Thoughts on films I’ve seen recently

Posted on December 04, 2018 under Reviews

The biggest irony about the fact that I have a master’s degree in film (officially received last week!) is that I don’t actually enjoy watching movies that much. Generally I go to the cinema about twice a year, and when Oscars season rolls around I feel lucky if I’ve seen one of the Best Picture nominees. I am a huge fan of awards shows and always watch them, so this year I thought I’d try to be informed instead of just deciding that I was going for certain films for arbitrary reasons. (My usual reason: there is someone other than an old white guy prominently attached to it.) Here are my thoughts on the first batch of films I’ve seen recently, with more to come as we get closer to the Oscars.

A Star Is Born, dir. Bradley Cooper

God I wish this still in which Bradley Cooper is in the background and out of focus were indicative of the film as a whole.

Listen, I hated this movie so much. I thought it would be cheesy but still enjoyable, but NO. Leaving behind the extremely unbelievable narrative of seasoned country-rock singer Jackson Maine’s discovery of singer-songwriter Ally performing as a bioqueen at a drag bar, their relationship is uncomfortable and unhealthy the entire time. The film attempts to create an alibi for itself by showing us that Ally is a “strong woman”: she punches a cop and tells Jackson to get his shit together, but their marriage is never the “couple goals” the film wants us to believe it is. I mean, am I supposed to like a man who tells his naked wife that she’s ugly and untalented? We’re supposed to feel sorry for Jackson because he’s struggling with addiction, but the film doesn’t do a very good job of exploring that in a nuanced way – and, regardless, illness cannot ever excuse abusive behaviour.

I’m not against the idea of developing the Jackson character (since he is pretty underdeveloped in the three previous versions of this film), but Bradley Cooper does kind of make it all about him and not about the titular star. The entire point of this narrative is that the man is eclipsed by the woman. Jackson Maine was eclipsed, but Bradley Cooper surely did not let himself be, which is kind of like, you know, why not just write a new movie instead of remaking one that is fundamentally Not About Bradley Cooper? Look – the performances are stellar, the music is good. I admit I was immediately pleased to hear Jackson’s shitty dad rock, because it is the only music his character could possibly make. Yes. That is perfect. It’s the actual plot and characterization that sinks the entire thing for me. Lady Gaga’s Ally is caught between the warring interests of two men (her shitty husband and her shitty manager), and even though she attempts to assert herself ultimately she sacrifices so much for a husband who doesn’t even want her to have creative control over her career.

Here’s a detail that I think is representative of the film as a whole: Ally performs mononymously, and we never learn her last name – that is, until the end of the film when she introduces herself as “Ally Maine”. She never has her own identity entirely separate from Jackson: when we hear her full name, it is one that belongs to him, too. From the start of the film, she is his pet project, and then her manager’s. She never belongs to herself. This film is outwardly regressive and even misogynistic. The allure of this classic Hollywood story is obvious, but its politics need to be updated. (I say that hypothetically because I sincerely hope nobody makes a fifth version of this film.)

Beautiful Boy, dir. Felix Van Groeningen

Based on a pair of memoirs by father and son duo David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles Nic’s addiction to crystal meth. Hollywood it-boy Timothée Chalamet does a great job as Nic; Steve Carell, as his father, is perfectly adequate, though it’s an easier role. In general, I think “adequate” is the right descriptor for this one. It’s good, but not great. It tries too hard to convince us that it’s deep and important and sad without ever actually inducing those emotions convincingly; it relies on its subject matter and certain unconventional formal choices (particularly in its chronology) to make us think it’s A Serious Film. Well, I am here to say that we have all seen films with unusual cinematography and non-linear timelines, and it takes more nowadays to actually be impressive.

I have also been thinking a lot about how this is the story of affluent, articulate white people with the ability to self-represent in a way that many people with addiction cannot. David and Nic Sheff are both writers, both able to control the narrative in a way that will always ultimately be read as sympathetic. The film takes great pains to show us that these are cultured people: Nic’s stepmother Karen is an artist; his father is a writer; there’s a framed letter from Keith Haring to Nic on the wall. They also appear to be an intact nuclear family. Nic is close with his stepmother (though his relationship with his mother is more strained); Karen and David’s marriage seems rock solid; they have two blonde little kids who adore their older brother Nic. The film lingers on the family unit, particularly through the innocence of childhood, using Nic’s siblings and flashbacks to Nic’s childhood to assert the tragic effect of addiction on the picture-perfect nuclear family devastated by something they don’t deserve.

