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The Lies Our Memory Tells: A Review of “The Affair”

Grade: A

Showtime’s newest drama, The Affair premiered last night with a cast of deeply-complex characters and a riveting new format. The pilot episode tells the tale of Noah (Dominic West) and Alison (Ruth Wilson) as they meet for the first time and, as the show’s title gives away, will soon become entangled in a complicated love affair. The two meet when Noah, along with his wife and four children, head to Montauk for the summer where they’ll be staying with Noah’s well-off and forever-pompous Father-in-Law (John Doman). Stopping first for a bite to eat after just arriving in town, Alison is the waitress at the local diner blessed with the task of taking their order.

Affair1 The story starts off from Noah’s perspective. He’s recounting events to a man who is questioning him. We’re not sure who the man is, but it seems like a police interrogation and we get the feeling that a lot of time has passed. We know not what crime he’s being questioned for. As Noah recounts events we watch him interact with his wife, Helen (Maura Tierney), in a seemingly happy marriage, battle with his children of all differing ages and angst-levels, and try his hardest to calmly and coolly get his family all packed up and off to their grandfather’s.

Noah’s family is nothing if not chaotic. As if his son orchestrating a pretend suicide attempt before they leave the house, and his eldest daughter’s refusal to eat anything over 10 calories isn’t enough, the family-drama culminates at the diner when his youngest daughter begins to choke on a marble at the table as they place their breakfast orders. Amidst panic from the family and with Alison watching on in fear, Noah is able to beat on his daughter’s back and dislodge the item she was choking on.

The event has clearly traumatized Alison. Noah takes notice and does his best to comfort her and assure her his daughter is fine and there’s nothing to be upset about. But their interaction doesn’t stop here. Later, he runs into her again on the beach. She is flirtatious with him and asks him to walk her home where they take a look at her outdoor shower. There, Alison asks him if he’d like to try it out. When he declines and insists he should be getting home, she undresses in front of him and climbs in for a shower of her own. A bit rattled, he avoids the situation and heads for home, but not before witnessing Alison and a man who turns out to be her husband, Cole (Joshua Jackson), fighting with her in the driveway vehemently, violently dropping his pants, and forcibly bending her over the hood of his car.

Episode 101The screen goes black, and part two begins—Alison’s story. We start off at the morning of the same day. Immediately, the tone is much more somber and Alison seems considerably more damaged than she did in Noah’s recounting of events. Cole, on the other hand, is not the menacing man Noah has led us to believe either. He’s troubled by something, surely, but eager to please his wife which turns out to be a difficult task. We get the feeling that his attempts to win her over have been falling flat for quite some time. We soon learn that they lost a child recently and that today would’ve been the little boy’s birthday.

Alison, too, is recounting the events to some sort of detective and we can tell that much time has passed. Right away, as soon as Noah enters her story, we as viewers realize that their memories differ in complex ways. As an onlooker, this subtle reveal is riveting to watch. The table-chaos when Noah’s family places their order at the restaurant is different than it was in Noah’s recounting of events. When Noah’s daughter starts choking, it’s not Noah who heroically saves her, but Alison who beats her and dislodges the item she’s choking on. Noah, for the most part, idly stands by as Alison takes charge. The two continue to interact because Noah comes back to Alison again and again as a way to thank her for saving his daughter’s life. And later, on the beach, it’s Noah who is coming on to Alison. It’s Noah who asks to walk her home. It’s Noah who asks to see her outdoor shower, and it’s Noah who asks to try it out. Alison is taken aback by his behavior. Noah even goes so far as to kiss her on the cheek in a way that upsets Alison and she tells him to leave. The shirt he is wearing is different than in Noah’s retelling. The dress she remembers wearing is less revealing than he recalls. And the sex against the car that Noah witnesses between Cole and Alison is still violent, yes, but Alison asked for it be that way, preferred it that way, and the event followed an intimate conversation between Alison and Cole about the pain associated with the loss of their child.

