‘Midsommar’ is Pretentious Nonsense

The implication that an audience’s emotions should be wrenched out than coaxed out is as arrogant as ‘Midsommar’ is self-indulgent.

Ari Aster is a tease. There’s an allure to his filmmaking style. His shots are long and careful, sometimes lasting full scenes, often utilizing the space of a whole room. He wants your eye to wander, to notice what art is on the wall or what books are on the table. With Midsommar, the camera floats around a scene or straight into the atmosphere, wheeling above the action. You, along with the characters, can’t find your feet. You’re disoriented, but you like it. Aster politely requests your attention, and you offer it to him, along with your patience. He’s trustworthy. 

Oh, but then. Somewhere in the second act, you get an itch. Shots become too long and too careful. Lingering on imagery now feels more like a preoccupation than nuance. You want desperately to come down to earth and find your footing, because the experience of watching Midsommar is becoming tedious and uncomfortable. And then you realize, to your disappointment, that that’s probably exactly what Aster was going for.  

His characters are too archetypal to exist as people. They’re shells of people, serving as functional cogs in a machine. Some function to generate empathy, others to hate or laugh at. At least one exists only to ask questions because Aster so clearly and desperately wanted to avoid using classical exposition. All his characters go through feelings of tedium and discomfort, along with confusion, repulsion, maybe fear – like you do as you’re watching. You are to inhabit the shells of his characters. His machine is putting you through the paces of the characters so that you feel as the characters feel, and he believes there’s artistry in that. 

The implication that an audience’s emotions should be wrenched out than coaxed out is as arrogant as Midsommar is self-indulgent. The Shining’s massive Overlook Hotel feels like a slowly tightening straightjacket. The Babadook twists your nerves until they feel as Amelia’s hair looks. Each and every one of Georgina’s noes in Get Out burrows itself under your skin until it’s crawling. You are claustrophobic, wrecked, unnerved, all because of carefully crafted choices made by the filmmakers guide you to that place. Aster’s choices are empty stunts that feel condescending. There is no value in verisimilitude if the story is the expense.    

Detail is Aster’s aesthetic, and it’s his most annoying quality. My movie companion and avid horror fan said of Midsommar, “It’s the horror movie that social media made.” There’s so many visual cues, so much folk art to filter, so many flower crowns to selfie. But they’re also vapid and intentionally misleading. He mistakes minutiae for symbolism, and unless you’ve read the same books on Swedish pagan rituals as he has, most of what he offers is meaningless. 

There’s a strong sense that Aster is very pleased with himself and his obtuse creation. Throughout the film, he purposefully withholds explanation to keep you on the hook and then delivers something that answers nothing. When the denouement hits, you half expect to see Aster peeking out from behind the screen, grinning at you, inviting you to interpret all you want, knowing you will never get it because you are not him. One should not have to do follow-up reading in order to understand what happens in a movie.

Midsommar is less than the sum of its parts. It has a handful of effective moments, but it’s full of missed opportunities. Specifically, the film is so very white, but it never approaches what it means for docile whiteness to heel-turn into hostility. It’s not to say that all filmmakers need to speak to our sociopolitical times, but avoiding the topic feels like a glaring omission.

But then, there’s no examination of anything in Midsommar. Aster knows what everything means, but he refuses to tell you. Instead, he places people, scenes, events in front of you and commands you to do something with them. You squint. You scour the shot for a clue. You save the details for later. But there’s no reward in it for you, because Aster isn’t telling a story. He’s playing a guessing game.

‘Yesterday’ Rises Above Its Gimmick… Mostly

‘Yesterday’ knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun.

Yesterday is every musician’s dream born of a What If hypothetical: a Y2K-like event causes everyone in the world to forget the Beatles ever existed except for one man. The man is struggling musician Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), who seizes the mass amnesia as an opportunity to make his dream come true and co-opt the Beatles catalog as his own. Much of what follows is a rise-to-stardom tale sprinkled with unrequited love, imposter syndrome (but for real this time), and a whole lotta catchy ass Beatles songs. 

It’s to Yesterday’s credit that it doesn’t rely on its elevator pitch, because it could have, and then would have become the movie I thought I was going to see. The hypothetical works better than it should because the film is open to examining the consequences. An early example: before Jack realizes that the Beatles only exist to him, everyone thinks he’s written their songs. He’s routinely flabbergasted by everyone’s cursory judgment of songs that he deems to be masterpieces, rendering him an egoist, ensuing hilarity. That his friends and family would consider him suddenly so very self-centered is the logical extension of an alternate reality that feels both novel and familiar. It also unveils Yesterday’s secret weapon. 

Well, not so secret. It got you to see the movie. If you saw the trailer, no doubt you were taken by the adorable irony of the hypothetical. This referential irony – not at all to be confused with dramatic irony, because no – is part of the reason why the MCU has succeeded beyond all reason. Audiences find value in easter eggs and having theories being proven right. They enjoy being in on the joke. 

Yesterday rewards you for paying attention to culture. Or, the less cynical take: for being a part of the culture at large and for appreciating art. 

But referential irony means you’re a step ahead of every character at all times, which makes you feel smart, which results in laughter. With no Google search to deliver lyrics, because, after all, the Beatles songs don’t technically exist, Jack struggles to remember the songs. But we know. His endless quest to remember the words to “Eleanor Rigby” (“There’s rice in it!”) is funny because the clever editing and Jack’s swearing is funny but also funny because you want to scream at the screen, “IT’S FATHER MACKENZIE WHO DARNS THE SOCKS!” because you know something that that guy doesn’t. Referential irony recontextualizes your preexisting knowledge so that one joke becomes two jokes: one to laugh at and the other because you get it

Yesterday has a lighter hand than most films (read: American films) would when it comes to its referential jokes. All of the Picasso Lines in the trailer are sprinkled throughout the movie so it’s not as insufferable as it could have been. And many of them are undercut by a Google search sight gag that shows the most obvious answers (beetles not Beatles), so they’re not the full punchline. It’s a clever antidote to way-too-easy jokes. 

If you’re sensing a bit of skepticism from me, it’s totally there. I enjoyed Yesterday, I really, truly did, but I’m still trying to reconcile the (yes, well-executed) hypothetical with the gimmickry of referential irony. Why do people need to feel smarter than the thing they’re watching in order to enjoy it? But then, if the gimmick makes more people feel more involved in the thing they’re watching, how can that be a bad thing? Is it cheap? Maybe. Bad? No. I’d probably feel more irate about the gimmick if not for the fact that the referential irony doesn’t get in the way of the movie as a whole. 

