January 16, 2015

The Fault in Our Starlets

As soon as I saw Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything, I knew she'd be nominated for an Oscar. Not because the role was particularly challenging but because the Academy loves a beautiful woman who serves as a luminous, compassionate companion to a tortured man. Felicity Jones plays the first wife of Stephen Hawking:

Just the kind of role that won Jennifer Connelly a much-undeserved Oscar for A Beautiful Mind:

I say undeserved not because Connelly (or Jones) isn't talented; both are. It's the type of role that bothers me. Both women play the long-suffering, ornamental support for the Great Man's Journey. Their beauty stands for a type of grace and wonder that the filmmakers desire to depict as part of even the most tortured male life. And which is celebrated as the most noble endeavor of a woman's life—and acting career.

Eddie Redmayne's role as Stephen Hawking was the greatest acting performance of the year. But just behind it was Shailene Woodley's as Hazel, the teenage protagonist of The Fault in Our Stars. Hazel has cancer and lugs around an oxygen tank most of the time. Woodley makes her one of the most believable characters in film this year, conveying both naturalistic, everyday gestures and moments of great emotion.

Most important, The Fault in Our Stars is Hazel's story. There are other nominations in the Best Actress category like that: Reese Witherspoon's nomination for Wild and Julianne Moore for Still Alice. But the persistence of the Felicity Jones type of nomination rankles. The incessant focus on the male journey in film awards—the honor paid to the Stephen Hawkings, the Alan Turings, the Chris Kyles, the Travis Bickles, even—is right there with the white focus. There's ageism at play as well: In our culture there's nothing quite so insignificant as a teenage girl's life. And "genreism": Chris Pine's turn as Captain Kirk was, to my mind, just as great an a achievement as Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing (different years, of course)—maybe even a greater achievement since he had to play a role established by another actor, evoking it clearly without slipping into mimicry or parody, in a performance that had to teeter on the edge of camp without ever falling into it. But the chance that the star of an action/adventure sci fi/comedy blockbuster would be nominated is next to nil.

So here's to you, Shailene Woodley. In the Platonic form of Oscar somewhere in the ether, you have my vote.

January 14, 2015

Prophet in a Perm

This may not look like a spiritual leader:

But Amy Grant has provided me with more spiritual wisdom and inspiration than any other artist. Here's a more recent picture, sans perm:

A line from her latest album is speaking to me this week about our hopes for life after life and seeing our loved ones again:

"Death's goodbye is love's hello."

January 4, 2015

"That's a Non-Starter, Murgatroyd."

The above quote is one of my all-time favorite TV lines from one of my all-time favorite TV characters: Miss Hinchcliffe, from "A Murder Is Announced." I have a weakness for all British mysteries, but I think Joan Hickson's Miss Marple is the greatest of all the British series, and "A Murder Is Announced" is the greatest of all episodes. This is my love note to "A Murder Is Announced."

First of all, do you really think you're going to get away with anything with this lady on your tail?

Joan Hickson is not very much like the Miss Marple of the books, but who cares. She is stunningly good, conveying moral rectitude and intelligence with just a touch of snoopiness. And those eyes are everything. Knocking around in her brown tweed suit and sensible shoes, she proves that star power has nothing to do with youth and beauty and everything to do with charisma.

Second, this cast nails the pitch perfect balance of filmic naturalism with stagey theatricality. The younger cast members are annoyingly smarmy, but the elders kill it. Like Ursula Howells, brittle and powerful at the same time with her constant pearls—

—which believe you me, do not go unclutched.

But my favorite, favorite, favorite are Miss Murgatroyd and Miss Hinchcliffe, the two middle-aged "companions" who share a cottage.

Miss Murgatroyd is scattered-brained and soft, Hinchcliffe tough and sharp. But when everyone else dismisses Murgatroyd, and she herself says she can't remember or figure something out, Hinchcliffe is the first to say, "Yes, you can." Together they try to figure out who the murderer is, and Hinchcliffe rejects an early theory with the above immortal line. Hinchcliffe is singular and passionate and I love her.

January 3, 2015


Outdoor adventure movies are the best. Touching the Void, Into the Wild, 127 Hours . . . these are some of my favorite films ever. But Wild, based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, may be the only one about a woman's journey. Not a woman in a group or a woman in distress, as part of a thriller or action story. But a woman finding herself in the time-honored tradition of hikers everywhere. At one point in her months-long hike, Reese Witherspoon as the protagonist comes upon another woman hiking the same trail, the first she's seen, and she can't help exclaiming, "You're a woman!" We know how she feels.

