Why Prince mattered to me…

The Hits 2Like many, I was shocked when I heard of Prince’s passing. Initially TMZ reported his death, and I, like many, was skeptical. Part of it was, I didn’t want it to be true – I was hoping it would be yet another ugly, yet silly hoax.

But Prince is gone. I was a huge fan of Prince’s music. I can’t remember a time when he wasn’t played on my Walkman, Discman, and now my iPod. I loved the crazy harmony he found in blending dance, funk, rock, soul, and R&B. The Minneapolis sound is probably my favorite type of music – it was a glorious meet of technology and funk, studio wizardry and genuine musical prowess.

My introduction to Prince was hearing “Gett Off” on MTV when I was the ripe old age of 10. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: this was a beautiful man, with gorgeous doe eyes and a mane of black curls. I didn’t know what I was listening to (the lyrics were beyond me at the age of 10), but I knew I liked it…It reminded me of all the other kinds of music I listened to – he reminded me a lot of a male Janet Jackson (which made sense as Jackson’s music was created by Prince’s former bandmates, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – more on them in a bit). Like when I first heard/saw Madonna (the same year), I knew I was way too young to understand him, and it took a couple years before I really got him – and that was when I heard “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” It was a silky, sparkly number that sang the praises of all kinds of beauty. What I liked about the song was that Prince used his falsetto in the chorus – his voice was incredible: from a dark, deep bass to a passionate high falsetto.

As I got older, I started to appreciate what an incredible musician Prince was. He was always in command on his albums, a one-man band of sorts, able to jump and skip from one instrument to another. I appreciated the fantastic songs he wrote – the cryptic lyrics, the off-kilter beats, the synths. All of it.

Another thing I appreciated was his musical generosity. I am as big of a fan of Prince’s stable of proteges as I am of his own music: Eric Leeds, Vanity, Apollonia, Ingrid Chavez, Wendy & Lisa, Sheila E., Rosie Gaines, Janet Jackson, the Time, Patti LaBelle, Mavis Staples, Tevin Campbell, Jill Jones – they all were influenced by Prince, and made some fantastic music with him.

Earlier, David Bowie passed, and much was made about his play with gender and sexuality. Prince did that too. He played with androgyny, upending expectations of what a ladies man should look and sound like. His sexuality was never in question – no one really thought Prince was gay, even when he strutted across the stage in heels and mascara – but he nonetheless treated gender roles and gender performance as something to experiment with – and not take too seriously.

Thinking about Prince, I was trying to narrow down my favorite songs by the guy. “I Would Die 4 U,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “Little Corvette” vie for that top spot. I like that they edge a bit toward dance music – I love the pulsating synth in “I Would Die 4 U.” I think those songs show Prince at his most creative, playing and pushing genre tropes and experimenting with sounds that he can create – seemingly out of thin air. A lot has been made of the perceptible dip in quality of his work in the mid 1990s to the mid 2000s, but I was thrilled with his last batch of records. Sure, they weren’t 1999 or Purple Rain, but I think he was returning to a creative burst that would eventually bring him back to a place where he can produce a worthy successor to his classic work.  Judging from his brilliant live performances in the past couple years, it was clear that creatively, Prince still had a lot left to show off.

 

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Julia Louis-Dreyfus shows who’s boss on ‘SNL’

From the Set: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nick JonasJulia Louis-Dreyfus is one of those SNL alum that doesn’t get to wax sentimental about her days on the show. Unlike Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, when Julia Louis-Dreyfus returns to SNL as a host, it’s more of akin to a neglected class nerd who was ignored in high school, but then became a huge deal once she graduated. After SNL, Louis-Dreyfus moved from one comic triumph to another, starting with Seinfeld and working her way up to her current win, HBO’s Veep.

And while she’s not as bitter as Janeane Garafolo, Louis-Dreyfus is remarkably candid about her less-than-stellar experience as a cast member SNL. There was some of that when she returned to Studio 8H for the third time to host. During her monologue, the legendary comedienne referenced her mediocre tenure by showing a clip of her “greatest hit” which was an old Ed Grimley sketch that had her playing a walk-on role as a secretary. And though her time as a cast member was a bit of a dud, as a host, she’s aces. Even if the material was just so-so – and it was – Louis-Dreyfus commanded the stage with her energy, commitment, and her willingness to look silly for a laugh.

The cold open was yet another political sketch, with Louis-Dreyfus’ old pal, Larry David returning to play Bernie Sanders. Matching his great performance was yet again, the magical Kate McKinnon as an increasingly frazzled Hillary Clinton. Louis-Dreyfus pops up as her iconic New York misanthrope, Elaine Benes – complete with her permed mane of black hair, and her angry grip on her purse (I always thought she jammed her purse underneath her arms like the top of a crutch). The sketch’s writing was pleasant, and it was nice to see old Seinfeld pals David and Louis-Dreyfus play with each other – though, Elaine’s continuous harping about how Bernie Sanders’ economic policies would hurt multimillionaire sitcom writers made little sense as David was playing Sanders, so why would David’s concern about higher taxes make its way into the sketch. Also, as an added bonus, Vanessa Bayer gets another chance to show off her incredible Jennifer Aniston-as-Rachel-Green-from-Friends.

