You really don’t need to see Wolf of Wall Street — February 4, 2014

You really don’t need to see Wolf of Wall Street

It’s basically a movie about boobs. If you thought that it might have something interesting to say about Wall Street’s role in our broader society, it turns out that it doesn’t. In fact, to the extent that it interacts with the broader culture, it does so anachronistically: the movie mentions collateralized debt obligations in the same sentence as high-tech stocks, and only a few scenes away from 3.5-inch disks. Hard to think of an occasion when those three coexisted. It’s possible that the movie is meant to span decades.

But let’s not fuss over details; the movie clearly doesn’t want you to. Every time DiCaprio starts talking about the details of finance, he stops and tells the camera (breaking-the-fourth-wall style) that we probably don’t care.

So if your mental model of the movie is that it’s all about boobs, you are 99.5% of the way there. There are a couple of scenes that try to be didactic or play to the “common man” — e.g., when DiCaprio asks the FBI agent whether he’s ever been on a boat (meaning a yacht) before, and the agent replies that he’s been sailing boats since he was six; or when the same agent rides a subway at the end and experiences Thoughts or perhaps Feelings in the presence of other “common men”. But those are incidental, and have been thrown in for the hell of it.

Indeed, I think [film: Wolf of Wall Street] is part of an era of movies built for people with short attention spans. I can’t say when this started, and I’m not going to be so wistfully backward-gazing as to suggest that things were better in ye olden tymes. But a movie like [film: Wolf of Wall Street] is essentially built for the same people who loved [film: Anchorman].

Don’t get me wrong: I loved [film: Anchorman], and can quote it chapter and verse. But [film: Anchorman] wasn’t a great film, and certainly wasn’t a contender for the Best Picture Oscar; it was just a collection of funny jokes. [film: Wolf of Wall Street] is just a collection of breasts.

The Kids Are All Right — August 19, 2010

The Kids Are All Right

(__Attention Conservation Notice__: 1,200 words trying, and failing, to explain why [film: The Kids Are All Right] is boring and trite and self-satisfied and annoying. The bulleted list below contains the full plot of the movie. Most of the judgments I pass on the film are outside the bullets, so you may just want to read the non-bulleted bits.)

I sat and stared at the screen for a long while, trying to explain what was so … *un-awesome* about [film: The Kids Are All Right]. Somehow that turned out to be really hard. If you take only one thing away from this review, please take away that [film: The Kids Are All Right] is super-overrated, and that I don’t understand why people are into it.

Maybe I’ll get some traction on explaining its lack of goodness if I just make a bulleted list of what happens in the movie. I’m going to summarize basically the entire plot here, so there will be spoilers aplenty. Don’t read on if you intend to see the movie.

I will include bolded question marks (like “__?__”) whenever some part of the movie just puzzled me.

