Monday, November 30, 2009

"The Electronic Book Burning"

My dear friend Trevor linked me to Alan Kaufman's essay "The Electronic Book Burning" in the current issue of the Evergreen Review. Written in desperate defense of the printed word and as a response to the tidal wave of support for the Kindle and the E-Book, it's a bitter irony that Kaufman's eloquent discourse has been "published" in the online version of the reputable, physically-defunct literary magazine.

I firmly agree with Kaufman's stance.

I recall a time less than a decade ago when I held a personal distaste for the iPod, and a time not long before that when I was against cell phones. Today, my iPod and my phone travel with me everywhere I go, though I seem to retain a relatively Puritan outlook on the propriety of using these gadgets in public.

One of the more difficult obstacles I've encountered in my other blog, The Chicago T-Shirt Project, which hinges on my ability to approach and engage strangers, is the percentage of people tied to their headphones and cell phones. I remember a teacher in high school telling me that listening to my Discman in the hallways was "antisocial". He was absolutely right. It is now commonly practiced and accepted to take these two technologies traditionally reserved for the privacy of our homes and carry them out with us everywhere we go. In so doing, we shut ourselves off from the outside world even when we leave the house.

This is somewhat tangential to Kaufman's piece, but I think it's fair to say that the Kindle is only the newest and most disgusting harbinger of a forthcoming society where everything is at our fingertips, physical media is a relic consigned to junk shops and thrift stores and we need never leave the house because the library, the video and record store, and the art gallery exist only on our computer screen and we can have the groceries delivered, too.

I used to hate the iPod. Will I someday change my mind about the Kindle? Kaufman suggests that one day in the not-so-distant future I will have no choice. Just as the iTunes Store stocks its digital shelves with exclusive music, soon I may have to download a book if I want to read it. This is a terrifying inevitability. Aside from the necessity of waging this discussion on the internet, the scariest part about it is that we few, we happy few, we band of brothers united against the dismissal of books as an obsolete technology, we will not prove strong enough in constitution to organize, revolt and turn the tide back the way it came.

Friday, November 27, 2009

After Last Season

Like many, I was informed of the existence of a movie called After Last Season by the trailer that was making the viral rounds on the internet earlier this year. As its own piece of art, the trailer for After Last Season is rattling. From the cardboard MRI machine to the non sequitur final line "They've got, uh, printers in the basement you can use," the two-minute piece defies every accepted convention of movie- and trailer-making. Some thought it was a joke, others a deliberate prank on the internet film community. One theory suggested it was Spike Jonze's viral marketing for Where the Wild Things Are. The general consensus was that it couldn't possibly be a sincere campaign for a sincere film. There's incompetence and there's delusion, but this, please, cannot be that.

Having now sat through the feature with some curious friends who bought the ten dollar DVD (a decent Friday night once you throw in the thirty-rack of PBR), I can attest that it is absolutely real. However, even if I try to accept After Last Season as unironic and unaffected (a straightforward genre entry created by a deluded artist who just wanted to complete a film), I am confronted by certain roadblocks.

As with the trailer, the thing is just too perfectly screwed up to be the result of accident. They say that in the digital age, anybody can make a movie and that anybody will. But After Last Season is Hamlet as compiled by a thousand monkeys hammering away at a thousand cardboard typewriters.

I mean, this thing was shot on 35mm. According to the limited research available on the internet, director Mark Region received millions of dollars from "investors" after he shot the movie. This cash ostensibly funded editing and special effects; the computer generated shapes you see flitting about in the trailer do make up at least a third of the feature's running time. But how on earth did Region fund the shoot, and how, in this day and age, does a project like this come together on 35 instead of some form of digital video?

Continuing with the theory that "Mark Region" simply has to be a pseudonym (In fact, most of the behind-the-camera names sound fake: "Vincent Grass" was the editor. "Gregory Reed" was the production designer. "Paul Rumsford" was the special effects coordinator. As you might have guessed, none of these people have any other entries on their IMDb pages.), is there any reason to believe any of the alleged facts surrounding the making of this film? The credits would have us believe this was a SAG production.

Why does Region seem to exist only by phone or by email? How could a film with even four or five people on the crew allow the thing to come together this way? How is it possible that it showed in exactly four Cinemark theaters in seemingly random parts of the country? I simply don't buy it.

Scott Van Doviak of the Fort Worth Star Telegram offers one of the few reviews online, which I discovered through Rotten Tomatoes. He describes a film "at once intensely boring, thoroughly disorienting and so technically incompetent it achieves several deeply unnerving effects entirely by accident." This nails it. The movie is unintentionally hilarious, sure, but how often do you see a movie that's unintentionally creepy? Don't get me wrong: After Last Season is terrible. But it's also a thriller that prevents its audience from becoming even remotely invested and then somehow freaks them out anyway. Perhaps the gag is not so much that it's about a schizophrenic as that it's made by a schizophrenic.

After Last Season cannot possibly be the work of anyone less than a genius. While I'm unable to propose any new theories as to the secrets behind the thing, count me as unsurprised if the truth ever comes out.

The website has alread posted a youtube video of four dudes tearing the movie apart. Regardless of the original intentions of whoever made this thing, it's already being milked as the next "worst movie ever made". Expect to see it in five years at your local revival house (if there are any left) at midnight on a Saturday, programmed with Repo! The Genetic Opera, The Room and The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Fight Club (1999)

Released last week on a fancy 10th Anniversary Blu-ray, David Fincher's Fight Club has wormed its way so deeply into our popular conscience it's easy to forget that the film was a box office failure. Tailor-made for a fervent cult following, it's a greasy, sleazy vulgar entertainment full of now-classic one-liners and pop philosophy.

I was in high school when the movie came out in 1999, and I recall with great affection the boys in my circle of friends that took inspiration in the movie's ethos. There was talk of starting our own Fight Club; there's a contagion in the hilarious pranks staged by the black-clad soldiers of Project Mayhem. To this day, impressionable kids are still being given the wrong idea. Brad Pitt's powers of persuasion, as Fight Club founder and terrorist mastermind Tyler Durden, clearly extend beyond the world of the film and into ours.

1999 also saw the release of The Matrix, a film that drew intense criticism for allegedly inspiring socially awkward kids to, alternately, don trench coats, play video games and shoot up their schools. The film came out less than a month before the Columbine High School shooting, and was repeatedly referenced that summer in the ensuing conversation about violence in youth culture. I think reports such as this one from the Federal Trade Commission serve little purpose other than to demonstrate that the government doesn't know much about teenagers, and I assert that any kid who goes to see The Matrix and then murders his schoolmates had some issues before he saw the movie.

