Month: September 2012

Tears of Courage; Alice and I Interview Laura Dern’s “Cry Face”

By Joey Nolfi and Alice Groesbeck

Sitting atop the thespianic-Everest that is Dr. Ellie Sattler from “Jurassic Park”‘s mug is Laura Dern’s Cry Face, or “Shine,” as “she” likes to be called.
“Ain’t nobody shine brighter than me baby,” she said while sipping on one of Laura Dern’s tears like it’s a chilled glass of Arbor Mist. Although “Shine” sparkles, her wattage is dimmer than a star’s. Shine’s “shine” is infectious, and when it comes to saving face, she says it’s all about how you work it.

“Shine” happens only on special occasions; i.e. working with David Lynch or starring in a television show you’ve co-created to give yourself complete artistic freedom. For Laura Dern, those two things mean, for certain, that her “cry face” (Ok—“Shine”) will expose itself at one point or another. Whether it’s nestled as comic relief (?) from all the crazy that populates the three hours of Inland Empire or as means to communicate true insanity of her character on Enlightened, Dern’s “Shine” takes the cake as the most generous gift she’s given any audience over the course of her lengthy career.

“It’s a rare and exciting thing to be recognized as one of Hollywood’s most iconic muscular movements,” said the cry face, busy on a promotional tour for Dern’s latest film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. “I never really thought I was pretty in the first place. I was the “dork” in high school, but now I get to look back at the years when Paula Patton’s ‘I-have-good-hair’ smirk got all the attention in high school and recognize that I’m here. I’m the star now.”

But the road to success wasn’t always easy. Tough competition from the cry faces of Hollywood veterans Julianne Moore and Ashley Judd have given the famous frown a run for its money.

“Julianne’s cry face is just a phenomenal asset to the community,” Shine said. “Without trailblazers like her, expressions like myself would be nothing in this town.”

It’s true we’ve grown to love the startling sight of the phenomenon known as Laura Dern’s cry face, if shock value counts for much of anything these days.

“With shows like Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Jersey Shore populating our young peoples’ minds, what’s left in this world that can truly shock them?” the somber face said. “They need something that’s going to jolt them into consciousness. Something they don’t know is coming. Something they don’t appreciate the full brutality of until they lay down to sleep at night and they see me when they shut their eyes.”

The thought clearly excited Shine.

“I will give that Honey Boo Boo nonsense some credit, though. Mama’s chin is a genius.”

Shine patted Dern’s cheeks, which are bright red and moist with salty saturation as her face tried to keep the contortion plastered front and center for the duration of our interview. I told her she looked uncomfortable and that if it’s causing too much discomfort, she’s free to take a breather and let any of Dern’s other emotions take over.

“There’s always the angry face,” I told her, “I’ve only ever seen that in Inland Empire, unless we’re counting the times it’s shown up in nightmares.”

Shine doesn’t take the news easy.

“Everyone knows it takes more muscles to frown,” reflected Shine while a lone tear splashes itself on the nether regions of her palette somewhere between her lip and comic fantasy; “so that makes me the strongest of them all. Longer than angry, longer than happy; I’m here to stay.”

From one strong entity to another, I wasn’t convinced. A real woman knows sacrifice, and I decided to throw a wrench into the cold machine that is Shine’s ego by flipping a bitch. While the hot mess that is Laura Dern’s Crispy Bangs distracted Shine, we decided to fill our suite of the Chateau Marmont with surprise guests so they could weigh in on what it means to be a fresh face on an aging starlet. The door opens. Natalie Portman’s Crybrows enter along with the cry faces of Julianne Moore and Ashley Judd.

A cloudy day in facial Hollywood.

“I hate to be the Dance Mom of the industry, but can they please leave the room?” Shine said as her assistant finished patting her with a Kleenex. I can’t tell if the tears are real or not. Damn, she’s good.

Moore’s Cry Face snaps. “Not a chance! This is payback for that trailer prank you pulled on the set of The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio.” The room shakes, not from fear, but from security running by the Oprah suite to see if Lindsay Lohan’s pride was anywhere in the room. A Macbook cowers in the corner.

“You know, you might be here to stay–for now–but what about these other up-and-coming facial expressions that are nipping at your heels” I said, while Shine snapped at her assistant to fetch her a bobby pin to show Crispy Bangs who really runs the show.

“Natalie Portman’s got fabulous crybrows. Crybrows that won her an Oscar,” I remarked.

Shine shot me a look that was concealed in her typical upset demeanor, but I knew she was colored surprised by my remarks. Shine was confused and had a look reminiscent of Cher’s Ice Face from her Burlesque pitch meeting where the near mention of the words “co-star” and “Christina Aguilera” nearly caused Cher’s lace front weave to file its quitting papers.

But, Shine fought back.
“Natalie Portman cries like her ego knows something great is happening,”  Shine said. “Those brows are frowns turned upside down. Her ego is in it for the glory. She doesn’t cry with purpose for the art like I do.” Her assistant hands her a tissue but Shine cries even more when she is confronted with the cruel reality that she lacks hands.

“Gals, we’re better than this. Can’t you see we’re a revolution in facial performity? There’s strength in numbers, here. Together we can change the ‘face’ of our industry,” cried Shine. “Unless, of course, you only do about 5% of the actual crying. Does the Academy offer cry doubles once you get an Oscar?”

All faces pointed to Natalie, who stormed out. The faces looked around, unsure of what to do when they heard a slight ruffle from the corner of the room.

“Just taking a look at the ‘competition,'” laughed Meryl Streep’s Pursed-Lips Bitch Face in a whisper, soft as wind from behind a sheer curtain it had been hiding behind this entire time. Her words stung like the salty tears hitting Shine’s eye.

“Unless you’re also controlled by Meryl fucking Streep, you don’t run shit,” she says as the curtains close and the lights dim. In the corner, Lohan is seen turning out the lights as she leaves the suite under the cloak of near-darkness, clutching the Macbook Pro as it softly whimpers.

Streep’s Pursed-Lips Cunt Face wafts out, leaving nothing but layers of backhanded sass to blanket its inferiors in a sense of dread.

“It’s a cold day in this warm town,” Moore’s Cry Face reacted.

“No,” Shine remarked. “That’s just my shade.” As Shine left the suite, the hallway fills with light and applause while the rest of the Cry Faces cowered in her shadow.

If it were lonely at the top, the Cry Face of Laura Dern would never know it. She’s just too busy shining.

Awards Season Begins; Julianne Mooregasms in an Election Year

This makes me happy:

Julianne Moore: Emmy, Golden Globe, and Independent Spirit Award winner. Last night’s triumph was, for me, the too-soon climax of an otherwise dull evening at the 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. It’s something I’m not used to as I barricade myself in my living room during a typical Oscar telecast. I’ve grown accustomed to a night with Oscar; momentum building throughout, not culminating in a full-fledged Julianne Mooregasm prior to the final awards “cum shot.” Cheating on the Oscars isn’t necessarilly the easiest thing for me to do. Unless you count fangirling over Lena Dunham or verbally bitch slapping Claire Danes through the television, I know next to nothing about the Primetime Emmy Awards or how to “work” its sweet spot. I’m an Oscarhead at heart, but last night’s crowning of Moore as the night’s Queen made the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences a suitable mistress in lieu of my beloved “other” Academy.

