Dethroning the king

houseofcards

Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) seeks shelter as his house of cards comes tumbling down.

Deep down, we all knew that Netflix’s House of Cards was trash. Relentlessly soapy, popcorn-blockbuster trash that can be marathoned in the same way college kids shotgun cheap beer. The show is high fructose entertainment disguised as hifalutin theater–all on the good faith of a rented tux.

Yet, Serious People watch House of Cards. Despite the soap, it remains a must-watch for the audience-elite. Blame it on David Fincher, who executive-produces the show. Blame it on Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, two of the finest actors of their generation, who star in the show. Blame it on its source material–a British book series turned BBC series. There’s a lot of surface prestige, but if you look closer (no pun intended, for all my Kevin Spacey fans out there), its first two seasons follow a man who almost too easily takes the American vice presidency and subsequently, the presidency, from opponents unworthy to rival him in a wannabe Shakespearean territory. Sure, it’s a show that sometimes wants to be about politics, but is actually more about one man’s ambition to the rule the world; at the end of day, however, House of Cards says very little about American government, but a lot about–well, a lot about something.

And therein lies the problem with the first two seasons of House of Cards–it’s a drama with a lot of showmanship, but not self-aware enough to know that it’s saying very little about any of the things it’s supposed to be about. Its opportunities to be more than a soap are vast, but all those opportunities are wasted on saying a lot of cynical things that we already know–politicians can be ruthless and dumb, journalists can be immoral and dumb. Reiteration is not insight.

In the third and most recent season of the show though, the tides have changed. The writers are now completely aware that their show is not so much a commentary on D.C. politics, but a commentary on, well, human nature–which is what they’ve wanted to explore all along, but were too afraid to venture too deep, too far, too fast. Yes, it’s still a D.C. show, but it’s now self-aware enough to acknowledge that it’s also a show starring Richard III and Lady Macbeth in all their theatrical glory. As such, the writers don’t have much to say about how the government run things, but they do have some things to say about the people running the government–and more precisely, people running things.

Season three has been criticized as being too slow, as Francis Underwood’s (Spacey) super-villainy begins to wane. Frank has attained the presidency, but that creates problems–his wife, Claire (Wright) has political ambitions of her own, he can’t get his damn bill past congress, his party doesn’t want to support him in the next presidential election, things aren’t going well with Russia–the list goes on. Broadly speaking, all of that sounds like a usual D.C. affair, but the details show just how uninterested the writers are about writing American political fanfiction.

As president, Frank desperately tries to push through a bill called America Works (AmWorks), which he considers the crux of his presidency–his legacy, if you will. AmWorks aims to create more jobs and hopes to succeed this by taking money of the Medicare budget and dumping it to businesses to create new jobs. There are, of course, a number of problems with this bill, the most obvious being (well, all of them are obvious) that there is no way in hell that this kind of bill would be championed by a Democrat, or even by any sane Republican. Any politician knows that social security benefits are a precious social commodity, even to conservatives. Predictably, Frank is met with opposition from both sides, including the leadership of his own party.

However, it seems besides the point to contemplate Frank’s foolishness. It’s clear that Frank is on a power trip and he wants to make a mark on history all with pure adrenaline, sans substance. And it begs the question: Is this what Frank has been all along–a political hack? And furthermore, is that what the show has been all along–a dramatic hack job, a much ado about nothing a la Entourage, but has managed to moonlight around as a serious show for serious people for two whole seasons? Perhaps, but with this AmWorks bullshit, the writers seem to wink at us, acknowledging exactly at what they’ve done.

And you realize that, just maybe, that Frank’s terrible bill is just the usual made-up nothingness consistent with the show’s capacity to be politically irrelevant. Even Frank meeting with the president of Russia (a Putin wannabe very well-played by Lars Mikkelsen) in the Jordan Valley is far-fetched and sort of, well, ridiculous. While The West Wing tried to play idealist politics and Veep wants to be a modern-day political satire responding to the Sarah Palin “what ifs?”, House of Cards is not concerned about how D.C. should or is running things as D.C. is merely a stage for whatever stories the writers want to tell about whichever people. It becomes quickly apparent that the writers want to showcase the women this season–not just women in politics, but women dealing with modern-day feminism, starting with Frank’s souring presidency/legacy being determined by the women who have the capability to save or destroy him. The female characters that populate House of Cards dwell in the Jezebelian age of patriarchal dissent–a faux feminist ideology that upholds independence and sexual prowess, yet ignores how often those two ideas contradict when intertwined.

This season, Claire proves that she could just be Frank’s Achilles’ heel. She has her eye on the open ambassador position, but she needs Frank’s help to get the position, which could be politically compromising for both of them. Problem is, Claire also views the presidency as theirs, but yet, deep down, it’s not–he’s made it and she’s trailing behind and needs him to set the score even; if so, were they ever truly equals? Or, was she just a politician’s wife who was tricked into the idea that her husband’s life was truly hers as well? We discover that, perhaps Frank loves Claire much more than he’d like to admit, but as the season progresses, Claire discovers that, perhaps, she doesn’t love Frank as much as she has admitted. Like most great tales, maybe House of Cards has really been about the Underwoods’ marriage all along because well, this season certainly is.

Then there’s Jackie Sharp (effortlessly played by Molly Parker), the former war veteran turned Democratic majority whip who owes Frank for turning her into a relevant political powerhouse in season two, but who also brews greater political ambitions of her own. Yet, politics is a hard game for a fortysomething woman who isn’t a wife and mother, so she’s forced into a compromising position, as she fights her lingering feelings for former lobbyist and current chief-of-staff to the president, Remy Danton (Mahershala Ali).

