Home on Film

The last movie I saw in the theater was It Follows. It’s a good movie, maybe even a great movie, a sleepy horror story that embraces the idea of building dread throughout its run time rather than wasting its scare factor on jump moments. My favorite thing about it, though, has nothing to do with story or performances or score, all of which are more than satisfactory. The thing I liked most in It Follows — the thing that set it apart from so many movies like it, so many movies in general — was the setting.

(I’m going to get into personal anecdotes with this, so brace yourself or something.)

I was born in on the east side of Michigan’s lower peninsula, and though my family moved to the greater Grand Rapids area on the opposite side of the state when I was six years old, I still spent plenty of time back in Royal Oak and the surrounding suburbs. My grandma and grandpa on my mom’s side lived there, and from 1994 through 2008, my family and I would visit about once a month. As we got older, one sibling or another and their respective significant other would drop out for a month or a few, but we were all, as one, committed to sustaining our relationship with Grandpa, who passed away in 2006, and Grandma, who passed away in 2008.

I haven’t seen much of Royal Oak since then, but considering how much time I’ve spent there, my memories of the landscape are indelible. The Detroit suburbs have an indefinable midwestern beauty about them: trees that seem to drop their leaves through all four seasons, so-clear-you-can-see-forever skies, and crisp, cold air for half the year that’s suddenly interrupted by just the right amount of humidity sometime in the middle of May. The suburban streets are narrow, flanked by narrower sidewalks occupied by couples walking and children being pushed in strollers and dogs being dragged by their leashes. I always felt safe in those suburbs, however naive that may have been. Even as a charmingly jaded twenty-something, though, the thought of meandering through the streets of Royal Oak is a calming one. So naturally, since so much of It Follows was filmed in eastern Michigan was equally calming.

Don’t get me wrong here. It’s haunting, and some shots in particular stuck with me for hours after viewing. But mostly, it just made me nostalgic, even homesick. And that feeling lingered much longer than the creeping dread the movie so effectively creates. Yesterday, though, something reminded me that I have two homes now — my home state, and my city.

It happened when Scott and I were watching the Daredevil pilot. We’re not great at keeping up with current shows, but we were having a lazy evening, and neither of us wanted to commit to watching an entire movie after playing Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments as long as we had. So we tried out Daredevil, which, for the uninitiated (me), felt like a combination of the fifth season of Angel and the Toph Bei Fong black and white sequences in Avatar: The Last Airbender. In short, it’s great. And in the first few minutes, there was a single shot that really landed for me, something that never happened on Angel or Avatar or any other show I care about.

In one of the first scenes, we see the stupidly named Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) talking on the phone as he walks down a Manhattan street. He passes beneath a few awnings and soon reaches the 50th Street subway station. There was one awning in particular that Scott and I noticed and immediately recognized. We’d seen it for the first time in 2012. New to the city, we were still getting our bearings, and some friends of ours took us to a restaurant known by a few different names: Japas 27, East 27, or simply East. It’s known for its karaoke bar and its unorthodox method of serving sushi — via conveyor belt, with differently colored plates indicating different price points. More than once, I’ve eaten cheesecake with chopsticks there after having my fill of spicy shrimp rolls. It’s not right around the corner from our place, but we’re repeat customers. And there it was, smack dab in the middle of the Daredevil set.

I realize that living where we do means I’m going to see my home on TV and in movies, hear it mentioned in songs, see it as the setting in books, et cetera, et cetera. But seeing the beacon of a restaurant I’ve been enjoying for years, one of the literally thousands of restaurants in New York? That’s different. That’s special. And, silly or maudlin as it may seem, it reminded me that I belong here, and will for some time.

The Most Outsized Reactions I’ve Ever Had to a Movie I Found Scary

1993: I was six and my family watched Jurassic Park. I didn’t make it past Lex and Tim in the Jeep, screaming as the T. rex snapped her jaws and nosed at that flimsy piece of Plexiglas that served as the Murphy children’s only protection from an actual dinosaur. Instead, I burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably till my mom whisked me off to bed. I don’t know if she went back downstairs to watch the movie. I wouldn’t blame her if she did. It’s one of my favorites now—not the best movie ever, but certainly the one I enjoy the most.