I think the most potent message of this film is that addiction is a disease that can come for anybody. Nic’s upbringing, financial stability, and intelligence don’t insulate him from addiction, and it is perhaps all the more jarring that his drug of choice is crystal meth – typically seen as a low-class drug. I’m glad this story has been told. I’m glad there is something in the media that works to destigmatize addiction and to assert – however briefly – that accepted models of rehabilitation may not be particularly effective, that relapse is not a moral failing. But I have to ask why this is the story that is being told. Even the film’s title is a privilege: if Nic were poor, or not white, or from a broken home, would audiences find it credible that he is a “beautiful boy”, with all the connotations of innocence and morality that come with the phrase? Doubtful. I hope that this film opens the door for more of its kind, for stories that do not revolve around the privileged class, but I do worry that the sobs I heard in the theatre were only a sympathetic reaction to this specific story.

Bohemian Rhapsody, dir. Bryan Singer

I predicted that Bohemian Rhapsody would be an overproduced, politically sterile production with lots of enjoyable spectacle, which is basically what it was. However, my enjoyment of this film was at its highest when I was in the theatre; pretty much the second I left I began to feel less enthusiastic. Let’s get the good out of the way: Rami Malek’s electric portrayal of Freddie Mercury obviously elevates the entire production. (I watched several interviews with him where he describes the rigourous preparation he went through for the role: watching Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance 1500 times, working with a movement coach for hours a day to embody Freddie’s nearly inimitable aura. He worked his ass off for this role, and it truly shows.) The concert scenes are generally lots of fun. The supporting cast did a good job with roles that are, of course, far less interesting than Malek’s Mercury. The costume design was perfect; every single look Freddie served was almost painfully good.

However, this is a PG-13 film with Roger Taylor and Brian May serving as executive producers, which means that it’s necessarily watered down and rather sympathetic towards them. It’s formally an incredibly standard biopic, and cinematically it’s not very interesting either. It’s as if this film doesn’t even know how unprecedented its titular song is, and its own boring aesthetics do nothing to mirror Queen’s theatricality. I feel that this film had such a missed opportunity to harness aesthetic ingenuity in a way that added deeper meaning, that supported Freddie’s own singular artistic vision. The film’s engagement with social issues is laughable: a few people hurl racial slurs at Freddie, but that’s as far it takes us on that topic. Freddie is also portrayed as debauched, with a large appetite for sex and drugs, which is in direct opposition to his bandmates’ sober heterosexual lifestyles. (I mean, come on, who is actually going to believe that a bunch of rockstars in the 70s and 80s were models of abstinence?) At one point Freddie throws a wild, raucous party and Roger leaves in disgust, creating a clear delineation that separates Freddie’s antics from everyone else’s relative wholesomeness. The amount of time the film devotes to his one-time fiancée Mary Austin (who was indisputably an enormous part of his life) versus his partner Jim Hutton, who he was with for six years until his death, is very telling. The film explicitly claims him as a gay man but does not allow his male partner any real narrative importance. He is allowed to kiss him a single time. Freddie’s AIDS diagnosis is also individualized, completely stripped of sociopolitical context.

The film indulges in myth-making in a way that is certainly historically questionable if not blatantly inaccurate. It tends to collapse events of import in Freddie’s private life and the band’s successes. The night he joins the band, he meets Mary Austin; immediately after he and Mary get engaged, he receives news of professional success; he reconnects with Jim Hutton the day of Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance. (Notably, it’s his AIDS diagnosis which inspires him to reconnect with the band and perform at Live Aid, though in real life he didn’t actually receive it until 1987.) It’s all a bit too tidy, though it makes for a great story. As my friend Katie said of this bizarre timeline, “Freddie Mercury only had four days in his entire life.”

