Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Broken People Make the Best Stories (American Hustle)

[Dang. My schedule is all out of wack. I know we normally talk kids' movies on Tuesdays, but I think it's going to take another week to get back on track here. In the meantime, let's talk about a movie that is aggressively not kid friendly, shall we?]

Sometimes I see people complain that there are no movies about "nice" people. Or that there are, but nice people really only show up in horror movies, where they can die in the first five minutes, or in thrillers, where they must struggle to survive, or in any other kind of movie where the niceness will be slowly stripped away like cheap wrapping paper, revealing the cardboard box of humanity underneath.

That metaphor got away from me a bit.

Anyway, not a lot of nice people in movies, right? And it's true. For the most part, we don't see movies about nice people doing good things, unless they're from Hallmark or designed to make you cry about how nice they are and how horrible the world is to them. Nice people make for bad filmmaking. Why? Because nice people are boring.

No, seriously. Nice people, people who make good choices and answer the phone politely and maybe go for a jog every once in a while or just help out their neighbors and bake pies and stuff - they're boring as hell. Nice people aren't in the movies because nice people, for better or worse, rarely do things that we particularly want to pay twelve dollars to see on a screen. Nice people are, let's face it, pretty freaking dull.

You know what isn't dull? David O. Russell's American Hustle. It's not even a little bit dull, and I think we can easily say that this is related to the number of nice people in it. By which I mean, none. There aren't any good guys here. And it's wonderful.

I mean, from a moral standpoint it's probably not so hot, but let's push that aside for a second. We'll come back to that. For now, just think about how much more fun it is when all your characters are pants-wettingly nuts and broken and unhappy and terrible. It's more fun. It's a lot more fun. You don't get a movie like American Hustle with nice people in it. You just don't.

But before we go any further, I should probably explain what the movie's about for those of you who haven't seen it. Which I generally assume most of you haven't. That's okay. You can watch it now. It's good. Trust me.

SPOILERS for those of you who decided not to take my advice and go watch it now. Losers.

The story, which is complicated and therefore being reduced to its lowest common denominator for the sake of my sanity, follows the events of the 1970s ABSCAM scandal, wherein about fifteen US Congressmen and Senators (and other officials) were caught in an FBI sting to find who was taking bribes. The movie is a largely fictionalized account of the real story, wherein an ambitious FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper and his perm) use two con artists, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) to ensnare the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Politano (Jeremy Renner), in a corruption scandal, and use him to get everyone else.

It's okay if that was confusing. I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be confusing. If it isn't then it's doing an awfully good job of it anyways. The film is out of sequence, uses various different characters as voice over narrators, which is fun, because unreliable narrators are great, but also, again, confusing. And you can never really figure out who's conning whom, who loves whom, and what the crap is going on.

In the process of showing the scam and the resulting fallout, the film gives us a wide eyed view of the world these characters inhabit, the people they know, and the ridiculous messes that are their lives. Irving is in love with Sydney, but tragically is married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence and her amazing tower of blonde curls). Rosalyn is a wreck of neuroses and manic episodes, who, though fascinating to watch, really isn's someone you'd want around your kids - and that's a problem because she actually has one. A kid, I mean. Rosalyn came into her marriage with Irving with a young son, Danny. Irving actually adores the kid, even going so far as to adopt him. It's fear of leaving Danny alone with his nutjob mother that keeps Irving in the marriage, even when he falls for Sydney and desperately wants out.

Meanwhile, Sydney is having a bit of an identity crisis, living as an Englishwoman, Edith Greensley, and admitting to no one that Edith doesn't actually exist. She's furious with Irving for not leaving his wife yet, and also trying to maybe or maybe not get one over on DiMaso, the FBI agent effectively keeping them hostage. If they don't help with DiMaso's scheme, after all, he sends them to jail. If they do, hypothetically, they get off scot free.

The tricky thing about the film is that there really are no good guys or bad guys. The protagonists are Irving and Sydney, but they're not traditional heroes in any sense of the word. These are con artists, plain and simple, and they make their living at the start of the film by preying on desperate people already in debt. They are vain, shallow, obsessed with themselves, and just generally pretty horrible.

But then Richie DiMaso isn't some saint either. He's a gloryhound who refuses to keep his word, throws tantrums like a child, is obsessed with his self-image, and resorts to brutal beating of his boss when he can't get his way. He's terrifying and funny and pathetic all at once.

The only character who can make a strong claim towards being at all "good" is actually the mark in all this, Mayor Carmine Politano. Because while Carmine is a bribe-taking politician with ties to the mafia, he's also a genuinely nice person. He likes people, he supports civil rights, he's a good mayor, he loves his wife. As Irving gets closer to Carmine through the scam, he becomes more and more convinced that Carmine is an innocent in this. He's just a good person with some bad methods. What Carmine wants, how they hook him, is his desire to see Atlantic City up and running again, restored to glory, and to bring lots of jobs and new industry to New Jersey. This would lower unemployment, raise property values, and just generally improve the quality of life.

Carmine is a nice guy. He even buys a brand new microwave for Irving and Rosalyn because he's their friend and he wants to give them something nice. So obviously Carmine is the one who gets screwed.

