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Steven Rubio
Attended University of California, Berkeley
Lives in Berkeley, California
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Still Alice (Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, 2014)

When Still Alice was released, some of my friends had an interesting and emotional discussion on Facebook about whether to see the movie. In particular, those who had personal experience with family and loved ones with Alzheimer's expressed concerns that it would be too much to take, revisiting the anguish of their real-life difficulties.

I haven't had to deal with this problem yet, so I’m speaking as an outsider. But I'd guess they could watch Still Alice without too much upheaval. Julianne Moore is very good … playing a terminal patient is guaranteed Oscar bait, but Moore doesn't overplay her hand, never seems to be begging for an Oscar. There is an intelligence to her portrayal that means she never completely disappears in the role … we are always aware that we are seeing a great actress, not a person with Alzheimer’s. But that intelligence respects the audience. Moore allows us to gradually come to terms with Alice’s situation, just as Alice herself does.

The setup is almost like a horror movie. The situation is established: the main character has a devastating disease. And we know it’s the kind of disease that gets worse over time. Maybe I see too many apocalyptic dramas about viruses that endanger humanity, but I wondered if perhaps Still Alice would play like zombie-virus movie, making the audience squeamish by the inevitability of the outcome. I wouldn't be surprised if this was partly what made my friends uncertain about the movie. Not the zombie angle, but the inevitability of it all. Who needs to see that, when you are living it?

But the film makers refuse to jack it up. It never transforms into a horror story. We see the effects the disease has on Alice’s family, friends, and colleagues, we see the progression of the disease, but the movie’s strength comes on the face of Julianne Moore. She lets us into Alice’s mental world … we look at her face and we know where she is on the continuum. As I say, it’s a very intelligent approach to the character. It is also extremely effective, although it requires an actor as good as Moore to pull it off.

That refusal to push the hysteria is why Still Alice never comes close to being a horror movie. And I think it is why the film can be watched by people who had qualms in advance. It is real, it is sad, but it isn't crushing … the ending is as hopeful as possible, and the basic structure ends up more like a TV movie than a cinema classic. Julianne Moore raises the film’s impact, but without her, Still Alice would be fairly prosaic.
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Finding Vivian Maier (John Maloof and Charlie Siskel, 2013)

(Nominated for Best Feature Documentary)

An interesting subject can take a documentary a long way. The artfulness of the presentation matters, of course, but there is also something to be said for the pleasure of receiving information on a topic you know little about. This joy of discovery is built into Finding Vivian Maier, because John Maloof is discovering his subject as the movie progresses. We understand why he would become obsessed with this unknown photographer with the mysterious life story, and our own interest keeps us going for maybe half of the short (83 minutes) film. Maier was a nanny who took hundreds of thousands of photographs, but kept them all to herself.

We think we are “finding” Maier as we learn bits and pieces about her life … growing up in New York, living in France, becoming a nanny. There are interviews with some of the children she cared for, and even some of the parents. They agree that she was eccentric, and that she always had her camera with her. But there is no real insight into why she took the photos, or why she stored them away, unseen.

Then, around the halfway mark, some of her former charges describe times when Vivian would show a dark side. One man tells of being force-fed when he didn’t finish his meal. It is here that the filmmakers fail us. One suspects that in real life, Maier’s so-called “dark side” grew gradually, but the way it is presented in the movie, it’s as if one day she’s this eccentric nanny with a camera and the next day she’s an ogre. It breaks the suspension of disbelief, and we become aware of how constructed the film is. All documentaries are constructed, of course. Some wear their artifice on their sleeves, others try to hide their efforts. Finding Vivian Maier seems enough like a straightforward presentation of what facts are known that we give in to the narrative being told. But when the darker side of Maier appears, it breaks our concentration just enough to make Maloof seem more than a little untrustworthy.

Ultimately, the only “truth” we can gather about Vivian Maier is that she expressed herself in her photographs. (Interestingly, she took lots of self-portraits, but it’s not the physical look of Maier that I am talking about.) This could have been a half-hour TV documentary, with fifteen minutes of the story of her life, and fifteen minutes showing her photos. Finding Vivian Maier hints at something more, but for me, it never quite delivered. Still, the story was engrossing for a while.

#oscars2015  
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Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)

(Ida is nominated for two Oscars, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Cinematography.)

The cinematographers nominated are Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Lenczewski started on the film, but it is said he didn’t like it, so he was replaced by Zal. I note this mainly because the look of the film is crucial … I wonder what Lenczewski didn’t like.

That look strikes us right from the start. The film is in black and white, which is just common enough for us to accept it. But it is also presented in the old-school “Academy ratio” of 4:3 (like the picture on old TVs, or, obviously, the screen shape on most movies until the widescreen era). We can’t help but feel like we’re in the world of 1960s European art films, and since Ida takes place in 1960s Poland, that feeling is interestingly appropriate.

