Tuesday, December 15, 2015

She Was an American Girl

The American Girl books and dolls have been around since the late 1980s. They've been part of the culture for most of my life. But as time has gone by, there have been many additions and changes to the line and to the branding. Some of this stems from when Mattel bought the company. There have been many additions beyond the original historical girl series, including History Mysteries, advice books for girls, the Girls of Many Lands books, and the trend in the last ten years of creating a new contemporary "girl of the year". But I am going to focus my attention on the main original line of girls, and on the standard six books in their series. Each at this point has multiple spin-off books, but this is just about the  regular ones. Recently the company has completely changed and rebranded yet again, and it's the most drastic change yet. It saddens me for reasons I'll get into below as I trace the history of the American Girl book series.

The series began in 1986 with three girls: Kirsten, Samantha, and Molly. Felicity was added in 1991, but that's around where my memory of them starts, as girls in my class at school were into them. And for a good stretch of time those original four were all we had. The girls were each from a different era of American history, with the series covering a year or two in their life. Each girl was branded with a year and that year always ended in a 4; Felicity was 1774, Kirsten 1854, Samantha 1904, and Molly 1944. Each girl had a series of six books with white covers. Each corresponding volume for each girl had generally the same title, and the cover art gave them similar poses albeit in different costumes, settings, and situations.

The pattern for the book series was as follows:
1. Meet _____: An American Girl
2. ____ Learns a Lesson: A School Story
3. ____'s Surprise: A Christmas Story
4. Happy, Birthday, ______!: A Springtime Story
5. ____ Saves the Day: A Summer Story
6. Changes For _____: A Winter Story

Every American Girl had each of these themes. The stories inside may have been unique, but the titles and cover art were basically the same, just with years and girls changed. And I liked that about the series. To me, that was always the essence of the company: that these girls were different, but also all kind of the same. We all have similar experience no matter where we're from or when we live. The structure laid out for the books unified the girls.

The years went by and the four white girls were were joined by some more diverse characters. The first of these was Addy (1864), the black American Girl. While I missed there just being four, I recognized that it was good to have a black girl in the group and not deny their history. So she was a generally welcome addition, and her books again followed that established formula. These five remained the only American Girls for another four years until a Hispanic character was created in 1997: Josefina (1824). Her books again followed the traditional formula. It was around this time that things changed and the company broadened to different types of things. And it also signaled that major changes were to come. Josefina was the last gasp of the original era.

The year was 2000, and the newest American Girl was Kit Kittredge from 1934. Kit's book titles followed the pattern, but with Kit's launch came a redesign of the previous titles. The cover art was altered a bit to be full cover illlustration instead of the original design, and the all-white books were now gone. Instead, each girl was now color-coded and the book spines reflected that. Kirsten was a kind of brown or corn yellow, Samantha a dark red, Molly blue, Felicity a forest green, Addy brown (of course -- nothing racist about that), Josefina a bright red, and Kit a bright green. Kit also is the only American Girl to have her own theatrical feature film, released a few years later.

On one hand, I disliked the redesign of the front covers because to me they were so iconic. I had grown up with them. For almost 15 years they had been the same and now they were different. But I do acknowledge that the color coding was a sound idea to help differentiate quickly. It took a little bit of the uniformity away from the series, the thing I had liked, but not too much. The front cover art was basically the same, just enlarged and expanded to fill the whole cover instead of the upper portion. So while the general pattern was still in place, this was the first major change to the formula.

And then there was Kaya. Words cannot express how much I was bothered by the introduction of Kaya. It felt to me like a diversity step too far at the time. Kaya is the Native American girl, and she is from 1764. I don't object necessarily to including a Native American; they are American girls too. However, Kaya destroyed the uniformity that once existed. They set her at a time even before Felicity when the American colonies were still fairly young. This predates the nation we know as the United States. All of the other girls are part of that national identity; even Felicity though set in the colonial period is from the era of the Revolutionary War. Kaya is not a part of that; she is from a people separate who just happen to live on the same continent. So she's not an American Girl in the same way that the others are. I understand they probably intentionally did that to make a statement about how they were here first, but it makes her stick out instead of being part of the diverse-but-unified whole. That's not the worst of it though; that's just dressing. The worst was that her books are the first set to do away with most of the established formula.
1. Meet Kaya: An American Girl
2. Kaya's Escape!: A Survival Story
3. Kaya's Hero: A Story of Giving
4. Kaya and Her Lone Dog: A Story of Friendship
5. Kaya Shows the Way: A Sister Story
6. Changes For Kaya: A Story of Courage

