Shia LaBeouf is Awesome

With his misunderstood He Will Not Divide Us project, a tribute to Hollywood’s most fascinating weirdo

It didn’t take long. Just a week into a four-year long campaign, Shia LaBeouf lost it…and it was amazing.

LaBeouf set up an art project encouraging people to chant, “He will not divide us” into a web cam in an act of solidarity against Donald Trump. It is quite possible Trump won’t last long in the Presidency, but no one was guessing the kid from “Transformers” and his web cam would outlast him.

As you might guess, Trump supporters and white nationalists have specifically targeted the project as a way of showing they won’t be divided either. They held up photos of Pepe the Frog, they came out to the camera and spoke coded white nationalist phrases like “1488” into the speaker, and they mass ordered pizzas for the gathering protesters that no one could afford. Maybe even more predictable though was that LaBeouf would let these trolls get to him.

On Day 3 LaBeouf was caught on video shouting down a Trump supporter. A crowd of people had gathered in front of LaBeouf’s art project outside the Museum of the Moving Image to voice their support. A bearded Shia was among them, wandering, smiling and bundled in a red felt hat and a jean jacket. He wasn’t leading the ritual but was a gleeful participant. Then in steps a dude blocking the camera and beginning to rattle off white-nationalist talking points. Shia doesn’t break in rhythm, but he quickly escalates, thrusting into the kid’s face and growing louder and louder, clearly rankled. A moment later when they’re off camera, one of the protesters steps forward and narrates, “Shia just shoved the shit out of some Trump supporter.” Days later, LaBeouf shoved another person. This guy asked if he could take a selfie with Shia, and when the two got on camera, the man instead said, “Hitler did nothing wrong.”

Guess who came off looking like the asshole in that situation? Despite the way the media reported it, this wasn’t proof of another failed stunt by Shia; it actually went off like gangbusters. Maybe LaBeouf shouldn’t have gotten aggressive, but he shouldn’t come off like some crazy person either; in fact, he’s kind of awesome. Continue reading “Shia LaBeouf is Awesome”

The Cake Is a Lie: On Donald Trump’s Bizarre First Few Days in Office

There is no shortage of crazy, maddening, Orwellian stories to have come out of the new Trump administration in just the last few weeks, not to mention the whole election. But the most bizarre may have come from a pastry chef.

At Trump’s inauguration, he and Mike Pence cut a giant celebratory cake with a sword. It was a glorious blue, star-studded layer cake that looked so familiar. Too familiar. The chef commissioned to make President Obama’s inaugural cake made the identical one eight years ago, but not this one. And the bakery even innocently posted on Instagram that they were commissioned to recreate the cake as inspired by the Obama one. This story sounds delicious until you realize THE CAKE WAS MADE OF STYROFOAM. It was strictly ceremonial, nothing more than a prop.

Unlike Sean Spicer’s blatantly false inauguration attendance announcement or Trump dodging questions about his tax returns, this isn’t Trump attempting to pull one over on the press and the American people. It’s too obvious and transparent for anyone to have not noticed or for the Trump office to pretend it’s an oversight.

No, this is a sinister coded message from Trump directly to Obama: “I am going to take everything that stands for you, and Mike Pence and I are going to cut into it with a fucking sword.” Continue reading “The Cake Is a Lie: On Donald Trump’s Bizarre First Few Days in Office”

In Defense of Jimmy Fallon (sort of)

Fallon’s Trump interview was bad, but let Fallon be Fallon

Jimmy Fallon was doomed no matter what he did with Donald Trump. In today’s political climate, if you’re not staunchly choosing a side then you’re part of the problem. And in having such a volatile person like Trump on his show this late in the campaign, he already stood to lose the respect of the leftist, cultural elite, but in holding Trump’s feet to the fire he would’ve definitely lost the viewership and respect of the right. Imagine if he tussled Hillary Clinton’s hair or dressed up in a pantsuit with her. He would’ve lost both groups, not just one or the other.

In the numerous think pieces that have been trotted around, the same 15 (scathing) tweets from the same journalists were used as proof that the Internet has turned against Fallon. Vulture said Fallon completed his transformation into Jay Leno, inoffensive and popular, yet to the point that it’s become a liability. Fallon’s the late night show celebs go to because they know he’ll be a pussycat, in the same way it was with Leno.

But Leno and Fallon are still highly different. Leno held firm to a Vegas-style variety show, and with his lame “have you heard about this” stand up and his vaguely snobby snickering at dumb criminals in newspaper headlines and in man-on-the-street trivia, he got old fast because he clung to a segment of the ‘80s and the past that was long past its due date.

