Golden Eagle: Foxcatcher’s American Dream

Foxcatcher might be Bennett Miller’s best film to date, and even if that’s not the case, it certainly seems to be his most thematically accomplished. Much like Capote and Moneyball before it, Foxcatcher appears to be fascinated with outsiders, people that are viewed as second best, never quite living up to the expectations put upon them. However, the thing that seems to set Foxcatcher apart from Miller’s previous efforts is the way that it considers the bigger picture; it treats these characters and their situations as a microcosmic picture of the American Dream, and the toxic reality of the situation, something more akin to an American Nightmare than anything else.

The idea of the American Dream, that anyone can get anything if they aspire to greatness and put in the work, is perfectly embodied in Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). The thing with Mark is, even though he wins gold medals, he still doesn’t feel like a champion, he doesn’t have that independence and self-assuredness you’d expect from a man who, theoretically at least, has the American Dream within his grasp. Well the reason for that is simple; in reality, the “American Dream” doesn’t create those things in people that never really seemed to have them. John du Pont (Steve Carell) says that Mark has spent his “whole life in [his] brother’s shadow,” and to be blunt, he’s right. In fact, du Pont appears to be a gateway for Mark to get that American Dream, the money and the independence and the sense that he, as a human being, is worth the fruits of his labour, especially given du Pont’s fascination on the nation’s need for role models, and making Team Foxcatcher “citizens of America.”

John Du Pont is another man who seems to have everything, but in reality appears to lead a rather hollow existence. He and Mark seem rather like kindred spirits, constantly reaching for something that moves further and further away from their grasp. Much like Mark, he lives in someone else’s shadow; the shadow of his mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), a woman from whom he needs to ask permission on where to put a trophy. John du Pont is a man that seems to embody the very notion of the American Dream, or at least someone that wants to. He pontificates on the role of the coach, considers himself to be a father and a mentor to his athletes, a role model for them, which is something that he thinks America needs. He’s so patriotic he even tries to get Mark to call him “Golden Eagle.”

So, if between them these two men have Olympic gold medals and a countless amount of money, then what’s the big deal? Why can’t these men get the ideal that seemed to be promised to them by their very nation? Because, unfortunately, the American Dream doesn’t work like that, getting these things, the money and the glory, doesn’t mean you have it all. Foxcatcher’s version of the American Dream is one that doesn’t stop, even once these people seem to have everything, and they need to have more. Du Pont has money, and therefore wants glory in the form of Team Foxcatcher; Mark has glory in the form of a gold medal and then gets money by working with du Pont, but at the same time, he needs more, he needs freedom from the shadow of his brother. That’s where the toxic, almost self-destructive reality of Foxcatcher’s version of the American Dream begins to emerge.

When Mark loses a round at the Olympic tryouts, he goes back to his hotel room, and in true Raging Bull fashion – a comparison I will admit I’m far from the first to make – destroys his room, binges on room service and then makes himself vomit. It isn’t easy to watch; first of all because its raw and brutal, and also because it shows what happens when these people can’t have it all: they become angry and destructive, something that leaves an even more bitter taste in the mouth given the futility of their efforts.

The interesting difference between du Pont and Mark (two men who seem remarkably, perhaps even frighteningly similar in their ways) is how they manifest their anger. Mark is self-destructive, but John takes his anger out on the world at large. Upon discovering no members of Team Foxcatcher are training in the gym, he hits Mark and calls him an “ungrateful ape.” So given the futility of their endeavours and the chilling results of those failures, why do John and Mark keep fighting for this American Dream? Well, because they have to; they seem to think that, as Americans this is their right and they fight tooth and nail for it. From the very beginning of the film, Mark seems in instil in his medal a certain a sense of grandeur, he says that “it isn’t just a medal, it’s what the medal represents,” and that’s what it is that these men are after, something greater, something that can’t be given corporeal form the way a medal or money can, and what could perhaps be called the tragedy of Foxcatcher is the lengths that they’ll go to try and get it, as well as what they’ll do to liberate themselves from failing to do so.

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Responding to the 2014 Emmy nominees

So, the Emmy nominees for this season have quite literally just finished being announced. I haven’t gotten around to checking much by way of a response from Twitter beyond all of the bitter Orphan Black fans voicing their outrage; posting pictures of themselves giving the finger to their laptops (which are showing the nominee announcement stream) and texts from my brother, the best of which has to be “NO GOOD WIFE IN SERIES, FUCK THAT.” Which is indeed rather accurate. (should I, like use the stars – * – to censor the swearing? I dunno, do people swear on blog posts?)

In that traditional awards season fashion of getting to work on the post-mortem analysis before the body is cold, I figure I’ll get to work on my responses and some analysis of the nominees. Be warned; there will be quite a bit of subjectivity from here on out.