Right away, you can tell the difference. Only one and a half titles are the same as before! While I can certainly understand the cultural problems you would have with something like book 3 being a Christmas story, I see no reason it has to change so drastically. All the other girls' books were seasonal. Last I checked, everyone everywhere acknowledged seasons. So why doesn't Kaya have a summer story, a winter story, a springtime story? Why does she have to have an "Escape!" rather than learn a lesson? I would have afforded them a little leeway to deal with the Christmas thing or similar alterations, but these changes were drastic. It felt to me even like they were trying too hard, throwing in words like "survival" and "courage"; to me it almost makes her part of the "noble savage" trope, and that's not at all what this series should be about. The point should be that Kaya was a girl like all of the other girls. That's what I love about the series. Instead, they made Kaya "the Other". Titles for later girls would also now periodically buck the old established formula and it would never be the same. Kaya broke American Girl.

Two years later, in 2004, the entire line was redesigned again. It wasn't enough to have the color-coded spine. Now, all of the original cover art was changed to large different illustrations with the title and year in a colored stripe across the top. Also, each girl's name is singled out in cursive. This was the most drastic change yet to the line and again it upset me. Now every girl had a totally different dynamic illustration for each book. The point seemed to be to highlight their differences, rather than their similarities. The AmericanGirl logo now attached firmly to the top of each cover, it reflects the sensibilities of the corporation that sells Barbie dolls with its endless variety held together by a branded strip at the top, rather than what the series was originally, at least to me.


All these changes anticipated the release in 2007 of the new girl, Julie Albright, the most modern American Girl yet. She was from 1974. I remember first feeling strange about how recent that was. Consider, that is just a decade before the first American Girl dolls were released! We jumped from World War II with Molly to the 1970s. As with Kaya, the original structure was largely abandoned.
1. Meet Julie
2. Julie Tells Her Story
3. Happy New Year, Julie!
4. Julie and the Eagles
5. Julie's Journey
6. Changes For Julie
Note she also doesn't get a Christmas story; while it's similar, her book 3 is about Chinese New Year (not even western New Year!) because her best friend Ivy (I haven't even gotten into the best friends thing) is Chinese. So it's more diversity yet again, almost making you wonder why they didn't just give Ivy her own set of books. Why must the Asian girl be the "best friend"?

The series continues in this broken format for the next ten years so I will only highlight a few changes. The next girl introduced is Rebecca, and she is Jewish. So again, she gets a Chanukkah story instead of a Christmas story, and I'm fine with that. She is from 1914. I think she's a nice addition to the series, though again only the titles for books 1 and 6 remain the same.


The next blow to series uniformity came with the release of Marie-Grace and Cecile who once again tore apart the fabric of what made this series. Now we have two girls sharing the six books, each alternating. The first two are "Meet" books, and that's the only thing connected to the old formula. Also for the first time in the series history they are from a year that doesn't end in 4. They are from 1853. This annoyed me for not only breaking the year formula, but because they are the first girls to share an era with another girl. Kirsten was already from 1854. And while their settings are drastically different, I think there are enough decades of American history the series hadn't yet explored or exploited, that do we really need two more girls shoved into the 1850s? Marie-Grace and Cecile's entire doll lines have been retired so perhaps the experiment backfired. Though Kirsten is also archived at present, along with the other originals, besides Samantha who was relaunched last year.


Caroline was then added a few years ago. She is from 1812, again ignoring the old dating system, because she's from the era of the War of 1812. I guess I can give them a pass on that since there's no way to relate to that war otherwise, but part of me would still rather she have come from 1814 and war stories came in dialog and memories. Her books are also different from the old formula, though book 3 is A Surprise For Caroline, which is close enough to the old one that I'll give them credit for it.

