And the Nominees Are 2018: Round 1!

Happy Awards Season!

The 2018 Critics Choice nominations have been announced! And I have already seen a bunch of the nominees (this year is already so good you guys, at one point I had 4 movies tied for my favorite film.)

Also, I’ve started a new project, combining two of my great loves, movies and poems. It’s a new site, called Poems from the Pictures. Basically I’m writing a new poem about each movie I see in the theater. I’ll link to poems for movies I review here, but I don’t just write about award nominees over there, so please go check it out! (And share it with your friends.) (The project also has a Twitter account, please follow it!)

OK, enough self-promotion, here’s what I’ve seen so far:

Gifted

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Chris Evans can act. That kid is cute. Jenny Slate is perfect. Watch this on a Saturday afternoon when you feel bad about humanity.

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The Big Sick

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This is the only movie on this list that I’ve seen twice, but I managed to not take any notes on for a post, which I feel really stupid about, because it combines a lot of my favorite things. Zoe Kazan. Indie romantic comedies. The city of Chicago. Comas. OK I don’t love comas, obviously, but I do love real life love stories and charming characters and this one has all that in spades. Sorry I’m giving short shrift in this review. Just watch it, it’ll make you angry and sad and then happy.

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Dunkirk

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I know I overuse the word remarkable, but this is really a remarkable film. It’s a quintessentially Christopher Nolan piece – sweeping, complicated, immersive, with an innovative narrative structure – but also a classic-feeling WWII picture. The casting is impeccable, even the potential stunt of casting a pop star is quickly forgotten, as each of these men inhabit the desperation of their characters so completely.

I’m not breaking any ground by saying I love this. So instead of waxing rhapsodic about Nolan and his collaborators’ expert artistry I will point out my three favorite choices he/they made.

  1. The minimal dialogue. When you are 95% sure you will die but are being told to wait in a line for a ship that even if you get on it will probably sink, what is there to say really? In a more traditional movie about this battle there are so many opportunities for bombastic Oscar reel speeches, but its much more heart-wrenching to see a tear in Kenneth Brannagh‘s eyes or three boys sitting on a beach passing around a can of water.
  2. Which, also, the casting of actors that are actually 19-20 was such a great choice. So often Hollywood shoots these stories with fully grown, “built,” action heroes. But these men were ordinary young people, and that makes the horror that they lived through (and we live a bit of with them) all the more harrowing.
  3. See this on a big screen (it’s being rereleased for a special awards season engagement). It is immersive and it’s meant to be. My mom and I both jumped and gasped our way through this, especially the sequences in the air.

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You can read my poem about this film here.

The Florida Project

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I realized weeks after seeing this that I had forgotten to write notes for a review, which sucks because its one of favorite movies of the year. But I’ll try to reconstruct why I loved it.

Firstly, it’s visually appealing. It makes rundown motels look like confections and made Florida wasteland look like a classical landscape painting. But all the artistry in the world wouldn’t matter much to me without the people at the center of it.

Sean Baker takes a story that could have been melodrama, teen mom living on the margins with her young daughter and gives us a humane, warm but not saccharine portrait of a childhood. A lot of the brilliance here is in the casting of both the little girl (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother (Bria Vinaite) both of whom weren’t actors before this, but radiate a kind of pressure. Baker’s work is remarkably naturalistic and it feels less like watching performers and more like peeking in on a life.

That life is precarious though, and as long time readers know, images of children in peril (even when they don’t seem to realize it) usually stress me our so much I can’t enjoy a film (I call this my Beasts of the Southern Wild/Lion phenomenon.) But Baker solves this problem by including Willem Dafoe as a kind, beleaguered motel manager who keeps a watchful eye out for the kids (and their parents). His empathy and sadness for his tenants’ situations never crosses a line into condescension and this movie completely changed my opinion of Dafoe as a performer. Oh, I could gush forever, just go see it.

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You can read my poem about this film here.

