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On dogs, philosophers, and film adaptation: Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd opens with a “pastoral tragedy”: farmer Gabriel Oak loses his livelihood when his overenthusiastic sheepdog herds Gabriel’s entire flock right off a cliff. Gabriel is forced to shoot the dog—called Young George, not to be confused with his father, expert herding dog Old George—in what Hardy calls “an instance of that untoward fate which so often attends dogs and philosophers who follow out a train of reasoning to its logical conclusion, and attempt perfectly consistent conduct in a world made up so largely of compromise.”

Consistency and compromise, much as in shepherding and philosophizing, are the twin scourges of film adaptation. Far from the Madding Crowd, the novel, presents an especially difficult challenge to adapting filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt): a beloved and brilliant classic (already boasting a beloved and brilliant classic adaptation, John Schlesinger’s 1967 three-hour epic starring Julie Christie), it demands a degree of thematic and narrative fidelity that Game of Thrones does not. The tightrope act of compromising faithfulness to the novel and to a director’s cinematic sensibility, however, is where so many filmmakers have pushed movies right off a cliff before.

bathshebaThe novel and film open with Gabriel’s loss, but the real hero is Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), who finds herself the mistress of a large farm when her uncle passes away. When Gabriel loses his flock and then, consequently, his own farm, Bathsheba hires him as her new shepherd. He falls in love with her right away, and is soon joined by two other suitors: the wealthy and imposing Mr. Boldwood and the dashing soldier Sergeant Troy. It’s pretty clear (even just based on the characters’ names) which of the men deserves Bathsheba, but our lively and strong-willed heroine has no interest in marriage, insisting that she never wants to compromise her independence. Eventually, of course, one of them persuades her.

Bathsheba is thorny and difficult and complex, but the film makes her digestible for an audience so familiar with another, much more shallowly feminist Everdeen: The Hunger Games’ Katniss. Mulligan is radiant, but Vinterberg and screenwriter David Nicholls reduce her too much to an independent spirit who gets wrapped up in romance against her will—a decidedly contemporary notion. Modern viewers are wont to cry antifeminism if a heroine shows too much of a conscious interest in the opposite sex; love is only allowed, anymore, when it takes young women completely by surprise. (Schlesinger’s adaptation, too, is very 1870s by way of 1967—Christie’s hair and makeup hardly being the least of it.)

Bathsheba is in fact a rather vain, impetuous girl who persistently rejects male attention while also thriving on it; over the course of the story, however, she grows to value other people for their own worth rather than for how well they reflect hers. Nicholls and Vinterberg perhaps sterilize her a bit too much—first making her too fiercely (in fact, falsely) independent, and then making that hideous rom-com question of who she will “end up with” the central intrigue. Hardy’s novel is not a love story, but rather the story of Bathsheba’s relationship with herself, and how she learns (the hard way, naturally) to navigate the world around her.

bathsheba gabrielThe brilliant Mulligan shares irresistible chemistry with Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, an utterly devastating Gabriel. Michael Sheen, too, is particularly admirable as Mr. Boldwood. Tom Sturridge was perhaps miscast as Sergeant Troy—I absolutely could not comprehend Bathsheba’s attraction to him in the film—but he and Sheen both suffered from having very little to work with; following the emphasis on Bathsheba and Gabriel’s relationship, everyone else was sadly underwritten. The adaptation was perhaps too neatly streamlined into a romantic epic, but the film is endlessly watchable—the first half in particular—and buoyed by fine performances. I don’t envy any screenwriter adapting a Hardy novel; his prose is almost too perfect to translate to the screen.

I also don’t envy the cinematographer tasked with shooting a Hardy adaptation. Wessex, the fictional English county that provides the brilliantly dynamic setting for all of his major novels, is a stunning, sprawling creation, as great a presence in his books as any of his characters. DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen rose to the challenge beautifully—her Wessex is a lushly textured backdrop to Vinterberg’s well-acted drama.