Outstanding Drama Series
“Breaking Bad” (AMC)
“Downton Abbey” (PBS)
“Game of Thrones” (HBO)
“Mad Men” (AMC)
“True Detective” (HBO)
“House of Cards” (Netflix)

I think the real surprise here is the continued presence of Downton Abbey; I’d have thought that with strong freshman shows like Masters of Sex, and the stellar form that The Good Wife was on this year, that something would have toppled it. On the topic of The Good Wife, I can’t help but be shocked – and personally appalled – at its omission from the category. It would’ve been nice to see Masters of Sex here too, but that was always something of an outside pick.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series

Bryan Cranston, “Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Jeff Daniels, “The Newsroom” (HBO)
Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards” (Netflix)
Jon Hamm, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Matthew McConaughey, “True Detective” (HBO)
Woody Harrelson, “True Detective” (HBO)

If I were to predict this category, the only person on this list that I wouldn’t have chosen would Daniels; I mean, I appreciate that his being the returning winner is a factor, and he was solid in the second season, but it became more ensemble focused and he really didn’t get material to tear into like last year. Drama actor really is a two horse race though; ever since True Detective moved to Drama Series it became one; Cranston on McConaughey? My money is on McConaughey, and he’s my personal pick too.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series

Michelle Dockery, “Downton Abbey” (PBS)
Claire Danes, “Homeland” (Showtime)
Robin Wright, “House of Cards” (Netflix)
Kerry Washington, “Scandal” (ABC)
Julianna Margulies, “The Good Wife” (CBS)
Lizzy Caplan, “Masters of Sex” (Showtime)

Quite a lot of this is, I suppose, business as usual between Danes, Dockery and Wright (with House of Cards getting an increased amount of love this year, although quite why that is continues to baffle me.) and, perhaps to the surprise of some – myself included – the return of Kerry Washington, who I just thought appeared based on Scandal‘s hype last year; I may need to get around to watching it at some point. On the more interesting end of the spectrum are Caplan, and Margulies returning, both of which absolutely thrill me, they’re both wonderful and it’s great to see their work recognised.

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series

Jon Voight, “Ray Donovan”
Peter Dinklage, “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Mandy Patinkin, “Homeland” (Showtime)
Josh Charles, “The Good Wife” (CBS)
Aaron Paul, “Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Jim Carter, “Downton Abbey” (PBS)

Jon Voight? Really? I tried Ray Donovan; I watched four episodes, five at the most and just thought it was a cheap West Coast attempt at being The Sopranos. How it managed to get here baffles me when the likes of John Slattery and Matt Czuchry are left by the wayside. And again, Downton Abbey’s ability to hang on to award nominations borders on the miraculous. In terms of Breaking Bad, nobody is surprised that Aaron Paul got in, but the omission of Dean Norris (the better of the two supporting actors the show produced that year) can’t help but leave a bad taste in the mouth. Also, Josh Charles got in, and really, that’s all that matters.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series

Anna Gunn, “Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey” (PBS)
Lena Headey, “Game of Thrones” (HBO)
Christine Baranski, “The Good Wife” (CBS)
Christina Hendricks, “Mad Men” (AMC)
Joanne Froggatt, “Downton Abbey” (PBS)

So, here we have a mix of an “old guard” of sorts, actresses like Baranski and Hendricks and Maggie Smith who have been getting nominated for pretty much the entirety of their shows runs, returning winner Anna Gunn (who, for my money, doesn’t have the tape to win this year, even if my love for ‘Rabid Dog’ is well known) and the “rape as drama” contingent of Froggatt and Heady. It feels like it could be quite an open race, unless the Academy just tick the box for Breaking Bad if just for the fact it continues to exist. I can’t really complain about this list because of my love for Mad Men and The Good Wife and Skyler as a character, but it would’ve been nice to see Kiernan Shipka, who had her strongest season yet as Sally Draper – and a slew of one liners to boot – sneak in.

Outstanding Comedy Series

“The Big Bang Theory” (CBS)
“Louie” (FX)
“Modern Family” (ABC)
“Veep” (HBO)
“Orange is the New Black” (Netflix)
“Silicon Valley” (HBO)

The new blood is what’s interesting here. I mean, I am trying to watch Orange is the New Black – just as it’s trying me – but I find it deathly dull, I must admit. I’m thrilled that Silicon Valley got in, but frankly, the Academy really needed to step up its game in relation to some of the strong freshman shows; I mean, Silicon Valley is one of them, sure, but the lack of love for Brooklyn Nine Nine and Broad City can’t help but leave me feeling a little bitter.

Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series

Jim Parsons, “The Big Bang Theory”
Matt LeBlanc, “Episodes”
Don Cheadle, “House of Lies” (Showtime)
Louis C.K., “Louie” (FX)
William H. Macy, “Shameless” (Showtime)
Ricky Gervais, “Derek” (Netflix)

Much of the categories in general seem to be as expected with the odd surprise, although sometimes the surprises are the people that stay, as in the case of Matt LeBlanc. I couldn’t finish Episodes this year, I just didn’t think it was good and I thought it was LeBlanc’s weakest year. The appearance of Gervais irks me if just because I don’t like him as a comedian and Derek, for my money, looks pretty awful. William H. Macy, an actor I adore in a show I unfortunately haven’t seen, on the other hand, is nice to see, and it’s pretty clear that Shameless switching categories was good for its award chances.

Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series

Lena Dunham, “Girls”
Edie Falco, “Nurse Jackie”
Amy Poehler, “Parks and Recreation”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “Veep”
Melissa McCarthy, “Mike & Molly” (CBS)
Taylor Schilling, “Orange is the New Black”

This is pretty much how I would have predicted the category, but without McCarthy, probably with Shameless’ Emmy Rosum or something instead. Again, I can’t help but be a bit indifferent about Schilling, given I’m not really a fan of her show. If I were a betting man, I’d say JLD wins again for Veep, but I’m a dreamer, so I’m hoping Dunham or Falco can win.

 

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series

Adam Driver, “Girls” (HBO)
Jessie Tyler Ferguson, “Modern Family” (ABC)
Fred Armisen, “Portlandia” (IFC)
Ty Burrell, “Modern Family” (ABC)
Tony Hale, “Veep” (HBO)
Andre Braugher, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (Fox)

Here we see the gradual disappearance of Modern Family in acting categories, which is interesting for the fact that it was so strong this year, and the people that disappeared are interesting; I always considered Jessie Tyler Ferguson to be perpetually the most vulnerable of the men in the cast. Really though, the one thing that, for me, overshadows everything else in this category is the presence of Andre Braugher, who was superb in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and it’s great to see him get in, if just because it means that the exceptional cast has one representative.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series

Mayim Bialik, “The Big Bang Theory” (CBS)
Julie Bowen, “Modern Family” (ABC)
Anna Chlumsky, “Veep” (HBO)
Allison Janney, “Mom” (CBS)
Kate McKinnon, “Saturday Night Live” (NBC)
Kate Mulgrew, “Orange Is the New Black” (Netflix)

Only looking at this now do I notice that Merritt Wever didn’t get in, but again, we see the gradual decline of Modern Family, with Vergara – finally – dropping off, given she’s the weakest member of the show’s ensemble I’m surprised she hung on for as long as she did. Other than that, there’s Janney, who I’m thrilled about (and she also got in for Guest Actress – Drama for her turn in Masters of Sex) and Kate Mulgrew, who I’m indifferent about.

 

The writing/direction tapes don’t seem available yet, but I’ll respond to them as I see them, and post my personal ballot later down the line. In terms of guest acting, I didn’t pay too much attention to them, but it was nice to see Dylan Baker get in again, and of course, my indifference rose in magnitude after a slew of OitNB actresses got in to guest for comedy.

 

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The Dark Side of Sexposition: “Breaker of Chains” and the Lannisters

There is something perhaps morbidly fitting that Game of Thrones, the show that appears to have given rise to the term sexposition in TV criticism would be the one to take the concept to an area that is at once troubling, a betrayal of character and, quite simply, outdated storytelling and characterisation tactics. Now, much has already been written on the rape of Cersei Lannister in “Breaker of Chains” that can be described, quite simply, as controversial, from the aspects including the deviations from the source material (in this case George R. R. Martin’s novel A Storm of Swords), the role of women in Westeros and, of course, rape itself. I won’t be focusing on any of those; while I of course agree that they’re important issues that should be discussed, I’m not quite sure I’d be able to speak particularly eloquently on. One of the things that interests me most about that scene in “Breaker of Chains” is the way in which it has used outdated tropes in order to create characterisation.

For those who don’t know, sexposition is the idea of divulging expository plot and character passages during or in the proximity of sexual situations. There’s plenty of this in Game of Thrones, from Littlefinger’s monologue about his childhood and love for Catelyn Stark to pretty much every scene that involves Oberyn Martell (including one in “Breaker of Chains.”). Now, while Game of Thrones is the show that seems to have caused the coining of the term, it’s certainly not the first show to use it, between the strip club in The Sopranos and the brothel in Deadwood it would perhaps be fair to say that HBO has something of a penchant for sexposition. As a trope, sexposition of course has it’s own problems, from the pointless objectification of the background characters involved in the scenes to the fact it is, given it feels the need to use explicit and rather heavy-handed exposition, quite simply, bad storytelling. However, the problems of sexposition aren’t the focus here, but are instead a jumping off point to discuss the ways in which the rape of Cersei functions more as a plot device than anything else.