Since I’m just starting my viewing of this year’s Oscar nominees, I can’t compare Ida to the other nominated films in its categories. But this is a good one. The stark look helps, of course, but the work of the two primary actors, Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska, really makes the film. To me, they are both unknowns, although Kulesza has been impressing for two decades. Trzebuchowska, on the other hand, is an amateur … Ida is her first movie, in fact, as far as I can tell it’s her first work as an actress. Both actors shine, but the contrast in their experience, and the way it plays out on screen, is a perfect match for their characters. Kulesza plays a woman in her early-40s who once worked as a judge who sent anti-communists to their death. She smokes, she drinks too much, she sleeps around. Trzebuchowska plays the titular Ida (first introduced as “Anna”), a young woman about to take her vows to be a nun. Ida/Anna goes to meet her only living relative, Aunt Wanda (Kulesza), before taking the vows, and both women learn something about their past and its still-present influence on their current lives. The professional actor Kulesza plays the “mentor”, the amateur Trzebuchowska plays the novitiate, and their chemistry is the key to the success of the movie.

It is good to see a foreign language film getting an “extra” nomination. It would have been even nicer to see Kulesza recognized in one of the acting categories, although I appreciate it’s a bit much to expect such a nomination from a foreign language film. Ida is a hard sell, a bleak Polish film about nuns and Stalinism and Jews in Poland during WWII. Hey, it’s only 80 minutes long … you can handle it.

#oscars2015  
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I'm having trouble following your argument here, although I admit to a lack of knowledge about the history. Are you equating Ida with Heimkehr? I know that some have complained about Ida's representation of the Polish people ... is this similar to Heimkehr's brutally false picture of the Poles?
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Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014)

Film critics as a rule love innovation, love what is different, love what breaks them out of the lull of the norm. They watch lots of movies, and most of them blend together. So when a movie comes along that isn't like every other movie, it gets a bit of extra attention from critics who, at the very least, are just glad they aren't watching something they've seen a thousand times before.

As everyone knows by now, Boyhood was made under different circumstances than most other films. It’s a difference you can see on the screen. So right away, Richard Linklater gets brownie points for what seems unique (if reminiscent of the “Up” series). Similarly, Patricia Arquette’s performance is lauded, in part, because she allows herself to get older over the course of the making of the film. Ethan Hawkes gets little attention for the same “trick”, mainly because the aging of male actors is more acceptable to the mainstream.

I do not hold these points against Linklater. I try not to let them be praiseworthy in themselves, though … what I want to know is if I like Boyhood, if I like Arquette’s performance, and within that context, the innovative strategies Linklater adopts matter.

Certainly, though, there is no denying the pleasures of seeing the characters (and the times being represented) grow over time in a “natural” way, rather than by the use of makeup, changing actors, CGI, or any of the other ways a movie can emulate a time and place. And I do think Linklater deserves praise for creating a project that could have gone wrong in so many ways. (Of the many anecdotes told about the making of the film, my favorite is that Linklater told Hawke that if the director died, the actor had to promise to finish the film.)

Despite all of this, though, the things I liked best about Boyhood weren't particularly “new”. I liked Boyhood because it often played very much like the best of what Linklater has given us in the past. Linklater often lets his characters talk. He loves words, conversation, he is not afraid to just give us people talking to each other, and Linklater (and his actors, who are often closely involved in the creation of those words) manages to make talking fascinating in the way it reveals the character of the speakers. Granted, some viewers are bored by this, wondering when something is going to “happen”, fretting about the absence of any obvious narrative thrust. (I tend to be overly obsessive about narrative, myself, yet Linklater won me over long ago.) This is clearest in the “Before” series, and in Dazed and Confused, but also in Waking Life (where the “Before” characters have a cameo), and Slacker, which in retrospect is almost a manifesto about the kinds of movies Linklater will make. (Of course, he also slips in the occasional School of Rock or Bad News Bears.)

The structure of Boyhood doesn't exactly lead to a narrative progression, but watching the characters age serves as a stand-in for that kind of forward movement. It’s not that specific events happen that move the story forward, it’s that the characters change before our eyes. Mason grows from 6 to 18, we know it’s the same actor, and in the later scenes, recognizing how the actors have changed along with the characters they play, we see a long-form story emerging.

There is something narrow about the world we see in Boyhood, reflected in part by the title. This isn't the story of Mason’s older sister, Samantha, even though she is ever-present. It’s not that Linklater doesn't know what to do with Samantha. It’s more than she isn't quite important enough. I could take this too far … for all of her reported wavering interest in the project, Lorelei Linklater does well in the part. But there is never a point when she is the center of the story … it’s called Boyhood for a reason. The evolution of Mason, and the slower evolution of Mason Sr., offers interesting insight into the lives of American men. Ethan Hawke's Dad, in particular, is allowed to mature just enough to turn an amiable guy who refuses to grow up into someone who finally seems to accept the passage of time.