1999: My dad took me to see Tim Burton’s version of Sleepy Hollow on New Year’s Day. He didn’t tell my mother it was rated R. I thought I could handle it. I was wrong. Since I couldn’t sleep that night for fear of nightmares, my mom let me get out of bed to watch the version of Cinderella starring Brandy. It helped more than you’d think.

2008: A friend and I saw The Orphanage, a Spanish horror film, at the local movie theater that played art films and second-runs on the cheap. I was living in an apartment with three other girls that year; all three were out of town when I saw the movie. The Orphanage—essentially a ghost story in which all the ghosts are small children—rattled me so badly that, at age 20, I slept with the lights on for the first time in my life. Not just some lights, either—every light in the apartment, including the lights in the second bedroom and the bathroom. Worse yet, roughly half of the scariest scenes in the movie happen in broad daylight, so I couldn’t even spend long stretches in my apartment during the day without checking behind the door before entering a room. I remember typing the phrase “NO TIME OF DAY IS SAFE” to a friend on AOL Instant Messenger, who simply replied with a drawn out “hahahahahaha.” I understand why it’s funny now, but at the time, it was no laughing matter.

Latest Lists I Felt Like Writing, January 2015 Edition

How I Would Reimagine a Few of the Movies I Watched in 2013 and 2014 (with Spoilers)

American Hustle: Shift the focus to Louis C.K.’s character almost entirely. Cut 50 percent of the scenes because maybe then the movie would make more narrative sense (doesn’t matter which scenes, just, you know, try it). Definitely leave in the part where Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) vamps around the kitchen to “Live and Let Die” but maybe extend it to 10 minutes. This means “Live and Let Die” will have to loop three times and then begin playing a fourth time for about 15 seconds. Even if this guarantees that “Live and Let Die” will be playing on a semi-permanent loop in your head (just as it is right now), these changes would still make for a better viewing experience than the original cut of American Hustle.

As an aside, I just looked up Louis C.K.’s character’s name in American Hustle because, in the time since I’ve watched it, I’ve forgotten it. Instead, I’ve come to think of that character as “the only truly sane person in this entire film aside from Carmine Polito’s [because of course I remember Jeremy Renner’s character’s name, and his hair, and his sad face] wife, and the only one who seems to understand how dreadful everyone around him is.” As it turns out, his character’s name is Stoddard Thorsen. The more you know!

Interstellar: Remove Topher Grace. That man’s presence is very distracting.

Josie & the Pussycats: Nothing. Change nothing. It is magnificent as is. (The last time I watched Josie & the Pussycats was at a summer singalong at Videology, a video rental store/bar/screening room in Billysburg, Brooklyn. The first time I watched Josie & the Pussycats was almost certainly in 2001.)

Pacific Rim: Reimagine it as a buddy comedy starring Ron Pearlman as a man who engages in senseless violence with some frequency but is actually a big ol’ softie and Charlie Day as Charlie Day but with glasses. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) should still be there. So should Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Everyone else can go, with the exception of a single kaiju. This one’s affectionately dubbed Deleteri, her tail and tongue and toes are forked, and she has a lot to tell you about her backpacking trip through western Europe last spring. Still workshopping who would voice her; Jennifer Hale is a very talented voice actress, but she seems a bit sultry for this particular role. Not that a kaiju can’t be sultry. I’m sure it has the capacity to be sultry, but not “voiced by Jennifer Hale” sultry. Wait. I got it. Sarah Vowell. She’s a great disaffected teenager in The Incredibles, so she has the potential to be an even better too-earnest, slightly judgmental kaiju. Right? Nailed it.

Real Steel: 95% less family drama, 95% more robots fighting.

Snowpiercer: After Curtis (Chris Evans) delivers his mini-monologue about eating babies, have him break the fourth wall, turning to the camera and giving it a saucy wink.

The Wolf of Wall Street: Retitle it The Wall Street Wolf because that sounds funnier. Extend the scene in which Jordan (Leonardo DiCaprio) is on Quaaludes to about 90 minutes. Remove literally everything else.

Books I’m Reading Right Now and How Much Progress I Have Made

Outlander: According to my e-reader, Outlander has 822 pages. I’m a little more of an eighth of the way through, and I’m loving it.