It's not quite that simple, of course. Carmine is a nice guy, but he's not a good one, precisely. He's willing to take bribes, to contact the mafia, and to coerce other politicians into taking bribes as well. It's for a good cause, sure, but these aren't exactly moral actions.

Nice people make bad movies. Messy people, though. Messy people are the best stories.

Because what's the point of the story, in the end? What makes a story worth telling? Change. The characters need to, in some way, recognize the reality of their situation and change it. It's not so interesting to see a nice person look at their life. I mean, what is there to change? But a messy person? There's lots to change there. There's room for redemption, for love, for conflict, for transformation.

I mean, look at any great story. We love a redemption arc. Or, failing that, we at least love to see messy people realize their own messiness. And that's what happens here.

This isn't a movie with a blissful happy ending. It's not a spoiler to tell you that. No one really walks off into the sunset as the set explodes behind them, and no one gets all that they want. It's even a bit sad. But the change that does happen? It's good. It's earned. It matters.

Honestly, what more do you need from a movie?

[Also, it passes the Bechdel Test. Not the Race Test, sadly, but still. Not too shabby.]

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Well, Nobody's Perfect (Sisterlove, Racism, and Disney's Frozen)

Last night (or tonight, if you want to be technical about when I'm writing this - I write these things the night before, don't you know?) I saw Frozen for the surprising second time. Partly, this was a result of my sister's intense desire to see a movie and my family's intention to see a movie that wouldn't make anyone cringe (we'll talk about how fun it was to watch American Hustle with my dad next week). But another part, the reason I actually went back, is because I really wanted to sort out my feelings about this movie. It's not Turbo, which made me immediately and irrevocably angry, and it's not Lilo and Stitch, which made me coo with delight.

Instead, this is a movie that has good and bad parts, like most things, I guess. It's got things about it that I love, like Olaf and Sven, and things I hate, like all that cultural appropriation business and the comedy relief but awkwardly kind of racist trolls. And it's got things I feel pretty neutral on - everything else. Oh wait, except for Anna and her "look at how quirky and clumsy and silly I am!" persona. I was slightly more annoyed than neutral on that one.

Anyway, I don't think it's a bad thing that this movie is slightly more complex to analyze than your average kids flick. I think that's actually a great thing. Granted, I would love it if the film had managed to do without the things that pissed me off, but nobody's perfect.

(Except for Pacific Rim. Holy crap do I love Pacific Rim. Aaaaaaaa, Pacific Rim.)

The problem I have with this movie is that it's a very nice movie, with a surprisingly good ending, but that it never quite manages to stick the landing. It's not bad, and I think on balance this movie is actually more of a good thing than a bad thing, it's just...why did it have to have those bad things in the first place?

Allow me to explain. (SPOILERS from here on out.)

The film starts when Elsa (Idina Menzel as an adult) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are little kids, the princesses of the small kingdom of Arendelle. Elsa has a magical gift - she can create ice and snow - but she's not able to control it. When some childish fun gets out of hand, Elsa accidentally hits Anna with a ray of ice magic, and it nearly kills her sister. Their parents race them off to get help from the awkwardly stereotyped trolls. The trolls are able to heal Anna, but in so doing, they remove all her knowledge of Elsa's magic. And Elsa is warned that if she doesn't learn to control her magic, she could really hurt someone. So their parents take them home, and Elsa becomes an elective hermit, desperately trying to control her powers, while Anna is hurt by her sister's sudden coldness and the distance between them.

Years pass, the girls grow up, and tragically their parents pass away. Elsa becomes queen, and there's a coronation. Unfortunately for Elsa, but fortunately for Anna, the castle must be opened up for the coronation, and that's where the trouble starts. Anna goes mad with freedom and launches herself at the nearest available and sympathetic guy - Prince Hans (Santino Fontana). Hans and Anna, both romantics, it would seem, decide that they've both found "The One" and that they need to get married. Right now.

Weirdly, Elsa doesn't love this plan. When she refuses to give Anna her blessing, Anna freaks out and starts the big emotional confrontation that Elsa has been afraid of pretty much her whole life. Because Elsa's magic is linked to her mood, it's not super helpful when her sister freaks her out. Elsa panics and accidentally starts an ice storm before being run out of the castle by people accusing her of being a witch. She flees up into the mountains.

Anna, realizing that this was kind of a jerk move on her part, chases after Elsa, only to find herself woefully unprepared for the wilderness. So she hires some help: Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), a weird, antisocial ice deliverer whose business is down the tubes now that Arendelle is stuck in an eternal winter.

There are adventures and mishaps, and a lovably misinformed snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad), and finally out heroes reach Elsa's ice castle. Anna goes in and tries to reason with Elsa, but Elsa's working on some pretty hardcore repression and isolation feelings, as well as about ten years of emotional crazies to work out, so it doesn't go very well. Elsa accidentally lashes out and hits Anna in the heart with another ice ray. And then chases them out of her castle with an abominable snowman.

Kristoff realizes that there's something wrong with Anna and takes her to the trolls to be healed (because the trolls adopted Kristoff and Sven at some point, a cute but kind of weird plot point). The trolls try to set the two of them up before realizing that Anna has ice in her heart, and can only be saved by an "act of true love". Kristoff lovingly brings Anna back to Arendelle so that Hans can kiss her and save her life.