But, while she took home the gold last night, something is noticeably missing from Moore’s lengthy list of honorary statuettes; an Oscar. You can argue that she’s one of the most talented screen actresses of all-time, hand in hand with the fact that she’s one of the most under-recognized in the business. She has only one Golden Globe (the defunct “Ensemble” award for Short Cuts in 1994), four Academy Award nominations, and a big fat zero in the “win” column for individual efforts at both ceremonies. She’s clearly something of value to the industry, but what will it take to get her recognized on the Academy’s biggest night?

Ask the ATAS; a role that makes Republicans look bad at the most convenient of times.

It goes without saying that television and film are two of the biggest influences on contemporary American society. Where did you learn how to kiss? How to approach someone at the bar? How to cut your hair? How to vote? From the moving image we so readily indulge in on weekends and after work. And both Academies know that. “Game Change,” the “fictional” account of Sarah Palin’s ascension to a short-lived realm of political relevancy, afforded Moore with one of the night’s top honors, seeing as she portrayed the hell out of a person who is very hard to like–especially if you’re a liberal Hollywood big-wig, or simply an actress working out personal aggressions through her performance–and made her tangible hateability even more accessible to those watching the film. Of course, Moore didn’t write the screenplay nor come up with the idea of the film, but her breath of life into a “character” based on a real person serves as the face for anti-Republican sentiment. If you watch this film, you’re supporting your political cause as a liberal. Recognize the actress who plays the part, and you recognize the “good” of one political mindset. We see Moore win, we see her onstage criticizing the very woman who afforded her the role, which ultimately turns the basis for the “art” into the “other” and makes “her” side the “correct” side.

Awarding Moore with such a prestigious honor during peak Sunday night time slots also recognizes everything she stands for as a social activist. Pro-choice, women’s rights, and a strong consciousness concerning issues of children’s poverty are only a sampling of issues Moore has made herself a “face” of. Starring in 2010’s The Kids Are All Right as a lesbian with a spouse and family (gasp!), Moore has also become synonymous with the LGBT movement, providing another tangible, relatable face to a liberal movement that so desperately needs one to appeal to “mainstream” Americans.

In one sense, her win last night signifies great talent. In another it’s a strong political statement which will hopefully have an effect on at least a small portion of the voting public. Through art we can influence politics and change, and the industry support of Moore, Game Change, and the all-around critical tone of the film itself equates support of liberal Democrats; an expertly-timed win in an election year that means so much to the future of our country.

As for that Oscar, we might have to wait a little longer before there’s a role that fits the Hollywood agenda I love so much; but, until then, we can relish in the fact that while Julianne Moore might not have an Oscar, she does have the prestigious Dallas-Fort Worth Area Film Critics’ Association Award for Best Actress for Cookie’s Fortune.

Why Carly Rae Jepsen Will Work

Sweet voice. Dimpled smile. Tiny frame sporting clothes stripped right off the freshest rack at the hippest Justice in the world. The girl in question looks no more than seventeen years old. An average, suburban-bred cutie pie indiscernible from the hordes of others who sing along to the multi-platinum single she released earlier this year when it makes its rotations on the local eight at eight.

The reality is that this “girl” is Carly Rae Jepsen, nearly thirty and poised to ascend the ranks of worldwide pop royalty with the release of her new album, “Kiss,” today.

Of course any pop artist would kill to have a track like “Call Me Maybe” in their repertoire; the single reached #1 in major markets around the globe within the first few months of its release. Jepsen joined the ranks of Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Katy Perry as one of the biggest successes for contemporary pop in the past year. The question on everybody’s mind, however, soon turned to how exactly Jepsen would turn a massive single hit into an extended career as a pop superstar.

“Kiss” is armed with an artillery of songs that sound like a raging battle of young love, where lollipops take the place of swords and Hershey Kisses burst out of candy-cane shaped cannons. It’s sweet, catchy, and represents a much-needed escape from the pretentious, watered-down theatrics of some of today’s biggest pop acts. The one thing that separates Jepsen from the aforementioned poster children for contemporary pop music is her image. She doesn’t really “fit in” with any of the industry’s other leading ladies. The dichotomy between the “old” and “new” has never been more apparent as it is today. We still have tried-and-true traditional icons from past decades like Britney Spears, P!nk, and Christina Aguilera still impacting international charts; then you have the “newcomers” (as Xtina so lovingly refers to them) in the vein of Gaga, Minaj, and Rihanna making a colorful (albeit an arguably superficial) splash with their outlandish costumed antics both onstage and off. Jepsen lacks the maturity which anchors the former group firmly into our iPods (she’s 26), nor the “freshness” the latter possessed when their “originality” first impacted the industry (um, she’s 26).  In essence, Jepsen is the first “traditional” pop star we’ve seen sift through the bullshit, feathers, and pseudo-subgenres to the top of the mainstream charts in years.

Of course she’s done it all without bleeding to death on stage or kissing Madonna, but that’s not to say Jepsen hasn’t had any “help” along the way. Her career, persona, and musical output at this point strikes me as such an interesting dichotomy between forced and genuine that it’s hard to discern whether or not she’s actually a “pop star” or she’s simply hit the industry jackpot at a time consumers crave simplicity and no-strings-attached innocence over anything else.

Take, for example, Jepsen’s alternate medium equivalent, Bella Swan of the Twilight novel and film series. The girl is a vapid, lifeless character who resonates with young readers (particularly girls) largely due to her “non-existing” existence. She has no personality, wholeheartedly emotionless, and is played by perhaps the most boring, stony-faced actress of our generation, Kristen Stewart. At the risk of sounding like a generalizing asshole, it’s hard not to think the female fanbase of a series like Twilight is simply indulging in a cut-and-paste series of events where they’re subconsciously interchangeable with a lifeless protagonist and her experiences. After all, Bella is paired with a hunky guy she’s “forbidden” to “have” (uh oh, cue rebellious teen girl phase), ultimately portrayed by arguably the most intense-looking, attractive young man in contemporary Hollywood, Robert Pattinson, who really looks at them when he’s framed, close-up, on the silver screen in front of them (really, now, how many shots can you have of one actor looking into the camera in a single film?).

How many times have you seen a “Will you be my Edward Cullen?” Facebook posting, message board comment, poster, sticker, binder, trapper keeper (still using those, right?), or any other form of studio propaganda convincing girls this is the type of man they want—the type of man they need—and is ultimately a fictional creation whose only contributing a blank slate for which girls to project their desires unto with (no return) in a one-sided “relationship” rooted in fantasy. The only way they can “have” him is by, well, buying more Twilight bullshit.

