Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bad Review


So yesterday my hero Hugh Laurie besmirched my entire profession, how was your day? :(

Obviously now I’m feeling a little defensive.

So allow me to defend:

Let me start by saying, we film critics mostly use our powers for good.
Critics have directed people to all sorts of films—documentaries, indies, back of the rack stuff— that otherwise might go unwatched or unnoticed.
And while I can’t substantiate this with data, I feel quite strongly that negative reviews rarely deter a viewer (I wish!), but a passionately argued, rave review can encourage someone to see a film they might otherwise not see. 

Okay, now let’s get to the meat of his gripe: The fact that film critics generally only see a film once (or at least have usually only seen the film once before they post their review.)
I mean, that’s just logistics, right? It’s kind of the nature of the art/commerce intersection that film has always awkwardly rested on. A certain number of films are released on Friday, we watch them, we write reviews on deadline. It’s a living.

But here’s a non-logistical argument: Reviewing a film after seeing it just once is perfectly acceptable, because that’s how people watch films.
Yes, the film may have untold layers, a depth of meaning or purpose that only gradually reveals itself after multiple viewings, but on some basic level, it just has to work that first time around. With film, the initial impression is meaningful, because it’s the only impression most people will get.
(Same was true of Shakespeare, too, back in his day.)

That being said, some films, even great ones, really only do need to be watched once. They’re not trying to be anything but good, old-fashioned whiz-bang entertainment. They are meant to be digested, enjoyed, and tossed away with that empty bucket of popcorn, not painstakingly poured over and analyzed.

Have I been wrong about a film? Sure. Plenty of times. But I like to think that if a film is ambitious, I acknowledge that in my review, even if I didn't like the end result. I try not be dismissive. A lot of times an impassioned pan can actually encourage someone to watch a film. They might say, “Wow. That sounds horrible . . . in an intriguing way” or even “Max sure hated that film but it sounds right up my alley.” (Critics don’t mind when that happens; we actually encourage that kind of reader/critic engagement.)

And yes, great filmmakers (like Scorsese) deserve the benefit of the doubt. We give them that, but not to the point of being sycophants. Even great filmmakers make the occasional dud of a film. (See Coppola’s Jack, Levinson’s Toys, Spielberg’s The Terminal, and 1/3 of the films that Woody Allen cranks out.)
(My thoughts on Cape Fear, for what it’s worth: Brilliantly acted and directed, but I bristle at any film where sexual violence against women is brandished as a means to punish a male protagonist. . .But I suppose that's grist for a whole other blog post.)

And finally, Pauline Kael?!? Thems fighting words, bub. Sure she had her peccadilloes, but she was a trailblazer. One of the first to treat popular film as art. Her “I got it”  arrogance gave her writing energy, bravado, commitment and, yes, weirdness. Some critics are flat out fun/edifying/inspiring to read, no matter how wrong-headed their opinions might be. Kael was definitely one of them.

Okay, end rant.

p.s. Hugh's Twitter account is awesome. You should all go follow it.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Hugh Laurie's Joyful Noise

Courtesy Kelsey Rae via Release the Clackum

I witnessed a lovefest at the Birchmere club in Alexandria, VA the other night.
It took many forms.

First and foremost, it was a lovefest between Hugh Laurie and the blues. It's safe to say Hugh Laurie would take a bullet for the blues. Yes, he loves it that much.

Second, it was a lovefest between Hugh Laurie and his kick-ass band, The Copper Bottom Band. It's rare that you go to a concert and see such affection among bandmembers. They seem to bask not only in each other's talent but in the joy they share in their communal groove.

Finally, of course, it was a love affair between Hugh Laurie and his audience. That's no surprise, though. The man is just an insanely gifted showman/raconteur/wit. I always describe his public appearances as the detonation of charm bombs.

So can we get something out of the way here, once and for all? Hugh Laurie has every right to be up on that stage. In a world where no one blinks an eye over the latest autotuned pop tart, it works my last nerve that people suggest that just because Hugh is a famous actor he can't also be a talented and committed blues musician. His encyclopedic knowledge of blues alone, not to mention his abilities as a musical curator, should more than qualify him to be on stage. (The guy's taste in New Orleans and Louisiana blues is basically above reproach.) On top of that, he's a world class piano player and a more than serviceable guitar player, too.

(I won't defend Hugh's right as a wealthy British white guy to sing the blues, because he's more than effectively made that case himself: To suggest that only a certain portion of the population can play this great music is to marginalize it, which is the exact opposite of what Hugh is trying to do.)

As for his voice? Well, it's a bit too pure of tone for the blues. He's really more of a natural crooner. But he's musical as all get-out, plus as an actor, he has a natural ability to bring a wide range of emotions to the fore. I'll take someone who embodies and loves the music and sings it in tune over some melisma obsessed screecher any day. But hey, maybe that's just me.