I guess not everything has to be political, and this can just be a fun movie about Queen with some great musical performances. But it does rub me the wrong way that a film about a gay man of colour who died of AIDS is just so completely devoid of any political potential, that Freddie Mercury’s subversive aesthetic, immense talent, and success in a racist, homophobic society are watered down to, you know, a fun movie that you can bring your kids to. Basically I wanted Todd Haynes to direct this, because he can do a gay period music movie like nobody else. (Imagine if this film had been half as interesting as Velvet Goldmine!)

Also, I spent the entire movie waiting for a performance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its entirety, some overproduced epic montage, and IT NEVER HAPPENED. I mean, for God’s sake, Glee realizes this song to its full potential better than the film named after it. Like if a film named Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t even come close to touching Jesse St. James singing the entire song at regionals while Quinn gives birth, a scene which aired over eight years ago… that is sad. (Anyway I definitely don’t want to talk about my intimate knowledge of season one of Glee, but that episode Did That.)

Next on my list are Widows and If Beale Street Could Talk, and we’ll have to see what else comes out that tempts me. Any Oscar-worthy recent releases you think I should check out on half price Tuesday?

Function of Beauty: Is personalized haircare worth the prestige price tag?

Posted on November 14, 2018 under Reviews

After reading rave reviews of Function of Beauty from a few small bloggers whose opinions I trust, I somewhat reluctantly placed an order. I really wanted to try this personalized haircare brand because the promise seemed so vast, but I also kind of hoped that the product would disappoint so that I would not have to incorporate an $80 CAD shampoo and conditioner set into my regular life.

As some of you may have seen on Instagram, I recently went through a drastic hair change. I finally cut off all the old blonde, and I got bangs. Growing out my blonde has been a goal for a year and a half, and I’m very proud that I finally made it to this point. My hair is now healthier than it’s been in half a decade, which means I feel that I can give haircare reviews from a normal human standpoint, whereas before everything I said could really only apply to people who also had ultra-processed hair on the verge of death. My hair is of medium thickness and naturally wavy; I’m prone to a slightly oily scalp. I can get a bit of frizz, especially in humid weather. In the past few years I’ve started noticing some very mild dandruff (especially in the colder months), likely because the years of bleach dried my scalp out. I wash my hair every other day, though by the end of day two it’s definitely getting to a not-so-nice place. (Truthfully I just can’t be bothered to go through the whole washing and blow drying rigamorale every day.)

When you order from Function of Beauty, you take a quiz about your hair and your shampoo preferences which then allows them to customize a formula that theoretically addresses the needs of your hair better than anything else on the planet. My hair goals were strengthen, anti-frizz, shine, replenish hair, and soothe scalp. You’ll probably guess that I’m most focused on keeping my hair as visibly healthy as possible after years of bleach abuse.

I selected the scent Nude (P)each, mostly because it was limited edition at the time and I had FOMO. It’s now been made permanent. The scene is fine – definitely peachy, though it doesn’t linger in my hair at all after being rinsed out.

Function of Beauty orders come with a card outlining your preferences as per your hair quiz, as well as a sheet of stickers that I will hoard alongside my unused Glossier stickers.

Now that I’ve been using this shampoo and conditioner for a month now, I feel like I’ve gathered enough thoughts to write a proper review.

Texture

I am very picky about the texture of my shampoo. I can tell instantly if I will like a shampoo based on the texture alone. Almost without fail, shampoo that has a runny, gel-like consistency as opposed to a thick, stiff cream will not adequately wash my hair. My Function of Beauty shampoo is a lot runnier than the texture that I normally prefer. This makes it more prone to slipping out of my fingers and onto the bottom of my tub, which of course makes me brilliant with rage when I’m spending $40 on a bottle of shampoo. The conditioner has a much more reasonable texture and I have no complaints there.

Packaging

Get it? Functions! (I think – I was 2% away from failing Functions and that was seven years ago. Also I managed to pass that class without ever learning what a function actually is.)