When it comes down to it, these complaints are small disappointments (certainly nothing compared to Joe Wright’s evisceration of everything wonderful about Pride and Prejudice). It’s a beautiful and well-acted film, but it remains that Vinterberg and Nicholls, like so many dogs and philosophers before them, would have done well to check some of their instincts.


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Better late than never: My 10 favorite movies of 2014

I guess this is about a month and a half late, but better that than never, right? I got back to LA from Sundance two weeks ago, and all the talk of last year’s indies and this awards season’s frontrunners compelled me to organize my feelings on 2014.

On a personal note, 2014 was one of the most important years of my life. I went to Sundance on a film criticism fellowship in January; I moved from DC to Los Angeles in April. I drove here with my dad. It took us six days, and I got a cold on day two. We stopped in Vegas on the last night of our trip and I bet $10 at Caesar’s Palace that the Nationals would make it to the World Series.

Well, the Nats promptly choked in the postseason, and I’m something of a reluctant Angeleno now. 2014, for me, was a year of enormous change, but more importantly, it was a year of movies. I covered Sundance in January for Indiewire and the Los Angeles Film Festival in June for Film Independent, for whom I’ve been writing ever since. My first few weeks in LA, lonely, lost, and sunburned, I went to the movies constantly. I actually paid money to see The Other Woman in theaters. Needless to say, it didn’t make this list.

I actually find these kinds of lists to be rather self-indulgent, even when compiled by professional critics who I know are required to make them, but I do like to see them vary wildly. Neither art nor our engagement with it is objective, and criticism shouldn’t be, either. In short, this list probably says a lot more about me than it does about the cinematic output of 2014; I do sort of regret the indulgence, but not enough to skip publishing this.

I saw all of these movies in a proper theatre, though some of them were press screenings, and I would also like to note that I unfortunately missed Beyond the Lights, which I’m pretty certain I would absolutely love but obviously can’t include just based on that speculation. So without further ado, here are my 10 favorite movies of 2014. emmastonebirdman

1. Birdman
I saw Birdman when I was visiting home; my brother and I left our parents to do the dishes after Thanksgiving dinner and caught a screening at the dumpy little indie cinema across the street from my high school. Of course, the cinematography and editing are mind-blowing, the performances are phenomenal, the humor is delicious and the celebrity-culture commentary is spot-on, but I also have to admit: there’s nothing on earth I love more than a let’s-put-on-a-show movie, except maybe a really good let’s-start-a-rock-band movie. I was in love with Birdman from the very first frame.

2. Boyhood
It almost feels redundant, at this point, to include Boyhood on a top-ten list, but Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making movie is a genuine marvel. I saw it on closing night of Sundance with the five other critics in my fellowship, and it felt to me like a reminder of why we were there in the first place. I saw it again during its theatrical run, with my mom when she came to visit me in LA. It’s a good movie to watch with your mother.

3. Only Lovers Left Alive
How gorgeous is Only Lovers Left Alive? It was one of the movies I saw right when I got to LA, and I was instantly obsessed. I’m pretty sure I wrote a blog post about it. You can probably just scroll down a little if you actually want to read all my admiring comments on Only Lovers Left Alive.

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel
This is the last movie I saw in Virginia before I came to California. It’s also gorgeous and hilarious and specific, but do any of us actually expect any less from Wes Anderson, at this point? Even my dad loved The Grand Budapest Hotel. Even my dad!

5. Obvious Child
Hilarious, female-driven, romantic and refreshingly matter-of-fact in its approach to its protagonist’s abortion, I loved Obvious Child, writer-director Gillian Robespierre’s directorial debut, when I saw it at Sundance. I also lived in a pretty hip neighborhood in LA last summer, and one time I passed Jenny Slate walking her dog when I was on my way to Starbucks. That was a great day. God Help the Girl

6. God Help the Girl
Most people who saw this movie would tell you it’s kind of bad, and maybe it is. I don’t care. I loved it. I wrote a furious think piece defending it in contrast with the bland and insincere Song One, and I tweeted after seeing it at Sundance: ‘GOD HELP THE GIRL a romantic UK musical ode to the healing power of lacy dresses and liquid eyeliner, aka everything I love.’ I think that’s a pretty accurate explanation of its inclusion here.