Meanwhile, Hans isn't in Arendelle. He's come looking for Anna, and in the process found Elsa. He brings her back to Arendelle, only now in chains, and keeps her in a cell while they try to figure out what to do with her. The storm gets worse. Elsa kind of figures that this isn't going to end well, and that the only way out is for her to get as far away as possible.

At last, Anna and Hans are reunited, only for Hans to reveal that he's a jerkface who doesn't love her and only wants her crown. Which actually makes more sense than the alternative, so that's okay. He leaves Anna to die and goes off to kill Elsa.

But what's that? Kristoff and Sven riding back in to kiss Anna and save the day? Yep. Except just as Kristoff and Anna are finally in kissing distance, Anna sees Hans about to kill Elsa, and races in between them to save her sister. And that's the act of true love that saves a frozen heart. Awwwww.

Elsa uses the power of love to save Arendelle and is accepted as queen again, Hans gets punched and thrown in jail, and Kristoff and Anna get their kiss. Oh, and Olaf gets to see summer without melting. Everyone gets what they want. Except for me, sadly.

Look, I actually really like a lot of things about this movie. The whole thing about true love not just being romantic? Love it. The bit where it's Anna's act of true love that saves her? Amazing. The thing where Anna finds her true love and everyone questions her because she doesn't really know the guy and it turns out that they were right to question? I need that in my life.

But there are other things I really, really don't love. For starters, why the hell is this movie so white? I get that it's set in a fantasy European kingdom, vaguely based on Sweden or something, but do the animators really believe that brown people were only invented a hundred years ago or something? Have they not heard of the Sami culture, the indigenous tribes native to Scandinavia who are, and especially were at the time this story is set, quite brown?

I mean, clearly they've heard of the Sami, since they use Sami chanting over the beginning credits, and therefore almost literally define cultural appropriation. Using an element of the culture out of its context for the purpose of making oneself look more interesting or dramatic? Check, check, and check. Also, they obviously know what the Sami looked like in the 1800s, as Kristoff, the blond white guy, is wearing an incredibly accurate Sami wardrobe and performing a traditional, protected Sami job - reindeer training.

So, I don't think we can claim full ignorance on this one.

And, as I mentioned above, the trolls are there too, a sort of uncomfortable bit that really doesn't mesh with the rest of the movie and has deeply weird overtones. The trolls are the mystical sages of the kingdom, but they're just kind of there. They perform the filmic role of the magic black man - that is, they are an othered group that performs no function in the story but to serve and advise the white protagonists. Also, they perform a literal minstrel show and "love experts". Like most things, I don't think this is intentional, but it sure as hell made me uncomfortable.

I don't love that this film felt the need to rely on a love triangle to get through, and when the real love story is that of the two sisters, I kind of wish we'd spent more time with the two of them, letting them really feel the relationship. I wanted more. Less of the boys, more of the girls. Which is a pretty usual complaint.

This is not to say that I thought the movie was bad. It isn't. It's quite fun, actually, and I ended up adoring Olaf, who I was all set to hate with the fire of a thousand suns. He's just too cute to hate!

Overall, I think the good outweighs the bad here. It's a movie about the true love of sisterhood, and given that I went to see this movie with my sister (twice), that's something I can get behind. I just wish that one of these days I could have a movie like this where I don't find problematic things lurking in the bushes when I want to enjoy it.

We all have dreams.

Some dreams are more realistic than others.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Congratulations Moffat, This Is Everything I Hate (Doctor Who)

So, here I was, minding my own business, celebrating Christmas with my family, watching A Muppet Christmas Carol on repeat because I freaking love that movie, and eating lots of cake, when I decide to sit down and watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special. It's tradition, right? And I love Doctor Who, right? 

Consider my evening rather thoroughly dampened by the giant cloud of rage that hung over my head for the rest of the night. By which I mean that I didn't really like this special. Not so much. Or even a little bit.

In fact, it royally pissed me off. Why? Let me count the ways.

[Okay, you guys know the drill, or at least I hope you do. SPOILERS from this point out.]

Here's my best summary of what happened in this episode. If it's not super coherent, that's not my fault. Seriously. This episode was whack.

A really loud broadcast is suddenly heard from this random planet in the middle of nowhere. The broadcast is really scary, so all the bad guys of the universe decide to (for some reason) park their spaceships right outside the planet and hover there in a giant villain swarm. But a couple of good guys turned up too. Namely, the Doctor and the Church of the Papal Mainframe whatever whatever something.

The Doctor tries to figure out what's going on while Clara calls ceaselessly demanding that he come over for Christmas dinner because she invented a boyfriend who was coming over for dinner with her parents. Who are apparently not dead. When did that happen?

Anyway, the Doctor comes to save Clara from her little female problems, like family members, romantic woes, and apparently being a terrible cook, and whisks her off to the planet, where they find the source of the distress call. Well, first they get naked and chat with Tasha Lem (Orla Brady), the Mother Superious of the Church of the Papal Mainframe, and then they pop down to investigate. 

Turns out that the place the signal came from was a quaint little town named Christmas, where everyone is very nice and tells the truth (for the first bit, until later in the episode when characters can lie apparently because of reasons shut up). They trace it back to a giant tower in the town, where the Doctor finds, dun dun DUN, a crack in the wall. So we're back to this all.