Because, I promise you, cynic of all cynics, it really doesn’t. Yesterday knows exactly how charming it is and goddamnit is it fun. It secured a killer leading pair in Patel and Lily James, who have actual chemistry, which is a bit hard to find this side of A Star Is Born while romcoms are still generally on the outs. Patel is perfect in the role. An outstanding vocalist and overflowing with movie-carrying energy, he also has the exact right face for the amount of times he needs to read “earnest but befuddled.” We’re also blessed to get Kate McKinnon as not-quite-villain in excellently tailored clothing. Her particular brand of weird is an amazing foil to Patel’s befuddled face. Yesterday toes the line of being too much so deftly it’s basically dancing on it: a lively if not mildly stiff Ed Sheeran plays himself and uses his own song as his ringtone. (As though people have ringtones anymore? The joke still lands.) Best of all, it’s not at all corny. 

Still. It’s clear that English romcom screenwriter emeritus Richard Curtis didn’t want to stray far from his comfort zone. Yesterday’s love story becomes its main narrative. But buried under its romcomness there’s a version of Yesterday that would resemble something closer to an art movie than what we got. Think of a peppier Inside Llewyn Davis that replaces some of the ennui with philosophy. There are more than a handful of occasions when the movie asks us to consider the following, though without a lick of follow-through: What are the implications of losing an immense cultural touchstone like the Beatles? What does it say about Rock and Roll’s history of cultural appropriation that Jack, a person of color, has trouble getting these incredible songs off the ground? What do these songs mean outside of their cultural context? What does music mean to people? 

It’s hard to tell if Yesterday’s hypothetical came before the decision to use the Beatles as the vanished band. The Beatles are the band, after all. It’s impossible to argue with their ubiquity, so we’ll never not buy the idea that the world would lose their collective shit over these songs. (And if you – yeah, you – don’t like the Beatles, you’re a contrarian and you know it. Grow up.) The hypothetical created a very lovely film, but it’s still hard to avoid the desire to see more of what this cinematic universe could provide.   

‘On the Basis of Sex’ is Infuriatingly Dull

‘On the Basis of Sex’ failed to find and use the fortitude of its subject, rather relying on the convention of “humble beginnings” and sucked all the air out of its own story.

Focus Features

I’m feeling the urge to use profanity. Well, more profanity than I might use in a typical review of a lukewarm movie. 

I’m also feeling the urge to use the first person, which I try not to do as a practice of objectivity, in as much as a film critic can be considering the whole job is to state an opinion. But I’m mostly reaching a point of exhaustion with the whole genre of the award-baity biopic. 

They’re so fucking stale. They’re coated with this layer of politeness so thick that it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. That they have to be made with permission from their subject (or their subject’s estate, either of which usually has a vested interest in the movie’s production) neuters the story. They become an unreliable source of information because nothing the subject could do can veer too far from a predetermined, politically correct path. This is not a case for “warts and all” necessarily, but a plea to take some goddamned risks with your story. Especially when your subject is Ruth Bader fucking Ginsberg. 

There are few people alive in the United States right now that matter more than Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Her literal existence is keeping this country afloat. Her recent health scares have pushed the entire country’s populous to the edge of their collective seats (whether you agree with her politically or not) and her absence threatens to derail decades of progress and stall progress for decades more. This person’s story is one of urgency because the consequences surrounding her very fucking personageare so dire. 

And no amount of triumphant shots of RBG walking in skirts and heels among pant-legged men will convince me On the Basis of Sex had any interest in being anything other than cute. The film strives to be the origin story for a real-life superhero whose revolutionary infallibility has made her a cultural icon. But instead of showing her strength, On the Basis of Sex would have you see her belly, her vulnerability, her set-backs, the moments when even she couldn’t be moved beyond rejection. 

The film is too cute. Too cheeky. It uses too many historical in-jokes that undercuts its subject’s importance. It’s respectful in a way that robs the magnitude of Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s achievements. It’s respectful in the way that has become distasteful in a post-11/9 America. Of course she’s suffered set-backs. Of course she’s been made to feel unimportant and silenced. A lot of white, liberal soul-searching over the last two and a half years have resulted in unhappy realizations of what hasn’t changed, not what has. Progress is progress is progress, but by and large the marginalized are still so. There are few of us left that aren’t disenfranchised, and the function of a film like On the Basis of Sex serves mostly as a reminder that forty years later, those in power still have their thumbs pressed firmly on this country’s forward momentum. 

We live in a time that’s too weird and nasty and tumultuous and to settle for respectful. Of course making a movie about a living legend is difficult. But On the Basis of Sexfailed to find and use the fortitude of its subject, rather relying on the convention of “humble beginnings” and sucked all the air out of its own story. This film is a history lecture instead of a battle cry. Its crowning achievement was landing a cameo by Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the final moments. She’s reached the top of the steps of the Capitol Building and there she is, despite her movie, a steel fucking beam. It’s enough to make you cry. 

‘Boy Erased’ Exists in a Religiously Tolerant Bubble

There is a lot of well-meaning ignorance floating around this story, but ignorance is only well-meaning if it does more good than harm.

Unerased Films, Inc.

Boy Erased is a film at the center of several Venn diagram bubbles. The first is that of Biopic, as it is based off of writer Gerrard Conley’s memoir of the same name. The character of Jared Eamons, portrayed by Lucas Hedges, is Conley’s surrogate, who is outted as gay to his parents by his college friend, Henry (Joe Alwyn). Jared and Henry are freshman who have a strongly developed sexual tension, until Henry rapes Jared, then confesses he’d also raped a kid in his church. Henry contacts Jared’s parents as a preemptive measure, to scare Jared into keeping silent about what happened.  

The outing comes with additional implications, because Jared and his parents are Evangelical Christians, which creates the second bubble. Upon Jared’s admission that he thinks he’s gay, his parents (Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman) enroll him in a gay conversion program called Love in Action. The program operates with very strict rules, including supervised uses of the bathroom, no phones, and no writing or reading, other than the materials provided. Jared’s classmates are mostly young adults or teenagers, and mostly male, so the program is tailored to enforce gender roles and stereotypes for young men. They’re taught to gesticulate in certain ways that read more masculine (fingers facing front when putting hands on hips, sturdy handshakes), and are goaded to feel anger rather than sadness, since the former is more masculine.

Though Jared’s story is an atypical one and doesn’t necessarily aim to be a catch-all tale of conversion therapy, the subject matter alone creates the third bubble of Harrowing Journey. His story is baseline humiliating, as this deeply personal aspect of one’s life becomes a community affair. He’s made to consider his sexuality as first a “problem,” and then as a “sin.” The tragedy in Jared is his how hard he’s trying to make it work. He wants so badly to live up to his parents’ and religious community’s expectation of young manhood. He believes so strongly that his faith will be what saves him. Jared is just a Good Kid. His Christian morality (the good, Jesus-like parts) are deeply ingrained, and he treats people with dignity and empathy. 

