and sometimes poetry


Young Adult (2011) | Review by Hannah Brooks-Motl

Say you shave your legs. That razor burn around your pubic area is like Young Adult. It’s pretty ugly and painful, right? I mean, muff-burn is fundamentally unattractive: red, pimply, polka-dotted with in-grown or -growing stubble—there is no section of my corporeal sack I am less pleased with, and yet I cannot stay away. I keep shaving it. It seems worse—to my person, to the world—to not shave, though it be vexatious, though I grimace at the razor’s swipe. Going to see Young Adult is painful in the way shaving, or not shaving, or shaving when your groin’s not really ready to be shaved again, is: unpleasant, compulsive, and, if you think about it too much, pretty self-indicting. But then again—not too self-indicting, since Young Adult, like the decision to shave your legs or not, and how far up to go, and whether shaving cream or just soap, and bar soap or Dr. Bronner’s, and which kind of razor, isn’t something that actually warrants much consideration in 2011, almost 12. I mean, Young Adult’s themes, topi, and attitudes feel similarly sophomoric; its points about culture, narcissism, females, ennui, nostalgia—the large existential points it strenuously tries to make—the stuff of college personal essays. High school sucks. Pretty girls in high school suck. Life after high school also sucks. Everything is kind of sad.

Believe it or not, these are actually realizations I will pay money to see unfold onscreen again and again. But Young Adult manages to stall its own gold mine as soon as the awesomely accurate opening sequence is over. Super hot-shit only a few years ago, Diablo Cody, like a box of Stoned Wheat Thins, has gone stale almost immediately upon opening. Young Adult actually includes chunks of dialogue that go something like: Patton Oswalt: “You’re a piece of work.” Charlize Theron: “You’re a piece of shit.” The movie can’t graduate to real analysis because Cody keeps her characters ensconced in a Big Food caf in which such ice cream scoop-shaped slop is slung. Left to wander the towns & parking lots that bloat and line America’s highways like neon whales, YA’s camera says its thousand words; Theron’s alabaster scowl, picking at her scalp and lining the golden hairs up one by one in a Hampton Inn while the TV spits out reality TV hysterics, its ten thousand more. This movie is disagreeable, which I don’t take issue with. But it’s also not challenging in any real way to watch Theron’s character stumble and embarrass herself—she is so broadly bitchified, so lacking in nuance save for the occasional whiffs of social commentary Cody’s screenplay emits like flatulence, that I only felt: gloatful. As though my own 16 year old self had finally delivered some comeuppance she’d totally forgotten she ever wanted. Which she hadn’t, and she didn’t. Go see this movie if you “hated high school” lol.


Hanna (2011) | Review by Hannah Brooks-Motl

Our names’ tattoos curl a thorny path down the skin of our futures, leading us inexorably towards a fate at once preordained and incidental. Names are either important or not. Our first form, their primacy makes them meaningless. It occurred to me, as a little girl, that other girls got named Hannah, or Hanna, or maybe even Hana, but it did not strike me that they might be real, in the way that I was. This is the first fallacy of childhood.

I saw Hanna twice this weekend. After the first, driving home fast and late, a huge slab of marbled bone and meat loomed up from the black stretch of highway—a deer carcass, flayed of all its skin. I was going 70, and I didn’t swerve. I just ran right over it. This is because I am an adult.

In the 1980s, my hometown was rife with Sarahs and Stephanies and Ambers. I didn’t meet another Hannah until I was at least 15 years old. No matter I got called, with my brother Noah, “the Bible kid.” Hannah could be spelled the same way forwards and backwards! I was perhaps destined for some obscure greatness. For who among us has not built their fort out back in the woods and waited for fireflies at dusk? This is the second fallacy of childhood.

The next time I saw Hanna it was with Mark at the mall. Earlier that day I had gone for a walk through the woods and thought about the ways in which we mistakenly hold onto beliefs about who we are as friends, and lovers, and daughters. I remembered a passage from Rilke about how life is full of strange experiences meant for one person alone, and that can never be spoken of. I felt some ancient longing roll up inside me, like a storm from far out across the prairie.

