If you have ever worked with kids, and you appreciate their age, you know that they teach you more than you can possibly teach them. The big up (though it rarely feels like it, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit) is that, as an adult, you get to…have to…are charged with working in a system to make decisions about the kids you look after. They can’t know your limitations, or they won’t respect your authority- the authority you need to help them and they need to feel -and actually be- safe in the world. “Short Term 12” is about kids who grew up under the wrong kind of adults, and who, with a sense of purpose, turned around as adults to help kids in the same cycle of abuse and neglect, fostering and lost time. Their power is more potent because it moves across a backdrop of devastation they are familiar with. The way they manage games and crafts and free time- the things kids do- is heavy, knowing. They are aware of how these things will never feel normal for these kids who never got to be kids. Kids who, having been robbed of being young, may always be in a purgatory of growth. Adulthood is where people make mistakes with authority, and people who have experienced such horrible abuses of authority must be careful to decide how they will be when they have that kind of power, a power they perceived as great when they were being abused. On screen, this hardship is unspoken to the last third of the film. Before the protagonist, Grace (Brie Larson), speaks of her own abuse, it is a shadow, a heaviness over her actions. Her body is heavier, more defensive. She has a lot to carry inside, already, so when we learn that she’s pregnant, there is a dual cycle that forms: her horrible childhood, her life as a caretaker of children experiencing that kind of childhood, the looming threat of all those horrendous things continuing after they leave her, and the kind of mother she will be, if she so decides to be one. Her lover, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) is from the system, too. His role is another layer upon the cycle. He represents the good one can find in their heart, under any circumstances. As a pair, he finds her softness, and she allows him to see her as someone who can be loved. Vulnerability is not a constant for her, but his willingness to remain open brings them into balance. He is convinced that they will have the family they wished they were born into, and she wants to be there with him. The problem is that the cycle- her childhood, her child, her self- they are all affected by the weight of her history. Then she meets Jayden, a girl whose pain breaks the cycle. Her father is like Grace’s father. She hurts her body like Grace hurt her body back then. She wants to save Jayden so that she herself can feel safer. Stopping the cycle of abuse she witnessed is the only use of her power that can help save her own life, and maybe give her the ability to give birth to a new life. Before she knows she can accomplish this, everything is uncertain. She breaks off from Mason, she has plans to get an abortion- “I can’t do this, I can’t.” But when she does, a new world breaks open, her own world. The same job, the same lover, but she has life once she begins to handle the weight of her past. “Short Term 12” is about reflections and growing up through those reflections we see of ourselves in others. It’s about summoning up what’s left, the other side of devastation. Destin Daniel Cretton wrote from his experience working in the kind of facility where his characters, Grace and Mason, spend their days managing, comforting, and legitimately raising children who have been all but abandoned. His script and direction expose such tenderness, focusing not on the volatile actions of the abusers, but on the healing process that comes after. By shining the light solely on the survivors, he gives viewers a unique experience to consider the situation with empathy, mixed with much less blind anger. The softness in us meets Grace and Mason, Jayden and the rest of the characters picking up the pieces and making something grow where few people thought the feat was possible.
The Brooklyn Sky told me a little something tonight
From the first moment, “20 Feet from Stardom” inhale-exhales devotion. Devotion to a group of mega-talented performers who held up (and still do) the music industry during the come one come all simultaneous golden eras of soul, rock n’ roll, blues, jazz, funk, r&b- decades of human soul blessed vocal support by extraordinary professionals trained in churches across the United States. These are what we call back-up singers. Paid like they’re the parsley garnish, when, as this documentary brings to light, they are the ingredient, the method, the infusion of spice in the recipe of a best-selling band.
Forever in my mind, the vision of Merry Clayton’s description of her first meeting with the Stones says it all. Her hair is in curlers, her make-up washed away- she’s ready for bed, when the phone rings. It’s a call that will change her life. She jumps in a taxi, prepared to blow away these rock stars. She has zero doubt. Greeted by the sleepless band mates, she belts out a raunchy, husky, LOUD “it’s just a shot away”, and “Gimme Shelter” rushes in a stunning, visceral flood from the collective mind’s womb: the bloody, gasping life of a top 20 song- all thanks to Clayton, a singer with more skill and belly fire than any of the chart topping, gloriously wealthy voices of the rock scene. With this documentary, her name will be remembered, and yes, she still sings.