I really can't say enough about the Copper Bottom Band. I saw Hugh in concert last year, in support of Let Them Talk and the band was amazingly tight then. With the addition of smoky-voiced singer Gaby Moreno (a perfect complement to the rip-roaring blues belter Sista Jean) and badass trombone player Elizabeth Lea (my new hero), they're even better now. Really, ever single member is so tight and so damn musical, they're a joy to watch.

My only objection: As mentioned, Hugh adores his band (and they adore him right back). As such, he gives them lots of room to show off. Some of the solo songs by Gaby Moreno ("The Weed Smoker's Dream") and Sista Jean ("I Hate a Man Like You"), not to mention their impossibly infectious duet "Didn't It Rain," are among the best of the night. And each band member gets his or her moment to shine. I only wish that he had given himself a few such moments. The guy has serious chops on the piano; it would be okay for him to strut his stuff from time to time. Just the man's natural modesty at play, I suppose.

That being said, a night with the Copper Bottom Band is a musical gift to audiences wrapped in a bow and topped with a cherry (or a shot of 12-year-old Macallan, if you prefer). If you're not feeling the love, it's indeed time to check your pulse.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Her Totally Awesome Life

The Carrie Diaries, in case you didn’t know, is a “prequel” to Sex and the City. Young Carrie (played by the kewpie-eyed AnnaSophia Robb, sporting an unfortunate perm) is a teenager from Connecticut in the 80s. Her mother has recently died of cancer and she lives with her doting, if sometimes bumbling father (Matt Letscher) and her proto-goth kid sister Dorrit (adorable Stefania Owen.)
And since this is a teen drama, we think we know what to expect: Carrie won’t be popular, she’ll be tormented by a “mean girl” and suffer numerous indignities in the school cafeteria; she’ll pine for a popular boy who doesn’t love her back (or at least can’t risk losing social standing by being seen with her). She’ll feel misunderstood, awkward, and sometimes ignored.
Or, well, not.
Because teenage Carrie Bradshaw has to be the most well-adjusted kid on TV. She has a group of great friends, who are really smart and cool and supportive.  She is dating the best looking boy in school, Sebastian (played by the best-looking boy on TV, Austin Butler.)
She has fallen in love with New York City—as young Carrie Bradshaw would—and even got a job at the über-cool Interview magazine.
Many scenes of The Carrie Diaries are basically Carrie sitting at a booth at her favorite diner making out with Sebastian or bashing about New York City, marveling over her good fortune.
Yes, there is a “mean girl”, Donna (Chloe Bridges)—who briefly wins Sebastian away from Carrie (meanwhile, Carrie has her own hot new prepster boyfriend). But the mean girl isn’t even all that mean (she helps Carrie’s friend Walt deal with his closeted homosexuality) and Sebastian clearly loves Carrie, not her.
I started watching The Carrie Diaries because I’m totally infatuated with that period in New York. And while the show doesn’t get everything right—a lot of the fashion choices in particular seem like they come from the Urban Outfitters “Totally 80z” section—a lot is right: The Limelight! Bret Easton Ellis book release parties! The Smiths! Basquiat!
In a way, the show tracks consistently with Sex and the City, its own glossy, sugar-coated celebration of New York, girl power, and friendship. Yes, there were flare-ups of drama on Sex and the City—just as there are on The Carrie Diaries—but for the most part, that show was sunny and chipper. (That was why it briefly struggled to find its footing after 9/11.) But there was also all that great sex and all that great fashion—not to mention, the snarky, world-wise commentary by Samantha, Miranda, et al. It was fabulous, in a way that a show about teenagers simply can’t be.
I must confess that, charming as it can be, I sometimes find Carrie’s sunniness a little insipid. If the girl’s got the best friends, the hottest guy, and the coolest internship on the planet, what exactly is the source of the drama? (They show her grieving for her mother, but in a spunky, “I’m going to keep mom’s sprit alive!” kinda way.)
There is, however, one thing I absolutely adore about this show. There are hot guys on The Carrie Diaries, of course, but Carrie and her friends are not defined by them.
In fact, in the penultimate episode, Carrie breaks up with Sebastian—methinks not for long—because he doesn’t understand or support her ambition at Interview magazine.
Likewise, brainy Mouse (Ellen Wong) dumps her boyfriend because sex with him is taking away from her grade point average. (Another bonus! The Asian girl here might be a brain—cliché alert—but she also has lots of hot guys to choose from. Hooray!)
Next week is the season finale of the show (and possibly the series finale—ratings are middling at best.)
I’ll be watching—and expecting a totally warm and fuzzy ending. After all, cliffhangers are so. . . upsetting.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

What if GIRLS was Created By a Guy?

Photo courtesy of

Just imagine for a second that, instead of being the show’s executive producer/den father/head cheerleader (or whatever he is), Judd Apatow was actually the creator of Girls

How would you feel then, about the Season 2 finale and the myriad humiliations heaped upon Lena Dunham’s character in general?

How would you feel about the ubiquitous nudity, the awkward and sometimes demeaning sex, the grotesque close-ups of Hannah picking at her wedgie or ramming a bloody Q-tip up her ear? How comfortable would you be with Hannah’s OCD, her narcissism, her disastrous haircuts and seemingly unlimited supply of unflattering outfits (neon mesh half-shirt anyone?). 