Bird by Bird: If you have any interest in writing but don’t care for how-to guides related to writing, then this is the writing guide for you. I never feel like Ann Lamott is giving me hard-and-fast objective advice. It’s more like there are suggestions peppered throughout her stories of her own experiences—unique, but all kinds of relatable—with the frustrations and anxieties and occasional feelings that something you’ve done is right.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making: I’ve read two pages of this. It seems like fun, but that’s a pretty small sample size of pages.

1 Corinthians: I just finished Acts Friday and this was the first book that came to Scott’s mind when I asked which one I should move to next. I’ve done 1 and 2 Corinthians a couple times before, but it’s always worthwhile to have another go. I’m starting it tonight.

Really Good Names for Pets I Would Consider Using in the Future Based on Characters from Fictional Properties, Plus Which Animal They’d Best Fit

Renly (A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones): a betta fish, preferably a golden one, taking into account his house sigil.

Frohike (The X-Files): a wide-eyed tabby.

The Trouble with and Triumphs of Expectations

Remember when X-Men: The Last Stand came out? The moviegoing public was generally pretty psyched, since X2: X-Men United was a remarkably solid superhero flick, with some real heft in its storytelling, a varied cast of characters, and a plot that I still get ridiculously invested in whenever I stumble across the movie on cable.

But there was reason to worry before the film was released. Brett Ratner, still best known to me for his above-average work on Red Dragon and par-for-the-course work on the Rush Hour series, took the directorial reigns from Bryan Singer. David Hayter didn’t have a screenwriting credit, and Singer had nothing to do with the story. But hey, Patrick Stewart! Ian McKellen! That guy who would later appear in Hairspray and Enchanted! (Look, I know his name, OK? I’m doing this for effect. It’s not fault they wrote Scott Summers to be a whiny jerkface. OR IS IT?) And Ratner does fine with action sequences, right? … Right?

Turns out, critics were iffy on X3 and fans hated it. X2 hints at an allegory, only getting heavy-handed in its final moments; X3 begins heavy-handed and stays that way. A handful of major players are killed off long before the film’s climax, making for fewer compelling performances. The new characters, who could be great, given their comic backstories, are just kind of there, and in general, the movie just tends to fall a bit flat.

At least, that’s what you’d think if you had high expectations. I did not, and I liked–nay, loved X3.

In retrospect, I see its flaws very clearly, but I still believe that for what it is–a superhero movie made before the Dark Knight trilogy (which essentially rewrote the DNA of any superhero movie that would follow) that’s kind of goofy and very pulpy—it’s a lot of fun to watch. The truth is that I don’t always watch movies with a critical eye. If it’s something that’s been relentlessly praised, I actively try to lower my expectations. What’s popular or historically lauded isn’t always going to click with me, which is how I justify my hatred for Crime & Punishment. On the other hand, if there’s something I want to see or read or watch at home that those whose taste I respect hate, I’ll often still give it a try, because it can’t possibly be bad as they’re saying, and even if it is, it has the potential to be a fascinating disaster. X3 is neither a critical triumph nor a fascinating disaster. It’s somewhere in between, and it serves its purpose, and that’s fine by me.

This system of lowering my expectations or forcibly opening my mind has been met with mixed results. Even with tempered expectations, I strongly disliked American Hustle, which was, from what I understand, a “good movie.” But for every American Hustle, there’s a time that I’m so, so glad I kept my expectations in check. And the last time I went to the movies was one of those times.

I didn’t expect to love Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not a movie about Hawkeye or Black Widow, so it wasn’t a Marvel property I was salivating for, and Chris Pratt, charming as he is in interviews, still didn’t strike me as the action hero sort. I decided ahead of time that if nothing else, I would enjoy it for its visuals and its soundtrack, both objectively good things. It’d be worth my time for those reasons. But it ended up being so much more than that.

There’s nothing I can say about Guardians of the Galaxy that hasn’t already been said. It does a bang-up job of getting its team together and throwing them into the kind of action sequences that strike a viewer as unforgettable, prison breaks and casino brawls and spaceships melding together to surround a giant spaceship in a freaking force field. It’s genuinely funny, with dialogue that’s snappy but not too clever by half. It’s terrifically performed, with Pratt turning out to be a legitimate action hero for the ages, Zoe Saldana proving again that she deserves a role in every sci-fi/fantasy/superhero movie ever, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper providing vocal performances no one else could have, and Dave Bautista surprising everyone who’s ever seen Mr. Nanny but not The Princess Bride with the fact that sometimes, professional wrestlers can act. (And there’s some great supporting work here, too—John C. Reilly and Michael Rooker are standouts.)