Through the smooth tunes and interview segments that welcome viewers warmly into the circle that sings, the topics taken on are heavy: classist industry and personal failure. The latter is a mystery, given how stunningly talented the cast is, but the proceeding point about classism is intricate and explains a lot. This isn’t classism in the sense of rich and poor, but of the valued and the undervalued; it isn’t reality, but perception that makes a star ring “potential” for producers. Unfortunately, perception was masked by dollar signs, even during a time when people purchased music (they had no choice) and there was a direct, more easily regulated form of profit. Most backups stayed and some still stay a few feet behind some better-managed star, at least in the big leagues.
Whomever the singers backed-up -Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen- they all tried to use those connections to break away and find their own spotlight. Consider it a paid apprenticeship, only that isn’t how it’s ever worked.Whoever can be marketed will succeed, as Sting explains in a short clip: it’s talent, but more about luck and who’s backing you and “the best people understand that and deal with it.” Ah, yes. In all industries, the ones who hit the ceiling have to deal with it. And they don’t all get to sit before a talented director’s camera to do it. Gladly, Morgan Neville opened the topic for a wider audience, with the grace of gorgeous lighting, smooth transitions, dare I say perfect sound editing, and a gentle way of telling a story of the struggle to reach stardom.
The makings of a film people will watch: NEW YORK CITY + Music + The Coen Brothers made it. Not necessarily in that order, and there are indeed many other factors that can score a profit, but to be realistic (which is what I’m going for, here), not many. Location (location, location), something joyous with a fan base like music or music, and the names. The holy names, yes. ”Inside Llewyn Davis” had all the dominant qualities an indie / Independent needs to be seen. Thumbs up, because that is a tricky climb. Onward to the content…
Llewyn is a song man who nearly just nearly “made it” in the 1960’s folk scene, until he didn’t. When we meet him, he’s couch hopping with a friend’s cat in his arms and his guitar over his shoulder. Freezing in the winter air in his corduroy jacket, he admits in attitude that he is significantly down on his luck. So stays the drawn face, which only softens when he’s around his friend’s girlfriend, who he happened to get pregnant, who treats him with a perfect Carey Mulligan-y dose of wistful, curious, cussing contempt. She reminds us that we’re not dealing with a man who will redeem himself. Ever. He’s a loser. And in case we forget it, because he’s the protagonist and he sings pretty, she repeats: YOU ARE A LOSER. I hate you. Got it. (Might I just mention here how much I love Mulligan’s sugary spice wherever it graces audiences. Very much.)
So, summary: the Coen Brothers made a movie about a groovy time in the most fascinating place, with a sweet soundtrack and an old school hipster-mirror wardrobe (when men had beards because they were that much closer to their ancestors, not because models had them), about…a total loser guy who not even a sweet cat wants to stick around with, who ends up getting punched to the ground in an alley on his own turf in the back alley of the hotspot of the folk movement…for drunk-heckling a middle-aged mama type. It grossed over $31 million. Are you impressed? I can’t believe it if you said no, so I’ll ignore you.
For the yes people, I assume you saw the film. Did anybody like Llewyn? Because I think that the point went beyond liking him. He was relentlessly acidic in temperament- a downer.
Anyway, beyond to where? To what’s increasingly, boldly becoming the purpose of risky films with All Star cast / productions: damage. Not just drama, but the damage of massive consumer impulse relay technology and its imminent mismanagement. A helpless downfall of the have-nones.