Wonderstruck

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I wanted to like this movie. And there were sections in it, particularly the earliest sections with the young deaf actress (and Critics Choice nominee!) Millicent Simmonds journeying to 1920s NYC. I like modern takes on classic film technique, and I think I would have loved to watch just her story as a short film.

Which isn’t to say necessarily that I didn’t like the sections set in the 1970s, because they have their own charm, and I tend to like stories that begin disparate and eventually interweave. But, I think the quiet style of director Todd Haynes (which I’ve liked in the past but never quite understood the critical community’s rapturous ton about) doesn’t lend itself will to a story with this much plot. I but this book is charming, but the film left me confused.

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You can read my poem about this film here.

Lady Bird

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I don’t even know how to write about this movie. I just…love it. It’s honest and warm, well crafted and witty, with wonderfully grounded performances from everyone. (Especially my girl Saoirse Ronan and Laurie MetcalfLaurie Metcalf. Oh and Timotheé Chalamet and Lucas Hedges…and Tracy Letts, literally everyone in the movie.)

I put this in the “Movies That I Related To So Strongly I Can’t Explain Why Without Oversharing” category. (This category now has 2 entries, this and last year’s Edge of Seventeen no coincidence that they are both written and directed by women.) And in this case its even more so, because its set in 2003, the year I started high school and this protagonist left it. The cultural references, and high school theater nerd subculture is perfectly captured. Greta Gerwig clearly lived this life, as someone who lived a similar one, she totally nails it.

I will talk your ear off in person about its perfection when it comes to religion, female friendship (both its strength and fragility), mother-daughter relationships (in all their maddening-complexity), and class tensions in a culture that does not want to acknowledge that i has a class system*. But for this post I want to end with the fact that this movie has such affection for its characters, sure there’s the hindsight is 20/20 moments about how much Lady Bird has to learn, and some cringing at how dumb high schools are in general, but it never veers into mocking. It takes the life of a teenage girl seriously without making it a tragedy. It’s fantastic.

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You can read my poem about this film here.

*Seriously seek me out if you want to have these conversations. 

The Square

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I’m not sure I can coherently articulate how much I hate this film. Which was really disappointing because I loved Force Majeure (also written and directed by Ruben Östlund). But this was, to quote my boyfriend “nihilistic trash.” To avoid spiraling into the rant I have by now subjected my friends, family, coworkers, and roommate to I will just say 4 things:

  1. It’s too long. (It have Grand Beauty never ending problems.)
  2. I can’t decide if its making fun of pretentious arty people or is for pretentious arty people, but it’s condescending either way.
  3. It’s borderline exploitative of poor and homeless people.
  4. It portrays casual violence in a way that it doesn’t earn. I understand it’s supposed to be a critique of how bystanders don’t help each other, but then it also ridicules those who try for trying. If I’m going to be subjected to images of women being pulled by their hair onto the ground or children being pushed down staircases you better be making a coherent fucking point.

Or, as I emailed Tim the day after we it: “That piece of trash won the P’alme Dor?!?!? I definitely have an awards season nemesis now.

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You can read my poem about this film here.

Wonder

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I had heard people rave about R.J. Palcio’s novel for young people, Wonder, seemingly endlessly since it came out in 2012. But I only got around to reading it when the trailer for this movie was released. I (as so often happens) shouldn’t have held out on the book, but I’m glad this movie exists to introduce the Pullman family to a wider audience.

If you have an issue with earnestness (no judgement a few of my favorite people do) then this tale of children learning to overcome their fear and prejudice of a little boy with a genetically malformed (differently formed? I don’t know what the preferred language is on that. I’m sorry!) face, probably isn’t for you. But if you, like me, sometimes need a well acted tear-jerker on a Friday night, you could do a lot worse than this lovely reminder that we’re all carrying burdens, some of them are just easier to hid. (Plus Broadway nerd bonus points for Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs, shoring up as inspirational educators!)

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You can read my poem about this film here.

 

Thor: Ragnarok

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Not going to lie. I did not think I would have to be writing this for awards time. But it’s fun. And Taika Waititi is a really talented director who brought a unique vision to this silly world.

