Category Archives: movies

a detail-oriented cat (most of the time) for the type of review being posted. unless I’m reviewing it, I don’t plan to talk about movies in and of themselves.

American Sniper: A Short Argument Against

Yes, I saw American Sniper. I didn’t want to at first because it is essentially about everything I stand against, namely: violence, violence disguised as patriotism, sexism bred by violence, racism bred by violence, and war. Another part of me didn’t want to see it because of the outpouring of ignorant support that followed the movie and bathed the late Chris Kyle in a hero’s infamy. I had very strong doubts about whether there was anything heroic about Chris Kyle or his life and career as a sniper, and I didn’t want to align myself by association (the association of having seen the movie) with such an ignorant stance.

But I ended up seeing it anyway because I realized I couldn’t argue against the movie, or the mindset it seems to perpetuate – if not directly encourage – if I didn’t see the movie myself and know exactly what I was arguing against. The movie was “good” in a Hollywood way – meaning, I was never bored. It was awful in almost every other respect. Many people have written more well-informed and articulate articles than I will about this movie, and they have touched on the many good reasons there are to hate this movie and its inaccurate, more-humane-than-reality portrayal of a man who, from what I can gather, was a black and white thinker and nothing more.

In the movie, Bradley Cooper portrays a man who does see gray areas, who does struggle, at least a little bit, not only with his actions but with their consequences. Bradley Cooper is a great actor, but based on what I’ve heard and read from other, trusted sources about Chris Kyle’s life and thought as described in his memoir, Cooper got the character of Kyle wrong. Cooper allows far too much gray to seep into a strictly black and white paradigm. This seeming inaccuracy, combined with the respect I have for Bradley Cooper as a professional, made it difficult for me to distance myself from the character and dislike him entirely, as I was prepared to do from the outset. Perhaps that’s a good thing, because it did allow me to open up my mind and concede (not for the first time in my life) that war is not a black and white thing, no matter what anyone says about it, no matter how black and white its soldiers’ values might be. This fact doesn’t change my staunch pacifism, but it does help me see the gray, and as someone who believes that almost nothing in this world is black and white, an ability to see the gray is very important to me.

There were two major ways in which the movie impacted me after I left the theater.

First, I was left with an itching suspicion that the real-life Chris Kyle, as humane as Cooper tried to make him appear, lacked any degree of critical thought in his convictions and motivations. Some of the questions asked of the character Kyle in the movie – the questions you can tell are supposed to be the “hard-hitting” ones – are answered with such vague simplicity, such automatic and embarrassing machismo, that I couldn’t help but suspect that, as much as Cooper may have gotten wrong in his portrayal, the absolute absence of critical thought in Chris Kyle’s psyche was something he got right. In the numerous articles I’ve read about this movie, about Chris Kyle as a person, and about Chris Kyle’s memoir, the one ringing consistency is that Chris Kyle’s belief system left no room for deep and critical thought or analysis. The biggest problem with a worldview that is black and white is that the people I’ve known in my life who ascribe to such a rigid belief system are people who not only seem incapable of critical thought but actually actively resist what they seem to view as an immoral temptation to examine a given situation beyond its surface. And this appears to be the problem Chris Kyle had. Chris Kyle was clearly and without question a dutiful, honorable* soldier.

Second, I walked away from the theater recognizing the tendency toward violence that violence-centered movies and other media bring out in me. There’s a reason I stay away from movies and media like this for the most part. Killing, fighting, and insulting others is not only a practice that is normalized by media such as this; it is encouraged. And that’s how I found myself, about halfway through the movie, wishing I had my own sniper rifle so I could take aim and shoot the fellow moviegoer on the front row who kept pulling out his or her phone, the bright light irritatingly drawing my eye and my attention away from the movie. Some might dismiss that thought as harmless, a mere snipering joke in the context of the movie; no harm done. For me, however, that kind of thought terrifies me. Only because I had been watching a guy lie on rooftops and shoot the enemy for over an hour – and getting caught up in the emotion of hoping he succeeded in killing his targets – did I have a thought like that. So, yeah, okay. Maybe it’s nothing to worry about. On a given day, I don’t wish I could shoot with sniper rifles all the people who annoy me. And, of course, even in the movie theater, I didn’t have a sniper rifle, and it’s not like I got up out of my seat and went down to the front of the theater to dispense some civilian justice. But what scares me is that, no matter how unrealistic the scenario might have been, the thought and desire were there in my mind, however jokingly, after only an hour of watching someone shoot people from rooftops. That bothers me a great deal. And it should bother you too. And what scares me even more is that such a thought doesn’t bother any of the people who have raised this movie and, with it, Chris Kyle, to an undeserved pedestal.

Am I glad I saw American Sniper? Yes. Am I glad the movie was made to begin with? No. Especially considering the cultural climate this movie was released into: Our country is embroiled in a very heated political struggle right now over gun control laws, so a movie like this – one whose message encourages violence under the guise of protection – is the worst possible ammunition (no pun intended) for the pro-gun faction.

A movie like American Sniper isn’t going to aid in moving our country in the peaceful direction it ought to go.

*The word honorable here is used simply to mean that he exemplified the qualities that are most prized in American soldiers, those qualities being discharging one’s duties faithfully and without doubt or question.

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The Existentialist Considerations Inspired by the Movie HER

I watched the movie Her tonight, and there is so much going on inside my head post-viewing – and there was while I viewed too – that I don’t know where to start or even if what I say will be cohesive, but I’m going to try to articulate at least a couple of thoughts that won’t go away.

First and foremost, love. This movie – naturally – made me think about love, and how it is both timeless and evolutionary. Love evolves because society evolves, and society will never leave love behind, so love must evolve too. But love is timeless because love simply is. The mechanisms and social constructs we force upon it to make it work for ourselves may help us make sense of it, at least in a small way, but it will always be, and it will always be bigger than we can ever understand or imagine.