I sat down on a pile of leaves, still dusty from winter, and remembered a scene in the movie where archetypal changeling Saorsie Ronan kicks archetypal father-figure Eric Bana’s ass, telling him mournfully that he “didn’t prepare me for this,” and how the wreckage of her fairy-tale is actually the wreckage of all fairy-tales. How we come of age only when we learn to endure the ruin.

I almost burst into tears when Mark began a litany of Hanna’s aesthetic, cinematic, and narrative sins. This is because I am not really a critic, nor an adult.

The fight scenes in Hanna happen like pantomimes, or corps de ballet: the edges of objects sharpen; colors brighten; the soundtrack pumps. The movie is not a successful “action movie” in that it neither subverts the conventions of its genre nor deploys the tenets of realism. It is not real. It is a fairy-tale. And yet it is not entirely fantastical—the gestures it makes point towards some truth only found in the checkable reality that is our own muddled, pied existence. We anxiously shrug off the woolen coat of childhood, and are chilled; we hide our aging faces in the shoulder of another, like a child. We are chased forever by wolves. This is the third fallacy of childhood—that it exists.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) | Review by Mark Leidner

You can literally smell the cheap glue holding together the pages of the mass market paperback from which The Lincoln Lawyer was adapted. You can smell the airport bookstore in which thousands of upwardly mobile ants of capitalism purchased it, desperate to inexpensively distract themselves from the emptiness of endless, meaningless travel. Meeting Hannah in the food court of the Hampshire Mall before the movie, I immediately sensed disillusionment emanating from her demeanor. Something to do with school, or money, or work had piled up in her mind and was bearing down when she  she looked up at me and said, “It’s all a scam.” Then she listed off everything in her life that had been beating her down, and it was not a vain whine, but a true and tragic perception, and while I felt nothing but empathy as her litany intensified, I decided it nobler to risk offense by challenging her doom-warble than to let it run on unchecked, malingering through her mind like a vile river, tainting all the beautiful parts, so I interrupted her mid-sentence by slamming my fist on the table, “Snap out of it!” Some heavily-pierced teenagers turned to look at us, as did the overweight security guard with his elbow on the ATM, as did the Mexican mother in a black hoodie bouncing an infant on her hip, as did the white slave behind the glass at Subway. “Not everything is a scam, Hannah,” and as the words came out of my mouth I wondered if I believed them. “Friendship isn’t a scam.” I gestured to the surrounding mall. “This isn’t.” I touched my heart. “Love isn’t a scam.” I held my arms out wide. “Family isn’t.” Then I paused and tried to summon into my face everything I’ve learned about acting from the 27 movies I have seen in the theater since last November. I stared into Hannah’s eyes. “Your soul isn’t a scam.”

Here Hannah laughed—barely—which is always enough for me. Half an hour later we were seated, relaxed, ready to be drawn into the Los Angelesy glow of The Lincoln Lawyer. Matthew McConaughey reprises his wily Southern lawyer role from A Time to Kill, which is what you’ll want to have, and about all you’ll accomplish, by buying a ticket. There are two okay things about the movie. Cast and concept. No one is a bad actor, and the legal finger trap at the center of the plot is mildly clever. But Brad Furman’s direction is strictly by the numbers. Remember when Danny Boyle used his camera in crazy ways to make James Franco’s one-scene battle with mortality feel miraculously expansive and multi-dimensional? This is like the opposite of that—a great cast with lots of plot twists and locations filmed through such a flat, lifeless lens that nothing at all appears to happen. The script is equally dead on arrival. I wish I was a two-bit gangster so I could corner screenwriter John Romano in the alleyway behind Hollywood and say, “You wanna write a courtroom drama, Johnny?” Romano would nod. “You know what makes a good courtroom drama?” He would shake his head. “Verbal sparks.” And here I would punch him hard in the gut. He’d double over and his fedora would fall off. I’d pick it up, dust it off, then throw it at him and say, “As in you ain’t got any.”  At this point he would struggle to stand upright and shout, “You poets, you don’t know what it’s like to write under the gun we write under! They’re throwing literally thousands of dollars at us! Real money!” And I would just keep walking, not looking back, but muttering over my shoulder, “If you can’t take the heat, Johnny, stay outta the pictures.”