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You can read my poem about this film here.

Mudbound

mudbound-posters-00I’m having trouble putting my feelings about this one down on paper. Director and co-writer Dee Rees has created a layered and visually stunning epic of the mid-century American South that brought to mind early Terrance Malick (in the best way.) And not only because she loves a voice over. The acting is a universally stunning. Mary J. Blige is a particular surprise.

The story itself makes for a rough sit. It’s about the mid-century American South after all, but despite its realism about the violence that hung in the air around these characters, Rees never allows her main characters to be anything less than human. That, of course, doesn’t mean that those who aren’t poisoned to a greater and lesser extents by hatred. I’m not going to write a treatise about the original sin of American racism, others have done that better than I ever could, but I think this film does a remarkable job of showing the brutal ways that power, particularly white supremacist, patriarchal power, reasserts itself. (Often by punishing those white people (or men) who refuse to participate in the status quo. It’s a brutal watch, but a vital and important one. And it’s one Netflix, so you don’t even have to ugly cry in public like I did.

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You can read my poem about this film here.

Call Me By Your Name

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Based on the trailer for this I went out and the book to fill the time before I could see the beauty that is Timothée Chalamet pining after Armie Hammer. It’s a great book, but – and I almost never say this, like I think I can think of maybe 3 other times – this movie matches and maybe even surpasses it.

A lot of its brilliance is stylistic, it’s beautifully shot and edited to make everything on screen seem sumptuous, like if you could just reach out and touch the screen then you would be able to feel everything. This sensuality was present in director, Luca Guadagnino‘s previous work, but I always felt a certain distance from his sharacters. Which is where the richness of author André Aciman and screenwriter James Ivory‘s script come in. Every person here, even those we meet only for a scene, is a fully drawn human being. Even Hammer, how I’ve always liked but often found a bit icy, melts into this world.

I won’t get started on how Chalamet’s raw desire is palpable and gorgeous because I don’t want to cry at my desk. But, speaking of crying, Michael Stuhlbarg (as Chalamet’s father) delivers a monologue at the end of this film that should go down in history as one of the great tear jerker moments in acting history. So glad he’s getting recognition for it.

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You can read my poem about this film here.

The Disaster Artist

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I should start with 2 facts:

  1. I’ve seen The Room once, 10ish years ago and I wasn’t sober. I saw that appeal, but re-watching something just because its awful isn’t that interesting to me.
  2. I love James Franco. I hear your reasons that you find him insufferable, and I hear you and love him more because of them. Dude goes for things. I admire that, (Hell, he’s sort of the reason I have a blog.)

OK, not that all of that has been disclosed, I…liked this fine. I appreciated that it didn’t feel like one long joke at Tommy Wiseau, when the first trailed made it seem it might be. But, despite good performances from both Franco brothersbrothers and surrounding cast I couldn’t quite get on the level of love for him (and Greg Sestero) the movie clearly has. Instead of being appreciative of the commitment these two had to their dreams (and the Francoian drive to do the thing you want to do, no matter how unlikely or strange) I came away mostly sad. Not for Wiseau, I’m not convinced that he’s not an alien, at the very least he doesn’t seem to take in others’ criticism of his work. But for Sestero who, as far as I can tell has basically been trapped by Wiseau into a very strange life. I’m overthink this I know, but while parts are very  funny, the movie just left me a bit deflated.

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You can read my poem about this film here.
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Five Star Book: The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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“What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast.” 

I had to return this book to the library this morning and I felt a real pang at giving it back. It’s been a long time since I felt that kind of connection to a borrowed book. (Everything I Never Told You a few years ago in Austin maybe?) But I’m actually really glad that I read the slightly-water-warped Queens-communal copy of this book, because it felt like exactly the kind of evidence of other people’s search for connection that the book describes.