Before what could politely be called the unpleasantness of “Breaker of Chains,” I think it’s fair to say that lots of people were rooting for Jaime Lannister, between the season three episodes “Kissed By Fire” and “The Bear and the Maiden Fair,” he was on track for a fascinating redemption arc made all the more compelling by the fact that he is not only the infamous Kingslayer, but also a Lannister. What the adaptation of Game of Thrones does in a way that the books don’t, and I must admit I have no idea quite why this is done, is create a much more clear divide between heroes and villains. In season one, for instance, Eddard is clearly the hero and the Lannisters clearly the villains, Dany, with her myriad titles has always been painted as a hero throughout, and the opposite can be said of the late Joffery Baratheon, in that he is more monstrous and outright villainous on screen than he is within Martin’s original pages. By proxy, this has always made Cersei a somewhat more sympathetic character than she is originally written as being, here she is a long-suffering mother who watches her child become a monster; now, it’s a compelling arc, but it’s perhaps the root of some characterisation that is questionable both for it’s departure from the source material and how antiquated it is. After Joffery’s death in “The Lion and the Rose” fans everywhere rejoiced, and after all, why wouldn’t they? The savage boy king, the main villain of the series, had been killed off. But what this does is raise an interesting question: where does the show go next?

Given that Joffery is no longer among the living in Game of Thrones, it’s safe to say that, based on the hero/villain duality they’d created, that a new villain was necessary. Now, while there are plenty of characters who are viable to don that crown, from Melisandre to Mance, the issue with them is that they’re not really close enough to King’s Landing which, for all of the show’s geographical branching and dozens of plotlines, has always been the heart of the action. So, once again, that villainous gaze falls upon the Lannisters. Tywin couldn’t be the villain because, for all of his faults, he’s not as awful a person as he seems, say what you will for his grooming Tommen to be king all of five feet from dead predecessor, Tywin recognised that Joffery was a monster and that it’s not something that King’s Landing should face again; it’s not unreasonable to assume that Tywin, in spite of his hunger for his family’s glory and perhaps, in spite of himself, much like Varys, “serves the realm.” Tyrion is of course out of the question, he’s just not a villain and everyone knows that. This leaves only two Lannisters in King’s Landing who could become the next villain, Jaime and Cersei Lannister.

The issue with using either of them is that it would be a betrayal of their characters up to this point to suddenly turn them into villains, between the stepping stones for Jaime’s redemption to the power-hungry but still somehow sympathetic Cersei. All that besides, would it really be fair to turn Cersei into an out-and-out villain moments after the death of her son? Probably not, and that’s where the cheap, lazy and – for many reasons – downright offensive use of sexual violence enters the equation.

The use of sexual assault in “Breaker of Chains” is many things, but the one I’m focusing on here is it’s antiquated status as a means of storytelling and characterisation. The use of sex, and rape in particular as a way of punishing women is an age old adage that spans Hitchcock, slashers and pretty much everything else. It wouldn’t exactly be a stretch of the imagination to say that Cersei being raped is some bizarre punishment for her having given birth to Joffery in the first place given that the scene in question takes place literally right beside the dead king’s grave. In punishing Cersei through this absurd plot device of an assault, Jaime is also made to be monstrous, because, to put it simply, he rapes her and rape is a monstrous thing, considered almost unfathomable in it’s evil in society, and rightly so (even though I won’t be focusing on perhaps the more societal implications of treating rape in such a way, I feel I should again reiterate that they’re issues that should be talked about and probably have been by people much more eloquent than I.). Now, this of course goes against the source material in terms of both adapting the scene (which is disturbing but consensual) and Jaime’s character; even though the far-reaching implications of the scene are of course yet to be shown, it invalidates his redemption and immediately turns him into a villain. And as well as punishing Cersei, the scene creates an understandable sympathy for her as a victim, which again feels like, for all it’s other problems, bad writing. A perhaps fitting parallel would be the Bates Motel pilot episode “First You Dream, Then You Die,” when Norma Bates is raped by a home invader who she proceeds to kill in self defence. It’s difficult not to simply say that the attacker had it coming, because we at once sympathise with her and hate him, so when looking at this dynamic in relation to “Breaker of Chains,” Cersei becomes the object of sympathy where Jaime becomes the object of hated. Unfortunately, and again, rather morbidly, this scene serves the purpose it needs to within the version of Westeros presented to us on TV, one with heroes and villains where the villains are pure evil (Joffery’s most evil moment perhaps being the execution of the prostitutes that we see as Littlefingers informs in “The Climb” that ‘Chaos isn’t a pit. It’s a ladder.’), and so, in the wake of Joffery’s death, not only is another Lannister being groomed to be king in his stead, but another monster seems to be prepared to step to the fore.

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Is This the Death of the Anti-Hero?

Between the season three finale of Homeland and the final episode of Breaking Bad, TV dramas seem to be letting their anti-heroes drop like flies. And since, many moons ago when the Sopranos began what we like to call the TV revolution with the psychological depth it gave to all of it’s characters, but particularly the anti-hero that is at the heart of the show, conflicted mob boss Tony Soprano. And so, now that the anti-heroes that have began to show what it is that makes the TV revolution what it is are being killed off, the real question becomes, what’s next?