Fight Club, which wouldn't come out until October of that year, managed to avoid being a part of the debate at the time. Perhaps the talking heads had moved on to another topic. It's also worth considering that Fight Club - a Brad Pitt action movie that couldn't even make its budget back at the box office - was released with an 'R' rating in the wake of a NATO (the theater owners, not the treaty organization) agreement to more strictly enforce the MPAA ratings. The movie slipped under the radar. Yet in the ten years since, it has somehow become arguably the most widely seen movie to be considered "cult".

While I never agreed with anybody drawing a correlation between violent actions in teens and viewings of The Matrix, I'm inclined to say that I can see how Fight Club has, for ten years, had a gradual but severe impact on the behavior of dumb little shits. The Matrix is a fairly straightforward fantasy/adventure epic; it boasts a strong philosophical complexity, but Fight Club is the galvanizing story.

"Our great war is a spiritual war," says Durden to his minions in one of many inspirational monologues. "Our great depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won't. We're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off." The film, through Durden, makes some pretty weighty statements about the strangulation of masculinity in what's become of corporate America. It's also a pretty astonishing pre-9/11 endorsement of terrorism.

What Fight Club ends up doing (and I would vote this was absolutely intentional) is glamorizing the decay and squalor of the Paper Street Soap Company and exposing the collapse of the establishment as something within the realm of plausibility. The assholes who watch this movie and go off trying to blow up a Starbucks might be cool in Tyler Durden's book; what they neglect to factor into their playbooks is the fact that Tyler Durden is a half-person, the deranged alter-ego of a schizophrenic insomniac and ultimately the bad guy (not to mention patient zero for every goddamn plot twist of the past ten years). Also, Durden ended up with what seems like two-thirds of the male population of the United States in his ranks, another thing lacking for the casual emulator trying to "destroy something beautiful". This final third of the film is where it crosses a boundary from fable into farce.

The legacy of Fight Club ends up being that it has created the hipster as we know him today. Despite being a decent story with a lot of laughs and fun, the movie's potency lies in its polemical quandaries. A generation of boys have been growing up with this movie being the closest they'll bother with to reading Das Kapital and now, before having a chance to become men suffocated by America, they are living beneath the fray. They are the front lines of gentrification, moving to the bad parts of town because it's cool and cheap, and then moving on to the next bad part once the first one became safe and more expensive because a lot of white kids were living there. We have yet to see an organized Project Mayhem stem from unhealthy reverence of Tyler Durden (except possibly 9/11, but talk to the conspiracy theorists), but his influence is clear in the post-ironic lifestyle choices lived by a generation of ne'er-do-wells downloading their music and movies because the establishment owes them shit for free. They'd sell old rich ladies their own fat asses right back to them if only they had a shred of follow-through.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Twilight Saga: New Moon

Today I sat through New Moon, the second of four entries in The Twilight Saga, based upon the popular books by Stephanie Meyer. I pay attention to these things because, as a student of American popular culture, I consider it my duty to partake in as many elements of that culture as I can. There are plenty of people out there bashing the Twilight phenomenon, and relatively few of them have actually sat through one of these movies.

I've now seen both, and if you haven't seen one, you have no idea just how exquisitely, painfully awful this stuff is.

I finally saw the first film on DVD not too long ago, having missed it in theaters. This makes today's experience my first sample of Twilight with a theater full of teenage girls. What's clear now is that the success of this franchise is built upon two rickety foundations: 1) a terrible actor named Robert Pattinson and 2) the fact that parents must not be watching, because no way would I allow my daughter any sort of crush on this creep.

Pattinson is a truly special kind of bland. He has only two expressions, both of which are most commonly associated with serial rapists. Through most of his role as teenage vampire Edward Cullen, he grimaces in discomfort as though someone just gave him a nasty wedgie. According to the story, this is because he's in love with human Bella (Kristen Stewart) and spends the duration of their relationship lusting after her delicious blood (which he can't drink because he's a "vegetarian" vampire that feeds only on animals ... also she'd die). Occasionally, Bella is able to rend a smile out of him but this only makes him look like a peeping tom that just got his money shot. Both Pattinson and Stewart deliver all their lines at the floor, leading me to wonder if this is where the cue cards were laid.

It's a Romeo and Juliet story - two teenagers from two different worlds kept apart by circumstance. But in New Moon a rival for Edward is introduced in the form of Jacob (Taylor Lautner), a hunky Native American-descended bad boy who can build motorcycles and almost never wears a shirt (he puts one on maybe once). He's a werewolf, it turns out, and so perfect to take Bella's mind off her vamparamour after he disappears for the majority of the film.

What happens is, after Bella almost got killed a few times in the first film thanks to her vampire entanglements, Edward realizes that if he really loves her (which he does, because look at how hard he's squinting) he'll disappear. Just having him in her life puts her in danger, so he leaves town, leading to a significantly reduced role for Pattinson. This also gives Jacob ample time to move in on his girl and to set-up an inevitable vampire-on-werewolf showdown.

The vampire-on-werewolf showdown never really happens. Just when you think something interesting is about to happen, Bella gets in between them and starts emoting at the floor again. This leads to the wolfman actually shedding a computer-generated tear and Edward (and me) sighing heavily. Her ability to talk down the wolf is exactly contrary to several lessons imposed earlier about Bella not wanting to get in the way of Jacob's temper.

Pulsating in the theater throughout all the melodrama (besides my temples) was a palpable boredom. This opening day audience was not only squarely on Team Edward: whenever Pattinson was off-screen they just didn't care. You could check the phone bills and see a direct relationship between Pattinson screentime and text messages sent during the movie. Whenever he did get a scene, there were ooh's and aah's. I honestly don't think any of these girls care about the vampires or Bella or anyone else in the story. They're just here to see Robert Pattinson's (arguably) pretty face.

On my way out of the theater, I saw a poster for Eclipse, the third chapter in this series. Along the bottom was the release date: June 30th, 2010. This has got to be a record turn-around for a franchise like this. My roommate posited that "they don't want the fad to end". I think that's correct, but also, they're trying to preempt a backlash to Pattinson's minimal presence in chapter two.