Jepsen’s music, as gleaned from a quick listen to “Kiss,” calls upon listeners to fill the same set of shoes. The lyrics are almost unbearably saccharine, too sweet to be taken entirely seriously as a 27-year old woman’s deepest confessions, yet tinged with just enough suggestive flirtation to make her fit in with the contemporary Top 40 crowd. Her appearance begs us to disregard her body as a canvas (something Gaga or Ke$ha cringe at) and as a mere playful vessel just being cute and “doing what girls do” as she dances onstage with all the coy innocence of a high schooler at their first boy/girl party. She’s relatable for lacking a concrete personality. Her songs don’t require much thought to really enjoy, and she’s singing them without the theatrical flair that make her industry counterparts so readily accessible at awards shows and on magazine covers. They come with previously established standards of eccentricity, Jepsen merely comes with a song and a smile—there is a superstar, and then there is a famous girl. Gaga is revered as a performer, as a star, as someone associated with the outlandish, a clear border between her and the “normality” of the consumer. Jepsen, however, is simply “a girl with some cute outfits and catchy pop songs.” How does that manage to burst through the corsets, pink wigs, and glow-in-the-dark capes?

I’ll tell you how; with the help of a male pop star. Jepsen’s rise to fame came as a contestant on “Canadian Idol,” where she placed third. Her superstardom, however, didn’t come until after she exchanged tweets with Justin Bieber, who then signed her to his record label. Bieber’s commanding force of millions of young girls swayed the tides in Jepsen’s favor. She didn’t necessarily “do” anything besides bask in the spotlight Bieber fixed on her. Clearly we’re past the social mindset that men “need” women and the other way around, but it’s hard not to think that Jepsen would never have succeeded if it weren’t for the sexually-crazed girls blindly following wherever Bieber’s dic—erm, point of interest—directed them. In interviews, magazine articles, and even on “Kiss” where she sings a duet with him, she’s consistently associated with the teen heartthrob. A point of reference for teen girls, a simple façade, but the receptor of Bieber’s attention, something these fans so desperately seek.

Even the likes of Adele and Taylor Swift have their identities carved out for them, whether by genuine artistry or by studio analysts. Adele is brooding, not physically atypical for a “pop star,” and has a voice that elevates her beyond the Katys and the Rihannas; Taylor Swift dabbled in a genre that’s all about consistency and wholesomeness far before she dipped her hands into the well of pop. She got her start crooning about idolizing a country icon, Tim McGraw, as many women have, and has ridden the waves ever since. What Swift does, however, is pen her own tracks in the vein of authenticity. She publicizes breakups and turns trivial moments like Kanye West stealing her microphone at the VMAs into a song that wouldn’t sound entirely out of place if sung to someone who raped her. Carly Rae isn’t really doing any of this on her own. She kind of wants you to “know” her, but kind of really wants to have her song played in a club, too.

But, what’s fueling this desire to return to pop’s roots as a traditional outlet for “normal” people turned superstars? Have we finally tired of putting effort into caring about Gaga’s meat dresses, about the vomit in Ke$ha’s hair? The truth is that people like Gaga and Ke$ha are genuine artists. They pen their own tracks, compose their own music, and even write for other artists. They’ve established themselves as a business with an edgy shell that happens to involve a little glitter and grease. But has the public given up on recognizing their artistry in favor of the glitzy bits? Carly Rae represents the opposite in a time where it’s convenient to simply say “fuck this mardi gras bullshit, I just want a pop star I want to fuck.”

I hope none of this sounds like a sexist rant, because industries like the music business have always banked on gendered appeal whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Whether Carly Rae Jepsen’s success will ride on the genuinely catchy tunes that provide the bulk for her “traditional” pop album, “Kiss,” or her ability to “happen” at a time when simplicity and innocence provide a convenient escape from the cluttered state of the world is still yet to be seen.

XxXtina Releases “Your Body”

Many a workers’ commute were made a tad brighter as Christina Aguilera—diva extraordinaire, human balloon, and all-around pro at tossing her gum into a sea of screaming fans—released her new single, “Your Body,” in the wee hours of an otherwise dreary Monday morning.

Along with thousands of gals, gays, and fans of hate-fucking (isn’t that a requirement to be an Xtina fan?) I, too, spent the day zipping through town with my windows down blaring the pop icon’s latest pseudo-R&B/electro club banger, but not without a typical writer’s bout with self-reflection and a need to expel any and all feelings regarding its release via the expertly written (erm, typed) word.

The summer months of 2012 were an explosive rebirth of 90s pop culture indulgences. Thankfully, no one in my circle sported a “Rachel” or a fanny pack, but we did see an exponential increase in the cultural relevance of Madonna (her “Ray of Light” era counts here, right?), No Doubt, and Britney Spears. If you haven’t purchased music from any of these artists and/or watched “The X-Factor” lately, the 90s sends its sincerest apologies for purging itself of your existence.

Christina’s potential return to “form,” however, comes after giving her PR team the toughest two years of their lives after the abysmal performance of her last LP, “Bionic,” her film debut, “Burlesque,” and her divorce & DUI arrest in 2011.

Thankfully, the Gay Gods answered her prayers and sent her a gig as judge on NBC’s surprise hit “The Voice,” which catapulted her asshole antics into every living room in America. While this new platform provided Christina with an extremely important outlet for which to give herself masturbation material (she thinks her critiques are really good), no perk of being on the show could come close to touching her newfound ability to suckle the vitality of the up-and-coming contestants and funnel it into the flaming release of “Your Body.”

The track roars with the audacity the entire “Stripped” album thought it had, albeit tinged with a bit more nearly-middle-aged sexual desperation; My initial reaction to the song went a little something like this: “mmm damn gurl you still got i—‘ALL. I. WANNA. DO. IS FUCK YO BODAAYY’– *SCOOBY DOO EARS* RRHUUUUH?!” Heart attack and panic as I rolled up the windows in embarrassment, the family sitting next to me in idle traffic casting their Jesus rays my way.

I was not prepared, but I guess I always knew Xtina was a forceful top.

It’s just that she’s doing exactly what made “Bionic” an absolute bore; provocative for the sake of being provocative. There’s no substance in trying to sound like Santigold on “Bobblehead” or M.I.A. on “Elastic Love” (a track I still think she penned for Christina knowing how awful it was) beyond making a point of reference that merely indicates the attempt at being provocative, thereby tearing down the veil of authenticity we so desperately desire. Because we want to believe Christina is penning her own tracks, cutting them in the studio with producers, and touring her music in tip-top vocal condition; but the reality of “Bionic” was anything but, seeing the singer instead dilute herself into a cloudy mixture of genres that didn’t suit her, but probably sounded edgy in the pitch meeting. The bottom line remains that her voice defies channeling, especially into already-specific styles of the likes of people such as Santigold and M.I.A.; when Christina mimicked their vocal stylings, she lost what made her stand out, and “Bionic” resulted in a failed attempt at playing ‘catch-up’ than it did a triumphant sprint across the finish line.

Don’t get me wrong, I love indulging in Christina’s asshole antics, but can she really come through with another hit album after this long? One that does something new—or, for the least part, something consistently well—that showcases her as the talent we fell in love with in the first place? She’s poised for success, but lacking the element of originality albums like “Stripped” and “Back to Basics” oozed with so many years ago.