Secondly, technology. Her is set in the future, kinda. It is futuristic, but it’s also very present. No, we don’t really have artificially intelligent operating systems to the level that Scarlett Johansson represents in the movie, nor are we quite at the stage of using voice commands for everything, although I do use voice commands a lot more now than I used to. I compose entire tweets, texts, and emails using my voice, if I want to do it while I’m driving. It’s not as foolproof as Joaquin Phoenix’s system appears to be, but it’s pretty dang good. I’m often surprised at the words my phone seems to know, and it still amazes me that I can say “comma,” “period,” or “question mark,” and get the punctuation I need.

Third, the confluence of love and technology. As I mentioned before, love evolves to fit our societal constructs, and right now, in 2014, one of our societal constructs is online relationships, online dating, and the like. Online dating in and of itself isn’t a new thing by any means. Chat rooms have been around almost since the internet was invented. Their societal acceptability has changed a lot, though. People no longer bat an eye when they are told that two people met online, but fifteen years ago it was cause for social leprosy and high skepticism. That’s  because, fifteen years ago, the internet was not as integral a part of society as it is now. Fifteen years ago, a few middle-aged perverts used the internet to prey on unsuspecting people, and something I like to call Internet Stranger Paranoia was born.

Internet Stranger Paranoia (ISP) is the idea that a person “from the internet” is not a normal, functional person, and even though it’s 2014 and the internet has changed a billion times since its advent, there are still some people who cling to the idea of ISP. The funny thing about ISP is that it isolates everybody except oneself. It asserts that everyone using the internet and contacting people on the internet is a weirdo, and not to be trusted, except for oneself. Self is the exception. The only one. The interesting thing, though, is that the weirdos and psychopaths and internet predators have become outnumbered by all the normal people using the internet, and that’s because now everyone uses the internet, and statistically, there are more functional and normal people in society than there are deviants, weirdos, psychopaths, and predators. Therefore, Internet Stranger Paranoia just doesn’t make sense anymore, and I wrote about this once before, when I discussed Twitter specifically.

And Twitter is a great example, in fact. Yes, there are dysfunctional human beings on Twitter. But so are there also functional ones, real people who have no reason or cause or motivation to assume alternate identities and trick you. I know this because I’ve met plenty of them. I also know this because I am one of them (one of the functional, real people, that is). The detractors of internet dating still champion the outdated idea that you don’t know a person you haven’t met in person, and this is what I particularly like about the movie Her. It validates an opinion I’ve had for quite some time now, which is that two people can get to know each other without physically spending time together in the same space on the earth. Two people can get to know each other without making eye contact, without touching each other on the cheek or the knee, without hugging. And not only get to know but simply, eventually, know.

There are two reasons I’ve suspected this for a long time now: 1) I’m a writer; 2) I’m a naturally open and vulnerable person. In person or online, in written communication or verbal, I am the type of person who doesn’t hide much, if anything at all. I don’t find it difficult to open up to people, I’m not afraid of my own emotions, and I’m not afraid of being judged. On the other hand, what I do find is that writing my thoughts is so much easier and more natural for me than speaking them. I’m not an introvert – or, at least, not a full one – but neither am I a spotlight, life-of-the-party type of person. I am comfortable in social situations, and with other people, but if you want to dig into my psyche and consume my most articulate, my most intelligent, and my most well-thought-out, well-stated ideas? Well, you can do that by consuming or experiencing my writing, not my in-person conversation. So I myself am the reason I believe that someone can be known through a computer. I know it because I can be.

On the other hand, the movie brings up another point that has been circling my brain for at least five years now, which is: Can we ever fully know someone? Perhaps, for a short time. But people grow and learn and change all the time, and if we don’t let them, then we lose them. Sometimes we lose them even if we do let them, which is what happens in Her. Some of my romantic relationships have ended because I needed to grow and change, and my partner couldn’t handle that. Every time I think about how different I am as a person now than I was in 2002-2003, or from 2004-2007, or in 2010, or 2011, I realize it’s good that I’ve never married. Those time periods represent the years I’ve spent in serious relationships, and with men who knew and understood the core of who I was at one point in time, maybe. But the Audra I am now might be unrecognizable to them because I’ve changed a lot. I don’t know if I’ll ever stop learning and growing and changing. So far, that’s been the core of who I am, and it’s possible that I’ll always be this way. I don’t know.

As this has to do with Her, what is this movie really about, anyway? I don’t know if I’m even sure, but I certainly don’t think it’s about one particular thing. I don’t think it’s about technology any more than I think Brokeback Mountain is about homosexuality. I’m not even sure I would say it’s about human connection. I don’t know if I’d say it’s about love either. Considering the concepts it’s made me ponder, maybe it’s about consciousness and identity. Maybe it’s about freedom. Maybe it’s about being open-minded. Maybe it’s about evolution and progress and change, or maybe it’s about connection and love after all. I don’t really know.

One line that keeps ringing in my head – mainly because Joaquin Phoenix said it a couple of times, or maybe because I can’t figure out what it means – is what he said about his job: “They’re just letters.”

Are they? I don’t know. In some sense, I guess they are. And we’re just people. And this is just life. And there’s something bigger than all of it out there that we cannot grasp.

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“The Movie Was Better:” The 9th Deadly Sin*

I just finished reading A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean’s classic novella, written in memoir style. The thing is, I was disappointed with it. This was my first time reading it, but I had high hopes because of how much I love the movie. I grew up watching that movie over and over, and I still watch it over and over. It’s such a wonderfully told, wonderfully woven coming-of-age story of love and loss, addiction and gambling, family and fishing and faith (those last two – fishing and faith – being treated as interchangeable in this particular narrative). And if you can’t relate to any of those themes, then hopefully you can at least appreciate a young Brad Pitt early in his career!