You’d think that Apatow either hated Hannah or possibly hated women. And you’d feel protective of the young actress who was put in these compromising situations. 

But of course, Apatow isn’t the creator of Girls—Dunham is. In that sense, Girls is the anti-vanity project; a weekly exercise in a kind of strangely mesmerizing masochism. 

 (Have we ever seen a mainstream artist depict themselves in such an unflattering light? Woody Allen would be the obvious corollary—but his alleged self-loathing is strictly amateur compare to Dunham's. It's Self Loathing Lite)

Ironically, with her willingness to lay herself completely bare, Dunham may actually be protecting herself. Women who direct themselves are invariably accused of raging egomania. (I still bristle when I think about the criticism that was leveled at Barbra Streisand for directing and starring in Yentl and The Mirror Has Two Faces: She's too old! She bathes  herself in a beautiful golden light!) Needless to say, male auteurs are rarely subjected to such scrutiny. But, intentionally or not, Dunham has managed to sidestep this criticism entirely. How could anyone EVER accuse her of self-aggrandizement? Tellingly, the one episode—the brilliant, standalone “One Man’s Trash”— where she dared to give herself satisfying sex and a dishy co-star, the Internet positively slammed her for her vanity.

Okay, so now let’s move on to the problematic Season 2 finale —again, acting  under the premise “what if it was created by a guy?”

 Let’s start with Marnie, as I found her character arc perhaps even more troubling than Hannah’s. 

In Season 1, she’s the most accomplished of the “Girls.” She has a solid job at a gallery and a boyfriend, Charlie, who adores her. Problem is, she finds the boyfriend too clingy and effete—she seems to think she wants a man with a bit more machismo. So she breaks up with Charlie and, in short order, her life falls apart. 

By Season 2, she’s been fired from her job and forced to work as a cocktail waitress at an upscale men’s club. Charlie, meanwhile, starts dating a sexy sprite-like hipster—and seems quite happy with her. Then Marnie finally hooks up with the man she’d been fantasizing about—a cocky artist who depicts himself as some sort of stud in the bedroom. Turns out, the artist is a mediocre lay and, what’s more, not interested in being Marnie’s boyfriend. Now she’s single, heartbroken, and stuck in a demeaning dead end job. Let’s check back in with Charlie, shall we? He’s got a cool new haircut and a dream job—he created a successful app and is working (as the boss!) at the kind of edgy Internet company featured in Samsung ads.
In the season finale, he agrees to take Marnie back—essentially “saving her.”

Again, imagine if Apatow had created this episode. (Not picking on Apatow, by the way. He’s just a convenient male figure in the Girls orbit).  What a cautionary tale for women this would appear to be: Break up with the nice guy and you WILL PAY.  Your  life will be ruined, while he will prosper and only once you have been sufficiently cut down to size—the nadir being her humiliating cry for help (oy, that Kanye song!) at Charlie’s office party— will the nice guy condescend to take you back and save you. And he’s rich now, too, so your money troubles will be behind you!
How weirdly regressive is that?

And what about the fate of Hannah—crippled by her OCD and hypochondria, unable to complete (or even start) her manuscript, and, by all reasonable measures, totally falling apart. 

We’ve seen Adam, her recovering alcoholic hulk of a man-child ex, trying to establish a normal relationship with a new girl. But there’s one problem: The new girl has healthy self-esteem and therefore is not turned on by his sexual debasement. “I didn’t like that all,” she says, when Adam tells her to crawl on all fours.

Hannah, on the other end, had willingly submitted herself to all of his debasing fantasies. 

Now remember, Hannah broke up with Adam because she found his energy too intense, his commitment to her bordering on obsessive. She was afraid of him—even called the cops on him once. He's not a bad guy, but he certainly has a lot of demons. On what planet is it a happy ending for Hannah to end up with him?

Season 2 ended like a classic rom-com, with Adam running shirtless through the street to literally scoop up Hannah in his arms and save her from herself. Like Marnie, turns out Hannah didn’t know how good she had it with Adam. Like Marnie, her life effectively fell apart when she jettisoned her man. Like Marnie, her ex got the satisfaction of essentially seeing her hit rock bottom until he had no choice but to swoop in and save her. 


If a man had directed this season, I would’ve truly cried foul.

Look, I love Lena Dunham. I think she’s a genius—a word I don’t toss around lightly. And I certainly don’t think she has to be my kind of feminist. What she’s doing—running her own show (at 26, no less!)—is certainly more than feminist enough. As an artist, she’s well within her right to expose herself, humiliate herself, lay herself completely and utterly bare. But it does bug me that she, the only young female showrunner in the game, has chosen this path—particularly this new wrinkle where her female characters are saved by unworthy men. 

It’s okay to have some self-esteem for you and fellow Girls, Lena. Last I checked, you guys were ruling the world.