Review: Disaster Preparedness

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Disaster Preparedness

★★½☆☆

2010 • 256 pages • Riverhead Books

While I’ve cooled on all but one, my love for advice columns once led me to subscribe to three at once—Dear Sugar, Ask Polly, and Captain Awkward. These days, Dear Sugar has evolved into a podcast (which I don’t have room for on my current podcast rotation, sadly), Ask Polly has moved from the Hairpin to the Cut, and Captain Awkward is still chugging away. I now only subscribe to the good Captain, but I’ll occasionally drop by the Cut to see what Ask Polly author Heather Havrilesky is up to. Like when I dropped by a few weeks ago, and discovered this gorgeous gem that summed up a lot of my interpersonal issues:

What you don’t know when you’re young and single is how personal it feels to live at the whims of someone else’s bad habits.

It’s this kind of writing that really resonated with me, especially given my issues regarding control and agency. So, inevitably, that led me to add Havrilesky’s memoir to my reading list. Disaster Preparedness focuses on key incidents in the young Havrilesky’s life, growing up in the late seventies and early eighties, that highlight the dysfunction of her family. As she grows up and starts to learn that other people don’t operate the same way that her family does, she finds herself running into obstacles between herself and her ability to connect with other people.

Havrilesky writes Disaster Preparedness with the same clear-eyed wit and wisdom as she writes her column. Mostly, she marvels at the ways in which her family have pushed aside the world to cling together as a unit, in ways that damage them personally and publicly. She writes of her family life at a distance of both years and knowledge.

It’s all very well done. Nonetheless, I am left with one question: how do I review a book that pushed me into a dissociative funk for a weekend?

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At The Movies: Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)

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Can’t Hardly Wait

★★½☆☆

1998 • 101 minutes • Columbia Pictures

My brother is almost a decade older than me, which means that we’re, culturally speaking, part of two very different generations, although eternally linked through the Nintendo 64. (A specific Nintendo 64, in this case.) He was a teenager in the nineties, and I, a small child, watched his lifestyle avidly to try and prepare myself for the upcoming wild ride of adolescence. According to my findings, there would be parties! There would be shenanigans! And there would be frosted tips!

Of course, my acute observations were nipped in the bid the moment my brother discovered that his little sister would happily rat out his most embarrassing stories to any girl he knew willing to pay attention to me. I was thus banished from his high school kingdom and forced to seek other older kids who would let me watch movies my mother wouldn’t let me watch elsewhere. (It was the girl next door and it was Titanic.) But this is how I came to inherit a heavily nineties-tinged view of what teenage life was. And it somehow never really went away, considering that I spent my own aughts adolescence perfecting the arts of fandom lurking and terrible bangs.

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Page to Screen: Spectre (2015)

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Spectre
based on characters by Ian Fleming

★★½☆☆

2015 • 148 minutes • Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Spectre feels like it comes from an alternate timeline: specifically, an alternate timeline where the double punch of Die Another Day and The Bourne Identity had not resulted in a hard reboot of the franchise. In this timeline, Brosnan bangs out another movie; Craig slips neatly and seamlessly into the role after fans mutter about how he doesn’t look like Bond (nerds: we’re the same in every timeline); and the quips and the gadgets are thick on the ground. It’s a simpler and more basic Bond franchise in that timeline. How back to basics are we with Spectre? Let me put this way: there are sexy naked ladies in the opening credits sequence again.

At the end of Skyfall, we saw Bond complete his evolution into a masterless monster; answerable to no one now that the one person who could control him was dead. What those final frames suggested was not that we could now return to business as usual, but that the inevitable attempts to do so by the institutions and infrastructures attempting to utilize Bond could only end in tears and explosions. (Just look at the way he sizes up Ralph Fiennes. He feels equal to that man, and that is dangerous.)

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Page to Screen: Barbarella (1968)

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Barbarella
based on the comics by Jean-Claude Forest

★★½☆☆

1968 • 98 minutes • Paramount Pictures

In the land of media plenty that is our wonderful modern age, it’s difficult to have pop culture white whales. Everything’s so available (assuming you, like me, are patient enough and don’t mind being behind the curve a little) that I have come to embrace scheduled and limited viewings as a way to keep things fresh.

But I have had one for a long time—Barbarella. It was one of the first films my college comedy troupe (think Mystery Science Theater 3000, just more inclusive and all ladies) watched, but they watched it before I joined. We don’t have any specific rules about what can be rerun—we have watched Dungeons and Dragons so many times over the years—but Barbarella was widely considered by the group to be one of those bad movies that was best endured in company. So it took about four years for it to finally bob back to the surface as potential viewing, and it was a… doozy.

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At The Movies: The House of Yes (1997)

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The House of Yes

★★½☆☆

1997 • 85 minutes • Miramax Films

If you ask me, the point of taking a text from stage to screen is to expand it.