The trouble of Boy Erasedis that it leaned too hard into the intersection of Harrowing Journey and Christianity, not through Jared but through his parents, of which there is little more than a self-induced persecution complex. The film has an unexpectedly soft view of religion, which is difficult to not be cynical about, given the fear and anguish that religion (specifically this kind of religion) causes. There is a lot of well-meaning ignorance floating around this story, but ignorance is only well-meaning if it does more good than harm.

Jared gets out from under the thumb of conversion therapy with the help of his unexpectedly tolerant mother and his own impressive capacity for critical thinking, but other kids are not so lucky. One is clearly being regularly beaten by his father, another kills himself after his family is forced (and fully willing) to beat him with a Bible. Boy Erasedis asking too much of its audience: it wants to give credit to the ignorant while creating empathy for those who torture their children physically, emotionally, morally, and otherwise. 

After Jared leaves Love in Action, the film jumps forward four years, and shows him living in New York with a bevy of supportive friends and some published writing. In what appears to be a rare moment of communication with his still-religious father, Jared tells him that he’s the one who needs to change, not the other way around. If Boy Erasedwere interested in Jared’s journey and not the redemption of the ignorant, it would have shown how he found and rebuilt himself over four years, not his reluctant father ignoring his son’s pleas.

Boy Erased is not a bad movie in its execution, but there’s something distasteful in its loyalty to the world that created its very subject matter. It’s not a cautionary tale more than a polite imploration of empathy to the religious right, who would likely not see this movie anyway. It exists in the bubble it created for itself. 

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Keeps Its Woman Difficult

That McCarthy plays Israel with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.

Twentieth Century Fox

The title for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, shared with the Lee Israel memoir from which it is adapted, may be a quote attributed to famed writer Dorothy Parker. Or, it could be a complete fabrication derived from Israel’s imagination, as she chose Parker as one of the inspirations for forged letters, which she sold to collectors under the guise of authenticity. So adept at forgery was Israel that she claimed she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker. 

Though she started forging these letters for money, the whole enterprise is an exercise in the lengths to which people will go for success and admiration. Israel (Melissa McCarthy) had been a successful biographer, but became so overcome with anxiety that she fell into a permanent state of writers’ block. She confesses in the film that she doesn’t find herself very interesting, and so she plays Cyrano for herself: using her words and wit to impersonate those who already have success and admiration. 

Israel’s relationship to the writing community is fraught; she doesn’t play the game but still wants recognition for showing up. Her wryness, smarter-than-thou resentment, and general misanthropy are the oil to the water of those donning turtlenecks and pronouncing the “bra” in “macabre” at book parties. “Oh, to be a while male who doesn’t know he’s full of crap,” she laments at Tom Clancy’s prosperity while wallowing in her lack of it. 

But it’s unclear why she even wants to be a part of this world. The critique of the world of literary letters is the film’s most fruitful and least explored theme as it applies to Israel’s life. There’s a strong sense that buyers and collectors believe only what they want to believe; that the finding and possession of letters from famous writers grants them access to an elite world that they’d otherwise have no access to. Their pretentiousness comes from a desire to co-opt the fame not of others’ work but of their lives, and to claim ownership over a small slice of history. 

And isn’t this exactly what Israel is doing in her forgeries? We see what she does, but not how she feels: in the act of forgery, pawning off her work then spending the money she got for it, but rarely any sense of pride or accomplishment, however twisted it may have been. Israel doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and seems to only be doing this for money, though we know that that’s not wholly true. The film acts as Israel would in this way: it purposefully doesn’t show us her inner thoughts and keeps her innermost self secret. 

Though it can be argued that withholding Israel’s motivations is meant to maintain Israel’s air of enigma. Can You Ever Forgive Me? establishes Israel as someone with loose moral standing from the beginning, as we witness her stealing a coat from a party out of spite. Her frequent alcohol-induced benders result in her losing her job and causing undue harm to others. That McCarthy plays her with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.

With very little backstory, Israel is presented as a character full of flaws with little in the way of redeemable qualities, and impressively, the film doesn’t provide Israel an excuse for her behavior. As far as we’re aware, she didn’t have a difficult childhood, she wasn’t abused in her past or present, or allowed any other cop-out for an anti-hero, and yet she’s allowed to act as badly as she will. The movie makes no attempt to redeem her personality or behavior because it understands that it doesn’t have to. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is perhaps the only piece of film since the television show Girls that not only allows but embraces its leading woman to be insufferable and unpresentable and filthy. Israel apologies for her actions but not for who she is. 

At her own admission, Israel confesses that by committing herself to forgeries gave her a way out of doing real work. Actual writing meant, she said, “opening myself up to criticism, and I’m too much of a coward to do that.” This resolution offers a refreshing sense of ownership, though her spiky personality keeps her redeemability forever in question. Israel finds herself without losing herself, however unpleasant that self may be. 

‘The Wife’ Perpetuates an Unhelpful Narrative

It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like “The Wife” comes along. 

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Something that the comedy sketch show Inside Amy Schumer often took pleasure in was skewering Hollywood for its many and varied expectations for women. One of the more pointed jabs took aim at the Best Actress category at the Oscars, in which Schumer and four other actresses (all of whom happen to be Oscar nominees or winners) play wives on the phone with their husbands, crying for them to come home. It may have been a direct dig at American Sniper, but its overall influences were broad: the roles women often play in Hollywood films are the emotional support for successful men.

And that was back in 2016, when that slew of problematic men had yet to be taken down and before #MeToo hit. It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like The Wife comes along.

At the top of the film, writer Joseph Castleman (played in age by Jonathan Pryce and in youth by Harry Lloyd, both of whom happen to be Game of Thrones bad guys, which likely doesn’t help this character’s case) has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work. He attends many gatherings congratulating himself, at which his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), stands at a distance, being talked to about furs or salons or shopping, admiring the genius that she gets to remind to wipe the crumbs out of his beard because he’s a grown ass man who can’t remember to do simple fucking tasks without her help.

She’s the wife that is thanked endlessly in her husband’s speeches, sitting demurely and smiling graciously. She’s the wife being cheated on with younger women seduced by Joseph’s clout, many years after being one of those younger women herself. (He used that all-too-familiar incongruent teacher/student dynamic to land Joan while she was a co-ed in his university lectures, all while he was married with a kid.) She’s the wife who gives much of herself for her husband to shine.

There’s a moment in The Wife when Joan says to Joseph’s wanna-be biographer over a slightly illicit drink: “Please don’t paint me as a victim. I’m much more interesting than that.” Because she’s Glenn Close, and because Glenn Close plays Joan with the poise and stoicism of a marble sculpture, you believe that her assessment of herself is right, that she is more interesting than a victim. You believe all subjugated women are more interesting than the pedestal on which their successful husbands lean, too tired to stand from the praise that other successful husbands are heaping onto them. (Or, perhaps, in a #MeToo world you want to believe all this to be true.) So why doesn’t Joan’s movie know that she’s more than a victim? Especially when she also says things like “I don’t want to be thought of as the long-suffering wife,” and is given scant opportunities to prove herself otherwise?