British writer/critic Olivia Laing moved to New York City to follow a romantic partner who then promptly broke her heart. Finding herself isolated in a city filled with far too many people (my own editorializing about my own experience in this city is unavoidable here) she burrows into the rabbit hole of studying lonely New Yorkers (and one Chicagoan) who came before her and used art to try to articulate their predicament. Through the biographies and work of artists as varied as Andy Warhol, Edward Hopper, and singer Klaus Nomi, she examines loneliness not just as a feeling, but as state of existence. One that can have truly devastating consequences (like for the to-me-disturbing work of the outsider artist Henry Darger whose indigent childhood and mostly solitary adulthood worked it’s way out in twisted mythological paintings of violence towards child-like cherubs).

 

Laing’s approach, well-researched and articulated academic argument mixed with a breathtaking vulnerability about her own lonely period, drew me in from the first page and never let me go. Some of these artists I had heard of before (a few like Warhol and Nan Goldin I already loved) but her obvious affection for her subject made me want to delve into their work and lives. I especially fell in love with her depiction of the multimedia artist and activist David Wojnarowicz, and I can’t wait to delve more deeply into his work. The act of creation, according to Laing, is an attempt at connection, and though she may worry about the virtual nature of this (the last chapter is a bit of a polemic against the faux-sociability of our networked culture), I couldn’t help but feel a little less alone reading this book.

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David Wojnarowicz, Arthur Rimbaud in New York (On Subway), 1978-79.

 

Read Harder Review Catch Up

So, I sort of forgot that I was doing the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, but I discovered my spreadsheet for it (occupational hazard, I have spreadsheets for everything) yesterday, and saw that unintentionally I’ve crossed some off the list in the past few months. Here are some mini-reviews (mostly taken from my Goodreads. Are you on Goodreads? Let’s be friends there.)

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The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood “A book that has been banned or heavily challenged in your country” 

This is a terrifying book. The timely resonance is chilling of course, and it made it harder to read than it probably would have been before the open misogyny of the current administration. It’s well written and the character is realistic, even in her weakness – this is a person not a “strong female character,” which I appreciated. But I’m not sure how I feel now that I’ve finished it. At times it felt like a chore, not because it was dull, but because it was scary. I think I’ll be processing this one for a bit

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston – “A classic by an author of color” 

I realized a couple of weeks ago that I could remember next to nothing about this book. I think I read it in high school, but it was a quick, beautiful read. The dialect (like all dialect) took me a little bit to get into, but I really loved the rhythm of it after a bit. Janie is an excellent central character. Knocking it a star for the bullshit (of it’s time) attitude towards domestic violence.

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No One is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts – “A book where all of the POV characters are of color” 

Billed as a reworking of The Great Gatsby, set in a present-day, economically depressed, African American community in the South. So not really The Great Gatsby at all. But that’s great! Watts takes the broad themes, and some of the character types, from Fitzgerald’s novel and then deeply roots them in their new context. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and deeply humane. (So maybe not that different from Gatsby at all.)

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A People’s History of Chicago by Kevin Coval – “A book published by a micropress”

So, I’m stretching a bit to classify Haymarket Books as a micropress, but whatever. This book is amazing. It will break your heart, make you laugh, and leave you wanting to storm some barricades. If you’re me, it will also make you incredibly homesick.

The Shakespeare Project: Henry VI, Part III

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The Writer’s Almanac helpfully reminded me yesterday that it was Shakespeare Day (both his birth and death day, or at least as far was we know), which was good encouragement to finish reading Henry VI. I only had a few scenes left, but was having trouble motivating myself. Because, as I have now mentioned multiple times, I’m pretty over this particular interpretation of the War of the Roses. I admit this is because I have, based on very casual personal research, and a crush on this well-cast actor, I’m pretty much decided that the Yorkists were right and therefore this whole conflict was wasted bloodshed.

I basically had made up my mind at the end of Part II how I felt about all characters involved in this tragic miscommunication, and at first it felt like there was a possibility for poor Henry to escape away to a monastery and pray, letting York and his sons take back the throne (as clearly based on patriarchal genetic inheritance ridiculousness was theirs). But of course, this is a Shakespearean history play so 1. there must be heads cut off and 2. a woman must ruin everything.

