Category: 2013


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One of the great myths of life is that love is something magical, that it exists beyond our electrochemical human functions, that it is pre-ordained and written in the stars. It isn’t. We love because of chemical reactions in our body, socialization, and the pool of people we have the geographic (or, in our modern time, digital) capability to love. But, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful and just because you can love others doesn’t mean that your love for a specific individual is lesser. Love would be less messy and less painful if we could recognize that we will never truly be one with another human being and simply celebrated the moments we can share with others who value our presence and affection. Perhaps more efficiently than any film since Manhattan, Spike Jonze‘s Her cuts straight to the core of romantic love, wrapping it all in a sci-fi world that seems all too real now.

It’s easy to talk about love in a logical way. It’s easy to recognize the evolutionary functions it no longer needs to serve. But living life in a way that maximizes your romantic pleasure and minimizes yours and (just as importantly) others romantic pain isn’t as easy as philosophical discussions. To err is human and we want to possess our partners. We want to be the missing piece of our partner’s existence and for them to be the same for us, but no one can meet those expectations and fantasies. And romance wanes and dissolves when the person we love isn’t the person we fell in love with and the cycle of loneliness and misery begins anew. So, it’s no wonder it takes a machine to solve this most human of dilemmas.

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If you had asked me when the Best Picture nominees were announced which film I thought I would enjoy the least, Philomena would have easily topped the list. Every year has a movie like that. I knew before I even watched The Help or War Horse that it would be unlikely if I enjoyed those films, and sadly, they were even more disappointing than I thought they would be. Their subject matter seems trite or cliche, and you wonder how they were ever nominated for the highest honor in all of cinema. And from its plot description to its advertisements, Philomena seemed like it was ripped straight out of the cloyingly sweet, artificial school of filmmaking. I am happy to admit that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I’ve said it on this blog before, but it bears repeating. There are few feelings as refreshing as  a film lover than when  you go into a film expecting to hate it but find yourself loving it instead. I call that the anti-Les Miserables (a film I expected to love but instead loathed). And Philomena is one of the most pleasant examples of that phenomena for me in a long time. With sharply drawn characters, wonderful acting, a beautiful aesthetic from The Queen‘s Stephen Frears, and a genuine respect for characters who don’t share a compatible world view, Philomena is a grown-up film that serves as shining example of the lost art of understated drama.

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Philomena is the true story of the quest of Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a disgraced journalist for the BBC, to help Philomena Lee (Skyfall‘s Judi Dench) find her son who she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years prior. When Philomena was a teenager, she was impregnated by a boy she met at the fair. Her father disowned her and dropped her off at a convent/orphanage run by nuns who housed and fed the pregnant women until they had their children and then the nuns sold the kids and used the women as slave labour for four years. And beause of her Catholic guilt about premarital sex, Philomena kept her first child a secret for 50 years.

Martin, who has recently been fired from the BBC because of some vaguely explained connection to Labour, is in a rut of his own. He has no job, and he’s depressed and his only other idea is to write a book on Russian history. And when Philomena’s daughter suggests that he do a human interest story on her mother (because the daughter has only just now discovered that Philomena had a son 50 years prior), he initially balks at the idea of doing such a soft story. But when he realizes that there’s a story here about exploitation by the church, Martin agrees to look into Philomena’s case, and they are both taken on a ride that leads them to America and places they never imagined.

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I don’t want to spoil too many details of Martin and Philomena’s investigation to find her son because the film delivers some twists and turns although, honestly, the quest to find her child is not nearly as important as the journey itself and what it reveals about this odd couple on this journey. Philomena is a devoutly religious Irish Catholic who is kind and not in the least bit worldly. She’s direct and painfully honest, and the whole world is beautiful and wondrous to her. Martin, on the other hand, is a bitter and cynical depressive, an atheist, and tends to look down on those who aren’t as cultured as he is although he’d usually never come out and say it.

The film’s view of the world is somewhere between Martin and Philomena, but the film has the utmost respect for both of them. Just like The Queen, Stephen Frear never forgets that these two are people, and it never belittles either of their worldviews. I’m unsure if I’ve ever watched a film that managed to be so sympathetic to both religion and agnosticism without also being some type of hippie-dippie nonsense. Philomena has her view of the world; Martin has his. And, Philomena is content to let that be. Because, there are moments where, yes, Philomena is hopelessly naive, but Martin is equally bitter and broken, and the film understands that so well about both of them.

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It also doesn’t hurt that the film is beautifully acted and shows restraint from beginning to end to never become overly melodramatic or cloying. Dame Judi Dench is one of the true treasures of the screen, and her performance as Philomena is one of the finest of her career. Much like Helen Mirren in The Queen, Stephen Frears gets a perfectly understated performance out of Dench. You feel Philomena’s hurt and despair but also her endless love of life and optimism, and watching Dench perform, it’s clear you’re watching someone who has mastered the acting craft, and when we lose Miss Dench, it will be a huge blow to acting and the screen.

Steve Coogan, who is primarily a comedic actor, also shines as the more world-weary Martin. Martin is a prick. There’s no easy way getting around that. But, Coogan always humanizes him even at his snootiest. But, he’s got a perfect understated British comedic delivery to give the film its much needed comic levity. That was one of the most surprising facts about Philomena. It is often laugh-out-loud funny, and both Judi Dench and Steve Coogan deliver plenty of laughs. Ony the British could make a film that deals with such serious material as mothers having their children stolen from them but also find time to include the necessary laughs without cheapening the serious material.