On the other side of the crack is Gallifrey, which is broadcasting a single question through all of space and time. You see, they're outside the universe and want to make sure they've got the right place before they come in. So they're asking a simple question: "Doctor who?"

If the Doctor says his name, Gallifrey will emerge from the crack and everything will be all better, except for the bit where it starts the Time War over again, and everyone dies and badness. The Doctor can't say his name. But he also can't let anyone else get at the crack. So he ships Clara off home because he needs her to be safe and out of the way, I guess, and plunks himself down in the town, to keep it safe forever.

Also the Church of the Papal Mainframe goes kind of nuts and turns into the Church of the Silence, wherein we get The Silence, and then they try to kill the Doctor and kidnap River and lots of other stuff that has already happened on the show, but which they think this explanation will make more clear (it really didn't). Clara, meanwhile, manages to come back about three hundred years later, and tries to get the Doctor to leave. He's much older now, and looks it, but even though he saves Tasha Lem from becoming kind of Dalek-y and fights off more invasions, it seems he's learned absolutely nothing, and sends Clara away again. 

Then she comes back...sigh....and he's super old now, but the war is still raging and he's dying, so Clara takes a moment to whisper into the crack that if they love the Doctor (which is a weird thing to say to a planet), then they'll understand that he doesn't need a name, and also that they should piss off and leave him in peace. 

So Gallifrey does just that, but not before whipping him some regeneration energy. The Doctor, who is now dying of old age, I guess, starts to regenerate and manages to regenerate so hard he blows up the Daleks. And then he whines for a bit, and turns into Peter Capaldi.


There are a lot of things I hate about this particular episode, and, honestly, very few things I loved. Actually, I'm not sure there's anything I loved here. Maybe Handles, the dismembered Cyberman head. He was fun. But everything else? Sucked.

The biggest problem is pretty simple though: this plot made absolutely no sense. It didn't make sense emotionally, thematically, logically, in the story, or even as a bit of comedic relief. Instead, this seems to be an attempt to wrap up every single Matt Smith Doctor storyline into one big bow right before he goes. So now The Silence and Trenzalore and the Name of the Doctor and Gallifrey's return and River and the cracks in the universe and also Clara's weirdness and holy crap everything, it's all tied up into one Gordian knot of weirdness. And I mean that honestly. None of this actually makes sense if you look at it for two seconds.

Why the hell were only bad guys gathered outside the planet? The Time Lords weren't the only reasonably good species with time travel in the whole universe, were they? And why do the Daleks keep using human-Dalek shells to hide in? Don't Daleks think everyone else is inferior for not being a Dalek? Why hide as humans?

Why the poop are the Weeping Angels there? HOW THE HELL DO WEEPING ANGELS WORK NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE.

Also, aren't Clara's parents dead?

Basically, none of the story, not even a little bit, made sense. And it didn't make me feel sufficiently emotional for me to forgive that. Mostly it just pissed me off. Because I am a creature made of caffeine, rage, and library cards. (I'm sort of kidding, but sort of not. I have six library cards, all still valid.)

This, of course, isn't even counting my other big problem with this episode, and Moffat's whole tenure on the show in general. That is, simply put, the sexism. Oh the sexism. I hate it. And he is rife with it.

In this episode alone, there are about five female characters altogether. Total. At all. Which is actually pretty good for a Doctor Who episode, sadly. Of those characters, only two had significant amounts of screentime. The others were just in it for brief moments that served little to no purpose, that being Clara's disapproving mother who only wants her to find a nice boyfriend and settle down, and her alarmingly randy grandmother who keeps hitting on the Doctor.

The third female character of little screentime was Amy Pond, who showed back up again in a dream sequence of sorts right before the Doctor regenerated because I guess he really needed to see her again and isn't that sweet? Only it just serves to reinforce the whole, "Amy's life revolves around the Doctor to an alarming degree," thing, because even if it was just a dream, it still makes it so that Amy's entire run on the show is wrapped up in the Doctor and his needs, and her character development is completely secondary.

Of the two major characters, Tasha Lem and Clara, both of them had pretty much the same problem. They both fancied the Doctor, and he kissed both of them and let them down and ignored him until it was convenient for him to remember them and they strived and fought to help him and in the end he kind of did nothing to save the situation and all their striving was a bit pointless, but isn't it nice that they loved him so much?

Excuse me, I need to find a bucket in which to barf.

Look, I really hate that all the women of the Moffat era have been romantically obsessed with the Doctor, seem to have no lives outside of his orbit, and who are incapable of functioning without him. Women who sacrifice everything for this epic great man. Only this epic great man does jack shit in the whole episode.

Like, oh, it's nice that you're holding off all the bad guys, but you're not actually producing a proactive solution ever at all even a little bit. You're just going to fight until you die? Seriously? And when push comes to shove and the end comes you...magically get out of the scrape with almost no consequences because those are for meanies?

Anger. Rage. Fire.