The only thing I don't understand is what everyone sees in Robert Pattinson. Is it his hair or something? You win, popular culture. I'm completely lost on that one.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The House of the Devil

A nifty little indie movie that could, Ti West's The House of the Devil manages the rare feat of being a genre throwback that doesn't wink at you and nudge your tongue into your cheek. Rather, I spent an hour-and-a-half at the theater last night being gently lulled into the feeling I was actually watching a horror movie from the early 80's. It's a swell trick.

Relative newcomer Jocelin Donahue (who has to be at least distantly related to - if not secretly given up for adoption by - Margot Kidder) plays Samantha, a soft-spoken college Sophomore with a horrible roommate. She's just rented an apartment from Dee Wallace, in a cameo that, again, would make you think Kevin Williamson wrote the thing, and she needs some cash to float the deposit. Answering a want-ad for a babysitter, she ends up in a dimly lit, labyrinthine mansion in the middle of nowhere with a rotary telephone in the kitchen her only line to the civilized world.

Obviously, with a title like The House of the Devil, you know what Samantha's getting herself into. But I found myself repeatedly faked out by the premise, wondering when - or if - something was actually going to happen to Samantha that would qualify this as a horror movie. I had to remind myself of the (shocking) couple seconds of first-act violence as proof that evil was actually afoot.

But all on her own, Samantha sets herself up to be creeped out by this place. We know long before she does that as she goes exploring the house - peering around corners and into rooms lit either poorly or not at all - she could get accosted by Satanists at any turn. The build-up of tension throughout the beginning and middle of this movie will remind the most romantically-stagnant of couples how useful foreplay can be.

The moment that lingers with me is when Samantha almost absent-mindedly takes a knife from the kitchen and carries it with her into the bathroom. "Get a grip" she tells herself in the mirror - exactly echoing an earlier bit of self-flagellation applied while hiding from her roommate in her dormitory bathroom. Her roommate, at the time, had left a sock on the doorknob precluding Sam from entering and interrupting a session with her boy-of-the-day. Later Samantha sneaks into the room to grab her bag and the boy gives her a seedy grin. Samantha is disugsted.

Why, in that moment, does Samantha grab the knife? The middle segment of the film, after she is left alone in the house and before the Hell breaks loose upon her, is dripping with a paranoid fear. Her best friend had psyched her out and Mr. Ullman (Tom Noonan), the old man paying her for her time, was clearly hiding several things, but she's behaving like a victim before anything has happened to her.

The movie is refreshingly light on mythology; only in its final moment is any attempt made to establish exactly what the heck has been going on. Like a quiet older brother to Paranormal Activity, this year's runaway horror hit, The House of the Devil makes expert use of negative space - in plunging so much of the frame so often into complete darkness, but also in keeping us completely uninformed as to the plots, motives or methods of the antagonists. And when it comes time to wrap it up (where Paranormal Activity found a shepherd in Steven Spielberg and collapsed on its own sword), Samantha's twist pregnancy leaves some room for ambiguity.

While the horror trope of the pretty girl getting knocked up by Satan is a fine ending for this movie, it's infinitely more interesting to read it as double entendre. Samantha's behavior throughout the first act is that of a scared social deliquent. She is repulsed by her roommate's promiscuity. She wanders around an eerily vacant campus with only one friend that we see (and she, too, tends to rub Samantha the wrong way). She orders pepperoni pizza that she cannot bring herself to eat. She wants to move off campus and is risking her already-delicate financial stability in order to do so. The implication is that Samantha, prior to becoming the victim of Satanic assault, found herself the victim of sexual assualt. It puts her on edge constantly, and whether she's conscious of it or not, she's carrying with her every day the trauma, both physical and emotional, of the event.

Her experience even leads her to fight back against the Satanists with an energy that none of the characters foresaw. When she has her cemetary showdown with Mr. Ullman, Tom Noonan remains an unsettlingly soothing presence. "Speak with me," he pleads as Samantha raises a gun at him. He explains that the devil has chosen her, and before she can allot herself a second thought, she points the gun at her head and fires.

While a reading of the film as a metaphor for the emotional torment that occurs inside the head of a survivor of sexual assault is neither necessary nor actually conclusive, it exposes the precision with which Ti West has crafted his piece. He's working with psychological fear - there's a reason the movie is almost all set-up for a payoff that is rushed through the projector in only a few minutes. Samantha the babysitter is a heroine whose complexities run deep through her silences, just like the horror she stumbles into.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Precious: Based on the Novel PUSH by Sapphire

Precious is this year's "Assuaging White Guilt" float in the Oscar parade, and what a doozy it is. Much like 2008's entry Slumdog Millionaire, this feature-length portrait of a hapless victim getting beaten, tortured, and then kicked-while-down somehow has audiences and critics alike crying 'life-affirming!'. In no way disguised as a 'feel-good film', however, Precious takes any bad taste you might have watching one of the less-fortunate walked all over and ratchets it up to eleven. But that's not even the worst of it.

The film follows a malnourished, overweight and undereducated black teenager. Stuck in 1987 Harlem, she must struggle against: illiteracy, mean classmates that prey on her social ineptitude, a mother that regularly throws appliances at her head, a rapist father that has impregnated her twice and, worst of all, monotonous, hackneyed dialogue. Her name, by the way, is Precious, which is convenient given that her's is a story of self-worth lost and regained.

The base problem with the film is the incompetence of the filmmakers. Directed by Lee Daniels and written by Geoffrey Fletcher (the latter with zero other entries on the IMDb and so insignificant, it seems, that he has yet to have someone set up a wikipedia page in his name), the film patches itself together like an Unsolved Mysteries dramatization. It's pretty funny that Daniels and Fletcher are so blatantly trying to smudge the authorship of the movie by awkwardly foisting the source material and its poet/novelist into the title and then handing over shilling duties to celebrity-investors Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry, none of whom had anything to do with the production.

Is it possible that Daniels is trying to pay homage to his illiterate heroine by constructing a film rife with glaring continuity errors, characters that fall off the board or show up as part of the ensemble with no introduction, and lazy, iMovie editing and photography? A red scarf makes appearances throughout the film with about the same frequency and subtlety as the little girl in red from Schindler's List. I'm not sure what it symbolizes, though: Precious' tenacity? Her hopes and dreams? Given some third act references to the forthcoming AIDS epidemic, it's terrifying that Daniels has Precious at one point drape the scarf over the head of a small girl. (I propose that the scarf merely represents Daniels' own dream to one day conceive of and then execute something symbolic in a movie.)

