Fort Tilden (2014)

It would be easy to watch this film and take it as a condemnation of spoiled/entitled Millennials, that trusty crutch of the elders that has a nearly unrivaled capacity to get my dander up. After all, Harper (Bridey Elliot) and Allie (Clare McNulty) are seemingly living an unfocused post-collegiate life in Brooklyn, clearly subsidized, and they can’t seem to actually do anything, except text each other snide comments about those around them and post things to instagram. Thus a seemingly simple trip to meet up with some boys at the beach turns into an epic adventure of fail.

Harper and Allie aren’t particularly likable, and it should be noted are neither realistic nor representative of their generation (which is mostly poor and non-white, though stereotypes about the generation always seem to be about well-to-do white people). But over the course of the film, as they are metaphorically sacrificed for their generation’s alleged sins, one does start to feel empathy. Harper will have a good idea to direct her artistic energies, but just as quickly shoot herself down, saying it is a stupid idea. For all the talk of participation ribbons leading to undue confidence, here is someone who has a completely broken sense of self-worth. And Allie is keen to do something meaningful to help others, being set to join the Peace Corps. As someone who previously crashed out during the application process of the Peace Corps, realizing that for as much as I’d like to be helping, it wasn’t the right venue for me, I definitely related to her uncertainty. Seeing her friends struggling in a Teach For America-type situation similarly speaks to a societal failure to harness this charitable energy.

The thing that makes Fort Tilden work so well is how it balances the dramatic weight (if often amplified by their inability to cope) with a wickedly dry humor. I laughed a number of times, including passing gags like when Harper says she’s preparing their apartment for the possibility the guys come home with them, including taking the exact identical copy of Infinite Jest I just started last month and placing it out prominently. Because nothing would appeal more to a young bro than a work of young bro genius. Considering how much I’m not enjoying the book, this subtle poke (and another at the expense of Phillip Roth) delighted me. And the ending really works as the culmination and payoff, so many wonderfully defeated realizations, these two women stripped bare of their illusions, perhaps ready to actually enter the world as it exists.

B+

The Hunting Ground (2015)

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

One of the worst feelings is powerlessness. On any number of major issues, including the shockingly high incidence of rape, or in light of yesterday and pretty much every day before it, gun violence, I as a student of public policy believe we could make substantial and beneficial changes to make society better and safer. My sense of powerlessness doesn’t come from feeling we can’t do something but that we won’t do something. The power of gun culture or rape culture will force us to simply accept horror as our reality. My decision to become a paralegal in part is an attempt to find a role that allows me to feel like I have the power to make some difference, and through that to give a measure of power to those who lack it. Generally, I’ve seen the powerless as the victims of state power or injustice, and thus been drawn to the defense in criminal cases.

Watching The Hunting Ground, and recently reading Missoula, I’m starting to think I’ve been giving short shrift to the power for good that might be able to come from working for the prosecution. Seeing cases of rape go unprosecuted because of a priori determinations of it being difficult to win (similar to cases of police violence against black men) shows the need for good people on the prosecution as well, not to mention a good prosecution can similarly avoid causing the injustices to defendants in the first place.

Now, I’m not sure it was entirely fair to The Hunting Ground that I come to it fresh off Missoula because the depth allowed in a written volume is so much greater, and it uses it amazingly well to really situate you in the day-to-day experience of rape culture within a small enough setting to be comprehended. The Hunting Ground tries to be much more global, with a whirlwind of factors and stories that covers all the bases, and is effective in its own way, but doesn’t quite sink in as deeply. I should note that while both focus on college campuses, Missoula does at least open with an author’s note that reflects the fact that as dangerous as college campuses are for young women, the “real world” is even more dangerous for the generally lower-income women who don’t go to college. Fraternities and college sports are focal points of the campus issue, but there are equivalent structures outside of college.

Aside from the actual incidence of rape, aside from the process of reporting rape on campus or through the police departments, that can often feel like a violation of its own, one thing that both documentary and book touch on is how cyber-assault has become a new and additional violation of the victim, especially in high profile cases. Much like all the threats that arose in Gamer Gate or that female critics routinely get if they give a bad review to a superhero movie, this cyber-assault joins so many of the other problems, of sexual and domestic violence, of gun violence as the result of two things: capitalism and toxic masculinity. Let’s be honest, the perpetrators of all this harm are overwhelmingly male, and aside from general patriarchy, the reason so much of this harm seems unfixable is money. For colleges it is the money that comes in primarily from alumni that care about sports and fraternities. For politicians it is from the funding of the NRA and countless others who profit from the status quo.