Lastly—and if you’ve been with me for a while, you know how much I care about this—it has heart. It’s not maudlin, but it’s sincere in its occasional melancholy (the talking raccoon made me cry more than once) and its moments of triumph. I would say I don’t remember the last time I enjoyed a night at the movie theater so much, but I do, because The Lego Movie wasn’t really that long ago. But I genuinely can’t recall watching something in the theater and feeling like I’d gotten a gift quite like I did watching Guardians of the Galaxy.

This is why I keep my expectations reasonable: for the pleasant surprises, the times when I walk out of the theater saying, “I liked that so much more than I thought I would.” Because sometimes, you end up loving something, and when is that not worth it? Never. That’s when.

Questions Regarding Captain America: The Winter Soldier

(Here be spoilers.)

  • Why was the Captain America exhibit in the Air and Space Smithsonian rather than American History? He has little do with either and everything to do with American History.
  • Why was there voiceover in the Captain America exhibit? I’ve been to several Smithsonia (the plural of Smithsonian) and never heard the dulcet tones of Gary Sinise or some such narrator as I wandered around.
  • Regarding The List in Steve’s tiny notebook (which was a delightful concept), is Steve actually putting off finding out about the Berlin wall? That seems like it would’ve come up by now. He’s been back for a little while.
  • Why can’t Steve slip into his Brooklyn accent more often? My husk of a soul reconstituted itself when he used it to talk to Peggy for all of seven seconds.
  • Does Sam Wilson own a straightener? Nat’s hair looked very smooth mere seconds after turning wavy post-shower.
  • Can DC Pierson get a haircut?
  • What’s the percentage of audience members who believed Nick Fury was actually dead? If SHIELD’s going to resurrect my spirit animal Phil Coulson, you know they’re bringing back the guy who’s one step up, and his injuries weren’t as severe as Phil’s. (We’re on a first name basis.)
  • Why isn’t Bucky in this movie more often? I have far more praise for The Winter Soldier than complaints, but I would’ve loved to have seen both more Sam and more Bucky. Sebastian Stan’s a fine actor, and he was downright wrenching here–when he got the chance to be, which was not often.
  • Can Natasha quit wearing that arrow necklace? I understand that the natural coupling among Avengers is Clint and Natasha, but by Whedon logic, a Happy Couple must be torn apart by death, and he’s not going to kill off his Strong Female Character, so Clint’s days are numbered, and I love the Hawkguy. I’m the only person you know whose favorite Avenger is Hawkeye. Don’t do this to me, MCU.
  • Are we not allowed to call Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch “mutants”? Are they only to be referred to as “miracles” in MCU since the X-Men series has its grubby yet capable paws all over the term “mutant”?
  • Borrowed concept that I really wish I’d thought of: can we get a series of images of Bucky looking, contemplatively and longingly, at other Smithsonian exhibits? Bucky Stares at the Kermit Puppet, Bucky Admires the Dresses of the First Ladies, et cetera?
  • Where does this fall in the order of MCU movies from best to worst? I still think The Avengers can’t be beat, and though I don’t think my opinion is shared by many anymore, I’d put Iron Man 3 ahead of this. It’s certainly better than Iron Man 2 and Thor, and I’d also say it’s better than Iron Man, though the first Captain America is so solid and so fun and does such a great job of establishing Steve as the hero he is. As it stands, I’d give this a very slight edge over the first, because the emotional beats ring true and I love the addition of Black Widow and Falcon. Steve can carry a movie, but it’s nice to see him get some help, especially from such strong performers. (Also, Cobie Smulders! Am I right, folks?)
  • Am I the only person in the world who literally bounced up and down, flailed, and squealed when Danny Pudi appeared onscreen?
  • Is this a satisfying movie? Yes. Am I now looking even more forward to Guardians of the Galaxy and Age of Ultron? Certainly. And am I feeling fine without any of these questions answered? Of course.