* There’s a boy (“Laser”) and a girl (“Joni”) and their lesbian mothers, played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore.
* The boy does some coke. He’s hanging out with a Bad Dude.
* Laser tells Joni that he wants to meet the sperm donor who was … uh … involved in their creation.
* Joni has to make the call because she’s older than Laser is (she’s 18, he’s 15), and … I guess you need to be an adult in order to make this sort of phone call? (__?__)
* Joni digs through her moms’ filing cabinet to find the sperm bank’s number, she calls that number, the sperm bank gets in touch with the donor, and they agree to meet.
* The sperm donor, Laser, and Joni meet. Things are a little hesitant and awkward at first. Laser thinks the donor is too self-satisfied. Joni likes him.
* Meanwhile, Laser is spending more time with a Bad Dude. The Bad Dude leads Laser into all kinds of trouble, the first bit of which is that they find the moms’ porn collection. It features men having sex. Earlier, we’ve seen the moms start getting it on while they watch dude porn. (__?__)
* The moms have been suspicious that Laser and the Bad Dude are gay together. After they catch Laser and his Bad Dude friend with the porn, they sit him down to have an Intervention and ask if he’s gay. It turns out he’s not gay. Laser asks why they watch dude porn when they are lesbians. They explain that it’s complicated, but it has to do with how female sexuality is internal, so they sometimes need to watch externalized sexuality. Or something. (__?__) Even within the world of the film, that explanation made no sense: the moms seemed confused why they themselves enjoyed it, and they couldn’t explain it clearly to their kids. Clearly the director, Lisa Cholodenko, didn’t expect the audience to understand the explanation, so it’s puzzling to me why she included it.
* The moms discover that their kids have met the sperm donor. The moms decide to meet him too. So everyone gets together for a terribly awkward dinner, wherein Annette Bening asks him, “So … when did you know you wanted to be in the food-service industry?” (He runs a restaurant. It seems successful. He also seems like a stoner.)
* The kids continue to hang out with him. Laser plays basketball with him. Eventually they get close enough that the donor can tell Laser that the Bad Dude is no good, and that Laser should stop hanging out with him. Laser takes umbrage at this.
* Shortly thereafter, Laser and the Bad Dude are walking along in a Bad Part Of Town, and they happen upon an old mangy stray dog. Laser gets down on one knee and starts to pet him. The Bad Dude insists that Laser hold the dog while the Bad Dude pees on the dog (__?__). Laser says no. The Bad Dude calls Laser a pussy. Laser shoves the Bad Dude and calls him a dick. The Bad Dude punches Laser. Thus ends the friendship of Laser and the Bad Dude. The sperm-donor dad has thereby proven his bona fides. Laser and the dad can now be friends.
* Julianne Moore’s character is trying to start a career as a landscape designer. She’s unsure of herself. The sperm-donor dad, Paul, invites her to help design the backyard at his house.
* Needless to say, eventually they bone. Even though she’s lesbian. (__?__)
* Annette Bening finds out about the sex. She is devastated.
* Paul tries to visit the Lesbian House to make amends. Annette Bening tells him to go and make his own family and get out of hers. That is the last we see of Paul. Other movies would have thought that Paul was maybe more important than that, and wouldn’t have dropped his character so artlessly.
* The painful process of reconciliation continues between Bening and Moore. Moore gives a little tearful speech to her family about how much marriage sucks, and how it’s so easy to take your partner for granted, and so yeah, sorry, cry cry cry. This is the scene that they’ll show when [film: The Kids Are All Right] is nominated for an Oscar; mark my words.
* The moms drive their daughter to college to start her freshman year. She asks them to leave her room because she’s been chafing under their grip (been going to parties, drinking, trying to make herself into a hypersexualized being that she probably isn’t), spends some time alone, and then semi-desperately comes looking for them after thinking they’ve abandoned her and gone home. She thereby proves that she’s still mamas’ little girl. Everyone has a big reconciling group hug, moms get back in the car and head home, Joni goes off to college, all is well, fade to black.

I think what bugs me most about this is that if it didn’t feature lesbians, it would be an utterly boring movie about the perils of a boring domestic life. But we all know what a boring domestic life is like; we live that life every day. What this movie contributes to that storyline is … lesbians. Its entire premise is basically “See? Lesbians have complicated lives too.” But this is not a discovery.

As for the portrayal of lesbians: throughout [film: The Kids Are All Right] and afterward, my ladyfriend and I agreed that there hadn’t been any actual lesbians involved in the making of the film. The web tells me that Lisa Cholodenko is, herself, actually lesbian, so my lady and I were wrong. What this movie teaches us, in any case, is that a) lesbians like watching guy porn, b) lesbians sometimes need to have sex with a penis, c) lesbian problems are just like straight-couple problems.

And throughout the movie, it’s a bunch of self-satisfied upper-middle-class Californians eating healthy, delicious meals in jaw-droppingly gorgeous homes and kitchens. The kids and the lesbian moms all sit down together every night to share dinner like a good, happy, boring domestic family. We’re watching any number of 1950s sitcoms, re-enacted with lesbians and dude porn.

Having written all this, it still doesn’t feel like I’ve captured the utter annoying banality of this movie, but I’ll have to let it go. [film: The Kids Are All Right] is transcendently boring; all descriptions of its banality are condemned to understate just how trite it is.

Arguing the World — March 12, 2010

Arguing the World

I just watched this; terrific stuff. It follows four New York intellectuals — Irving Howe, Irving [father of the omnipresent William] Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer — from their meeting at City College of New York in the 40s to the present day. Glazer, Kristol, and Bell all curved off into one form or another of conservatism, while Howe remained until the end the strident liberal. But what’s spectacular about this film, and really sets it apart from any other movie I’ve seen, is that it refuses to take sides against any of these men. It wants to trace their failures and their achievements to their roots as disputatious New York Jews, while still trying to understand how men could come out of the Sixties with such different feelings toward politics and ideas. Really a terrific film. (And I submit that it’s impossible to come away from [film: Arguing the World] without a little crush on Irving Howe — particularly given the impish smirk he gives the camera just before we find out that he’s died.)