Because she is a victim. She’s a victim of the misogyny, internalized or otherwise, of the 50s and beyond that crushed her writer dreams so hard that (surprise!) she’s been the writer of Joseph’s books all along! Joan made a career of ghostwriting while her infantile husband did the “woman’s work” of the home, all so he could reap the glory. And, ultimately, he does, because Joseph dies of a heart attack shortly after Joan expresses discontent of all of the years where he took the credit for her work. She decides to stay silent about it, after a lifetime of sacrifice, allowing Joseph to maintain his legendary status even in death. And with that impossibly magnanimous gesture, the film seems to think it’s proven Joan’s personal agency.

Logistical issues notwithstanding (how is it possible to claim ownership over 40 years’ worth of work when the one guy who could back you up is dead?), by Joan keeping her secret, The Wife allows for the problematic man to be redeemed over the long-suffering wife. Yet again. It perpetuates the notion that a woman’s emotional labor is enough, that her long-suffering means SHE’S the one with the REAL strength and determination, even if she goes entirely unrecognized. SHE’LL know it was all worth it in the end, giving that Santa Claus grin to the heavens as her husband is praised for her work even in death.

The narrative would be more insulting if it weren’t so tired, and at this point in our cultural consciousness, just unhelpful. The very week The Wife premiered, Louis C.K. decided to shove himself back into our lives, seeming to believe that enough time has gone by for him to kick-start his path to redemption. As Roxane Gay put it, these men “have fallen from grace, but they have had mighty soft landings.”

What would have been lost in an ending to a film called The Wife where she is the one who is redeemed?

The frustrating subtext in this film’s release is that Glenn Close is already on the award season short list. One imagines the clip that is played of her performance to be one of Joan’s moments of clarity, when she defies her husband and the patriarchy in a fiery piece of monologue, and will get lauded by the live audience for playing a defiant woman with agency. But outside that clip, she’s still just the wife on the phone.

When ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Became Grief Porn

That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

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Just a week ago, it was announced that MGM, the production company behind Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, was pairing with online wine retailer Lot18 to release a collection of wines inspired by the popular series. Per People, you could get one of three varietals, each branded with a character from the series. There was an Offred Pinot Noir, an Ofglen Cabernet Sauvignon, and a Serena Joy Bordeaux Blanc, each cheekily described with adjectives like “powerful,” “daring,” and “austere,” respectively. It was a kitschy move, one that invited viewers to enjoy the fall of democracy and enslavement of women with wine, but be sure to enjoy it with their wine.

It was also a thoughtless move that was not lost on many a viewer. Less than 24 hours later, the Handmaid’s wine collection was pulled after an uproar over the tone-deafness of the campaign. Put most succinctly by one Twitter user:

Lot18 is a company that happened to already have several collections of TV- and movie-inspired wine, but neither Outlander nor Master Chef have enjoyed success due in part to the degradation of the American sociopolitical landscape and legitimate fear for what rights may be stripped away because of it. That MGM thought a lighthearted wink of a cross-marketing campaign would work for a TV show that includes repeated government-sanctioned rape proves that the Handmaid’s Tale brand is unaware of its own narrative, culturally or otherwise.

We don’t watch The Handmaid’s Tale for fun. We don’t feel good about the world after we’re done an episode. We’re incensed, deflated, despondent. So why do more and more of us subject ourselves to this world of infinite despair? Because we need it.

Even when we try to march, donate, and vote, often it never feels like enough. We can’t be human beings in the current American climate without feeling guilty. How do we get up and do work, or go food shopping, or get pedicures, or wash our cars, or mow our lawns, knowing that human rights atrocities are happening in our midst at the exact time we’re living our lives? It’s a deep helplessness that seeps into our days, because not far there’s always a smartphone to remind us of what’s happening.

Even when we try to avoid the news, we know we’re avoiding the news. We’re actively pushing away the truths of our times in order to go to work, get food, and mow the lawn, because we have the privilege to do so. We of the cisgendered, heterosexual, white, middle class demo have the privilege to feel guilty, and not worse.

So we watch The Handmaid’s Tale. We watch our protagonists get beaten, raped, degraded, mutilated, humiliated for nearly thirteen hours a season, all for the sake of self-flagellation. Because we need something fake to point at and say, “Hey! See? It can happen!” as we sit in the real world that we can do so little about.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s fine to use art to indulge in despair. The relief it provides is as cathartic as a good cry. But despair is rarely rewatchable, so in order to be most effective it has to be done extraordinarily well. I’ll never forget the image of Nora being trampled on by a mob in The Leftovers, or the other ghost in A Ghost Story, because of how deeply those stories burrowed into the despair center of my brain. But I may never watch them again, even though they’re both excellent pieces of film. Because when would I willingly put myself through that again? A Tuesday evening? A Saturday afternoon?

The Handmaid’s Tale implored you to indulge in despair every Wednesday for twelve weeks, because you needed it to feel like a sentient liberal. You needed it to feel like a feminist, or an activist, or a revolutionary, when everything else felt like it was keeping you down. And it knew you would watch.

It’s cynical, sure, but this is the Handmaid’s Tale that Hulu created on the heels of a tyrant coming into power: a show that wishes to commiserate in our grief, then offers us a sliver of hope, only to push us into deeper grief, and back around again. It fed off our desire for programming to reflect our time, then created a second season to keep our despair centers pulsing.

But with its second season, the show began sacrificing narrative logic for the sake of greater despair:

June spends months reading and editing Serena’s confidential government documents. She didn’t internalize a single fact about Gilead that she could use to her advantage, but Serena was beaten for her transgression.

Serena unites the wives of Gilead so that girls may read. We don’t learn about these characters through this radical shift in ideology, but Serena loses a finger for breaking the law.

Emily is placed in a home with an unusual commander who gives her beer and spares her the “ceremony.” Emily stabs Aunt Lydia, kicks her, and pushes her down the stairs.

This season was short-sighted, doubling back on itself every couple of episodes when progress had the opportunity to grow, because progress is hope and hope is impractical in a show that ran out of its source material after one season. And so Handmaid’s is caught in a hellish cycle of its own making: grief, hope, more grief, repeat.

Perhaps that’s why the unequivocal best part of the season was watching a villain gain empathy. Serena broke the cycle because there was redemption in her struggle. She was always the unintended consequence of her own making, but this season she came to terms with her choices, and used what little power she had to try and create change. Even when she failed, her tragic irony propelled an otherwise skulking season of television.

Just like misunderstanding our desire for dystopian wine, those responsible for The Handmaid’s Tale misunderstand our reasons for watching. They think that all we want to see in this world is pain, when what we’re really searching for in that pain is insight into how to process these atrocities, and how to push through.