Llewyn owns nothing, really. He nearly joins the armed forces when he’s a foot in the grave of the rock bottom (don’t worry, he didn’t succeed in rejoining, either). Anyway, he’s the main guy in this movie, but he only really serves to highlight the fact that bigger forces of consumerism control his fate, not his talent, but his marketability. Can he be packaged? If not, then nothing else matters. This damage is the wear of continuous, long term rejection by seemingly skill-less and colorless forces. And the artists, they don’t understand. The free spirited people get damaged. What they are is not easily adaptive. They see colors even when they are living in the darkest shades of gray, but not being able to show their colors, feeling unworthy, that leads to damages. That’s where our drama lies these days. That’s why Llewyn is one of the most important losers of 2013: he really hits the bottom on all fours, and he never breaks, he merely demonstrates the fear of the era, a mirror.
'Concussion': She said “I have to do something.”
Abby Ableman reads and vacuums at the same time, fixes up hole-in-the-wall apartments in Manhattan, and spends inordinate amounts of time in cycling classes, amidst the aimless, though healthy-minded chatter of other soccer moms. Most importantly, Abby violently, helplessly curses at her son when he hits her in the head with a baseball, causing her first concussion- a bloody mess, which starts off a spiraling breakdown of her marriage and family life, her energy punch-redirected into fulfilling her suppressed appetite for sensual exploration. The extent of her passion, pre-prostitution, can be summed up in the following piece of dialogue, exchanged after the ball incident, when Abby’s hair and face are streaked with congealed blood:
Divorce lawyer wife Kate to stay-at-home-cycling-mom Abby: “Don’t you think you were a bit hard on the kids?”
Abby to Kate: “I’m going to start working again. I mean it.”
It’s worth asking what is work to the one who chooses what they will do every day, without a care for the price their hours are worth? Choices, choices. Abby has them. She chooses to have sex with women who pay her, as she remodels a fixer-upper property…between the mom stuff and the married friends dinner dates, the spinning classes and advanced yoga, she re-values her time, when we meet her from this refreshed perspective.
Between our vision of Abby vacuuming, cycling, bleeding, sweating, and bored, the affairs, which come on carefully, almost innocently, and somewhat in the way psychologists meet new patients, seem interesting at best- a hobby, temporary…for health. When things start getting darker, when relationships begin to scratch at the surface of her protective layer, it becomes clear that Abby has chosen to lie, through infidelity, to find herself: to gauge the extent of get innate passion, even at the cost of the life she’s built and the children she’s made. Once Kate finds her out, she flounders. Late to one too many after school pick-ups and fiery against the dullness of Kate’s complacence, Abby shines through the holes, brilliant in all she’s experienced, but the image of pain to her spouse.
Should she have talked it out with her before taking amorous appointments? What a logical thought, the thought of someone who can’t or won’t imagine being stuck between the beige walls of cohabitation. Communication itself can get boring. Does talking bring on a fit of passion? Does couple’s therapy lead to endearment? Or is it so that only a spark will lead to flames, and it can’t be found on solemn grounds? All that’s judgmental
aside, Abby’s dramatic fall makes for an insightful, chilly look into independent drama’s favorite topic: the mundane + the family + the sin = the flame, a moral Phoenix rising quietly. ‘Concussion’ is one of the best films of 2013 because it trampled the lead without pinning her, explored her circumstances unflinchingly without a judge to follow.
The primary reason for why Italy owns so many Oscars is because their visions seem so well-churned in the sensuous process of finding true visual pleasure. Italian film exhibits the cultural patience Italians have for exploring the courtship between humans and ephemerality: bugs to the flame; beautiful decay, holy pleasure, and absolutely upheld moral stricture necessarily softened by the sun, wine, and a preoccupation with the succulence of syllables…such are the makings of the most sublime drama about elegant mediocrity. This is a delicious sentiment I have: I love the daily mess, the sunlight kisses of morning on tired protagonists like Paolo Sorrentino’s Jep Gambardella. Gambardella: the well-off journalist, who was once and only once an award-winning novelist, writes to serve cultured readers of a metropolitan magazine; he who takes the long way home, and always home. Jep is the host of extravagant parties populated by beautiful monsters of boredom- neglected souls that shine only when someone notices them, and, there to be noticed, flatten into sound waves, dance with dead eyes, deader than the Japanese tourist who drops to the pavement under the voices of chorus women before an ancient Roman fountain, still flowing, and they, still singing, live on amidst momentary deaths. The leading man is a leader to repetition. His success lies in an area where he’s long been starved for interest. A hammock on a penthouse overlooking the great Colosseum is not an adventure. A beautiful woman is not an adventure. Another interview with a performance artist and a platonic midnight dinner date with one’s editor is absolutely not an adventure…because Mr. Gambardella has done it all before. Beautiful, yes. Enlivening? Never again. The point, if there must be one, is to live- watch the film, linger, but go out and make a decision that will wake up your soul and heart. Be more than fun: dive deeper.