Both Noah and Alison recall events in strikingly different ways. Who is right? How does that change things?

affair2The show is able to offer an enticing study on memory and the impermanence of our recall. It’s a study on the lies we unintentionally tell and how remembering wrong, even inadvertently, can forever change the tenor of events. Still, the ways in which we twist things in our minds often make sense. Of course Noah would perceive Cole as this awful, menacing, rapist of a husband. He’s going to have an affair with this man’s wife—anything to make that act seem better, to make it seem as if someone is benefiting in the seemingly selfish act is something he’d cling to. And of course Alison would remember herself as being hesitant to his coming-on, unwelcome even. She’d want to believe that it wasn’t her choice to start an affair, that she wasn’t looking for that. She wants to believe her innocence so she remembers it that way. Noah heroically recalls saving his daughter and defending his family—the ultimate protector. He’d like to think of himself as the one keeping everything together, as someone they’re dependent on, especially considering we know he’s certainly disrupted his family’s life with the affair he chose to have. By hearing both sides of the same story, the characters immediately become more complex and we learn more in the short one-hour we’re given than we would otherwise. It’s a refreshing and brilliant way to break down a character’s motivations, fears, and hesitations and the show’s creators, Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi, deserve a bevy of kudos for coming up with it.

This idea goes even beyond the characters on the screen. The defectiveness of memory is universal and it’s something the show forces us to acknowledge. Sometimes our memories fail. Do we admit our shortcomings ever? Of course, but we tell ourselves little unintentional lies. This idea is a fascinating concept in the context of something as complex and “he said/she said” as an affair. It’s a perfect move that the writers have made. There’s a police interrogation. Blame for some nameless crime is certainly being pointed somewhere. What better way to create intrigue in the audience than to make us wonder who of our narrators we can trust? Whose memory is most accurate? I’m curious to see what format the show will continue to follow. Will there continue to be such discord between sides of the story, or will Noah and Alison gradually find common ground as their lives become more entangled? Will their memories become “truer” as we get further in time and closer to the time of the interrogation? Will each episode be told in two parts like this or was this just the way to get the ball rolling? Can the showrunners keep it up without the format becoming cumbersome? And, better yet, what else is there left to reveal? Why are the police in the mix? Who is the father of the kid Alison tells the detective she must pick up? And what happens to all the other players involved?

A long list of lingering questions is a good sign of a successful pilot episode. They certainly have me hooked.

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Time Heals All Wounds: A Review of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Grade: A-

There are stories that need to be read and there are stories that need to be viewed. There are stories better told through written words on a page, and stories best suited for the screen. Of course, some overlap, some are appropriate for either medium, but there are certain stories that can reach a whole new depth when the creator chooses the correct canvas to paint it on.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a story built for the screen.

Eleanor1Why? I’ll tell you, but first, an example: Atonement is an outstanding film directed by Joe Wright and adapted for the screen from an equally-impressive novel by Ian McEwan. There’s a scene in both the novel and the film where the main character, Briony—a nurse during World War II—tends to a wounded soldier moments before his death. She has never met him before, but she’s keeping him company until he breathes his last breath. In the book, we are given the character’s inner thoughts. I remember reading the moment when the boy, confused and incoherent, asks if she loves him and she says yes with the accompanying explanation, “No other reply was possible. Besides, for that moment, she did. He was a lovely boy who was a long way from his family and he was about to die.” A simple, seeming inconsequential thought, but this passage stuck with me as a reader. It amplified the entire scene. It gave it even more weight than a scene with a dying soldier would on its own. And although the movie did employ the use of narration at times, there was no narration in this scene. We’re asked to watch Briony watching a man die and we, as viewers, are supposed to come up with our own ideas of what must be going through her mind. In the novel, we don’t have to ask—we just know. Would I have assumed she’d reach the same realization about his family at that moment on my own? Maybe not. Do I need it to appreciate the scene? No. But that moment alone was what made it memorable for me. This particular scene functioned better in the novel than it did on the screen because the event is so emotionally charged that the character is thinking multiple thoughts at once. We need and want to know Briony’s specific thoughts. We need to be steered in the right direction or else risk not imagining her thinking what the author intended us to.

Eleanor Rigby, on the other hand, is a character entirely shut off. Her “disappearance” is both literal and metaphoric. She is emotionally withdrawn. Film works best for her story because she doesn’t want to share what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even know what she’s thinking, she doesn’t even want to talk. She’s pure evasion. We’re better clued into her inner turmoil by watching her, not by hearing what’s in her head. Her thoughts are intentionally sparse which is why her story is so well suited for the screen. We gain more access to her by watching her because she’s unwilling and incapable of giving us anything more.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby (directed by Ned Benson) follows the lives of a married couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), whose relationship has just lost the final thread it was hanging from. Once blissfully in love, things have taken a turn for the worst—Eleanor has disappeared and Conor is desperate to find her and fix the relationship in whatever way he can. We, as the audience, are intentionally kept in the dark. We know something major happened to propel the downward spiral, but we don’t know what—mostly because both characters refuse to talk (or think) about whatever it is that went horribly wrong.