Because so little of consequence happened in this season, it’s hard to believe that The Handmaid’s Tale knows what it’s going to be in its third season. Maybe it can rise above a sophomore slump. Maybe it’ll keep spinning its wheels. But, like those midterm elections looming ahead, we may be able to count on some change.

The Nitpic’s Summer Watch Review – July 1-7

I swam, I tanned, and I mostly binged.

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A major holiday that lands smack dab in the middle of the week really messes up ones schedule. It’s not that I have all that much to do, really. But since I’m actually trying to be a person who goes outside in the summer (contrary to what my initial post stated), I didn’t carve out a whole lot of time for watching this week. I swam, I tanned, and I mostly binged. Enjoy.

Television 

GLOW

I gave up on GLOW five episodes into the first season last summer, though you could say it was really more of a gradual disinterest than a clean break. It was one of those TV experiences that I found enjoyable enough, but once something more appealing came along, it became the show that I’d definitely catch up on. And then the show I’d definitely get around to. And then, the longer I hadn’t watched it, the show I wasn’t really sure I even liked.

So when the second season started getting some buzz (and I found little better to do on a super hot Saturday), I decided to dive on in and give it another shot, mostly forgetting why I stopped watching in the first place. To say GLOW wasn’t a complete waste of time is to laud it for one of its best qualities: it’s short. Half-hour-long episodes! Ten episode seasons! It’s a Peak TV miracle! But even then, it often feels like a complete waste of time.

Shows with a large ensemble cast tend to squander precious time trying to give every single character something to do. Shows don’t have A, B, or C plots but have five A plots happening all at once. (Harlots falls prey to this, Orange is the New Black did it well, once upon a time.) But with GLOW, the baseline of every episode is people meandering around a motel room or a gym, and then plots just pop up here and there like a whack-a-mole game.

There’s also no character tier to speak of, even though I suppose Alison Brie’s Ruth, Betty Gilpin’s Debbie, and Marc Maron’s Sam are the ones we’re following. But Ruth has so little propulsion that she’s downright boring, and Debbie is doing the same thing every episode, and for some reason we’re supposed to give a shit about Sam and his daughter and whether or not she’s going to school everyday (?!?!?!). Every arc that is introduced is stunted, sometimes barely lasting a full episode until it’s forgotten. GLOW also has an unfortunate habit in stretching out what should be a five-minute scene into a 15-minute set piece. In short: it has no idea what to do with itself.

A few stand-out moments make me think GLOW is less working towards something great and more just lucking out. In one episode, Tammé, stage name Welfare Queen, is defending her crown against Debbie (Liberty Belle) and their match becomes entirely too relevant for the show to handle. Liberty Belle is set up to be G.L.O.W.’s hero, so when the black Welfare Queen enters a room full of white people in red, white, and blue, waving American flags, cheering on the blonde white lady, shit is suddenly very real. Debbie is America, while Tammé is the villain. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better visual metaphor for systemic racism (including Get Out?), but in the context of the show as a whole, it’s meaningless. (The same goes for the Weinstein-esque moment that you could be just cynical enough to think if this is just something that every show has to do these days.)

And yet nearly every line Marc Maron delivers is excellent, and then there’s the brilliant show within a show, and listen, I couldn’t give a single shit about wrestling IRL, but every actual wrestling moment GLOW offers is actually lively and exciting and super fun. If it gets a third season, let’s hope it recognizes where its strengths are, and ditch any and all dead weight.

Casual Binge: Girls

I was nullflixing one day this week based on my mood, and the airy privilege of Girls seemed just the ticket. I say “casual binge” because I was bouncing around the first few seasons, cherry-picking my favorite episodes for a while (the less Jessa and Charlie the better, more Ray and Hannah ennui, please!), until I hit season four and every single episode becomes a must-watch. I think it’s rare for a show to hit its stride into the end of its third season, but Girls really found itself in those latter seasons. (Season five from start to finish is a delight.)

The fun thing about this casual binge is that I may have finally gotten to the bottom of what the creators intended for Hannah as a character. After the third-ish rewatch, I understood her humor in a way that I hadn’t before, saw her Don Draper-like self destruction as more endearing than infuriating. Mostly, I’m appreciating Girls as one of those shows that grows with me the more I watch.

Completed Binge: Community

Yes, I made myself watch the maligned sixth season of Community, which I hadn’t in full until now. And yes, it was pretty brutal. Never have I seen a show give so few shits about beloved characters it fostered for five years, or give up so spectacularly on creating something, anything worth watching. There were a few bright spots on an otherwise crappy season, but Community really went out with a big, loud armpit fart sound.

And, honestly, that’s something I kind of admire about it. So many sitcoms end with a dull whimper, keeping itself above water by recycling jokes by worn-out characters. But the last season of Community was really, truly awful. I mean, it crashed and burned. And for a show as self-aware as this one, there’s no way it didn’t know it. In that way, Community had to self destruct in order to preserve the pieces of itself that made it an incredibly touching and special show. You will never remember anything after Troy leaves, and it’s so much better that way.

Currently binging: The Office 

Please refer to the above paragraph, and consider The Office to be an example of the sitcom that ends with a dull whimper. The Office was my first TV love, and is a perennial in our little household. And, like Community, I don’t watch the show after Michael leaves in season seven. Robert California was a disaster, the best of its plots (Jim and Pam) got incredibly stale by the end of the series.

However, we’re in the best stages of the will-they-or-won’t-they part of the show, and it is just glorious. The first season is so remarkably British that it’s a wonder it got picked up for a second season at all (less genuine laughter than nervous laughter), but by “Office Olympics,” you’ve officially got a special show on your hands. Episodes I’m looking forward to: “Dwight’s Speech,” “Conflict Resolution,” and the amaaaazing “Casino Night.” And all of season three!

Movies

Three Identical Strangers

I’ve come to find that there are moments in life that make you take a step back and take stock of where you are. One of those is realizing that I’m not only excited to see a documentary the day it comes out, but also excited to be getting out of work early enough to see said documentary before 5:30 when the tickets are cheaper and the theater will be less crowded. Sure, a couple of the bluehairs that shared our theatre sat down in next to us when the row behind us was literally completely empty, but all of this is to say that the experience of seeing Three Identical Strangers made me feel like I’m finally aging into my personality.

And then came the moment of panic about halfway through Three Identical Strangers that made me question what my personality even is… or at least, whether or not I am in control of it at all. It’s a deeply unsettling feeling that comes from a deeply unsettling movie about the ways in which the world shapes who we are, for better or worse.

To go too much further would spoil the fun of this multi-layered ride, but it was definitely a ride. I’ve seen too many documentaries that rely on the novelty of its subjects to bother creating something worth watching (and, frankly, this movie could’ve done it and still been a fun watch), but Three Identical Strangers makes an effort to stand out as its own entity. It’s structured well, unfolding as it goes, peeling back the elements of the story so that it creates drama, rather than just retelling it.