After Louis-Dreyfu’s funny monologue (which included a cute bit with her Veep pal Tony Hal and a great jab at the awful/racist 80s comedy Soul Man), we get a fake ad for heroin in pill-form. It’s beautifully filmed (even though “live” is in the title, Saturday Night Live is started to rely heavily on pretaped segments). It’s a funny bit, with Louis-Dreyfus giving a pitch-perfect performance, capturing the tone of those silly pill ads.

The Long Island jewelers commercial was essentially Bronx Beat, with McKinnon and Louis-Dreyfus taking Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s place. The joke is essentially the elitist stuff that suggests anyone who doesn’t live in Manhattan or parts of Brooklyn are vulgar yokels. Unlike Bronx Beat, the ladies of this ad aren’t witty – still McKinnon and Louis-Dreyfus play the hell out of the sketch, and get good support from Cecily Strong and Aidy Bryant as bored daughters (though music guest Nick Jonas’ cameo was essentially an excuse to have the audience’s female (and some male) members to shout and scream over his muscles.

Speaking of Jonas’ muscles, the Pool Boy sketch – another pre-taped deal was probably the best sketch of the night. Louis-Dreyfu plays a beautiful housewife who is having an affair with Pete Davidson’s dim-witted pool boy. What is so funny about the sketch is that the housewife is weighed down with guilt over her affair and dramatically breaks it off with Davidson, who shruggs it off with a genial and doofy smile before going back to his work. Jonas and his abs pop up again, suggesting that the housewife’s eyes will remain a-wandering.

The Cinema Classics sketch is always a mixed bag, but this one worked because of Louis-Dreyfus’ old-fashioned commitment to the joke: she’s an actress unable to remember her lines, so she has them written in stupidly obvious places on the set. There’s something very Vaudevillian about Louis-Dreyfus’ physical/slapstick work, as she crawls around the fake movie set, pulling props and reading her lines. Again, the Cinema Classics sketches are never great, but Louis-Dreyfus’ ridiculous performance sells it.

In another pretaped sketch, Louis-Dreyfus is pushing a new Mercedes that runs on batteries – AA batteries. As with the other pretaped stuff, it’s gorgeously put together, aping the beautiful, glossy look of an expensive car commercial. The jokes are cute, too – the idea so stupid, it works as a joke. My favorite bit, the dashboard feature that tells the driver which battery is dead – which results in Louis-Dreyfus releases all 9,000 batteries from the car, and having her climb over these piles (again, whenever we get to see her do some physical stuff, no matter how minor, it’s great).

Weekend Update was solid – not hilarious, but solid. The highlight was Cecily Strong’s One-Dimensional Female Character. The last time the character appeared it was just, meh, landing soft ball on cliches of romantic comedies. This time Strong and the writers hit harder, and the sketch came off angrier, more bitter, and funnier. Strong’s monologue included swipes at bro-comedies’ stupid tropes which reduce women to ciphers, reacting to the male characters (there’s also a powerful bit about her character sneezing into a tissue with semen without knowing – an important detail, since I found the whole semen in the hair joke in There’s Something About Mary to be kinda sexist and hateful).

Who Works Here? is another fantastic sketch – a fake game show, set in a CVS. Boring as hell contestants have to figure out which of the creepy freaks paraded in front of them are CVS employees. Led by game show host, Louis-Dreyfus, the contestants watch some fantastic character work by Bobby Moynihan, Aidy Bryant, Leslie Jones, Pete Davidson, and Kate McKinnon as a ghost (yeah, a ghost). The sketch allowed for Louis-Dreyfus to set aside her physical gifts, and employ her her slightly cruel comedic persona (she refused to introduce the contestants because they’re too dull).

Every show, no matter how good, will have a dud, and in this episode, it’s the Meet and Match sketch. It’s truly bizarre – McKinnon and Louis-Dreyfus are black-eyed aliens who arrive at a Match.com mixer. The comediennes’ voices are shredded by some nasty Auto-Tune work which make them sound like evil monsters. The joke is that they’re aliens, so their mating habits include turning prospective suitors into smoking skeletons. Though both McKinnon and Louis-Dreyfus give their all, it’s a terrible sketch (though Beck Bennett brings in just enough douchery as the Match.com mixer host).

The final sketch was another pretaped sketch – a trailer taking a hit on all those stupid Christian movies that position white Christians as oppressed minorities. In God Is a Boob Man Vanessa Bayer’s homophobic baker doesn’t want to bake a cake for a nefarious, cruel gay couple. The jokes are easy and land – but it’s funny and timely, given that more and more states are lining up for the title of the most ignorant/hateful state in the world (North Caroline and Mississippi are neck and neck, while Tennessee is out).

It’s telling that this season has been pretty uneven, but the shows hosted by comics – Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Tracy Morgan, Larry David – have all been bright spots – which should tell the talent bookers over at SNL, that it’d be best if instead of just having some starlet or action hero with a new project to promote, that real funny people should be tapped to host.

Random thoughts:

  • Julia Louis-Dreyfus looks ahmazing and whoever dresses her knows that because throughout the episode she looked turned out.
  • Though Kate McKinnon’s easily the show’s current MVP, judging from Cecily Strong’s pointed One-Dimensional Female Character appearance, she’s close behind.
  • I liked the mini-Seinfeld reunion – it would’ve been just a touch sweeter if Jerry, Kramer, or George popped up, too…
  • Michael Che and Colin Jost are getting better, but Weekend Update is still the time during SNL when I jump off the couch to grab a soda from the fridge or to use the bathroom.
  • Tony Hale stole is micro-cameo – I think we know who should host next…
  • The show is leaning hard on pretaped segments.