7. Palo Alto
Gia Coppola’s sensitive debut, based on James Franco’s collection of linked short stories of the same name, is a gorgeous and insightful examination of contemporary teenage life in privileged suburban America. Coppola—Francis’s granddaughter and Sophia’s niece, the latest in her family to hit the scene—vividly captured the unique mixture pain, hope, and ennui of being a sixteen-year-old, and the movie made me ache like one.

8. Dear White People
The primary criticism I’ve seen aimed at Dear White People is that it is kind of a narrative mess, but that was part of what I loved most about it. Aren’t race relations messy? Aren’t college students? Aren’t identity crises and parental expectations and frat house politics monumentally, spectacularly messy? It’s a big old mess of thorny issues, and it’s a mad-as-hell manifesto that explodes brilliantly onscreen.

9. Whiplash
I missed Whiplash at Sundance and was very sorry for it; it was one of the four opening night films, and the buzz began immediately and lasted throughout the fest—not to mention all the way to awards season (the film to fill that slot this year, raunchy comedy The Bronze, failed to earn such hype). The editing and performances, both of which are poised to take home some major awards in the coming weeks, are astounding, and the last ten minutes alone are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie theatre.

Chef10. Chef 
How could anyone resist Jon Favreau’s utterly delightful, deeply personal Chef? If all the gorgeous food didn’t win you over, then writer-director-leading man Favreau’s sincere charisma must have, or else the combined star power of his cast of Hollywood pals. Watching Chef was delicious comfort food to me in my early days in California. Also, my dad loved it. Game over.

Honorable mentions include Captain America: The Winter Soldier (actually though), Nightcrawler, Snowpiercer, The Immigrant, Top Five, and A Most Violent Year. Happy 2015! Here’s to a year of great movies ahead.

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The Heart Is a Lonely Vampire

Only Lovers Tom&Tilda“I don’t have any heroes,” Adam (Tom Hiddleston) insists, twice, to his wife Eve (Tilda Swinton) in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. They’re centuries-old vampires, and Eve is only mentioning the great thinkers her husband once admired in an effort to remind him of humanity’s great potential for beauty and genius—but he’s exhausted with humans. “Zombies,” he calls us—a curious nickname for a vampire to use, as it (along with the film’s title) poses the question: who’s deader here?

Adam, a brilliant musician, lives in a spooky old house on the outskirts of Detroit, his wife in a little apartment hidden in the labyrinthine city streets of Tangier. Also in Morocco is fellow vampire and Eve’s dear friend (not to mention Adam’s onetime hero) Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who, for the record, apparently did write the works of Shakespeare. Upon seeing Adam, a romantic depressive of Byronic stature (possibly the result of his having spent a lot of time actually hanging out with Byron), brooding over FaceTime, Eve books a pair of night flights to cross the Atlantic and cheer up her husband.

Their life together is an exquisite picture of classical Romantic vampirism, infused with the more modern influence of rock n roll. It’s gothic, stylish, and sexy, like vampires are supposed to be. Hiddleston and Swinton are so irresistible, and Jarmusch’s attention to atmospheric detail so precise, that I would have been perfectly happy to watch Adam and Eve dance, philosophize, and eat blood popsicles for two hours without any additional plot development. However, their sweet reunion is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s bratty little sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who gulps down their limited supply of clean O-negative and otherwise wreaks havoc on their quiet lives. She has no apparent interest in the pursuit of knowledge and creation of art, but rather takes advantage of the perks of being a vampire by reckless thrill seeking. She tells Adam and Eve that she’s been living in LA. “Zombie central,” Adam mutters.