I'm not saying that you can't like Doctor Who as it is right now, written by Steven Moffat and filled, as it is, with racism and sexism and bad bad terrible writing. You can like that. I like Teen Wolf, I really can't judge you. But I do demand that you recognize the flaws in the show. Because I refuse to believe that it's better not to notice these glaring problems. You can still love something cracked and broken. But to deny that's it's messed up in the first place? That's just blindness.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

A Charlie Brown Christmas and the Actual Meaning of Christmas

A Charlie Brown Christmas is something of a tradition in my family. Growing up, we didn't watch television, and the only times I ever really saw it was when we went over to my grandmother's house for dinner on Saturday nights. Mostly I saw classic Looney Tunes cartoons, or maybe some Three Stooges, Marx Brothers, or Laurel and Hardy. Every once in a while it was Little Rascals or Rocky and Bullwinkle. You know. The classics.

But once a year, on Christmas Eve, we'd go over to my grandmother's after church and cluster around her television (which still had the old school knob to turn it on and off), and watch The Grinch (animated, obviously) and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Those are the Christmas specials I grew up on, and until I was in college, those were the only one's I'd ever seen.

So, obviously, A Charlie Brown Christmas is very meaningful to me and mine. That's not all that special in and of itself, particularly when you consider how long the movie has been around, and the fact that it doesn't just have a little bit of a message, it's kind of deeply political.

That's right. A Charlie Brown Christmas is hella political. Hold onto your hats folks.

For anyone who's seen it past the age of ten, it's actually kind of hard to avoid the political, or at least social, overtones in the film. Made in the 1960s, it was a blatant reaction to modernization, and a comfortably strident critique of the commercialization and secularization of Christmas. Charlie Brown, our hero, is down and out because he doesn't feel like he fits in the Christmas spirit. Everyone he knows is asking for lots of presents and putting up lights and doing plays, and he just wants to talk about what it all means.

One of the more memorable scenes (the film is fairly episodic, following little strong structure, and that's okay) has Charlie Brown and Linus searching for a Christmas tree in a lot right before the Christmas pageant. All the trees are brightly colored, made of aluminum or plastic, all kinds of fake, except for the one, spindly little Christmas twig that Charlie Brown takes and buys and demands to be loved.

Of course the other characters hate his little tree, because it's sad and ugly and "not in the spirit of Christmas". So they hurl abuse at Charlie Brown, as per usual, and demand he get a better one. It's not until Linus reminds everyone of the true meaning of Christmas, in that it is a celebration of Christ's birth two thousand years ago in a place where trees weren't particularly common, that they all get over it and agree to help Charlie Brown decorate the tree. Then everyone holds hands and sings Christmas carols.

A lot of people like to hold up this movie as one of the strongholds in the fight against the "War on Christmas". But I disagree. Or rather, I don't disagree, but I disagree with everything else those other people think. That was confusing. I'll explain.

I don't particularly like FOX News the rest of the year, but they really irk me around Christmas. On top of their seeming inability to acknowledge any other holidays, they also always go on and on about the "War on Christmas". How too many people are saying "Happy Holidays!" and how it's awful that some towns aren't comfortable showing an openly religious scene, like the Nativity, in a public space because that would be rude to some folks. Or how if you aren't buying lots of presents and reassuring people that Santa was a white guy, you're anti-Christmas.

I have news about this. I am not anti-Christmas. I love Christmas. It's one of my favorite holidays. I'm a Christian, and it's a celebration of my Lord and Savior's birth. I'm totally down with that. In fact, I shall be spending tonight with my nearest and dearest, singing carols and opening precisely one present each and eating traditional German desserts because that's how we roll. 

I do believe there is a War on Christmas. But it's not coming from the people who want you to say Happy Holidays, or the guy who rightly points out that religion doesn't actually belong on the public land because that's literally illegal. It's coming from you, FOX News. You and your incessant need to dumb down Christmas.

The reason I love The Grinch (animated) and A Charlie Brown Christmas is because they're right. Christmas is completely unrelated to commercialism, or at least it should be. We don't give each other presents at this time of year because we need to or because it's good for the economy or because we "want to win at gifting this year". Or at least we shouldn't give presents for those reasons. The presents at Christmas are meant in some way to remind those we love of how much we love them, because, if you are really trying to get at the Christian meaning of Christmas, this is the day when we remember how crazy and hard and bloody it was for the Son of God to decide to become a messy, stupid human like the rest of us, all so that he could die some thirty-ish years later in a way both painful and important.

Christmas isn't about toys. It's not about lights or trees or "holiday spirit". The war on Christmas isn't coming from the people who just want to have a nice time. It's coming from everyone who screams so loudly that they represent Christianity and Christmas, while promoting the things we are actively supposed to abhor.

Biblical Christianity is strongly against commercialism, and excessive personal wealth, and self-righteousness, and judgment. This is the time of year when we remember how much God loves us, and are you really suggesting that we should do that by trying to "win" at commercialism? Hell to the no.

There is a War on Christmas. But it's coming from the people who are trying to dumb Christmas down into a nice sweet, "Christian" holiday where we give presents and we worship Santa. Christmas isn't about that. It's about an unwed teenage mother and her much older fiance. They're poor, so poor that they have to rely on handouts, and when she gives birth, it's messy and loud and painful. But it's good. Because that kid? He's going to change the world. And then he's going to die. Christmas is about remembering the beauty of how much that all hurt and what that means about God's heart for us.