There was a point however when Fallon was the new kid on the block, the fan favorite and the Internet’s favorite. Back when he was on Late Night, he didn’t play as many games with his guests but instead performed goofy, often inspired sketches that firstly proved that he was an incredibly talented impressionist and performer, but also ensnared the youth demographic. Remember Tebowie, the blend of Tim Tebow and David Bowie? Or his many stabs at Neil Young or Bob Dylan singing beloved theme songs and Top 40 music? He combined nostalgia for ‘90s TV shows like Saved by the Bell reunions and an affinity for hipper music, like in his history of rap performances with Justin Timberlake, as a way of creating content that, even if you weren’t watching his show live, demanded to be shared online, thus changing the game. Like Letterman and Conan before him, both of whom earned cult status on college campuses with edgy humor, Fallon had become the hot young star all the kids loved, and he did so with inoffensive charm. Continue reading “In Defense of Jimmy Fallon (sort of)”

Justifying Horrible Things: An essay about Louis C.K. and ‘Horace and Pete’

Horace_and_PetePosterIn the third episode of Louis C.K.’s “Horace and Pete,” Horace’s ex-wife Sara (Laurie Metcalf) delivers a gut-wrenching, vivid monologue in which she slowly reveals her infidelity to her new husband. The camera remains firm on her fragile face, and it takes a solid ten minutes before the camera even cuts away to reveal Horace (C.K.) is sitting across from her as she speaks. The more we learn about her backstory, the more she digs a hole for herself. But it’s so descriptive and well acted we empathize with her immediately. We understand why she’s behaved so horribly and why she can’t bring herself to stop. Worst of all, she now has the audacity to look to Horace to help her find a way out, but we too understand why he’s the only one who could.

Call it TV, film or theater, this episode of “Horace and Pete” is possibly the single best hour of art of the year. It explores through only dialogue and character what it is to be on the brink of something so terrible and be unable to stop. Horace tells her it’s like having home insurance during a fire: you just have to burn it all down.

“You really have a skill at justifying horrible things,” she says to him. That line speaks volumes in the moment of the episode, but whether on stage doing stand-up, on screen, or in public, Louie increasingly is all about justifying horrible things. Continue reading “Justifying Horrible Things: An essay about Louis C.K. and ‘Horace and Pete’”

What’s my thing?

I loved Harry Potter. I read all the books as a kid multiple times through, although what kid in the early 2000s didn’t? I remember waiting in line at Target late at night to get my copy as soon as the new book became available. On long vacations, my sister and I would take turns reading a chapter at a time. For Halloween, I dressed as Harry in a custom cloak sewed by my grandmother. My friend went trick or treating with me as Ron Weasley. Sitting in the multiplex seats on opening night before one of the films, I named the four creators of the Marauder’s Map (Moody, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs) and won myself a movie poster. And when “The Prisoner of Azkaban” came out, I got a gigantic crush on Emma Watson (it hasn’t gone away).

But when I got to college, things changed. I did a story for the student newspaper about people who played in Quidditch clubs and made their own wands. Of all the sights to see in London, friends of mine went out of their way to take photos at Platform 9 & ¾. I started blocking and ignoring friends on Facebook because they constantly shared Buzzfeed articles and quizzes about what houses they belonged to, how hot Neville Longbottom has gotten, and what the entire friggin’ movie series would look like from Hermione’s point of view.

What happened? My love didn’t lessen over the years. But I clearly didn’t have this same obsession that so many others did. I was not like these people. I was not a Potterhead.

Here’s another one. I had shelves full of Legos as a kid, massive displays that I spent hours slaving over, playing with and imagining stories. But then there were the kids who created fantastic works of art with Legos that never matched the box. They attended conventions where they could practice and experiment with Lego’s robotics, spawning innovation for years to come. This wasn’t me either.

My obsession with Pokémon probably surpassed them all. I had two giant binders filled with Pokémon cards that dwarfed any collections of my friends. I’d be terrified to count just how much money my family spent on cards over the years. I loved playing the trading card game, even if my friends found it tedious. I watched the TV show religiously and poured hours into all the GameBoy games. Ash Ketchum was yet another Halloween costume of mine.

But what about the kids who competed in massive tournaments and conventions exclusively for real Pokémon masters? I never took my fandom with Pokémon beyond the backyard, but I could’ve been online at a young age, finding people all over the world who loved the game as much as I did. That didn’t happen.

The easy observation is that there will almost always be people more passionate than you about something, someone who is crazier, has gone to longer lengths, spent more money, time and effort. It’s very hard to be the absolute best at anything, be it sports, music or total fandom.