Also, enter Heather Dunbar (Elizabeth Marvel), Frank’s major political foil this season–a morally righteous solicitor general with a wealthy family who is fighting a fight worth fighting for, despite that she needs to sometimes play dirty and certainly has the money for it. In Dunbar, we have someone to root for in a show populated by variations of villainy or unlikability because she’s a worthy political foil–she’s not another Russo who can be done away with the promise of a good time. Frank is unsure whether to place Dunbar as an ally or enemy because she’s smart enough to be a real threat on the other side, but she’s a good enough person to be a bane on his own turf. Dunbar is dangerous to Frank because not only is she one of the few people in the House of Cards universe that has a shot at heaven, but the audience has a reason to like her. Dunbar’s taking away Frank’s spotlight, despite the fact that we, as Frank’s audience, are supposed to root for him as he’s the one who has invited us into his world with those clever asides and we probably even cheered when he first entered the oval office and banged his ring on the desk and it faded to black. Above all else, this is Frank’s story and we’re all starting to like Dunbar more–and that’s why she feels like such a threat. And that’s when it begins to feel like Frank Underwood is no longer writing history like he so easily did before, in turn, unexpectedly humanizing him and making his story a bit more interesting than before.

Frank has a worthy foil now–she’s no longer just an inevitable loser to be destroyed on his way to power. Frank and Claire’s marriage has become more or less a fractured partnership. Frank’s protege doesn’t want to be a pawn anymore. Frank unintentionally bares his soul to the novelist of his propaganda biography (in a wonderfully understated performance by Paul Sparks, destined to be underrated) and we discover more about him than we ever did from his asides.

And, as a subplot that feels like it exists both in the same show and a different show, Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly, in a supporting performance for the record books), tries to claw back into Frank’s good graces as he also searches for his attempted murderer/obsession, Rachel Posner (Rachel Brosnahan). While Doug’s story line is a wicked slow burn, it’s also the most heartbreaking, frightening, and complex one this season–all that thanks to Kelly’s spectacular performance, worthy of an Emmy this year, or any other year. It’s hard not to be overshadowed by Spacey’s and Wright’s towering performances, but the show made the right decision to properly give Kelly his chance to carry his own space. Kelly reaches into every corner of Doug’s screwed up soul from every complicated, uncomfortable angle, just to find out that, deep down, Doug yearns for, well, embarrassingly enough–love and validation.

Not to say it’s not a season populated with other great performances–yes, Spacey and Wright are still fantastic to watch, especially in their last few scenes together. I almost forgot to mention Kim Dickens as as a White House journalist who is miles more likable than Zoe Barnes will ever be; in fact, Dickens’ and Sparks’ chemistry is one of the most charming parts of the season, if not sometimes oddly distracting because there’s a romantic comedy worthy of The West Wing in this bastard of a universe–it’s a mixed bag, for sure, but an enjoyable mixed bag, nonetheless. There’s also Jimmi Simpson as the hacker from season two and Kate Lyn Sheil as Rachel’s Christian ex-girlfriend whose stories unexpectedly intertwine in a very heartfelt, and sort of touching way.

Here’s a show that didn’t dabble in the matters of the heart, but now the show purely benefits from wearing its heart on its sleeve. Creator Beau Willimon’s staunch anti-sentimentality stance seemed to be running on empty and the show finally realized that to grow, we all need a little more than Claire Underwood feeling sorry for a middle-aged cashier lady (i.e., that brief moment of humanity in season one). Point is, Frank is not doing very well, personally or professionally, as president–which makes him less fun, but gives him more depth. Because the world around him is turning sentimental–or was it sentimental all along? And, maybe that’s part of the show’s point this season–it may have very little to say, politically, about foreign affairs, LGBT rights, racism, Medicare benefits, and unemployment as it handles all those issues quite awkwardly and there’s no reason to dwell on things that are clearly not meant to be done well, but it does have a lot to say about, well, humanity. The show has always been just that brash in its ambitiousness and it has taken three seasons for it to declare it with such honesty. And with such honesty, House of Cards is no longer trash–it’s the sustained operatic high note that it has always aspired to be.

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Eclipse of the truth

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) playing the cool girl.

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) playing the cool girl.

It has taken me a few weeks to collect my thoughts about David Fincher’s brilliant adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. So as a disclaimer, this review is going to contain spoilers.

What made The Social Network a very special film back in 2010 is that it said something to people living and breathing in 2010, yet it could easily mean something as important and relevant to people living in any other year. Because ultimately, Fincher made both a timely and timeless film about our collective hopes and dreams; he tapped into our dirty aspirations for an envy-inducing social status and our deepest desires and expectations from our friends. It’s the kind of film that necessitates a strong, lively voice to stay afloat and Fincher, luckily, found exactly that in Aaron Sorkin’s ferociously fast-paced, bitingly witty script. From Sorkin’s script onwards, Fincher is able to supply his composed, introspective, Trent Reznor-scored canvas with splashes of humor and–dare I say it–heart.