I arrived in Zombie Central one week ago. I don’t know if I quite identify with Adam’s rude nickname for Los Angeles, but in seven days I’ve seen only three people I know, and as I sleepwalk through the native commotion of an unfamiliar city, I might as well be one of the undead. Going to the movies by myself, sitting alone in the comforting darkness of the theater, is when I’ve felt most alive. Perhaps I’ve been subconsciously drawn to films about hopelessly lonely individuals as a side effect of my own gloomy isolation.

Captain AmericaCaptain America: The Winter Soldier takes place in the city I left, and I grinned goofily upon seeing Captain America a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) navigate the familiar stately memorials and terrible highway traffic of DC. The film begins with our patriotic hero going for a run by the Lincoln memorial; we see a man in silhouette, jogging alone in the early morning sunlight, when all of a sudden a second man, moving at what would be a sprint for most people, whizzes past him with a polite warning of “on your left!”

Cap laps the first runner a few times more, eliciting some giggles from the audience, and finally the two men introduce themselves. The slow guy is Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), a friendly vet who recommends Marvin Gaye’s 1972 soundtrack album Trouble Man as a cultural touchstone from the last seventy years with which Steve should familiarize himself. Cap whips out a notebook and adds Gaye to a running list that already includes such crucial entries as Steve Jobs and Thai food.

The Captain America sequel puts its sterling soldier hero into a situation he is perhaps most ill-suited to negotiate: the corruption of his own agency. Nazis are such an easy enemy—there’s pretty much no ambiguity there. But when the most trusting, honest guy in the Marvel universe is forced to question what he believed to be unqualifiedly good, what’s the greatest guy of the Greatest Generation to do? Of all the items not on his list, twenty-first century cynicism is perhaps the most glaring omission. Keep running, Cap—you’ve got a lot more joggers to pass before you catch up.

Where the world has moved too fast and too far for the flash-frozen WWII vet to get with the program, Adam and Eve are in no hurry. They understand humanity and its history to the point where they can read its future; it’s as if they see the world around them happening in slow motion. When they drink blood—out of ornate little goblets, about a shot per serving—they slowly lean their heads back and smile, just enough for their fangs to be visible, savoring every drop. The film is meant to be savored, too, rather than consumed, as modern audiences are so wont to do. Jarmusch takes his time with the camera just as his subjects do with their O-negative; he lingers on them as they lounge, perfect as paintings, in their elegant surroundings; he circles around them and twirls above them in a heady cinematographic ballet. These really must be the only lovers left alive. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.

The same can be said for our beloved Cap. Steve Rogers doesn’t fit into our world for the same reason Adam has grown so disillusioned with it: Welcome to the twenty-first century, boys. We don’t have any heroes here.

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My Sundance seventeen

As I wrote in my previous post, I was lucky enough to go to last month’s Sundance Film Festival, now in its thirtieth year, as part of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism. I wrote a number of pieces there, all of which can be found on the “Published” page of this blog. I had the time of my life, and, now that I have gotten over the Sundance flu and written all of my assignments (last one to be published soon!) and it’s snowing outside so I can’t really do anything else, I guess I’ll post something here about the movies I saw…

Main Street at NightWhile there, I averaged about two films a day, seeing seventeen in all — rookie numbers, but I did spend a lot of time writing and attending other events. It’s a crazy environment to navigate, especially for the first time (I imagine that it gets easier, anyway) and I am pleased with myself for having seen at least one movie every single day while I was there.

