Film Review: “Wine Country” (2019)

IMHO, any film that has both Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in it is worthy of celebration. So, when I heard that Wine Country had both of them in it, and that it had been directed by Poehler, I was thrilled. I read the criticisms of the film that said that it didn’t land as firmly as some might have wished, but I decided to watch it anyway.

And I did not regret it. The film is full of humour, warmth, and girl-power. What else could you ask for?

The film follows a group of female friends as they reunite for a celebration of Rebecca’s (Rachel Dratch) birthday. Each of them has a bit of baggage–emotional and otherwise–that they’re not really dealing with, and this ultimately creates the very friction and negative emotions the weekend is supposed to ameliorate. Through the ups and downs of the weekend, however, they ultimately discover that the strength of their collective friendship gives them what they need to endure all that life throws at them.

There’s a warmth at the heart of Wine Country that is in woefully short supply these days, either in the real world or in popular culture. So much comedy (and virtually all drama) is deeply cynical and always laced with at least a trace amount of venom. And, of course, our politics is about as toxic as it is possible to be. In the film, however, it’s always clear that these women truly love one another, and it’s worth pointing out that, with the exception of Jason Schwartzman–who turns in a solidly funny performance–the women run the show. There is, thankfully, no soggy romance plot to wade through, and while there are no real surprises in the plot, there are many genuine laughs throughout the film.

Despite its rather formulaic plot, there are some notable surprises. For one thing, Poehler gets to play it (mostly) straight for most of the film, and there is a resonance to her plight (she’s lost her job) that plays as sincere. And, perhaps most surprisingly, it’s Rachel Dratch who threatens to steal the show. I’ve long felt that she was one of the most underappreciated female comedians of her generation, and it’s a welcome change to see a film finally shine a spotlight on her considerable talents.

The rest of the cast is uniformly good, of course. You can always count on both Ana Gasteyer and Maya Rudolph can always be counted on; indeed, their feuding is one of the film’s central conflicts and its contours and resolution read as eminently believable. And both Emily Spivey (as Jenny, a shut-in with anxiety issues) and Paula Pell (as the lascivious and bawdy lesbian Val) delivered some of the downright funniest lines in the film. Of course, no review would be complete without mentioning Tina Fey who, like Poehler, turns in a relatively restrained and straight performance as Tammy, the owner of the bed and breakfast the women are staying in.

For me, the bottom line is that this is still a film about a group of women and their contentious but deeply-rooted friendship and love for one another. To my mind, the lukewarm critical reception the film has received revels a great deal about how we view women in comedy. Rather than embracing it as simply a good, simple comedy, there seems to be the sense that we can’t allow these women to just be ordinary. Once again, it seems to me, women are asked to bear the burden of what we as audiences and critics think they should be rather than what they are trying to be. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ghostbusters, which suffered similarly lukewarm reviews because, I’m convinced, critics just weren’t willing to give it any slack.

So, while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Wine Country is a great film, it is a good film, with solid acting and solid writing. When the end credits roll, you feel good about the world and about what women can do when they embrace their collective strength in one another.

And sometimes, in my opinion, that’s good enough.

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Change is in the Air

Hello, dear readers.

I’ve got some great news. For some time now, I’ve been collaborating with my best friend on a series of erotic epic fantasy novellas that we’re self-publishing through Amazon. The series is titled “The Filliquian Chronicle,” and the first volume is already live (you can buy it here). We’re very excited to be starting this new part of our writing life, and we sincerely hope that you’ll join us, buy our books, and rate us on Goodreads and on Amazon.

So, what does this mean for this blog? Well, here are a few of the things that’ll be changing.

From now on, if you want to read anything related to fantasy that I’m writing, you’ll need to head on over to DarcyandWinters.com, our joint author site. In addition to stuff about writing, updates about our work, and samples, you’ll also find our ongoing reviews of works of fantasy (both written and visual) that tickle our fancy. Some of these will be new works, some will be old, and some will be in-between. Fantasy features that I wrote somewhat regularly here (e.g., my series on Tolkien, my blog posts on the works of Tad Williams, etc.) will stay here, but any future entries will appear on the new site. It’s still very much a work-in-progress, so please be patient with us!

Worry not. I’ll still be writing a lot for this blog, from now on I’m mostly going to focus on history, politics, historical fiction, and film and TV. I’m also going to make a concerted effort to post more frequently here. This will probably mostly take the form of reviews and personal essays. Ideally, I’d still like to post here three times a week, but that might not be feasible until I’ve built up a bit more of a library of content to share. Again, your patience will be much appreciated.

Lastly, appearances. This blog’s appearance is a bit out-of-date, so over the next couple of weeks I’m going to experiment with some new looks. I hope you like the changes!

