've signed a petition created by Sohko Fujimoto and Reina Komiya, addressed to the Japanese Football Association and Japan Airlines. We can't change what's already happened, but we can sure as hell let them know that this is completely unacceptable. The petition takes about ten seconds to fill out.

I want to sign the petition.

 

Christopher Nolan's Anti-Nolan Masterpiece: Insomnia

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Christopher Nolan movies mean many things: angsty heroes with dead lovers, action scenes that whiz by so fast they leave you upside down, and plotlines that require devoted attention lest they become incomprehensible.

Enter Insomnia. There's a dynamic, interesting female lead (notably still alive!), a plot that owes more to careful characterization and mood-building than twists and turns, and most notably, a single action scene that isn't even part of the film's climax.

Nolan places us in the infinite sunshine of an Alaskan summer. I mention the setting because it means as much to the movie as the characters actions, weaving itself into every scene in surprising ways. Al Pacino's Will Dormer goes for days without sleep; is it because of the endless sunlight, or something else? Watch the way the sunshine breaks into particular scenes, even as he goes mad trying to block it out.

Hilary Swank's character, who starts out idealizing Dormer, quickly realizes something's amiss. She's patient in playing her hand, but you can see she's ready to at any given moment. Robin Williams plays the third in this triangle; he couches his murderous character with such a "man-next-door" sensibility that we're constantly forced to question whether he might actually be one of the good guys. Saying more would spoil the film.

Insomnia's a thriller that follows none of the traditional thriller beats; we know exactly who all the guilty parties are from the beginning of the film. What's more unusual is that they know as well. Circumstances force them all to dance around each other in perfect balance, electrons and protons, held apart by forces none could have foreseen. This dance provides more than enough tension to keep our interest. And so it happens that Nolan's most engaging movie is the one with the least action.

Have you guys seen it? What are your thoughts?

Goodbye, Mary Tamm, the Noblest Romana of them All

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2012, it seems, has a vendetta out for the actresses who played the most beloved Doctor Who companions of yesteryear. In the space of one year, fans have waved goodbye to Elizabeth Sladen, Caroline John, and now, heartbreakingly, Mary Tamm.

Oh, Romana. The only time the Doctor took one of his own kind on board, and she not only equalled him, but eventually defeated him in the saving-the-universe stakes. Mary Tamm brought us the first regeneration of Romana, fully regal and bitingly sarcastic, a Timelady arriving on the TARDIS by way of Downton Abbey.

Her first scene on the show remains one of the most perfect in the show's history, displaying the wit, the vibrance and excitement of finally having a companion who doesn't worship the Doctor, but actually kind of thinks he's a loser at first. At the end of the day, has anyone else called him on the fact that he's basically a dropout vagabond thief?

Mary Tamm left the show because the character changed; she became more of a typical "excellent question, doctor" companion by the time she left. But strangely enough, Lalla Ward chose to reference Tamm's performance in Romana II, and the writers returned Romana to what she was always meant to be; better than the Doctor. We owe Mary Tamm for providing a template that no companion has matched since. And it's worth noting that the Romana years (both Romanas) garnered the highest ratings in the show's history.

(skip to 5:18 for Romana's first appearance, where even K9 can't resist a lengthy ogle. Is there such a thing as the tyranny of the robot gaze?)

Hot Trailer: Ang Lee's "Life of Pi"

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Guys, I am filled with FEELINGS. Yann Martel's Life of Pi moved me like in ways that few novels have before or since. And by the looks of it, the movie will have the same effect. Despite my general distaste for films of the third dimension, I trust Ang Lee to find beauty, even in the uncanny valley. We might even end up with a movie about Indians that doesn't completely fetishize India! Shock horror!

Watch the trailer and tell me your thoughts:

Political Animals vs. The Good Wife

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Two episodes of Political Animals have left me with less of an opinion on the show itself, which is a sort of feel-good trashy romp with a facade of political relevance, but with more appreciation for the narrative construction of The Good Wife.

Superficial comparisons abound. While Political Animals explicitly bases its lead on Hillary Clinton, The Good Wife uses the story of the jilted political wife to deliver a deep dive into how politics, relationships, professionalism tie in with the consistently difficult task of being a woman.