And that brings us to today. As you can see, changes have been frequent over the past 20 years, and what began as simple design and branding changes has become an alteration of the entire fabric of the original line. With Kaya, and later Marie-Grace and Cecile, the original structure was all but abolished. Those were the most drastic changes, but yet another drastic change has come. In 2014, the entire American Girl historical collection was rebranded as the BeForever line. What does that even mean? Why is there no space between words? American Girl was a series that promoted literacy among girls, and now it's branded with something that makes no grammatical sense. Clearly it's the thinking of toy marketers. So now each book has BeForever across the top of it. But that's not the worst of it. The worst is that the six book collections have been completely repackaged. Now, each girl's books is collected in 2 volume "classic collections" and each has a different title. For example, Samantha's first three books are now collected as Manners and Mischief and the latter three as Lost and Found. This is the final nail in the coffin for the original pattern. Almost all of the uniformity is now gone, replaced with a new structure of 2 omnibuses in the BeForever line. The color coding is now changed as well, and the girls who were archived are not currently part of the BeForever line.


The one bright spot in the BeForever launch is the introduction of the newest girl, the first exclusive to this line. Her name is Maryellen, she was released this year, and she is from 1954. That return to the year ending in 4 is welcome, and I love that they went with the '50s. When Julie was released I questioned the move to the '70s when the '50s and '60s were untapped. I think her outfits are cool and there's a nice '50s aesthetic. It is sad though that she will never have the 6 books the others had; she gets only the 2 BeForever volumes. While they roughly correspond to what would have been the 6 books, it's still a shame, I think. She's the first one to not even get a "Meet ____" book.

I think what saddens me most about these changes over the years is that the elements I thought of as the core of the series are all but abolished. Sure, there's a nostalgia for the old way and that's part of it, but I also think there was really something to the uniformity. It wasn't just a marketing thing; it told you that there was a unity of experience. I know that American Girl is a doll company. I know they want to sell expensive dolls. But they always were, and in the best of circumstances the dolls sell the books and the books sell the dolls. There was a synergy there. To me, it seems that the company has shifted too far into thinking like doll-makers, treating the books like an afterthought or means to an end. I hope that this doesn't continue, but that instead they foster each as they can. I don't want American Girl to be just another example of corporate oversaturation. If the new BeForever branding at least helps to put a kind of uniformity back into the series, maybe that's good. Where do they go from here? There are so many other decades. There are fourteen historical American Girls, and yet there has not been a single redhead. Maryellen is kind of strawberry blonde. So if I had any say in it, the next American Girl would be a redhead, maybe set in the 1880s or 1890s. Make her an Irish immigrant, perhaps? I still believe in what the series can be: a way to make history real for kids and show them that it's our similarities across borders, boundaries, and time that ultimately unite us.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Black Lives Matter

Where I live in New England, one of the most common forms of wildlife is the squirrel. You see them everywhere. Particularly, the grey squirrel. If you grow up in this area and imagine a squirrel, that's the one you picture. So it might surprise some to learn there are other squirrels.

In Europe there are red squirrels. If you've seen Disney's The Sword in the Stone you might remember the girl squirrel was red. There is also an American red squirrel. We don't really see them as much around these parts.

And then there are black squirrels. I had a teacher who was so convinced black squirrels do not exist because she had never seen one. And for most of my life I hadn't seen one either. But I have seen them in Canada. They also live out in the western parts of Massachusetts. So I associate them with the northern and western areas. They are common in the midwest, apparently. But as long as I've lived, I've never seen them as far east as where I am.

That changed recently. I've been taking extra work on the north end of town, and in my walking over the past few months I've noticed black squirrels in the area by Framingham High School. I have walked down here many times before and never seen black squirrels. This seems to me to be a recent development. If indeed it is, I wonder what has caused the black squirrel population to migrate further southeast? Will we start seeing more black squirrels as the years go by? Will the blacks fight the greys for dominance?

I am curious why I'm seeing black squirrels here now. If you've never seen one, take a stroll down here and keep your eyes open.

Oh, and this should go without saying but just in case: there's nothing political about this post, despite the title. It's not a metaphor; it's just about squirrels. But interestingly as I read up on them, the black squirrels are basically the same species as the grey squirrels, just with a mutation causing different pigmentation. So black squirrels are to grey essentially as black people are to white. Again, no metaphor there, I just find it interesting.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Peppermint Patty is Not Gay

Okay, this has been bothering me for some time now and I really need to get it off my chest.

Here goes...