I look forward to continuing to build this blog. I really do enjoy maintaining it, and it remains a fundamental part of my mission as a public intellectual. As always, I’m tremendously grateful to those of you who have commented on and shared my work over the last several years. Here’s to several more to come!

Film Review: “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018)

I briefly thought about including Bohemian Rhapsody as part of my “Queer Classics” series of blog posts, but after a lot of thinking I decided to just give it a regular “film review” designation, mostly because the queer content is so understated that one would be forgiven for not even being able to notice it at all.

If you haven’t seen the film, it is essentially the story of how Freddie Mercury, played with almost unearthly accuracy by Rami Malek, became the lead singer of Queen. It follows a pretty traditional biopic structure, with the meet-cute between Mercury and the other members of the band, their trials and eventual triumph, their feuds with one another and, of course, their reconciliation. Oh, and there is some indication that Mercury was gay.

I do see the criticisms that some have lodged that the film pathologizes queerness by attributing the band’s feud to the sinister machinations of Paul Prenter, who leads Mercury into the sinister world of queer desire. More significant, I think, is the fact that Prenter is such a thinly-constructed character that we struggle to understand why it is that he would have such an outsize influence on Mercury, to such an extent that he basically abandons his bandmates. As queer villains go, he’s not even that interesting (which is a shame, because Allan Leech is a decent actor). If they were going to make the queerest character a villain, you’d think they would have at least made him compelling.

Indeed, one of my frustrations with the film stems from its narrative incoherence. It can never really decide whether it wants to be a biopic of Freddie Mercury (which seems its primary interest), the band Queen (which it sort of is), or both (which it really fails to do because it can’t find a balance). The rest of the band emerge as half-characters at best, not insignificant enough to fade utterly into the background yet with no real depth either. A generous reading of the film would say this is a deliberate attempt to show the vexed nature of the band’s relationship, but I’m honestly not sure the film deserves that much.

Likewise, it can’t really seem to decide how to express Mercury’s sexuality. Though the film seems to want to argue that Mercury was gay, to many (including me) this seems to ignore the fact that he was most likely bisexual (bi-erasure is a real thing, y’all). It was also frustrating that the film gave so much narrative time to the fictional character of Prenter and all of his chicanery when that time would have been better spent fleshing out the relationship between Mercury and his partner Jim Hutton. The fact that it doesn’t says a lot about how narratively lazy the film is, and how uncertain it is about what role Mercury’s sexuality played in his life and how it should be represented in the present.

At the formal level, the film is exquisitely shot, and as I was watching it I kept hitting the pause button so that I could simply take in the beautifully composed shots. Given the grossness of Bryan Singer, I’m reluctant to belabor this particular point, but I console myself with the fact that there are others, including the cinematographer, who no doubt helped to get the film’s perfect looks.

Similarly, the performances are almost uniformly excellent, but of course it is Rami Malek who really steals the show. This is definitely one of those cases where an actor is very deserving of his Best Actor Oscar. Malek doesn’t just perform the role of Mercury; he literally seems to embody him. In fact, there were several times in the film when I could swear that I was watching Mercury himself. Whatever the weaknesses of the script, Malek does a great deal to make up for it, and he deserves a lot of credit for making the film work as well as it does.

At the end of the day, it seems to me that Bohemian Rhapsody is exceptional for being so unexceptional. It doesn’t really break any of the established rules for biopics, and that’s okay. If you go in with a reasonable set of expectations for what you’re about to see, then you probably will not be disappointed.

Reading History: The Tragic Daughters of Charles I (by Sarah-Beth Watkins)

My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for review.

I have to confess that when it comes to English royalty, I’ve never been much of a fan of the Stuarts. Somehow they lacked the charismatic panache that characterized their successors the Tudors, or the operatic tragedy of the Plantagenets. They just seemed rather bland in comparison to all of this.

Recently, however, I’ve taken an interest in them. They embodied all of the contradictions of the era, drowning in opulent wealth and yearning for absolute power yet struggling with the financial and political limits imposed by Parliament. Given these contradictions, is it any wonder that one of them, Charles I, ended up losing his head to the executioner’s axe?

Sarah-Beth Watkins takes as her subject the doomed daughter of this doomed monarch. As the title of the book suggests, Charles’ daughters fared little better than their father. Several died before they reached the age of 20, and those that lived to be older, Mary and Henriette, died before they reached 30, the former from smallpox and the latter as the result of a stomach ailment (and possibly poison).

Throughout their young lives, both Mary and Henriette faced struggle and difficulty, particularly once they were married to foreign princes: Mary to William of the Netherlands and Henriette to Philippe, brother of Louis XIV. Both also found themselves at the center of politics, first as their brother attempted to regain his throne and then, after his restoration, in the feuds and jostling that inevitably arose between the powers of Europe. In a bitter twist, Mary survived to see her brother return to the throne but died shortly afterward.