I wrote last time about how I appreciated Queen Margaret’s badassery, and I still kind of do, but it turns to folly in this part. Not just because she loses the ultimate battle, but because she has no foresight. She and her son should have stayed in France and they would have lived long, prosperous lives, claiming to be wrongfully exiled but with their heads intact. But, no, the all important crown must be won back for “poor Ned.” (Side note: why did they all name all of their sons Edward? I appreciate the comparative lack of Henrys in this installment, but still…diversify for the sake of clarity at least.) She does seem to love her son, but it’s clear that she really wants to hold power for herself and as she is female this is evil, I get that. But the scene where she and Clifford murder York is a bit heavy handed on the hand wringing villainy. Great wordplay sure, but it must be tricky to play and keep her seeming even remotely human.

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Gabriela Petrushevska in a Macedonian production available from Shakespeare’s Globe Player

Even if I hadn’t already made up my mind about the rightful claimants to the throne, the really disturbing, onstage murder of the youngest York boy would have turned me against the Lancastrians from then on. (Yes, I know that the York’s then retaliate by killing the also seventeen year old Prince of Wales, but he was actively waging war against the York princes when they killed him. Rutland was traveling home with his tutor and literally begging to spared the sins of his father. It’s heartbreaking and I’m not sure how you can watch that scene and then root for anyone associated with Clifford.)

This play also begins the character assassination of Richard III, which I won’t bore you with all my grievances now, but suffice to say the conflation of physical disfigurement with moral ineptitude is pretty hard to read with a modern eye. You’ll all get to read my full treatise on this if I ever reach the Rs. For now, just one more Henry to go!

Read Harder Review (and Five Star Book!): Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman

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I underlined so many passages in this book. A fact I know Ms. Fadiman would appreciate. I also bought it on a trip to a bookstore that was explicitly to buy a book club book, and nothing else. But it fit the “book about books” line on my Book Riot Read Harder challenge list, so naturally I had to get it. (If that reeks of rationalization and addict behavior, you’re not wrong.) I knew from the blurb on the back that I was going to love this book, but I didn’t know just how much I would identify with it. Yes, I knew that Fadiman and I are both book people, who were also raised by book people, but more than that we’re both the same kind of book people.

For one, we’re both obsessive annotators, she described it as treating reading like a conversation, which I loved. We are also both collectors of words. She has an essay in here about quizzing her friends and family on words she had to look up while reading a 1920 Carl Van Vechten essay, something I have never done – I want my friends to keep liking me – but I have definitely made the same kinds of lists. (Honestly, I made a long one reading this book. I would argue her word choice was overly grand if I didn’t know she was just reveling in the diversity of the English language.)

Aside from the kinship with a fellow book and word nerd, I really loved her description of her family. When she was growing up they used to watch quiz shows religiously and shared a love of proofreading menus. I know that to some (most?) of you that must sound insufferable, but to me it was warmly familiar. My dad gives my mom (and anyone else who is around) a history quiz from the morning paper. My brother once took a victory lap around our dining room table after besting us all on a final Jeopardy question. A couple of months ago my brother’s high school friend responded to my correcting my father’s statement that Faneuil Hall opened in the 1990s by saying that he meant it was renovated then, by saying, “You can’t get away with anything with the Dennetts.” So maybe we’re a little insufferable too, but this book made me feel in good company.

Side note: She writes a lot about her husband George, and each time he came up I thought, “he seems great.” Turns out – I had read and loved his own memoir The Big House and thought the same about her!

Weekly Adventure: Mini-Break to Salem

The idea of witches has always been pretty fascinating to me. I’ve always loved reading Alice Hoffman novels, in high school I wore out my copy of The Probable Future, and I still return to her sprawling tales of New England women with complicated “gifts.” It’s no surprise that this was my favorite sign at the Women’s March in January:

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Because so much of the moral panic of witch trials can be tied back to women who didn’t fit into the idea of what a woman should do. Which is why its surprising that I actually hadn’t been to Salem, MA until this past weekend. Well, this weekend I took the Megabus up to visit Hanna in Cambridge (well actually Somerville…) and we took the train out to see what Salem had to offer.