Eleanor2jEleanor is all about avoiding. She moves back home to live with her parents following a failed suicide attempt and we learn very early in that she doesn’t want to talk about whatever it is that made her jump from that bridge. She wants to escape. She’s disappeared not only literally from her old life, but inside her head as well. The number one rule of storytelling is that each character has to change. They need to progress, they need to start at one place and end up somewhere else. The filmmakers know that in order for us, as the audience, to see Eleanor’s growth and progression we need to be treated just like everyone else in her life who try to help her but can’t. We need to be in the dark. We need to try to find clarity and fail. We need to feel we’re making headway and then hit a dead end. We need to feel just as helpless as she does in order to understand her journey. For that reason, the filmmakers intentionally and artistically keep us in the dark. We have no idea what Eleanor’s thinking. And it’s awesome.

This approach to storytelling is what makes this film fascinating. Eleanor won’t give us her interior thoughts, she refuses therapy sessions, she doesn’t want to talk, she avoids any situation that may make her discuss what happened. To heal, she needs to just exist. We have to feel aimless with her, but we also have to feel a slight progression. We have to feel her getting out of her hole. But she can’t tell us anything to give us any clues that she is progressing because that’s her whole problem—that she can’t pinpoint her pain or her recovery. We have to watch her struggle, but we also have to see her evolution. So we’re left to map her progress in different ways—in brilliant subtle cues. Slowly, we get more and more details. We learn that she lost a son and that this is what set her off, this is what she can’t recover from. We gain insight not from what she speaks, but from how she interacts with her nephew, the telling glance at a photograph she spots hidden away in a closet, what she chooses to tell her equally-damaged professor (Viola Davis), and what she does the few times she willingly pops back into Conor’s life. It’s slow and it’s calculated, but every small action she makes deftly shows us where she is at mentally.

The story is impeccably underwritten in the very best way. You feel smart when you watch this film, you feel like you’re in on the secret, like you solved the puzzle and it’s because the filmmakers trust that the audience is clever enough to read their subtle cues without needing Eleanor to have one major outburst, or one telling therapy session that will articulate everything we need to know. They force us to do the analytical work. We don’t need all the fluff. Eleanor isn’t about the fluff. She’s real. She’s passive, but she’s actively passive and we just need to wait it out with her.

The beautiful realization you come to when watching this film is that healing is not always about talking. It’s not always about doing. Sometimes, it’s just about time. Sometimes, it’s just about waiting it out. There is no recipe for grief. Eleanor never really comes right out and shares her story, her struggle. She talks to no one. She listens to Professor Friedman and that seems to help her more than anything, but Friedman has no idea what she’s actually going through. The only one she talks to is Conor and perhaps that’s because she doesn’t have to share much with him—he knows the details without her having to communicate because the loss was theirs together. She admits to her father when she refuses the therapy he’s set up for her, “I don’t want a reminder that something is wrong” and she tries constantly to avoid any such reminder. So she floats. She meanders. She doesn’t know how to fix herself. We don’t know what she needs either, but we watch as she gradually is able to pull herself out of her funk. She needed to disappear, she needed to just exist. And ever so slowly, ever so subtly, and ever so seamlessly we’re left with the feeling that maybe, just maybe, she’s through the worst of it.

And for the viewer, that progress is more than enough.

Let the Moments Seize You: A Review of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”

Grade: A

Sometimes, we count on a movie to pull us out of something, out of ourselves, out of our rut, our emotional hole, or funk. Sometimes, we lean on the stories we hear and watch more than we should. We expect them to mirror our own lives perfectly so that the act of relating to the story makes us feel better. By relating to someone else’s tale, we feel normal. By seeing the characters come out of their low points, we know we can and will come out of them too. We see the bigger picture for what it is—bigger than the present.

BoyhoodRichard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, the Before Series) has teamed up with long-time collaborator Ethan Hawke (who plays Mason Sr. in the film) for a movie that’s the first of its kind. Filming a little each year over the course of twelve years, the film follows the actual growth of its characters and the physical evolution of its actors. The story centers around Mason (Ellar Coltrane) who starts out an adorable six-year-old boy in trouble for trying to make rocks into arrowheads using a pencil sharpener and spending too many hours gazing out the window at school. By the film’s completion, he’s evolved into a full-blown adult, just as contemplative as he was in the beginning of the film, but entering the next great phase in his life: College. We follow the family through all their ups and downs—all their moves, career changes, and new and failed marriages. Hawke’s Mason Sr. evolves from a wild, absentee, young dad to the tamed, mini-van driving father of a new baby. All the while, Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arguette) makes mistake after mistake in her oftentimes fruitless attempts to make life better for her two children. We get the family’s whole history and every physical transformation without the makeup, fat suits, or multiple actors often clumsily employed in a drama in order to depict the passing of time. No miscast younger versions of the title character. No caked on stage makeup. Linklater’s Boyhood is different. It’s special. His characters have grown and evolved as the actors have—every gained pound, grayed hair, and alternating style.