But in the 21st Century, we define ourselves not by how we dress or the games we play, but the things we share online, the arbitrary status symbols and activities that show we stand apart. If you didn’t tweet it, tag it, snap it or Instagram it, it may as well not have happened. And you must not really be a fan unless you’re on the right message boards, have the right followers on Twitter and have crafted an online presence to show how much you care.

All my life I’ve loved many things and devoted myself passionately to many hobbies, but only recently have I come to realize that I never directly aligned myself with any of these groups, subcultures, or whatever you wish to call them in 2016. I’m a film critic. That’s what I “do” but is it “my thing?”

It gets more difficult as I apply to jobs and have to work on defining my “brand” to prospective employers. Someone asked me during a job interview if I was into “nerd culture,” and I had to stumble for an answer. Sure, I know a lot about the Marvel movies, have seen most of them, am aware of some of the Easter eggs and nuances because I need to be in order to do my job. In the case of “Star Wars,” I even love it, but I’d be lying if I said I was the person most capable and interested in writing about it. That’s not my “thing.” I had to say I was a nerd for other things, like Wes Anderson and Tilda Swinton. If only fandom for those things paid the bills.

But even within film criticism, I’d be hard pressed to say I’ve carved out a niche. When people ask me what kind of movies I like, I tend to give a snarky answer and say, “I like movies that are good.” When I say that, it means I don’t have a preference for a genre, an era or a style. If a movie is well made and is interesting, I’m interested. It doesn’t even have to be “good.”

But at the same time, there are some people know the horror genre up and down, having gobbled up every junky, schlocky B-movie to come out of Fantastic Fest. Some people have watched every Bette Davis movie and have a poster of Robert Osborne up in their bedrooms (maybe).

Should I go to the trouble of sitting through every silent film I can get my hands on so that I can call myself an expert in a specific genre or medium? There’s animation, foreign films, documentaries, musicals, digital web based films, art installations, you name it. Will mastering any one of these things make me a better critic? Or more likely to get a job? Or happier? Or will I still fall into the trap of being second best?

And honestly, who has the time? I write about most movies I see, but I watch them because I want to. If I go on a Jim Jarmusch binge it’s because I’m in the mood, not because I consciously assigned myself that work. Maybe that should change.

I’ve also always learned throughout journalism school that the way to get a job is to be versatile. That means being able to write as well as do video, photos, radio, social media, etc. But it’s also meant to me that I should absorb the world broadly. I watch films of all stripes, I watch TV and listen to a ton of music. I read about politics, sports, science and even sometimes am curious about things like cooking or fashion. I tend to feel that if a movie is good enough, if an article is well written, I can get interested in anything.

I’ve been asking a lot of questions here, and I don’t necessarily mean them rhetorically. What can I do to be a better critic, scholar, fan, and even a friend?

Thoughts on Jon Stewart’s final episode of ‘The Daily Show’

Jon Stewart’s final show on The Daily Show leaves much to say about the comedian’s legacy.

Stephen Colbert’s last episode of “The Colbert Report” ended with a cavalcade of celebrity guest stars, an obscure ‘40s crooner that only the real Colbert would know, and a send off not to Stephen Colbert but to “Stephen Colbert”. His gathering of guests sang “We’ll meet again some sunny day”, full well knowing Colbert’s bright future. Meanwhile, the Stephen Colbert character departed our world in the only way that was fitting for such an amalgam on television: climbing into Santa’s sleigh and sailing off into the moonlight with Alex Trebek, only before throwing back to Jon Stewart to reveal that the entire series run of “The Colbert Report” was actually Stephen on assignment for “The Daily Show”.

For one of TV’s most egocentric characters, the Colbert finale was all about him, with a knowing wink that even the fake Stephen Colbert owes everything to his nemesis Jon Stewart, and it was perfect.

For Jon Stewart, “The Daily Show” has never been about him. It’s “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and soon it will be “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah”, as weird as that now sounds. So for Jon Stewart, the only way he could really end was to make it a show for everyone else.

The finale was self-deprecating, it was honest straight-talk, it was a celebration of the enormous cast and crew who have rocketed to comedic and dramatic stardom because of Stewart, and it all felt important. In addition to a goofy role call of his correspondents performing corny, scripted shtick, he also assembled a long line of politicians and pundits glad to give him the heave-ho (Bill O’Reilly has a great line, but my personal favorite has to be Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: “Who has 9 ½ fingers and won’t miss you one bit? This guy!).