And…it was awesome! For a few reasons:

1. It’s a super cute little New England harbor town, which is a particular kind of charm I really enjoy.

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2. The history, both of the witch trials and otherwise (it’s also Nathaniel Hawthorne’s hometown)

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3. The witchy wonderfulness. There is so much camp, and so much earnest Wiccan stuff. It was just exactly what I wanted it to be, and it was also incredibly strange once I stopped to think about it. The actual historical trials were about the paranoid superstition of a group of people who were wrongly accused of witchcraft, which is obviously a tragedy. But now the town is forever associated with witchcraft, and is a Mecca of sorts for the Wiccan and neo-Pagan community. Which is cool in that it’s sort of the ultimate fuck you to the Puritan authorities, but it also leads to a strange tension where the town can’t decide if they believe if witches are real or not, which opens the uncomfortable question about the (obvious at least to me) innocence of those executed. This narrative is most confused at the Salem Witch Museum, which I wish I could describe to you but it is beyond my power. Please just go, it costs $12 but you will never experience anything quite like it….

Anyway, it was also just a great first real Spring weekend up here in the Northeast, and Hanna and I had a delightful time being silly through the streets:

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I did not buy any, but I’m really regretting that now…

Weekly Adventure: I’m Nobody Who Are You at the Morgan Library

I love Emily Dickinson. I didn’t always. When I first read her I found her cold and distant and overly formal. Which looks ridiculous to me now. Imagine, thinking of a poem like this as reserved:

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But I also love what I know about her as a person. Not the mythical figure of the ghostly pale woman upstairs in her New England attic scribbling away and never leaving her house, but the weird and wonderful, and yes unmarried (gasp!), woman that I’ve pieced together over the years. The most clues for me came not from a biography but this collection of her “Envelope Poems.” I feel like that book made it the most clear how integral writing poetry was to her daily life, but also showed that she had a life beyond poetry. She was cooking or going to a concert or reading a letter when had these flashes of inspiration.

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Poem draft on a program card

The small show of her letters and drafts on view right now at The Morgan Library does a nice job of depicting Miss Dickinson’s quiet, but not empty, life. I especially liked the way they presented her interest in botany, with a digitized version of the plant catalog she made while a student at Mt. Holyoke. (It’s really beautifully designed and lets visitors flip though the pages, which obviously could never be done with the fragile original.) I also liked the way she wrote up and down on the pages of her letters, like she simply had too many thoughts to contain them to one direction:

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I had never been to The Morgan before, and I really appreciated the design of the exhibition. There was a lot of contextual information, but it was presented in a clear, uncluttered way. Also, this was the correct paint color:

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Though it doesn’t photograph very well apparently. It’s much greener than this in person.

It’s also just a beautiful space, J.P. Morgan’s library had me swooning (as my Instagram followers can tell you), and while I was there a classical duo was playing in the central courtyard, which was a lovely addition. I highly recommend a trip as a way to pass a gray Sunday afternoon.

The exhibition is on view through May 21st at The Morgan Library & Museum at 225 Madison Ave

And the Nominees Are 2017: Final Round

Happy Oscar Sunday! I’m going to a watch party at Q.E.D. in Astoria in a few hours, but I wanted to get my last few catch up reviews posted before the ceremony.

Toni Erdmann

Pretty much every film critic I read, listen to, and/or follow on Twitter heaped praises upon this movie. But they all also mentioned that it was almost 3 hours long…so it took me awhile to find time to go. And while I really appreciated the performances, and some of the set pieces had me laughing out loud, it was too long. No comedy, even one as emotionally layered as this, needs to be 3 hours long. (In fact, I can tell you exactly when it should have ended, and it was at least 15 minutes before the actual end, with the yeti hug in the park.)