These bottles are surely very aesthetically-pleasing, from the minimal text to the clear plastic that allows you to see the pretty colours. I almost feel like the main point of the packaging design is to be as Instagrammable as possible, and given Function of Beauty’s aggressive Instagram marketing this seems like a valid theory. Functional standpoint, I do think that we as humans have evolved to a point where we should no longer tolerate any shower products which cannot be stood on their caps. I am used to squeezy tube shampoo and conditioner packaging and I don’t wish to experience anything else. I do appreciate that Function of Beauty sends pumps to use with the bottles – because, trust me, trying to squeeze a brittle bottle to coax product through a relatively small opening is not fun. I must reiterate that there is no way to stand these bottles upside down, which means that when I get down to the last dregs of product – which I will CERTAINLY want to use up given the price tag – I will have to pull some lean-the-bottle-against-other-stuff manoeuvers just to use the product that is by its very definition mine and mine only.

If this were a drugstore product and it did awesome things to my hair, I could probably get over suboptimal packaging. But, of course, if I’m going to pay $80 for shampoo and conditioner, I want every detail to be thoughtful and functional. I don’t want to pay $80 for shampoo and conditioner and then have to work especially hard to get it out of the bottle. That’s just rubbing salt in the wound.

Efficiency

Let’s go through my hair goals. First, strengthen. I’m not sure that my hair is any stronger than it was a month ago, but it’s not any weaker, and I have been using heat on it a lot more often. (At its current length, it really only looks good when I blow it dry. Once it grows out some more I’ll be able to air dry.) I’d say this little routine shines in terms of its anti-frizz benefits. I’m noticing a lot less frizz than I was a few months ago, and that’s with the addition of frequent blow drying into my routine. The shine aspect is about average; I don’t tend to have incredibly shiny hair nor incredibly dull hair, and this does about as well as anything. The same can be said for replenish hair: in all fairness, there’s not much left to replenish since all the damage is now gone, but I used this on my bleached ends for about ten days before I got my hair cut, and it didn’t seem to do any better than Marc Anthony. Finally, soothe scalp – I haven’t noticed any itchy scalp or dandruff, though that could ultimately change with the weather. However, I was dealing with mild dandruff through the summer, which is now gone.

With some of my shampoo/conditioner combos, I can get to day three before I have to wash my hair, but this routine reliably leaves me in need of a wash by day two. Now, this is definitely in part because my hair is healthier than it has been in years – I can’t compare how greasy it gets now to two years ago at the height of the bleach damage. It’s also impossible to stretch bangs more than two days before washing them (in the sink so you don’t have to wash your full head of hair because you have no time but want to trick people into thinking you’re clean am I right ladies?). And, of course, the hair goals I chose lean towards heavy hydration and nourishment, which will obviously leave hair less clean-feeling faster. That said, I sometimes have the feeling after blow drying my hair that it’s not totally clean even though I just washed it fifteen minutes ago, which I’m going to blame on that liquidy shampoo. (I am telling you, that type of shampoo never gets my hair fully clean, and I need to use so much of it to get the most minimal effect.) And while my scalp produces some oil, it’s not exactly greasy – my hair should feel clean for at least a day.

Value

This shampoo and conditioner do an admirable, better-than-average job of addressing two of the five things I paid a lot of money for them to do. While I am very much appreciating having less frizz and less dandruff than normal, I don’t think it’s controversial to say I can’t justify the high price tag in this instance, especially when combined with my complaints about texture and packaging. This is an incredibly interesting business model and I have no doubt that Function of Beauty does genuinely address other people’s concerns in a way that is worth the premium price tag. It’s just not quite there for me: I don’t feel that my hair is looking better than it ever has, and if it is that’s mostly just because I stopped bleaching it with 30 volume developer every other month.

Books Read: September and October 2018

Posted on November 03, 2018 under Books

My reading slowed down a little bit in the first third of October, but I managed to read 10 books over the last two months, bringing me up to a total of 46. I’m very happy with this number! I now only need to read 6 more in November and December to make my goal.

Because I think books can be beautiful objects, this month I’m also sharing photos of some of the individual books that I think are particularly nice-looking.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

To be honest, I thought this book would be okay but not amazing, but boy was I wrong. I absolutely loved the slow, lazy pace, the description of Cameron’s small-town Montana coming of age, the realistic emergence of her lesbian identity. I know some people find it a bit slow, but I thought the pace was perfect, and, you know, teenage lesbians never get the privilege of unhurried coming of age stories so I’m going to savour the hell out of this indulgence. Rarely do I encounter characters who feel as real as Cameron, whose tough façade, genuine conviction in who she is, deep insecurity, and unprocessed grief over the death of her parents converge in such delightfully authentic ways.