Here they are, in the order that I saw them:

Last Days in Vietnam — I got a screener of this one from the publicist, and watched it the night before I left for Sundance. It’s a documentary about, naturally, the last days of the Vietnam War in April of 1975, two years after the Paris Peace Accords, when the United States government flatly refused to assist the South Vietnamese as the Viet Cong closed in around Saigon. Being a blissfully ignorant child of the 90s, I confess I had never even heard about this episode of the war, which is described in the film as “the whole of Vietnam in microcosm.” I cried. REVIEW

Lilting — The first film I ever saw at Sundance, at its premiere on opening night. What a moment! I closed my eyes and thought to myself, what a moment, Mary. And then what a lovely film! Obviously I’ve loved Ben Whishaw ever since he was a perfect Sebastian in that imperfect Brideshead Revisited adaptation, and he was heartbreaking here as a young man mourning the loss of his boyfriend, and trying to connect with the boyfriend’s grieving, non-English-speaking mother. I hadn’t realized before that most screenings and pretty much all premieres at Sundance end with a Q&A with the director and various members of the cast and crew, and I was very touched by director Hong Khaou’s emotional reaction to the premiere. A perfect beginning. REVIEW

Little AccidentsI reviewed Little Accidents, and all through my notes I referred to Jacob Lofland’s character (called Owen in the movie) as Neckbone. The young Mud actor, who was mostly the comic relief in that film, is great in a much darker role in this socially conscious mining town drama, developed in one of the Sundance labs. Don’t let the combination of a young boy and a coalmine fool you: this bleak movie is no October Sky. Nobody gets into college. Nobody goes to the moon. REVIEW

Finding Fela — I was only assigned two documentaries to review, and, much like I had never heard of the events of April 1975 depicted in Last Days in Vietnam, I was pretty ignorant about Fela Kuti. Finding Fela documents not only Kuti’s wild life of music and revolutionary politics but also the process of developing a Broadway musical about him, and can I just say: yikes. It was actually nice knowing so little about him, and so getting the full shocking effect of learning it all at once for the first time. A very cool documentary. REVIEW

Blue Ruin — A bloody backwoods revenge film that premiered at Cannes to great buzz. It’s the kind of thing my brother will absolutely love. A totally decent movie; not at all my taste.

Obvious Child — ABSOLUTELY my taste. I kept looking to either side of me for my best friends, shocked that I would betray them so much as to see Obvious Child without them. Jenny Slate plays a New York stand-up comic whose act revolves around female bodily function jokes who gets dumped, fired, and pregnant all at once, just in time to schedule her abortion for Valentine’s Day. Thank god A24 picked it up for distribution so I can go with my girlfriends next time.

The Voices — I saw The Voices at its premiere near the beginning of the festival with my friend Carlos, another one of the critics in my fellowship, and neither of us could shut up about it for the remainder. (Seriously, the other four probably kind of hate us for it by now.) It’s bizarre and hilarious, and Ryan Reynolds is fantastic in it. REVIEW

A Most Wanted Man A Most Wanted Man is a taut, suspenseful spy thriller based on the John le Carré novel of the same name, but the real story now is about Philip Seymour Hoffman’s excellent performance in it—one of his last. I was at the film’s premiere, and I saw the late actor talk in the Q&A after the screening. He was humble, funny, self-deprecating. I don’t even know what else to say. So, so sad.

Rudderless — I have a real obsession with let’s-start-a-rock-band movies, and so had high hopes for Rudderless, in which a grieving father starts a band after finding some of his son’s original compositions. It’s a fairly straightforward (if somewhat sad) let’s-start-a-rock-band movie until a twist that makes everything ambiguous and uncomfortable, which is worthwhile and all, but it’s also not why I have an obsession with let’s-start-a-rock-band movies.

Song One — I wanted to like Song One so very badly, which I suppose made it all the more disappointing that it turned out to be quite bland. It just let Anne Hathaway’s character get away with being so untouchable — never being vulnerable, answering for her mistakes or having any kind of epiphany — that she’s terribly boring, really, and the film built around her is made boring as well. It’s a shame, because there’s some lovely camerawork and even lovelier music. REVIEW

White Bird in a Blizzard — I had to wake up very early to get to an 8:30 a.m. screening of White Bird in a Blizzard, which I am including in my final (forthcoming) Sundance article, and the sleep-deprived haze through which I saw everything that morning only added to the dreamlike quality of Gregg Araki’s latest. White Bird in a Blizzard is a creepy, sexy, and darkly funny suburban drama starring Shailene Woodley as a teenage girl whose beautiful mother, played by Eva Green to over-the-top Mommie Dearest perfection, mysteriously disappears.