Peppermint Patty is not gay. And neither is Marcie. This is one of those "pop culture" things that will not die and I'm so so so tired of it. As recently as last month, Entertainment Weekly had a little sidebar in their gay pride issue about TV characters who gays identify with and one of them was Peppermint Patty. I can understand why people would relate to her, but that doesn't make her gay. I relate to Ariel, but that doesn't make me a sixteen year old girl or a mermaid, nor does it make Ariel a man.

Peppermint Patty is a tomboy, and she definitely stands out from the other girls of the Peanuts universe. Sally, Lucy, Patty (the other one that no one remembers), Violet all wear dresses. Peppermint Patty doesn't. She's athletic. And in most animated specials, she's got kind of a husky voice. But to take all of these things at face value and label her lesbian because of them is to deny her her identity for one ascribed to her, and to rob her of her nuance.

She's being raised by her father without her mother. Her psychology makes perfect sense that she would associate herself with more masculine attributes, as she's very close to her dad. There's a series of strips where the school demands she adhere to a new dresscode and stop wearing sandals and shorts. She doesn't feel like herself. And yet, this is not to say there is nothing feminine about her. For there is also a series in which she takes up figure skating and signs up for a competition. These were worked into the animated special She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown. And in these, a decent amount of focus is put on the perfect skating outfit to wear. What she chooses is something feminine and skirted with sequins. To write her off as the butch baseball player is putting her in a box.

To ascribe a sexual attraction to girls to poor Peppermint Patty is to ignore the many many hints that she is attracted to Charlie Brown. It's a little bit tragic, since he's infatuated with the Little Red Haired Girl, and thus doesn't know what to do with her advances. But she certainly does make advances. How many times does she flirt with him with a "you kinda like me, dontcha Chuck?" She has only ever shown this sort of attraction to Charlie Brown. It's not as overt as Sally's crush on Linus, Lucy's attempts to woo Schroeder, or even Linus' brief infatuation with Miss Othmar, but it is absolutely there nonetheless.

June 13, 1972

Part of what seals the image of lesbian Peppermint Patty is her connection to Marcie. Indeed, some even suggest that it's Marcie who's gay. A recent Big Bang Theory agreed when Leonard, after it was suggested Peppermint Patty was gay said, "That's Marcie. Peppermint Patty's just athletic." Yes, Patty is just athletic, but neither does that prove Marcie is gay.

Why do people think Marcie is gay, or that the two are some sort of couple? Is it because they are always together? Linus and Charlie Brown are always together, and no one is suggesting they do unspeakable things beneath that blanket. Patty and Marcie hang out together all the time because they live on the other end of town (or in a neighboring town). Remember that Peppermint Patty's got her own baseball team separate from the rest of the gang. So she's going to spend more time with people closer to her.

I think some people assume that Marcie thinks Peppermint Patty is a boy, and that's why she calls her "Sir". Perhaps her poor vision plays into this, as Marcie wears glasses. But if that's the case, it would also be evidence against Marcie being gay, for even if she were attracted to Peppermint Patty it would be under the assumption she's male. But in reality, this reading is incorrect as well. Marcie is well aware Patty is a girl. The "sir" thing comes up as a sign of respect because when they first met, Peppermint Patty was a counselor at the girls' camp where they both were for the summer.

This is the first appearance of Marcie:

July 20, 1971

So obviously Marcie calls her "sir" not because she's mistaken for a boy, but because she's in a leadership role, and Marcie's kind of a dork. I think Schulz kept the "sir" thing because he liked running gags. It also makes Marcie seems subservient to Peppermint Patty even though she's often really the brains of the operation. It's a relationship dynamic that works well comedically. But if all we've got to go on for this lesbian relationship is that, it's a very weak foundation.

June 8, 1972

Peppermint Patty and Marcie are just best friends and to insinuate anything beyond that is to suggest something strange about same-sex friendship. Just because people are close does not mean they are more than friends. And just because one friend is more "masculine" doesn't mean they are more than friends. And again, no one has suggested anything about any of the male characters being gay. I could say "Schroeder is totally gay for Beethoven and that's why Lucy doesn't get anywhere with him", but that would be ascribing things based on very little evidence. In fact, there's even a couple strips where Marcie admits she loves Charlie Brown, too. 
July 22, 1979

But hey, why take a character's words at face value when we can read them as queer pioneers?