The opening credits are spelled out the way Precious herself might have. His production outfit is listed as "LE DNLS TINMINT" or something like that, with "Lee Daniels Entertainment" underneath in parentheses. If that seems a little cutesy to you for a movie allegedly dealing in harsh realities, then wait until you see all the post-Scrubs fantasy sequences in which Precious imagines herself to be rich, white and adored.

Oh, right: she wants to be white. I was wondering if that was the direction we were headed in when the very dark-skinned Precious monologues that she wants a "light-skinned" boyfriend while daydreaming about her white math teacher. Then I noticed that the heroes in her life are the comparatively light Paula Patton and her social worker, who is played by Mariah Carey as a character of indeterminate ethnicity (Precious asks her if she is Italian at one point, presumably confused by Carey's having a different accent in every scene). Finally, there's the scene where Precious is doing her hair and imagining herself in the mirror to be a skinny blonde white girl.

I guess this is all supposed to be representative of Precious' self-loathing. The only thing she's ever been good for is acting as receptacle for her father's demons and the story, such as it is, charts her ascent into self-worth and independence (or rather, dependence on the lighter people teaching her the alphabet and handing her welfare checks instead of dependence on her useless Momma). But any empathy I could dredge up for this pathetic character's pathetic journey is drowned by Daniels' tonal inconsistency and blaxploitation. His treatment of this character is downright condescending; the most he can muster for her is pity. He scores one moment with "Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?". Is that supposed to be funny?

In the end Precious will get the chance to tell off her evil mom without, for once, having something potentially fatal aimed at her skull and then she will walk off into the sunset with not one but both babies in her arms. This is supposed to be a win, I guess, even though her sensible teacher has spent much of the previous hour of the film trying to convince her to give them up for adoption. Why? Because there's no way for Precious to balance raising two kids, getting her GED, possibly getting AIDS and dealing with the psychological aftermath of being knocked up twice by your own dad. The film lobs so many insurmountable obstacles in Precious' path, but the implication is that if she can, you know, carry two babies out of a building and down the sidewalk, she will also find a cure for AIDS. Whatever. You go, girl. Triumph over that adversity.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!

Monday, November 16, 2009

Survivor: Samoa

Since I rediscovered it several seasons ago, I've been touting Survivor to everyone I know as one of the best shows on television. People laugh and mock; the same people that have never watched an episode, much less a full season. One of my first rules of television is that any serialized program requires you to start at the beginning and not miss an episode. With a competition/reality show like Survivor, you have the benefit of being able to start fresh every season. And there are two per year.

I offered my sister a one-sided bet at the onset of 2009's spring season: she would watch the first four episodes of the new season of Survivor and if she didn't then want to keep watching, I would pay her twenty dollars. If she did, all she had to do was keep watching so I would have someone to discuss it with. She accepted, and begrudgingly admitted four episodes in that her curiosity outweighed her desire to lie to her little brother for twenty bucks.

She's still watching now, and so am I.

I have to convince people to tune in for this. There's a stigma attached to the show. I'm a smart guy with smart friends and they tell me they don't have time for it. I explain that this is compelling, examination-of-the-human-condition television. They explain that it's staged.

Yes, it's staged. Just like any rat-in-a-maze experiment, Survivor is staged, but the reactions of the fame-whores and dollar-mongers making up the cast every year don't get scripts, and they aren't told who to vote for. There's a difference between 'staged' and 'rigged'. If the thing was rigged, there's no way my girl Amanda Kimmel would've lost in the finals twice.

Internet naysayers are again up-in-arms over the current Samoa-based season's polarizing breakout star, Russell Hantz. Hantz is a proud liar and misogynist who claimed in the first episode that as the owner of an oil company, he doesn't need the million dollar prize - he's just here to show everyone how to play the game.

And from the beginning, when he made up a story about losing his dog to Hurricane Katrina (Hantz isn't even from New Orleans) and threw his tribe mates' socks in the fire while they slept, Russell has been turning the game on its head.

What makes Survivor so compelling is the complexity of the game and the interactions between the rats volunteered to play it. The single key to the show is the idea of The Jury - every week the tribe votes someone out, and when it comes down to the final vote for the million dollar winner, the selection is made by the castaways the finalists just spent weeks getting rid of. This leads to bitterness, jealousy, manipulation, and lies upon lies upon lies.

It's a particularly nasty show, and Russell is one of the nastiest players in the show's history. I'll stay tuned just to see what his tribemates say about him in the postseason reunion special, when the kid gloves usually come on and everybody very graciously confesses that their backstabbing and brutality was in good fun. But in the meantime, Russell is proving to be an expert at all aspects of the game. He holds his own physically, though he's not so dominant as to incite fear of the Alpha Male in his tribemates. He's devious and manipulative, with four-people allied behind him, all of whom he'd double-cross in a second if he thought he'd found a better offer. On top of all this, he has found a Hidden Immunity Idol. Without a clue. Twice.

The uninitiated cannot appreciate the gravity of this feat. Not only did he do something unprecedented and near-impossible, but then he turned around and did it again. He found two needles in two different haystacks on two different farms. All he did was look.

The Hidden Immunity Idol renders null any votes cast against you at Tribal Council. It is played after the votes are cast but before they are tallied. This means that if everyone on the tribe votes for Russell to be booted and Russell then plays his idol, the person with the one vote Russell cast is out of the game. This kind of play is rarely executed with the utmost level of excitement and drama as Russell brought to the table in last week's episode. Having blown his first Idol at the previous tribal council, nobody saw it coming that Russell would've found another.

(Actually, that's not true. Monica, heretofore a blank slate at best and a whiny, knee-socked troll at worst, suggested it as a possibility and everyone laughed at her. Formally a pest and a target at Tribal Council, this was a shocking bit of foresight from her and makes me wonder if she, like Natalie, is playing a much stronger game than we might have previously though. Appearances can be - and quite often are - deceiving on Survivor.)

Anybody who's been paying attention to Survivor: Samoa received a great payoff last Thursday in what CBS was correct to hype as one of the most memorable Tribal Councils in 19 seasons of the show. As Russell's Shakespearean scheme led to the send-off of Kelly (who really didn't deserve it), his nemesis Laura whispered that "he just stirred up a whole lot of hell." This, from an alleged Christian.

Rumor has it that Russell has already been booked for Survivor 20's All-Star Season, and if that's true, no matter how much further he gets in Samoa he'll show up next year with a target tattooed on his back. The best way to lose at Survivor is to be the best at the game and Russell has proved himself. He'd better get immunity again and again, because the other players are going after him at every Tribal Council from now until the endgame.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


After Where the Wild Things Are, my two companions, faces streaked with tears, resorted immediately to mocking me in an attempt to restore their manhood. "Look at you, Todd. You weep through Up and then this movie leaves you totally composed."