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

This is a book about mass, serial sexual assault. It is, consequently, incredibly heavy. It’s based on a true story and concerns a meeting involving eight women from two different families in a Mennonite colony in South America. Being women, they are illiterate, so they recruit a socially reclusive man from their community to record their conversation; the novel is in the form of the minutes of this meeting. The conversation is about the recent revelation that many women and girls from their community (including some of the women present at the meeting) have been given horse tranquilizer and repeatedly raped in the nighttime. The religious leaders of the colony have ordered the women to forgive their attackers, who are also members of the community. The women gather to discuss what to do next: namely, if they should stay and fight this injustice, or leave their community and start anew. It’s absolutely harrowing, but impeccably-written. Each woman has such a clear and distinct voice; Toews treats the topic delicately but completely gets across the immediacy of the dilemma. I think it’s fairly self-evident that those who are sensitive to portrayals of sexual assault (perhaps particularly in the current climate) may want to stay away from this novel, wonderfully-written though it is. It is incredibly powerful and incredibly disturbing.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I have read a lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, so I appreciate when it’s done differently. This is a novel about the flu that ends the world, and it’s also about the troubled life of a thrice-married movie star originally from a tiny island off the coast of British Columbia. It’s a strange mixture, but the opulence of Arthur Leander’s celebrity lifestyle contrasts with the barrenness of the post-flu world – but there is also a symmetry in the isolation of fame and the apocalypse. The world-ending plague has linkages to real-life epidemics: its arrival in Toronto echoes the SARS scare of the early 2000s (I was just old enough to remember that), its spread via air travel reminiscent of Gaëtan Dugas, a Quebecois flight attendant long thought (erroneously) to be “patient zero” for AIDS. What I found most fascinating about this novel was the divide between those who remember the pre-flu world and look back on it with nostalgia and the younger generation, who view things like electricity and air travel as incomprehensible, akin to magic. It’s a very interesting, strange novel. Also, I’m a sucker for anything set in Toronto.

Deadeye Dick by Kurt Vonnegut

Not one of my favourite Vonnegut novels, but still impeccably-written. This one is about a man name Rudy Waltz, who in childhood accidentally shot and killed a pregnant woman and was ostracized from his Midwest community. As a narrator, Rudy seems so far removed from humanity, not necessarily sub-human but somehow inhuman, and he describes humanity with detachment that is borne of his alienness rather than sociopathy. It’s a book about the impacts of childhood trauma and social isolation on the psyche, which is interesting, but it does lack focus. I’m now ten books deep into Vonnegut’s catalogue, and while sometimes I encounter one that I think deserves to be considered on the level of Slaughterhouse-Five or Breakfast of Champions, I can see why this one isn’t often discussed.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, is absolutely enchanting. So far I have yet to read anything by her that comes close to matching it. She creates characters so wonderfully, and in On Beauty she perfectly captures the cerebral pretensions of academics who are so far removed from the real world that they damage their relationships. But – and, given its subject matter, it’s possible that this is the point – the book felt a bit smug, like its main purpose was to assert its own cleverness. It also felt a bit like a series of vignettes that never fully come together; it shares the issue of an anticlimactic ending with Smith’s NW. Reading her books is frustrating because White Teeth was so enjoyable that it’s almost painful to not feel that her obvious talent is realized.

America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo

This is a gorgeous portrait of Filipino communities in Northern California in the early 1990s. The main character, Hero, is a bisexual communist who comes to live with her uncle and his family after being a field doctor for a rebel army in the Philippines for a decade. Her upper class parents have disowned her for her political affiliations, and she must start over as an undocumented immigrant and unofficial nanny of her seven-year-old cousin. It’s a beautifully-drawn story about family, friendship, and diaspora. My only complaint is that the prologue focused on Hero’s cousin’s much-younger wife, Paz, whose story is very interesting – but she becomes a secondary figure in the rest of the novel, which is a bit disappointing!