I think that the next natural step in the TV revolution – if we’re still calling it that – is for the focus to become even more centred on female characters. From The Sopranos onwards, women have been integral to this new wave of TV drama, from Carmela Soprano and Dr. Melfi to Ruth and Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, they’ve always been there and they’ve always been important, but they’ve always been a step or so away from the spotlight. Even in Homeland, which very much revolves around Carrie, much of the dramatic action – and more questionable decisions based around the writing of the show and characterisation of Carrie – has been linked to Brody. Of course, that’s not the case based on where Homeland left off at the end of it’s most recent season, and, as important as Saul is, he is and will in theory remain to be a supporting role rather than stepping into the story’s centre with Carrie.

This female focus, this idea of a female character either leading the show alone or along with a male character, appears to be a little more common over the last few years, between female led legal dramas like Damages and The Good Wife, and the twin-lead dynamic that lies at the very heart of Masters of Sex, the idea of the anti-hero as we knew it, which is to say a conflicted, morally questionable man balancing multiple lives like Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan and Nicholas Brody, appears to be changing. I suppose it’s something like the shift in the focus of tragic drama, between the great men of Shakespeare, kings like Lear and Richard, to the women of Jacobean tragedies, the eponymous Duchess of Malfi, or Beatrice in The Changeling. It seems like a natural progression now for women to take centre stage.

And this impacts much of the dynamic that lies at the heart of the conflicts that these characters have; where the men perhaps lead double lives (William Masters does, for instance), there’s something about the women that is more about the elements of themselves that they see in and want or don’t want to hand over to others, like Elizabeth’s relationship with her daughter in The Americans or elements of herself that Patty sees in Ellen in Damages. Here it’s more a case of mirroring than doubling that’s important. However, it is worth noting that, much like Masters, her cohort in the sex study that drives the first season of Masters of Sex, Virginia is also leading a double life of sorts, balancing work and home life, particularly once her relationship with Masters gets, to put it mildly, complicated. This seems effective in that it not only allows Virginia’s character to develop, but in relation to the notion of anti-heroes, in her sharing plots that tended to be given to male characters, we see both the way in which female leads are sharing the spotlight with their male co-stars, in doing so it also shows the ways in which anti-heroes and TV dramas more generally are shaking off the old stories and dynamics. Along with this, since the anti-heroes of yore have begun to die off, there is a tonal difference in the shows, especially, it seems, the ones that have female characters near or at their core. Masters of Sex, for instance, which could very much be the show that ushers in a new wave of characterisations, isn’t afraid to actually have jokes, to lighten the mood of it’s subject matter, it doesn’t seem compelled to be crushingly bleak or perpetually morose simply because it’s a TV drama in the 21st century.

Of course, it’s worth noting that, in spite of the passing of Walter White and Sergeant Brody, the anti-hero isn’t officially “dead” by any means; Ray Donovan seems to be trying with all of it’s might to essentially be a West Coast version of The Sopranos, and Game of Thrones has more pessimistic, morally conflicted men than you can shake a stick at, but it’s not just the shows that are starting that seem to be impacting the landscape of TV (with Masters of Sex starting it’s second season in a few months), but also the ones that are ending. Of course, Breaking Bad finished recently, next season spells the end for both Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men, and of course Homeland needs to restructure itself in the wake of the events in ‘The Star,’ so it seems that more than anything, it seems that there is a fast approaching void that will need to be filled, and it seems that, rather than simply rehashing the same old tropes that have been used in varying shades for the last fifteen years, the things that carry the banner as these shows take their final bow seem to be taking the form of an entirely different beast.

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The Truth Hurts: How HBO’s Girls is Growing Up

It seems very fitting to me that Girls, HBO’s much-discussed comedy/drama about the exploits of a group of female college graduates (and another way of looking at the postgraduate ennui that appears in the likes of Kicking and Screaming, Tiny Furniture and Frances Ha). Much of the discussion around the show has been around the frank way it treats sexuality, and the unapologetic narcissism of central character Hannah Horvath. One thing that seems to have been absent from the discussion of the show is just how well the development and what can perhaps be described as maturing of the narrative mirrors the situation of the characters within it.

The three seasons the show has had thus far seem to present different outlooks on the world that these characters inhabit, but all of them seem to spin around the orbit of one thing: Hannah. Season one is very much what could be called the world according to Hannah, and at the core of her development throughout this season is establishing her psychologically and presenting us more with how she views the world as opposed to how she fits into it. I mean, the first season even has an episode (‘Hannah’s Diary’) where the crux of the dramatic action comes from an observation made in the diary that gives the episode it’s title. If that’s not a way of making us intimately familiar with a character’s views on the world and the people around them, I don’t know what is. The second season seems to present a more introspective point of view, closer to Hannah according to the world than the world according to Hannah. Although this introspection reaches it’s peak in the masterful episode ‘One Man’s Trash,’ the rest of the season looks very unapologetically at the impact Hannah’s actions have on those around her, seemingly exposing her to the idea of consequences for the first time, with the episode ‘Bad Friend,’ in which Hannah takes cocaine for a freelance piece, ends with a heated discussion between Hannah and Marnie about which of them is the bad friend, as well as ‘It’s Back’ and ‘On All Fours’ forcing Hannah to confront her uneven mental state when her OCD resurfaces.