The film also has a thesis, which is incredibly refreshing for a documentary. It wraps up both the narrative it constructed, and offers its audience a little nugget of hope after an hour and a half’s worth of inconceivable despair. So, friends, be like me! Be excited to watch a documentary!

Paranormal Activity

After our early-bird documentary, followed by a super greasy breakfast-for-dinner at our local diner, Mike and I felt like the rest of the night should be spent relaxing. Nothing too engrossing, nothing new, just some light, rewatchable fare to punctuate our evening. When we found out Spice World wasn’t streaming (no shit, it was an option; his curiosity met my nostalgia for a brief, shining moment), we landed on Paranormal Activity. It fell right in the middle of the venn diagram of our viewing needs for the evening. I’ve seen it a couple of times, I’d be fine.

Nope. Not fine. This shit holds up. You think you’re expecting it, but you’re not.

It’s one thing to create a movie that functions as good narrative storytelling, but it’s another to create that movie knowing exactly how an audience is going to react to stimuli. When the filmmaker crawls inside your head from the start (the adherence to verisimilitude is helpful, with no opening credits and that adorable explanation for the found footage) and plays with benign horror conventions so hard but also so subtly that you have no idea you’re in it until you are. That’s a great movie.

I mean, come on: the first real scare of Paranormal Activity is a creaky door that moves about six inches on its own. And then back. And that’s it! But it is terrifying. And in all those night bedroom scenes, your eye is darting all over the frame, looking for a person or a shadow or even the smallest movement. Because you know it’s coming. You don’t know what “it” is, but something is coming. You’ve seen enough horror movies to know.

And then the movie gives you just enough (a swinging chandelier, a burnt picture, a Ouija board on fire) to keep you going until the final crescendo. And fuck if that isn’t a masterful way to end a movie. Paranormal Activity wasn’t exactly the light fare I was going for, but it ended up being way better.

The Nitpic’s Summer Watch Review – June 10-30

Catching up on three weeks’ worth of watching! New movies, old TV, revolutionary comedy, and more.

juneWow, so this month really got away from me, huh? When I wanted to do this “weekly” watch review I had the plan to do a lot of watching during the week and a lot of writing on the weekends. It was a pretty solid plan, considering that I very much consider myself a homebody, and typically use weekends to recover from the week and my shitty day-job.

But in a pretty insane plot twist, the last three weekends in June I actually had shit to do. Like, what? How’d that happen?! I’m assuming it’s because most people who are not me enjoy doing things in the warmer months, and somehow I obliged to all kinds of plans with the lovely people in my life.

So, yeah, I slipped a bit, and a lot of this isn’t going to be as in-depth as I’d like it to be. But here it is, anyway! And here’s to carving out some more me time…

Movies

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

It might be unoriginal to say that movies are a thing with my brother and me; movies are something that most families do together. But Dan and I bonded over movies at a pretty seminal point in our collective lives, so it really is a thing. I probably see more movies with him than I do with anyone else (maybe even including my boyfriend, with whom movies are also a thing) and we see them often. The funny thing to me over the last fifteen or so years of our movie-going lives is that we’ve developed into very similar movie-goers: we like to experience a movie surrounded by as few people as possible. So it’s pretty natural that, on a bright and sunny Saturday, Dan and I find ourselves in the fourth row of a documentary at 11 o’clock in the morning. No, documentaries are not our usual fare, but with little else to see, there we found ourselves with popcorn for breakfast.

In this #MeToo era, Mr. Rogers seems like a figure that one should approach with caution and from the side, like a bear in a public setting. To confront this man head-on is dangerous, because there are no more heroes (especially white male ones) with whom you can neatly package your nostalgia. To attend a screening of a documentary of his life is to knowingly put yourself in the way of possible nostalgic destruction. Surely he had sordid affairs, or was an alcoholic, or worst of all, he was actually a pervert all along.  You sit down, and cringe in anticipation.

But, of course, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? acknowledges your cynicism, and gently shoos it away. Because cynicism has no place in Mr. Rodgers’ neighborhood. It is the opposite of who he was, so there’s little surprise at how quickly the documentary soothes away your worries.

The film is made in Fred Rodgers’ likeness: it’s tender in tone and light-handed in narrative. (There’s little doubt that if he were still alive, this would be the same film.) It focuses mainly on the professional career of Mr. Rodgers, and clearly has no interest in delving into the personal life of its subject. So we can’t be completely certain of any private shortcomings (except that he was Republican, which, yeah… saw that one coming), but with your nostalgia at its mercy, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? confirms what you already knew: Mr. Rogers was a really great man. It’s a 134-minute sigh of relief.

There Will Be Blood

I don’t know if there’s a line that has stuck with me in recent times more than Pete Holmes in Crashing, admitting, in his basically trademarked amiability: “There’s no good way to tell someone you haven’t seen The Wire.” Because I use it. All. The. Time. Not just with The Wire, though it does apply (oh my god, I knooow), but with pretty much anything else. “The Wire” in that sentence should just be one big empty space that anyone can fill anything into. Anything you lie about seeing just to get out of the onslaught of judgment, fill that on in there!

So, specifically for a cinephile in 2018, There Will Be Blood is one of those movies that there’s no good way to tell someone you haven’t seen.

I hadn’t seen it mostly for reasons regarding a general not-in-the-moodness, but also because I have seen the last three Paul Thomas Anderson movies, and my relationship to his work is fraught. I see The Master or Inherent Vice or Phantom Thread (all in the theaters, I’ll have you know) and I’m on board for the first hour or so, and then my attention totally runs out of steam. The narrative threads (ugh sorry) are so weak and/or convoluted. They take either totally nonsensical turns or completely obvious ones, and then they fall right off a cliff. He’s clearly trying to say something that is either going totally over my head OR he’s saying nothing at all, and then when every critic I respect and admire is in love with it I’m left wondering why they’re all full of shit pretentious. But of course, that can’t be right! I know they’re not pretentious and that’s why I love and admire them! I’m never a part of the general PTA consensus, so whenever I see his movies I’m left full of self-doubt and confusion and annoyance. I just don’t get it.

So, no, I hadn’t seen There Will Be Blood. Until last Friday. The stars and streaming services aligned, and I was finally able and ready to watch this freaking movie.

And I really fucking loved it.

Admittedly, I was sucking down White Claws at a pretty steady rate, but I trust my instinct underneath that inebriation. And looking at PTA’s last four movies as a cohesive unit, There Will Be Blood is the simplest, and therefore most effective, of the unit. The best move was keeping the story strictly at Daniel Plainview’s side, making those Eli Sunday flourishes throughout create incredible punctuation. This is a film that relishes in the beauty of its own medium. There is so much that is said in complete silence, with only camera angles, edits, and light and shadow to tell the story of a scene.

