STEP UP

I watched Step Up last week, in the middle of writing my final papers, and it was a beautiful break from thinking things. It’s so much fun, and nonsensical, and weirdly serious in parts as it tries to be all movies to all people, and also the dancing is great, and Channing is a babe even if he is basically a child here. It was a total blast, and my partner and I have real exciting plans to watch all of the sequels. I couldn’t understand how I had avoided this beautiful piece of millennial pop-culture trash.

And then I remembered when it came out, and what my life was like then. It came out in August 2006. I would have been almost fourteen, about to start eight grade, and I could not have enjoyed this movie, because this was what the people who were mean to me liked. They took it from me.

I realize this is a very childish coping mechanism, but in my defense, I was an actual child, and a weird one at that. Middle school was basically hell, and seventh grade was the worst year of my life. I responded to this misery by getting really into punk rock, and more into sf/fantasy books, and not liking anything that “popular” kids liked. This age is when you’re creating an identity, and mine was about not being like the kids who teased me. Also, because punk rock is great, and I’ve always been a big reader, and I like to think I would have found these things I love no matter what, but who knows.

There was a meme going around twitter last week, asking why people were bullied as kids, and like, I have no fucking idea. Because I was a weird kid. I read a lot, and wasn’t athletic, and went to a k-8 for middle school with all these kids who already knew each other, and my parents are recovering alcoholics, and I had a kind of sheltered childhood, and grew up watching classic movie musicals. Who the fuck knows. Really, it didn’t have anything to do with what I was, or what I did.

I got bullied because kids are horrible, and don’t know how to navigate difference. Lord knows, I was pretty bad too. I felt ostracized, rightly or wrongly, and responded by feeling superior and cutting myself of trying to connect with people I didn’t already trust. And like, that’s not a mature coping mechanism, but again, I was a child! We were all children, and we were terrible to each other, and that’s why I couldn’t enjoy Step Up when it came out! It’s a godforsaken tragedy!

My life would been better if it was like Step Up, which is about how you can still dance with someone even if they’re different from you. That’s a good lesson to learn. And maybe my whole life would have been better if I had watched Step Up in 2006 instead of… I don’t know what that year was? Getting Buffy the Vampire slayer dvds in the mail from netflix, or checking out cult movies from Cinema Revolutions (RIP). It was eleven years ago! Eleven and a half, almost.

I don’t regret doing those things, because they made me into the person I am today, someone who’s deeply nerdy about vampires and film culture. I might have created my identity as a middle schooler out of some protective need to be different, and that’s isn’t not sad, but I still like who I am. I’m just really glad that I’ve grown up enough that I can be someone who likes all of those things AND Step Up. It’s a real fun movie. You should give it a chance. Maybe the “popular” kids were on to something.

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Dunkirk

I went and saw Dunkirk when I was in the cities for Thanksgiving. I dragged my dad out to the late movie in Hopkins because I wanted to see all of the best picture nominees, and this was probably my best last chance to see Dunkirk on the big screen, and every prediction list I’ve seen so far has had it as a nominee.

I’m glad I went, because all of the good things about the movie were things that come across better in a theater. The sound design was excellent. I really liked the score, and the way that the music interacted with the explosions and the sound of the ocean. I know this comes across as a back handed complement, if the only thing I can single out for praise is the sound design, but all together it really is an impressive spectacle. I can see why it will probably get nominated for best picture. If it wins in anything that isn’t a technical category I’ll be pissed, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s a very impressive piece of filmmaking.

It’s just a shame that it completely fails to opperate on a human level. Nolan is not at all interested in people. He’s interested in the sweeping action, in the grand historical moment, but not the human beings. I don’t remember any of the characters names. There was Harry Styles, and Tom Hardy, and the blond pilot who wasn’t Tom Hardy. I guess the people in the boat were almost two dimensional, but barely. It isn’t that it doesn’t have a heart, because there is something, an uplifting nationalist message which we could critique, but still, it isn’t soulless. It’s just that the storytelling is incredibly alienating in a way that I didn’t find compelling, where I don’t think it was trying, to be alienating, it’s just that no one was interested in forming connections.

The best part was how much my dad disliked the film, and how afterwards I got to teach him who Harry Styles was. He had never even heard of One Direction! He was not at all impressed by the fact that Harry Styles used to date Taylor Swift! We got home from the suburbs and I pulled up some music videos, and I think it was a real important learning experience for him.