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

I really enjoy novels about fraught female friendships; one of my favourites is Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, and certain aspects of the relationship between our narrator Elena and her abrasive but dazzling best friend Lila remind me of that book. This novel follows their friendship from its establishment in early childhood until Lila’s wedding at age sixteen to a wealthy businessman. The girls’ respective power relative to each other and their community shifts as they grow up, and Elena ultimately finds herself in Lila’s shadow although she has far surpassed her academically. It’s a thoughtfully-drawn portrait of both female friendship and a country in the middle of a shift towards prosperity under modern industrialization. (I find Italian works set in the post-war period really interesting because the country changed so rapidly – Italian cinema is fascinating for the same reason.) The conclusion of the novel is rather abrupt (and does nothing to address the prologue, which is set decades in the future on the occasion of Lila’s sudden disappearance), but I guess that’s what the rest of the series is for.

Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Fourteen-year-old June is a misfit, understood by one person: her beloved uncle Finn. When Finn dies of AIDS in 1986, June discovers that he had a partner for a decade. June’s mother, who loved Finn but struggled with his sexuality and the stigma of his disease, made the total absence of his partner in June’s life contingent on her brother’s relationship with her. But in the wake of Finn’s death, June strikes up a secret friendship with Finn’s partner Toby, who is also dying. As some of my blog readers might know, I’ve consumed a lot of books and films about AIDS (particularly its early days) and everything in this novel felt realistic, particularly the way June’s family struggled to reconcile their love for Finn with their homophobia and the hysteria surrounding the disease. June was very believably fourteen, though I didn’t fully understand the genesis of her outcast identity.

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

This is a book about people who think they’re very smart and politically radical but who gleefully participate in the institutions they claim to hate. It’s also about a twenty-one-year-old self-described bisexual communist (hey, a theme!) having an affair with a thirty-two-year-old actor who is the husband of a well-known photographer and writer who befriends her one night. I can see why thoughts are so divided here; none of the characters are likeable or display any sort of growth, and their political posturing is truly insufferable. It’s the kind of self-consciously clever novel that seems destined to irritate. But despite it all I actually liked it! It’s full of irony and subverted expectations: that these people can talk endlessly about radical politics while still living privileged lives, that despite the novel’s overt centering around conversations it’s actually about the repeated, sustained failure to communicate, that the sex scenes are without exception a bit pathetic. It’s not really a titillating story about an affair or a politically-meaningful text, but I think that’s what I like about it, that it starts doing these things and then purposefully stops short. The anticlimactic ending is fitting for these characters who are, despite their beliefs in their own intelligence, milquetoast bourgeoisie who are pathologically incapable of making good choices. It all sounds a bit grim, and it is, and I get why people would hate this one. Not really a ringing endorsement, but, hey, I really did like it and if you’re curious I think you should see for yourself.

Starlight by Richard Wagamese

Northern Ontarian Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese died in 2017 before completing this novel, which is about a woman and her daughter escaping from an abusive situation and coming to live on a farm run by a gentle nature photographer named Frank Starlight. There is a lot here that is substantial, compelling, touching. I find the exploration of communication and commonality fascinating, particularly because these characters are explicitly inarticulate and uncomfortable expressing themselves verbally. They find comfort in each other (and nature), affirming their love for others and the world around them in unconventional but profound ways. Starlight is also an interesting character – particularly his ambivalence about his Indigenous identity, which is tied up in the absence of his biological father. (This echoes Wagamese’s real life; he was raised in foster care and discouraged from pursuing his cultural heritage.) However, this novel does feel unfinished, and I don’t just mean because it literally stops halfway through. (I think this is handled well, actually, with an explanation of Wagamese’s intention for the ending, an excerpt from a work with similar themes, and a personal essay in which he explores the absence of his father, who died a year before he reunited with his biological family.) I mean it reads like a draft – a draft by a gifted writer, but a draft nonetheless. I’m talking long sections of pure dialogue, character motivations that don’t quite work, things like that. I think this book is best seen as a posthumous gift to longtime fans; as a standalone novel, it’s imperfect, and I imagine it isn’t the best introduction to his work. That said, I’d like to check out some of his completed novels to get an idea of his writing at its best.

I have a stack of eight books I’d like to get through before the end of the year – I’ll see you in two months with the final tally of 2018.