And we get to watch the transformation.

Despite the spectacle of this film being both ingenious and the first of its kind, my initial reaction after leaving the theater was of slight disappointment. I guess I was looking for a little something more relatable in Boyhood. Relatable to my experience. Thankfully, this feeling was only my initial reaction. After thinking it over, I changed my mind completely and my feelings of letdown were immediately replaced with awe. I wasn’t approaching the film in the right way. I wanted a film that was entirely my childhood experience with all its specificity, angst, and thrill. I wanted to leave the theater with a new perspective on my past from having watched someone else’s. I wanted this film, like many have in the past, to provide answers to my own questions. To boost my spirts. To offer clarity where there was none.

BoyhoodUnlike Mason, I was not born in the late 90s. I didn’t grow up with divorced parents. I never had to deal with alcohol or physical abuse in my family. I wasn’t ever lazy in school. I didn’t party as hard as the average teen. I didn’t have a cell phone before the age of 15. I didn’t ever live in Texas and have to state the Texas anthem after the Pledge of Allegiance each day in class (a scene in the film that got a lot of laughs from the audience). For a story about growing up, I was upset that Mason’s coming-of-age was so different from my own. I was upset that I couldn’t relate directly to his experience. But then I noticed something: Throughout the entire film, the movie audience knew just how to react—just when to laugh, just when to coo, just when to cringe, just when to sigh—and I realized that this audience was entirely relating to Mason’s story. The entire film, to them, was an inside joke they were thrilled to be let in on. And this was not an audience of all 18-year-old boys, like Mason. This was a mix of males and females, twenty-somethings and teeny-boppers, the middle-aged and the senior citizens. If they could laugh, if they could sigh, if they could identify with Mason’s story, why couldn’t I?

And that’s when I realized I was approaching the film all wrong. The film’s goal wasn’t to make you identify with the specific events that happened to Mason, but instead it sought to make you relate to the act of experiencing experiences. Your experiences. The string of experiences that make up a life. The moments. Yes, Mason’s coming-of-age story was not my story, but despite this, I did play trampoline games with my siblings when I was young, as Mason did. I did blow bubble-gum bubbles as big as my face and wait for my sister to pop it. I have cried over a bad haircut. I have bonded with my father over The Beatles. I have ordered queso at 3 am after a night on a college campus. I have moved far away from home. I have seen endings come and wondered why.

By filming one story over the span of twelve years, Linklater is expertly able to create a comprehensive study on human life. Specifically, the pace at which life flies by. What I came to realize is that Boyhood wasn’t so much about the things that did or didn’t happen to Mason in his life, the story was about how life, in general, is made up of these seemingly inconsequential memories. It’s about the timing of the events. The pace of life. The changes. The amount of changes. The speed of the changes. The footprint those changes leave. Linklater captures this unseen, abstract idea of growing-up. The actual feeling of it. And he does this by cramming twelve years into just under a three hour movie. This makes perfect sense. When we sit back and recall our life’s story, our major memories, we don’t list them all, we only have our key moments. And they’re the key moments that have made up a life that, in a blink of an eye, has come and gone.

And that’s something we all can identify with – the ever-morphing past, present and future. The string of events and memories and instances that make up a life and the complex ways in which those memories are plotted and sewn into the fabric of our lives. No two childhoods are the same, but despite what happens to us in our individual growth, the progression of life, the very act of growing up, is universal. We grow. We identify with the fluidity, the constant change, the inertia of life. Despite what happens, we’re always moving. And life and childhood and adulthood fly by and it’s only the key moments, the key glimpses into a life that may seem inconsequential (like bowling without bumpers, and drinking our first beer) that make up who we are and who we become. Our memories become an epic movie with fast cuts and holes and quick scenes. And we choose to remember the ones that explain who we are in the best way. As Mason and his new friend theorize at the end of the film (albeit a bit stoned in the mountains), it’s not the moments we seize that matter, but the moments that seize us. We all have a lifetime of moments. It’s what we make of them that shape us. It’s those individual moments, whatever they are and however they’re strung together, that make all of our coming-of-age tales one in the same.