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Ultimately, Philomena is about what we believe, why we believe it, and how much pressure our believes can take before they seem outdated and wrong. And, at a little over an hour and a half, it’s the perfect length for this tale. There’s not a wasted second in the script or the film, and I suspect were Philomena any longer, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. But, as it is, Philomena stands as one of the surprise delights from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees. If, like myself, you didn’t see how you could possibly enjoy this film, let me assure you that is far better than any of us had given it credit for. It’s a much watch film for all movie lovers. Just bring some tissues. You’ll need them.

Final Score: A

 

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The first “important” book that I ever read was The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. I read it in middle school long before I could fully appreciate the complexity of Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s examination of what it meant to be a black man in America in the middle of the 20th century, but even as an adolescent, the power of El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz’s fury and critique of American culture stuck with me in a way that forever changed my life. Although I’m white, I have biracial family members of African-American lineage and, growing up, my family took care of a family of four African-American foster children for many years. And through my immersion in real life to the legacy of institutionalized racism (and the more casual kind that still lingers to this day) as well as my exposure to Malcolm X’s story at such a young age, I was always aware of and sensitive to issues of race in ways that few of my white friends are or ever will be.

Even as a child, I was always astounded by the ways that people in the American South (West Virginia may have technically been part of the North during the Civil War, but we were one of the last states still actively fighting racial integration in the 60s) romanticize antebellum chattel slavery. These are people who have seen Gone With the Wind one too many times, and their idea of slavery are happy Mammy’s and Prissy’s who were glad to serve at their master’s beck and call. Clearly, they never read Roots. It is impossible to read Roots or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and have any romantic feelings towards the factual history of slavery and institutional racism in America. Yet, people do. We can add British director Steve McQueen’s masterful film 12 Years a Slave to the list of must-see works on that dark page of American history.

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The Academy Award winner for Best Picture is easily the darkest and most complex film to win that award since Schindler‘s List although for my money 12 Years a Slave is an entirely different class of filmmaking, and it is easily one of the finest films of this decade so far. In fact, 12 Years a Slave has such a richly faceted point to make about morality and ethics that I’m unsure if the Academy actually understood the subtext of the film because films this fatalistic and cynical don’t generally win Academy Awards. As an examination of the way that society is capable of normalizing cruelty and how the institutionalization of cruelty against marginalized groups robs even victims of their ability to empathize with other sufferers as they simply try to avoid more victimization themselves, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful philosophical treatise at a Bergman level.

12 Years a Slave is the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York in the 1840s, making a living as a violinist with his wife and two children. Solomon accepts an offer from two men in a traveling circus to play his violin as part of their show, but when they reach Washington, D.C., they drug Solomon and sell him to slave traders. And it isn’t long before Solomon, who was born free and had never been a slave his entire life, is sold to a string of masters in the American South and is exposed to the cruelty and barbarity of antebellum slavery firsthand.

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Upon being kidnapped and sold into slavery, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt, and he is beaten several times within an inch of his life as he protests his new appellation. Solomon must also hide the fact that he can read and write from his new masters because a slave that could read was considered the most dangerous type, even more than runaways. And although Solomon is initially sold to a relatively decent master, Ford (Star Trek Into Darkness‘s Benedict Cumberbatch), it isn’t long before a fight with a cruel overseer results in Solomon’s sale to a brutal and barbaric rapist and sadist, Edwin Epps (X-Men: First Class‘s Michael Fassbender) where he will spend many long years, a witness to not only his own suffering but also that of Patsey (Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin’s favorite slavegirl that he rapes and abuses at a whim.

The obvious “text” of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery was a barbaric, unfathomably cruel system that no civilized nation can ever explain away. The text is likely what 12 Years a Slave won its Academy Award for, and Steve McQueen captures the barbarism in no uncertain terms. Slave women are raped repeatedly. Solomon and Patsey are both beaten towards the point of death, and we are given graphic looks at their backs where the flesh has literally been ripped from the bone. Mothers and children are ripped apart and when the mothers cry, they are beaten for their tears. McQueen ensures that there is no way to sit through this film and think that slavery was anything other than the evil system of exploitation and cruelty that it was.

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But, what makes 12 Years a Slave the masterpiece it is (and easily the greatest Best Picture winner in over a decade) are the nearly countless levels of subtext in the film. There’s a moment somewhat early in the film where Solomon has nearly been lynched by a foreman of the first plantation he worked on, and although the plantation overseer stops the lynching, he leaves Solomon hanging from the tree for hours to make a point. And in a magnificent long take, you start to see other slaves leaving their dwellings and return to their daily routine. Almost none of them so much as look at Solomon (one kind soul gives him water) and slave children play in the background eventually. It shows how in the world of slaves where you can be beaten or killed for one stray look, no one sticks their neck out for one another. You simply try to survive, and because of that, the film resists the temptation to even romanticize the suffering of the slaves by trying to make them too heroic or noble.

On the other level, even the kindest whites (with one major exception) are only able to extend mercy or understanding to slaves to a certain point before it begins to inconvenience them. At that point, they simply revert to believing that the blacks aren’t real people and that they can’t risk themselves to help them. Ford is kinder to Solomon than any of his other owners, but when Solomon tries to tell Ford that he is truly a free man, Ford refuses to hear any of it and sells him to Edwin Epps even though it’s clear that Ford believes Solomon on some level. And a friendly plantation neighbor to Epps allows Solomon to keep his wages for playing his violin, but he still utilizes Solomon for slave labour in the cotton fields. And, one seemingly friendly white quickly sells Solomon out because he thinks it will make him a quick buck.