I found it also oddly and surprisingly political. Once I realized his son’s name was H.W., for the rest of the film I was thinking about what republican capitalism does to a man, and by extension, a country. Its callow, vapid consumption spreading like a virus, affecting the masses without giving a single fuck about consequence. And then you wither away all alone, in your empty, sprawling estate, bludgeoning a man to death with your own bowling pin. Yyyep.

There Will Be Blood was so good that it’s making me rethink those last three PTA features.  Is he experimenting with style so much that I should have absolutely seen There Will Be Blood before The Master to get it? (I don’t believe I will ever get, or remotely like, Inherent Vice, but that’s for another time.) Or, is There Will Be Blood like the English seasons of Black Mirror? You only watch the others because of the hype, and they never really live up to their predecessor.

Also: Antonement

Comedy

Cameron Esposito’s Rape Jokes 

My dear friend Jacquie turned me onto Cameron Esposito’s comedy with the greatest period joke of all time, which yields the most amazing line that, yes, I do repeat in agony every month: “My body is smashing my body out of my body using my body.”

Now, that line doesn’t have much impact when written out. It’s clever, sure, but funny?

What you have to imagine is Esposito’s immaculate mid-western accent undulating with emphasis not unlike a Shakespearean tragedy. Half of the fun of her comedy is a delivery that she uses like iambic pentameter: she shouts when she gets really riled up about something, but it sounds like singing.

And – you guessed it – she does a good amount of singing in Rape Jokes. A one-hour special basically thrown together over the span of a few weeks, Rape Jokes was something born from the #MeToo movement and Esposito’s desire to speak her specific truth, specifically the way she internalized her own experience of sexual assault. And, ostensibly, to take back rape jokes for the survivors.

The most revelatory part of her special is the idea that comedians (mainly the male ones) are falsely reinforced of their own funniness by using rape jokes because of how taboo the topic of rape is. It becomes a sort of microcosm of the patriarchy: men want to force women to laugh at their jokes, and they mistake nervous laughter for genuine laughter. Yeah. Mind blown.

On top of speaking her piece in a super honest and vulnerable way, Esposito’s also using the special to raise money for RAINN, and to date has successfully raised $50,000 for the organization. There were times when the special felt its thrown-togetherness, but it’s pretty impossible to be cynical at it when it accomplishes way more than a comedy special usually does.

Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette 

In some ways I’m disappointed to say that it’s nearly July, and Nanette is the first thing I’ve seen on TV this year that’s really blown me away. (Could we really be feeling the loss of Game of Thrones that hard?) In other ways, I’m confident that no matter what the context, Nanette would be the best thing I’ve seen on TV this year. Because Nanette is a shocking piece of comedy that is about how destructive comedy can be to its creator.

Like Cameron Esposito (also: Tig NotaroChris Gethard), Gadsby is using a comedy special to dig deep into very personal issues. She details her experiences of hate crimes, internalized homophobia, and sexual assault, and how she used those experience previously in her comedy. And sure, laughter is the best medicine and all that, but Gadsby realized that turning her pain into comedy actually forced her to create a specific narrative of her own life that she repeated night after night until it became her reality.

Gadsby’s grappling so hard with reconstructing her life’s experiences in the wake of that realization that she’s quitting comedy. I would say that losing her as a performer (even though I’ve only just heard of her) would be a real loss, but then you watch her fluctuate between goofy bits and profound, intense bouts of anger, and you know that she’s not going away completely. She has so much more to say.

Television 

And for the rapid-fire portion of this post:

Tried

Harlots – it kept me in it for five or six episodes before it lost me. There’s something in these women having a palpable sense of autonomy that I really appreciate, but that’s all it has going for it. The conflict is a bit dull and very repetitious, and I have no idea where or what the moral compass of this world is. Too many characters, too little set-up, and nothing propelling it forward.

Rewatch

Girls – various episodes from season two. Their low-level millennial ennui just feels like the kind of show to watch during the first heat wave of the summer.

Big Little Lies – impeccably structured, high brow bitchiness, beautiful style. The murder mystery is fun for the first watch, but even when you know the end this show is a blast to watch.

The Affair – only a few episodes while there’s a promo period on Hulu. Such a great concept, and an overall disappointment. The best, most interesting part of this show is its opening credits.

Binging

Community – nearly done the series. I never watched the sixth season all the way through (only the first and last episodes) and I’m glad I never wasted my time. The last two seasons are just sad reminders of what a great show used to look like.

Completed

Problem Areas with Wyatt Cenac – a delightful casual watch that feels like Last Week Tonight‘s chiller sibling. Its stance on policing in America was clear, but it also gave a lot of consideration to the concept as a whole. Always as funny as it is considerate and informative.

And more…

Great Shows to Nap To: all of the British vacation-house-hunting shows on Netflix. Those accents really lull you into a slumber.

Great Shows to Multi-task To: Encounters with Evil, also on Netflix. If you’re reorganizing your closet, like I was, and just want something you can frequently ignore, this is a solid one. At any point in it you can tune in and discover a gruesome tidbit about a real crime, and promptly tune back out.

 

The Nitpic’s Summer Watch Review – June 3 – 9

Summer, traditionally, is not a fun time for me.

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Summer, traditionally, is not a fun time for me. In fact, I really loathe it. New Jersey air is an inescapable wall of dense moisture that most often be described as “soupy.” And bugs fill that air. Loud bugs that chirp and shriek and croak at every hour of the day and night. Bugs that get into your house and car and literally bite you. You never stop sweating. You’re always sticky. Gas is more expensive for some reason? There’s constant societal pressure to go outside and do something in the dense, sticky, soupy air. And how the fuck is it even hotter at night.

No fun. Rather, I will happily sequester myself in my 700-square-foot apartment that can be kept cool with the help of two window AC units and drawn curtains. It’s a buzzy, chilly cave, in which my boyfriend, Mike, and I wait out the long summer with cold La Croix and books and streaming services. Sure, my friends make fun of me and my resistance to sunlight. My skin tone (the kind of pasty pale you can see a lot of veins through) does not change throughout the year. But it’s no price to pay for avoiding the thoroughly unpleasantness of summer.

And so, to make my annual sequester more productive, here begins my Weekly Summer Watch List. It’ll be filled with whatever I’m watching to forget about how miserable the world is outside my little cave. And also whatever movie I happen to brave the heat for. (I do go outside sometimes. I’ll just complain a lot.)

Binging: Community

Do we have a dining room table in our apartment? Yes. Do we use it to eat at? Not unless it’s a rare occasion for which we have guests and table-eating is the most civilized thing to do. No, we like our food with a helping of comedy, so during dinner we’ll cycle through a few episodes of a favorite sitcom a night before going onto more productive tasks.