Upon reviewing the latest Pixar masterpiece, released last week on DVD, I am forced to confront what it is about this movie that so completely ruins me. I saw the film in theaters with the same pair and, knowing full well their tendency to correlate an inverse relationship between masculinity and lachrymosity, I self-consciously held it in. At home, I allowed Up to affect me to its full potential and found myself snot-nosed and hacking, a catharsis of tears. If my friends thought I was weeping in the theater, they have seen nothing.

Objectively, Wild Things is the more devastating piece. In my review of the same, I discussed the similarities between the two: both are about the shattering of families and dreams. In Up, our heroes find salvation. In Wild Things, Max is left high and dry, newly cognizant of his mother's fallibility and utterly alone. Up conveniently thrusts together a son without a father and a father without a son. As a set up, it's kind of obvious. It works because the storytellers at Pixar are such experts.

Up begins with a ten-minute prologue in which Carl and Ellie meet as young children with imaginations of adventure. As they bond over a shared desire to jet off to South America in a blimp, a smash cut brings them immediately to their wedding ceremony, and they are off on a life lived together in the same run-down house where they first met.

They share two dreams. One is that they will someday take that trip to South America. The other is that they may someday be parents. The former is crushed through a series of accidents that eats up their travel fund, the latter through miscarriage in what has to be the most devastating half-minute of any Pixar film yet (and they've had a few).

Ellie and Carl grow old together and Ellie dies. Carl, faced with losing the house that is his last tie to his wife, inflates several thousand helium balloons and flies the whole damn thing to South America, discovering in midair that the nosy, talkative kid trying to get his 'Assisting the Elderly' merit badge is stowing away on his porch.

In the precisely executed adventure fantasy that ensues, what happens is this: Carl suddenly has a family. We will recall from the prologue Ellie's silent affirmation that she wants not just one baby but several. Twenty-something Carl was shocked but delighted. Now, in attempting to fulfill his dead wife's one dream he ends up with her other, as well. Carl must wrangle with the needs (mostly emotional) of the fatherless child, the unloved puppy and the hunted bird. The avian mother (who is, subtly, a transgressive symbol of progression, named 'Kevin' in spite of her gender and colorful plumage), sought for her rarity, wants only to get back to her children - another separated family restored through the heroism of our protagonists.

Other than the obvious heartstring-tugging of the prologue and the emotional nakedness of Dug the Dog ("I have just met you and now I love you!"), the film's greatest moment of heartache comes as Carl's third-act reversal. Having anticlimatically reached the final resting place for his house and wife (and life) at the precipice of the great waterfall, Carl has cast off his castaways and settled into his easy chair to drown himself in the hazy fog of memory. Until this moment, Carl has been living for the past, ignoring the opportunities for self-worth presented in the dog, bird and kid, interested only in achieving a dream that died with his wife. He picks up her adventure scrapbook, assembled in her childhood and left mostly blank, with pages and pages that she was supposed to fill in with mementoes of adventure and excitement. Carl discovers now, at Paradise Falls, that Ellie did fill in her book: it has become a photo album of their life together, ending with the note: "Thanks for the adventure. Now go have a new one!"

In this moment, Carl willingly assumes his role as patriarch to the unconventional modern family. "I was hiding under your porch because I love you," says Dug, tail between his legs, previously seen moping away after being called a bad dog. Carl welcomes him into his house and life for the first time and they sail into the sky to save Russell and Kevin. They will, of course, and in classic Disney-movie fashion (the villain's fall-to-his-death the most obvious nod to the Movies Walt Used To Make). Kevin will be reunited with her kin and Carl will take Russell's absent father's place at the merit badge award ceremony.

Up reveals Pixar's Pete Docter to be a real watchmaker of a dramatist. The thing is, what moves me so in his films aren't the tragedies and broken connections but the redemptions, the reunion, the salvation. When Sulley, in the end of Monsters, Inc., is reunited with Boo and his face lights up ... man, that kills me. It's not the miscarriage that Up is about, devastating as that moment is. What makes this a masterpiece is the story of Carl making up for that loss and its disguise as an action-adventure. Where The Wild Things Are is a brilliant study of the breaking of a boy, but Up is about making up for your losses. The tears brought out by this are of joy; I am made wholly vunlerable by the beauty of this family portrait.

Friday, November 13, 2009

17 Again

The most surprising thing about 17 Again - other than the extent to which I enjoyed it - is that the movie it most reminds of isn't one of the gaggle of body-swapping, shape-shifting teen-coms (Freaky Friday, 13 Going on 30, Big) behind which it gets in line. No, the movie to which is owes its biggest debt is Back to the Future.

This is most explicitly apparent when Zac Efron (playing a middle-aged malcontent recently shrunk back to his teenage self for a little spiritual redirection), in an attempt to prevent her from giving up her virginity to the worst possible guy, inadvertently causes his daughter-cum-classmate to fall in love with him. In the complicated process of breaking her off from a rapist-in-training boyfriend, Efron gets his lights knocked out, and wakes up cooing softly, talking about a dream he's had that he was a teenager again, believing himself to be lying in the lap of his beautiful wife. One double-take later, he realizes he's with his own daughter, and she's throwing herself at him like he's a Jonas brother.

The sequence mirrors, beat-for-beat, the moment after Marty McFly gets himself smacked out of conciousness by his own grandfather's car and wakes up in his teenaged mother's bedroom in his underwear, his jeans over on her hope chest. It's a twisted moment - though Michelle Trachtenberg, as daughter Maggie, is phoning it in here and can't hold a candle to Lea Thompson's effortless sexuality. But for disposable teen fare such as this, there are worse movies to emulate.

Also twisted (in a different way) are the leering shots in the film of Efron without a shirt. It's pornographic in a way that doesn't really jive with the messages of abstinence and family values imparted elsewhere. I get the impression that this is a kind of transitionary project for lil' Zac; he's trying to shed his school-boy image but he still only has one demographic interested in him and their Catholic parents are paying too close attention for him to try anything really risky.

This, by the way, is why Efron will remain marketable long after someone like Robert Pattinson has gone the way of the pog. You see Zac without a shirt and you think maybe he just wants to help you with your garden (he does do some wholesome gardenwork in the movie). He's kind of asexual, which is just what we want for our prepubescent daughters to have on their walls. If Efron really wants to bust out of any molds, he best start getting photographed in his underwear like Jessica Biel did.