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But, the kicker to the film’s themes of how systematic repression and cruelty robs victims of their ability to empathize with one another is a scene with actress Alfre Woodward (Primal Fear) as a former slave who was freed when she married her master (the same man who allowed Solomon to keep his earnings for a violin performance). She has been a slave. She was in the same position that Patsey was in. But, now, she lives in the comfort that is provided to her on the back of the forced labour of her former people. She gives a small speech at the end about the karmic judgment waiting men like her husband, but she seems totally unaware of the hypocrisy of her own position. And it’s because her suffering has created a mindset of “at least, I’ve managed to escape the lash for now.”

It also doesn’t hurt 12 Years a Slave‘s case that it has one of the finest ensemble casts in years. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives one of the best leading man performances of last year (in a year overflowing with superb performances) by playing Solomon’s suffering as realistically and with as little melodrama as possible. Solomon is human, and even he becomes tone deaf to the suffering of those around him on occasion, and by simply making him a man (rather than a symbol for all of slave’s suffering), Ejiofor and McQueen turn him into one of the most well-crafted characters of the 2010s.

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Although I’ve yet to see any of the other Best Supporting Actress performances besides Julia Robert’s in August: Osage County (she’s great in that film, but the movie is terrible and also Roberts was the leading lady), I can’t imagine I’ll be at all upset about Lupita Nyong’o’s Oscar win. Although she spends much of her early moments on screen not actually speaking, Nyong’o’s role eventually blossoms into an example of the suffering slave women (particularly beuatiful slave women) faced at the hands of male master’s who saw them not as people but purely as tools for giving them pleasure. And, one of the most memorable scenes of the film’s involves Patsey begging Solomon to kill her and put her out of her misery and his refusal to do so because he knows how much trouble it would be for him if Epps found out.

Michael Fassbender got a well-deserved Academy Award nomination as well (I have trouble believing that Jared Leto was ever better than him in anything but I haven’t seen Dallas Buyer’s Club yet so I can’t judge) as the bordering on psychopathic Edwin Epps. Fassbender makes it clear how brutal and sadistic Epps can be, and his actions in the film are monstrous, but Fassbender never turns Epps into a total monster, and that’s the beauty of his performance. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Sarah Paulson also all shine in smaller roles.

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After a quick scan of the last 20 odd years of Best Picture winners, there seems to be little question that 12 Years a Slave is the best winner of that award since Unforgiven. Although I’ve enjoyed every Best Picture winner of the 2010s, I haven’t thought any of them were remotely Best Picture worthy, and it is beyond refreshing to see a film of this magnificent a caliber finally being rewarded with the highest honor in the film industry. I still have to see most of the other Best Picture winners (the only others I’ve seen so far are Captain Phillips and The Wolf of Wall Street), but 12 Years a Slave has set not only a high bar for them to clear but also any other prestige films to come out the rest of this decade. It is a must-see film event for all who love the fine art of film.

Final Score: A+

 

 

 

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It takes an almost sociopathic disregard for good taste to begin a “prestige” film with a dwarf being thrown at a dartboard as hedonistic stock brokers gamble on the results. But coming from the man who had the deranged Travis Bickle take his classy love interest (Cybil Shephard) to a porno movie on their first date, it makes a certain deranged sense coming from the iconic Martin Scorsese who has built an entire career on crafting morality plays that may not seem as such on the surface. The Wolf of Wall Street is one of the most controversial films of the last two years, but anyone watching it with a clear eye for the director’s intention recognize it as perhaps the most scathing indictment of greed and excess since Glengarry Glen Ross.

We live in a world where reckless Wall Street gambling and a total disregard for the idea of risk vs. collateral wrecked not only the United States’ economy but the economy of the entire world. And a film where a self-described crook and liar gets a slap on the wrist for his crimes against the public does not, on the surface, seem like the right path to take when dissecting the mindset of the men who nearly dragged the U.S. into another Great Depression. But by turning Wall Street excess into a raucous satire, Scorsese is able to make points with more laser precision and immediate impact than a straight-faced serious drama could have hoped.

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Based on the autobiography of the titular Wolf of Wall Street, Scorsese’s film is the true story of Wall Street wunderkind Jordan Belfort (The Departed‘s Leonardo DiCaprio). After watching the devastation of the stock market during 1987’s Black Monday and losing his job as a broker for a prestigious Wall Street brokerage, Jordan starts his own brokerage, Stratton Oakmont, making money off of pink-sheet stocks: cheap penny stocks that give brokers a 50% commission on sales as opposed to the 1% commission on high-end blue chip stocks. The catch with the pink-sheet stocks is that they’re penny stocks for a reason and only fools would invest in them.

And it’s not long before Jordan and his friends, a hodgepodge of drug dealers and scam artists, turn Stratton Oakmont into a business where Jordan is bringing home $49 million a year. And while selling people stocks that aren’t actually worth a damn isn’t a crime, stock price manipulation is and alongside his founding partner Donny (Moneyball‘s Jonah Hill), Jordan gets involved in every illegal Wall Street crime imaginable, from insider trading to embezzlement to price fixing. And not even the relentless investigation of FBI Agent Denham (Zero Dark Thirty‘s Kyle Chandler) is enough to make Jordan stop his ways.

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It doesn’t hurt that Jordan, Donny, and company are hedonists that would put the most depraved nobles of the Roman empire to shame. Over the course of The Wolf of Wall Street‘s three hour running time, Jordan and his men consume enough drugs to fund a small South American government, and they sleep with enough hookers to solve the debt crisis (if said hookers were taxable). Jordan has more money than any person could possibly spend in one lifetime, and The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t afraid to explore the completely outrageous waste of wealth that happens when it becomes increasingly concentrated in just a few individuals (and particularly when those individuals are too coked out to spend it with any responsibility).