So while the story has to go through some of the same beats (the iconic image of the wife standing by the husband on the podium as he admits his faults, the horror of discovery, the complexity behind the decision to stay or leave), it's telling which beats each story omits.

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The Good Wife doesn't spend a lot of time on the tears; when we meet Alicia Florrick, she's competent, she's independent, and she's completely certain of what she needs in her professional life. The Good Wife focuses on how she moves forward, not what brought her to this point. We're shown exactly why Alicia doesn't leave Peter as yet, and we realize that in the end, dealing with Peter's the lowest priority in Alicia's life, given that her whole world has come down around her. In fact, it isn't until season three that we get the scene where Alicia first learns about Peter's indiscretions.

Political Animals, on the other hand, seems totally mired in the relationship between Bud and Elaine. One major problem with the show so far is how Bud seems to have such a hold on Elaine's life, even though there's no evident reason why she would ever have loved him, why she would have stayed with him, and why she relies on him now. We're shown, again and again, that she doesn't really need him in her personal life, so allowing him back in doesn't seem true to the character.

I'll allow that few shows get off to such a strong start as The Good Wife. It almost seems churlish to compare the two: TGW is a novelistic tale that teases out very serious themes, while Political Animals aims to be trashy entertainment (and succeeds admirably). Nor should they be more similar; Alicia and Elaine, despite the surface similarities, are very different women. If anything, Elaine's more of an example of when the world crashes down on a Diane Lockhart.

All that said, Political Animals does manage to mimic my personal favorite aspect of TGW: the Alicia/Kalinda. As with that favored pair, PA features a wonderfully prickly but respectful relationship between Elaine and Carla Gugino's fabulous reporter. It seems that in this show, too, the tensions between their deeper solidarity will drive the show forward. And I can't wait to see where it goes.

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Books about Books: Finder: Talisman

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Finder: Talisman is the best graphic novel you've never heard of. My ignorance is my own fault; I assumed the wonderful world of non-superhero graphic novels to be rather recent, apart from genre breakthroughs like Maus and Sandman.

In 1996, Carla Speed McNeil wrote and illustrated a magical tale that's about a book, any book really, but the book that changed your life when you were a chlid, and no matter how hard you work to find it again, you never can. About how the book mutates in your mind to help you deal with the circumstances of your life. How it grows bigger and bigger until it can no longer be anything as mundane as a bound stack of paper.

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I won't spoil the magic of the story by telling you any more, but young Marcie's lifelong quest to rediscover her Talisman leads her on a remarkably entertaining journey through her imagination, through her reality, and her imagined reality.

McNeil's artwork also bears special mention. Seriously, look:

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Finder: Talisman starts off a long-running series, but this one stands perfectly well on its own. I don't know a whole lot about what follows, but rumor has it that we meet some aboriginal legends and Hindu mystics, all tied to the magic of books.

Stay tuned. The beautiful hardcover edition arrives in stores October 3rd.

Filling the Gaps: Jackie Brown

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Welcome back to Filling the Gaps, our little series on films we should have seen, but somehow missed.

Tarantino fans treat Jackie Brown as the ugly little stepsister in his oeuvre, and critics seem to ignore it altogether, even though it's Tarantino's most effective homage to the art of filmmaking. One can assume it's ignored because it's the least "Tarantino-esque" of his films; you've got the wit, you've got the experimental story telling, you've got the references to genre b-films, but it's more of a human story.

The story's framed as a simple heist, but the gangster elements merely provide a skeleton for Tarantino to hang a much more complicated story about unrequited love, loyalty, and the tension between love, greed and fear.

Emotions are important. The characters who make it through the film have the good sense to either love Jackie or fear Ordell, and often both. The "fearless" characters end up with bullets in their brains; Louis, with his post-prison haze, Melanie, with her failure to connect with the real world, Ordell, with his general sense that nothing in the world actually affects him.

Tarantino sets the story up as a delicate conflict between three teams: Louis, Ordell and his concumbines, the ATF agents, and Jackie and Max (the bail bondsman played to perfection by Robert Forster).

Much of the rising action in the film comes from the steady disintegration of these partnerships. In each case, Tarantino provides us with moments of hope that he brutally strips away, most tragically with Jackie and Max.

You can't create this kind of story without a powerhouse acting talent, and the cast meets the challenge. So much of the film is conveyed through fleeting expressions; blink, and you'll miss important character moments.