By all means, drink cocoa and set up a tree and watch some holiday specials. But remember that Christmas isn't really a nice holiday. It's not sweet. It's bloody and strong and it means something. And I dare FOX News to talk about that.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Let's Talk About Love Actually and Why Imperfect Is Okay

I know I've said this many times, but it really is hard figuring out how to talk about something you like in an uncomplicated way. By which I mean that I have trouble thinking of a way to analyze Love Actually or even say anything interesting about it at all, because I just enjoy it so darn much. It's been my go-to holiday feel-good movie ever since it came out - that one romantic movie that I really don't mind watching and that I can probably (shamefully) quote all the way through.

I mean, this is by no means the most shameful movie in my collection. I own a DVD of Drive Me Crazy and Wolves of Kromer, which still stands as the best bad movie I've ever seen. I don't even really think that Love Actually is a bad movie. It's not. I'd even go so far as to say that it's good. But it's nowhere near good enough for me to have such a strong love for it, if these sorts of things were at all logical.

Here are the facts. We'll talk about the feelings in a minute. The movie itself is one of those insipid romantic ensemble films, though it does win points for being one of the better executed examples. It follows nine different couples during the month before Christmas, culminating in the stunning finale at a school pageant on Christmas Eve, and then popping back in for an epilogue a month after that.

The couples run a wide gamut of (mostly) white, straight, upper-middle class love. You have Daniel (Liam Neeson), who has just lost his wife and is baffled by the revelation that his stepson has subjugated all of his feelings of grief into a frenetic crush on a fellow student. There's Jamie (Colin Firth), whose girlfriend cheats on him and drives him to finish his novel in France, where he falls in love with his Portuguese housekeeper, Aurelia (Lucia Moniz). Let's see... Mark (Andrew Lincoln) is in love with Juliet (Keira Knightley, whose character has the same name as the girl she played in Bend It Like Beckham, so headcanon). Unfortunately, Juliet has just married Peter (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who is Mark's best friend. Sadness abounds.

Harry (Alan Rickman) engages in a dangerous flirtation with his new secretary, Mia (Heike Makatsch), while his wife, Karen (Emma Thompson) frets over her kids and her big brother, David (Hugh Grant). Oh right, except David is actually the Prime Minister and has just entered office, only to fall smack in love with his assistant, Natalie (Martine McCutcheon). 

Meanwhile, Harry's employee, Sarah (Laura Linney) is desperately in love with her coworker, Karl (Rodrigo Santoro), and it would work out great, if she weren't always on call to care for her mentally ill brother.

Oh, and Billy Nighy and Gregor Fisher play an aging rock star and his manager who attempt to slither up the charts with a disgusting Christmas song, while Martin Freeman and Joanna Page play a surprisingly cute pair of actor stand-ins who meet while standing in on a remarkably filthy movie.

Did I mention that all of these people kind of know each other? It's like a giant tangled ball of string and familial obligations. Like any holiday, actually.

Anyway, because there are so very many characters and plotlines and interconnections and baffling moments, the story is actually really hard to follow if you take it as a whole. Or rather, it becomes very very simplistic on the whole. The plot, when you get down to it? Love actually is all around us.

That's it. There's a lot of love. Isn't that nice.

If you haven't gathered by now, I really can't stand things that are just nice. I like things that are good, things that are true, and things that are bursting with life. But nice? Vaguely holding the door for someone before you keep walking the way you were walking anyway is nice. 

Remembering not to play your music loudly at one in the morning because your roommate might be sleeping is nice. Not parking someone in is nice. Nice is the absolute bare minimum of effort you could have expended here, and it is certainly not an adjective I would ever want applied to me. Not that I particularly think it would be, to be honest.

Anyway, and do remember here that I really and truly love this movie and we'll get to that bit in a moment, the movie's all right, but there's really not a lot there, is there? Because there are so many characters and plotlines going on, no one gets enough screentime for anything substantial to happen. You just kind of check in on the various plots. Also, because everyone gets so little screentime, the writers rely on cheap tricks, like "Oh no! The manuscript fell in the water! We'll both have to strip down and jump in the lake to retrieve it. Hope this doesn't raise a level of sexual tension and make both of us realize our feelings for each other." Sigh.

Oh, and the movie's pretty darn sexist and rather strongly racist. There are precisely three significant characters of color in the entire film. Four if you count the eleven year old's love interest, which you shouldn't, because she's a child and also on screen for about five minutes, during which time she has like three lines.

Anyway, those three characters of color are, in order of plot relevance, Peter, the guy whose best friend is in love with his wife and who remains blissfully oblivious of this for the whole film. Peter has no plotline, other than being happily married to Juliet. I mean, good for him? But it's still not enough. Also, there's Karl, who does get to be a little active in his love story, but his is one of the least important stories, and also we never get his side of view on it. Is he sad when Sarah keeps answering her phone? Does he really love her, or is he just kind of curious and willing to try it out? What's up with Karl?

The third major character of color is Tony (Abdul Salis), who has no romantic plotline and acts only as a foil to his wacky friend, Colin (Kris Marshall), and Colin's plan to go over to America and sleep with hot women. Also he shows up on set and directs the stand-in couple. 

That's it.

Things aren't much better for the women. I mean, yeah, there are lots of women in this movie, because it's a romance and a remarkably straight one at that, but the women don't really ever get to do anything. Almost none of the female characters are the center of their plots. Nope. It's the male characters who drive the story, and the female characters who are the objects of affection. Key word there? Objects.