And what makes The Wolf of Wall Street so controversial and so repugnant to the traditional vanguards of the moral police (both on the left and the right) is that it is an undeniably fun film and that The Wolf of Wall Street crosses the line so many times in this film that it’s easy to lose track, including a particularly memorable moment where Jordan and the founding partners of Stratton Oakmont discuss the proper protocol for hiring dwarves to be thrown at dartboards. But, there would be no other way to tell this story. The film has fun with the drug scenes because, guess what, drugs are fun. That’s why people do them. There’s a certain comedic allure of sociopathic behavior and The Wolf of Wall Street knows it: like Jonah Hill pulling his dick out at a party and masturbating cause he took too many Quaaludes.

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And while the consequences for Jordan’s actions in the court of law amass to a 3 year stint at a Club Fed prison, The Wolf of Wall Street shows the consequences of the out of control lives these men live. Jordan loses his family. Donny nearly chokes to death while eating a sandwich after a particularly traumatic Quaalude experience. The Walking Dead‘s Jon Bernthal’s Brad dies of a heart attack in his 30s cause that what happens when you abuse cocaine like Tony Montana. Jordan is reduced to betraying all of his friends in order to serve less jail time. The Wolf of Wall Street may not drape its ethical message in ham-fisted preaching, but it’s there if you take half a second to look for it.

And, like all of Scorsese’s films, The Wolf of Wall Street is a technical marvel. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography captures the opulent depravity that fills virtually every second of the film but is able to capture more intimate and darker moments in the starker images necessary to convey the emotions. Scorsese’s long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker edits one of the most raucous moments of Scorsese’s entire career for the film’s famous Quaalude crawl which is conveyed in fragmented, delirious terms. When either Scorsese or Schoonmaker passes away, it will be a tragic moment in film.

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In no uncertain terms, Jordan Belfort is the finest performance of Leonardo DiCaprio’s career and the apex of DiCaprio’s decade long collaboration with Martin Scorsese. For anyone who’s ever doubted DiCaprio’s place as the heir to Robert De Niro as Scorsese’s muse, The Wolf of Wall Street will change your mind or nothing will. It’s a fearless, balls-to-the-wall performance and DiCaprio leaves it all out there. I have not seen Dallas Buyers Club, but I can not begin to imagine how McConaughey is better in it than DiCaprio was in this. DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort has already become one of the defining performances of the aughts for me.

Had you told me back in 2005 that the kid trying to buy fish boots would have two Oscar nominations, I’d have laughed in your face, but somewhere along the line, Jonah Hill transformed himself into a respectable performer even if I’m not sure what was particularly Oscar worthy about his performances in this or Moneyball. He’s great. Don’t get me wrong. Donny is part of the long line of psychopathic supporting men in Scorsese films begun by Joe Pesci, but his performance pales so completely in comparison to the masterclass of frenetic and crazy performing that DiCaprio puts on.

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My only complaint about The Wolf of Wall Street is that it is long. I didn’t particularly feel the length when I watched the film for the first time in theatres because the film is so vibrant and alive (a quality lacking from some of Scorsese’s latest works), but upon a second viewing at home when I rented the film from Netflix, I felt those three hours. But, if you can make it through the film’s considerable length and you can handle with the film’s over-the-top content in the way that it’s meant to be handled, then you’re in for what is Scorsese’s best film since Gangs of New York and possibly even Goodfellas. It’s destined to be a modern classic.

Final Score: A

 

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(As some of you may remember, I made a vow to stop reviewing all of the movies that I watched for my blog a while back. And that still holds true. I decided to only review films that I give an “A” or an “A+” too because I just don’t have time to write 1000 words about all of the other movies that I watch. And the “A” and “A+” films are films that I’m going to have plenty of substantive and, hopefully, interesting things to say about. Anyways, this is the first film to get an “A” since I made that decision, so here we go. I’m probably rusty at this.)

I’m only 25 years old, and I have already lost countless of hours of sleep thinking of what could have been and what I should have done differently. I don’t necessarily believe that my life is one charted primarily in regret, but there is much in my life that I would do different given the chance. Life is short, and it’s getting shorter every day; throw my innate impatience into the mix, and it’s easy to see why I am tortured by every day that I don’t achieve something magnificent. Plenty of films (and an occasional great one) deal with the disappointment of old age and life poorly spent. But few films deal with the emptiness of that revelation in such stark and powerful terms as 2013’s The Great Beauty, the Best Foreign Language Academy Award winning film from Italy’s Paolo Sorrentino. A visual and emotional tour-de-force, The Great Beauty is a modern Italian masterpiece in the Fellini vein.

After three years of running this blog, if there’s one thing I’ve learned about great Italian cinema, it’s that narrative is secondary to “experience.” Emotions and the evocation of a specific state of mind or place is what defines much of the great Italian cinema. The Bicycle Thief is a transcendentally melancholic experience that evokes the crushing poverty of post-World War II Rome.  Cinema Paradiso captures the wonder films can instill in us when we’re young as well as the beauty (and poverty) of Sicily. And no film has captured the mercurial charm of the creative process as well as Fellini’s 8 1/2. And, The Great Beauty is one of the great cinematic statements on regret and old-age packed with some of the most gorgeous cinematography this side of Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder.