Naturally, being the bookworm I am, I started wondering why I liked the movie so much better, and I even felt a little guilty for admitting it at first. It can’t be purely about childhood nostalgia or celebrity crushing. In my brief review of the book on my Goodreads account, I recommended that any readers who love the movie and/or aren’t familiar with fly fishing skip the first hundred pages (the copy I read paginated to 160). I don’t know if I’d stick to this recommendation exactly because, to be sure, there are details (perhaps even necessary ones) in the first hundred pages that the reader might appreciate having access to. That being said, though, reading this book gave me a whole new respect for screenplay adapters and script writers. The makers of this movie took a beautiful concept that, in print, translates as piecemeal, extremely personal, and even a bit amateur, and made it into one of the most profound, complex, touching, and universal stories I have ever experienced. There’s certainly something to be said for that.

For starters, the movie’s plot line is more linear than the book’s. Book Norman jumps back and forth, in and out of various stages of his life from childhood to young adulthood to marriage to old age, and it can be difficult to tell what’s happening and in which stage it’s happening. (This is something we certainly would’ve focused revision efforts on had I been his editor.) The movie, on the other hand, moves pretty much chronologically from start to finish in a way that makes complete sense. The movie script also skillfully cuts out certain digressions detailing the technical aspects of fly fishing, the substance of which are what so bogged me down in the first half of the book.

Finally, the movie also does a good job of pulling out the best lines from the book and freeing them from their tangential entanglements so that they provoke the maximum amount of thought and reflective ahhhs. Don’t get me wrong; the book has some great one liners that are certainly thought provoking and deserve to be quoted. But it also has several trains of thought that are absurdly abstract; the kind of abstract that, like certain works of art [most notably the ones that appear to be just errant splatters on canvas, no more impressive than a first grader’s work], make me feel as if I’m missing something for not being awe inspired or driven into reverent and somber silence.

My disappointment with this book and rare (almost shameful) admission that the movie is actually better got me thinking about the other times I have experienced this anomaly. It hasn’t been often, but it has certainly been noticeable each time.

The Count of Monte Cristo is probably the most memorable. I inadvertently bought the abridged version of the book. I had already seen the movie and knew the story and, even with the abridgement, still found the book long, boring, and so tortuous that I couldn’t even finish it (notice that’s tortuous, not torturous; there is a difference). My disappointment was considerable, given that I considered Alexandre Dumas to be one of my favorite authors and I highly revere The Three Musketeers. 

The other main fault I found with The Count of Monte Cristo is that there are too many supposedly important characters and too much time between pickups of their story lines for any reasonable person to be able to remember their pertinent details. In that sense, reading the book felt like the print version of the TV show Heroes. (Remember that show? How awesome was season 1? And even season 2, and then it just got awful after that!)

Brokeback Mountain is my third example of a movie that surpasses its printed counterpart. If you know me at all (or if you’re a faithful reader), you know that I love this movie to pieces. Naturally, I assumed I would also love the short story, but I don’t. I don’t hate it, but I fell in love with the characters as portrayed by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. Film Ennis and Film Jack are excellent and skilled enhancements of Annie Proulx’s Ink Ennis and Ink Jack. Proulx, like Norman Maclean, spins a tale layered with intricacy and a depth that seems almost too much to be adequately unraveled without visual aid or an outsider’s objective interpretation.

It is not a criticism of these beautiful pieces of literature to say that their visual companions did the job better. In fact, better is probably not even the right word. I posit that it’s even a credit to the authors that their works are so layered, so complex, so profound, that they require something more than just black and white words on a page. The fault lies with consumers, perhaps, rather than the authors of these fine works of prose. We consumers have become so detached from the sacred experience of literature that we need the visual stimulation, the third-party, more objective interpretations, to help us connect and engage and receive in the ways these themes deserve and are meant to be received.

That being said, would I take it well if I were told that my masterpiece was better represented, understood, and received in its butchered, doctored cinematic version instead of my own, lovingly crafted original? Likely not. But that’s a hypocritical post for another day.

*If I’m not careful, this could become a post series. I blogged about the 8th deadly sin just over a year ago.

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Tidiness Is Overrated

I heard good things about George Clooney’s movie Up in the Air when it first came out in 2009 but knew absolutely nothing about it before watching it. When it came in the mail from Netflix this week and I read the blurb on the sleeve, I wasn’t intrigued enough to watch right away. (And that, my friends, is called a marketing failure.)

But this weekend I finally found the motivation to watch it, and from beginning to end, I was hooked. I’ll not recap the plot in tons of detail because, if you haven’t seen it, you probably won’t want to read this anyway, since there’ll be spoilers.

Clooney’s character, Ryan Bingham, is extremely likable in this movie, despite the fact that he’s perceived by (some of) his surrounding characters as a bit of a self-involved, misanthropic prick. His job is to fly around the country and fire people for companies with executives who don’t have the guts to do their own dirty work. (Do firms like this actually exist? It seems like a preposterously cowardly and insensitive industry, even for the United States.) Because of the nature of what a job like Ryan’s entails, he seems to have grown rather cynical and detached, but (and this is the reason the viewer is able to like him, even if other characters don’t) he has a winning, surprisingly congenial air about him, an unidentifiable redemptive quality that keeps him from scorn and makes his biting sarcasm almost charming. For some reason, it’s just impossible not to believe that, for all his pretenses of aloofness and distance, he truly is a good guy.

I found myself identifying with him in the beginning – his need to travel light (literally, since he travels for a living; figuratively, meaning relationally) and his preference for being alone more often than not resonated with me. His unconcern about significant life events – getting married, settling down, having children – is a nonchalance I can relate to. Then he meets a woman (of course) who immediately seems his perfect match because she’s just as detached and distant as he is. In fact, in a phone call discussing the nature of their relationship, Alex even tells him, “Just think of me as the female version of you. When you get lonely, call.”