Even if you haven't seen the run of seventies' films that made Pam Grier a star (I haven't), Jackie Brown provides a perfect showcase for why she's idolized by so many. Robert de Niro plays completely against type as an inept dumbass who sleepwalks through the world until anger breaks him free. Samuel L. Jackson steals the show with a surprisingly restrained performance.

Have you seen Jackie Brown? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Buy George Washington's Lemons! Really!

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No joke! For the price of a single month's rent in New York City, you can own "A Lemon Picked From A Tree Planted By George Washington and Picked By His Old Gardener" from Cowan Auctions. To say that the item description is comical is a bit of an understatement (stay tuned while I highlight a mega-contradiction):
“Washington was an avid farmer and gardener who planted a variety of flowers and trees at his Mount Vernon estate, among them a lemon tree. During the early 19th century, visitors were often known to take souvenirs from Mount Vernon, including lemons. According to some descriptions written by 19th century visitors, an old gardener would recount his experiences working with Washington and would sell them items from the garden for a small fee. It is possible that the gardener who picked this lemon was an enslaved African American named Phil Smith who was never owned by Washington himself, but belonged to a later generation of Washingtons living at Mount Vernon.”
I just love the fact that lemon theft was so prominent at Mt. Vernon that some enterprising gardener decided that it would make a lucrative side business for himself.

That enterprising gardener, by the way, was "possibly" an enslaved African American named Phil. I suppose it's equally possible that a Redcoat decided to enact mischief of the most pointless kind, stealing lemons from the ruler of our budding nation.

The mega-contradiction: Note carefully that the title of the item specifically states that the lemon was "picked by his old gardener." Then not how "the gardener who picked this lemon...belonged to a later generation of Washingtons living at Mount Vernon."

Basically, if you buy this lemon, I'll sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

Favorite Film This Year: To Rome With Love

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"To Room With Love" is not one movie, but four. Three are perfect, and the last remains perfectly entertaining, if less moving. What surprised me most is the youth of the cast (which stood in stark contrast to the devoted Woody Allen fans in the audience, who waved goodbye to geriatric at least a decade before).

I don't normally do this, but for the sake of coherence, I'll review each storyline separately.

THE BEST ONE:

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Woody Allen deserves a prize for creating a movie about the lives of 20-somethings that's not only hysterical, but relatable. I'm not sure exactly why, but the immediate post-college years seem to inspire only the worst type of film: navel-gazing affairs that treat ambition like sickness, or movies about people losing track of everything only to "find themselves" at the end.

Those films (usually terrible romantic comedies) ignore a simple fact: 20 somethings are actually adults, not oversized children let loose on an unsuspecting world. You offer to cook dinner for your friends, because it feels like the adult thing to do, even when the only things you know how to make are brownies, and sometimes not even that. But you know what? We have a hell of a lot of fun trying.

Pretending to be adult also involves being a little pretentious (part of youth is failing to understand that constantly showing off your knowledge doesn't actually prove your intelligence). Allen finds a brilliant conceit to allow us to both fall in love with these unctious people and mock them from afar.

Ellen Page probably has the most difficult role, playing the flutterby with the most superficial personality (Allen clearly chose her for her incredible Diane Keaton impression). But we also have to fall in love with her. And we do.

I won't say anything to spoil the central conceit of this segment, but let's just say that cell phones are important. And like me, you may wonder why all the women are wearing button down shirts (it's a hint!) Also, Jesse Eisenberg, if you're reading this, marry me.

EQUALLY GOOD BUT MINUS EISENBERG:

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The second story sets up a perfect counterpoint to the first. Two newlyweds from a small village have just moved to Rome and they're as young as the previous group, and even less experienced. They're not playing at adulthood, they have to grow up.

The casting director's found a real star in Alessandra Mastronardi, who finds herself lost within her first 5 minutes in Rome. Blah blah, magic city cakes, she breaks down by a film shooting featuring her most beloved Italian movie star. Her hijinks take twists and turns that are both hilarious and awesome (and make my shriveled feminist heart scream out in glee).

Meanwhile, poor Antonio finds himself accidentally embroiled with a prostitute (played by Penelope Cruz, who steals every scene she's in. Seriously Hollywood, stop casting her in shitty movies. Or maybe do, so she can keep being awesome in foreign films).