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Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a celebrated Italian journalist and novelist that has just celebrated his 65th birthday with a hedonistic extravaganza of Rome’s social elite that would rival any of Ancient Rome’s most debauched orgies. But despite his life of luxury and total ease, Jep is not a happy man. He wrote his first novel, an instant classic, when he was a young man and has written another book since. And his interviews may be among Italy’s most read and in its most respected magazines, but it also involves him interviewing “artists” who act simply involves stripping naked and running head-first into brick walls. After the woman who inspired his first novel dies, Jep suddenly realizes he hasn’t done anything meaningful with his life in thirty years, and that all of the people he associates himself with are as empty and shallow as he is.

What makes The Great Beauty different from other films that deal with an old man who gets old and realizes his life has raced him by is that there’s absolutely nothing feel-good or redemptive about this film. The Great Beauty is not a film about Jep’s attempts to regain control of his life. It’s about his slowly dawning realization that his life has become without meaning and that he doesn’t really have the energy to correct this course. The only person he finds in his life with any emotional honesty and sincerity is the 43 year old stripper daughter of a heroin-addicted old friend. And, Jep quickly discovers that he can’t find the redemption in Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli) that he needs. The Great Beauty, like Synecdoche, New York, before it is a film that forces the viewer to confront his own mortality and that when we die, none of the things we’ve done will be there to comfort us. We will only have the things we haven’t done there to cause us pain.

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Toni Servillo’s masterfully understated performance is the glue holding this whole film together. When The Great Beauty begins to meander (rarely to its detriment), Toni Servillo’s natural mercurial charm combined with his deep reservoir of melancholy makes him one of the most arresting screen figures of the 2010s. Jep is what would happen if La Dolce Vita‘s Marcello lived to be an old man and had even less to keep him happy. Servillo understands Jep so well that it doesn’t seem remotely incongruous for Jep to verbally lash a socialite at an otherwise friendly dinner party and to then suggest to that same woman later in the film that they should sleep together because it would give him something beautiful left to look forward to in life. Jep has an innate joie-de-vivre but if he stops moving for even a second, he realizes that these pleasures add up to nothing, and there is never a second in the film where Toni Servillo doesn’t remind us of this.

The Great Beauty deserved an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography, and the fact that it didn’t get one is a crime. It takes nearly twenty minutes before The Great Beauty begins to develop a plot (which is less of a linear narrative and more a series of thematically connected episodes), and it managed to hold my attention in a vise that entire time because The Great Beauty is stunning to look at. Luca Bigazzi’s camera becomes a testament to the eternal beauty of the city of Rome, and Cristiano Travaglioli’s frenetic editing captures the delirious disconnect these wealthy hedonists have from the real world. But, when the film calls for long takes and unbroken meditations on the action at hand, Bigazzi’s camera is there to soak it all in glorious detail and color. The Great Beauty is a must-see because of its cinematography alone.

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The Great Beauty‘s complex understanding of the way that we deal with regret and the notion that there isn’t always a magic solution to live in the moment is going to be off-putting to viewers who require happy solutions and clear-payoffs (or, even, in The Great Beauty‘s case, a cohesive narrative). The film demands that the viewer consider that we’re slaves to our behavioral destinies and that, beyond that, the suffering required for great art may be more pain than the art itself is actually worth. Much like Happiness and Amour, The Great Beauty is a film hiding a cynical and painful world view beneath an inviting title. Although The Great Beauty didn’t leave me nearly as emotionally devastated as Amour, it continues the tradition of the Best Foreign Language Academy Award winners being much better than the American films that win the same title, and it is certainly worth the time of any one who loves powerful and ambitious foreign cinema.

Final Score: A

 

 

Hello, everyone. I will have two of my traditional reviews up at some point tomorrow (it’s been finals week and I just haven’t had time to do any reviews and I’ve also been doing a lot of work on one of my screenplays) but my cousin and I recorded the second episode of the Saas Perspective today where we discuss 2011’s Coriolanus and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (as well as the Heisman trophy winner and Silver Linings Playbook). We had some consistent technical problems that dragged the experience down a bit, but other than that, it’s still a great listen. Thanks again to Stenders for letting use their song “21 Cm Line” as our opening and closing tune and to Matt Janas for being a great producer.

You can find the direct link to the podcast here (and the embed below): https://soundcloud.com/don-saas/the-saas-perspective-episode-2

Well, long-time readers, I’m excited to announce a new addition to Hot Saas’s Pop Culture Safari and a new project that I’m really looking forward to diving into in the weeks to come. I, along with my cousin Trevor Saas, have created my very first podcast, The Saas Perspective. In The Saas Perspective, every week we’re going to dig deep into Hollywood’s hidden gems. My cousin and I will discuss some under-appreciated treasure that I’ve reviewed from this blog, although it’s possible that it will be an under-rated film that I saw before I started this blog. And for the first edition of the podcast, that means we’re talking about one of my favorite films that I’ve discovered thanks to running this blog, 2005’s Conversations With Other Women.

We will also have a segment where discuss something that’s capturing the nation’s attention for that week, so movies, television, and music that are the definition of the public zeitgeist. And, for regular readers, it should be easy to predict that our first discussion for that segment of the podcast was, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. And, to close the podcast out, we have a more free-form jam session where we look at what mine and Trevor’s current pop culture obsessions are, which is Buffy the Vampire Slayer for him and Star Trek and Sherlock for me. If you’re a reader of the blog, I think you’ll greatly enjoy the ability to hear me talk more in depth about the films and shows that I love and the added presence of my cousin brings an entirely new perspective to the series beyond mine. Enjoy everyone!