(Of course, not many people would ask me, with my dim grasp on theater. Yeah, I was a student actress through high school and college, but I’ve only recently realized that I’m not quite sure why.)

Theater is inherently intimate; film is inherently epic. Both are capable of the other, of course, but those inherent qualities are functions of form. Theater demands that the audience be present in the moment (or at least present to it), while film relies on both its ability to astonish and the well-established rituals of film-going to reach the audience. There is a certain safety in film that theater lacks; no matter how much a film breaks the fourth wall, it can’t capture the immediate terror of not knowing if the actor on stage is actually engaging with you or not that pins you to the present moment.

And that’s why The House of Yes falls a little flat in its cinematic incarnation. For those unfamiliar with the play, Wendy MacLeod’s The House of Yes follows the Pascals on Thanksgiving. Their status as long-time neighbors of the Kennedys has influenced their lives, despite their declining fortunes. Mrs. Pascal remains committed to decorum, despite her inability to run a house; unstable daughter Jackie-O is obsessed with Jacqueline Onassis and JFK; younger brother Anthony is deeply unsocialized; and Jackie-O’s twin brother, Marty, is attempting to pretend at a normal life when he brings home his sudden, homespun fiancée, Lesly. A hurricane strands them at the Pascals’ home, even after it becomes apparent that the family disapproves of Lesly, and different members of the family try to reveal and conceal their various secrets.

The play’s power (I imagine, having never seen it staged) lies in those moments of immediate terror—the will they or won’t they of the incestuous twins at the heart of the play. I spent my viewing occasionally rolling my eyes at how the film teases the twincest, when it’s so obvious what’s going on. (Of course, I am a modern woman living in a world where TV Guide makes winking wordplay about Cersei and Jaime Lannister, so maybe it was different in the nineties.) The play itself, which, if not well-produced, could probably end up seeming like a parody of modern theater: the intense focus on conversation, the big emotional beats, the handing off of focus so that everybody in the ensemble gets something meaty.

It seems so inherently theatrical that a film version seems largely to function as a record of it. Which is no mean thing, given how many times I’ve wailed that I’d never be able to see X musical or Y play because it would never be produced around me. (Another way in which theater is maddeningly present: you have to be present for it.) But when you’re adapting a play to film, you’re exchanging immediacy for scope. This is why Les Misérables is so nail-bitingly maddening—for a musical that seems almost entirely about challenging the scope of theater, the film is content to trot at its characters’ heels and never really show the world they live in. The House of Yes does largely the same thing, highlighting the claustrophobia of the house in a very plain way. To put that positively, it’s simply being very faithful, but I’ve never been a big proponent of faithful adaptations.

Because when it does do something specifically cinematic with its story, that’s where the movie succeeds. The home movie that opens the film, featuring a fourteen year old Jackie-O in the tasteless costume, is a stroke of genius, introducing us to Jackie-O as both a young, sympathetic girl and as someone clearly unhinged. Jackie-O and Marty, doing shots at the elegantly set Thanksgiving table, shot entirely in profile as they chug. Jackie-O triumphantly revealing to Lesly that she and Marty definitely had sex the night before by putting her arm around her brother and letting her costume’s blazer fall open just enough to reveal her bra. And Lesly talking Marty down from his family’s influence by describing their life in New York together, over beautifully lush shots of cloying coupledom that draw them in so completely that they respond to Jackie-O’s flushing of Marty’s keys down the toilet from within that remembered fantasy.

But they are few and far between, and the film largely starts to feel like an exercise—although I have to wonder if that’s not just my personal history with theater butting in. (Ha! Of course it is! Subjectivity is the only reality!) Still, it’s fascinating to see Parker Posey, an actress I’m more familiar with in softer fare like Covert Affairs and Imagine Me And You (speaking of Cersei Lannister…), deliver such a brittle, spiteful, and human performance as Jackie-O. There’s something twisted in Jackie-O’s eyes that’s frighteningly engaging.

So perhaps it does manage to bring theater to film after all.

I streamed this film on Netflix.

Review: Dear Committee Members

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Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher

★★½☆☆

2014 • 192 pages • Doubleday

When we talk about well-rounded female characters, we often talk about allowing female characters to be unlikable. (Hell, we also talk about allowing female characters to look like actual human type women, which is such a broad category that it’s really amazing how often the mark is missed.) Even when female characters express unlikable traits (which, let’s be honest, are often considerable desirable or at least neutral traits in male characters), they’re often punished for it, by both the narrative and the audience. As much as I’ve been enjoying How Did This Get Made, their episode on A View to a Kill features the whole crew comparing Grace Jones’ superhumanly strong May Day to a shaved horse. It’s why Amy in Gone Girl is such polarizing; she may be, in a certain slant of light, a misogynist’s hysterical nightmare, but she gets to be selfish, hateful, cruel, violent, and dispassionate in a way few female characters are. (And the crowning glory: she gets away with it.)