That being said, the parts of this that are a satire of international business culture are scathingly spot on. And the central message, that we should all take ourselves a little less seriously, is a welcome one.

Also, I’ll never again be able to heat “The Greatest Love of All” without thinking of Sandra Hüller and laughing.

The Eagle Huntress

I needed this story right now. Aishlopan, a 13 year old girl living with her nomadic family in the mountains of Mongolia, wants to be an eagle hunter like her father. Her parents let her despite there never having been a female hunter before. When she tries, she’s brilliant at it.

It’s a feel good feminist story. Parents, please take your preteen children of all genders to see this (though, warning for the squeamish: Eagles are birds of prey and nature has some gruesome aspects, but they are handled tastefully.)

May we all, as we face our own versions of the old men sitting in huts saying in the same breath that woman can’t hunt eagles because they will get cold in the mountains and that Aishlopan only succeeds in competitions because she is a girl, maintain the strength and ease that she has & ride off to break those men’s records with smiles on our faces.

(Also, Mongolia looks really beautiful.)

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This movie should be required viewing for all Americans. Ava DuVernay (who you may recognize as the Oscar-snubbed director of Selma) lays out the devastating history that leads directly from slavery, through the dismantling of Radical Reconstruction through Jim Crow to today’s mass incarceration and police brutality. It isn’t an easy watch, but we are never going to make progress if we ignore the reality of the history that informs out current debates and tragedies.

Although she clearly has a point of view, DuVernay does a good job of including voices from across the political spectrum. I was pleasantly surprised by the nuance that Newt Gingrich brought to his interview. And if you need a definition of unhelpful white nonsense you can play a compilation of all the times that Grover Norquist reduced complicated political grievances to complaints about “mean people.” She also doesn’t let Democrats off the hook, because racism isn’t a Republican issue, it is a human issue and we all need to acknowledge this in able to fix it.

Just watch it. It’s on Netflix. Go now.

I Am Not Your Negro

I’ve loved James Baldwin since I was assigned Giovanni’s Room in a class in college. (I had read Go Tell It On the Mountain before that but it had gone over my head.) So, I knew I was in for brilliance when I went to see Raoul Peck‘s new documentary that uses only Baldwin’s words to examine the lives of MLK, Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers and through them the story of the mistreatment of black people in America.

A Facebook friend of mine called this “required viewing” and it certainly is. It’s well crafted and edited and well-deserving of its Oscar nomination. I found it to be very emotional and distressingly relevant to our current moment. I hope that it inspires people to read Baldwin, and more history in general, because its beautiful, but there are gaps that may need filling in for an uninformed viewer. (Such as the fact that Malcolm X was not murdered by a white man, but a member of the Nation of Islam.)

Overall, this is a remarkable documentary, worth waiting in the lines I’ve seen at every independent movie theater showing this in NYC.

 

 

Best Picture Baking Project: Chariots of Fire

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Happy President’s Day! I don’t think I’ve ever celebrated this particular strange American holiday, and I’m certainly not going to start under the current administration, but I did take the opportunity to head home to New Haven for a bit of rest and relaxation. And for me that means movies and baking (though the baking was not my best effort…more on that later.) First, the film:

Had I seen this one before?

Nope. Which was surprising to both of my parents. All I knew was the opening sequence with the team running down the beach.

Top 3 observations on this viewing?

  1. This movie is so incredibly British. Which means, it’s charming, incredibly well acted, and obsessed with questions of whether it is acceptable to focus on individual excellence over a “feeling of esprit de corps.” Which as an American is hilarious to me.
  2. The depiction of Americans as professional, running machines that are borderline evil or Bible thumpers. It’s always funny to me (especially in later Richard Curtis movies), but here it is particularly pronounced.

    I mean, look at him with his hat on backwards, how gauche.
  3. I love a good sports movie, and this is one of the best. It’s a classic for a reason. And I like that it takes on other issues, anti-Semitism and commitment to faith, without getting too preachy or overreaching for metaphors. These men are more than just runners, but true Olympians, then as now, are a unique breed motivated by physical challenge, which, as I am very much not, will always be fascinating to me. 