UPDATE: Apparently, Firefox and/or WordPress doesn’t want to show the embedded audio player from Soundcloud of the podcast so I’m also going to provide a hard link to the episode in case you’re having trouble seeing the player (which a lot of people are. Here you go: https://soundcloud.com/don-saas/the-saas-perspective-episode-1

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Have you ever encountered a sequel in a franchise where it’s clear that overall the product is significantly better but because fundamental structural issues haven’t been addressed, it’s hard to appreciate the improvements? It’s a common phenomenon in video games with yearly sequels where significant mechanical tweaks are made but the formula starts to feel stale and basic problems are never really solved. It’s never something I’ve encountered with a film franchise before The Hunger Games though. Long time readers will know that I consider the book to be a considerable improvement over its predecessor, but maybe because the first Hunger Games film was already an improvement over the source material, it’s hard to appreciate the strides this entry made.

Suzanne Collins is a good storyteller but her prose is woefully deficient and it makes reading the books a slog. And one of the wonderful benefits of the film version was that I wasn’t forced to wade through her amateurish mastery of the English language (not to mention Gary Ross’s compelling direction and conception of what Panem would look like). And since the book of Catching Fire improved her storytelling ten fold (by truly fleshing out the world that Katniss and company inhabited), I assumed that the movie would be even better. But, perhaps it was not having the poor prose to distract me, this time I was forced to acknowledge even deeper problems in the Hunger Games universe.

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Before this review takes on an overly negative turn, let there be no misunderstanding that I thoroughly enjoyed Catching Fire and it joins Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 as one of this year’s blockbusters with actual brains. As far as modern dystopian science fiction for teenagers go, I’m hard-pressed to name a franchise with wider reach than The Hunger Games that also deserves said fandom. The action set-pieces during the film’s third act eclipse those even in the first, and the number of stars that director Francis Lawrence gathered for this entry is almost mind-boggling. But, and I’ll elaborate on this more shortly, one glaring problem with the film kept me from totally immersing myself this time around.

For those who haven’t seen the first one (or read the book), stop now because I’m about to spoil the ending for you. After finding a way to keep herself and fellow District 12 Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) alive during the 74th annual Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) quickly discovers that surviving the Hunger Games was the easy part. Forced on a circus publicity tour around the 12 districts of PanEm, Katniss learns that she has become the symbol of an uprising against the totalitarian Capital. But if she wants to keep her and her family alive, she’s going to have to prove to President Snow (Don’t Look Now‘s Donald Sutherland) that her fake love with Peeta which got her through the Hunger Games is real and it’s real enough to subdue the uprising.

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But, the film would be really boring if it was just Jennifer Lawrence pretending to love the emotionally reserved (and supremely dull) Josh Hutcherson, and in order to ensure that Katniss can’t become the face of the revolution, President Snow and the new Gamemaker for the 75th Annual Hunger Games, Plutarch Heavensbee (Synecdoche, New York‘s Phillip Seymour Hoffman), devise a wrinkle to this year’s game. Known as the Quarter Quell, every 25 years the Hunger Games rules are changed dramatically and this year, the tributes are chosen from a pool of past winners and both Katniss and Peeta inevitably have their names drawn.

In my review of the book, I talked about how Catching Fire‘s lengthy prelude (the action doesn’t really begin until the film’s final act) added context to the Hunger Games universe. Not only did we learn more about the different districts and why revolution has been so effectively suppressed (but also why Katniss is the spark needed to make it… catch fire), but by spending time getting to know the other tributes, it allowed their to be more characters with depth beyond Katniss and Peeta. Of course, the introduction of great supporting characters like Finnick (Sam Claflin), Johanna (Donnie Darko‘s Jena Malone), and Beete (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Jeffrey Wright) is that it subjects Katniss to the film’s biggest problem: boring protagonist syndrome.

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Katniss is one of the great female heroines of the modern age alongside Harry Potter‘s Hermione and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo‘s Lisbeth Salander. She’s a total bad-ass and her life isn’t primarily devoted to her romantic interests (unlike a certain resident of Forks, Washington) though she’s allowed to have a romance. But, Katniss is also something of a blank slate and a cipher for readers to project themselves onto and while she’s usually defined by her bad-ass feat of heroics, if she’s not killing something with a bow, you realize there isn’t any depth to this girl (at least until Mockingjay).

And the first film solved this problem by having Katniss constantly doing something cool. There’s more exposition and universe-building in Catching Fire and, thus, more time to see Katniss interacting with others, and except when she’s playing across the wooden and entirely one-dimensional Peeta, everyone in the film is more compelling than her. Woody Harrelson (Rampart) is particularly magnificent as the drunken Haymitch as he continues to be (despite all conventional wisdom) one of the most compelling actors of the last fifteen years (when he’s given the right roles).

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New-comer to the franchise Jena Malone also steals every second she’s on screen as the deliciously bitchy Johanna who quickly reveals her own hidden depths, but anyone who’s seen Donnie Darko or Saved! knows how talented she is. And Sam Claflin is charming with enough of an edge of “is he good or bad” to make him interesting despite the ultimate conclusion. And of course, Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Donald Sutherland all turn in great roles for a series they are probably too talented to be a part of.

That’s not to discount Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. After Silver Linings Playbook and Winter’s Bone, she’s secured her title as her generation’s most promising actress, but Katniss was a particularly thin role to begin with and it feels like she has even little do this time around. Katniss is particularly “ethos”-less in this entry compared to her comrades and that makes it even harder to care for her. Her saving grace as a character this time around is that she’s usually not too far from Peeta and he can make anyone look like a character from a Kenneth Lonergan film (which is so weird cause he’s not that boring in the books).