But he also found time for one last trip to Camera 3, speaking candidly with a thesis that could serve the last 16 years: Bullshit. Unlike Colbert’s meta parody and Jon Oliver’s in-depth journalism, Stewart broke down the bullshit every night on his show by scrutinizing the media and Washington. He deconstructed the mounds of bullshit that kept the world full of outrage. In 2010 he held his Rally to Restore Sanity but never needed to restore anything because “The Daily Show” already was a bedrock of sanity. “The best defense against bullshit is vigilance. So if you smell something, say something,” Stewart said in his final monologue.

Stewart also gave David Letterman and Foo Fighters a run for their money by recruiting, who else, The Boss. Despite the shorter length of his tenure, Stewart really is an institution of comedy as much as Letterman, but the thing about Stewart is that he’ll never admit it.

Because most importantly about the finale, Stewart was trying so hard to be humble. Colbert took over the reins from Stewart and made him sit and listen to praise, despite his squirming in his chair, saying, “You said to me never to thank you because we owe you nothing… We owe you because we learn from you. You were infuriatingly good at your job.”

For me, losing Colbert and Letterman and now Stewart all in under a calendar year was like a premature blow to my nostalgia. Stewart and Colbert in particular were a fixture of my college experience. Whether or not what I was watching was news, I learned about the world and gained a real perspective on everything from politics to culture to media.

For a decade Stewart has been downplaying “The Daily Show’s” influence on people’s lives. In fact, one of the most telling episodes of Stewart’s opinion of the show’s legacy came not in the finale but in his penultimate episode. Despite his nightly “eviscerations” of every major institution, things have arguably only gotten worse and more polarized since he took the air, with only the Mets’ first place standings to show for his hard work.

But even if FOX News still holds unbelievable sway, and even if no one has been held accountable for the financial crisis, and even if Arby’s is still in business, Jon Stewart’s real impact lies in more of Stephen Colbert’s last words: “All of us who got to work with you for the last 16 years got better at our jobs because we got to watch you do yours. And we are better people for having known you.”

Criticism as a Cost Center: More on the Economics of Movie Reviews

Is film criticism not financially viable or are publishers and editors not doing enough to innovate?

More than anything else, the best and most frequent word of advice for young writers looking to become film critics is don’t.

The point here is not, “give up,” but the sad realization that being a film critic is not actually a career and just about no one in the 21st Century makes a living just watching and reviewing movies. David Bordwell actually put this advice best:

Forget about becoming a film critic. Become an intellectual, a person to whom ideas matter. Read in history, science, politics, and the arts generally. Develop your own ideas, and see what sparks they strike in relation to films.

Some critics go the route of grad school and being a professor or author for a living. Some find passions in programming for festivals or art house theaters. And others take up journalism and learn how to edit or report as well as write. Although the other sad realization is that becoming a journalist is not that much more lucrative a backup plan.

That’s why it hurts to see great, versatile writers and critics lose their jobs seemingly every week. Just this past April it was one of the legends, Owen Gleiberman over at Entertainment Weekly. You wonder how anyone can get into the game if even the people you admire can’t make it work.

The conclusion for why its so bad out there for the movie critic is predictable: the Internet pits criticism in a losing battle against cat videos, Justin Bieber and listicles, and it’s a damn shame that the world just doesn’t respect or value film criticism as much as the rest of us. Continue reading “Criticism as a Cost Center: More on the Economics of Movie Reviews”

Louis C.K.'s 'So Did the Fat Lady' doesn't speak for all overweight women; it isn't trying to

“Louie” and “So Did the Fat Lady” gives lesser seen individuals a voice and is a character study rather than a plea.

TV, its been said, is in a golden age. There are great shows and great criticism surrounding it. But every once and a while a single episode of a single show makes such noise that every Tom, Dick and Harry comes out of the woodwork to write a think piece about it.

Two years ago “Girls” stoked controversy with a polarizing episode in which Hannah enters into something of a fantasy weekend with a hot, wealthy guy played by Patrick Wilson. More recently, “Game of Thrones” stirred questions of whether or not a character was raped.

And in each case the headlines and articles are as contrarian, attention grabbing, thought provoking (and hopefully as intelligent) as the episode on which it is based.

This week, “Louie,” one of my favorite shows on television, hit a homerun with an episode that subverted tropes, pointed a finger at society and made Louis C.K., the show’s brilliant auteur behind so many of its elements, into a character we truly pity rather than laugh at.