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Hillary Clinton and Nancy Reagan – when tribute becomes lying

In an interview with Andrea Mitchell for MSNBC, Hillary Clinton, who was attending the funeral of former first lady Nancy Reagan, spoke about Mrs. Reagan’s legacy. As expected, most of what Clinton said was boilerplate niceties – nothing unexpected as both women were members of a “first lady club” as Mitchell put it.

But things turned really hairy for Clinton – who’s running for president – when it came time to talk about Reagan’s accomplishments, particularly when it came to the Brady Bill and stem cell research. Once she got going, though, Clinton couldn’t stop, and went on to talk about Reagan’s AIDS activism, saying,

“The other point I wanted to make, too, is it may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS back in the 1980s. And because of both President – and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started a national conversation when before nobody would talk about it, nobody wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that I really appreciate with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience, and people began saying, ‘Hey, we have to do something about this, too.'”

So, yeah, it looks like Clinton’s never picked up Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, or Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart or Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. The Reagans were not, as Clinton pointed out, great HIV/AIDS activists who “started” some kind of national conversation that inspired many. Clinton’s assertion that the Reagans somehow bravely took on the touchy subject during a time of rampant homophobia and panic is just wrong. Though the disease was identified in 1981, it took four years for the President to finally mention it. He and his Administration, in efforts to appease to morally-conservative voters also discouraged proper sex education. His hostility toward gays as well as his disastrous support of the War on Drugs exacerbated the situation. Clearly, the President and his First Lady were behind the curve. It wasn’t the Reagans who were started the conversation, it was all of the HIV/AIDS activists who were forcing the conversation, while they were being decimated by a disease.

Clinton quickly felt a stinging backlash from one of her biggest groups of supporters: white baby boomer gays – those who lived through the most devastating years of the AIDS crisis. To that backlash, Clinton quickly tweeted

 

 

 

 

So the question that looms large for Clinton supporters as well as those on the fence at the moment, is do we buy Clinton’s ooops? I for one, do not believe that a) Clinton misspoke or b) she believes the Reagans were vanguards when it came to the AIDS crisis. I believe that Clinton was caught doing what she does quite often: pander to moderate conservative, conservative Democrats, and those who view the Reagan era with rose-tinted glasses. She wanted to look classy and gracious and above partisan sniping. The problem is doing so trivialized all of the harm and damage the Reagans have done to communities devastated by HIV/AIDS.

Because Clinton is such a smart and wonky politician, this strange gaffe surprises me. It also leads me to think that this might be a definitive turning point in her campaign. It may be her Dukakis and the Tank moment. Or her Dean Scream moment. Or her Romney 47% moment. Or her I picked Sarah Palin as my VP moment.

A big part of the new, 2016 model of Hillary Clinton is one that embraces political progressiveness. Unlike in 2008, during this presidential campaign, Clinton thought “naysayers be damned!” and embraced such issues as feminism, racial equality and queer rights. She embraced the caricature that knee-jerk conservatives have painted of her for years: that she’s a leftist activist. Her relationship with the queer community, in particular, has also been a large pillar of her campaign – which again, makes a statement like hers so head-shakingly, head-scratchingly weird. Hillary Clinton is old enough and aware enough to remember the horrible years in the early 1980s when gay men suddenly started to die of a mysterious disease, one that made its sufferers pariahs. AIDS patients were dismissed, discriminated, and abused by family, friends, coworkers, employers, landlords, and yes, politicians and presidents.

 

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‘Downton Abbey’ ends on a solid, if predictable note

The hype surrounding the finale of Downton Abbey was preposterous – the kind of overblown affair that would seem right at home on a big three network, but not on PBS. Before the final episode, PBS aired something called “BAFTA Celebrates Downton Abbey,” which ended being a self-congratulatory televised circle jerk. I’m not sure what was more tiresome: listening to everyone gush about how important Downton Abbey is, or having to sit through Julian Ovendon (Charles Blake) warble some old-timey ballad. It all led to the final episode of Downton Abbey.

The episode felt like every series final ever. Story lines were wrapped up, babies were born, folks were wed, old friends came back. Julian Fellowes must have felt some kind of crush, tying up the story arcs of a cast as huge as Downton, so it’s understandable that some characters – like Mrs. Patmore and Baxter were essentially treated like after-thoughts. With just an hour and a half to bring the show to a close, Fellowes did what was expected: he married off Lady Edith to Bertie, despite her being an unwed mum and career gal, and despite his mom (a wry Patricia Hodge) being initially against the whole thing. When Fellowes was basking in his fabulosity during the BAFTA thing, he mentioned being accosted by a fan who begged him to let Edith be happy. I’m glad Edith got a happy ending, though I’m not so sure a wedding was necessary to make her happy: after all, she had a kid, she had a great job, a few bucks in the bank, I’m not so sure a man was necessary to “complete that picture. Edith was really the show’s main vehicle to show the shifting attitudes towards women in English society. Even more so than Sybil (who died in the third series), Edith lived the life of a feminist (That is a feminist who was white, rich, and had loads of privilege). As Edith marched down the aisle, serenely, in her wedding gown, I thought back to the last time we saw Edith in a wedding gown – she was getting married to Gregson, who jilted her – and I had a sneaky feeling that maybe Fellowes would upend the convention of the “happy ending” and reveal that Bertie’s married, or a thief, or gay – something. But when the old county vicar croaks, “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” we knew it was for good.