The ending of their story works for me, but I'm sure that it won't for some. I look forward to debating it with you in the comments.

THE FUNNIEST SEGMENT

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It should come as no surprise that the funniest (and in many ways the objectively strongest) segment is the one starring the Woodster himself. I can't even think of a way to write about it without spoiling its increasingly hilarious turns, but lets just say that we wade knee deep into absurdist comedy (and half of the audience fell out of their seats at the climax of this segment).

Also notable: Alison Pill follows up her impressive turn in Midnight in Paris with even more charm.

THE UGLY ONE

The final segment, featuring Roberto Benigni, deserves neither an image nor a lengthy review. I won't say it was boring the first time around, but in future viewings, I shall dub these scenes "BATHROOM BREAK".

OVERALL

It's nice to know that after all these years Woody Allen still has the desire to experiment with forms in filmmaking. Through To Rome In Love, he plays with time and space in ways that are totally unique. It's often said that his film locations are characters in and of themselves, but I'm pretty glad that's not true here.

In fact, there's an astonishing lack of what I'd describe as Woody Allen "tropes", like scenes in museums. The tone is bittersweet, which he's never quite done before. These are human stories, and Rome merely provides a platform to launch these stories, which are as much about Italians as they are about the Americans who get lost in their country.

Where Midnight in Paris succeeded as a total wish fulfilment fantasy (you may recall that I dubbed it Paris Porn), To Rome With Love works better as a cohesive film.

Thor, Or, George W. Bush Picks Up A Hammer

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The climactic scene in Thor takes place upon the cinematic equivalent of Mario Kart's "Rainbow Road." This is an unfortunate allusion for the filmmaker to make, given that the characters in Thor are drawn with even less depth than Mario and Luigi.

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vs.

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A microscopically drawn love story between Thor and Ugh!GardenState apparently provides the basis for Loki's terrible decisions in the last third of the movie. This from a character whose machinations are so invisible that no one should be able to sense them. That the Asgardian courtiers do sense them makes the movie about a million times more difficult to enjoy. He's smart, and he's thoughtful, but hey, that must mean he's evil.

Basically, Thor's the kind of guy Asgard would have a beer with. Despite no evidence whatsoever that he's anything but a warmongering dilettante, the Asgardians wet their pants at the very mention of him, forgetting that his decision-making capabilities rest ever so slightly above that of your average houseplant.

I'm not saying that Thor doesn't deserve character growth or redemption, but it's frankly ludicrous that anyone would place their faith in him before he earns his redemption.

The movie's total commitment and belief in Thor's frat-boy wonderfulness undermines everything else that actually works in the movie, like the underlying themes of brother vs. brother, which were explored with such great success in The Social Network.

I'm sure I'm not the only person who's drawn to geekdom because the winners are rarely the pretty, the popular, or the strong. Genre fiction tends to favor the clever, the ones who use their brains and their wits to get by in the world. In this post-colonial world, do we really need another hero whose only functional attribute is a toothy grin and the ability to beat the shit out of his lessers?

There's no choice involved in Thor being Thor. He's born with his kingdom, and wins it back from Loki with nothing more than a little violence. Even Tony Stark, blessed with his millions and his brains, makes the moral choice to use his power for good. Same with Bruce Wayne. Thor? He's just born with it. Why would he bother to be a just ruler at all? And more to the point, why does anyone believe in him as a ruler?

Things I DID Like:

  • Kat Dennings
  • Kat Dennings
  • Kat Dennings
  • Darcy
  • Tom Hiddleston's performance as Loki

After the Golden Age, by Carrie Vaughn

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After the Golden Age probably isn't the first story written about the talentless progeny of celebrity superheroes, but it's certainly the first I've read.

I can see why it's a sub-genre that hasn't taken off; for the protagonist to be relatable, we must encounter the less than heroic side of those superheroes, their lay personalities which are mundane at best, and most likely overblown and arrogant. It's easy to understand why genre fans are reluctant to rip the shiny veneer off of their heroes.

Watchmen shows what happens when the world outgrows their heroes, and After the Golden Age presents a scenario when the heroes outgrow the world and end up dissatisfied at best, and more often a bit warped.