About halfway through the movie, Ryan’s 23-year-old, starry-eyed coworker, Natalie, gets dumped by her boyfriend, and it sends her into a crying fit in the middle of a hotel lobby. It happens to be one of the times Ryan is meeting up with Alex, so over drinks that loosen their tongues and inhibitions, the three sit and talk about expectations, life goals, and hopes that change as people age.

Natalie laments the fact that she’s 23 and unmarried, while acknowledging that her feelings are anti-feminist and therefore contemporarily unpopular. She regrets her decision to have followed a boy (her now ex) to Omaha, having turned down a swanky job in California for the sake of his career. Ryan and Alex cluck their tongues and shake their heads condescendingly while Natalie continues to spout platitudes common to “people your age,” as they put it more than once.

Here is where I felt a departure from my identification with Ryan and a shameful transition to understanding Natalie’s wide-eyed, naive-sounding, idealistic, unrealistic feelings. At one point she says, “I thought I would be married by now.”

I have said that before. In college, I made what I thought was a silly pact with a guy to get married to him if we were both still unattached by a certain age. It seemed a given that I’d be married by that time, so the pact was a definite and absurd joke, something that would presumably be rendered obsolete by the time we reached the agreed-upon age. The age we set? Something practical and truly many years away, like 40 or 50? Guess again: 23. (In case you’re unaware, I am now 26.) When 23 came and went and I still wasn’t married, my friend reminded me of our pact, and I had to revoke the promise (though I am pretty sure he wasn’t disappointed, nor do I think he’d have gone through with it if I had called in the favor).

The reality that Natalie and I both had to discover is that life rarely meets expectations. She also makes the comment, when Alex asks her at one point if she thought her boyfriend was the one, “I could’ve made it work.” In light of such a defeatist concession, it is interesting when, moments later, she accuses Alex of “settling” after Alex tries to explain that it is futile to attempt to hold onto the expectations we have for our lives. As if “I could’ve made it work” wouldn’t have been settling?

Settling is such an interesting concept, and it’s tricky knowing when and where to draw the line. I have had to learn more than once the lesson that I shouldn’t have to settle when it comes to love. But settling and adjusting expectations (or refusing to set up expectations) don’t have to be the same thing. And neither do settling and compromising. Or settling and sacrificing.

Adjusting (or removing) expectations, compromising, sacrificing – these are all necessary components of choosing to love someone. But the results of these truly selfless actions shouldn’t leave one feeling disappointed or resentful or bitter, and if they do, that’s where the line can be clearly drawn between whether these actions really are loving (and therefore necessary), or if we are disguising some version of settling with fancier, more mature-sounding labels.

Another key component that marks the difference between settling and something more selfless – more loving – is reciprocation. If I compromise, sacrifice, and love without expectation but these incredibly vulnerable acts go unnoticed, unacknowledged, unappreciated, un-reciprocated? Then, no matter how intense or honest or pure my love for another person is, my efforts will still be rendered pointless, will turn into settling, and will lead to bitter disappointment.

Reconciling this truth with reality is something I have struggled with before, and it is something Natalie struggles with too. Regardless, she optimistically (and a little judgmentally) continues to pursue attempts to change Ryan and soften a heart she perceives as dark, distant, and closed off.

Eventually, as Ryan spends more time with Alex, he does change (though Natalie isn’t there to witness it). He achieves his superficial goal of racking up 10 million frequent-flier miles, but not surprisingly, the achievement and subsequent reward no longer hold the luster they once did. Shortly after, a predictable scene ensues in which he spontaneously flies to Chicago to surprise Alex at home. This is supposed to indicate to her that he is ready to open his heart and settle down, a gesture I am confident he wouldn’t make if he felt even the tiniest doubt about whether Alex feels the same way.

Unfortunately, a curveball the viewer could arguably see coming (depending on how perceptive he has been during earlier scenes) is thrown into the plot when Alex opens the door to her home and reveals that she is a wife and mother. Everything Ryan thought to be true about this woman he has fallen in love with is suddenly thrown into stark contrast as he realizes (and as she bluntly tells him) that, for her, he is merely “an escape, a parenthesis.” Ouch. He is forced to admit that the Alex he knows is just a character, a role she adopts for her own amusement. (This, of course, is hinted at on the boat scene, when she tells him, “I don’t get to be this fun when I’m at home.”)

The movie ends with Ryan going home and slipping back into his nomadic, traveling-light lifestyle. The implication the viewer is left with is that there was no reason for him to change, to soften, or to let someone in because all it did was get him burned.

It’s a pretty pessimistic way to end the movie, the burden of such a conclusion lightened only slightly by Natalie’s resolution – in which she moves to California and gets the job she originally turned down in order to follow her boyfriend to Nebraska. Her employer asks her why she turned down the job previously, and she meekly says, “I followed a boy.”

I felt a swell of pride when he answers, “I guess we’ve all done that at some point in our lives,” because this is something I can honestly say I’ve never done. And I hope I never will, unless there’s a ring on my finger. I cannot justify upending my entire life (or putting reachable personal dreams on hold) for a relationship whose level of commitment has not been tangibly sealed.

That being said, I’m satisfied with how the movie ends. The empowering and significant (borderline cheesy) message implied by Natalie’s resolution is artfully balanced by the cynical, somewhat disappointing and discouraging resolution for Ryan’s character. It feels real. Things work out well for some people; for others, they don’t. Life, unfortunately, is not in the business of tying up loose ends, so why should a movie script?

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Bad Movies Are Difficult to Review

Here’s a very short disclaimer: I’m not a movie reviewer in any sense of the word. When I watch movies, I pay attention to the writing first and the entertainment factor second. Forget all that other crap about the directing, special effects, soundtrack, cinematography – blech!