Mary and Henry also have a happy ending – she’s pregnant and he’s going into business with Tom, opening a used car lot. Yup, a used car lot. I know, I scratched my head over that one, too. When as a “fun surprise” Tom and Henry dragged Mary (eyes closed) to their new place of business, her shock looked like being pissed (well, let’s face it, even when she smiles, Lady Mary looks upset). I was hoping she’d be pissed. Not because he’s opening a used car lot, but because he’s doing all this shit without talking to her first (it is her family’s money that’s bankrolling this venture). But no, this is a new Mary – a new, more tolerant Mary. So she’s happy and announces that Tom’s going to be a daddy.

There are more doings in the upstairs bit of Downton. Robert is annoyed at how busy Cora has become. Apparently, he was hoping that Cora would be content, wandering the halls of Downton, with nothing to do. Instead, she’s running the hospital, and apparently doing a good job of it, from the briefest of brief snippet in which Robert spies Cora holding court while the poor people of the village fret over their health care. This was Julian Fellowes’ moment to finally rehabilitate Cora’s image, undo all the damage he’s done to her in the past four seasons, turning her from a sparkling and witty peacock, thumbing her nose at musty convention into a simpering, doe-eyed sycophant. And he mostly fails, because we don’t actually see Cora do much work. We’re promised that she’s very busy and Robert’s piqued at her rushing off to the hospital, even missing Edith’s choosing of the flowers for the wedding (they’d make anything into a thing there), and we’re to understand that Cora’s found her calling: playing Lady Bountiful to her village of poors. But Robert’s impressed, as is his mama, Violet (more on her later), and Violet and Cora share a lovely moment in which they bury the hatchet over that stupid hospital tug-of-war that never was interesting, and Violet concedes her status as matriarch of Downton to Cora.

But it’s not just the upstairs people that have something going. The servants of Downton are also buy feeling all that change that people have been bleating on about for the show’s whole six seasons. Barrows leaves Downton after his suicide attempt, to live and work for an ancient couple who only keep a staff of three (the horror!). Barrows is an interesting character, and I’ll tell you why: ever since the beginning of the show Fellowes seemed to be on Barrows’ side, despite his evil doings. It’s amazing to think that the Barrows of the sixth series, all kind and gooey is the same guy who just a few seasons ago purposely let a dog get lost in the forest so that he could find her and be the hero. But we’re to understand that everything Barrows did, he did because he was misunderstood and unloved. It would’ve been too much for him to find someone – I’m glad that Fellowes resisted that temptation – and even though his character got a happy ending (he returns to Downton as head butler), it’s still a sad existence because the guy will be a confirmed bachelor his whole life. It’s not like there are any gay bars in the village, and homosexuality won’t be decriminalized for another forty years, so Barrows life will be probably end as Carson’s did, dedicated to the running of Downton Abbey (though we don’t know how long the family will be able to hold on to a lumbering estate like that).

Daisy decides to move in with Mr. Mason, and starts up a romance with Andy. Mrs. Patmore has been making eyes at Mr. Mason, so though she was a mother figure to Daisy throughout the years, it looks like eventually, she’ll actually be her mother (or at least her mother-in-law). There is no talk of her B&B, nor do we know anything about Daisy’s future – will she be a teacher? Will she stay a cook? That’s all left in the air, and it’s too bad because Daisy’s growth and development was interesting.

The biggest downstairs news is that Carson has “the palsy” and cannot function in the same way. Though his physical ailments trouble him most, there’s also the issue of the revolving door that suddenly sprung up in the servant’s hall. It feels like everybody’s gone, leaving poor Carson to figure out how to run things on his own. The tidy way in which Carson is left as an overseer of some kind, while Barrows steps in as Butler is nice – but again, telegraphed, and predictable.

The other downstairs story involves the most tiresome couple of the shows history: Anna and Bates. Anna was once my favorite character, but she was dragged down by the gloomy, grumpy, dour Bates. Thankfully, his presence in the final episode would constitute a friendly cameo. Anna, on the other hand, in the grand tradition of series finales, has her baby. She goes into labor in Mary’s room, and in a fun twist, it’s Mary that undresses Anna – I did like that reversal, and laughed. When Bates wafted in view, I was worried that Fellowes would do something consistent like having Anna or the baby die in childbirth, with Bates taking it all in majestically and being all manly and martyr-like – but thankfully, none of that.

Of course, the real reason to watch any episode of Downton Abbey is to see what kind of fuckery Violet gets herself into. She loves stirring the shit, and she brought an extra-large sized paddle for this episode. First, she and Isobel band together to rescue poor Lord Merton from his awful family. Lord Merton was supposed to be dying, and Isobel was hoping to share his final days with him as a wedded couple. His evil daughter-in-law was having none of that, locking away the poor man in a closet somewhere. That is until our dynamic duo just rocked up to his estate, raised all kinds of hell, and exposed Merton’s shitty family for what they really are. In fact, Violet looked so pissed, I thought she was going to swing her walking stick and brain Merton’s god awful kids.