And now Fincher has made Gone Girl, based on Flynn’s adaptation of her own blockbuster novel. The film’s twist is probably more fun if you haven’t read the book, but as expected, it’s a very loyal adaptation. Although, to be honest, Flynn’s book is an easy beach read. It’s not as sharply observant or beautifully written as Flynn’s previous effort, Dark Places, but it contains some of the most insightful, daring passages I’ve read on womanhood in ages. Anyone who accuses Flynn of misogyny has so entirely missed the point because the crucial point of Flynn’s book (and Fincher’s film) is a defense of the woman, and a critique of the man.

For the uninitiated, Gone Girl opens as Nick Dunne’s (portrayed by a marvelously cast Ben Affleck) wife, Amy (portrayed by a radiant Rosamund Pike in a perfect performance), has gone missing. What starts out as a possible kidnapping case on the Dunnes’ fifth anniversary quickly unfolds in the media as a possible murder in a marriage turning sour. Everyone begins to suspect that Nick Dunne–apathetic, reserved all-American male, with a local bar started on his wife’s trust fund–may have very well killed a wife who could have done much better.

Yet Gone Girl is less about the mystery and more about the Dunnes’ marriage. It joins the long tradition of stories that are, at its core, about marriage–the relationship between two people and their expectations for each other. Oftentimes, those expectations are unrealistic, and in the Dunnes’ case, frighteningly so. The film’s mystery pretty much ends at the halfway point, a telling punctuation that the film is not really about where Amy has gone, but more about why Amy is gone.

Flynn’s iconic “cool girl” monologue from the novel has been beautifully adapted to the screen by Fincher, a director who is equipped with the intuition that the monologue must stay. That monologue contains some of the sharpest social commentary about women and men I’ve encountered in a while. It’s a confession that women everywhere would inevitably recognize–that women often mold themselves into the male’s version of the “dream girl,” that women restrain themselves from what they really want to do or say in fear of male judgment, and most importantly, the fact that women no longer can be themselves because most men, especially in this day and age, have been rendered into a perpetual state of man-child syndrome, unable to take disapproval and only open to the auto-pilot rituals of sycophantic flattery. Women are told to “get over things” by their male overseers and their female peers–don’t make a fuss, it’s not a big deal, just be chill about all the shit, let the poor boy win. Women are no longer living in the era of a Rhett Butler who likes Scarlett O’Hara the way she really is; women are now trying to get the attention of an ADD-prone Judd Apatow hero who masturbates to the filtered photo of that girl who advertises her tight ass on Instagram because she thinks that is the easiest thing about her to like. Flynn gets all of that–she knows that the girl with the tight ass has so much more to offer to the world as a fully realized human being–who can hurt and be hurt, who can think and incite thought–than as the object of the clinical male gaze.

And that’s why Amy is gone. Because Amy has realized Nick likes the facade more than the truth.

In this day and age, it’s getting easier to be the person you want people to think you are–both from a distance, and up close. You can update your Facebook status, post a photo on Instagram, and people will come to an instant conclusion on the type of person you are. And, even in real life, we’re all being programmed to reach a conclusion–what type of person are you? versus the more chilling, what type of person do you want people to think you are? But what happens when everyone–including your spouse–thinks you are, and should be, the identity you’ve projected, or promised, rather than person you truly are? And is it your fault or theirs?

Gone Girl battles all those things, making it a painful zeitgeist of our times. Like Fincher’s The Social Network, Gone Girl forces us to examine and confront our relationships and our identities.

None of this would work without Pike’s chilling, star-turning performance as Amy Dunne. Pike has been a steady working actress for years, but under Fincher’s direction, she finally has an opportunity to blossom. Fincher understands Pike’s knack to slip into any role, from the sweet older sister from Pride & Prejudice to the sophisticated, posh socialite in An Education. Vulnerable and calculating, Pike’s performance as Amy allows all of Pike’s previous personas to seamlessly come together in a complex–and sometimes terrifying–portrait of a woman scorned, yet still unusually desperate and sympathetic.

Then there’s her marital foil, Nick Dunne, played by Affleck in one of his most natural performance to date. Affleck has never been good as the romantic comedy lead and I’m glad that the Affleck era of rom-coms seems to be over. He had always seemed somewhat uncomfortable, stiff, and uncharming in those roles (see: Gigli, Forces of Nature, the list goes on). When I saw Affleck in State of Play as the slimy politician, it just seemed like that was the kind of role he was meant to play. So perhaps Affleck became a director so he can properly cast himself instead of being inappropriately typecast. But here, Fincher cleverly shapes him into the Average Joe husband well–constantly longing for validation, gradually feeling tired of all the games that he isn’t able to quite keep up with. Affleck’s performance is certainly overshadowed by Pike’s more expertly crafted one, but there’s no denying: Affleck as Nick Dunne is genius casting; it’s a casting that turns Affleck’s weakness–lack of actorly bravura–into a strength.

Pike and Affleck lead a strong supporting cast, including Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s former lover, Tyler Perry as Nick’s lawyer, Carrie Coon as Nick’s no-nonsense sister, Kim Dickens as the clear-headed detective on the case, Patrick Fugit as the comical cop on the case, Missi Pyle as the Nancy Grace-esque TV journalist, and Sela Ward as the TV journalist set to interview Nick in an exclusive.

Gone Girl is film that says something about our times, our expectations, our dreams. For a film with such a dark subject matter, it’s actually a pretty funny film. Fincher and Flynn dare us to laugh as they tease and haunt us with the possibility that all that we’ve ever wanted can go horribly wrong because it went wrong for their picture-perfect couple. If anything, we’ve all been prisoners of some twisted, misguided sense of entitlement at some point in our lives, but for the Dunnes, it may be too late for them to redeem themselves.

