M<i>ad Men</i> is a show that thinks very highly of itself. Its creator and writer, Matthew Weiner, was a writer and executive producer of <i>The Sopranos</i>, and <i>Mad Men</i> totes a self-importance that could give some the impression that it’s powerful and innovative HBO drama, like <i>The Sopranos</i> or <i>The Wire</i>. It’s not, but judging by the hype its second season has gotten, a lot of people seem to be convinced it is.
Almost a year ago, I reviewed Noah Baumbach’s <i>Margot at the Wedding</i>: a film about a damaged and grotesquely self-involved woman, Margot, returning to her childhood home to attend her sister’s wedding. The family collapses and rebuilds over the course of film, with Margot always at its center. At a cursory glance, Jonathan Demme’s new film, <i>Rachel Getting Married</i>, is the exact same story.
At the center of Claude Chabrol’s <i>A Girl Cut in Two</i> is the kind of pulpy love triangle that the tabloids dream of: a nymphet-like TV weather-girl is caught between a nationally revered literary figure (decades older) and a volatile, dashing heir to a pharmaceutical company fortune. The conflict ends very, very badly.
More than those of probably any other working director, Woody Allen’s films are released with the paralyzing burden of expectation. Woody Allen is supposed to be, without exception, funny. The expectations extend further; his films must carry a sense of humor that fits with the public perception of Allen himself: anal, narcissistic, self-deprecating. When Allen releases films that don’t really fit this mold, people tend to freak out.
Ye Lou’s <i>Summer Palace</i> chronicles the collective rise and fall of a generation of Chinese youth: it lumbers through its nearly two-and-a-half hours on the back of a young woman, Yu Hong (played by Lei Hao), from her dense, passionate college years to the bleak, depleted years of adulthood that follow.
Jhumpa Lahiri isn’t the sort of writer who shies away from her heritage. Her writing is replete with details of the Indian-American experience, peppered with references to Raj Kapoor and salwar kameez, because she writes about what she knows. But to say that her stories are primarily about an ethnic-American experience seems to severely limit the scope of Lahiri’s writing. Her stories aren’t about immigrant families, but families in general. On March 4th, in front of a crowd that was spilling out of 32-123, Lahiri reinforced this resistance to the labels that frequently hamper writers such as her. She offered the audience a writing style that is crisp, discerning, and instantly recognizable to anyone who has struggled to reconcile generations and cultures, but also, parents and children.
The first installation in Chantal Akerman’s new exhibition in the List Visual Arts Center presents an imposing blockade of television screens: placed in triptychs throughout the room, one has to weave and sidestep between the televisions to get through.
In Hou Hsiao-hsien’s <i>Flight of the Red Balloon</i>, the balloon in question seems to drift into every corner of a melancholy-tinged Paris; it drags through a quiet skyline and is glazed onto the side of a building, it sits within oil paintings and computer screens. Most prominently, the balloon occupies an unspoken space in a small network of Parisian lives: it sparks their perception and weighs on their memory.
These days, even when its subject is abortion, it’s hard for a film to be genuinely affecting, or even feel new. But Cristian Mungiu’s astonishing “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” insists on confronting abortion with a kind of honesty and force that will leave even the most hardened viewer a little dazed. And yet it would be too easy, and unfair, to label 4 months as simply an “abortion movie”; it would have been easy (and probably even successful) for Mungiu to construct the kind of gritty, mildly simplistic abortion movie most of us expect. But 4 months extends itself beyond any of these expectations and attempts something much more ambitious: to represent a harrowing day in the life of a Romanian college student in a way shatters the separation between film and viewer, and provides us with life, in its truest sense. It succeeds and it feels very, very new.
Noah Baumbach’s “Margot at the Wedding” is a broad, relentless portrait of a family perpetually strained to the point of breaking. But, oddly, it never does. It is a family whose members are racked by insecurities and self-doubt; they lash out at each other in ways that are almost incomparably cruel. Yet somehow you leave the theater knowing that the characters feel deeply for each other.
Last fall, I took a class in American Literature that read <i>Drown</i>, a collection of short stories by the Dominican writer, and MIT professor, Junot Díaz. I considered myself a pretty well read individual; said considerations generally rely on knowledge of, more than anything, names. I toted the titles of canonical heavyweights like Faulkner and Melville in classrooms, parties, and dorm rooms. A young Dominican-American author, whose debut work described life in both the Dominican Republic and immigrant America with enough fervor and sadness to knock the breath out of you, wasn’t really something I was accustomed to.
When I first heard about <i>365 days/365 plays</i>, Suzan-Lori Parks’ project to spend a year writing one play a day, I remember thinking it was a little, um, ambitious. But I also remember reading her play, <i>Topdog/Underdog</i>, which brought fresh ideas on racial identity, history’s everyday presence, masculinity as a weapon, and masculinity as a weakness. I suppose few people would be better equipped than Parks for such an undertaking.