For girls’ night last night, three friends and I went to see the movie How Do You Know?, which looked cutesy and endearing in previews. People who don’t know me well don’t guess this about me, but I lean toward being a bit of a sap when it comes to movies and literature. I like a good romance, even when it’s on the fluffy side, and the fact that The Notebook is part of my movie collection is proof of that truth.

So even though How Do You Know? looked like it belonged more on the fluffy side of things than anywhere else, I was still looking forward to seeing it, if for no other reason than it was free and our only other option was Season of the Witch. (Has still nobody told Nicolas Cage that his career is a joke? Oh. Okay. My bad.)

First of all, before we get to my analysis, there was a less-than-incident outside the theater that I’d like to discuss for a second. I’m always amused by the male mentality that reveals itself around females clustered in groups of three or more. For some reason, they think it’s a good idea to throw out a generally flirtatious remark toward a group of women, like bait to a group of fish, and stand there, waiting for one of the girls to be stupid enough to bite. They probably even have vague fantasies about there being a general hullabaloo and scuffling among the targets themselves over which one gets to take the bait. The fault I find with this method lies in its insincerity. The idea of being content with “whichever one bites” is so teenagely hormonal that such behavior is unattractive, immature, and certainly inexcusable in males over the age of fourteen. Okay, maybe I’m being harsh. Eighteen. Okay, fine. Twenty-three. Sheez.

That being said, I won’t pretend that, when a scene like the one described above actually began to play out last night, it wasn’t completely flattering to feel as though a stranger was attracted to me (nottomentionmythreefriends). But feeling flattered is as far as it went. What I found amusing was that none of the four of us felt any desire to throw the guy a bone and at least acknowledge his attempt to initiate a flirtatious banter with one of us. We all kinda glanced once in his direction then turned away.

For my part, it had nothing to do with whether he was attractive. To tell you the truth, I can’t even remember if he was. It just didn’t occur to me that rewarding his courage with a smile or a return witticism was even an option. And I would venture a guess that that’s something akin to how the other girls felt too. Two of them are, after all, ineligible anyway. (Writing about it now, I find it strange that I didn’t recognize or seize the opportunity to flirt with a stranger. Usually I’m pretty on top of that game. Weird.)

Anyway, we went ahead with our ticket purchase and walked into the movie theater, snickering about the guy’s failed attempt. Shortly after, we sat through what, for me, ended up ranking number 2 in the running for most entertaining movie with the worst writing ever. (Thanks to my friendship with the one and only Greg White, the movie Troll 2 irrevocably holds the number-1 spot for that distinction.)

How Do You Know? stars Reese Witherspoon, Paul Rudd, and Owen Wilson. Unless you saw Valentine’s Day* last year, you’d be surprised how a movie with such a stellar cast could still turn out to be so, so bad.

Well, here’s how. The movie seems to have been defined by unorganized scene structure, superfluous attention to detail, underdeveloped characters, unexplained story arcs, and disjointed plot points. My friend Rachel astutely conjectured at the end of the movie that some of the answers to our many questions probably lie in the scenes that got cut – a likely possibility that makes me want to see the movie again, on DVD, just so I can watch the deleted scenes and make some more sense out of the story. Because, as things stand without the option of viewing the deleted scenes, it’s difficult to give an accurate synopsis of the plot.

But here’s an attempt. Reese Witherspoon plays Lisa, an ambitious but hyper-self-critical 31-year-old professional softball player who gets cut from her team for being too old. Owen Wilson plays Matty, her professional-baseball-playing boyfriend, who struggles with the confines of conventional relationships but wants to improve because of his feelings for Lisa. And Paul Rudd plays George, a young entrepreneur whose company (and personal freedom) are in legal jeopardy, thanks to the underhanded dealings of his manipulative father (played by Jack Nicholson), whom George calls “an ethical mutant” at one point.

The three main characters get caught up in an odd love triangle, with George essentially falling for Lisa the first time he meets her; and Lisa and Matty clumsily navigating a relationship containing elements that are new to both of them (monogamy, for him; long-term commitment, for her). George’s life is messy because he is facing jail time, pending the results of the federal investigation into his company’s actions. Lisa’s life is messy because she’s undergoing a veritable identity crisis and attempting to discover who she is without professional softball, while inexplicably attempting a serious relationship with a guy for whom shallowness is second nature. Matty’s life is not really that messy.

I’m not a loyalist to Reese Witherspoon, but I don’t have anything against her either, so in general, I don’t have much to say about how well she acts (or doesn’t act) in this movie. But, as far as Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson, this movie would not have been worth sitting through without their performances. They take poor writing and underdeveloped characters and turn them into something so entertaining to watch that I almost could not contain my laughter during the scenes in which they each – and sometimes both – appear. They both take their character interpretations to the absolute extremes required to make the movie remotely interesting, and, in Rudd’s case especially, this effort pays off.

Rudd hams it up so frivolously that a character who otherwise – on paper or played by anyone else – would be flat and devoid of personality is transformed into this stammering but determined, diffident but lovestruck, quirky but likable guy whom the audience ends up rooting for easily. After one particularly appreciative laugh escaped my lips in response to something Rudd had done onscreen, Laurey leaned over to me and said, “I know why you like him. He’s just like Chandler [on Friends]!” Laurey may have been right. Paul Rudd guest-starred on several episodes of that hallowed show, so he obviously possesses a fun-loving quality that enabled him to get along with the rest of the Friends cast at least reasonably well, or else they wouldn’t have brought him back in Season 9. His role as Phoebe’s boyfriend-eventually-husband put him on the map for me and has made me love almost any movie he appears in.