The agency of Kay Adams

 

Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in the unforgettable wedding opening scene in The Godfather.

Kay Adams (Diane Keaton) in the unforgettable wedding opening scene in The Godfather.

It’s been over a decade since I saw the first Godfather film. This only seems like a big deal because of my age. I look forward to the day when “a decade” isn’t really that long ago. But I remember precisely how it happened. I was looking through the online TV Guide listings and told my mom that The Godfather was going to be on TV that afternoon. My mom had never seen it before and of course, she was curious, it being a famous film and all. I told her I’ve seen clips of it that past Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ apartment–my cousin had brought the box set for casual viewing and flipped to his favorite scenes–and it didn’t interest me to sit in front of the TV for four hours (including commercials) watching an old and potentially boring film. My mom said it didn’t matter if I wanted to watch it or not; she could watch it by herself, anyway. I backed down and eventually watched it with her.

We watched it on that small TV in my bedroom–the only TV we had for a while after our bigger one broke. I was intrigued by the opening scene. And, once the film cuts to the wedding, Al Pacino’s electrifyingly sober performance as Michael Corleone completely held my attention and never let it go. While Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone may leave a legendary impression on anyone who watches The Godfather, Pacino’s Michael has always been the heart and soul of the trilogy.

However, perhaps the most overlooked performance of the trilogy has been Diane Keaton’s performance as Kay Adams. Despite all the famous names people can name from the trilogy (Brando, Pacino, De Niro, Duvall, etc.), Keaton, a star in her own right, often seems to be forgotten from that roster. If Pacino’s performance is the heart and soul, then Keaton’s performance accompanies it, acting as all the veins and arteries that allow Pacino’s heart to beat and break, again and again. I understand I may have pushed it with my high figurative aspirations, but that is, in short, how I feel about Keaton’s Kay, the most fleshed-out, complex female character in a very male-dominated narrative.

And, of course, the stories are male-dominated. The Godfather is about a mafia family–Italian crime families with strong patriarchs and wives who quietly stay at home, cook, and take care of the children. While Michael’s younger sister, Connie Corleone (deliciously played by Talia Shire) may be an uncontrollable torch to be reckoned with, it’s still Kay who, while trapped, breaks traditions in the confines of a very traditional world.

Ever since my love affair with The Godfather began, I was always surprised by the lack of welcomed reception toward the character of Kay. If anyone has ever visited message boards dedicated to the trilogy, there is always some sort of debate on whether or not Michael ever loved Kay, whether or not she was just a wife of convenience, whether or not he wished he could have had his innocent Sicilian first wife, Apollonia instead when he became don. Most people seem to find Kay annoying–the perfect, disgusting example of the nagging cinematic wife, a caricature we all know and hate too well. She’s hated among the usual boys’ club worshipers. She’s certainly not supposed to be eye candy–not to say that Keaton isn’t beautiful in all her quirky glory, but Kay is simply not perceived as such. She’s rarely written about extensively, except for this interesting article on the evolution of Kay’s clothes.

And, that puzzles me. Because, as far as I’m concerned, Kay is the love of Michael’s life. I don’t mean to romanticize things–but the films themselves are romanticized versions of an awful reality, anyway–but that’s how I’ve always seen things. Kay represents what Michael always have wanted, always have tried to hold on to, but can never seem to even get close. That’s just precisely what makes his character a twentieth century Shakespearean tragedy–he’s almost there, but not quite, and never will be.

We first meet Kay at Connie’s wedding within the first few minutes of the first film. She is introduced as Michael is introduced, making her, in the first few minutes, a good reference point as to understanding her wedding date, who will emerge as the most important character in the film. She is undeniably WASPy looking, a rarity in a sea of first- and second- generation Italian-Americans. Michael is shockingly honest with her–he tells her that his father does what he does and he doesn’t intend to be anything like him.

When Michael returns from Sicily and asks Kay to marry him, it is definitely not for the sake of convenience. Michael could have found another nice Italian girl if he wanted to but no, he wants to marry Kay. If he marries Kay, she would remind him of the man he once was and still wants to be. Sure, he may have love Kay for what she represents, but that’s not a good enough reason for him to pull her into his world. He loves Kay and sincerely thinks she’s the woman who can best persuade him back into legitimacy.

Lest we forget, the door closes on her at the end of the first film. Whatever Michael promises her, it has to be put on hold. And of course, we, as the audience, must live in doubt with her. We see Keaton’s unsettled visage as the film ends. We, like her, were merely intruders.

But persuade, she does, indeed. Near of the beginning of the start of Part II, Michael promises a pregnant Kay that he’s trying to legitimize the business. Of course, the violent forces that may be have halted all plans for legitimacy. The Corleones have expanded from New York to Tahoe, right at the rise of the lucrative casino industry. However, as bullets fly through the windows of Michael and Kay’s bedroom, legitimizing the business seem to be even farther from reach.

Halfway through the film, Kay confesses to Michael she had an abortion. Because it was a son. Because she couldn’t bear to allow everything, as it is, to continue on. Michael is enraged. And here lies Kay Adams’ and the film’s tremendous complexity–because we’re shocked by her actions, yet impressed by her courage, but saddened at what happened, or what could have been, or what will be. It’s a horrifying, triumphant, heartbreaking scene.

