At The Movies: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
based on the television show

★★★★½

2015 • 116 minutes • Warner Bros. Pictures

I was tentative about Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Or, to be more accurate, I could scent the weariness coming at it from all corners—yet another film version of a beloved sixties television show? Yet another movie about two white guys in suits (or, as Noelle Stevenson hilariously put it, two Michael Fassbenders)? Yet another stylish but hollow Guy Ritchie action movie? It was so pervasive that I felt awkward about being excited for it. No matter how excited my lizard brain was for pretty clothes and explosions and cuties of all genders, I started to feel certain that I was going to enjoy ninety percent of the film and rage over the remaining ten percent.

But The Man from U.N.C.L.E. surprised me. It nimbly leaps over the low bar of not actively offending human sensibilities by treating its female characters like people and failing to include anything along the lines of Robert Downey Jr. in yellowface in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Of course, there’s only two major female characters and the latter is achieved by a complete dearth of people of color, so that’s certainly an issue. The reason we keep the bar that low is because media still continues to fail it, and it is important to point out how texts fail that bar, even when we enjoy them.

Because, dear readers, I enjoyed The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I enjoyed it a lot. I left the theater buzzing, feeling a little drunk off its good vibes, because it’s really the perfect kind of movie to come out at the tail end of the summer—a stylish, light, and fun action comedy.

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Review: The Empathy Exams

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The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison

★★★★☆

2014 • 256 pages • Graywolf Press

I do hope that all fans of Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar, and Tiny Beautiful Things have discovered the existence of Dear Sugar Radio. That’s right, dear readers, Sugar has taken to the airwaves—both of them, in fact, as original Sugar Steve Almond is along for the ride. Together, and usually with the help of a colleague over the phone, they tackle exactly the same kind of letters people sent to Sugar during her original run.

It’s a wonderful podcast and a regular part of my podcast rotation, but I find myself missing the conspiratorial, motherly, and challenging tone of the original (alright, semi-original) Sugar, who shared her hard-earned wisdom with us just as much as she shared the things that she was still struggling with.

In that light, Leslie Jamison, whom you may know from her searing “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” reads like a younger Sugar, one with harder, pricklier edges. (Which makes perfect sense, given that The Empathy Exams were recommended on a recent episode of Dear Sugar Radio.) Jamison’s theme, as you might be able to guess, is pain: the pain of understanding, not understanding, and not being understood, the pain of suffering an illness that doctors dismiss, the voluntary pain of extreme runners, the involuntary pain of the incarcerated and the wounded, and the pain we co-opt for our own purposes and pleasures. And, with the welcome inclusion of “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” in this volume, how to actively engage with female pain when it has been turned into flattening, dehumanizing metaphor for centuries in media.

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Page to Screen: Savage Grace (2007)

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Savage Grace
based on the book by by Natalie Robins and Steven M.L. Aronson

★★★☆☆

2007 • 97 minutes • IFC Films

Why does this movie exist?

I mean, there are two very compelling reasons for Savage Grace to exist—the lives of Barbara Daly Baekeland and her son Anthony absolutely brim with scandal and that prelude to a threesome scene with Julianne Moore, Hugh Dancy, and Eddie Redmayne that you know from tumblr—but these are reasons for its genesis, not justification for its rather lackluster existence. If you are going to make a film about the Baekeland murder, a story rich with psychological drama, intrigue, and, yes, incest, why would you ever make it so… bloodless?

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Review: Teenage

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Teenage
by Jon Savage

★★★½☆

2008 (originally published 2007) • 576 pages • Penguin Books

I always viewed the classical teenage experience as mainstream American media sold it to me by way of Saved by the Bell reruns as pure fantasy. It probably helped that any time Madame McBride caught me watching said show, she would always pause behind me and sigh importantly that it gave my brother “unrealistic expectations about high school.” Between being an angry, nerdy preteen too dumb to realize she was queer and the old McBride gene pool being so Catholic that it just fast-forwards all inheritors through puberty in about a week, none of it seemed particularly relevant to me and my experiences. Even the mischief my alternative kid friends would get up to seemed beyond me: my fear of my mother outweighed any desire for teenage rebellion. It was always glaringly obvious to me, the tallest girl in fifth grade, that adolescence was a social construct.

Of course, understanding that a thing is socially constructed does not mean resolving it right out of existence. (Blip!) As Rebecca Jordan-Young reminds us (while clearing up some misconceptions about gender theory), things that are socially constructed are nonetheless real. We simply have more access and agency in their construction than most social forces would like you to think. For instance, the English language is socially constructed out of historical encounters between several cultures. The English language is very, very real. But its invention and construction is obvious enough that I can yell a lot about how it is absurd that appellation is a word in English but the verb from whence it is derived is not.