In the meantime, Zac is content to distract us from his six-pack by flexing his comic muscle. He's actually got some stuff. That whole timing thing is down pat, and his willingness to embarrass himself earns a lot of points (it's also, I must imagine, totally adorable). He gets slapped across the face probably ten times in the film, and it's not the ensemble doing the smacking that makes me chuckle. It's the Efron deadpan.

I can't believe a movie with Trachtenberg, Melora Hardin, Jim Gaffigan, Leslie Mann and Matthew Perry would let Zac Efron be the best thing in it. His talent is not to be denied, and I only hope he gets to prove it to the doubting masses someday instead of going off the deep end like so many other child stars who sold their youths to Disney.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Letter to the West Coast

Clocking in at two minutes and ten seconds, John Vanderslice's "Letter To The East Coast" might easily be dismissed as the disposable opener to the mid-career album of a not-very-well-known singer-songwriter. It's a tonal thing, opening JV's fifth studio album short and bittersweet, placed so to earn the analog 'explosion' of track two, "Plymouth Rock".

The reason I bring it up is that I happen to be sitting in a Starbucks and the song just played. I've been killing some time here and have paid some attention to the in-house music. The only word I can think to describe the mix I've heard over the course of the night is "eclectic", and not in the KCRW way. If there are any genre-leanings in my coffee shop, favor is paid heavily to easy listening pop vocals.

Mixed in with the soft jazz, I've heard at least two Bob Dylan tracks and a Neko Case song, though I can't at this point remember which. There was also some post-Peter, Bjorn and John dreck and a viciously unnecessary cover of Beck's "The Golden Age" sung by what sounded like the female bastard child of Norah Jones and Diana Krall.

When "Letter to the East Coast" came on in the store, it immediately made me think of one specific incident: probably a year-and-a-half ago, I was in a Starbucks and "Letter to the East Coast" came on. I excitedly asked the two baristas if one of them was a John Vanderslice fan (we JV fans are few and far between, you see). I received some gentle mockery and the promise that nobody working at a Starbucks has any say in the music you hear.

I have worked in retail. I've experienced the Pavlovian gag-reflex at the house muzak you have no choice but to hear over and over while working for the man. Now, months and months and months go by and I hear the same slow and pretty song by one of my favorite dudes in two different Starbucks - in two different states, no less.

It's bad enough that my John Vanderslice (and my Neko) are getting lumped in with this music-that-was-made-to-be-ignored. But if there's so little variety in the Starbucks in-house playlist (which, so far as I can tell, doesn't mirror their slightly superior in-house available-for-purchase list) that I can randomly hear that same song twice - that song that I can easily say I have never heard anywhere else ever that wasn't either cued up by myself or played live at a show - is it safe to presume that all over America there are Starbucks employees psychologically conditioned to cringe at the sound of this beautiful piece of music?

I'm sure Starbucks' playlists are all built around the idea of being non-invasive. The corporate higher-ups want people to feel comfortable here, like a home away from home. Since you can't let the customers pick the music (well, you could: it's called a jukebox), Starbucks must provide inhouse sounds that breed quiet conversation as well as the ability to tune out and read a book or study for your exam. But I suggest that for every person that can ignore this stuff there's got to be at least one other (like me) that cannot help but listen very closely to this terrible music and wonder, "Why?"

For one of my favorite artists to be included on this playlist bothers me personally. For these playlists to exist in the first place, though, bothers me on a deeper level. Starbucks has been earning some negative publicity, by the way, for mishandling of its physical media. With the Hear Music label, Starbucks seemed poised to monopolize the only remaining demographic that buys CDs (old folks) thanks to exclusive new Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell albums. They fumbled the ball, though, and passed the label on for someone else to go bankrupt with.

But my point is: somebody in Seattle is making deals for certain music to get played all over the country. I'm sure the idea is that you pay Starbucks for exposure and then hopefully somebody buys your record after hearing it over a caramel machiatto. If they weren't making money, there wouldn't be any reason for the company to exert the control it does over the music. It's just like the horrible commercials that play before the previews: it's ubiquitous, we can't ignore it if we are at all sensitive to the stench of shit, and it's making the wrong kind of money for the wrong kind of people. I wish John Vanderslice wasn't a part of it.

As I finished this tirade, "Fake Plastic Trees" came on. Oh, it wears me out.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) & It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

I somehow went 25 years without ever seeing two of the most beloved American films of all time. It's a Wonderful Life has long been the movie that folks can't believe I haven't seen, and I daresay if Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was only set at Christmastime, it wouldn't be far behind. Upon finally sitting down and putting myself through this Capra/Stewart double feature, I'm not surprised by the feeling that I had already seen them several times. They've both been ripped off, retread and lovingly copied more times than I can count.

What is surprising to me is the disappointment engendered in my cynical soul by It's a Wonderful Life. I can't believe this is the movie that America tunes in to watch every year at Christmas (someone asked me, when I told them what I was going to watch last night, "Isn't it a little early?"). For starters, it's only a Christmas movie for the final forty minutes, and the wintry setting, in fact, isn't really crucial to any of the morals or lessons imparted therein. I suppose Christmastime and moralizing make good bedfellows, but I'd honestly be more interested in some bedfellow relations for Officer Bert and Taxi Driver Ernie (or their muppet successors).

Don't get me wrong. This is by no means a bad movie, but in terms of storytelling, it's pretty on-the-nose in the end. And as for the beginning, I've never seen a movie take an hour and twenty minutes to reach its inciting incident. Prior to Uncle Billy's dumbassery at the bank that lands the Bailey fortune into Mr. Potter's sniveling (and apparently slimy, if his handshake with George is any indication) fists, we're treated to an episodic chronicle of the life of George Bailey. This is all well and good, and I don't think little Bobbie Anderson (young George) has been out-charisma'd by a child actor ever since. Given this as a set-up for George's realization that he's "worth more dead than alive" and eventual start down a new path, it occurs to me that Up did this kind of thing better and in ten minutes. What's It's a Wonderful Life about? It's about a man who's going to kill himself because his twit Uncle lost a ton of cash, and then an angel comes down to give him a Dickensian lesson on life being worth living and he changes his mind. Correct me if that's an improper summary, because it also reveals the film as hideously off-balance.