These ideas of both Hannah’s views on the world and then, later, the world’s views on Hannah, lead very neatly onto the third season which seems to focus on, if anything, Hannah trying to fit into the “real world.” In season three, she even goes so far as to get a job writing ads for Vogue; not that it lasts too long, given that she quits out of fear that it will crush her creatively, but here we see a Hannah willing to compromise, doing something that is expected of her. Perhaps the most important aspect of the show, and Hannah with it, growing up, is the way her relationship with Adam is shown. Early in the first season, their relationship could be described as being friends-with-benefits on a good day, given Hannah says “when I’m with him he’s so real and so present, and then he seems to disappear and I feel like I invented him” (I’m paraphrasing a little, but that’s the crux of the quote) and perhaps what is ostensibly “grown up” about their relationship is that it changes and grows quite organically. Amidst the chaos of the opening of the second season, their relationship ends and their friendship becomes rocky and uneasy until they’re reunited in ‘Together,’ the season two finale. And it’s during season three that their relationship is at it’s most interesting, as well as being the best barometer of what I suppose you could call the maturity of the show, going on to illustrate the title of this piece; that the truth, in fact, hurts.

As has been mentioned, season three features what I suppose could be called Hannah’s unsuccessful attempt to join the workforce whereas, by contrast Adam manages to do so in glorious fashion, being cast in a Broadway revival of Major Barbara. Now, while there’s plenty of maturity in other places in this season, they sometimes seem to fall prey to that haphazardness that is effective for Girls sometimes, but seems now to be a bit out of place amongst certain plotlines; Jessa’s rehab story is interesting, although the sudden return of Richard E. Grant’s character that throws her into a downward spiral is so much less than the character deserves. To me, it’s when the focus of the season shifts towards Hannah and Adam’s relationship, the last “act” of season three I suppose you could call it, from Flo to Two Plane Rides, the focus becomes their relationship and what it says about the two of them, both together and as individuals.

The relationship between Hannah and Adam manages to teeter into a crisis without exploding into juvenile drama or anything too haphazard, it isn’t suddenly thrown at the wall like Jessa’s rehab/recovery/relapse story, it’s allowed to go to interesting places both new and old, and it’s the old ones that are the most interesting.

It’s near the end of season three, most specifically during ‘Role-Play’ when Hannah and Adam are forced to confront their relationship and particularly what it means to them as individuals; their compatibility and stability is questioned in an inspired way, during the sexual role play that gives the episode it’s name. The aforementioned sexual frankness that seemed to come as a necessary discussion point during the early years of Girls is once again making an appearance here, but when the show looks at sex in the same disassociated, angry way that it did in season one, it’s critical about it now. One of the first times we see Adam in season one – in either ‘Pilot’ or ‘Vagina Panic,’ I think it’s the latter – he’s having sex with Hannah and decides to proclaim he found her “on the street” and that she was “a junkie.” She catches on soon enough, but in the third season, when she’s worried that their relationship is getting stale, largely due to the time Adam is spending working on Major Barbara, she initiates a role-playing situation and, to understate it slightly, it goes awry. Borrowing a blonde wig and Marnie’s apartment, Hannah puts on the façade of a married woman who wants to be rather violently taken by Adam. Once Adam is convinced, it seems to be going well enough and there does seem to be a sort of spark that Hannah feared was missing, bur once they make it to Marnie’s apartment, things take a decidedly more sombre, especially when Hannah changes their sexual dynamic on the fly, which doesn’t sit well with Adam. It’s Adam who ends the tryst, coming clean about the root of their more aggressive sexual past, saying that “fucking is what stopped [him] from drinking,” and that he doesn’t want to be distant from her when they have sex, he wants to be “there” with her.

This tension between what the two of them want individually from their relationship ripples throughout their scenes in the rest of the season, particularly in ‘I Saw You’ when Adam moves out to focus on rehearsals for the play. Hannah, who by now could probably be called a world renowned neurotic, panics a lot and tries to hang on to Adam and their relationship as much as she can. However, where the sting of the truth is really felt, and when the show is perhaps at it’s most mature is during the finale, ‘Two Plane Rides,’ when Hannah gets into a grad school writing workshop in Ohio, something that could of course help her progress by leaps and bounds creatively, and she decides to go. Hannah’s narcissism is of course well known, but here we see her doing something that is good for her, something she’s doing for herself, not to spite others. It may be a little too soon to say, but it appears that Hannah, and some of the others in the motley crew that make up the cast of Girls are all grown up.