This week we restarted Community, the super quirky (read: way-too-weird) show that somehow lasted for five seasons on network television before being swept up by the ill-fated Yahoo! Screen streaming service. (It can be argued that the show actually destroyed the thing that helped save it from its six-season destiny. [I have little hope for the movie while Donald Glover’s star is shooting through the stratosphere.])

The first season is so distinctly different from the rest of the series that watching it is like watching an egg before it hatches. They’re not growing pains in the same way you’d call out a show for what might seem like tonal inconsistencies. Community is a show that morphs into itself. It evolves so far past where it began that upon a fourth or fifth rematch, some of the most fun you can have watching it is finding its mile markers. There’s moment when Troy stopped being a jock and started being a nerd, the first time the show explored a higher concept, and the first time it really, really went for it, key change and all.

Studying: Outlander

For the sake of a larger piece for which I will stay purposefully vague, I begrudgingly rewatched the first season of Outlander this week. I tried, really I did, to get into this show because of, well, the sex. The sex scenes are probably the best in the history of (heterosexual) television. And how could they not be, when you have two beautiful people and ambient lighting (it takes place in 18th century Scotland and there are fireplaces everywhere) and you have to fuck for the sake of the kingdom? Or something, I really stopped paying attention to what was happening once I realized kilts were really doing it for me.

I watched through to the first couple of episodes of the second season, when it occurred to me that this show is just its own fan fiction. I know it’s based off of books, of which I believe they’re rather faithful, but does that a satisfactory viewing experience make? Sacrificing coherent plot for the sake of your IP is a weak attempt at adaptation.

Tried: The White Princess 

This try was really half-hearted. I was already in Starz because of Outlander, and the woman from Killing Eve (which I am only two episodes into but definitely plan to revisit) was in the image, so I clicked on it. What the hell? Let’s be spontaneous.

Nope. I don’t know if it’s period TV that’s not right for me, or if I’m just not English, but man oh man I wasn’t following any of it. Too much history all at once. Lady Catelyn couldn’t even do it for me. I was out within the first 30 minutes.

New: Dietland

Don’t ever say marketing doesn’t work, because an Instagram ad for this show got me. It was an animation, where body bags with labels like “Comedian” and “Politician” on them were falling to the ground, and I thought, “Ooh! Topical!” My algorithm’s really working.

The first two episodes of Dietland premiered on AMC this week, and I’m skeptical. The show works best when it’s leaning into satire, like the line that an unironic weight management leader says to Plum, the main character, that she should “break all those bad habits. Like eating.” It was a line so expertly hit that barely read as a punchline. But Dietland seems to want to take a more plot-heavy approach with the inclusion of a vigilante organization called Jennifer, on top of an ex-weight-specialist-turned-therapist, on top some workplace police investigation. See? Heavy.

All of these things are also happening all at once, so most of the episode consist of Plum walking around a city, being bewildered by strangers, and asking questions of them. Mostly, the episodes feel like pilot-itis. A lot of seeds are being sewn, so the show may require a little more patience than I’m willing to give.

I’m mainly skeptical about the treatment of Plum’s weight. A show with a title like Dietland means we’re in for a lot of fat-stigma-confronting, but those stories are often very tired. Because fat people, specifically fat women, are marginalized, storytellers tend to feel the need to overcompensate with a lot of fabulousness and loud displays of confidence. A woman shows up late to the Waist Watchers (cute) meeting that Plum is attending, and when she’s chastised for not hating her body enough, launches into a rant about how much she loves her body. Her speech peaks with a strong grab of her crotch (I’ve never seen a woman do that.) and a proclamation that she gets all the dick she needs.

No, our protagonist isn’t like that, but there’s a yet floating around that sentence. It’s the kind of fat character treatment that, however well meaning, always translates as a little preachy and a lot pandering. Is it empowerment, or is it disingenuous to feel the need to have a character like that in the first place, when it is not likely any woman’s reality?

I was reminded of a pin I saw recently by the illustrator Adam J. Kurtz. It was a pink triangle with the words “GAY AND BORING.” He explains:

The pink triangle has been a symbol of gay pride and activism for decades, and thanks to those who came before us, LGBTQ folks now have more rights than ever before. The work isn’t over, but we’re getting closer and closer.

One of those rights is the right to be BORING AS HELL. Sure, we’re fantastic, sassy, fabulous, and all those exciting words. But we’re also just plain old people who wanna stay home and watch TV while scrolling Instagram explore page on the couch next to our partner… and that’s our right too.

Do women have to be fat and fabulous? Can’t they just be fat and boring?

Movies: Hereditary

Hereditary is a film that the more you think about it, the more annoyed you become. I’d blame massive hype and high expectations on my viewing experience if not for the fact that the movie rolls off a cliff in the most lackluster way that I can’t help but be annoyed by it.

Deservedly or not, Hereditary has claimed its place among other well-received horror films of the last year or so that can be classified as genre-bending horror. Get Out functioned as social thriller. A Quiet Place worked as minimalist family drama. The first half of Hereditary wants to sit beside The Babadook as an exploration of grief and trauma, and for a while there it has the whiff of success. The overbearing matriarch of the Graham family dies, but the remaining family isn’t reeling from the loss more than it’s trying to reconfigure itself in her absence. What does “family” mean when all family’s ever done is damage?

There are so many images of home in this film that beg to be interpreted as something other than set dressing. Toni Collette’s Annie is an artist that creates dollhouses of her own life, which play on the idea of removing yourself from your narrative, and recreating it as a form of therapy or catharsis. There’s a sculpture of three houses, one on top of the other, which seem to be carved out of a mountain. The houses are crooked, but bound together by the rock they can’t escape from. There’s another house sculpture where light is coming through all of the windows except one that’s boarded up on the second story.

I mean, come ON. You really think Hereditary‘s bounty of symbolism will amount to something profound, until the third act when you realize it’s abandoned all of its commentary for typical horror fare. That fare is fun, to be sure, if not derivative (I’d call the references to The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist homages if this one weren’t so frustrating). There are a few images that will be difficult to burn out of your brain, but the twist falls incredibly flat. Not only is it confusing, but apparently it’s completely arbitrary.

The writer and director, Ari Aster, has the makings of a career that is, per Vulture, “at least in part a response to a culture of studio horror films that tend toward either neat resolutions or adhere to standard patterns of narrative progression.” It seems that his choices are only made for the sake of doing something different than what is expected. Which is fine, when those choices work. But if you’re doing something strictly for the sake of subverting the genre, aren’t you forsaking your movie as a whole (or at least its coherence) out of spite? Or pride?

Ultimately, the ending feels like a jumbled mess of superfluous myth, and the best parts of the movie end up feeling like misdirects for their own sake. And after writing this, I’m even more annoyed.