But Violet isn’t done yet. She also gets to stick it to Denker, who found out that Spratt is Edith’s Agony Aunt. Denker is sure that Violet will disapprove of Spratt’s new side business, and “lets” the secret slip with the subtly of a sledgehammer. But as always, Violet doesn’t like to be told how to feel, and instead of firing Spratt, she giggles at his advice, and promises to  seek his council when it’s time to choose her next outfit (who knew Spratt was a ‘mo?).

All in all, the show’s ending was satisfying, but entirely predictable. But then again, that’s what Downton Abbey has always been.

Some random thoughts:

  • It was nice to see Atticus and Rose
  • Moseley becomes a school teacher and leaves Downton. His future with Baxter is unclear.
  • I loved how Barrows became friends with Anna and Baxter, and was sad for him when he left. Those two were able to look beyond his viperish ways (though I don’t know how – he tried to get Anna’s husband fired and he threatened Baxter with blackmail, but what’s a little dastardly evil-doing among old friends?)
  • Apparently, there might be a Downton Abbey film and a prequel that shows how Robert and Cora got hitched – very interesting.

 

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Melissa McCarthy charms in ‘Spy’

Spy (fka Susan Cooper)Recently it was announced that the CBS sitcom Mike & Molly was being canceled. Though it still pulled respectable ratings, it was clear that its star, Melissa McCarthy was slumming it, co-starring in a middling sitcom (for which she won an Emmy in its premier season). Instead of being a TV star, though, something far more interesting happened: Melissa McCarthy became a bonafide, box-office superstar. More than any other female comic in recent years, McCarthy has racked up a list of box-office smashes (Bridesmaids, Identity Thief, The Heat, Tammy) and is going to star in the remake of Ghostbusters. With this impressive track record, she’s joined the ranks of Adam Sandler, Jim Carrey, Judd Apatow, and Ben Stiller. And like Sandler, Carrey, Apatow, and Stiller, the quality of the films – despite their financial success – ebbs and flows.

But Spy is an excellent outlier in the otherwise mediocre film oeuvre of Melissa McCarthy. It’s a spoof on the action film, but doesn’t rely on parody to tell its story. Instead, it’s that strange rare popcorn film that is smart, broad, funny, and progressive.

McCarthy stars as Susan Cooper, a CIA analyst who must jump into the field as an undercover agent to stop the black market sale of a nuclear bomb. The plot sounds ridiculously far-fetched written down, but writer/director Paul Feig (reunited with McCarthy after Bridesmaids) has crafted a fantastic story. Susan could’ve easily been a joke, but instead, he writes a character that is smart, wise, and resourceful. When all of the CIA’s top agents’ identities have been compromised, it’s the normally-invisible Susan that is called on by her boss, Elaine Crocker (a snarky Allison Janney) to go undercover and tail Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne, McCarthy’s costar from Bridesmaids), who may know where and when the nuke sale will take place.

Credit must be given to Feig, who creates a solid action caper. He sends his heroine to some ritzy locales in Paris, and poor old Susan has to don some pretty hideous wigs and costumes to pass as an assuming frumpy American tourist. As a director, Feig also handles the action sequences well – though it must be said, that for a mainstream comedy, it’s shockingly violent, and there are a lot of deaths – some of them quite graphic. The fight sequences are beautifully choreographed: there is one brilliant fight scene, in particular, set in a kitchen between McCarthy and Nargis Fakhri (who plays a henchman) that benefits from some spectacular choreography, fantastic staging, and some nifty use of kitchen equipment as the two women go head-to-toe, brandishing cleavers, knives, and using skillets as shields.

Though not explicitly feminist, Spy has a great message and uses its star wisely. It’s tempting to use a comedienne like McCarthy for sight gags and physical comedy, particularly because of her weight – and in the past, McCarthy herself has leaned on that as a crutch. She’s great at playing very broad characters, but she’s always managed to imbue even the most cartoonish character with flecks of personality. In Spy, she’s finally gifted with a script that allows for her to make use of her considerable slapstick prowess, but yet, still build a character. She employs well-placed pauses and verbal inflections, and has an understated way of delivering her lines, which is a perfect balance for her more raucous moments of falling over, crashing through doors, or face planting on the ground.

And though McCarthy is the star, she gets some fantastic support from a well-cast supporting ensemble. Byrne, not most people’s first choice for comedienne, does bitchy very well, and is great as a straight man to McCarthy – the two, though adversaries in the film, make for a great comic duo – she serves up some deliciously cruel one-liners and the two bounce off each other well. And as Susan’s best girlfriend, stand-up comic Miranda Hart (Call the Midwife) blesses the film with her ebullient presence. And as the male leads, Jason Stratham and Jude Law both show wiley, hidden comic chops – the former, especially, steals his scenes, as a disgruntled CIA agent, disgusted at Susan’s sudden professional ascent.

As a spoof, Spy works because it gently tweaks at the conventions of the spy genre, but it also transcends the film parody genre. Film parody is difficult to pull off because even if the jokes work, if the film serves merely as a way to make fun of something, without bothering to be any good, then the film ages quickly and doesn’t work after repeated viewing. What makes Spy so engaging is that though it makes fun of the spy genre, it’s also a legitimate entry, as well. It has all of the ingredients: a heroic lead, beautiful women, handsome men, luxurious locales.