Kay’s actions don’t merely break the rules of Michael’s world, but it breaks the rules of 1950s society in general. It’s not really about whether or not she’s a feminist, but it’s really about how she still possesses agency that she had before she married him, and always will have. Perhaps she’s exactly the wife Michael wanted her to be when he married her, but instead, turned into the wife he only wishes he wanted her to be.

This is what makes Part II the richer film. Apart from the beautifully composed parallel story lines between the young Vito (a performance so expertly concocted by a young Robert De Niro) and Michael, Michael’s relationships with the people in his life have become increasingly complex and messy. Everything Michael does seem so chillingly rational, yet so morally disgusting. The other characters are the same, but they are surprisingly more sympathetic when compared to the monster Michael has so tragically become.

Despite the crap reception Part III has unfairly endured over the years, it still offers closure to Michael’s story. And it’s the film where Michael’s and Kay’s stories are so intertwined, yet so disparate. The films are a tragedy of contradictions and there is no greater contradiction than Michael’s and Kay’s relationship and all that it insufferably emulates. After all these years, Kay, still the mother to his children, tells him that she can’t stand him, yet she still absolutely cares for him, and he for her. There are scenes where Michael and Kay are in Sicily together and Pacino and Keaton’s chemistry is so engaging. The tug of war that they’ve started over 20 years ago still seem to go on and on, with no end, but it’s apparent that they still love each other–but so what? You can’t change the past, and all the pain and regret that go along with it. Director Francis Ford Coppola even notes in the DVD commentary that Michael and Kay’s relationship parallels the real-life relationship between Pacino and Keaton (the two dated on and off for more than a decade), which makes their scenes together all the more bittersweet.

Kay Adams is a significant force in the trilogy, in a way Apollonia is not, no matter what angle you look at it. Part of that is the writing of her character. Without Kay Adams, perhaps we would have never known Karen Hill or Carmela Soprano or even Jennifer Melfi. Sure, they would have existed, but they would not have been so fully realized. The existence of Kay Adams motioned forth these female characters in the midst of testosterone to be written as more human than wife. And that’s the way it should be.

And, another essential part of it is Keaton’s measured, intelligent performance. Keaton is all too well-known as the quirky, neurotic Woody Allen muse in Annie Hall and Manhattan, or in more recent years, the aging, but still quirky, neurotic Nancy Meyer romantic lead in Something’s Gotta Give. Keaton is undoubtedly just a fantastic comedic actress with impeccable timing, but her penchant for dramatic gravitas has been forgotten in recent years, mainly because she hasn’t starred in a major dramatic vehicle for years. And her performance as Kay proves that that’s a damn shame. What makes Keaton’s performance so special is that it’s oftentimes an understated, introspective performance, intricately compatible to Pacino’s calculated, somber performance. Not to say that Keaton’s performance only exists to exalt Pacino’s. Instead, their mutual presence helps crafts the other’s performance in a way that’s nearly symbiotic and irreplaceable.

What a complex character Kay is, and how great it is that Keaton consistently gives such a mature performance that the character deserves.

What’s the deal with John Hughes?

Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, and Mia Sara in the delightfully endearing museum scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, and Mia Sara in the delightfully endearing museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

I turned 13 in 2005. So obviously, I know very little about being a teenager in the 1980s. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I know a thing or two about being a teenager.

I absolutely hated high school. Because of the trauma I’ve experienced in my suburban high school experience (you know, with running water and AP classes and all), I’ve sort of gotten into the habit of categorizing the world around me into traditional high school stereotypes. I also believe college, in its profoundly libido-fueled shit-hole ways, has only intensified that need to stereotype things and verbally piss on things I hate. Except college has allowed me to be more vocal about things and have people actually nod their heads in unison with me. I can be a really immature brat sometimes, but I also strive to be a very honest, immature brat at my best. That is why college is great and high school will forever suck.

So if you are 17 years old and love movies and think no one understands your love for Billy Wilder, hang in there, because college is going to be great, even though there are still going to be people who don’t know who Billy Wilder is. Maybe you’re still going to be rejected by the pothead on your dorm floor and develop a really awkward (and mostly antagonistic relationship) with stoner culture in general–it’s going to be okay, it’s all going to work out. If it’s any consolation, you’re finally going to meet real people who know a thing or two about irony and how great it is. And you’re going to think they are brilliant, even though all they did was laugh at your poor attempts at wit.

This bring me back to being a teenager in the 1980s. I know nothing about being a teenager in the 1980s, which is why I initially thought I had such a deep disconnect with John Hughes films. I recently re-watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with my apartment (because someone demanded a movie night–long story, boring story). I’ve never loved Ferris Bueller. It’s on television pretty much three or four or five times a year and I would sometimes stop and watch it–especially for that superbly entertaining “Twist and Shout” scene in downtown Chicago–but I never loved the film, in the same way I love some of my favorite channel-surf films. I never loved it because it never made me laugh out loud. It’s never particularly resonated with me. I don’t care for those so-called “classic” moments in the film–I never really understood the appeal of “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller” or “Save Ferris” because, really, whatever. Sure, I love Matthew Broderick’s performance as Ferris–such a natural, breezy performance–but I never actually celebrated the film itself.

I may be wrong about the whole time period difference, though. I certainly know people my age who are in the cult of Hughes. And, I suppose, I “get” it. I suppose it has nothing to do with being a teenager in the 1980s, but more with being a teenager in general. I suppose that Hughes’ films capture the spirit of being a teenager–or how some people perceive as the spirit of being a teenager–and that is why his films have been such culturally timeless pieces of Americana. And sure, I guess I buy that theory. I guess I buy it in the way that adult television reviewers seem to think The Secret Life of the American Teenager badly interprets teenagers while I think it perfectly encapsulates the nonsensically insufferable mindf-ck of modern teenage culture. I suppose we are all measuring the authenticity of the teenage spirit with different barometers.