No, seriously. With the exception of Sarah, whose storyline still revolves around a man who controls her life, it's just her brother, none of the women are the leading players in their love stories. It's freaking depressing. They're just there to stand around and look pretty while the guys work through enough of their crap to profess undying love or whatever. It's annoying.

Except here's the thing. I really love this movie.

And as I just stated above, I don't have a very good reason to. It's totally not my jam. It's sexist and racist and annoying. It's nice. I hate nice.

But someone needs to direct those complaints to the warm squishy part of my soul that I haven't yet managed to stomp out, because this movie makes me giggle and squirm and laugh with delight. It makes me sad, and excited, and deeply, deeply invested in the characters and their love stories. Crap, I even care that Billy Nighy's execrable single hits number one, even though you know it will, and even though this movie came out in 2003 and I've watched it at least once a year since then, so I think I freaking know what's going to happen!

Doesn't matter. I still get super invested every time.

Look, no movie is perfect. Even the ones that I hold up as golden examples for the rest of us to bow before (except that's idolatry and weird, we'll just vaguely nod towards Pacific Rim, Bend It Like Beckham, Terminator 2, etc) aren't perfect. The key is finding a movie that's imperfect in exactly the right way for you.

Kind of like, well, love. 

Aww crap. That got sappy on me. I feel dirty now. I'm going to go shower in cynicism and watch a cold Russian art film until I feel bitter again.


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Linksgiving (Women and Other Things on TV, Part 2)

Gosh it's been a while since we did a Linksgiving post. Which means this is well overdue! In our sequel to last time, here's part two of links about women and gender (and racism and class and poverty and lots of things) on television.

Enjoy some nice links, while I curl up in my nice cozy new place and watch the rain (also my Hulu queue, because what are rainy Saturdays for if not television?).

1. On TV, Men Have Conviction and Women Have Issues from Salon. I don't know as I entirely agree with this article, since I think Sleepy Hollow's Abbie Mills is probably the best thing ever, but it's worth a read for sure.

2. TV's Strongest Female Characters Share One Stupid Flaw from Time magazine. Okay, now this one I will totally give them. It's a very valid complaint, that too many female characters are still defined by their messed up relationships with men.

3. The 99%: "There's Always Money In the Banana Stand": Class Passing on Arrested Development from Bitch. An awesome article on class signifiers and how Arrested Development is secretly subversive.

4. The Economics of a Hit TV Show from Priceonomics. Amazing explanation of how TV actually works and why shows we love often get cancelled anyway.

5. Spongebob Squarepants Is a Marxist! from Salon. BEST. ARTICLE. EVER.

6. Pink and Satiny, Part II from sobrans. A compelling (and exhaustively researched) article on Dean Winchester and the fluidity of gender presentation. It's pretty impressive.

7. 'Elementary's Joan: My Favorite Watson from BitchFlicks. I mean, the title pretty much says it all, but I agree wholeheartedly with the concept and execution herein.

8. 'Sleepy Hollow's Abbie Mills: a New and Improved Scully from BitchFlicks. Again, not super confusing in content, but well-written and worth reading.

9. Once Upon a Time: The Treatment of Regina from Fangs for the Fantasy. Dude, this article is amazing, and not just because I love Regina. But also because it really explains something that has bothered me: why does Regina never seem to catch a break?

10. Scandal: Lisa Kudrow Goes HAM in an Epic Speech on Sexism in Politics from Jezebel. It's just so good. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy and angry inside, like a wolverine with a cup of tea.

11. How Did NCIS Get to Be So Cool? from MacLean's. You know, I held out for a long time on the NCIS love train. But then I caved. And it is cool. And adorable. And fun. And also getting on there in years. Seriously, how long has it been on now?

12. Seth MacFarlane's 'Dads' Is Bad - But Could It Have Been Worse? from Speakeasy. Shudder. Just read it and shudder. And then maybe weep.

13. American Horror Story and Gratuitous Rape from Fangs for the Fantasy. Have I mentioned that I love FftF? Because I do. So much. And also, they make a pretty important point here.

14. Emma Goldwyn and Sasha Spielberg's Girls Without Boys Picked Up by ABC and WBTV from Women and Hollywood. So, in news about shows that I will definitely be watching...

15. Kenyan TV Show Imagines European Refugees Fleeing to Africa in 2062 from io9. Also in news of things I really, really want to see (but am having trouble locating, sadly). Because I'm pretty sure this has potential to be my favorite thing ever.

16. What Steven Moffat Doesn't Understand about Grief, and Why It's Killing Doctor Who from Tea Leaves and Dog Ears. Just a wonderful summation of everything that annoys me about current Who.

17. The Women of Battlestar Galactica, in the Style of Klimt, Bouguereau, Lichtenstein from the MarySue. I like nerd art.

18. 20 Life Lessons We Learned from "Gilmore Girls" from Buzzfeed.

19. 16 Things Mr. Feeny Taught Us from Buzzfeed.

20. The 50 Most Important Lessons Learned from "30 Rock" from Buzzfeed.

21. 15 Things You Didn't Know About "Game of Thrones" from Buzzfeed.

22. What If Breaking Bad Was All Just Hal from Malcolm in the Middle's Dream? from io9 and also the internet at large. Heehee, that's what.