“Louie” has done this before. Back in Season 2 Louie learned that an old friend was going to perform a last night of standup and then commit suicide, and whether Louie or his friend has the better case for living or dying is left somewhat up for grabs. In Season 3, Louie connects with a Latin American lifeguard in Miami in a relationship that seems more than platonic. These episodes were clear in their ideas, and they were celebrated because they provided us another point of view. C.K. forced us to think about how media and how society depicted ideas like homosexuality, masculinity, suicide and in other episodes religion, relationships and even the campaign in Afghanistan.

Anyone who knows C.K.’s comedy knows he’s actually quite the feminist, and this week on an episode called “So Did the Fat Lady,” he tackled a subject and a fear that for reasons he lays bare throughout the episode, feel close to home: dating as an overweight woman and the perception we carry about them.

The episode involves a chubby waitress named Vanessa (played by a now breakout performer Sarah Baker) who comes on strong and asks Louie out after he performs. She’s funny, charming and clearly into him, all of which offset the fact that Louie might be a little uncomfortable having a woman he’s just met be so up front. You constantly beg for him to say yes and just see what happens, but he’s got pressures in the form of Jim Norton lurking in the background saying “Yuck” as she walks away, Louie continuing to approach the comedy club’s other waitresses like “Sunshine” and his own weight being rebuked when he’s out with his brother on a “Bang Bang,” in which he eats two huge meals of different cuisines back to back.

But the episode’s most affecting, and polarizing, moment comes in a monologue by Vanessa when they finally do go on a coffee date.

Continue reading “Louis C.K.'s 'So Did the Fat Lady' doesn't speak for all overweight women; it isn't trying to”

Ellen, Tina, Amy and Oscar: Why we need more women in Awards Season

This is the first time in 10 years the Oscars and Golden Globes have both been hosted by women in the same year.

Many pundits saw Ellen DeGeneres’s selection as this year’s Oscar host as “safe.” She could be funny and mocking, but she could play by the rules. She was also a time-tested choice who had proven she could hold her own on Hollywood’s biggest night.

But the Academy may have made a bold choice in picking DeGeneres after all. With Tina Fey and Amy Poehler serving as Golden Globe hosts this year, 2014 marks the first time in nearly 10 years where two of the four major awards shows have been hosted by women.

This is skewed slightly because the Globes have not traditionally had a host in the way the Oscars always have, but Ellen, Tina and Amy likewise joined People’s Choice hosts Beth Behrs and Kat Dennings, the stars of “Two Broke Girls,” as part of this female fronted awards circuit.

Fey and Poehler managed to bring in the highest ratings in 10 years for the Hollywood Foreign Press, and they’ll be back again next year to make out with more Irish rock stars and continue sending fruit baskets to Matt Damon’s house. Continue reading “Ellen, Tina, Amy and Oscar: Why we need more women in Awards Season”

Click Bait: Woody Allen, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nye

This week Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Allen and Bill Nye were all in the news along with Green Day, The Beatles and George Zimmerman.

I read a lot of stuff, and not all of it makes it to my social media feed. “Click Bait” is my weekly roundup of links pertaining to movies, politics, culture and anything else I found generally interesting this week.

RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman

The outpouring of love and sadness that followed Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death last Sunday is not rare for an actor, but it is rare for an actor such as he, an actor better known for villainous, repugnant character actor parts, for the mourning period to be so fervent for so long and for him to have gone in such a horrible way, not unlike another great actor’s career cut criminally too short in much the same way, Heath Ledger.

I likely first noticed Hoffman in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” in which he could not look less like his supposed brother Ethan Hawke, but was in control and was simply scary good. It wasn’t long before I started seeing his face in half of the great American movies of the last two decades, most memorably for me in “The Master” and in his fiery scene stealing moment in “Punch Drunk Love.”

There have been a lot of eulogies written, perhaps why I didn’t write one myself. Here are clips from some of the better tributes I read:

A.O. Scott:

“Pathetic, repellent, undeserving of sympathy. Mr. Hoffman rescued them from contempt precisely by refusing any easy route to redemption. He did not care if we liked any of these sad specimens. The point was to make us believe them and to recognize in them — in him.”

Scott Tobias and the rest of The Dissolve:

“He set off small detonations whenever he appeared, and instantly amplified the stakes. He was the most electric actor of his generation.”

Derek Thompson in The Atlantic:

“He could puff himself up and play larger than life, but his specialty was to find the quiet dignity in life-sized characters—losers, outcasts, and human marginalia.”

Aaron Sorkin writing in TIME:

“So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to say this: Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly “right” for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine.”

And this troubling report about Hoffman and his appearance in the remaining “Hunger Games” movies Continue reading “Click Bait: Woody Allen, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nye”