There are no spoilers here. Consider this an entry similar to what I might write about a beautiful stranger who walks into my midst in the most attractive way. Why would I want to know more? My roots soak up the discovery of a new mystery, which stays sweet as long as I know nothing more than what I saw. The only difference is that in this case I couldn’t help but overhear that ‘La Grande Bellezza’ won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year. Congratulations, and bless you.
To walk around “The Dinner Party” is to greet history in a fuller, less inhibited manner. Designed, built and crafted by historian and artist Judy Chicago and dozens of artisans, and funded by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation between 1974 and 1979, it is a tribute to women from the beginning of recorded history forward, and an effort against the omission of these accomplished women from historical records. As I made my way around the table, I reminded myself of all I had learned about these women in my classes in college. I knew more about their suffering as well as their successes than most of the people who visit them at the Brooklyn Museum each day, the knowledge of which made me hold the existence of the work to an even higher standard. I need feminism because these women of history have pieces of art dedicated to them at a landmark location, but they are still not honored as historic figures in school curriculums across the country. They may be recognized by feminist artists, sympathetic historians, and the people, are having experiences around the world , but they have not been introduced as their husbands and fathers have been. They are not foremothers alongside the forefathers. Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindications (1790 and 1792) and Olympe de Gouges with her declaration of the rights of woman (1791), preceded each of their horrible deaths by only a few years, but the texts remind us that they knew and struggled with obstacles that women professionals and creators still manage to break through to this day. We must remember the 999 women in the tiles and 39 women at the table in our creations. We must draw in their contributions to dilute our inhibitions about public expression and revive the knowledge they left for us, for history, just as we have been inspired by the other figures w’ve been taught over time. “The Dinner Party” is a reminder and a testament to this collective journey we face. Onward from their we walk…
Cate Blanchett’s Oscar-winning role in “Blue Jasmine” was the grittiest and most econo-socially relevant of the season. There was the sweetest Dame Judi Dench in “Philomena”, the raspiest, most frightening Meryl Streep in “August: Osage County”, a sultry, mysterious, and brilliant yet cracked Amy Adams in “American Hustle”, and of course Sandra Bullock’s space heroine of the collective psyche in “Gravity”.
Blanchett’s performance, though…it rocked the foundation upon which viewers judge their guides- the protagonist symbol. Blanchett played a mentally unstable, self-medicated, aging beauty queen, and a liar, a cheat, disloyal: the cause of all ruin. This shocking, shaking, whispering poseur led thousands of movie-goers through a tale of a woman who makes very little sense and a lot of trouble.
Defenseless, and hopelessly defensive, bitter, and yet self-preserving, she mumbles to herself of her troubles, on level amidst a crowd of those whom she would’ve previously considered poor folks who weren’t worth her presence (she still does, but she needs them, just then). Struggling nobodys. Jasmine is viciously exposed, but we don’t see her fall. She is still spiraling when the credits roll; still lost when it hits us that we thought it was one of those for-granted kind of classist films that, at the end, absent-mindedly kicks up dust in the eyes of the average viewer for the sake of pleasing their vision of grandeur or criticizing the same vision. But no, this is different, and Cate Blanchett made the difference. She cried and bled. She made Jasmine as tangibly bitter and helpless as a screen actress could mold her leading lady. She did it in a way, with a heart, which exposed the raw beauty of getting another chance, and the self-defeat that follows characters who are unwell.