I read Strayed's memoir a year or two ago, and the movie is a wonderful adaptation. Strayed made the journey a few years after her mother died, an event that left her drowning in grief and barreling toward self-destruction. What I appreciated about the book was that Strayed didn't offer any particular lesson from being in the wild. Her conclusion was kind of an anti-conclusion. There's no lesson, no shortcut. Just putting one foot in front of the other will eventually get you where you want to be. Watching the movie it was also clear how she just removed herself from the world she was getting worse and worse at functioning in, and she replaced the painful experiences she was putting herself through with a different kind of painful experience—a healthier, more physical pain that actually took her somewhere.

There were two things I missed in the movie, though. One, strangely enough, is that in the book, Strayed mentions masturbation. I wouldn't really expect a mainstream movie to include this, but omitting it was a lost opportunity to be forthright about a kind of stupidly taboo subject.

The second is that the movie doesn't linger over the hiking. We see her hiking for maybe a minute at a time before something happens or she has a flashback. Again, I realize that for a mainstream release, no producer is going to trust the audience to endure more than 60 seconds of quiet. But as a result you never get the feel of what it was like to be on this hike, forging ahead in sometimes numbing boredom and discomfort. The WWII movie The Thin Red Line did a good job of conveying this kind of boredom in the context of war; anyone who saw the movie will remember vividly the endless shots of susurrating grasses waving in the wind as the soldiers wait for action:

And the backpacking movie The Loneliest Planet is almost excruciating in its patience in relaying the feel of a long trip:

Wild could have benefitted from some of this languor. But these are small complaints. The movie's great—well-crafted and moving. And there's something very, very cool about seeing this girl in her plain shorts and tee-shirt, trudging along, especially if you've hiked or backpacked yourself and relate to the constant fight with your feet and the tactics you use to get up with a heavy pack on your back. She's not a type or a decoration or a plot device or a historical fantasy or a comic performer. She's a normal American young woman being normal, and it's not till you see it that you realize how rare this is.

January 2, 2015


They get a bad rap, but voiceovers—where a character in a movie or show talks in a kind of disembodied voice—are handy. They convey information without that information having to be dramatized, which is what some dislike about them; but does every bit of information have to be dramatized or stuffed awkwardly into dialogue? Plus voiceovers are authentic: we think as we go about our day, inwardly commenting on the plot of our lives. And additionally voiceovers put us inside the consciousness of the main character. Any technique can be overused or handled clunkily, but this one doesn't deserve its lowly reputation.

January 1, 2015

Let's Start the Year with a Little Larceny

My favorite song of 2014 was the closing cut of U2’s new album Songs of Innocence. Though I generally avoid poaching content, I'll hedge my bets here because the song, “The Troubles,” is so powerful.

Lyrics are hard to just read without the music to inform them. Sometimes this is especially true of good lyrics, which are often oblique and, well, lyrical. The songs sounds unlike anything else U2 has done, and the lead vocals are flat-out brilliant and innovative—and supported beautifully by Lykke Li on the chorus.

Some notes on the lyrics follow, but first here they are:

“The Troubles”
(U2 feat. Lykke Li)

Somebody stepped inside your soul
Somebody stepped inside your soul
Little by little they robbed and stole
Till someone else was in control

You think it’s easier
To put your finger on the trouble
When the trouble is you
And you think it’s easier
To know your own tricks
Well, it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever do

I have a will for survival
So you can hurt me and hurt me some more
I can live with denial
But you’re not my troubles anymore


You think it’s easier
To give up on the trouble
If the trouble is destroying you
You think it’s easier
But before you threw me a rope
It was the one thing I could hold on to

I have a will for survival
So you can hurt me then hurt me some more
I can live with denial
But you’re not my troubles anymore


God knows it’s not easy
Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain
God now you can see me
I’m naked and I’m not afraid
My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed

We know the Troubles in Irish culture means the period of violence in Northern Ireland (and sometimes Ireland itself) in the 1970s and 1980s that left a legacy for years after. The lyrics here refer to a personal Troubles. Although they can speak to any traumatic event that leaves the victim struggling to break free, Bono’s liner notes hint at the inspiration of the song:

“Dreams are not always safe places,  neither are places deemed to be safe. Some can live with cruelty and abuse. Some have to . . .  when the children of any church aren’t served but instead enslaved by an abuse of power, extraordinary acts of atonement are required to put things back together . . . Honesty is just the starting point . . . secrets can make you sick.”
The sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests is about as tragic a story as can be imagined. This song takes place right in the heart of a survivor, now grown, struggling to reclaim everything. The song offers a vision of doing just that, reconnecting with our God-given dignity and sovereignty:

God knows it’s not easy
Taking on the shape of someone else’s pain
God now you can see me
I’m naked and I’m not afraid
My body’s sacred and I’m not ashamed