__P.S.__: Hat tip to Hendrik Hertzberg, from whom I learned about this excellent movie a few months back; it just floated to the top of my Netflix queue recently.

Restaurant reviewers, anonymity, and the (non-?)wisdom of crowds — February 8, 2010

Restaurant reviewers, anonymity, and the (non-?)wisdom of crowds

A great Boston restaurant reviewer who goes by the handle “MC Slim JB” links (via Twitter) to a [mag: Columbia Journalism Review] history of food reviewing. The review is essentially divided into three themes:

* how food reviewing tracked the expanding universe of ethnic foods available in New York City
* reviewers’ perspectives on anonymity — specifically, whether they felt obliged to remain anonymous to prevent favorable treatment by the chef
* the questionable ethical guidelines followed by today’s amateur food reviewers.

The first bullet is interesting. The second is as well, and for the record I think reviewers should always be anonymous; there’s no question in my mind on this point.

To the extent that Internet reviewers make a name for themselves and drop anonymity to get special dishes at restaurants, that’s obviously bad. The [mag: CJR] piece focuses on a few amateur reviewers who prostitute themselves in this way. For what it’s worth, I’ve never heard of any of these reviewers.

What the [mag: CJR] piece doesn’t bother to examine is what happens when *everyone is a reviewer*. When chefs only need to be on the lookout for Ruth Reichl, they can post her photo up in the kitchen and keep an eye out. But when every one of us could go on Chowhound and tear a restaurant to shreds, presumably the culinary standard always has to stay high.

Of course there are caveats here. First is that, when everyone can talk, everyone’s voice is correspondingly diminished: why should someone listen to me when there are thousands — millions? — of other people on the Internet just like me? But that just changes the point a little: chefs now have to make nice not only with the Reichls of the world, but with *the entire Internet*.

The Internet speaks with many voices, of course. What you’ll find on Chowhound is that one man’s pigsty is another man’s foodie bliss. Sometimes this reflects the quirks of the particular day the reviewer went. Other times it means that the reviewer has no taste. You have to judge on your own. Certain Internet reviewers get rated highly by their peers; MC Slim JB gets that honor on Chowhound. Does that rating mean anything? Maybe their peers are all dolts; this is certainly how I feel about highly-rated Slashdot posts (whose quality, from my once-yearly checks, has declined from even its already piss-poor station).

So you just have to decide how you like the reviewer and how you like the venue where he posts. I find that if a number of Chowhound reviewers have good things to say about a restaurant, if their tastes match up with mine, and if the reviewers sound intelligent, then I should probably check out the restaurant. Over time, who knows whether this will remain true: maybe the world at large will discover Chowhound, will fill it with “EAT THE FRIED SHRIMP AT TGI FRIDAYS IT IS TO DIE FOR LOL”-type reviews, and will therefore kill its allure. As more idiots fill up the forums, they’ll tend to promote reviews that they themselves like. And so on down the drain we’ll go. All I’m really entitled to say is that as of this moment, Chowhound is my place to go for good restaurant reviews.

The world is more complicated now. I think it’s unquestionably better. Previously, you had two or three professional voices to rely upon, and the voices of your friends; if your tastes weren’t in line with the reviewers, tough luck. Now you can find people who share your tastes and follow their recommendations. It’s a happy world.

I’ve thought of this in other contexts, too. Lots of people venerate the wine reviewer Robert Parker, the man with the million-dollar nose. He certainly knows more about wine than I ever will, and he may even be better equipped, biologically speaking, to do that job than I am. Precisely because he’s such a different a wine consumer than I am, why should I necessarily base my wine-purchasing decisions off what he says? Is it at all clear that I’ll enjoy a complicated wine as much as Parker does? I certainly don’t agree with Dave Barry’s joke, probably 20 years old at this point, that no one can tell the difference between wine and melted popsicles. At the same time, I can’t detect many of the flavors that Parker can. What he considers a superb bottle of wine may turn out to be a waste of money for me.