(for the record, Harry Styles is a fine actor. I think anyway. He had very little to do. This film really is not interested in individual people.)

Todd Haynes Films Ranked

Even before I started reading Vulture’s list ranking Todd Haynes’s films I knew I would disagree with it. It’s probably fairly accurate judging by the strength of the filmmaking, but it fails to account for what I’m actually looking for from a Todd Haynes’s film, which is something more than strong filmmaking. Todd Haynes is my favorite director because he makes really queer films. His major in college was semiotics, and I swear, it shows. What follows is a list of his films based on how much I love them, which says more about the kind of things I love than how good any of the films are. But my list is still better than Vulture’s.

  1. Carol

Maybe this makes me a bad lesbian, but I don’t care — Carol is a boring movie. It’s very pretty, and I’m happy it exists, and that lots of straight people went and saw a film about happy lesbians, and all the memes are great. But it’s a kind of boring movie.

  1. Far From Heaven

There’s something restrained about this film which is a problem for me. It reaches towards all these things, but never quite touches them. It’s such a prestige movie — a well done prestige movie and everything, about issues, a period piece with accent design. But it doesn’t do anything surprising or exciting. It’s just well done, without making me care enough.

  1. Posion

I need to see this again, because I watched it before my Genet kick, and Haynes films are more fun when you recognize what he’s poking at. This was his first feature film, and it’s three different things braided together, and it’s super intriguing, but also baffling? I don’t know how well it works, or how enjoyable it is, but it’s thought provoking, and an important statement in queer cinema.

  1. Wonderstruck

I just saw this, and I’m probably going to try to write about it more soon, but it was a very sweet movie, and inspired me to listen to “Space Oddity” on repeat for weeks. It’s kind of precious, and there sure are a lot of tidy coincidences, but it’s a kids movie, and I don’t care. I don’t think it always succeeds, but at least it’s trying to do something special and odd.

  1. Safe

Objectively, Todd Haynes’s best movie? I’ve only seen it once, and I want to see it again. It’s very smart, and very cool, and Julianne Moore does this breathy little voice, and is so fantastic. (How good Julianne Moore is in so many Todd Haynes movies is another discussion, but just: wow, I love her.) The problem with this film is that it’s too a bit close to things that I worry actually worry about.

  1. I’m Not There

I lied. This is my favorite Todd Haynes film. But I couldn’t bring myself to rank it any higher, because on some level it isn’t very good? But I love it. It’s about Bob Dylan, and the many masks he’s worn. It’s very fragmented, and I have no idea how much sense it makes if you aren’t a huge Dylan nerd (which I am). But it has Cate Blanchett playing a version of Bob Dylan, and that alone is transcendently amazing. I’ve watched it more times than any other film on the list, and really, find it endlessly rewatchable, probably because the plot is really tenuous while the soundtrack is great. Which is actually a weakness, but whatever, it works for me.

  1. Superstar: the Karen Carpenter Story

This is a biopic shot with Barbie Dolls, and it’s brilliant. It’s just, so good? And so weird? And its legend is enhanced by its status as a cult object, circulating on VHS copies before the web, because he couldn’t get music clearance for a real release. Do yourself a favor and watch it right now.

  1. Velvet Goldmine

A feature length film of David Bowie/Iggy Pop fan fiction. How could I love anything more than this? The soundtrack is so good, the world is so bright and shiny. I honestly can’t believe this film exists, and the fact that it does, and is such a wild trip, makes me have faith in the universe. The reason why I love Todd Haynes is because he makes films I want to see that I can’t imagine anyone else making. Lots of people can make nice prestige films, but I can’t imagine anyone else making this, and that’s why I love it.

Battle of the Sexes

This wasn’t a great movie, but any story that ends with a lesbian winning is going to be swell in my books. It’s a well crafted biopic of legendary 70s tennis player Billie Jean King, chronicling her pioneering advocacy for women’s sports, and her first forays into lesbianism. It’s a nice story, a pleasant piece of cultural history that’s worth knowing, but the filmmaking never elevates past serviceable, never transcends into essential. The sports story is epic, but predictable. The budding romance is a lovely sort of fumbling, but is rightly characterized by so much uncertainty that it can’t be the heart of the film. Instead the heart is a plainspoken demand that women deserve equal treatment, which is incredibly important, but not the most dramatic heart, or at least not here.