But there is a B side to that argument, much shorter than the much more important single: why do we allow male characters to be unlikable? Specifically, why am I so often asked to sympathize with, idealize, or otherwise just plain tolerate male characters whose behavior is self-indulgent, passively cruel, and generally awful without any redeeming characteristics? I am fine with unlikable male characters in the abstract. I am, after all, quite an active fan of James Bond, the last three films of which franchise have been entirely about an already unstable man being built into a horrifically amoral monster. (And it’s so, so great.) Unlikable characters, as we’ve established, can be riveting and revelatory. What I’m taking issue with is when I am presented with unlikable male characters and told, by both the text and paratext, that I should like him.

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Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains
by Neil Gaiman

★★½☆☆

2014 • 80 pages • William Morrow

Somewhere along the way, through no fault of his own, I lost Neil Gaiman.

Good Omens was one of the first non-Harry Potter novel I read under my own steam. (I was not a big reader as a kid; I was a repetitive reader. It was one of my first coping mechanisms for my then unfathomable anxiety.) It was a favorite of webcomic creator Stan Stanley, whose Boy Meets Boy I read religiously—and secretively—as a preteen, and therefore the first recommendation I ever came across from a source I trusted. My faith was rewarded: I devoured Good Omens and moved onto American Gods, Coraline, and Anansi Boys in short order. It was all part of what I think of fondly as my brief kindergoth phase. Despite lacking the resources, chutzpah, or basic understanding of how clothes worked to commit to the baby goth, punk, or emo (kids, ask your parents) looks my childhood friends took to, I happily lingered on the periphery, dreaming dark, Romantic thoughts of dying my hair blue and writing urban fantasy.

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At The Movies: Muppets Most Wanted (2013)

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Muppets Most Wanted

★★½☆☆

2014 • 112 minutes • Walt Disney Pictures

Do the Muppets really work on the silver screen if they’re playing themselves?

As a child of the nineties, I was introduced to the Muppets as a very unique group of day players in The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, and the short-lived Muppets Tonight. Even The Muppets Movie, which sets out to tell the troupe’s origin story, is a surreal, meta wonderland. The fourth wall has always taken a well-received beating from the Muppets, from Rizzo’s shock that someone would die in a kid’s movie in Muppet Treasure Island (Gonzo reassures him that it’s literature) to the script being used as a plot device in The Muppet Movie to the very existence of Statler and Waldorf, who can considered the forerunners of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew.

When the action is about the Muppets playing other characters or different versions of themselves, it can be sublime. But when it’s about the Muppets’ lives and tries to balance resolving and leaving open their usual and necessarily unresolved character beats (Piggy and Kermit’s relationship is always on the edge of a knife, Scooter is always frazzled, Sam is always disapproving and stoic), it can fall flat. Case in point: Muppets Most Wanted.

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At The Movies: Lucy (2014)

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Lucy

★★½☆☆

2014 • 89 minutes • Universal Pictures

For me, there is such a thing as an impenetrable director. Simply put, I find some directors utterly bulletproof. I can’t find any openings to begin engaging with their work, be it positively, negatively, or complexly. (This is similar to the kind of close-endedness in a text that discourages fandom, but you can still talk about those films. See Cabin in the Woods, a thesis statement cunningly disguised as a film.) Their work is just too weirdly pure—their strange conception is perfectly executed, and I can’t find fault in that.

(There could also be such things as impenetrable writers and musicians, but I’ve never met such an author and music criticism is largely beyond me.)

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Review: Green Lantern — Rebirth

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Green Lantern: Rebirth
by Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver

★★½☆☆

I’ll be honest: I don’t particularly get Green Lantern as a concept. I mean, space police, power rings, the fact that John Stewart is awesome, these are all things I get. But the Green Lantern approach to fear has always left me a little cool. Firstly, because it means that Hal Jordan, the Green Lantern for those unfortunate enough not to grow up on a steady diet of the DC animated universe, is a cocky, fearless pilot. As an Air Force brat, I only find this twentieth century archetype interesting when it’s played by Tom Cruise and set to the musical stylings of Berlin. So while I have seen (in slack-jawed amusement at its sheer badness) DC’s hilariously tragic attempt to bring Green Lantern to the big screen, I don’t really have any investment in the character.

But Green Lantern: Rebirth kept popping up over and over again as a good recommendation. Not so much to get into the character, but because it (like its spiritual sequel Flash: Rebirth) streamlines years of messy comic book continuity. When superhero comics are referred to as modern mythology, it’s largely because, like mythology, they consist of many stories (including often different versions of the same story) that are loosely but not firmly related featuring the same cast (including often different versions of the same cast). The accurate approach to adapting such a tentacled beastie is picking and choosing. This is how we end up with interpretations of Batman as varied as Batman: The Animated Series, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and, as it is foretold, Batman v Superman: Grimdark Grimdark Grimdark. And, gloriously, they’re all valid—not only because all readings are valid, but because the source material encompasses all of those approaches. It’s an ever changing beast.

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