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By focusing so much on the flatness of Katniss’s character in this entry (and a general sense that the early exposition and world-building didn’t work nearly as well on screen as it did in the book), I should reiterate that I really enjoyed Catching Fire. And, in many meaningful ways, it is a significant improvement over the first film. But, I also couldn’t stop thinking about those things the entire time the film was running. If you’re on the edge about whether or not you should see the film after this review, don’t be. You should. It’s one of the best “event” films of the year. I just wish Katniss was a more well-rounded heroine for our modern age.

Final Score: B+

 

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Shane Carruth is a demanding filmmaker. Like David Simon, Charlie Kaufman, and David Lynch before him, Carruth refuses to hold audiences by the hand and offer simple solutions and recognizable tales. If you’re willing to devote the intellectual resources needed to comprehend one of his stories, Carruth rewards you with mind-bending science fiction unlike anything else out there. And, if you won’t…, well it’s clear that Carruth isn’t interested to catering to the Michael Bay audience. And, his total refusal to make anything other than the art he wants to make is what makes him such a special and valuable artist.

2004’s Primer took inaccessibility to new heights with its graduate-level physics technobabble, but if you pierced its thick veil, you were taken down a recursive rabbit-hole and got to engage in Olympian mental gymnastics. And, because of the intricately complex nature of Primer‘s plot, it’s become the very definition of a modern science fiction cult classic even if I bemoaned the film’s almost total lack of an emotional context. But, by taking a cue from a fellow Texan, Terrence Malick, Carruth has answered all of my complaints about his debut feature by revealing the marvelous Upstream Color, which is quite possibly the best science fiction film since Children of Men.

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I bring Terrence Malick up because, despite the labyrinthine nature of his plots, Shane Carruth is proving himself to be a master of minimalism. Going beyond the fact that Primer was shot for $7,000 and Upstream Color was rumored to be made for somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, Carruth is a master of stripping away the non-essentials of his storytelling. Although Primer got by on occasional expository speeches, Upstream Color is the closest thing to The Tree of Life in modern film-making to almost totally eschew exposition. The plot occurs, often not even on screen, and Carruth requires you to pay attention and put the missing pieces together yourself. And it is magnificent when that happens.

Much like Primer, much of the fun of Upstream Color will be trying to piece the plot together for yourself so I fear spending too much time discussing the story on the off-chance that I spoil something. But, even a cursory introduction of the plot should entice viewers to lose themselves in the mystery at the heart of this tale. Kris (Amy Seimetz) is a young professional that finds her laugh destroyed when she is kidnapped and drugged by a thief. But her captor doesn’t have her under the sway of any ordinary drug. This drug, distilled from orchids and the worms in their soil, allows for the brainwashing and control of anyone in its thrall, and the Thief (Thiago Martins) steals every last penny of Kris’s savings.

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And when the Thief has taken all he can from Kris, he leaves her without a second thought, but her troubles are only now beginning. With no memory of what happened to her, Kris loses her job (for missing work for so long with no explanation), loses her home (the Thief took out equity against her house), and the life she’s known and loved, and she simply thinks she’s going crazy. And that’s when she meets Jeff (Shane Carruth). The two are immediately drawn to each other, and Jeff has gone through what neither of them can remember happening. And all the while, a mysterious man, the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig), seems to be toying with his power over this pair.

And, that’s all I’ll say about the plot of Upstream Color except to add that just when you think you know what’s going to happen next, you’ll be shocked to discover just how wrong you are. Like Synecdoche, New York and Primer, it’s clear that Upstream Color will only grow in power with repeated viewings as the subtle implications you may have missed on your first go will suddenly make sense when you see them a second time. Carruth is a big fan of “Chekhov’s guns” and he has them laying all over the place. When it comes to tightly scripted stories that emphasize masterful foreshadowing, Carruth may only be bested by Robert Towne’s Chinatown.

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Minimalism isn’t the only area where Carruth is clearly inspired by Terrence Malick. Somewhere between 2004 and this year, Carruth learned a thing or two about cinematography, and Upstream Color is a stunningly gorgeous film to behold. There are numerous, lengthy swaths of the film where dialogue is at a minimum, and the story is conveyed through hauntingly beautiful shots and creative editing. Shane Carruth did virtually all of the major technical jobs in the film (directing, editing, writing, cinematography, music), and not for a second do you get the impression that he was stretched too thin.

My biggest complaint about Primer was that I had virtually no reason to care about its protagonists. While the puzzle aspect of the film was deliciously complex, I could never emotionally invest myself in the world of the film. And it’s a testament to the tightness of Carruth’s time-travel plot that it didn’t bother me more. Upstream Color obliterates that concern. Though Carruth isn’t capable of a Sunday Bloody Sunday-style of character depth, it’s not his goal, and through strong writing (and even stronger performances), I found myself enticed and enveloped by the trials of Kris and Jeff.

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If it wasn’t clear from all of the surprisingly accurate (despite the technobabble) engineering and physics at play in Primer, Shane Carruth loves science, and though Upstream Color may not seem as immediately high-concept and as directly sci-fi as Primer, it tackles an equally esoteric (but fascinating) field of science as Primer did with time travel. Without wanting to spoil too much, for anyone interested in quantum entanglement theory (but played from a psychological perspective rather than quantum physics) should find plenty to love in the nuts and bolts of Carruth’s story.

Science fiction this smart comes along so rarely that when a director with Carruth’s vision and intelligence comes along, he must be prized. Ten years is a long time to wait to follow up a beloved debut feature, but the wait was well worth it for Upstream Color is an undeniable science fiction masterpiece. Although I hope we won’t have to wait this long again for another Carruth picture, I suspect it will be years and dozens of viewings later before I’m finally able to piece together every part of the Upstream Color puzzle. And it’s a guarantee that at least the attempt will be made.