Both film and book do offer green shoots. Rape culture has probably never been more in the public consciousness and under President Obama’s administration, the Office of Civil Rights has pushed colleges, police departments and prosecutors to revamp how they approach the cases, not to limit the due process of defendants but to make things humane for victims. Activists like those featured in this documentary have turned to basically “coming out” as the dominant strategy. It is a bad bit of human nature that many cannot fully appreciate an issue until it comes home, but if the LGBT rights movement has shown anything, visibility is everything, and sadly the population of women who have been sexually assaulted is probably even larger than the LGBT population. So hopefully we can take the progress made by LGBT-rights groups as a sign that progress can be made in all these other areas too. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

B

Do I Sound Gay? (2014)

The question that forms the title of this documentary (which I supported through Kickstarter) is not one I find the need to ask. Dozens of classmates in middle school and high school who picked on me, along with plenty of strangers I’ve had marginal conversations with have provided that answer for me without it needing to be asked. The documentary focuses on the place of the “gay voice” as it relates to individual gay men, particularly the director David Thorpe, and in the broader culture. Recognizing that the film is not about me, as a nominally straight man, I was still curious if the documentary would explore the effect of the notion of a gay voice on those who aren’t part of that community.

To that particular standard, I wasn’t entirely disappointed, as a brief section acknowledges that the voice isn’t actually a great predictor, and introduces one person as an example, but it doesn’t really dive into the effect for those individuals. However, in its key purpose, it is pretty thorough, if not exactly interested in scientific heft. At one point Thorpe mentions voice as ultimately a product of one’s physical form, but it never really talks about the mechanics of that. It spends more time on things that seem contrary to that point, such as the influence of women in a boy’s upbringing (I certainly have tended toward socializing with women, which could have affected my speech patterns) to the notion of camp as identity performance.

While comfortable enough with my own voice generally, I do have concerns about how it is perceived. I have no problem being perceived as gay per se, but when a woman does that, she’s likely not to consider you as a likely sexual partner, which, being primarily interested in women, poses a bit of a problem. What I found surprising was the way that the gay voice is actually seen as a potentially unattractive trait even to other gay men. To the degree that I have an interest in men, it is toward the more effeminate, which makes perfect sense for me. But in hindsight, it almost seems obvious that for those who are actually interested in men, be they men or women, masculine traits are a major part of that. So while it might be easy for women to get away with strong preferences toward the masculine, when an insular culture has both a preference for masculine and an identity that encourages femininity, there is a certain dissonance.

Students of film will appreciate a section about the origin of the gay voice as a form of code in pop culture when making a character openly gay was not possible. This has its positive connotation of sophistication and creativity (or general class implications), and sense of humor, but has often carried the stigma of an evil otherness, and I’ll never look at a Disney villain the same way again. At a brisk 75 minutes, the film gets in and out and is useful, but ultimately feels like it could have used another 15 minutes to add in some more substance.

B-

Magic Mike XXL (2015)

You know what I never want to see in the credits of a film? This:
Augustus’ Girl
Malik’s Girl #1
Mike’s Girl #1
Mike’s Girl #2
Mike’s Girl #3
Mike’s Girl #4
Tito’s Girl #1
Tito’s Girl #2
Tito’s Girl #3
Ken’s Girl #1
Ken’s Girl #2
Big D*** Richie’s Girl
Malik’s Girl #2
Ken’s Floor Girl #3
Mike’s Girl #2

Now, in fairness to this film, most of these are the women who take an interactive part of the guys’ stripping routines, so it isn’t necessarily important that they be named, and the possessive doesn’t indicate actual romantic possession. I mean, Rick Springfield had it wrong, she wasn’t Jessie’s Girl, she was the woman who was dating Jessie. We’ll ignore that if he “had” Jessie’s Girl, she wouldn’t be Jessie’s Girl. It’s a paradox.

While Magic Mike felt like it had something to say about the economy and masculinity, in addition to flashy dancing, XXL is all rather flaccid until they actually arrive at the convention in the last half hour. The film’s attempt at meaning around doing something personally meaningful rather than playing to expectations others have could be powerful, but it doesn’t really have the potency. But those final scenes, especially Richie’s routine and the dual mirror routine of Mike and Malik. That’s what we came to see. Bonus points for Joe Manganiello’s reaction shot to the Twilight-themed routine from another troop. Ultimately, this reminds me a lot of Pitch Perfect 2, it delivers in what it actually exists for, but just has a bit of a problem with the filler.