Romano’s flaccid screenplay and Furman’s sloppy, castrated direction are like jury tampering and attorney-client conflicts of interest motivating the Your Honor of my suspended disbelief to throw his hands up by the middle of the first act and declare a cinematic mistrial. Go back to film school, you hacks! Or wherever it is people go to learn about form. After the movie Hannah and I attempted to restore some semblance of respect for ourselves by strolling around the mostly shuttered-up mall, past the empty Bath & Body Works, past the GNC with towers of protein supplements stacked outside, past the two adjacent mani-pedi salons sans customers, home to two different clans of Koreans eying us grimly from within, past the combined Verizon and WE BUY GOLD kiosk; and we talked about how The Lincoln Lawyer represents the kind of plodding narrative young writers so often reject in favor of experimentation, hold up as straw men in order to flagellate convention in “lyric essays” chic journals publish by the bushel, shrilly decrying the scam of realism, its pat, capitalistic parables, its edification of consumption, objectification, imperialism—objection! Realism isn’t what is codified. It’s like the universe—always expanding—by definition. And its fulfillment necessitates our infinite gymnasium of experimentation and invention. Airport fiction and its filmic correlatives are just the bathwater, baby. As in don’t throw yourself out with it. If you decided to become an atheist because all the Christians you ever met were ignorant, angry, and warlike, you would still be a fool. How many self-proclaimed experimental writers make the same mistake. The defense (never) rests.

Poets on Film (2010-11) | Review by The Kinks

Rango (2011) | Review by Mark Leidner

Toy Story 3 was the best movie of 2010 because it revived the cadaver of adventure with brilliant scripting, realistic characters, and inventive action. Rango takes that resurrected corpus adventura and jabs a syringe of adrenaline into its heart. The first scene—too surprising, weird, meta, and smart to describe—is the best opening since Inglorious Basterds. And Rango’s multiple chases, battles, and other staples of action are so aware of their historical predecessors that watching each is like gorging yourself like a hog at the trough of homage to and parody of all the most beloved tropes of spaghetti western, space opera, noir, Freud, and Homer. Constant, riotous, gonzo wit at machine gun pace obliterates all your defenses against Rango‘s eleven-layer irony-cake of visual and narrative gratification. In one scene, our not really-eponymous hero, an Odyssean lizard and archetypal chameleon with no name—Johnny Depp, perfect casting—turns to a kid and shouts, “Burn everything but Shakespeare!” It was like watching something written by a future, infinitely more successful and disciplined version of myself. As the crowd shuffled me out of the theater I looked back over my shoulder and thought, “I want to see that again.” Last time that happened was Fantastic Mr. Fox, and before that Basterds. What do these three movies have in common? One, an oneiric swirl of fulfilled conventions. Two, a reeling, panoramic sensorium of metaphor. Three, a seemingly suicidal level of self-referentiality grounded in tight storytelling. Four, an almost obscene amount of jokes. Five, cornea-crushing cinematography. Six, sincere, devoted direction. Seven, perfectly executed setpieces. Eight, all squeezed through the estranging eye of auteurial mise-en-scène. No windmill goes untilted at; no saddle goes unblazed. No god of cinema goes uncrucified and seconds later, raised. Rango is generous and savvy in these ways. Gore Verbinski also directed the first Pirates of the Caribbean, another epic that took me back to the theater multiple times. Rango is so decadently good, it seems passive-aggressively pathetic to point out its only flaw: an impatient dénouement. The film could’ve luxuriated in its coolest characters more. And there are many cool characters. Anyone who does not see Rango, or anyone who sees it and doesn’t like it, Fuck you!