I don't deny that in some ways Peppermint Patty is an outlier, and I can understand why gay viewers would relate to her. However, to try to put her and Marcie into this box because you want her to be that way is unfair to both characters. And from a broader standpoint, it suggests that sexual orientation is easily identified by external factors and trains readers to think "Of course this person is gay because..." I fear this does a disservice to everyone, gay and straight alike. It's like Ernie and Bert. People love to joke about them being gay, as if it's absurd to have a best friend. They've got separate beds. Maybe they're roommates because they took the cheapest apartment they could find in a puppet-friendly neighborhood. Anyway, by saying, "Oh, those are the gay ones," we undermine existing relationships and perhaps even foster homophobia. Maybe some athletic girl like Peppermint Patty doesn't want to be mistaken for a lesbian, and so she stops associating with her best friend. 

I'm tired of the armchair psychology that wants to ascribe sexual orientation to comic strip characters where no real evidence exists. The fact that so many have come to think of Peppermint Patty and Marcie as the Peanuts lesbians is I think really kind of sad. And I wanted to set the record straight. Peppermint Patty is not gay. She's a complex, funny, lazy, athletic, masculine, feminine character. In short, she's a girl. And she doesn't need any other qualifier. Neither does Marcie.

July 21, 1979

Sunday, May 10, 2015

You're Not Fooling Anyone!

This is one of those things that drives me crazy, and Maria Bamford proves no one is falling for it.

"I wouldn't get mad, but they are trying to trick me!" Exactly right. Why resort to cheap ploys to get butts in the seats. Why try to be "relevant", and what does that even mean?

I personally will never set foot in any church that calls itself a "coffee shop". Stop playing pretend, you're not fooling anyone.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Baa Ram Ewe!

Today is what on the Christian calendar is known as Good Friday (unless you belong to the Orthodox tradition, in which case it's next week). [Incidentally, I'm sorry if some of my readers dislike when I get "religious", particularly as it seems more of a focus of my posts recently. But I only really write these days when I feel like I have something to say, and that just happens to be matters of faith these days. This blog was always a random assortment of content and topics. I have no intention of making it an exclusive Jesus blog, nor of avoiding Him in total. These posts and essays reflect all aspects of who I am and the things I think about.]

I live in a part of town that's not great. It's literally the "wrong side of the tracks", and there are people down here that can be colorful characters. Our walls are thin so we hear a lot of what goes on outside. There's a freight train that passes right by our place at all hours of the day. You can hear every time a dog barks across the street. And I won't mention the sounds you can hear from neighboring apartments. So it's no surprise to hear people yell things outside. Every now and then, there will be some sort of traffic and someone will honk and shout at someone. Or people will shout at each other on the street for whatever reason. And in this part of town, it's not exactly an uncommon occurrence.

That's all background so you'll understand it wasn't exactly a surprise that today I was on the computer and randomly hear from down outside some guy yelling out of his car as he passed by. But what he yelled, still felt random. All of a sudden out of nowhere I hear this guy yell, "God damn you!" I don't know who he was talking to (certainly not me; I'm up on the second floor) or why. But it was almost funny because he dragged the words out like a cartoon villain shouting, "I will have vengeance!" or something. And that sound traveled with the doppler effect of his car passing by. So I'm minding my own business and all of a sudden out of nowhere I hear this voice pass by: "Goooooood daaaamn yooooooooooouuuuu!!!!" It really was almost funny, the way it sounded like someone's last words as they plummet from a cliff.

But strangely, this random voice got me thinking about Good Friday. Maybe you don't literally have someone driving by cursing cartoonishly, but there's a voice out there shouting "God damn you!" at you. The Bible calls Satan the Accuser, and says he acts as a kind of prosecutorial adversary against you before God. Satan, in a sense, is constantly passing by your door, hanging his head out his window at you and shouting, "God damn you!" Sometimes we're racked with our own guilt; sometimes we're assaulted with feelings of our own worthlessness. But all of these are manifestations of Satan shouting "Goooood daaaaamn yooooooouuuu!" (For clarity's sake, guilt that comes from conviction and knowledge of your wrongdoing, the sort that leads you to repentence, is not what I'm talking about. That's the work of the Holy Spirit and it leads you to God. The accusations of Satan lead you to despair.)