 

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The Drop Heard Around the World: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and consequences in superhero movies

 

Warning: This piece discusses plot points from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. There will be spoilers, read ahead at your own risk.

I think, all in all, it’s safe to say that the modern superhero movie has something of an aversion to consequences. This could be for a host of reasons, like just how much they can get away with showing in movies that will typically be, if you’ll forgive the Americanization, PG-13 rated. Another, perhaps more pertinent reason could be just how franchise-minded superhero movies have become in the wake of the first Iron Man film and the now infamous post-credits sequence where Nick Fury wants to talk to Tony about “the Avenger Initiative”. Marvel recently announced that they have plans for cinematic ventures spanning into the next decade, so, if you’re planning that far into the future, can you really afford to kill off major characters and have them stay dead? Probably not. The most ridiculous example of this is probably in The Avengers when Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson is run through and killed by Loki. To my knowledge – I don’t watch Agents of SHIELD, the TV series he was revived to participate in – his miraculous survival is yet to be explained, although, explanation or not, it does show a rather clear preference for what I suppose could be called the good of the franchise as opposed to long term impacts on the shared universe that these characters occupy.

This aversion to killing off major characters appears again in the latest of Captain America’s outings, The Winter Soldier. Within the first act – if you could call it that, given the film’s rather haphazardly episodic structure – Nick Fury is shot and killed in Steve Rogers’ apartment by the eponymous villain. One would think that this not only sets up a compelling motivation for Cap to catch the Winter Soldier (which it does), but also create emotional resonance for the characters (the Black Widow watching his surgery and eventual/alleged death is among one of the finest acted scenes in a Marvel film) and ripple effects for the rest of the characters, the ones who don’t feature in this particular feature. Alas, this is not the case; after many half-missions and escapes, Cap and the Black Widow are reunited with a splinter group of SHIELD agents who were aware of Hydra’s presence, and Agent Hill says that they’ll “want to see him first.” Lo and behold, Nick Fury has survived. Needless to say, I was far from impressed and couldn’t but ask why they didn’t let him stay dead, and of course I’ve mentioned the good of the franchise and actor contracts and the like, but still, it can’t help but feel like a slightly cheap move to create interesting drama and character development only to have it utterly invalidated an hour later, it’s a cop-out that almost reaches the abhorrent levels of Iron Man 3.

There is of course a rather clear exception to this rule, one that exists outside of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in a film that is deliberately, in everything from aesthetic to characterisation to the presentation of violence, darker and edgier than other films of its genre. That film is, of course, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Much has already been written on the “importance” of The Dark Knight as a film, people have discussed its “transcendence” of generic constraints, the way it made comic book adaptations “serious” and the like. But those decidedly broader strokes are not my focus here, that lies on a more singular event, both within the film itself and, I suppose, the whole cinematic superhero canon. Rachel, the woman who gives Bruce Wayne a reason to give up the cowl, is killed and, more importantly, stays dead; there is no dramatic third act reveal where miraculously survived and the two of them ride off to the sunset in the Batmobile. On the other side of this spectrum, even within Nolan;s own Bat trilogy, wherein Batman somehow, with no explanation given, survives a nuclear explosion. It, much like the non-deaths of Coulson and Fury, is what could charitably be called a cop-out, but this one is worse because it goes against the precedent set in the film that came before it.

This talk of precedent is where The Amazing Spider-Man 2 comes in. Now, first off, I’ll admit that this film has plenty of faults; it’s running time is unnecessarily inflated, it tries to juggle too many villains and plots (I mean, who really cares about Richard Parker?) and is tonally all over the place. However, in the film’s climactic sequence, all of those faults disappear as it goes against the precedent set by both the tonal lightness of the film that came before, but also Marvel’s cinematic tradition of not killing it’s characters. Now, I’ll admit that the Spider-Man films and Marvel Cinematic Universe films are produced by different companies, but that doesn’t make the departure from this norm any more shocking or satisfying. To put it bluntly, Gwen Stacy dies. In a strikingly faithful adaptation of a sequence from “The Night Gwen Stacy Died,” the Green Goblin (who, I feel the need to single out in terms of performance, simply because Dane Dehaan hijacks the film with his incendiary presence) throws her from a high place (in the comic she’s thrown into a river), and, in spite of Spidey’s best efforts, she dies in that way that everybody dies when they’re thrown from a high place, like Alan Rickman in Die Hard.

Given the way the death of Gwen Stacey impacts our friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler (until the still necessary sequel set-up that closes the movie), the question becomes, what’s next? – both for Spider-Man (as a character and film franchise) and comic adaptations in general. Given that perhaps the lightest in tone of all the major comic adaptations went so far as to kill it’s main female character, one can’t help but wonder if this is a step towards a brave new world where filmmakers aren’t afraid to kill their characters and have them stay dead. I suppose, in perhaps a rather morbid way, we can only hope.