What did it beat? Did it deserve to win?

Atlantic City –  Never heard of it.

On Golden Pond – I really only know of this, because of Jane Fonda accepting her dad‘s Oscar for it, which is a nice awards history moment, but doesn’t really help me judge the film

Raiders of the Lost Ark – I love that this was nominated, but of course it didn’t win.

Reds – Oh, I love this one so so much.

This is tough. Reds is one of my favorite movies of all time, but Chariots is pretty fantastic too. I’m going to go with, I would have voted for Reds but I’m not mad that Chariots of Fire won.

Bechdel Test Pass?

Nope. There are two named women, they are both reluctantly supportive partners to their respective champions. They never meet. (This is one of those cases where this didn’t bother me that much. Cambridge, where most of this narrative takes place, was an overwhelmingly male environment. It would be strange and forced to shoehorn women into this particular narrative.)

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Sybil (Alice Krige) seeing Harold off at port – in a shot later echoed in a future Best Picture, Titanic

OK, dessert time, I wanted to do a flaming dessert for obvious reasons, but…that turns out to be trickier than I thought…

Flaming Baked Alaska Cupcakes

Ingredients for cupcakes

  • 1 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 6 tablespoons butter, softened
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons milk
  • 2 cups of your favorite ice cream, I used strawberry field

Ingredients for meringue and flambe

  • 6 large egg whites
  • 1/4 teaspoon cream of tarter
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2-2 cups brandy

Directions 

Prepare the cupcakes

  • Heat oven to 350F and line cupcake pan with papers
  • Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt
  • In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  • Add eggs one at a time, mixing well between additions
  • Beat in vanilla extract
  • Add flour mixture and milk alternately, beginning and ending with flour
  • Divide batter evenly into liners, filling them about 2/3 full
  • Bake for 15-20 minutes (*check them at 15, mine took 18 minutes)
  • Remove from oven and let cool
  • Peel away cupcake liners and discard
  • Cut a small divot out of the top of each cupcake, large enough to hold ice cream
  • Fill each divot with ice cream
  • Put filled cupcakes in freezer

Prepare the meringues

  • In a large mixing bowl, beat egg whites until foamy
  • Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form
  • Gradually beat in the sugar until the meringue is stiff and glossy
  • Preheat oven to the hottest setting
  • Remove the cupcakes from freezer
  • Set each cupcake on their own small place
  • Place the plates onto a baking sheet
  • Cover each cupcake with meringue using an offset spatula
  • Place the sheet into the oven until lightly browned (*pay close attention and take them out exactly when they are browned) 
  • Remove from oven
  • Pour tablespoons of brandy over each cupcake
  • Ignite the brandy and let burn until the flame subsides
  • When the flame dies down serve immediately

Or…this could happen:

We did try them, they tasted like cheap brandy… But the unlit ones (ie the ones I didn’t put in the oven/douse with brandy tasted good…)

Six Degrees of Cinema: Silence

I’m not sure how to write about SilenceAs a film fan I was struck by the beauty of the cinematography and the ambition of telling a story that in many ways is very internal, in a visual medium. As a person who, while admiring of his obvious genius, has a really complicated relationship with Martin Scorsese, I must say that I appreciate his contemplative side much more than whatever you want to call The Wolf of Wall Street

But, despite fantastic performances all around, not much of this movie stuck with me when I left the theater as I expected it to. Well, nothing artistic at least. As an exploration of religion and the nature of belief, I cannot stop thinking about it. It raised so many deep questions about martyrdom and apostasy and what faith in the face of the actual persecution looks like, and why governments engage in it. (I think it has something to do with fear of a power greater than themselves.) It’s an exploration of evangelism, and when its more dangerous for converts than liberating, what then is asked of a believer?

I don’t have answers, but its been a very long time since a movie made me think this deeply about spiritual things. So, let’s see if 1980s era Scorsese will pull that off as well with the next link, his The Last Temptation of Christ.

In this chain: Paterson – Silence