As for Owen Wilson, on paper, his character would appear to be the stereotypically clueless, shallow, been-around-the-block rich guy who doesn’t care about anyone but himself. But Wilson’s performance and interpretation of the role lend a depth and sensitivity to the script, ultimately instilling in Matty a redeemable quality that, in the end, leaves the viewers rooting for him too.

Unfortunately, the writing misses the mark as far as both character development and plot believability go. Movies are often required to rush some development due to the constrictions of a two-hour (or less) time frame. But this movie rushes all the wrong bits.

One of the first scenes throws the audience into the trenches with the character of George’s pregnant, unmarried office assistant, but because we have no context or explanation for her actions and not even a remote explanation of who this person even is, her motivations and reactions in this early scene lack meaning and import, and her appearance in the scene feels altogether unnecessary. As the movie progresses, there is not a single scene in which this character’s presence feels warranted.

Lisa (Witherspoon) is supposed to be ultra-dedicated to the sport of softball, but other than a couple of scenes near the opening credits, the only indication we get of her alleged dedication is her endless recitation of motivational phrases, some of them specific to athletics. The viewer is therefore left without adequate proof of Lisa’s love of the game.

George is tangled up in some sort of legal debacle with the company he runs, but it is never explained exactly what kind of trouble. There are only vague references made to subpoenas, pending indictments, and potential imprisonment, so that the viewer is left wondering what the heck could have possibly happened inside that company, a train of thought that ultimately serves only to distract the viewer from the thread of the main plot.

And Matty – well, he’s difficult to pin down. At different points throughout, he seems both sensitive and completely amoral. My best shot at summarizing him during the movie was when I leaned over toward Laurey and whispered, “So . . . he’s not a jerk, exactly. He’s just a man-whore.” She nodded in agreement.

George’s dad, like his assistant, appears to be a fairly unnecessary character. His appearances often feel rather like he is there only to provide comic relief or some sort of random plot diversion, which is only successful some of the time. Jack Nicholson, true to form, milks his opportunities richly in his attempts to steal the scenes he’s in, but (this time at least) his efforts are in vain. The familiar delivery of the Jack Nicholson one-liners just did not seem appropriate for this particular movie.

Thanks to Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd (and my employer, actually, for brandishing the lottery that brandished the gift card that brandished my movie ticket), I did not feel like this movie was a waste of my time, and I am even agreeable to the idea of watching it again, once it comes out on DVD. It gave me enough laughs that I honestly think I could stand to sit through it again. (Perhaps I might be able to piece together more of the plot too, who knows?)

But I wouldn’t recommend How Do You Know? to anyone who doesn’t expressly have an interest in both Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson – or, someone who doesn’t like to laugh at a bad movie just for being bad.

Funny thing about this post – I wrote it before going to bed last night and didn’t post it because I was having trouble keeping my thoughts together when going through the edit. I told myself it was just that I was too tired and that I would go over it again today when I was more awake. However, today the post feels just as piecemeal as it did last night, but I’ve concluded it’s an accurate representation of how it felt to watch this movie. So there you go.

*I say that because I really wanted to write that line, and Valentine’s Day was the only movie I could think of off the top of my head that had a pretty diverse and talented cast (or am I the only one who appreciates Anne Hathaway, Bradley Cooper, and Topher Grace?). But the truth is, I actually really enjoyed Valentine’s Day.

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Tragically Complex: An Analysis of Brokeback Mountain

As a preface to those who might be inclined to judge my morality as a result of reading this post: This post is not about gay rights or my support of the gays. It is not a sermon on gay acceptance and tolerance. This post is merely an observance and a comment on a piece of the literary world which I deem beautiful. For those who would prefer to judge my taste in movies rather than my moral equilibrium, go ahead – if you’ve seen the movie, that is. If you haven’t seen the movie, I’ll just warn you now that it would probably be a waste of your time to read this analysis because I am not going to summarize or fill in any trivial details for those who might not be in the know.

Tonight, a good friend and I, in an effort to spend some quality time together before I move out of the state, are going to watch my current favorite movie, Brokeback Mountain. In honor of this epic event, I have decided to write this post that I’ve had notes on for a while but have not ever fleshed out before now. So here I give you, my analysis of Brokeback Mountain, the genre-breaking movie directed by Ang Lee and based on Annie Proulx’s short story and starring the late and wonderfully talented Heath Ledger (as well as the still-alive and not-as-talented-but-still-tolerable Jake Gyllenhaal).

I went to the theater to see this movie without any expectations other than those of being somewhat of a “rebel,” since I was still at the time attending one of the most conservative universities in the country. In 2005, my opinions on the rightness (or wrongness) of homosexuality were shaky at best but condemning at worst. It wasn’t until 2008/2009 that I finally confronted and solidified my convictions about the controversial subject, but I think it was in 2005, after I saw this movie for the first time, that the wheels first began to turn.

Like I said, when I sat down in the movie theater, feeling proud of myself for being so liberal by supporting such a controversial cinematic endeavor, I had no idea this flick would turn out to hold the number-one spot in my list of favorite movies for at least the next four years. (It hasn’t been replaced yet.) I have watched Brokeback Mountain numerous times since then, and every time, I never fail to be impressed by some nuance or other. If you read the short story it was based on, I think you’ll come away underwhelmed, as I was. But the movie is phenomenal, and here is why.

First and foremost, this is a love story. It’s not a story about gay men. It’s not a story about rebellion. It’s not a story about cheating. It’s not a story about ranching, farming, or rodeoing. Those are all minor components of a bigger picture. It’s a story of love and heartbreak, pure and simple. It’s a story about broken families and unmet expectations and bitter disappointments. And it’s a tragedy.

The element of homosexuality is what makes this movie beautiful. The homosexuality in this story lends a layer of depth to the plot that no straight love story I’ve ever read or seen has been able to capture. (That’s not to say that heterosexual love stories will never be as good. I’m just saying that in this one instance, this particular example, this story could never have been what it has become without the gay plot line.)