Except I’ve never even liked The Breakfast Club. I’ve actually seen it twice. Everyone I know loves it and I never understood the popularity. The second time I watched it was in my high school junior year English class where we watched it as a companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye, which made me upset because The Breakfast Club and The Catcher in the Rye are two completely separate entities that should never associate with each other. The disparity sort of lies in the fact that people who actually relate to Holden Caulfield are not the ones who care about any of the “issues” addressed in The Breakfast Club. But everyone in my class ate up The Breakfast Club. (I would argue that Rushmore and Igby Goes Down would have been better cinematic companions pieces for Salinger’s angsty classic.) Nothing in the film really rang true to me, nothing actually resonated with me, nothing spoke to me. We can all talk about how different we are or how similar we are–but so what? So nothing–it’s all fantasy, it’s all fluff. The Breakfast Club always felt like a very dishonest film because it desperately wants to be honest. I think what really left a bad taste in my mouth is that I don’t like the ending, especially since I never really understood why certain characters ended up together. It just made no sense to me.

I suppose I don’t care much for Pretty in Pink either, but I still find it slightly more entertaining than The Breakfast Club. I’m one of the few people who is okay with who Andie ended up with, but that is also just motivated by my general distaste for man-children, no matter how darn endearing they may be. I guess it’s also because Andrew McCarthy is so darn dreamy in that film, too. Ergo, it’s entertaining, at least in that sense. But it’s still not a film that proves that Hughes deserves to the all-time narrator for the American teenage experience.

Then there was a moment in Ferris Bueller that made me understand. There was a moment when Ferris breaks the fourth wall about how he and his best friend Cameron are going to graduate high school, go to different colleges–essentially live different lives. And how his girlfriend, Sloane, is still going to be in high school when he goes off to college and how he really meant it when he said he would marry her. And at that odd moment, I finally understood Hughes’ appeal: he captures a moment for those who love to hate and hate to love high school. He successfully captures the spirit of the yearbook note, the slow dance at prom, the moment when you make eye contact with your crush in the hallway. They are all fleeting moments in the grand scheme of things, but they were great when they happened. All those things I’ve always thought I was too cool for back in high school (because I was a nerd with misguided aspirations to be sophisticated), Hughes gets it and he makes it into a movie and he sometimes think it’s all bullshit, yet sometimes he thinks it’s something special. And people wax nostalgic about things like that.

And I think I get it in the sense that I am a college senior and I’ve actually sort of liked college, in the sense that some people actually sort of liked high school. And watching Ferris Bueller made me realize something about Hughes’ popularity: his films aren’t solely about being a teenager in the 1980s (though, I suppose, you can see them that way), but it is about a moment. It could be a really long moment, or a really short moment, but it’s a moment, nonetheless. It’s something that has passed or will pass. And it’s something that you will certainly miss, despite the anguish, the frustrations. Because you know that in retrospect, it will be a really, really beautiful moment that deserves to be looked back with fondness. And Hughes gets that. And so does the rest of sentimental America.

As a footnote, I’ve always really loved St. Elmo’s Fire. I realize it’s not a John Hughes film and it’s more of a brat pack film and it’s not a film about high school at all, but I think my love for it is worth mentioning. Not just because Andrew McCarthy is dreamy in it, but I do think it’s this absurdly entertaining and endearing testament to friendship. I watched it when I was 18 and had like, three friends who I more or less felt ambivalent toward, and it actually made me want to stop watching so many movies and go hang out with them.

Dissecting performances

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) go head to head in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) go head to head in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Last night, in a fury of summer boredom, I started watching Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It puzzled me that Oliver Stone would think the film was a good idea at all. I couldn’t imagine someone at 30 years old liking the original Wall Street back in 1987 enjoying its sequel at 53. I didn’t understand why Stone would think a 53 year old would ever want to watch a movie about a couple of kids and their Gen Y problems. It’s a completely absurd notion.

This is in no way meant to be a review of the sequel. I could probably go on lengths about how ridiculous the film is, but I don’t think mediocrity deserves that kind of attention.

While watching the film, I was fascinated by the disparity between Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf.

LaBeouf is admittedly, a very likable actor, and is, and always will be, more likable than Charlie Sheen, who played the original protege in Wall Street. While LaBeouf sort of emulates harmless, boyish charm, Sheen was wholly convincing as a wannabe, potentially sleazy Wall Street big shot. The difference here is, Sheen proved to be a worthy nemesis for Douglas’ iconic Gordon Gekko, while LaBeouf comes off more like a puppy with guard dog fantasies.

Neither LaBeouf and Sheen can actually compete with Douglas in the acting department, though. While Sheen was surely convincing, he lacked the magnetism, the electricity that Douglas had in him in the original film. And even though Douglas is not nearly as good in the sequel compared to his Oscar-winning performance in the original–though, to be fair, the script gave him very little to truly sink his teeth into–every time he is on or off screen, the audience is bound to remember his presence. LaBeouf, for all his natural ease as an actor, doesn’t have the same draw.