But more importantly, along with the funny, we also get an important message about self-confidence and hard work. Susan is great at her job because she works hard and studies hard. She knows her shit. The only problem is that because she’s a woman and because she’s a woman of size, she’s marginalized by her colleagues. That is one of the reasons why as an undercover agent, she’d be a choice pick: who is more invisible than women of size? And the early scenes in which Susan pines for Law’s dashing agent are sad because she’s clearly under the mistaken assumption that because of his looks, Law’s character is out of her league.

And so Spy works on a deeper level because Susan learns about self-confidence and gains it as she gets better at her job. Quickly those who dismiss her or underestimate her regret doing so. Feig and McCarthy also take care to ensure that Susan isn’t the joke. There are no fat jokes, nor do we think Susan is anything less than gorgeous when she’s not done up in undercover frump drag. When she wants to infiltrate a fancy casino party, she ditches her drab gear and instead shows up in a sexy, open neck black dress, and owns the room. Later on, she gets done up in a sexy blazer and sports a chic bob (looking remarkably similar to fellow comedienne Dawn French). And it all feels right, and not of it feels condescending or pandering. Susan’s a catch. She’s dashing. She’s funny. She’s gorgeous. She’s brave. And she kicks ass.

Aspiring filmmakers should watch Spy to learn how to make a successful, compelling mainstream comedy that doesn’t talk down to its audiences, doesn’t punch down, or pander to the lowest common denominator.

Click here to buy Spy on DVD from amazon.com.

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‘The Help’ is a messy jumble of a couple good movies and a lot more bad ones

The HelpThe Help is the kind of movie about the Civil Rights Movement that mainstream white audiences love, because that complicated and difficult time is spoon fed to viewers with the kind of optimistic that lets people think that a) racial discrimination is over, a thing of the past and b) wow, weren’t those white people nasty, I’m glad I’m not like one of them. Based on the best-selling novel by Kathryn Stockett, The Help is yet another in a long line of movies about the Civil Rights Movement in which a white protagonist takes center stage. We get to see the horrors of Jim Crow as well as the glimmers of hope through progress from the POV of Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan (Emma Stone), a recent college graduate who aspires to be a journalist.

And that’s The Help‘s first problem. If we need another Civil Rights Era narrative film, then why do we need another one the centers on the experiences of a white protagonist? In the film Skeeter is the liberal conscious of the film’s white liberal viewers. She treats the maids kindly and is contemptuous of her racist friends. Viewers are meant to watch the film through Skeeter’s eyes and feel smug, like she, that they are not like the bad white people who wreak some awful havoc on the lives of the black characters.

As a character, Skeeter acts merely as a refreshing antidote to the bigoted atmosphere created by the other white characters, namely Hilly Walters Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard), the leader of the society of young southern belles. She rules in her kingdom with a cruel fist, casting anyone whom she feels is deserving adrift into social isolation. Her treatment of her friends is terrible, but her treatment of the black women in the town is criminal. And because she’s so powerful (though the source of her power is ephemeral), her legion of housewives dutifully follow suit. All except Skeeter, who remains the white moral center of the film.

But because this is about the Civil Rights Movement, we also are privy to the lives of the black characters – but not nearly enough. When we focus on Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) and Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer), then we have the kernel of a good film. Aibileen and Minny are best friends who support each other. And they need the support because they both work hard as maids: Aibileen for Elizabeth Leefoit (Ahna O’Reilly), a neglectful mother whose young daughter adores Aibileen; Minny, on the other hand, has trouble finding permanent employment because of her temper but eventually finds work with the town’s social pariah, Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain) – more on that later.

When Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are on screen, there’s some movie magic, namely due to the actress’ skills. The writing often lets them down: they’re tropes and little more, but the two women have a chemistry that transcends the limits of the film, and they create a beautiful friendship. I wish more of their lives together was explored because a film about how two women support and take care of each other during difficult times filled with social unrest would be an interesting one to watch. But we don’t get to sit and watch Davis and Spencer interact because the film is far more interesting in how white folks saw Civil Rights.

The plot has Skeeter cook up a dangerous scheme of documenting the lives of the maids in town. She convinces Aibileen and Minny to tell her their stories – unvarnished stories of subjugation, humiliation, and class stratification. The risk is huge – the women could lose their jobs, even be victims of violence. Of course, Skeeter’s risk is low and that’s another problem with the film – the stakes are so low for Skeeter that though she’s supposed to be seen as a brave and inspiring figure, she merely comes off as privileged and a little opportunistic. When Hilly gets a black woman falsely arrested for theft, the other maids in town convene at Aibileen’s house and agree to have their lives chronicled, in hopes of exposing just how gross a life of servitude can be. We’re gifted with the briefest of montages in which the maids speak, but again, the film is more interested in Skeeter’s growth and development, so we don’t understand, see, or hear the indignities that countless black women had to shoulder just to ensure a better life for their children. We don’t get a sense of the violence or violation. It’s all skimming at the surface, enough to have most decent people offended, but not enough to really examine just how dysfunctional this kind of society really is.