What this storyline has going for it to begin with is that it smashes into oblivion all the existent stereotypes about gay men – those existent stereotypes being that gay men are effeminate, weak, and flamboyant. Before it was okay to be openly homosexual in society, there must have been scads of closeted gay men all over the world who were as mold-breaking as they come – masculine, strong, burly, quiet. Brokeback Mountain gently tells the story of two such men who are powerless under the indictment of a society that says they cannot be in love. So they do what they feel they must, what the world demands of them. They marry women and they work and they produce children.

But that is not enough, and they are both powerless to deny this truth forever. So eventually, their hearts pull them back to each other, and they weakly maintain their love via clandestine mountaintop rendezvouses that mollify both but satiate neither. When they are together, even when they are alone atop the mountain, with no prying or judgmental societal eyes, they still talk gruffly and joke coarsely about the women in their lives.

On one such occasion, Ennis uses the phrase “puttin’ the blocks to” to describe the nature of the relationship between himself and a woman he has been seeing. (This wording leaves the viewer wondering whether this means that sexual interaction has occurred because the viewer has not been privy to such interaction, but this glibness from Ennis implies that there have been further encounters which the viewer may not have not seen.) Jack shows no real reaction or emotion to this news. If anything, he’s happy that Ennis might be finding contentment after his divorce from Alma. There is no jealousy here. Ennis does not expect it, and Jack does not show it.

But then, when there is mention of the possibility of Jack being with other men, Ennis loses his temper and flies off the handle. Why? Is it because Ennis (and Jack too) knows that Jack can sexually perform for his wife out of a sense of biological responsibility only but that no love exists there? And does Jack know the same about Ennis? Is there something so intrinsically different, some key emotion so palpably absent, during their sexual encounters with women than the ones with men? Ennis’s detachment from Alma, evident in his need to turn her over to her stomach during intercourse, implies that yes, there is such a difference, such an absence. And he remains sexually faithful to Jack in this sense. He does not have sex with any other men, and it is clear from his forced and detached interaction with Alma (and their subsequent divorce as well as the later ambiguity over whether he has sex with the “gal up in Riverton”) that he cannot bring himself to think of anyone but Jack in such an intimate manner.

So then, conversely, why does Jack need Mexico? And why does it show him setting up a possible rendezvous with another man – whose wife is a friend of Jack’s wife – at the man’s boss’s cabin “down on Lake Kemp”? Is it, then, just a purely physical need for Jack? Does he not feel the same love that Ennis feels? Or is it simply not enough? After all, when he and Ennis are together, Jack is so clingy, so much more so than Ennis would ever have the capability of being.

When they are together, Jack is always pushing for Ennis to leave his current life so they can get “a place” together and ranch and live together and be together all the time, an idea Ennis always rejects. This clinginess on Jack’s part implies a deeper-than-lust attachment, so the question again becomes, Why does Jack need Mexico? Perhaps Mexico is the only way Jack can forget or at least assuage, for a time, the pain he feels from being apart from Ennis. Maybe the pain is so strong and so deep that when Jack goes to Mexico, though he is not with Ennis, he sees it as an opportunity to close his eyes and imagine, momentarily, that he is with Ennis.

Ennis is your typical manly guy. He speaks few words and shows little emotion. Is he emotionally immature or closed off, a result of his upbringing? Or does he still struggle with the reality of his own sexuality? After all, after his first encounter with Jack on the mountain, he stubbornly and gruffly snorts, “You know I ain’t queer.” Then later, during one of his many mountaintop weekends with Jack, they get into a tiff, and Ennis accuses Jack, saying in a fit of anger, “You made me this way!” This implies that Jack has both enriched and ruined Ennis’s life. If it weren’t for Jack, he never would have known love, but he also would never have had to admit to himself that he is gay.

In the end, is Ennis duty-bound or just afraid? His character and his hesitance to build a life with Jack are reminiscent of the character Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and his reluctance to run away with Scarlett O’Hara. Ashley is always railing on about his honor even though he is clearly in love with Scarlett. But all his talk about honor turns out to be a disguise for the true reason he won’t run off with Scarlett – his cowardice and his self-loathing of that cowardice within himself. In the case of Ennis del Mar, is he protecting his daughters’ perceived innocence? Staying faithful to his responsibilities? Or is he just afraid of intimacy and the truth about his own sexuality?

Just like Ashley Wilkes and Scarlett O’Hara, Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist never get to be truly happy. Jack becomes the victim of a fatal hate crime, and Ennis is left to deal with the world all by himself; left with only his precious memories of his few sporadic trysts with Jack; left with the bittersweet knowledge that Jack kept both their bloodied shirts from that very first summer on the mountain; and left with the crippling realization that he will probably never love again.

And the viewer, if not completely devoid of emotion, is left at the end with the sense of hopeless effort, the feeling of if only, and the resolute certainty that such tragedy will not befall him in his own life if he has anything to say about it.

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The Myth of the Happy Ending

For about three months I was part of a magazine called CultureWest. However, it didn’t survive. This post stems from an assignment I was going to do for the mag, but the mag was killed before the assignment was due. So I’ve decided to produce it here instead, probably in poorer quality and definitely at a shorter length than it would have been otherwise. So here goes.

If I could get on a soapbox (other than this one, I guess . . . which would be silly . . . because this truly is my soapbox, but whatever), here is one (more) thing I would say to writers and authors everywhere: Don’t fear the tragic.

Writers tend to avoid unhappy endings. They think that a happy ending equals closure, and that does not have to be true. They also think a happy ending equals a happy reader, and that does not always have to be true either. Yes, stories often need definitive closure, but closure doesn’t have to mean happily ever after. (Whether a story really needs closure is a whole other blog post.) Writers have gotten this erroneous impression about the “need” for happy endings from readers who think that they want happy endings.