The Better Angels — Lyrically shot in black and white, The Better Angels poetically portrays a period of Abraham Lincoln’s childhood. Writer-director A.J. Edwards had previously worked with Terence Malick for years, and you can see the latter director’s influence in this impressionistic take on the sixteenth president’s young life (Malick also had a producing credit). Braydon Denney, the little boy who plays Lincoln, is beyond perfect. Edwards told me in an interview that they cast him for his “thoughtfulness, his soulfulness, and especially his eyes.” He broke my heart.

Low Down Based on Amy Jo Albany’s memoir of the same name, about her childhood in ratty 1970s LA with her father, the heartbreaking, heroin-addicted jazz legend Joe Albany. John Hawkes and Elle Fanning are both great as father and daughter. I read the memoir before seeing the film (it’s featured in my forthcoming piece, about film adaptations), and it’s a difficult book to adapt—by no means a linear, plot-driven “story”—so I watched it sort of knowing and not knowing what it would be, very curious to see how they managed it. Read my piece when it comes out for director Jeff Preiss’s great explanation of his approach, but in the meantime I’ll say: it worked.

God Help the Girl — My friend in the fellowship Katie gave it a negative review, but god, I loved God Help the Girl. I admit freely that it is probably not a cinematic masterpiece; it just spoke deeply to my every sensibility. Musical, romantic, whimsical, set in the UK, and starring a young woman with a fabulous retro wardrobe, it comprises everything I love on earth. I wrote a piece about how it’s better than Song One. Sorry, Anne.

Listen Up Philip One of the very few films that all six of us in the fellowship actually saw, and one of the buzzier films at Sundance, I think. Jason Schwartzman plays a misanthropic New York novelist working on his second book and basically being an asshole to everyone that crosses his path. The press notes were in a little booklet that looked like a Philip Roth novel. How clever are those publicity people?!

Happy ChristmasJoe Swanberg’s latest stars the director himself, Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Mark Webber, Lena Dunham, and Swanberg’s scene-stealing baby Jude. Swanberg and Lynskey play a married couple (Jude plays their baby) whose life is disrupted by his little sister (Kendrick) moving into their basement and being an irresponsible millennial brat, assisted by her hilarious best friend (Dunham, out-improvising them all). Loved it, obviously. I actually preferred it to Drinking Buddies.

Boyhood — Oh my god, Boyhood. All six of us saw it together on the last night of the festival in the grand Eccles Theater before going to closing night parties, and what a perfect film with which to end Sundance. Richard Linklater’s storied twelve-years-in-the-making coming-of-age epic was worth the wait (and the three-hour running time). Incredible.

Egyptian Theater

I was heartbroken to have missed out on Frank, which everyone was talking about and in which Michael Fassbender wears an enormous mask as an eccentric musical genius; The Battered Bastards of Baseball, because I can never resist a good baseball movie; Whiplash, because it won everything and I love both Miles Teller and music movies; They Came Together, because the only thing I love more than romantic comedies is lampooning them; Laggies, because of its Girls-esque premise; and Only Lovers Left Alive, because vampire Tom Hiddleston. Obviously.

Today marks four weeks since opening day, when I attended Robert Redford’s press conference, met other journalists and some  Sundance people at a roundtable discussion, saw Lilting, and then went to Indiewire’s annual opening night chili party. Is it possible I dreamed the whole thing?

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In which I become an Actual Film Critic

sundance 2014 logo

The Sundance Film Festival, celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2014, begins on Thursday. And I’m going to be there.