I think the biggest kick I got out of finally watching this is that I can finally completely appreciate Saturday Night Live's alternate ending, which is inarguably superior to the real one. I'd have to go back through fifty years of review to see if anyone agrees with me on this (the sketch comedy speaks for itself), but seriously: Evil Mr. Potter gets no comeupance whatsoever? That is completely unacceptable. It's bad enough the crotchety old cripple never recieves a fatal beating; he never even gets exposed as having swiped the Baileys' money. He never gets so much as a talking to. It's nice that the townsfolk are so willing to throw piles of cash at George in an overwhelming ejaculation of Christmas spirit, but haven't we previously been told that Mr. Potter owns like ninety percent of the town? How much money can they really have to toss around? Exacting a socialist state in the Bailey's living room is, again, a nice idea, but they can't keep it going much longer with Potter still around.

It's easy to assume that Potter will die before Bailey (although the man's mortality is questionable - he barely ages over forty years and spends the whole time in a wheelchair at no visible detriment to his overall health), leaving Bailey to take back the town (Is there an heir, by the way, to the Potter estate?), but what if something happens to George first? Without him, we are shown quite explicitly, Bedford Falls will become something like the alternate 1985 of Back to the Future, Part II, all gin joints and burlesque. The failure of Capra or any of his screenwriters to bring their villain down - or give any kind of closure between him and Bailey - is unacceptable. I take respite in the fact that the main drag in Pottersville looked like kind of a fun place, and that Donna Reed makes for one damn foxy librarian.

What impresses me most, however, about the structural disarray of It's a Wonderful Life is that seven years earlier, Capra and Stewart (not to mention Beulah Bondi, who plays Stewart's mother in both films) teamed up to make one of the most dramatically perfect films I've ever seen in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Boy, America, did you choose the wrong Capra movie to watch every year.

Stewart's eponymous Senator Jeff Smith is a small-town rube who runs the local boy scout troupe (the actual Scouts denied rights to use their name; on a similar note, the entire film manages to unspool without naming Smith's homestate or noting his political party affiliation) and prints a one-sheet newsletter. He is selected to replace a freshly deceased senator for two reasons: he's popular enough that his selection won't cause a revolution and he's dumb enough that he won't be able to stop a backroom deal for a dam that's been hidden in Article 40 of the Deficiency Bill solely to make a local newspaper tycoon a ton of money.

The selectors behind Smith's appointment are Governor Hopper and Senator Paine, both of whom answer to Jim Taylor, the rich civilian who for years has been running the state behind closed doors. Paine, it's established early on, knew Smith's father, and loved him. He loves Smith, too, and this will prove to be his fatal flaw.

Of course, Stewart does catch on to the plot and in trying to blow the whistle, ends up framed in a scandal of forgeries and hearsay. About to be expelled from the Senate after less than a week, and with a lot of assistance from his secretary/love interest Jean Arthur (easily besting Donna Reed in the personality category and matching her in the gauzy close-up), he pulls out the dramatist's favorite check to the balances of power written into our books: The Filibuster.

According to the film's IMDb trivia page, there was a much longer ending, depicting a friendly make-up session between Mr. Smith and his malleable nemesis Senator Paine, the collapse of the "Taylor Machine" and a ticker-tape parade for Smith upon his return home. This ending was cut, allegedly, due to a preview audience's response.

At the climax of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Jimmy Stewart passes out in the 24th hour of the filibuster intended to save his name, his state and the purity of American democracy, and in the next minute-and-a-half, his nemesis Paine admits the truth, the day is saved, our hero is revealed to be "okay!" (to the delight of his paramour), and the film is over. In a minute-and-a-half! Now that's how you fucking end a movie. Did it really take a focus group to tell this to Frank Capra? Where were they on Wonderful Life? Or The Return of the King, for that matter? Or any of a thousand bloated endings to Hollywood entertainments? Sheesh!

And let me also state that it's easy to be glib about these things, but I feel I should put on the record that, for that entire minute-and-a-half ending, I found tears welling in my eyes. You may blame this on whatever you like: mental instability, the power of Capra's arguably naïve paean to democracy, or just Stewart's brilliance with the climactic epiphany. I think maybe it's a combination of all three. Perhaps I am a crier: but whereas Wonderful Life left me cold, Mr. Smith had me from the start right through to the end.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Reality Bites (1994)

I must admit that a certain awe washed over me as I viewed Reality Bites, its iconography and soundtrack easily described as seminal, albeit dated. The story boils down to a simple love triangle (rendering sidekicks Janeane Garafalo and Steve Zahn somewhat moot - the latter especially), but it's a rare thing to see anew such a concrete relic of a time long gone by and still find it relevant.

Relevance, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. "The film," a great man once told me, "is extant, see." What changes over time is the viewer. A 2009 audience for Reality Bites will find itself giggling at the hair and dress (presumably we haven't yet distanced ourselves enough from the styles of the 90s to have found any affection for them), but we do have a recession to call our own, and I'm sure I'm not the only twentysomething currently engaging with bouts of unemployment, existential crisis and diseases du jour (not to compare the Swine Flu of '09 Chicago to the AIDS of '94 Houston, but panicking is as panicking does).

I have no choice but to view Ben Stiller's feature directorial debut as a misleading (but effective) tragedy (his subsequent work does have threads of darkness running through it, but perhaps after the unfortunate box office for The Cable Guy he has retreated to Reality's more swallowable mainstream facade). Stiller casts himself as Michael, the baxter of the triangle, stuttering and schmucking up his love affair with Winona Ryder's Lelaina like a good little Jewish boy. His obstacle to Lelaina's heart is Troy.

Troy is Ethan Hawke, the perpetually unshowered it-boy of 1994. He smokes (pot, tobacco), drinks (coffee, beer) and fucks (anyone). The only member of the gang who managed not to complete college by the opening credits (and to drop out of a BFA program no less - what a rebel!), Troy has been fired from twelve different jobs and hangs out in diners reading philosophy. All you need is coffee, cigarettes and conversation, he tells Lelaina before sticking his tongue down her throat at the beginning of the second act. Prior to this he has been crashing on the couch she shares with Garafalo's Vicky after losing his job and consequently his apartment. The only constant in his life is his post-Nirvana rock band, Hey, That's My Bike!.

This is the second movie I've encountered in my adult life where I found myself actively rooting against the intended romantic pairing. The first was Wicker Park (I blame this on Rose Byrne being infinitely more layered, interesting, sympathetic - choose your adjective - than Diane Kruger, even if she is a little crazy), and in neither case have I ended up faulting the movie as qualititavely bad. But I'm fascinated that Lelaina's triumphant dive into the arms of a deadbeat is posited here as a happy ending, even as her father is calling to deliver the punchline that she has driven him into almost a thousand dollars worth of debt.