The Warrior’s Way (2010) | Review by Mark Leidner

Aside from weeping uncontrollably before, during, and after The Warrior’s Way due to an unrelated depression (I started therapy today), this movie was as bad as you have feared. What happens? A bunch of swordfighting, I think. Also a beautiful woman is there. Geoffrey Rush is there too. I don’t know. It was hard to see through the veil of tears. The popcorn was good. Some jokes were made. The main character has a single expression I would politely describe as “confident Asian confusion.” Why? Clowns, opera, Brandenburg concertos, “French” accents,  Xbox ninjas, computerized stars, normal slow-motion, 1985 slow-motion, Matrix slow-motion, random sepia-toned hallways, exploding bowling pins, skeletal Ferris wheel, red puffs that I think symbolized blood, magical lava mountains, a baby, two babies at one point, a giant sun, a child rapist, “sad flute penis” – an actual line uttered in the movie, except it was more like, “Sad flute… penis?” – you get the idea. In the next paragraph I won’t even mention this movie since if you’re smart enough to be able to read words on a computer screen, there is no chance you will go see it.

Youth! How I long for it. It seems only yesterday I was a young ninja of language, enjoying life, enjoying writing poetry, finding the beautiful sounds and ancient forms dripping with generosity and wisdom and love for all human beings, happily scuba diving the reef of interconnection with all things. Poetry seems so alive, so powerful, so free when you’re in your twenties. It’s like this magical spring from which meaning and beauty multiplicitously burble, unfolding fractally, branches branching branches branching branches, bearing fruit! Then you turn thirty and everything is vapor. Vanity is the ghost that haunts your every waking endeavor, and no verse will save you. Death ravages us all, and thinking accelerates it. And yet, there is hope. As I type this there is hope. In the car ride after the movie Hannah told me a story about a time in her life when she felt lost, felt as if her life had been a failure, and there was nothing left to look forward to. And then she told me how it passed. And how it is now. And I felt better because it was a beautiful story. Too private to detail here. But too beautiful not to mention. If anyone ever reads this and they are down, down deeper than they have ever been, looking at people – strangers, friends – and seeing only nothingness. Don’t give up. There is an order you cannot fathom, holding you. For the first time in my life, I feel it holding me.

Fair Game (2010) | Review by Hannah Brooks-Motl

We are owed a documentary. We are tired of being told we are going to see a “documentary” only to find ourselves staring at James Franco’s face for two hours as he comes to terms with an entire generation’s worth of cultural malaise and thanatophobia; we are fed up with the old switcheroo of “Fair Game” for “Inside Job”—which is what happened to us tonight. As the comfortable montage of “exotic” “espionage” “sequences” began, all washed-out and yet still somehow dangerous with color; and then we shot over to the equally cozy labyrinth of Langley, Virginia; and as the date got typed into the lower right corner of the frame, as though the very screen we were watching was some top-secret government document; while Naomi Watts strode into view in an elegant pants-suit; and Sean Penn stuck his gut and finger simultaneously out and shouted something about America! and Truth! and Lies!; just as the camera went dizzy with a spinning panorama of Washington monuments; while a square-jawed White Male sat on a bench under an umbrella in the rain; and we watched an Arab man in a old, crappy car drive around some indistinct streets dodging bullets and shouting “habibi!” at his child next to him; and Naomi Watts strode back into view, really pissed off this time but containing it because that’s what they taught her at “the farm”; and Sean Penn raged in marble corridors; and people flung thick stacks of bound documents on desks; and evil government hacks meddled in things they knew nothing about; as Naomi Watts found the true meaning of life in a hug from her daughter; and a dusty city with adobe houses shook from bombs; and a gigantic American flag forty times the size of America itself staggered up from the rubble and ruins; and Sean Penn broke down and wept like an infant; and as a single TV set flickered symbolically; in the rain; of America; we leaned over to ask: where the fuck is Matt Damon?