Another way to view Parker’s job is as a *teacher*. Here I think the possibilities are more hopeful. I may not be able to taste, as Parker did during his road-to-Damascus moment, the “main components of a Riesling.” (Or maybe I can. Not sure.) But if Parker tells me that a wine contains such-and-such flavors, I can start looking for things that I wouldn’t have thought to look for before. Drinking a wine with Parker by your side may be akin to staring at an abstract painting in a museum with an art historian by your side. It looks like a jumble until someone puts together the pieces for you.

When reading Parker on wine, or Anthony Lane on film, or Michiko Kakutani on books, the question I think we’ve always asked is whether the reviewer is similar to us. If Lane says he dislikes a film for some particular reason, we have to decide whether that reason is something we care about. If it’s not, we should find another reviewer who focuses on other things. One reviewer may not like [film: Avatar] because he thinks the story is silly; another may love it for the visuals. If you’re into visuals, maybe you should listen to the second reviewer.

None of this is rocket science, of course. But it’s worth thinking a bit about why and how we read reviewers in the first place, before we decide that the Internet is the death of professionalism.

A quick note on Avatar and Broken Embraces — January 3, 2010

A quick note on Avatar and Broken Embraces

…They’re more similar than you might think.

First of all, cards on the table: they’re both beautiful films, and I strongly recommend going to both.

What unifies them is that you don’t really go for the plot. You go for the astonishing visuals. In the case of [film: Broken Embraces], you also go because the cinematography has a rhythm that lulls you into a trance-like state.

Years ago, David Thomson — author of the quirky, curmudgeonly, contrarian, authoritative [book: Biographical Dictionary of Film] — said on some NPR show (probably Terry Gross) that it doesn’t even make sense to call a film “melodramatic”. Film is the medium that allows you to dissolve from a shot of a tear running down a woman’s face, says Thomson, into a shot of a dagger. The medium that allows this has long since run past the “melodrama” line. Film is melodramatic *at its heart*.

Pedro Almodóvar has taken this to heart. At one point in [film: Broken Embraces], a single tear runs down the side of a tomato; the tomato and the tear fill up the entire screen. Like all Almodóvar films, the colors are all intensely saturated, and every object in every frame stands starkly out from everything behind it. Perhaps 90% of the shots in [film: Broken Embraces] deserve to be framed and hung on the wall. (This, by the way, is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, with a lot of films. [film: Rear Window] would get first dibs on my wall.)

And then there’s Penélope Cruz. [film: Broken Embraces] is Pedro Almodóvar’s love song sung directly to Cruz. She fills nearly every frame of the movie. She is luxurious. If you’re not into Penélope Cruz … well, first of all, what’s wrong with you? But secondly, you’ll probably find [film: Broken Embraces] a bit much. In many ways it reminds me of portraits I saw in the National Gallery: beautiful women looking coquettishly at the painter, who either had already slept with his subject or dreamt of doing so and who splashed his desire on the canvas.

You don’t watch [film: Broken Embraces] for the story. You watch it because its director exploits the medium for all it’s worth.

You also don’t see [film: Avatar] for the story, though actually there’s more there than I would have guessed. In fact it’s a rather moving, heartbreaking story; I was shocked. It’s also a thinly disguised attack on U.S. military policy in Vietnam (heavily armored military centered around helicopters, destroying the indigenous people within their dense jungle home), or on the U.S.’s massacre of American Indians in the 19th century.

In fact, there are two parts to [film: Avatar]: a live-action part in the human world, and an animated one in the alien civilization’s world. I hope I speak for most of the movie’s viewers when I say that the animated world is much the more compelling. I think James Cameron realizes this, because most of our time is spent in the alien world. It is beautiful, lush, and absorbing: it is its own world, with its own language. [film: Avatar] is the reason you go see movies on the big screen, with surround sound. [film: Broken Embraces] could be viewed with the sound off, but you still need the big screen; you need to get lost in the world of the film, which is something only the theatre can buy you.

The trailer for [film: Broken Embraces] suggested to me that its score would be another haunting Alberto Iglesias construction, like that for [film: Talk To Her] (which is one of my few favorite films). The trailer turned out to be deceptive; I can’t actually recall any part of the soundtrack from the film itself, whereas [film: Talk To Her] featured the immortal “Raquel” and “Cucurrucucu Paloma”, performed by Caetano Veloso.

These are two entirely different films, but I strongly encourage you to see both. They are examples of filmmakers at the top of their games.