I first encountered the work of Carrie Vaughn in Songs of Love and Death, a surprisingly enjoyable collection of science fiction romance stories curated by Neil Gaiman (my review of that story here: http://theoncominghope.blogspot.com/2011/03/salute-your-shorts-carrie-vaughn.html). One of the things that made that story stick in my mind was its attention to character. Sure, everyone's living in an age of superheroes, but they still feel remarkably human.

Luckily, After the Golden Age lived up to the bar that Vaughn set with "Rooftops". It's not a long novel, which leaves little opportunity for it to go off the rails. This is the story of Celia West, bumbling through a life without superpowers, even as her parents are alternately revered and reviled for their abilities. She's kidnapped over and over again, until she's actually pretty used to it. Sometimes, it seems like she looks forward to it.

Don't get me wrong, there's a lot that's hastily papered over or ignored in order to make the plot work. The whole thing hinges on a bad decision Celia made in her youth, but the impetus for that decision definitely feels told rather than shown.

But she's so real as a person. She's confident and decisive, even when racked by insecurity. Her life isn't defined by her relationship with her parents; they just come butting in at inconvenient moments.

If you love traditional superhero stories, After the Golden Age may not be for you. But if you enjoy character-driven stories with fantastical settings, this should fit the bill nicely.

Filling the Gaps: Sleepless in Seattle

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Welcome back to Filling the Gaps, our little series on films we should have seen, but somehow missed.

As film fans mourned the recent passing of groundbreaking screenwriter Nora Ephron, I realized it was time to watch Sleepless in Seattle, her most successful film (granted, "most successful" is a matter of degrees with a filmography like hers). I'm sorry I haven't watched it until now; I fell of my chair laughing in certain scenes, and cried big giant monkey tears at least three times in the movie.

I tend to avoid romantic comedies like the plague, for the simple reason that I tend to love them a little too much, which creates such a cognitive dissonance with my feminist and intellectual bona fides that my brain simply shuts down (I'm not kidding. I once was forced to watch a Katherine Heigl romcom on a plane. It pains me to say I loved it. (Seriously, Romcoms On A Motha-------- Plane. THE HORROR).

Sleepless in Seattle clearly rises miles high above the genre, setting an example that was never replicated in Hollywood (there are some French romcoms that live up to it, but, of course, they're in French). I've written previously about my love for Serendipity, which shares a certain approach with SiS; they take the fundamental implausibility of the genre and build it into the plot.

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What could be more ridiculous than a Baltimore news reporter stalking a lonely father in Seattle? Frankly, with a tagline like that, it's impossible to believe that the movie wouldn't be a complete trainwreck. But it works, for a few reasons.

1. The Double A-Plot Structure: Most movies have one A-plot and a number of side plots, and they all come together at the end of the film. Sleepless instead tells two distinct stories, allowing neither to fall completely into ridicule. Of course, Meg Ryan's story skirts much closer to the edge of believability, which brings us to the next point.

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2. Meg Ryan's Performance: Holy shit, is she good in this movie. She's channeling a young Nicole Kidman, with a wide-eyed intensity to match. Unlike other romcom heroines, she's extremely confident. Her bad decisions aren't a result of a lack of self-esteem, but of a deep-seated unhappiness that she barely seems aware of. The script conveys this economically; when she tells Bill Pullman it's not him, it's her, we know that's actually true. It is her, and that's ok. She ends things and takes a stupid chance because life has disappointed her. And that's one of the most realistic character choices I've seen in a mainstream movie.

3. Tom Hanks' Performance: I cannot even speak about it. Total perfection. Where Annie's disappointment drives her character forward, Sam moves with his anger, which has warped him so badly that he can't love anyone. I'm not convinced that changes by the end of the movie, which is why the film ends where it does.

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The ending truly is remarkable in so many ways. Throughout the film, I kept wondering, "Is it just me, or is Sam a terrible father?" He belittles Jonah constantly, ignoring his emotional needs. So when he reunites with Jonah, he actually realizes he's been a bad father. And without anyone explicitly having to say that he's become completely self-absorbed after his wife's death, it's acknowledged, bringing the character's story around full circle.

That's what's great about the film; it's more than just fluff. There are very serious undercurrents bubbling to the surface, which is rare in the romantic comedy genre. The romance, while highly compelling, provides a platform for stories about human weakness.

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