The love triangle is mere allegory for the decisions Lelaina must make as she leaves college for the real world. While Troy is a glamorized modern bohemian (and let us not forget, in any discussion of Troy, the bohemian's tendency to gloss over the "starving" part of being an "artist"), Michael is the financially stable yuppie. He meets Lelaina after crashing his car into her's (his driving while talking on the phone clearly a novelty in '94 - but let's not forget she did throw her cigarette butt onto his passenger seat) and then wins her over by ignoring his lawyer's suggestion that he sue. As her relationship with Michael blossoms, her relationship with Troy withers, and soon both men are spouting one-liners at each other. They both make excellent points: Michael does look ridiculous in his tie, while Troy, alas, cannot survive for long on credoes and Snickers bars. Michael is poised to win Lelaina over by delivering her handmade documentary chronicle of her friends' post-grad struggles to his "In Your FACE" sub-MTV cable network.

Essentially, Lelaina is forced to choose between the déclassé life of being paid to perform the artistry that is her passion (selling out) or, y'know, making out with Ethan Hawke.

If there is any possibility that she could both have a career and find love, the film isn't interested in suggesting it. Her decision is made for her when Michael's network re-edits her documentary into a crass, drugged up Pizza Hut advert. The dramatic tidiness of this, however, is dissolved by Michael's insistence that he had no idea they were doing that to her art and his purchase of two plane tickets to New York, where they can fix the problem.

The variable we can't count on, I suppose, is "love", which Lainey apparently has for Troy in spades and carries her through a long montage in which we get to witness how expertly Winona Ryder can smoke a cigarette while staring at the wall and pouting. Michael makes one mistake, and if we are to accept Lelaina's affections for him as sincere, there is no reason for her not to choose him other than the 'L' word or the fact that Ethan Hawke is very, very good looking.

In the final shot of the movie, Lainey and Troy are packing up the apartment, and as neither has got any job to speak of, I can only read this as their having lost the lease. Reality does, in fact, bite quite hard, Lainey learns, and none of her problems (career, money, artistic ambition) are resolved in any way. All she has is Troy, and we've seen that he has trouble amounting to much of anything. What a downer.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

An Education

Did you hear the one about how at this year’s Academy Awards, there will be ten Best Picture nominees instead of five? I make no secret of my disdain for the masturbatory political machinations of the Oscars. I get a morbid thrill when a development like this is announced – year after year, a hallowed tradition of my movie-loving youth manages to lower itself deeper into its slum (wink). You know what actual hallowed traditions and sacred institutions don’t need to do? Re-brand. But since fewer people are watching the Oscars every year, (and nobody wanted to host them, either, as you also may have heard) they’ll keep coming up with these desperate pleas for relevance and ratings.

It’s a fair bet that one of those ten slots will go to An Education, a ‘polite’ British Bildungsroman about a sweet and innocent sixteen-year-old girl and the creep in his thirties who wins her virginity. Carey Mulligan is the little-known but striking young actress who inhabits Jenny, our moppet protagonist. I’ll say it is rather fun to watch her dance around an ensemble of prestige actors.

The debate of this morality tale, as we’re told seven times in the trailer and several more in the film proper, is between Jenny’s application to Oxford (boring!) and her romance (fun!) with Peter Sarsgaard’s David, a charming man at least a decade older than she. It’s Mulligan’s precocious charisma that lends the film its spare moments of depth and ambiguity. It’s plainly obvious that this is a naïve girl making bad decisions despite the warnings of her Academy Award-nominated elders. But if Mulligan is so special and clever, maybe she should be allowed to make an unpopular decision. Perhaps she knows something we don’t.

Formulating a plot summary makes my skin crawl, but here I go (by the way, I’m gonna spoil this one). Her father is overbearing and expects her to get into Oxford. She’s the smartest girl in her class by a long shot, but she’s hot so she still has friends. She has an overbearing teacher and an overbearing headmistress. She meets David one day when he offers her a lift home from school in his fancy car. He lays on the charm pretty thick, and it’s not long before he’s sweet-talked her parents into letting her go to Paris with him for the weekend and he’s trying to pop her cherry in a dingy airport hotel room with a banana. (I can’t make this stuff up.)

It’s a profoundly unpleasant film. I’m not sure what’s more unsettling: the dramatically fascinating premise of borderline child abuse or the fact that nobody involved in making the thing seems to be aware of how creepy her situation is. The storytelling here is just a curtain held over what amounts to little more than a vaguely conservative “Stay In School” PSA. The choice between David, the lying con-artist thief who’ll break your heart and Oxford, the prestigious university, is a pretty obvious one to those of us playing Aesop in the audience. But here we sit, having our noses banged with it.

Jenny has four female role models: 1) her mother, who cowers at her father’s tantrums; 2) her teacher, who doesn’t want to see her throw her life away; 3) the headmistress, played by Emma Thompson, still kicking; and 4) David’s best friend’s blonde philistine idiot girlfriend, who asks why she reads books when she could read magazines. Surrounded by ciphers such as these, it’s easy to see why our young heroine is so confused. The only remotely interesting person in her life is holding fruit between her legs, calling her “Minnie” and asking if he can “just see them.”

A smidgen of dramatic tension comes from the slow leak of David’s secrets. First he’s charming, then he’s creepy, then he’s an art thief, then he’s perpetrating elaborate real estate fraud, then there’s the bit with the banana. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. He’s already married, of course, and Jenny won’t discover this until she’s dropped out of school for him. Poor, naïve girl should’ve listened to Emma Thompson.

It doesn’t matter, though, that he’s married, and after that revelation David is never seen again. There are no consequences to her juvenile hedonism. What matters is that she partakes in a final-act “studying montage” and gets into Oxford.

An Education is Oscar Bait. It’s mediocre filmmaking with a conservative heart and a British accent, a bit of lavish period detail and a tidy happy ending. It also has the secret ingredient of middlebrow morality with just enough distance from the actual issues to render the whole affair offensive to anybody who cares about what movies are actually capable of. The fact that Nick Hornby wrote the thing I must ascribe either to the increasingly-believable notion that High Fidelity and About a Boy were flukes or that he just doesn’t know anything about women. Either way, I don’t know why we put up with this tripe.

This review appeared in a slightly different form in The Montague Reporter. Support your print media while you still can!