If we’re to judge by “Your Body,” Christina will see a spike in sales if only for her appearance on “The Voice” to thank for it. The show is promotion within promotion, and it’s sad to see a former powerhouse icon rely on another format to provide a crutch or training wheel support for an ascent up the charts a’la Jennifer Lopez during her stint on “American Idol.” To me, being a child of the 90s, Christina’s voice defined a generation when Britney’s cleavage and coochie were busy defining a fleeting instance of blossoming teenage sexuality. “Your Body” is good, listenable, and ultimately an enjoyable pop outing, but lacks the punch of iconic artistry Christina should be pumping out at this stage of her career. The whole “Pussy Eat Everything” mentality isn’t becoming on anyone, let alone a one-in-a-billion talent often compared to the likes of Billie Holiday and Etta James.

For the fun of it, please picture Etta singing the chorus of “Your Body.” Shade, shade, shade.

At the end of the day, we’re all just bitches sitting in a little spinny chair judging the shit out of the dancing monkeys placed before us. And while I still thought I looked cute singing “Your Body” en route to work, channeling my best “Alicia Silverstone in the white jeep from Clueless,” I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror of what is actually my parent’s old pickup truck; a beautiful contradiction, if you will, one which reminded me that, just like Christina, even the shittiest of vessels can still carry the most beautiful of packages.

Jael Strauss and the Era of Exploitation

Crying and frustrated, a then 22-year old Jael Strauss fought to compose herself for a photoshoot on the set of “America’s Next Top Model” back in early 2007. A friend from home had died only a day or two prior of a drug overdose, giving an eerie significance to the shoot’s theme of beauty in the moments preceding a painful death. Each of the contestants were given a grim scenario to pose through. Some were pushed off buildings, and some were simply shot in the head (quick and easy). Jael was set to portray a model who was strangled. She lay there atop silky sheets, stilettos and lace in tow, staring coldly into the camera as tiny tears trickled down her porcelain face.

The pain was real, exploited by producers with a cruel tie-in photoshoot with bitter relevancy to Jael’s life; the bruised markings on her neck giving new meaning to the words “strangling” and “suffocation” as photographers snapped away and producers hovered over this spilled glass of a situation as not to let it trickle to the floor.

There’s only so much “reality” we can endure in reality television.

Fast-forward five years. Strauss, now 28, is the subject of scrutiny yet again as she goes public with her addiction to meth on “The Dr. Phil Show” tomorrow, where her family stages an intervention for the troubled model. She’s come full circle since that fateful day in 2007. The fear of death and uncertainty ringing in her voice as she learned what killed her friend via telephone, now channeled into some sort of banshee war cry screaming for the “Dr. Phil” cameras to leave her alone. A face once porcelain now tinged with sores, aged what looks to be nearly twice what it is in reality.

This begs the question of how much the “Top Model” producers knew about Jael’s fragile state as they were casting for the show. It’s no doubt that Strauss is good television. Her antics were just shy of insanity, enough to make her talking to chickens in Australia or brandishing a tutu and electric blue wig part of a  repertoire of endearing quirks. But the fact remains that her dear friend died of a drug overdose. Is this indicative of the “crowd” Strauss was running with? Certainly drug tests and psychological screenings were mandated for all contestants of Cycle 8, but I still recall past contestants telling me they’d seen Jael at numerous parties taking endless amounts of drugs and unable to hold herself up on two feet.

Ignore reality, indulge the “reality” fantasy, right? It’s unhealthy (and, frankly, none of our business) to speculate on the lives of others especially when we’re given such miniscule fractions of them to begin with. Jael is, unfortunately, another victim of a self-fulfilling prophecy of pop culture junkies. “Red flag” during filming and “red flag” post-show automatically correlate. Jael was odd, so Jael was obviously an addict. The fact remains that we know little, if anything, about the “real” life of Jael Strauss. A few conversations with barnyard fowl doesn’t crack that lid open any further.

What I can say, however, is that the screening process for reality television contestants (and the format of the “behind the scenes” operations) need to change. Contestants, who have asked to remain anonymous, report to me that “Top Model,” not unlike any other reality competition show, is a highly structured mockery of what a “real” model experiences on a daily basis. Re-shoots, scripting, fake-outs (production assistants telling a girl she did horrible on the shoot and that she will be eliminated only to have her called first at panel), all equate to a look at “reality” through a filtered, agendized lens. And since Tyra’s reportedly not too interested in the contestants after they graduate from “Top Model” (, how are such unstable contestants as Jael supposed to handle something like the diluted version of “fame” that exploded for her in such a short time, only to fizzle out a few months later? One way I can think of…well…meth, anyone?

CariDee English, winner of Cycle 7, seems to think that “they should have evaluated her a lot more before letting her on the show. All they saw was a personality good for television. Well, this hopefully will save at least her life and someone watching. Everything happens for a reason.”

What do you call those who “allow” this sort of thing to happen? That’s right…enablers. Sitting back, digesting this sort of crap television, and processing it via sounding off on the various “personalities” that were all, whether psychologically unstable, current or future addicts, “good for television.”

At what point do we accept responsibility, at least in part, for circumstances such as this? I can’t tell you how many times my praise for Jael during the airing of Cycle 8 was met with “she looks like a crack whore” or “she acts like she’s on drugs” comments from friends and online message board users alike. Since when did insensitivity become acceptable? Is it the filter of the computer screen? The inability to accept the person we see before us as a “person?” I’m in no way saying we are responsible for Jael’s addiction, but we are responsible for indulging in a medium which parades “personality” (AKA – people like Jael) as a freakshow free-for-all. In the end, we only can find comfort in knowing that this proves Tyra Banks’ self-help, “love yourself,” “let’s make a role model-model” piece of television has never had anything to do with modeling –runway nor role.

The fact remains that Jael sought out to be something greater than what she thought her current state afforded her. She sought out reality television to make her a star. A quick-fix overnight modeling sensation that, in reality, takes years to produce. In turn, she was met with a lack of success, an a short-burning fuse as a reality tv implosion. Get famous quick, lose fame even quicker, indulge in escapist fantasy provided by drugs. This is the industry we support simply for a “good personality” to watch fall apart week by week. Americans believe in these rags-to-riches stories because shows like “Top Model” force us into their ideologies where stars are born over the course of a 12-week “competition.” Let’s get one thing straight: modeling isn’t something that can be “judged” or “rewarded” in a weekly competition. In essence, Tyra’s show doesn’t even represent the reality of the “reality” it supposedly documents. So Jael’s descent into drug addiction seems a fitting descent into the, well, “real.” There is no godly “Hand of Banks” that descends from the sky to carry you through to an astronomically difficult dream to attain. This is the harsh reality shows like “Top Model” ignore and gloss over, and Jael is living proof.

And even the “Dr. Phil” clips scream exploitation. We’re making connections to the “before and after,” the downward spiral, and the spectacle of her reaction to the “intervention” that was staged purely to get, as it occurred today, the gossip sites abuzz with fodder in the form of a “former model” (notice how they’re only “models” when they fuck up, because they’re certainly regarded as just the opposite after they’re on “Top Model”) named Jael Strauss.