Screenwriter Tate Taylor must’ve had a notebook bursting with ideas, because along with the Skeeter plot, the Aibileen and Minny plot, we also get the Celia and Minny show. In what is clearly meant to be a show of “love knows no color,” The Help also includes a story line that has Minny working for Celia, a beautiful, yet blowsy housewife who cannot seem to do anything. Plagued with a series of miscarriages, Celia is a pathetic soul – gorgeous, but dim. Kind, but naive. The women in the town eye her warily because she wears low cut dresses and totters around on high heels, and is married to Hilly’s ex, so naturally, she’s labeled a maneater, and the women guard their husbands jealously anytime poor Celia stumbles into the scene.

Minny arrives and  manages to shape things up, and predictably the two women overcome their racial, social, and economic differences to understand that they’re more alike than different. Minny becomes a surrogate big sister and mother to Celia because Tate Taylor doesn’t think there are enough black maids playing surrogate mothers to rich white women in film. The scenes between Minny and Celia all ring of treacle and feel contrived. Again, the only thing that elevates this to anything is the mighty work of Spencer as well as the beautifully-layered performance of Jessica Chastain, who channels a near-death Marilyn Monroe. Like her scenes with Davis, Spencer creates a solid bond with Chastain, though the writing is cliched with their scenes, that no amount of expert emoting manages to wrench their work free from the sap.

All of this happens with the Civil Rights Movement playing in the background. Taylor uses the events of the 1960s as a way to frame the story as well as to give the film some forward momentum. But little is done to engage with the event, nor do the characters have any meaningful connection to the events. When Medgar Evars is assassinated, we get a glimpse of what could’ve been. Aibilieen is ordered off a bus and fearfully flees in the night to get home. As a director Taylor crafted a solid sequence of scenes that end in Minny’s house. The two women grieve privately, shielding their young children from the brutal realities of the world, and whisper their fears to each other. For The Help to function as a serious film about these times, we need more of this, instead of a pouting Skeeter giving side eye to Hilly after the latter spouts off another string of racial expletives.

When The Help came out in 2011, it got some great reviews and made over $200 million in the box office. Spencer (deservedly) won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, while Chastain and Davis were nominated (and the film was up for Best Picture, for some reason). It’s understandable that the film mainly was praised for its actors but the performances are impeccable. That is one of the many frustrating things about the film – along with its tone-deaf approach to race relations and history, the film wastes a very talented cast.

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‘Downton Abbey’ Recap: “Episode Six”

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Cora plays tour guide

Cora plays tour guide

So wow, an episode I finally thought was okay. It speaks more to the mediocre season as a whole than to the quality of the episode because it’s still miles beneath the show’s peak seasons (the first and second), but still stuff happened, I laughed, I sympathized, I tutted with disapproval. All in all, a strong showing.

Two major stories unfolded in this episode: one, Downton Abbey is opened up to the public to raise money for that blasted hospital, and two, something interesting actually happens with regards to the hospital drama.

Opening Downton to the public seems like a no-brainer to us modern folks only because some of us remember traipsing about country estates on vacations. But in 1925, many folks were resisting such a move because it felt intrusive and undignified. And for many of the insulated gentry, the idea of having strangers stroll through one’s home was bizarre. As Robert groused, “What on earth can we show them to give them their money’s worth? Lady Grantham knitting? Lady Mary in the bath?” It’s unfathomable for Robert to picture people poking their noses in and being lookie loos, but it’s just another sign of changing times. In a few years, Downton will probably have to be open just to break even on its operating costs – something that Branson suggested later in the episode, only to be shut down by the whole family, especially an appalled Mary. Things aren’t so bad for the Granthams yet, so they can just shove that unpleasant thought to the way, way, way back of their minds. Though if Mary’s grandchildren will be lucky enough (?) to inherit Downton Abbey, it’s probable that they will open up the place to tourists.

What is also interesting about this story line is that it enforces just how idle and dim the Granthams can be. Despite their professed love of their estate – Mary especially gets high and mighty – they know precious little about their home. In the episode’s funniest sequence, we have tourists asking interesting, probing questions about the house’s history, only to be met with either blank stares or confused looks. When a tourist asks if the dining hall refectory is where the Abbey in Downton Abbey comes from, Cora answers with an OMG, “I guess so!” Only Moseley and Violet know enough about the house to look intelligent – Mary and Edith do worse than Cora and look like a couple of ninnies, especially Edith whose interpretation of a painting amounts to “They were all rather marvelous and sort of living that life.”

Robert’s sequestered in his bedroom, bedridden because of his recent blood explosion and is convalescing. A little boy wanders away from the tour and ends up in his house. Because I can’t keep track of kid actors, I thought maybe the kid was George, but he isn’t. Anyways, the kid’s precocious and asks all the right questions at the time: why do the Granthams live in a big ass castle, when they really don’t need all that space? It’s a question that approaches a Marxist interpretation of class differences – an innocent way of cutting through swaths of genteel puffery to get at the core of absurdity of aristocracy. I’ve been asking that a lot – not just when watching Downton Abbey, but MTV Cribs, or Super Sweet Sixteen, or Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or any other exhibition of conspicuous and ridiculous wealth. Robert is honest and shrugs, telling the kid that they stay in the house because that’s what they do – that’s what they’re used to. It’s comfortable. It’s status quo.