Well, that's about the shape of it for this week. We'll be back on Monday to talk about Frozen and Love Actually and Charlie Brown Christmas and all those lovely, wintery types of things, quick before Christmas is over and it's weird to watch Christmas movies again!

Until then, have a lovely weekend.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Strong Female Character Friday: Chloe (Don't Trust the B*)

First, before we actually get into the article for today, I want to say that I am sorry that the site has been so erratic for the past few weeks (month), but that I have at last moved and unpacked and am now back to a normal schedule - at least until my parents arrive for Christmas and then my sister gets married and ALL OF THE THINGS HAPPEN WAY TOO FAST. It's cool. I'm cool.

Anyway, thanks for bearing with me.

Let's talk about Don't Trust the B's Chloe, as played by Krysten Ritter. It's telling that the title, which fully reads Don't Trust the B* in Apartment 23 refers directly to Chloe, and to a line said in the very first episode, when lovely and naive June (Dreama Walker) comes up to rent a room from the nefarious Chloe. Chloe charges her an extraordinary amount to move in, then tries to terrorize her into moving out so that she can pocket the money. June, however, turns out to be much more steadfast than the usual victims, and refuses to leave. And so Chloe is stuck with a roommate, and maybe an actual friend.

Usually for Strong Female Character Fridays I like to talk about female characters that are aspirational in some way. Characters whose behavior is impeccable, or at least understandable, who overcome great odds and who strive to make the world a better place.

Chloe does none of those things. In fact, her general mode of operation can best be described as "think of the worst thing someone could possibly do in this situation, now do it." She scams her roommates, tries to set June up with her (still married) father, solves problems by getting drunk or getting other people drunk, lies outrageously to everyone and anyone, walks into a magazine office and declares herself boss then manages to run the company for two weeks before anyone catches on... I could go on, but I hope you get the point. Chloe is a terrible person. And it's awesome.

It's awesome because this is a female character we almost never get to see, and we pretty much never get to see as the head of a successful sitcom on a major network. Chloe is pure id, pure "I want it so I will take it," and as such she flies in the face of what conventional wisdom tells us women are and do. She's openly rude, flagrantly sexual, angry, bitchy, the kind of person you would never want your parents to meet. She's that girl standing behind you in the checkout line stuffing candy bars in her purse while the cashier is distracted then blaming you for it. 

And, again, she's awesome.

I'm not saying she's great because I think these are things that people should actually do. The entire joke of Chloe's character, and the show in general, is that she flies in the face of social conventions. No one is supposed to like lying or cheating or being generally awful, but Chloe is and does. She has no compunctions about her immoral behavior, which is what makes her funny. She says and does the things that the rest of us are way, way too moral or uncomfortable or sensible to do. 

This is important because in her own weird way, Chloe is a step forward for women on television. She's a woman who is unapologetically bad, and who never gets punished for her behavior. There is no moral lesson on the show. She never turns over a new leaf. Chloe is a terrible person and continues to be a terrible person because she's good at it and she likes it and she has no reason to change. 

We see male characters like this all the time. How I Met Your Mother's Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris) comes to mind immediately, but he is by no means the first man to embody this trope. What about Seinfeld's Kramer? He did weird, amoral stuff all the time, and the narrative never punished him for it. He wasn't unhappy. 

But women? Women are supposed to be good. We're supposed to follow the rules and want 2.5 kids and a dreamy husband. We aren't supposed to recoil in horror when handed a baby or to try to scam the foster system into giving us a foster kid so that we can have a personal assistant for a few weeks. We're supposed to be nice. Chloe isn't nice.

I guess in a weird way, Chloe is aspirational. We all kind of want to be that bitch, who doesn't worry or care about what anyone else things, who goes through life like a hurricane hitting someone else's house. She's horrible and mean and sometimes I wish I weren't such a good person because it looks like being Chloe would be so much fun.

It's funny, because Chloe is based on Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Like Holly, she's kind of sort of an escort, a woman who makes her living by "entertaining" powerful men. Like Holly, she's blissfully uncomplicated about the moral implications of her job. But unlike Holly, Chloe neither needs nor wants a man to take care of her. She doesn't want a fairytale ending, she's not a romantic at heart, and she doesn't particularly desire to mend her ways. She is never redeemed by the story.

And that's okay. I mean, obviously, I would have a huge problem with anyone who suggested that Chloe serve as a role model at all for anyone ever, but I like that she's out there. I like watching her subvert all the social norms, mess stuff up, be completely unapologetic, and then go do it all again. I like watching her help June find her inner bitch, and I love seeing the two of them learn to navigate a female friendship that isn't about baking and sweatpants, but about cocktail dresses and poor life choices. 

I love Chloe because she is bad. Because she's the kind of bad that I don't actually want to be. I like her because she's fun to watch, and because she's the first girl I've seen who does that. Who doesn't take any crap, from anyone. Who is empowered and strong and cool, but still feminine. Who openly enjoys sex. Who says the worst thing at the worst time and doesn't mind.

I love her because she's my id. She acts out so I don't have to. And if guys can have Barney Stinson and Kramer and dozens of others, then why can't we have this one? Why can't I have Chloe?

Oh right. Because ABC cancelled her show. Whoo.

And, because I love you all, have a massive collection of Chloe gifs. Merry Christmas.