Given that she lived the longest and was married to the brother of the King of France, Henrietta’s life takes up the latter half of the book. Though plagued by personal sadness–her husband was abusive and paid more attention to his male lover than he did to her–she was nevertheless a savvy political player and a valuable ally for her brother at the heart of the French court. Through her closeness to both her brother and her brother-in-law the king, she was able exert a formidable influence on politics, and one can’t help but wonder how much more she would have been able to accomplish had she but lived longer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The prose is, unfortunately, rather clunky, and it lacks a certain dynamism. One learns a lot from the book, but I found it very easy to get bored while reading it. I strongly suspect that this has to do with the fact that there just isn’t a whole lot of material due to the very young age at which these women died.

Relatedly, the author tends to use far too many long quotes from primary sources. One gets the sense that she felt pressed to fill out the book to a standard length. While, of course, it is customary to include at least some quotes from letters, diaries, etc., the sheer length of the ones in this book become distracting after a while, and they certainly break up the momentum of the narrative.

That being said, the book is a serviceable introduction to these tragic young women. While their own lives were cut tragically short, those of their descendants would go on to be rather illustrious. Mary’s son William would in fact go on to become King of England as William III, while Henrietta’s descendants would go on to sit on the thrones of several different countries. Through their children, the tragic daughters of King Charles found their own form of immortality.

Book Review: “It Came from Something Awful: How a Toxic Troll Army Accidentally Memed Donald Trump into Office” (by Dale Beran)

My thanks to NetGalley for providing a free copy of this book for review.

Sometimes, you read a book that shines on a light on some of the most unpleasant parts of our culture and society, and you suddenly feel as if you have fallen into an utterly unfamiliar world. It Came from Something Awful is just such a book.

Dale Beran takes us deep into the dark, sinister, bleakly cynical parts of the internet that many of us would probably never explore on our own. Here we find the truly toxic, nihilistic folk who inhabited spaces such as 4chan, primarily young men dissatisfied with their lot in life and determined to take it out on whomever got in their way. He draws fascinating (though not always sustainable) connections between the counterculture of 1960s and the present, showing how the relentless ability of capitalism to commercialize resistance has generated precisely the feeling of nihilism that has become so toxic and that has left a generation of young men feeling powerless, angry, and dangerous.

Beran’s book succeeds the most when he is detailing the complex history and terrifying personalities that inhabit this online world. While some of the names are familiar, others are less so, and it is clear that he has a very close inside knowledge of this strange new world that most of us have probably never encountered. He doesn’t let himself get too bogged down in the technical aspects of it, either. His is very much a story of a generation of young men who, confronted with profound inequality and the growing power of various social movements, found solace in the ability to take nothing seriously.

Until, of course, they did. As Beran explains, as the 2000s wore on, the bleak cynicism expressed by these young men became ever more vitriolic and dangerous, until at last it burst into the open with the murderous rampages that became so much an unfortunate part of the American landscape. And then, of course, there was the greatest troll of them all, Donald J. Trump, who was the apotheosis of those mens’ desires, the cure (it seemed) for everything that ailed them.

At times, Beran’s argument seems to mistakes his premise for his conclusion, i.e. he goes in with the conclusion that Trump was brought into power by these men, and that is what he proves. However, I think that the title (and the book’s big argument) may be overstating the case that a bit. There’s no question that a very visible part of Trump’s support came from just the sort of young men that Beran profiles, but I was left wondering just how many of these people actually voted, and how many of them just amplified Trump’s brand and normalized him for those who actually did vote for him.

Relatedly, it sometimes felt as if Beran’s political leanings were encouraging him to deflect the blame for the rise of the alt-right everywhere but on the men themselves: neoliberalism, capitalism, Hillary Clinton (because of course), and the advent of the internet and the anonymity that it provides. In my view, there is a very distinct difference between providing an excuse for someone’s behavior and explaining it. The former implies an abrogation of guilt, while the latter is an attempt to aid in understanding. Certainly, Beran wants to accomplish the latter, if for no other reason than that we must continue to address the societal forces that rendered the alt-right possible. However, he is not always as successful as I think he should be in blaming these men for their own horrible impulses.

Overall, however, I found Beran’s book to be compulsively readable, mostly because it confirmed so many of the things I already suspected to be true. From GamerGate to PizzaGate to the march on Charlottesville, the men that he chronicles in It Came from Something Awful are truly a pestilence, and we must continue to fight them. If we don’t, we run the risk of continuing to allow them to control the contours of the debate. Supreme Court Justice Brandeis once said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. While that is true in some instances, I do worry that books like this contribute to that unfortunate trend of giving these unsavory people exactly the sort of attention that they crave. It is, unfortunately, the inescapable double-bind of the world that we live in. If it does nothing else, Beran’s book provides us a valuable form of understanding.

It’s up to us to do something with it.