 

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Review – Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Only Lovers Left Alive Movie Poster

 

It’s safe to say that supernatural love stories, particularly those about vampires, are something of a dime-a-dozen commodity; between that and the film’s lead characters being called Adam and Eve, Only Lovers Left Alive is perhaps rather likely to elicit more than a few eye-rolls at first glance. However, to look at this film with nothing more than a first glance is to do it a great disservice. Seemingly without a plot, and with a pace that could charitably be called deliberate, those who will go where Only Lovers Left Alive takes them are in for something that really is pretty special.

It’s not really about much of anything in the sense of a story, there are hints of plot developments that don’t really turn into major points, but that really isn’t a bad thing. Without focusing too much on events, or even the vampire myth in particular detail, Jarmusch can instead, rather ironically, shine a light on his leading duo, Adam and Eve, both of whom are played to perfection by Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton. As a pair of vampires who have been in love for centuries and married each other several times – Eve mentions that their third wedding was in the 1800’s – their chemistry is undeniable, and although both of their performances are understated, they play off of each other incredibly well, and there is never a dull moment when the pair are on screen together. However, their moments apart at the beginning of the film, when Eve is in Tangier and Adam is in Detroit, are just as important. From the beginning, a connection is formed between the two of them; as Jarmusch cuts between the two of them, it seems as if their distance doesn’t matter and what happens to Adam appears to have some kind of impact on Eve, particularly when we see the two of them imbibe with blood for the first time, with the movement of both their heads and the camera, their connection is established and crucial. The reason Eve decides to go to Detroit is out of fear that Adam is slipping into depression and emotionally decaying.

From that we get the first hint at something that the film could be “about”: decay. But not decay in a personal sense, but a wider, almost societal one. The humans, or “zombies” as Adam so pejoratively dubs them, seem to be doing something wrong if the condescension of this central pair is anything to go by. As they drive through Detroit late at night, it looks dystopian, devoid of life, and also strangely beautiful. That’s one of the things that Only Lovers Left Alive does so well, for all of its melancholy musings, there is a very real beauty at its heart. This owes a lot to the wonderful production design and cinematography, which helps to do what any good love story should do: seduce. With its lingering takes and decaying cities and abandoned apartments that somehow manage to be so enticing, the visual style of the film leads the audience in with a friendly and sensual hand as we enter Adam and Eve’s world.

The chemistry shared between Swinton and Hiddleston has already been mentioned, but it, and their performance should both be singled out for praise. It’s understated and minimal and there’s scarcely a raised voice in any of their lines of dialogue, yet between the minimalist script and poignant pauses they create emotion and a genuine sense that the pair have been together for centuries, with Eve mocking Adam for spending time with Shelly and Byron (who Adam claims was a “pompous ass”) in order to cheat her way into a winning a game of chess. They truly carry the film, which is what’s expected of them given that, at its core, Only Lovers Left Alive is a love story, but it never overflows with saccharine sweet romanticism. As the pair dance together to “Trapped By A Thing Called Love” the film simply lets them, it doesn’t focus visually on some grand romantic movement or image, we are simply allowed to observe the pair together.

On the other end of the spectrum to these two brooding lovers is the mercurial Ava, played to perfection by a scene-stealing Mia Wasikowska. She appears for a few scenes, quite simply, to raise hell, and has a hell of a time doing it, dragging Adam and Eve out to see live music and bringing Ian (the one “zombie” that Adam can stand) back with her for what can only be described as an interesting night. John Hurt does a similar job of dominating the screen as Christopher Marlowe – yes, that Marlowe – bringing at once a darkly comic and world-weary sensibility that so perfectly encapsulates what the film is about: love and death.

It’s really not a film for everyone. It meanders, picks at plot strands that disappear as quickly as they came and sometimes, perhaps fittingly given the nature of the characters, has what can feel like a cooler-than-thou sensibility that many may immediately denounce as “hipster.” However, if you’re willing to surrender yourself to the film’s wicked charms for two hours, you’ll be treated to a love story that is beguiling, broody, dryly comic – Swinton’s delivery of one-liners like “Adam, it’s been 87 years” and “well that was visual” really are a treat – and, in its minimalism, emotionally affecting in a way that’s rather surprising. The vampiric nature of the characters seems rather fitting when describing Only Lovers Left Alive, it almost feels like the kind of film that one needs to be “turned” to become fully immersed in. I’ll admit that before Swinton and Hiddleston were sharing scenes I was a little wary of what the film was trying to do, but it slowly won me over, and by the time Wasikowska came kicking and screaming into the frame I was truly hooked. Those who will like this film will probably love it, and even for those who are unsure, I urge you to give it a shot and see if it turns you as it did with me.

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