I’m going as part of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, which is described—and the fellows’ names announced—here. (That’s me listed last.) (It’s alphabetical.)

I’ll be writing six reviews for Indiewire and one longer piece for, in addition to who knows what else. I’ll definitely post links to it all here. Follow me on Twitter and/or Instagram (both @missollosi) for pithy commentary and sneaky paparazzi shots (also probably complaints about the weather, very likely some selfies).

Here’s my first piece, part of the “Sundance Curiosities” series, which looks ahead at the festival’s lineup and discusses trends in this year’s films, and for which one article was written by each of the critics in the fellowship.

I leave DC for Utah first thing Wednesday morning. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pack all my cold-weather accessories and then die of excitement.

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Movies for a rainy day

Friday was rainy and hideous, so I dragged myself to the dreaded RedBox, rented three movies I missed in theaters, and then proceeded to eat chocolate Cheerios out of the box and watch them all. There is no coherent theme here, so I suggest you don’t look for one.

Spring Breakers
James Franco blows up my Instagram feed every other day with CONSIDER THIS SHIT written across images of himself as the tattooed, cornrowed, grill-wearing Florida rapper-gangster Alien in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers. The film needs no introduction, I believe, but here I go anyway: It’s about four college girls (two of which are former Disney darlings Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, now all grown up, thank you very much) who rob a fast-food restaurant in order to fund the trashy, boozy, debauched spring break of their dreams. Once there, they have a little too much fun and end up in jail, only to be bailed out by Alien, who takes the party to a whole new, terrifying level.
This movie is so weird, and so, so good. It’s utterly tasteless, all excess and vulgarity from start to finish, as if Korine built a sculpture out of the contents of a frat-house dumpster and then coated it with a fine layer of cocaine mixed with glitter. And lollipops. But Korine’s editing somehow spins this vile, sugary aesthetic into something haunting—poetic, even—and damn it, he made one gorgeous piece of sleazy-sweet-garbage-sparkle-pop art. Featuring Franco in perhaps his most bizarre and unforgettable role to date, as well as the world’s best use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” ever, Spring Breakers deserves all its (divisive) hype. Seriously—consider this shit.

Drinking Buddies
After Spring Breakers, I thought I needed to cleanse the palate with something in which people were actually drinking responsibly (or at least socially acceptably). Enter Drinking Buddies, Joe Swanberg’s mumblecore rom-com starring Olivia Wilde and a spectacularly bearded Jake Johnson as close friends who work together at a Chicago craft brewery (HIPSTER ALERT). Each of them is in a relationship (with Ron Livingston and Anna Kendrick, respectively), but harbors a weird, confusing, sorta-almost-crush on the other. They all hang out, in various settings, and drink a lot of beer. That is pretty much all that happens.
Heavy on character and light on plot, this film constituted an almost comically dramatic (but welcome) shift from Spring Breakers, which erupts onscreen as a ninety-minute explosion of sex, drugs, and Britney Spears. Drinking Buddies, on the other hand, meanders to its non-conclusion, its narrative made up of non-events that revolve around non-conversations that are revealing only in what goes unsaid. There’s nothing I love more than an ambiguous romantic comedy with an open ending; those feel so much more honest, to me, than their schlocky studio counterparts. Drinking Buddies is as refreshing—and authentic—as the beer its characters love so much.