On the other hand, the guy's words also reminded me, because they rhyme, of the 1995 family movie Babe and it's repeated little verse of "Baa ram ewe". In the movie, Babe is a pig who is raised by a sheepdog and grows up to take on that role for a farmer. He is able to command the sheep with a little rhyme that begins "Baa ram ewe". When the sheep hear it, they follow his lead. If it wouldn't offend his Jewish sensibilities, Jesus was like Babe the pig. His sheep know his voice and follow him. Instead of listening to the "God damn you"s out there, they follow Jesus as he says "Baa ram ewe".

I'm reminded this time of year of the saving power of the risen Christ, the Good Shepherd who gave his life for his sheep. If we heed his call, we need not listen to the voice shouting curses at us. Even if we feel worthless, we have been saved from damnation and are not to believe the lies of the enemy. I want to encourage you, if you feel the constant cursing of God's damnation toward you, to cling to Jesus. Maybe you're haunted by something you've done or you've never given thought to God before but are afraid. It's true, there is ultimate damnation for those who reject him, but God doesn't want that; he's waiting to accept you. Just as there may be a voice out there calling for your end, another voice calls, "Come to me! Baa ram ewe!" And if you are a follower of Christ, I encourage you to remember the voice condemning you is not of God, but a desperate cry of a being whose damnation was sealed Easter weekend over 2000 years ago.

"Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death." -Romans 8:1-2

Baa ram ewe! Baa ram ewe!
To your breed, your fleece, your clan be true!
Sheep be true! Baa ram ewe!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2014

Once again, I must state that this list covers only those movies I've seen to date. I missed a lot of good movies this past year for a number of reasons. Whittling down to an arbitrary ten can also be difficult. And of course, your mileage may vary. But with the Oscars on Sunday, I thought I should get this up.

10. The Judge -- I debated this tenth slot, but ultimately thought I enjoyed this one enough to warrant it. Robert Downey Jr. is a slick city lawyer who has to defend his father, a big time country judge, on charges of vehicular manslaughter. It's a bit old-fashioned, but there are great performances from RDJ and Robert Duvall. Unfortunately, there's also way too much screen time given to a subplot with Vera Farmiga that doesn't really need to be there. The cast makes it a worthwhile viewing.

9. Noah -- The movie that sharply divided critics and moviegoers. If you're looking for a a strict Biblical account, this is not it. It takes a number of liberties (and yes, too many at times). And yet, I felt like even though Aronofsky drastically changed a number of facts, he absolutely nailed the themes of the story, and indeed of the entire Bible. I felt like this movie better understood and laid out the larger themes of damnation and redemption than any of the more overtly Christian movies released this year did. Yes, he invents absurd subplots, but it's all in service of those larger themes: the depravity of man and how there's no one righteous, the agony of hurting your children for the greater good, the power of forgiveness. I certainly don't think it was perfect and it's not for everybody, but taking it for what it is, I found it beautiful. No comparison to the terrible Left Behind remake.

8. Big Eyes -- You might be surprised to see this one make the list. I enjoyed it a lot. It's a fun movie. It's a true story and all, but it's fun. Tim Burton is almost back to form here. I'll watch Amy Adams in anything. While it's not as good as Ed Wood (it's from the same screenwriters), I found it enjoyable and one I wouldn't mind revisiting.

7. The Grand Budapest Hotel -- Speaking of revisiting, we have the Grand Budapest Hotel. I'm a fan of Wes Anderson, and there are a lot of fun goings-on in this movie. I admire the use of different ratios and color schemes for the different time periods. And yet, I found I didn't love it as much as I expected to. The film was a bit more violent than previous Anderson films (but in a quirky Anderson way -- when Jeff Goldblum loses his fingers in a door, they are so clearly fake-looking plastic fingers). It wasn't as magical for me as Moonrise Kingdom, or as quietly charming as Darjeeling Limited, or as bold as Royal Tenanbaums. It's certainly not his worst movie, and there are many good things to say about it, but I remain a tad disappointed which is why it's so lo on the list.