A consumer as addict and enabler; through our instantly gratified desire for “out-there” personalities and quickfire, meaningless on-air conflicts; to focus groups, tracking polls, and Nielsen ratings designed to reflect just what we want from the networks. That’s one to think about, isn’t it?

Here’s to hoping Jael gets the help she needs.
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The Art/Artifice of Aging: Getting Older in “Bad Teacher” and “Young Adult”

Pain. Loss. Death. Universal fears represent the inherent dynamics of a single emotion. They are things which happen to all of us; terror and comfort, hand in hand, considering we will experience them, but it’s a guarantee we don’t have to go through the painful experience alone.

The process of aging is one thing which, unlike the cold hand of death inching closer and closer to the lifeline hovering somewhere between our heart and head, impacts each of us outwardly as much as the pain of something like death can only alter internally.

There is age the media defines as “graceful” (I assume Meryl Streep fits into this category, whereas Madonna does not), and there is age we tend to associate with wisdom, knowledge, and respect—regardless of one’s external appearance (Jimmy Carter, I’m looking at you).

The movies often act as a therapeutic release for our little human hearts’ existential dilemmas. How we deal with such emotions, fears, and anxieties is a test in itself. We see sadness onscreen, logically recall those things which make us sad, relate them to what’s occurring on the silver screen, and shed a tear alongside our favorite actor and the dozens of other cinephilic souls dotting the theater’s interior.

So then, let us take for example two high-profile films released just last year, both of which “deal” with the art of aging in drastically different ways; Jake Kasdan’s Bad Teacher and Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, and dissect them in terms of their highly gendered approach to just exactly how we grow old–and how some of us choose to deal with it.

Let’s start with Bad Teacher, the inferior of the two, and discuss why it strikes as such a juvenile attempt to glorify spitting in the face of the social responsibility that comes with being an adult. The film follows Elizabeth Halsey (Cameron Diaz), a teacher at an Illinois middle school whose only qualification for molding the minds of America’s youth seems to be her ability to give excellent blow jobs to whichever male is doing the hiring; that isn’t intended as a sexist joke, but rather something that isn’t explicitly stated in the film but also isn’t entirely too far outside of Bad Teacher’s ideology and comedic reach to assume.

Elizabeth does drugs at school, dresses provocatively, is the sexual fantasy of each of her male students (and one lesbian gym teacher—har har), possesses the sole goal of saving enough money to purchase herself breast implants, and actively welcomes all of the pathetic, sexually-charged attention that is thrown her way. Take, for example, the annual car wash the school holds to raise money for some unknown cause; we are to assume that the school uses the money to better the education of the children, but Elizabeth seeks only to embezzle the money to put towards her new breasts. So, she shows up—Daisy Dukes in tow—to suggestively slide down the hoods of customer’s cars and pocket the money her students actually worked for. In essence, she doesn’t need the breast implants if she’s already commanding this amount of sexual attention. But alas, we need a frame for this wafer-thin plot because Elizabeth is unmotivated (save for her insecurities driving her to have surgery and her undying attempts to bed the hottest member of her school’s faculty, Scott, played by Justin Timberlake), raunchy, uncaring (she tells an overweight child—twice—that he won’t have a girlfriend because of the way he looks), and altogether disgusting as a human being. Her antics ring “teenager,” but the truth remains that Elizabeth is a woman of nearly forty years old.

I guess somewhere between the gross-out gags and shock-value hijinks, we’re supposed to find humor in the fact that Elizabeth is a middle-aged fuck up. I’m not complaining that the film presents us with a character showing blatant disregard for morals and integrity; my problem is that we are presented with a woman who is clearly a victim of the same set of social principles that label the aforementioned Madonna as “too old” to tour, almost forcing Elizabeth in the opposite direction of “change” throughout the course of the film. We are given a stagnant look at a stagnant character growing old as a stick in the mud, wallowing in self-despair stemming from a society that leads her to believe breast implants at forty will mask her insecurities so she can parade around with sexually-charged faux confidence. Elizabeth’s reality, however, is that she’s spending New Years’ Eve alone on the couch eating a corn dog while her overweight, societally “unattractive” roommate leaves the house with a case of beer on the way to a party. We’re supposed to believe that she’s a screwed up woman when in fact she’s just a pathetic person hinging her happiness (and, therefore, the expectations of the audience) on whether or not she “pairs” with one of the men, none of which are endowed with any problems bigger than sexual awkwardness (Scott likes to dry hump and ejaculate into his own pants without getting Elizabeth off, but is wealthy and successful).

The other problem with Bad Teacher is that it provides us with countless outlets for Elizabeth to get better, but instead chooses to cop out. The film gives us an unlikeable protagonist and parallels her with an antagonist who “antagonizes” for the socially “acceptable” reasons (for the most part). Amy (Lucy Punch) is a teacher at Elizabeth’s school who, unlike Elizabeth, works hard to educate her students, maintains a squeaky-clean image, and seeks to purge the school of Elizabeth’s presence—as any sane person would. Amy is, instead, presented as being a conniving “bitch” (again, only stooping down to the film’s level here) who will stop at nothing to take Elizabeth down. Here lies the problem; the film is only “funny” because we laugh at the things Elizabeth does. Drinking alcohol while her students watch movies instead of read, smoking weed in the parking lot, embezzling school funds, and contributing to the detriment of children’s welfare in pursuit of breast implants is despicable; sneaking around said offender’s classroom while she’s absent to find the weed she has hidden in her desk, as Amy does, pales in comparison to Elizabeth’s offenses. Antagonist’s “evil” trumps that of the protagonist’s. Are you confused? Your sense of humor will be, too.

So, then, how does the film complicate matters? It pits Amy and Elizabeth against each other to see who can throw the cattiest low-blow in order to win Scott’s heart (as fate would have it, Amy is crushing on him, too). By film’s end, Elizabeth only manages to outwit Amy and get her arrested for drug possession (drugs that were actually Elizabeth’s) and transferred to another school after Amy exposes Elizabeth’s illegalities. Two women, neither likeable but one possessing redeeming qualities (the one we’re not supposed to side with), who end up no better off than when the film began. Elizabeth is unchanged, only abandoning her pursuit of Scott after she “conquers” him sexually in favor of canoodling with another teacher who exists within the screenplay solely to give Elizabeth an alternate opportunistic sexual exploit at her leisure.

The film essentially subverts expectations while indulging them at the same time; Elizabeth is unlikeable, but we want her to change while also achieving what we are led to believe will make her happy; Either that or a substantial reevaluation of her principals to acknowledge that her previous wrongdoings were, well, “wrong.” Instead the film rewards her ability to “hide.” No one is able to see the lonely person we’re led to believe she is, and by the film’s end she is still that lonely person. She’s not had to work for any sort of change that comes her way, she gains it all through sexual prowess, manipulation, or pure luck, and not because she is enlightened throughout the course of the film. She simply finds someone to fuck who suits her pleasure in the here, in the now. She has accomplished “dick” (literally) by film’s end after getting away with illegalities that she doesn’t care to amend. She succeeds in getting Amy transferred for attempting to expose Elizabeth’s wrongdoings. Is there something inherently wrong with that? Dick does not make the woman, my friends. But in the world of Bad Teacher, if she has it, it’s what we’re to assume makes her a “good,” “attractive,” “happy,” and ultimately “acceptable” person as a direct result, regardless if she is still an awful person or not. She is still a middle-aged woman with issues amplified by her age, none of which the film offers to “fix.”