The film’s greatest strength is it’s cast. As Billie Jean King Emma Stone has something other then the ingenue to play, and she’s more than up to the task, embodying King with the physicality of an athlete who understands their body perfectly in one setting, but is less sure the rest of the time. Steve Carrell makes Bobby Riggs an utterly pathetic figure, too sad of a buffoon to be a real villain. You’re rooting for his failure, but at the same time, know that he isn’t motivated by malice towards anyone else as much as his own failures and emptiness. The supporting cast is good too. I love Natalie Morales, but wish it had given her something more to do. Alan Cumming is playing a stereotype of a fashion designer/older gay advice giver, but I can’t bring myself to complain about the broadness of his role because he does it so well.

I’m really glad this movie exists. There should be more sports movies about lesbians winning things, more movies about triumphant feminism, more movies that make my heart feel warm and full like this. I would just appreciate if they were slightly more interesting films.

The Big Short, book and film

My mother hates this movie so much. We watched it for the first time a year ago, and she decided to give up and go to bed half way through. A friend of her’s had a movie night recently, and this was the feature presentation, and god, she was not excited. How much she hates this movie is honestly hilarious, my mild mannered mother gathering up so much disgust for a film.

I love it. I think it’s brilliant. I tried to write about it right after we watched it, but didn’t know what to say. It’s taken some time and rematching to puzzle things out.

It does so many cool weird filmmaking. The way it plays around with music video style is so much fun. Lots of fast cuts, montages, what is basically a rap video thrown in, a couple of characters singing a Nirvana tune out of the blue. It’s brilliant, and I love it. The little asides where Margot Robbie and Anthony Bourdain explain boring bank things is a great choice to get in necessary information without being dull. It’s a really smart movie that assumes its audience is really smart.

There’s a lot of really good performances. Everyone is great. Everything is great.

I read the book right after watching the movie, and I liked it too. It was informative and well written. It didn’t have the same spark and pizzaz as the movie, limited by being a book, but it was still excellent. The housing crisis is important shit that we should know about. It’s awesome that it’s being presented in an accessible book and incredible movie. I love it.

The Taliban Shuffle, book by Kim Barker, and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, movie staring Tina Fey

So, I read this book sometime last year, and decided not to post anything until I also saw the movie. Here is what I wrote about the book just after finishing it:

This is a memoir by a journalist who became a foreign correspondent after 9/11, and her adventures in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Barker is a clear writer, and good at presenting the tangled political situation that I think I understood. I learned a lot about the region, and what America was doing there, but what sets this book apart is the personal stories. Barker is covering this hugely important moments, but she’s also a woman with a life, trying to balance career and romance and family. My favorite thing is that she admits she didn’t know what she was walking into, that no one did. It’s obvious that there’s a massive lack of understanding on all levels. The government, the military, the news, all of these different organizations, are all stumbling around, trying to do something huge, but mostly failing.

Basically, it is an alright book, but not great. Having now seen the movie, I can say, it is an alright movie, but not great. The surprising thing is that book and movie had fairly different flaws. Normally weaknesses are consistent through adaptation, but here, not so much.

The weakness of the movie is that it’s sort of clueless, and tries but fails to do a love story. The weakness of the book is mostly that it isn’t very shiny. The movie is possibly too shiny? It is not specific enough. It doesn’t slow down to explain boring but important history or politics. But it also doesn’t go the other way into a more exaggerated world. It’s grounded in a very shallow reality, and that’s a shame. I can imagine a better movie. The book had the makings of a better movie, and the idea of adapting that book to star Tina Fey seemed like a good idea. But then it’s just this. Which is almost boring. Maybe it wouldn’t be if I didn’t know the plot, but I don’t think that’s the problem. I think it’s just sort of dull. Pleasant, but dull.

If you’re only going to do one, I’d pick up the book, but honestly, they’re both skippable unless something about the summary really stands out to you.

Hell or High Water

When I started reading reviews of this movie I knew I’d have to go see it with my dad, because my dad likes Westerns, and he likes Jeff Bridges, and all of the reviews said it was very good. It finally got to the cheap theater by our house, and we went and saw it, and it was everything I hoped for.

It’s modern, and very much set in this moment of financial crisis, but it still has the spirit you want from a Western. The landscape is there, and the music. It’s a compelling story that plays with traditional western tropes, but does enough to be different, and there are some very excellent performances. Highly recommended.