My last movie of the day was my favorite. Mud, a sensitive Southern coming-of-age drama starring Matthew McConaughey and written and directed by Jeff Nichols, was as lovely and earnest as Spring Breakers was crass and Drinking Buddies self-conscious. McConaughey plays the title character, a fugitive hiding out in a boat stuck in a tree. He befriends two fourteen-year-old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who agree to help him repair the boat so that he might escape small-town Arkansas—and the vindictive men who want justice for his crime—with the woman he loves (Reese Witherspoon).
McConaughey is as wonderful as we’ve come to expect from him (in his post-Kate Hudson rom-com days, that is), but Mud belongs to its two young heroes, particularly Sheridan’s Ellis. The film portrays a crucial moment in his life, and my heart broke with his as he watches his parents’ marriage fall apart, gets rejected by the girl he has a crush on, and becomes disenchanted with his new hero, the enigmatic Mud. Nichols has expressed that the writing of Mark Twain has greatly inspired his work, and that influence is certainly evident here in the dynamic between the two boys—Neckbone is a hilarious, rascally Tom Sawyer to Ellis’s romantic Huck Finn. Between their perfect friendship and Nichols’s excellent atmospheric sensibility, there’s really something wonderful about the little childhood world that the boys inhabit together. The deepest, truest heartbreak of Mud is the realization that the time has come for them to leave it.

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Seeking a friend in the City of Angels

When I was in the seventh grade, I discovered Marilyn Monroe. I must have watched every one of her films that winter, but nothing compared to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I watched Gentlemen Prefer Blondes probably as many times as all of the others combined. I learned every step to every dance; I asked my piano teacher for the sheet music to “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” I wanted nothing more than to be Marilyn Monroe. No dream could feel more impossible to an awkward brunette seventh-grader, but that was mine.

In my very first college film class, the semester’s work culminated in a ten-page research paper, and I got special permission to write about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Writing that paper was like pouring out my seventh-grade soul. My encyclopedic knowledge of that film—previously useless—was suddenly indispensable. It felt like that bit of scholarship validated my very existence: Marilyn meant something, and I understood her! I got an actual A+. Then I declared my film studies major. Now, post-graduation, high on my cinematic education, I’ve been flirting with the idea of Southern California.

Los Angeles is full of kitsch—the good kind. It’s got its own innocent, unself-conscious brand of SoCal camp going for it, and not only in its touristy spots (whereas in DC, where I’m from, even those are stately and educational). For every beautiful art deco building in LA, there are two parking garages in which each level is named after a cult film, and three gaudy old hotels with peeling wallpaper and sordid histories, touted as Old Hollywood treasures. Even the eternally pleasant weather and the palm trees that naturally populate the landscape strike me, a cold, hard East-coaster, as a little bit tasteless. Seasonal discomfort builds character, and those plants belong outside a Barbie Dream House. Visiting my aunt and uncle there earlier this month—for the purpose of assessing whether or not I wanted to move there—I was amazed by this very hip city’s joyful embrace of tackiness without a bit of irony.

At first I dreamed, like so many other girls who spent their teenage summers watching heavily censored Sex and the City reruns on TBS, of New York City. New York made such easy sense for me—it’s a three-hour train ride from home, I have so many good friends living there already, and it has the creative industries that our nation’s proud capital sorely lacks. I am mostly converted, now, to the idea of the West coast, but it still seems so lonely to me, and so, so far away.

Uma keeps an eye on Los Feliz.

Uma keeps an eye on Los Feliz.

It’s hip to hate—just to hate on things in general. Not serious things like politics, but rather commercial, popular things, like Christmas and pop stars and romantic comedies. LA is hip. I have no doubt it’s full of people sipping haterade out of mason jars. But nobody hates the movies. There’s no way they can, when the city itself is so utterly obsessed. Even in the edgiest, most hipster-populated, non-Hollywood neighborhoods, murals of movie stars peek out from behind the trees.

More than any other, the face of Marilyn Monroe wallpapers Los Angeles. Everywhere I looked, there she was. My dear old friend, who, you might say, led me to this sprawling city in the first place, pouted and smiled at me from around every corner—and, somehow, her familiar presence rendered me, a cynical Washingtonian, innocent and unself-conscious too. Isn’t this wonderful, her ubiquitous image seemed to whisper, this city of kitsch?

Alone? Here? Never. In this city my childhood idol follows me everywhere. That’s what you call a girl’s best friend.