While Elizabeth’s issues of middle-aged ennui are shoved into a cookie-cutter plot structure that offers no solutions to her unlikable qualities as a character, Jason Reitman’s Young Adult, released only 5 months after Bad Teacher, offers an alternate approach with an aging female character in a screenplay which subverts expectations for greater meaning.

Penned by Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody, Young Adult plays as a pseudo meditation on aging women in our society who were born on the cusp of the modern era but are still too old to “fit in” with the Kardashian-crazed, superficially contemporary pop culture icons. Mavis (Charlize Theron) is one of those women, only her problem is that she doesn’t “try” to fit in, she’s simply never outgrown the mentality which tells her she already does. She was popular in high school. Blonde hair, cheerleader, hooking up with the hottest guy on the football team—Mavis had the life every teenage girl wanted, and ends up as an alcoholic ghost writer of silly teen fiction novels in her later years. She lacks respect and she lacks a “real” life. She drinks, she smokes, and still wakes up in the wee morning hours in strangers’ beds, slipping out as easily as she did her tight, form-fitting dresses that bait them to her. Mavis is a fuck up like Elizabeth, but where Elizabeth actively recognizes her status as a lazy person (part of which makes her so worthy of our hate) Mavis is completely clueless, clinging to her faux-fame with a face that looks more like it belongs on “The Real Housewives” than on the homecoming court.

Mavis’ writing technique is nothing to be proud of, either. She’s inspired by (other than herself) conversations she hears on the street between girls much younger than her. She regurgitates the lingo she picks up (she hears one girl tell her friend she and her boyfriend have “textual chemistry,” which finds its way into Mavis’ novel) and pats herself on the back for being a creative genius. The process is halted, however, when she receives an email from her ex-boyfriend Slade (Patrick Wilson) announcing the birth of his child. Mavis, thinking she’s the epitome of cosmopolitan success, takes it upon herself to visit him in his Mercury, Minnessotta home and “save” him from a life of small-town sadness.

What ensues is an hour or so of Mavis’ desperate attempts to rip a happy man away from his happy life so she can fill a void she doesn’t quite recognize is self-induced. She grows jealous of the woman Slade marries, treats the people of her hometown like shit, and whilst incessantly vocalizing her displeasure with all the “pathetic” people of Mercury fails to realize it’s she who is unhappy.

Needless to say, Mavis’ attempt to win Slade back are unsuccessful, with the film culminating in a blowout where Mavis projects each of her insecurities unto the people of her hometown at the baby shower for Slade’s wife. She reveals that she and Slade were to have a baby many years ago, but that she lost it, and that the people of Mercury are “crazy” for staying there while she moved to the city to pursue a real career and ultimately a “real” life. The reveal tells us that Mavis thinks regaining the love of Slade will make her happy; the power of the film is, however, that the audience knows this is simply not true. We’re given enough information about Mavis to know that she, like Elizabeth, is a victim of the superficial culture around her, albeit in a different way. Mavis is chasing previously-established happiness she knows made her feel complete; it was not until she lost the capstone of her relationship—the baby—that she began her descent into alcoholism, loneliness, and destruction. Mavis dolls herself up and surrounds herself with the superficial world of trendy beauty, pop culture, and materialism because she cannot escape the days of her juvenile adolescence where those were the only things that mattered; when it was ok for only those things to matter. She simply fails to “mature” while her body aged, leaving a beautiful prom queen trapped in a body that doesn’t know how to process itself as undesirable. Elizabeth, on the other hand, knows she’s desirable; she’s simply selfish. Mavis is selfish with reason. She may still be an inherently “unlikable” person, but at least her lack of change by the end of the film is supported by the revelation that she lost Slade’s baby. We see her as a victim-turned-monster by film’s end, not simply a monster from start to finish.

Our expectations for Mavis to undergo some sort of epiphany are dashed somewhere near the middle of the film when we realize she is both the protagonist and the antagonist. She forces herself into situations we can see are a bad idea the moment she decides to place herself into them. She merely fails to see the error of her ways; it becomes our job as an audience to make meaning of the journey, to piece together the fragments of her life we’re forced to pick up along the way and forge them into some semblance of a portrait of her life and glean from it what we can. By film’s end, she’s altogether unchanged, but our perception of her character has run through a 6K marathon, spun-dry, and recycled itself into something we wouldn’t have been able to see at the film’s beginning. We see a young girl hurt by an oppressive society, pitying her as she still struggles to overcome adolescence well into her late 30s.

Does either film present a “solution” to anxieties that come with aging? I’m not entirely sure. If you go by the logic of Bad Teacher, one can suppress (or altogether ignore) the fact that aging is a reality and simply fuck the shit out of anyone who makes you happy. A “bad” film crafted around that notion simply rewards the protagonist for, well, being “bad” and getting away with it. She is not redeemed morally, only rewarded because she’s been relegated to the role of “protagonist.” The audience doesn’t “win” because we know she’s a corrupt woman. By the logic of Young Adult, happiness is a seed planted early on in life, one which can blossom to make the best of life’s various obstacles, or one that can wither into the later years of life and die long before the body does. The audience “wins” here because we’re able to see the faults and flaws the character can’t. We recognize her issues even though she doesn’t.  Either way, the fact remains that age and our society are two things that have yet to meet eye-to-eye; until then, no matter how bad they are, let us continue striving to make sense of the anxieties revolving around every wrinkle forming around our face until we’re too old to remember how.

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Top 10 of 2012 So Far: Part 2 of 2 (5-1)

#5 Magic Mike (Steven Soderbergh)

The allure of seeing Adam Rodriguez and Channing Tatum in the nude was all it took to convince millions of people to flock to one of this summer’s most talked about box office successes, Magic Mike. The hunky cast’s bulging biceps and bulging…well…bulges (“bulgi” ? Is that the plural form) came flying out of left field from director Steven Soderbergh, whose uniquely varied oeuvre includes everything from the bio-pocalypse (Contagion) to a porn star making her “acting” debut (Sasha Grey in the fantastic Girlfriend Experience). Whatever his subjects are, Soderbergh’s perspective has always been dark and dramatic, but here he goes all softie on us in his latest release, which is surprisingly a saccharine love story disguised as a tanned-and-toned exploitation of the male body. The vibe is part “Miami Vice,” part Showgirls, but with only a fraction of the campy silliness of both; Magic Mike stands erect (I’m sorry, I had to) on its own as a compelling exploration of gender roles and the amount of power & control either sex is willing to sacrifice in order to reach a happy medium in any given relationship.