The last time I felt this kind of disparity between leading actors was when I watched Body of Lies. Russell Crowe remains a far more captivating, interesting actor than Leonardo DiCaprio, though DiCaprio has always been, like LaBeouf, a reliable actor. Crowe, like Douglas, commands the screen, commands our attention. Or, Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, but I don’t really think that warrants an extensive explanation.

Which made me wonder: Why do some actors have “it” and others–no matter how competent they are–don’t?

A flurry questions came out of that. Should we judge performances the same way we judge films? What are the standards? What defines “good” and “bad” acting? How subjective can this be? Despite all the hate, why is Keanu Reeves still employed?

I am an amateur film blogger with hermit tendencies, so obviously I have never acted professionally. I’ve taken Drama I in high school and there were moments in that class that were really terrifying for me. I had to dance to “How to Be Lovely”  from Funny Face and even with a group of girls, it was fairly terrifying. I will be the first to admit that I am the last person that could ever wield “it.”

I realize I’ve introduced a fairly ambiguous term into this entry–“it.” I suppose I want to say that it’s a quality where the audiences are simply drawn and enthralled by the actor.

I think the first time I was excited about an actor’s performance was when I watched The Godfather for the first time when I was 11. Al Pacino’s first scene as Michael Corleone–when he explains to his wedding date, Kay (Diane Keaton), about what his father does for a living–captivated me in a way no other actor has been able to.  And of course, that legendary restaurant scene that cemented his casting in the role of Michael, are some of the best pieces of acting I’ve ever seen.

However, Marlon Brando’s performance as Vito Corleone is widely considered the finest performance in the film, and perhaps, one of the greatest, ever. Personally, I think Brando’s been better, much better–in On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire. So of course, evaluating performances is an entirely subjective art.

Comparatively, I feel the same way about William Holden’s performance In Network. I think Peter Finch’s madness is fun–and he’s often credited as the best performance in the film and also, one of the best of all-time–but Holden’s performance contains so much depth and he just manages to deliver Paddy Chayefesky’s lines with such conviction. In his final monologue to Faye Dunaway, which yes, wouldn’t have been possible with Chayefesky’s ahead-of-his-time insights about the media’s role in society–he just demonstrates how subtle an actor he really is. He doesn’t have to raise hell for people to notice how good he is.

I think the subjectivity of judging performances puzzles me, though. Unlike films, where things can be understandably subjective, depending on how much the audience connects with the story line, shouldn’t an actor’s merit be judged by how well, how naturally he or she portrays a character–and that could be the deciding factor on how great the performance is? What makes a performance “better” than another performance, when both are as objectively good as they come?

I don’t want to credit my sympathies toward the character an actor plays as the source of me thinking that it’s a good performance because I know that is not true. Just because we connect to a character does not necessarily mean that I would automatically love the performance. And I’ve liked performances of very despicable characters and I certainly would not like to think I connect with any of them.

I wrote this entry as a means of contemplation about how I view and judge acting. I have never been a fangirl for particular actors in the same way I have championed directors. While I tend to look at directors and their bodies of work as a whole, I tend to think of actors in their individual roles. Sure, there are certain actors I like a lot more than others, there are some who are consistently good and others who are not, and I am inclined to be more excited about certain casts than others, but I am aware that for every Godfather Al Pacino has been in, there is a Two For a Money. At the end of the day, is it the role or is it the actor?

Writing about this has made me realize how fickle judgments about an actor’s body of work can be, how difficult it is to explain why one actor’s performance is better than another. Sure, actors are important to the movies, but they often just populate a film and become chameleons to the audience’s perceptions. Those are also the exact same qualities of what makes them all too essential to the filmmaking and film-viewing experience.

The coming of age of a television drama

Thomas and O'Brien being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) being as thick as thieves in Downton Abbey.

Since marathoning the first six episodes of season three of Downton Abbey, I was rather disappointed at the show’s increasingly slow, melodramatic nature. While season one was absolutely terrific–a Gossip Girl for the matronly and the pretentious–season two sort of prodded along, alternating between somewhat inspired, to somewhat dull, to moderately entertaining, with World War I as the backdrop of the excruciatingly ill-fated Matthew, Mary, and Lavinia love triangle.

After a hiatus from the show, I knew I had to finish season three someday, so I took the official beginning of my summer vacation to marathon the last few episodes. I dreaded the Bates and Anna scenes, but thank God–Bates finally got released from prison and we would never to deal with their boring angst ever again. And, well, the last few episodes were helluva more rewarding than I ever expected them to be. Sure, it wasn’t as fun as the first season, but the show demonstrated its undeniable age. And good shows, such as Downton, can age like fine wine.

The women in Don Draper's (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

The women in Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) life: Betty (January Jones), Sally (Kiernan Shipka), and Megan (Jessica Pare).

I first had this thought about the coming of age of a television drama when I was marathoning the recent sixth season of Mad Men earlier this summer. I was initially skeptical about season six, mainly because there has been sort of a weird critical and audience negativity surrounding it (namely from The Washington Post). I, for one, thought it was brilliant. The show capitalized on its period backdrop; it expertly used that tumultuous time in American history (the late ’60s) to be a catalyst for the show’s escalating drama. It is by far my favorite season of the show because it is the season that avidly proves the show’s novelistic worth.

There are so many things that were done in season six that simply could not have been done if the show was a relatively young show. And if those things were done when the show was relatively young, it would not have been as nowhere as dramatically effective and emotionally satisfying. No one would savor it because no one would appreciate it.