Unexpectedly Different, but Still “Woody Allen” at its Core: A Review of Blue Jasmine

Grade: A-

Judging by the sold out showings and the throngs of people lining up around the block to see Woody Allen’s new drama Blue Jasmine, I think it’s safe to say that the 77-year-old (and one of the few remaining true auteurs) still has it.

A crowd-pleaser that’s already generating early Oscar-buzz, Allen’s Blue Jasmine will likely join the ranks with his other critically-acclaimed classics. Still, this one has a unique flair all its own.

It’s no secret that Woody Allen is my favorite director, favorite screenwriter, favorite filmic-mind. I adore his unique style and storytelling perspective, and I’m continually spoiled by his one-film-a-year ritual that repeats like clockwork. I’m familiar with his style—his quirks, his film motifs—and what struck me the most while watching Blue Jasmine was how this film blatantly strays from Allen’s norm.

The film follows Jasmine (played expertly by Cate Blanchett) who must leave her NYC life of luxury and move in with her little sister (Sally Hawkins) after her husband (Alec Baldwin) swindles away their fortune and hangs himself in prison. In her new home in San Francisco, she aims to recreate herself in a much-less-lavish setting, all the while popping Xanax between panic attacks as frequently as she passes judgment on her sister’s less-than-optimal dating history.

Allen is known for making the settings in his films characters of their own. What would Midnight in Paris be without Paris’ cobblestone streets? What would Annie Hall be without Annie’s New York driving or Manhattan without shots of the Queensboro Bridge? The setting for each of Allen’s films has always been so pivotal that the same storyline couldn’t be set anywhere other than where it is. This is not the case for Blue Jasmine. San Francisco just happens to be where the characters eat and breathe (or pop pills as the case may be) and other than the passing comment, “If you can’t fall in love in San Francisco, you can’t fall in love anywhere,” we hardly even realize San Francisco is where the film takes place. This is strange for an Allen film.

Similarly, Blue Jasmine strays from the Allen canon with its lack of art and cultural references that usually ooze from the characters’ mouths. In Blue Jasmine, the only references to art are the high-fashion brands that Jasmine clings to from her past—her Louis Vuitton luggage and all her leftover designer duds from her previous life. A Woody Allen film without a scene in a movie theater or an art museum? A Woody Allen movie where you don’t have to laugh along with the crowd as you fake understanding of the reference he makes to some author or philosopher you’ve never heard of, or pat yourself on the back when you actually do understand? His characters always want to outdo each other with their knowledge of extraneous information, but in this film, Jasmine’s only real quest is to outdo everyone around her with her ability to choose an advantageous partner and to appear as if her high-status has never wavered.

Despite these major differences from Allen’s usual films, Blue Jasmine still has the complex characters that we’ve come to expect from him. Blue Jasmine may lack the humor and the multiple storylines of Allen’s other classics, but he is able to create characters, as always, who straddle the grey line between right and wrong in the same moment they teeter between likability and abhorrence. It’s this expert balancing-act that makes Allen’s characters complex while insuring the films themselves are a joy to watch.

As is the case with Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) in Match Point who tries to get away with the murder of his mistress, Allen is able to surprise the audience by making them root for a person they’d normally despise. The pleasure of watching his films comes from our almost subconscious realization that he’s turned a switch in us, that despite a character with irredeemable qualities and chastisable actions, we find ourselves rooting for them. Suddenly, the audience discovers they’re crossing their fingers for an unfaithful murderer as is the case in Match Point, or supporting a creepy relationship between an older man and child (Manhattan and Whatever Works) despite never expecting we would before.

Allen’s themes and characters are never black and white and this couldn’t be truer than it is of Blanchett’s downward-spiraling portrayal of Jasmine. The characters may be unlikable, but we care for them. We may hate what they do, but we always understand why they do it. Often, as is the case with Jasmine, their actions are entirely based on their extreme level of desperation. For whatever reason, desperation is a quality we can identify with. It’s a quality we understand. Watching Blantchett in a mesmerizing performance as Jasmine splashes and flails in the metaphoric hole she’s dug and is drowning in, we can’t help but sympathize with her struggle. She knows of the mistakes she makes. She’s made the bed she lies in, but her mistakes are human ones.

Woody Allen achieves with Blue Jasmine what he does in all his films, he has the audience going in expecting to feel one way about a character or an action, builds that up like a sand castle, and then amazes us when he shifts everything and the castle still stands. He opens a new perspective, and as outlandish as the events may be, they’re still real, relatable and always keep us thinking.

Our intellect stays turned on. As always, Allen makes sure of it.