6. Edge of Tomorrow -- The movie no one had any expectations for, and which is becoming something of a cult hit. There's a very vocal corner of the internet that is spreading the word about this movie as much as it can. People stayed away for two reasons: the marketing was confusing or not clear enough, or they hate Tom Cruise. The title is lame (and the DVD rebranding buries it), and you could write it off as Groundhog Day with aliens, but it's smart and engaging. As to avoiding anything with Cruise in it, at least you can watch him die over and over again! Besides, you don't see this movie for him, you see it for Emily Blunt. She is fantastic in this movie. She's had a good year in general with this and Into the Woods (and no love from the Academy for either). She makes the human elements work so well. I find the ending a teeny bit of a letdown, but it's a great ride anyway. If there were ever a movie that compared to playing a video game, this is it.

5. Boyhood -- Shot over twelve years, it's an indie experiment that mostly works. I find some of the sameness gets bland after awhile, but it's fun to track the years by the music, clothes and current events. I consider it the epitome of a great independent film. I don't think it's the best thing I ever saw or anything, but it's very much a Richard Linklater movie and if he never made another one, this would be a fine way to cap his career. Part of me is a little sad that we can't get a parallel film called Girlhood following the sister; that would have made the experiment even more fascinating. Basically, this movie is like a fictional, somewhat improvised version of Michael Apted's Up series.

4. Chef -- There are people who hate this movie. They think it's too cliche or that it's too obviously a statement about art. I'm not one of them; I had a blast. Jon Favreau returns to making a smaller movie after big studio films like Iron Man and Cowboys vs. Aliens. And in a way, this seems like her own personal statement about what happened with Iron Man 2. But beyond that reading, it's a simple movie about a father sharing his passion with his son and how the two of them build something great together. My only real criticism is how much amazing food is made in some scenes and never gets eaten. This movie has been called "food porn" and some of it made me really hungry. If you don't want a hot sandwich after watching this film, I think there's something wrong with you.

3. Gone Girl -- I had pretty low expectations, since this was one of those books that every other woman was reading for a year and a half and I couldn't see how it could be that good. The story itself is kind of pulpy and ridiculous. And yet I found that I enjoyed the movie thoroughly. Apart from a few minor points that I didn't think worked quite well, I was pleasantly surprised. Ben Affleck reminds us all that he actually can be a solid actor, and Rosamunde Pike gives a scene-chewing performance that steals the movie. The campaign to get Julianne Moore the Oscar this year might succeed and that would be unfortunate. There's nothing exactly subtle about Gone Girl, but Pike makes it work so well and I'd hate to see her lose. The supporting cast is strong as well. The slightly anti-Feminist themes tickled me as well. I don't really consider it "misogynistic" as some claim (there was a real debate about this when it came out), but I kind of love that just because the men aren't all great guys doesn't mean that women can't be completely insane. I think the movie preys well on our expectations, suppositions and prejudices.

2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier -- The best of the comic book movies I saw this year. The shocking revelations that shook up the Marvel movie universe really worked for me, even retroactively fixing elements that had been bothering me. Chris Evans is so utterly convincing in how he plays Steve Rogers with a sturdy old-fashioned kind of conviction. There are a few too many twists, some plot threads that don't get enough attention, and a bit too much "because it looks cool" that takes away from the logic of the story, but it succeeds in entertaining without being completely mindless. I think it's one of the best Marvel movies yet, and when it was over I couldn't wait to see Captain America 3. Unfortunately, we've got another few films to go before that and I hope they don't kill the momentum.

1. Birdman -- I haven't liked Inarritu's previous movies so I didn't know what to think when this came out. I also generally dislike "magical realism" and there seems to be a bit of that here. And yet, I still consider it the best movie I saw all year. The whole cast is superb, and the fact that we can carry a bit of their outside lives into their characters makes it work even better. We know Michael Keaton as Batman; we know Edward Norton as a very involved sort of actor. Here Norton is almost parody of himself. Keaton puts so much into his performance. Some have criticized the movie as being just things we've seen before (the actor who wants to be taken seriously for his new project), but it's really not about the story but about how the story is told. The cinematography, with its long takes, is solid. And as someone who's worked in the theater, the craziness behind the scenes rang so true. I don't even care if the movie was making a big statement about critics and art and what not (it feels almost like a satire of Ratatouille in places); I just enjoyed it for what it was. There are a few extraneous pieces, but when it's focused on Michael Keaton it really works.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Somebody's Miracle

I've been getting into Liz Phair recently. I really dig this song.