The status quo is what keeps Violet afloat, and any changes that insert themselves into her life make her go nuts. That is the other major conflict of the episode, Violet being ousted as president of the hospital. What’s worse is that the person to replace her is Cora, who championed the merger and the hospital’s progress. It’s all done very indelicately, with Dr. Clarkson and Isobel cheering a hesitant Cora along. Poor Violet marches about Downton, unaware that a letter will arrive cutting her down to size. When she learns of her fate, it’s during one of the tours, and furious she marches into the sitting room while Cora’s trying to muster up some kind of intelligent monologue to entertain the guests. The guests get to watch an apoplectic Violet rage at Cora, with justification. It’s a sore spot between the two women who both are playing a tug-of-war with the role of matriarch of Downton, and Violet’s always most vulnerable when she’s facing a change. She feels betrayed – and with good reason. While the hospital tiff was boring as shit, I do feel bad for Violet, who sees her world changing and moving and she knows that the new world has little use for people like her.

Speaking of change, the downstairs folks of Downton also have to adapt to new life. Mrs. Patmore is becoming an entrepreneur, opening a guest house, installing a telephone, and putting in an ad in the newspaper. She’s also cautiously entering a romance with Mason, which leaves Daisy feeling nonplussed. Daisy’s always been a brat, even when we’re supposed to cheer for her. It’s not surprising, then, that she feels territorial about Mason, even if it’s someone as close to her as Mrs. Patmore. Her nastiness as well as the impotent ways in which Mrs. Hughes scolds her also shows just how much authority and respect has shifted and disintegrated since the beginning of the show. Daisy’s much more confident now – but despite her self-assurance, she still maintains her childish pettiness which is unfortunate.

The change in staff also affects Thomas, who’s been secretly tutoring Andy in the evening. Because they do it in secret, in the night, behind closed doors, with whispering, folks are starting to suspect something. And before you can say Three’s Company, a rumor springs up that Thomas and Andy are having an affair. When Carson confronts Thomas, the two have it out – and Thomas insists that Carson takes his word, which I found ridiculous. Despite any softening and change in Thomas’ behavior in the last couple seasons, we have to remember that this was the guy who tried to get people fired, he stole, he cheated, he lied, he blackmailed – for a minute, I thought he was insane, because it seemed like he couldn’t get past a day without doing some kind of fuckery – remember when he “lost” Isis on purpose so that he could find her? But then she was really lost? Or even in this season when he tried to “out” Gwen as a former housemaid to embarrass her. So when Thomas intones in an injured voice, “So my word is not good enough, Mr. Carson. After so many years.” I wanted to say, “Yeah, no duh.” The final image of Thomas weeping by himself was supposed to engender some kind of sympathy, but Julian Fellowes spent too much time making him a dastardly villain, twirling his mustache, as he tied women to train tracks. Yeah, he had moments – he and Sybil liked each other, and when he thought a guy was hot, he managed some kind of kindness, but over all, the guy’s a snake. The self-loathing of a closeted homosexual in 1920s England would make anyone an acrid character, but little has been done to ameliorate all of his bad deeds – even when he’s nice, like when he’s playing with the kids, like Mary, I assume it’s because he wants to curry favor with the family.

The other minor plots have Edith’s and Mary’s love lives go further. Edith’s is a bit blah, though he does finally meet Marigold (but she’s still introduced as a ward of Donwton). Mary is still struggling with her love for Henry, whose love for fast cars has her worried. Not much was given to these story arcs, but it gave further evidence of how little Branson has to do in his return to Downton. Now he’s essentially reduced to Mary’s pet gay boyfriend. He’s pushing the two to get together, despite her reticence. Mary and Branson have a nice little relationship and Michelle Dockery and Allen Leech have a nice chemistry, but his contribution to the stories is so inconsequential, that one wonders why did they bring him back, after all.

All in all, a surprisingly solid entry into a season that I found lacking.

Random thoughts:

  • Mary’s painted-on mermaid dress was gorgeous and very risque – something Michelle Dockery could wear to a red carpet today.
  • Speaking of Mary, she and Edith are still sniping at each other. It’s getting old. Both women are going to be staring down middle age soon, and what was silly in their teens will become sour and ridiculous in the 30s and 40s.
  • Carson and Hughes are still having issues with their marriage – Carson won’t stop nitpicking Hughes’ housekeeping and cooking skills – and she’s seething at this point. I’m waiting for the moment when she kills him.
  • Anna and Bates – the saga continues. Anna’s feeling pain during her pregnancy and is whisked off to London to see Mary’s star gynecologist, but before Bates needlessly insists that he pay for the bill – his pride, which we’re reminded of time and time again, is important to him. More important than his family’s financial security. As Mary said earlier in the season, Anna earned the right to see this great doctor through years of loyalty and service to Downton. Bates wants to be the man of the house or whatever. Anyways, nothing’s wrong, Anna’s fine.
  • Mary’s suspicious of Marigold and is starting to Miss Marple around, hoping to figure out what is going on.
  • Elizabeth McGovern had a lot to do in this episode, which is great. Besides looking gorgeous, she was able to be funny, touching, and sad. It’s a shame that so late in the game, Fellowes remembered just how fantastic she can be.
  • The funniest line – again Violet’s – happens during the tour, when Mary is trying to think of interesting things to say about the library. When she presses a furious Violet about the fourth earl, who built the library, about his interests, the angry Dowager Countess hissed, “Horses and women.”
  • The second funniest line – again Violet’s, on Downton Abbey: “Why would anyone pay to see a perfectly ordinary house?”

 

 

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