I’m thinking about that great scene when Don eavesdrops on Peggy’s Heinz pitch. Or that scene when Don and Betty reconnect. Or when Don breaks down during the Hershey’s meeting. Or that last scene of the finale–that heartbreaking, moving look between Don and Sally, set to Judy Collins’ “Both Sides Now.” None of these things would work if we didn’t know these characters, didn’t know what they have been through together, didn’t know their history together.

One of the great things about committing to a great television series–as a fan or as a writer–is that you really get to see the characters grow. And I suppose, as a writer, you get to a point where you have so much freedom to do so much with your characters because character dynamics are already so well-established and the viewers are already so familiar with this world you have created that you have the ability to capitalize on that. You can explore more and more possibilities as the show ages and the characters grow. That’s the advantage that a long, long story has over a 120-minute film: it has the capability to boast that it’s art that imitates life. Though, truth be told, it’s not necessarily better.

I understand that not all television series have the opportunity to flourish as much as  Mad Men and Downton have been so lucky to do so, but as a viewer, I feel like it’s such a rewarding experience when the writers know that their show has come of age.

So back to Downton.

While there were several shocking moments–Edith being left at the altar and Sybil’s death–I was never quite intrigued, if that is the best way to put it. Those were horrifying scenes, but in context, they weren’t fulfilling. However, for most of season three, I found myself strangely drawn to the Thomas and O’Brien relationship more than I ever did in previous seasons. Or, the development Thomas’ character, in particular. Upon the arrival for O’Brien’s nephew, Alfred, and Thomas’ unwillingness to help him out, the former smoking buddies have become antagonistic toward each other–and it’s one of the more interesting story lines in the eerily bland first half of season three. And, as Thomas’ attraction to the pretty boy footman James attraction escalates–you know O’Brien is going to exploit the hell out of it.

However, in the last few episodes, the drama escalates to a point where Thomas, creepily sneaks into James’ bedroom, while James is sleeping, to give him a kiss, based on O’Brien’s false tip about James’ supposed feelings for him. Alfred sees the entire scene and James begins screaming at Thomas. The dominoes fall as they do, and Thomas ends up in a position where he may have to leave Downton, after 10 years of service, without a reference, and perhaps with a prison sentence.

Thomas has always been difficult to sympathize with, but I certainly always have. I love to hate him, but I also hate to love him, and sometimes the latter certainly triumphs. Because I know that deep down, there are redemptive qualities about him. Not to say what he did wasn’t sort of creepy–for a lack of a better word–but for once, he seemed truly apologetic because he truly meant no harm. And I think that’s the sentiment that most of the other characters share, as everyone–all those former enemies turned allies–rallies behind Thomas to protect him. Because behind all the ambition and deceit, there is a character who just wants to be successful and happy, who just wants to be better than who he is, and find a place that is better than where he is. If he needs to worm his way into those places, you can’t really blame him for any of that. Like Thomas told Carson, it isn’t against the law to hope. And damn right it isn’t.

When James thanks the beaten-up Thomas for defending him when he was drunk at the town fair and even goes as far to call him brave (made more meaningful by the audience knowing how Thomas wanted out from WWI), James inquires why Thomas was even following him. Thomas responds honestly–“you know.” James mans up and tells Thomas that he can never reciprocate, but he’s willing to be friends. And perhaps, there is some hope for Thomas after all.

The writers couldn’t have possibly pulled the Thomas story line off without the show being well into its third season. Or without the supremely well-constructed performance of Rob James-Collier. Thomas’ villainy, on paper, defined who he was, but the show is starting to say it doesn’t have to be that way.

While there are a plethora of other things in the most recent season that can elicit feelings from long-time viewers of Downton (like the final scene of the Christmas special), the transformation of Thomas Barrow has been, personally, the most enthralling and rewarding story line in the dawn of the drama’s coming of age.

Do we care about the young folks?

Gossip Girl finally comes to an end. Doves are released. An impromptu performance of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” commences. True stories.

This is a spoiler-filled rant about, what most people think, is my favorite show ever. So you’ve been warned.

Gossip Girl has dominated a significant portion of my life and it’s kind of weird that it’s all over. I’ve gone from feeling really relieved because I never have to watch new episodes of this awful show again, to feeling kind of, should I say, bittersweet?

There. I said it.

Honestly, this is simply due to the fact that I’ve watched Gossip Girl longer than I’ve known most of my friends. It is also because I’ve wanted Dan and Blair to get together longer than I’ve ever had a crush on anyone. This is why time is the greatest gift you can give, period. As long as enough time has been invested, some things just seem more important than they actually should be.

I often joke about how I’m a Gossip Girl expert. And I don’t think I should joke anymore: I am a Gossip Girl expert. I’ve stuck with the show through its good and bad times. I fell in love with it in its brilliantly, shamelessly soapy season one. I’ve rooted for the characters whenever there was some shimmer of redemption. Hell, I rooted for the show whenever it looked like it was going to become slightly better than the atrocity it has become. I’ve been genuinely upset and genuinely happy because of the show.

Before everyone gripes about how I should get a life and why anyone would ever let me attend college, I will just admit that, yeah, I genuinely have no life and in the past couple of years, making fun of Gossip Girl with my friends who do watch it and performing commentaries of episodes to people who have never watched the show before but wanted to hear me talk about it anyway have given me tremendous joy. I don’t actually regret any of that, even though I had to endure inconsistent story lines and horribly developed characters. I mean, it’s no secret that the writers pretty much bullshitted through the past four seasons.

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