C+

The Martian (2015)

Taking a look at the world, it is easy to be pessimistic. Wars, poverty, Donald Trump as the leading candidate of one of the two major parties of the most powerful country in the world. It is easy to feel the world is going to hell. Paul Ehrlich, a biologist, certainly was such a man. Back in 1968 he looked at population trends and saw doom. However, a business professor, Julian Simon, had a different view. He saw in humanity a boundless resource of innovation, the ability to problem-solve to overcome adversities. The two engaged in a wager regarding the prices of scare materials and Simon came out the victor. That win may not be a proof, but his optimism may be justified as overall trends for humanity tend to point towards better lives.

The Martian is an unashamed celebration of optimism and human ingenuity. It is a paean to scientific minds that always find a solution to the problems that arise from out of our control. In a way Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a stand-in for all of humanity, stranded on Mars. His peril is the source of our tension, and his persistence most central, but it is important to see that this is a group effort. In the characters we see so many of humanity’s admirable traits. The ability to use humor to modulate our emotions and lessen stress in tense situations. The capacity to put ones self at risk, whether to save another, or to accomplish something for a broader human aspiration like science. Even the ability to cast aside the constructs we use to divide ourselves and act together as one people. Maybe it all feels a bit too much like fantasy, but these are all real human traits.

One contrast that I think is valuable is to look at just how precarious Mark’s life is on Mars and appreciate how good we’ve got it on our own planet that, not without its own dangers, is remarkably hospitable. Maybe it serves as a bit of a reminder to take good care of this blessing. This film comes at a vital time, an age bereft with cynicism and generally low faith in institutions. Maybe that cynicism is earned (and Jeff Daniels’ administrator and Kristen Wiig’s PR person stand in for this view) but we need a reminder of what is possible. This story may be fiction, but we’ve done things that were equally implausible seeming at the time. It just takes the will to survive and to strive.

A

Quartet (2012)

Sports stars careers wind down in their 30s, Elton John and Bono can no longer hit the high notes of their early hits, even in academia, most great innovations come by age 40. What to make of the second half of our lives if it is just the same, but less successfully, and with the attendant aches and hassles of a declining body and mind?

This is all on the minds of the residents of Beecham House, a retirement home for standout musicians. While Wilf (Billy Connolly) keeps things lively with the old, unfiltered rogue act, the film sneaks in some real emotion as Reginald (Tom Courtenay) and Jean (Maggie Smith) are forced to face up their strained romantic past while Jean in particular is haunted by her faded talents.

Taking these strong emotional points and putting them in the hands of some of the very best is a pretty firm guarantee of quality and it doesn’t disappoint. This sort of film may be finding footing due to the baby boomers, with their numbers and money, hitting retirement, but it holds plenty of lessons for those of us still in our younger years.

B+

9 to 5 (1980)

So there’s no good reason I hadn’t watched this before now, but given that, I figured what a better time to watch this film than on Labor Day. The film quickly establishes its central trio of women put upon by the patriarchal work environment: Violet (Lily Tomlin) who has put in years of hard work but keeps getting passed over for promotion in favor of men; Judy (Jane Fonda) who is just getting into the workforce after being a housewife for years, upon her husband leaving her for his secretary; and Doralee (Dolly Parton), a secretary who their boss Frank Hart (Dabney Coleman) is hot to trot for. Aside from these three, we get a glimpse of others who are hurt by the system. One lady is fired for discussing pay, which would generally be a violation of labor law, no matter how much companies discourage doing it, though proving it in court (and affording the lawsuit) would be another thing. Others have work-life balance concerns relating to family. Anyway, it cuts right to the meat of the issue about how businesses were (and mostly still are) hostile to workers, especially women.

The film is a witty satire from the start, but when the three bond over their frustrations, the film takes a turn for the outright zany. When this takes the shape of their respective genre-styled revenge fantasies, it is rather fun. When events lead to real-life hijinks, it strains ones patience a little. This is my feminist empowerment film, I don’t necessarily want a Mr. Magoo act. Still, this serves an essential plot point, which I’ll discuss in the paragraph below WITH SPOILERS.

So the trio ends up kidnapping him to avoid him turning them over to the police and right at the end we find out that during the weeks that they hold him in captivity, Violet and Doralee have conspired to revolutionize the office in Hart’s name, instituting all manner of liberal policies like flexible scheduling or part-time hours and child care to make things easier for the mostly female workforce. That this productive work is hidden so as to get a surprise at the end, while showing all the borderline incompetent criminal actions kind of diminishes the film’s power. It might be slightly more in keeping with the comedic nature/tone of the film, and I’m probably asserting my desires for the film in lieu of what it was going for, but I just would have loved to watch them make the changes we later find out pay off.

So yeah, a few reservations, though none about Lily Tomlin, who is an absolute treasure. As much as I feel there is a film here that I would have loved a lot more, accepting what they are going for, I really appreciated it.

B+

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