Patricia Arquette’s Mom, Olivia, doesn't get the same kind of growth. (As mentioned, neither does Samantha, but her character is more marginalized from the beginning.) In an excellent piece that turned up in the Wall Street Journal, Sharon Marcus and Anne Skomorowsky point out the importance of Olivia’s final scene, during what she calls “the worst day of my life”:

"You know what I'm realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced... again. Getting my masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what's next? Huh? It's my fucking funeral! … I just thought there would be more."

Marcus and Skomorowsky note that Olivia is Samantha’s role model: “Samantha’s mother presents care-taking and personal sacrifice as the deepest, worthiest sources of pleasure, but the film also suggests that they can be deeply unsatisfying.” Arquette is getting deserved raves for her performance, but those raves aren't directed towards scenes where we see her at work as a teacher. It’s the emotionally damaged parts of Olivia that give Arquette the best chance at an Oscar.

One could argue that this shows us the reality of middle-age for women in America (at least in the movies), and we feel great sympathy for Arquette/Olivia. But it is nonetheless a restrictive “reality” that bodes poorly for Samantha’s future. Meanwhile, when we last see Mason, he is on psychedelics and offering the final word on the film: it is always right now.
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Nearly a decade after they broke up, the beloved punk band is finding out how hot their fire still burns
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Late night with +Julie Machado, Holy Shit Edition
Stephen contemplates his newly acquired immortality and joins his many friends in a rendition of "We'll Meet Again."
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Yeah, where was the outrage then? 
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Jane the Virgin, Season One Break

The proverbial project that seemed to come out of nowhere, even though it was based on another show, a Venezuelan telenovela. The title role went to Gina Rodriguez, who had a fairly low profile prior to this. The only person in the cast I recognized was Priscilla Barnes, Suzanne Somers’ replacement on Three’s Company, and she has a minor role. It was created by Jennie Snyder Urman, who as far as I can tell still doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, and whose only previous series was Emily Owens, M.D., which ran for 13 episodes. And it airs on The CW … I can’t say anything about the quality of shows on The CW, because I don’t think I’ve watched one since the network emerged from the ashes of the WB and UPN.

Then there was the premise: a young woman who is a virgin is accidentally artificially inseminated.

But a lot of good reviews convinced me to give Jane the Virgin a chance. And now I’m hooked.

The most obvious comparison would be to Ugly Betty, another series based on a South-American telenovela. Ugly Betty ran four seasons, and I stuck with it for quite awhile, although I didn’t last to the end. Ugly Betty also had a vibrant star in the title role, in that case, America Ferrara. It was larger than life, which superficially lent a telenovela tone to the show, but I felt it soon moved past its influences, for better or worse.

Through nine episodes, Jane the Virgin shows no sign of abandoning its roots. The plot twists are fantastical. They even work a telenovela into the show: one of the characters is the star of a telenovela that all of the other characters in the show watch. What makes things loony is the way the numerous plot threads become entangled, such that the “previously on” segments are marvels of compression. The best friend of one character is sleeping with the friend’s wife. The wife has a mysterious, Eastern-European background. Jane’s boyfriend, a policeman, learns about this affair when doing a stakeout looking for information about an international drug kingpin. The wife is the person who was supposed to receive the artificial insemination that ended up in Jane. Her cuckolded husband is thus the father to Jane’s baby. In the midst of all this, Jane learns the identity of her own supposedly long-dead father, and he is … well, enough with the spoilers.

What makes this all work is the effective blend of goofy and grounded characters. The telenovela star in real life acts like his character in the TV series. Patricia Barnes plays the mother of the vaguely-European wife; she’s in a wheelchair and she has an acid-scarred face and a personality to match. Meanwhile, Jane is a rock who maneuvers through all the craziness without becoming crazy herself. Many of the actors play stereotypical characters, yet between their performances and the solid writing, those characters become real to us, no matter how wildly the plots swing. You care what happens next because you care about Jane, and since there’s a telenovela feel to it all, there is always something happening next. Often, it’s what you least expected, although at this point, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.

And I haven't even mentioned the narration, which works like a charm.

The CW has availed itself of that new habit of splitting a season in two, so Jane the Virgin is off until mid-January. That gives you plenty of time to catch up! Of course, once you catch up, you’ll want to see the next episode long before mid-January rolls around … you can only imagine how many cliffhangers there were at the end of the last episode.

Things could go bad in a hurry, but I don’t imagine that will be any time soon. Meanwhile, take advantage of the opportunity to see Gina Rodriguez in one of the top acting jobs of the year.

(The video I've attached has one error: Jane's grandmother speaks Spanish, with subtitles, in the actual series.)

#janethevirgin  
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Love this show. So glad you told me about it.
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The torture report requires us to look in the mirror -- and accurately assess the monster that we see
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I cannot - yet I must. How do you calculate that? At what point on the graph do "must" and "cannot" meet? Yet I must - but I cannot!
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