#4Hope Springs (David Frankel)

Meryl Streep masturbation scene. Are you sufficiently intrigued? If your answer is “no,” then Hope Springs is your kind of movie. The subject matter sounds as provocative as that image does. An aging couple (Streep and Tommy Lee Jones) seek to stimulate their dying sex life at a week-long couples therapy retreat, following a step-by-step path to sexual bliss forged by a renowned therapist (Steve Carrell). The meatier bits of the film, directed by David Frankel (who catapulted Streep to an Oscar nomination for 2006’s The Devil Wears Prada), exude a tangible sense of defeat we often associate with getting older and “losing” our sexual appeal; but the juiciest parts don’t necessarily involve any wrinkle-on-wrinkle sexcapades, either. Instead, we’re treated to a delectable questioning of what it means to “age” or, in the case of Hope Springs, merely meander from the trail a much younger version of ourselves traversed and tucked away, but never forgot.  Meryl Streep masturbating is just hilarious icing on the cake.

#3The Dark Knight Rises (Christopher Nolan)

The savory bits of the conclusion to Nolan’s Batman trilogy really don’t lie within the individual film itself. The importance of The Dark Knight Rises is, in a sense, its ability to successfully wrap up the series which birthed it, and it does a sensational job at that as the last exciting breath of action-packed air to escape (not as subtly as I would have liked) from the lungs of the saga as it dies. A hero is not perfect, and neither is Nolan’s conclusion to his fantastic trilogy, but at least he was able to show us that over the course of three complimentary films that work as an overall package, despite their various shortcomings. Nolan’s interpretation of Batman has always been a fantasy for the people of Gotham; a beacon of hope in a shadowy underworld, the city a mere reflection what we as an audience should see within ourselves, questioning our own governances and societal positions. The line between patriarchal rule and violent force is something which has become altogether blurred through Nolan’s lens, The Dark Knight Rises his Fourth of July fireworks display; the capstone of his blossoming small-scale revolution.

#2Celeste & Jesse Forever (Lee Toland Krieger)

I’ve really been digging all of these actress-screenwriter powerhouses taking Hollywood by storm as of late. Kristen Wiig made perhaps the biggest splash of them all last year with her mega-hit Bridesmaids, and Lena Dunham (hot off the heels of writing and directing Tiny Furniture) stormed cable television sets across the country with the best show of the year, “Girls.” Rashida Jones (of “Parks & Recreation” and “The Office” fame) joins their ranks as a fresh-minded, endearing actress-screenwriter with “Celeste & Jesse Forever,” a quirky “female” romantic comedy that’s content with anything but sitting in the corner and simply looking pretty. Jones’ performance and writing shows pure beauty of the movies; as entertainment (some of the most hilarious juvenile humor I’ve ever encountered can be found here) and mirrored life, hand in hand, in a film that refuses to give in to stereotypes of a crumbling relationship. Celeste and Jesse were once a couple, now separated but still very much “together” seeing as they live in the same house, hang out, and spend what seems to be every waking moment in each other’s presence. Jesse seems to find letting Celeste go a bit easier than the other way around, but that doesn’t stop the fairer half of the duo from “accepting” her place as being forever known as “ex-wife” in casual introductions when they show up to the same party. Jones’ writing here blazes through the bullshit of Hollywood romance, exposing us to an unconventional relationship with fresh eyes, allowing us to see anew something we thought we’d long become familiar with, sort of how Celeste traverses through Jones’ breathtakingly beautiful script.

#1Beasts of the Southern Wild (Benh Zeitlin)

In these times of political and social turmoil, a film like Beasts of the Southern Wild comes as a much-needed dose of pure inspiration. Telling the story of a little girl named Hushpuppy who lives with her father in the fictional land known only as “The Bathtub” (think Katrina-era, low-income New Orleans), Beasts of the Southern Wild pits a tiny soul against a big world, one that’s far too encompassing for her to understand on “adult” terms. Instead, she resorts to talking to animals, indulging in fantasy (even though the world around her just wants her to die because of her social status), and enjoying the simple pleasures of being a kid; anything to escape the oppressive, prejudiced society that exists on the other side of The Bathtub’s walls. But she’s a child who, by all means, shouldn’t find pleasure in anything at all. The Bathtub is a destitute place, with the majority of residents living in run-down huts in the middle of the woods, dining on raw fish and crustaceans, and whose homes give the people on “Hoarders” a serious run for their money; but that’s just the thing, while Bathtub residents have no money, they make the most of life for themselves. Hushpuppy tells us that The Bathtub has more parties than any other place in the world and that its residents are the happiest. Aligned with her innocent perspective and unflinchingly optimistic spirit, we believe it. The film’s conclusion reads depressing and inspirational all at once, and drives the impact of this powerful parable home exquisitely. The film has a heart and soul that drips with sympathy for anyone who can relate to social oppression, but the true driving force behind Beasts’ greatness is the radiant spirit exuding from that of little Quvenzahne Wallis (practice the name—you’re going to be seeing it a lot come Oscar season), who plays Hushpuppy with a quiet ferocity that manifests in moments of haunting authenticity and the earnest, undying will of a child making something great out of what she’s given, which becomes of tangible importance to the finished product of the film she’s playing in as well.

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Top 10 of 2012 So Far: Part 1 of 2 (10-6)

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It’s rolling around again; that time of year I’m forced to see Oscar-baity emotional low-blows by myself at the local art theater, weakness tissues in-hand, ready to cry my little heart out as strangers stare in judgment; the time of year that makes cinephiles, fashionistas, and Meryl Streep wet with anticipation. Although the latter has nothing to really look forward to this Oscar season (sorry, Hope Springs, no Academy “due wins” coming your way this year), it’s a joyous time to celebrate nonetheless. With major film festivals winding down (Cannes, Telluride) and a few others yet to come (Toronto), 2012 has thus far spoon-fed us heapings of potential. Already, offerings from Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen earlier served only to wet our appetites for what the next few auteur-saturated months have in store. We’ll see films from the likes of Haneke, Tarantino, Spielberg (sit down, haters), and Bigelow (I’m still pissed about 2009, though), all before the year’s end. But the real surprises have come in the form of the art film, as beautiful pieces like Damsels in Distress, Magic Mike, Beasts of the Southern Wild and Celeste & Jesse Forever have already made their marks on the hearts of millions.

It’s still too early to pinpoint frontrunners in any major categories and this list will undoubtedly change in a month’s time, but let’s take a look back at what, in my opinion, stands out from the rest of 2012’s early releases.

