Saturday, April 23, 2011

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Netflix keeps suggesting really quirky, insightful films that I end up appreciating.

The Opposite of Sex is narrated by a sarcastic, manipulative, 16-year-old pregnant runaway who seduces and then absconds with her half-brother's bisexual boyfriend. Throw in the thousands of dollars she also takes off with, a false molestation charge against the brother (who is a teacher), and the neurotic and meddling sister of the brother's former lover, and it's a head-swirling recipe for an edgy and enjoyable comedy.

It did get to be a little tiresome, though, the way the whole entourage of characters kept trotting across the country and over the northern border - Indiana to LA to Canada. That may have been symbolic, however; though the traipsing about North America wasn't very realistic, what was real was the range of characters' reactions to and relationships with "traditional" setups involving sex and love, and the defenses they put up to cope with both. From the media and political frenzy over a gay teacher to ignorant comments about "deserving" AIDS to judge-y comments left and right that are turned upside down, the snapshots are all definitely art parodying life. Even the narrator toys with the audience, telling them what they're probably expecting in the plot twists, what they should be foreshadowing, etc. It's a clever and tactical mirror for the social scenarios playing out in the storyline.

Based on the Netflix description, I expected to somewhat dislike the film, but I actually ended up liking it. And apparently I didn't learn my lesson about not judging a film by its Netflix description, because I expected to be somewhat bored with Me and You and Everyone We Know, but ended up really liking it too.

The focus of Me and You and Everyone We Know are the little eccentricities everybody has that make up their identities. So the whole film is basically about finding beauty in everybody's weirdnesses. Which is kind of appealing, given that the uber-OCD freak in me has been coming out a lot lately due to stress and anxiety.

There were also the themes of not taking anyone at face value, about technology both giving people the courage to be themselves and giving them the anonymity to pose as anything they want, about innocence and cynicism in navigating social facades, and lastly (but crucially) about misinterpretations. Naturally, I appreciated the "new" communications (chat rooms, video messages) both complementing and working at odds with "old" communications (phones, notes left in a window). Then there were the images of self-presentation - the shoes people wear, the makeup they put on, the large magnets that change a motor vehicle from a car to a cab.

I really liked how all the fragments and idiosyncrasies made a believable patchwork of a neighborhood and people's lives - and how the film ended with a generational torch-passing of sorts.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Village people

At a community screening of The Stonewall Uprising, I don't think there was a dry eye in the theatre at end of the film.

It's a powerful and short documentary about identity, safe spaces, civil rights, and political power. Most of the people featured in the film were all at the Stonewall Inn the night police raided it - bar patrons, a reporter, a cop commanding his squad.

Half of the documentary focuses on laws that persecuted gays and lesbians, and on making the viewer understand the very real fear and culture of hiding that accompanied being gay or lesbian before the 1969 Stonewall "riots" that sparked the beginning of the LGBT rights movement began to change that. It's interspersed with horrible propaganda clips from the 1950s and 60s about how gays and lesbians are deviants, sociopaths, and predators; it highlights how people were methodically hunted and their lives ruined for trying to find both public and private spaces to be themselves. Without that context, it's impossible to understand how monumentally important it was that people resisted and fought back during this one bar raid in New York.

A friend remarked that, from an organizer's perspective, it's extremely moving and humbling to realize "Holy shit, there's something huge going on here, socially and culturally." (Having just wrapped up about two solid months of rallies and protests of our own, we could definitely relate to certain parts of the movie about mobilizing people and finding out that you have vastly underestimated the level of interest in your event.)

The most poignant scenes of the documentary were the moments where participants said, in their own words, how proud or shocked or happy they were that the "riots" were the first time they felt empowered.

The film ends with the first Pride Parade, organized in New York City to commemorate Stonewall a year later. It was a great way to end, showing how the momentum from Stonewall was channeled into something enduring and amazing.

Though there's still a hell of a long way to go in America in terms of gay rights, this documentary was a good tribute to how far we've come - and in the lifetimes of pioneers who were there 42 years ago.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

When you know the notes to sing

I watched High School Musical a few days ago.

And I liked it.

There. I've said it.

It was nothing close to what I was expecting. Netflix kept suggesting it because I like Glee, but there's really no comparison. I was expecting High School Musical to be another variant of the same old plot: unexpectedly good singer lands starring role in production, finds love, shows up rivals.

Instead, it was a cheesy but cute story about kids in high school being unfairly constricted by stereotypes: the jocks, the nerds, the stoners, the drama kids. In fact, the title's musical is never actually performed - the tryouts are the endgame, not the production itself.

The acting is bad and overdone (it's a made-for-TV Disney movie, after all), the songs aren't all that memorable, and I can't relate to these young 'un pop stars (though my niece watches the Disney Channel all the time). But I thought it was a cute story with a healthy message that trying new things, taking risks, and not conforming to what is expected of you can all be liberating.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Quo fata ferunt

The fourth and so far final book in the Depression-era mystery series I've been reading took place in a fun new locale: Bermuda, where the small-town Connecticut protagonist detectives are honeymooning.

Unlike Books 2 and 3, where I somehow (disappointingly) managed to figure out the cases fairly early on, in this one I merely identified the murderer based on a short description of his eating habit, but not the motive.

So now my opinion of the series has changed completely. I love the characters and the settings; but the quality of the mysteries are somewhat lacking. I might be a mystery fan, but I shouldn't be able to guess 3 out of 4 of a series' whodunits. The enjoyment comes from the suspense of being completely surprised by the ending.

Having said that, I think this one was my favorite of the series. The tropical location, the classic Agatha Christie-esque crime in a big house with a dwindling number of suspects ... even if it ended on a sad note (the looming Second World War), it was still good fun to read.

Monday, April 04, 2011

It happened one night

There are few things more affirming and disappointing than solving back-to-back mysteries in a series. It makes you wonder if the writing and twists are too easy that your first suspicion (which clouds your reading of the entire book) turns out to be spot-on.

The third book in a mystery series that amuses me, Shadow Waltz was the second where I guessed the murderer's identity less than halfway through the story. So naturally, I had to stay up until 2am to see if I was right; it was a bit anti-climactic to discover I was.

Like the first two books in the series, this one featured a great cast of characters, with the recently engaged detective protagonists solving yet another murder while also planning their wedding.

I'm drawn to the series because it does, in fact, mimic the gritty innocence of a Depression-era film: it effectively captures the attitudes of both noir and musicals from the 1930s. However, though I understand the need to connect a modern audience to the characters, the historian in me is beginning to find the speech anachronisms unappealing - this book had characters dropping the word "pregnant" left and right, instead of euphemisms used at the time and certainly in mixed company.

Quibbles aside, it was still a fun, light means of escaping this upcoming busy week.