But just as my authors don’t usually know what’s best for their own books, so do readers not usually know what they really want in a story. And I think that by giving them what they think they want, we are insulting their intelligence and allowing them to wallow in a mire of mediocre material where they don’t realize what kind of literary luxuries they’re missing.

Let’s take a look at one of history’s most revered and respected writers – Will Shakespeare. If given ten seconds to name as many of his plays as you can, I’d be willing to bet this computer I’m typing on that in ten seconds, you could (and would) name more of his tragedies than any of his works from other genres. Heck, Romeo & Juliet is the first play that springs to most people’s minds when they think of good ol’ Shakesey. (And don’t comment and tell me something different. That just means you’re the exception or you’re showboating, and I don’t care.) After R & J, the plays I can name the fastest are these: Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, As You Like It, Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though not all are tragedies, the first three are, which of course you should have seen coming because it proves my point, and why would I write anything contradictory to my point?

Shakespeare was a great playwright because his tragedies moved people (and still do). People get pissed off when they read Romeo & Juliet because anyone who’s ever been in a relationship that has lasted longer than a week knows that communication is the key element missing from Romeo and Juliet’s relationship and that their pathetic, dramatic, teen-emo-worthy deaths could have been avoided had they just had better communication or a little patience. (But then, where would the story be?) Still, it’s infuriating to watch these adolescent idiots moon over each other and make mountains out of molehills and end up dead because they let their hormones control them.

However, are not rage, annoyance, anger, infuriation – are they not emotions? Even if you’re sensitive (read: silly) enough to feel pity for the two lovers or mourn their deaths, is that not still a reactionary emotion? Has Shakespeare not stirred you? Of course he has! Which means he has written well.

I love the phrase character you love to hate because it describes a writer’s skill so well. There is a prime example of this technique in a movie I recently watched, He’s Just Not That Into You. In discussing this movie with a couple of my friends, I said there was a particular character (Gigi, in case anyone has seen it) in the movie whom I absolutely hated, and my friends both gushed that they loved her. I asked how they could, and they said “Because she’s so cute!” And I said, “But she’s so stupid and clueless and pathetic and annoying!” One friend argued, “But she’s supposed to be over the top. No one is really like that in real life.” Whether the character traits were exaggerated intentionally or not, the character still got under my skin and I still hated her.

Which means that the writers did a brilliant job with that character. Not to toot my own horn (but then, why would I have my own blog if I didn’t intend to do just that), but I think that my reaction to the character is “correct” and my friends’ reactions “incorrect,” in terms of assessment of technique. I don’t think viewers are supposed to love this character. If she is a well-written character and if the actress portraying her is doing what she’s supposed to be doing, then viewers should be annoyed by her because she’s absolutely ridiculous. In a movie, the ultimate effect is comical, yes. But in real life, nobody would want to be this girl’s friend. Especially not me. In essence, we are supposed to love to hate her. Which I do.

This is what tragic/sad endings are supposed to do as well. If done right, a tragic ending should anger the reader or make him cry, and if it does, the writer has achieved her goal. If you have a strong outburst of negative emotion that directly pertains to a scene in a book, then it should not matter whether you “like” to cry or you “like” sad endings. All that should matter is the fact that such a reaction was able to be evoked from you. If you don’t like to cry, all the better. Because I think it’s safe to assume that if you don’t like to cry, you don’t do it often. Which again points to the skill of the author who succeeds at making you cry (like Nicholas Sparks, for instance).

An example of someone whom I believe fears the tragic is J.K. Rowling. If you haven’t read all seven Harry Potter books and don’t know how the series ends (and don’t want to), please do not continue. You have been warned. If you would at least like to see my conclusion, then just skip the next three paragraphs and pick up with the words I don’t respect. . . .

Before you get in a tizzy about the fact that I’m critiquing one of the world’s most renowned writers, please note that I am in no way disparaging Rowling’s talent as a writer. I think she’s brilliant, and I love her series. But I think she got afraid of where it was going and took control near the end instead of letting the story and characters take their natural course.

I would have loved to see her kill off Harry. Of course I love Harry, but that’s exactly why I was hoping he would die. My outpouring of emotion over the death of one of my favorite literary characters of all time would have been intense, and it would have been warranted and well earned. Now, I know that Rowling is no stranger to tragedy in her fiction. I know she kills off a lot of people, especially in her last two books, and I did cry over most of them. But what courage it would have taken for her to kill Harry, and what skill it would have required!

Writers who risk everything by being bold and daring enough to be willing to upset readers are met with a challenge that forces skill, determination, and supreme effort. And the ones who succeed are to be commended rather than decried. I still love Rowling, and I know my opinion in the literary world is worth chicken sh*t (but then, that’s why I blog about it instead), but I’d have really respected her a whole lot more if she’d been courageous enough to kill him. And I was superbly disappointed by her attempt at closure in her happily-ever-after epilogue. To me, that felt like a coward trying to hide his shame.

I don’t respect readers who say they don’t like sad endings. If that is really true, then they aren’t realizing their full potential as readers. To me, this is like the person who says he avoids dating or relationships because he’s afraid of getting hurt. This person isn’t doing himself any favors. Instead, by closing himself off from love or the possibility of it, he’s missing out on a lot of fantastic emotions and feelings and experiences.

I can neither respect nor relate to people like this. I don’t care if I end up hurt. Wounds heal, and a broken heart isn’t going to kill me. I’d rather have the laughter, the physical touch, the intensity of shared emotion, and the chemistry and spark that come from human connection. Tears always dry eventually.

So for the sake of their readers’ emotional education, writers have to be willing to break hearts. It doesn’t mean that everything they write has to be sad. But all writers should be more open to the idea of hurting their readers, and all readers should be more open to the idea of getting hurt.

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