My Top 10 of 2012 So Far: Part 1 of 2 (#s 10-6)

Close Call: #11Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman)

To challenge the very notion of what a film “is” or “should be;” that, I believe, is the intent of writer/director Whit Stillman with his latest, “Damsels in Distress.” Stillman exacts his revenge on conditioned filmgoers as a Dada mastermind, using actresses and a self-aware pretentious vocabulary in place of recontexualized urinals and hat racks. We’re plopped smack dab in the center of a prestigious east coast university, following the trials and tribulations of its most elite (at least they think so) group of well-to-do girls, headed by the self-important-but-with-a-tinge-of-pitying-empathy Violet (Greta Gerwig), who takes it upon herself to bestow the gift of social relevancy upon new student Lily (Analeigh Tipton, of “America’s Next Top Model” fame). We see the gaggle of girls interact with other students, flirt with boys, juggle relationships, and ultimately forcibly insert themselves into a young peoples’ generation that’s forgotten the value of pomp and circumstance, although the girls aren’t free from various social trappings themselves. Violet is self-destructive, like June Cleaver and The Joker birthed a baby with a time bomb inside, hoping to correct in college society what she fears about herself. The “plot” doesn’t evolve much beyond that, the film mainly functioning as a showcase for Stillman’s (often ironic) construction of verbal exchanges that function more as exertions of existential musings than actual conversations. The results are often hilarious only because we, as an audience, are fully capable of recognizing the ludicrous outlook of the group, which involves giving away a free box of donuts at a self-help and suicide group meeting; perhaps the other students don’t care, or maybe their blind-eyed aloofness to the hilarity going on around them is what makes Stillman’s mirror to youth so infectiously amusing.

#10Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow)

Whether it’s global politics or a simple conversation with your neighbor about how they were able to afford their new car, skepticism runs rampant everywhere you look. “Safety Not Guaranteed,” earlier this year a Sundance hit, forces the audience into a skeptic’s nightmare  as we follow pessimist Darius (Aubrey Plaza) as she investigates a local man for a magazine article. This is no ordinary man, mind you; he’s got a reputation as the local whackjob, claiming he can travel back in time. He seeks a partner to do help him, places an ad in a newspaper, and Darius responds. She’s had a rough life of her own, losing her mother at a young age, fumbling internships and asshole bosses, and a stagnant love life; all the trappings our increasingly glum outlook on life as young adults has afforded us. We’re set up for failure, and our attitudes certainly reflect that. However, the big question that looms over the audience’s head (can he really do it?) becomes more satisfying as the film progresses, giving us (and Darius) something to actually look forward to, a blinding light on the other side of the everyday murk and grime. The film successfully builds a sweetly subdued (thanks in part to Plaza’s wonderfully placid demeanor) romantic relationship between the non-believer and the champion. The payoff isn’t quite as satisfying as I would have hoped, ending a bit too abruptly, but the film is charming nonetheless, with characters and relationships standing in for the audience’s growing affections for the alluring fantasy of the impossible.

#9 – To Rome, With Love (Woody Allen)

If it’s a love letter he wants to write, it’s a love letter I will accept. Woody Allen’s latest euro-indulgence comes in the form of the aptly-titled “To Rome, With Love,” a fairly seductive portrait of a city he’s very much in love with, albeit characters that are often forgotten in the wake of his affections. Allen’s one-a-year film philosophy fails more often than not (the success of last year’s “Midnight in Paris” likely won’t be repeated), but there’s always something of value to be gleaned from even the most lukewarm of exercises. Here, we’re given the standard Allen treatment; numerous vignettes unfold, the most satisfying of which involving an aging, pessimistic, neurotic American opera director musing on life and death (and the apprehensions that come with both) amidst his daughter’s budding engagement to an Italian man. Other characters include an average Italian Joe (Roberto Benigni) who wakes up one day only to find that he’s literally become an overnight superstar, and a middle-aged American architect (Alec Baldwin) revisiting his past experiences of love and loss in Rome. The locales are beautifully shot, with Darius Khondji’s gorgeous cinematography lapping up the beauty of Rome more effectively than Allen’s writing captures the spirit of his subjects. It can’t be denied, however, that the earnest intent of Allen’s latest is altogether charming, begging us to indulge in a ninety-minute cinematic vacation with one of the most prolific auteurs in history.

#8The Cabin in the Woods (Drew Goddard)

“The Cabin in the Woods,” simply put, is a film buff’s wet dream. If the words self-reflexivity, the male excessively campy assault on the decades of research by film scholars like Carol Clover and Laura Mulvey, who dissected horror films, in short, as exploitations of the female entity for the sexually insatiable gaze of the male spectator. The film systematically deconstructs all notions even casual moviegoers have regarding the horror genre; if you go to X place, Y monster will kill you. If you fit X personality or racial profile, you’ll die in Y order. “The Cabin in the Woods” functions as a satisfyingly critical (and altogether hilarious) vision of the horror genre, playing on elements we know and expect from horror films but recontextualizing them to mean something much greater about the social, sexual, corporate, and ethical norms that most often find their outlets in a medium that’s meant to be pure entertainment; film.

#7Prometheus (Ridley Scott)

This mid-year delight’s greatness comes as no surprise, as anything Ridley Scott touches generally turns to gold (Robin Hood and G.I. Jane, you’re obviously not invited to this party). Prometheus sees the 74-year old mastermind behind Alien and Blade Runner return to his sci-fi roots after a string of lukewarm dramatic releases during the latter half of the 2000s, proving that while his edge as a maestro of “shock” has worn dull, the visionary’s flair for grandiose fantasy has only sharpened with age. The film (is it an Alien prequel or not?) functions as part space-opera thriller, part existential babbler. While the ideas posed by characters in search of the race of superbeings that supposedly created humans stimulate our curiosity and probe the deepest corners of our miniscule human brains, the film finds its footing as it couples such existential ennui with an intense pulse bursting classic sci-fi action. Prometheus’ scope is far too encompassing for one film, so let’s hope the planned sequel(s) allow this would-be series to forge a path of its own amidst the constant onslaught of contemporary space-horror dreck.

#6The Hunger Games (Gary Ross)

The line between pop culture trash and legitimate art is growing increasingly thick, what with reality shows, media sensationalizing, and a growing audience’s insatiable desire for subjects that bear only superficial traces of originating from the human race. While “Jersey Shore” and “Keeping Up With The Kardashians” are contributing to the intellect-ocalypse, Suzanne Collins managed to channel inspiration from such programs into a powerful comment on our society’s willingness to abandon our own reality and indulge in a fabricated one, with her “Hunger Games” book series chronicling the fictional nation of Panem as it hosts an annual competition which pits children against each other in a televised fight to the death. The novels are refreshing and cleverly written, with Collins crafting a powerful parable for our times that criticizes at once the rift between bourgeois sense of entitlement and daily lower class struggles, and further the prevalence of “reality”-based media and its damaging consequences for our society. A film based on a written critique of visual arts sounds like a no-brainer; alas, it’s of utmost importance to judge an adaptation and its source material as two separate texts, and thankfully Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games makes a substantial claim as a fantastic film in its own right. As we’ve seen with the Twilight film series, an adaptation can be mere cut-and-paste moving images merely lifted from a young adult novel, but Ross’ film takes full advantage of the cinematic medium to craft an uber-coherent (surprisingly) film that takes inspiration from Collins’ series and rebirths it into something fresh and tangible for the big screen. Lush cinematography, symbolic juxtapositions, and meaty socio-political commentary make The Hunger Games the first film in a (as of this publication) four-part series that was entirely dependent on its freshman release to build credibility as more than just a teeny-bopper distraction.

Part 2 (#s 5-1) coming soon!

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