So—the teenager, as we all know from the special edition DVD of Back to the Future, was invented in the 1950s for marketing purposes. But that’s only the label for a phenomenon that had always been with the human species.

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Page to Screen: Ella Enchanted (2004)

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Ella Enchanted
based on the novel by Gail Carson Levine

★★☆☆☆

2004 • 96 minutes • Buena Vista Pictures

I was two-thirds of the way through Ella Enchanted when I realized I’d never seen Ella Enchanted before. I mean, it seemed so obvious! In 2004, I was a preteen mourning the loss of The Lord of the Rings who had, in fact, actually read Ella Enchanted and liked it. I even distinctly remember reading about Cary Elwes playing the villain in this film and taking a moment to think about what he would even look like with darker hair. (I am always fascinated by what natural blondes look like with darker hair, for reasons presumably related to my lifelong adventures in hair color.)

And yet, when Heidi Klum turned up as the giantess Brumhilda, I realized that I was on deeply unfamiliar ground. I must have been stitching something together out of The Princess Diaries and A Knight’s Tale to heal over the mental wound this film inflicted on my generation of lady geeks. It’s a wound so deep that, when I proposed this film to my erstwhile Valkyries as a bad film to skewer, even those mighty mavens balked. Surely, though, with a decade between both me and the film and me and my culturally bloodthirsty preteen self, I could take a gentler and wider view on this much reviled film.

(Also Hannibal’s seeped into my bloodstream enough that I am compelled to seek out the filmography of both Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, so expect King Arthur to be covered in these pages soon enough. Moving on…)

Ella Enchanted has precious little to do with the novel it’s based on, besides its basic premise. A girl named Ella is given the “gift” of obedience by a fairy, she goes to a giant’s wedding, and she falls in love with a prince named Char(mont). Other than that, they largely have nothing to do with one another, which makes Ella Enchanted, essentially, Shrek for teenage girls.

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Review: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

danforthmiseducationofcameronpostThe Miseducation of Cameron Post
by Emily Danforth

★★★★½

2012 • 470 pages • Balzer + Bray

It’s been a long time since I read something as good as The Miseducation of Cameron Post. When I first realized this, I thought it couldn’t be true—2015’s been a pretty solid reading year so far, especially with my determination to read more lady authors than gentlemen authors this year. But it seems like the last books that I truly adored and found myself practically drowning in (Women in Clothes and Truly Wilde) were months ago, which, in nerd time, is practically an eternity. (See our attention spans regarding Fantastic Fours and Spider-Mans.) And both of those are nonfiction titles, which mean that I’ve been without a fictional character breathing in my ear with how weighty and real they seem for quite some time.

But The Miseducation of Cameron Post put that to rights. It’s a title I remember from my bookstore days, trying to give it the much-desired face out. I knew it centered on a young lesbian who ended up being sent to “pray the gay away” camp, but it’s… I hesitate to say so much more, because I think that every queer story is valuable. But some queer stories have become louder than others: the tragic lesbians of midcentury pulp novels whose affairs can only end in degayification or death (via, of course, a “properly” heterosexual man), white, cisgendered, genteel gay men who just want to settle down and raise a baby (just like you, straights!), and the coming out story.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a coming out story, in the sense that we are introduced to Cameron as a middle schooler as she and her best friend, Irene, start exploring a more romantic side to their relationship… days before Cameron’s parents die in a car accident, leaving her in the care of her grandmother and her born again Christian aunt, Rita. But once the teenage Cameron has a more serious relationship with Lindsey, an out and proud lesbian from Seattle whom she meets through competitive swimming, Cameron embraces being gay as much as a kid in Miles City, Montana, in the early nineties can. The rest of the novel, then, is about Cameron learning—learning about lesbian culture through missives of Lindsey and obsessive movie watching, learning about the adult world that lies beyond her, and learning about herself when she’s forced to attend God’s Promise. It’s about Cameron growing up.

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At The Movies: Stop Making Sense (1984)

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Stop Making Sense

★★★★☆

1984 • 88 minutes • Cinecom Pictures

This is not particularly a review of Stop Making Sense.

I don’t know if that’s something I can actually write. The film is complete and whole and unassailable. I don’t think it read to the audiences who literally danced in the aisles upon its theatrical release in 1984 the same way it now reads to us, a little over thirty years later. Its rightful place as one of the greatest concert films ever made has lacquered it into something quite other, like an alien transmission from the almighty eighties. In “Stop Making Sense: An Appreciation,” Noel Murray dwells on several elements of the film that now appear studied and prearranged that were never planned at all. Through planning, execution, and sheer force of will, David Byrne and Jonathan Demme’s creation has transformed into a unique experience, blasting the Talking Heads’ determined creations almost directly into your brain.

And I find that level of musical intimacy suffocating in a way that I feel guilty about.

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