Final Score: A

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(A quick aside before I begin this review proper. I know that I haven’t reviewed TV since August of last year and this isn’t a sign that TV reviews will become a thing again on this blog. But, after finally catching up on Glee, I felt the undeniable need to write about my experience watching its Cory Monteith tribute episode. And, so this write-up is dedicated not only to the memory of Cory but also to his friends, family, and colleagues who have this massive hole in their lives.)

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer aired “The Body” over ten years ago now, it created waves in the TV industry. Not only did the series kill off a beloved supporting character (an act that would become something of a Joss Whedon staple), it did it in the least dramatic way possible via a brain aneurysm off-screen. Moving beyond the fact that the show had the restraint to have Buffy’s mother die of natural causes (rather than falling victim to the Season’s “Big Bad,” Glory), “The Body” became an artistic milestone because of the way it dealt with the act of death itself.

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On most television programs, the death of a major character is usually telegraphed weeks in advance and the advertising lead-up of said death primes the audience to understand that by the end of said episode, someone it loves is gone. Death episodes are a chance for writers to tie up any loose ends a character may have and it’s the last opportunity for an actor to throw one last bravura dramatic performance that will certainly wind up being their Emmy submission tape. Instead, Buffy used the sudden and earth-shattering death of Joyce Summers to explore the way we respond to the tragedy of an unexpected and shocking death of someone we love. And it became not just one of the best episodes of Buffy but one of the most emotionally raw and well-written episodes of television ever.

Whether it was the gut-wrenching direction during the sequence where Buffy comes home to find her mother’s corpse on the couch or the powerhouse acting moments later from Alyson Hannigan and Emma Caulfield where Willow and Anya each experience their own emotional breakdowns and confrontations with mortality before Joyce’s funeral, “The Body” abandoned the supernatural action that defined the series for a brutally honest meditation on grief and loss. After the tragic drug-overdose death of star Cory Monteith, Glee was forced to deal with the tough question of how to handle the loss of both the actor Cory and his character Finn. And with the exception of “The Body” and the closing montage from the series finale of Six Feet Under, I don’t know if an episode of TV has ever wrecked me so completely as “The Quarterback.”

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Glee is a clusterfuck of a television program if there’s ever been one. I’ve stuck with the program through its highs and lows because no matter how mind-bogglingly stupid the show can become, its highs have always more than made up for it to me. Whether its the continued maturation of Chris Colfer as a performer and the depth of his character Kurt or just the chance to hear Lea Michele sing again and again, Glee strays but thanks to those aforementioned moments, it keeps me coming back for more. And one of the thing the show has always done well (though its genuine thematic ADD means it can’t stay there for too long) is tapping into pure, primal emotions and the overwhelming despair of being young. And (thanks to the omnipresent reality subtext of the episode), “The Quarterback” does that more intensely than any episode of TV in recent memory.

From the beginning performance of “Seasons of Love” at Finn’s funeral to the final moments where Matthew Morrison’s Mr. Schuester finally experiences his emotional breakdown, every second of “The Quarterback” runs not on the sadness and loss of the characters of the show itself but on the despair and heartbreak of the actors playing those characters who had had four years to get to know Cory Monteith, who despite his drug problem had a reputation as being an exceptionally genuine and kind man. I’ll get into how the characters’ plights moved me but more than anything else, this episode was a chance for the cast to say their final goodbyes to a close friend and if there’s ever been a more honest portrayal of grief in a fictional TV program, I don’t know if it exists.

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The songs of the episode were framed around Mr. Schuester giving the New Directions (past and present) the assignment to say their goodbyes to Finn. And (with the exception of Chord Overstreet whose Sam sang “Fire and Rain” with Artie), those duties mostly went to the members of the cast who had been there since Season 1. And, those performances were haunting to watch. There are good actors in the Glee cast (Lea Michele, Chris Colfer, Blake Jenner), but none of them are this good, and my heart broke all over again watching these actors baring their souls about a lost friend with such naked vulnerability. I read that they did most of the takes for this episode in a single try because everyone’s emotions were already so out front and on the surface that people would leave the room after each shot sobbing. It’s clear from every second of this episode how true that is.

Of course, the reality subtext of the show was never more painful and more clear than it was with Lea Michele. Rachel and Finn have been an on-again/off-again couple since the inception of the series, and for the last year or so, they had been dating in real life as well (they were even rumors that they were soon to be engaged right before Monteith’s passing). Wisely, the show delays Rachel’s arrival until three-quarters of the way through (presumably because she has rehearsals for Funny Girl in character) because if I had been forced to deal with the anguish of Lea Michele for a whole hour, I don’t think I could have taken it. When Lea Michele performed “Make You Feel My Love” by Adele and then had her conversation with Mr. Schuester about how Finn’s death had ruined all of her life plans, it was just too real to bear, and major kudos must be given to Lea Michele for refusing to add any sense of theatricality to the performance. It was “true” and that was the best tribute Cory Monteith could have been given.

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As to the actual story of the episode, it takes place three weeks after Finn’s funeral. The episode goes out of its way to not discuss the circumstances surrounding Finn’s death. In fact, during Kurt’s opening narration, it lampshades this with him saying how everyone wants to talk about how Finn died, but Kurt would rather remember how Finn lived. And so, everyone returns to Lima (except for Quinn and Brittany) to say one last goodbye to Finn with a memorial planned by Mr. Schue. Mr. Schue has forced himself to be the rock that the other people in his life need to rely on for emotional support and hasn’t allowed himself to really grieve himself. Kurt, Burt, and Carol are trying to figure out what to with Finn’s belongings as Carol also deals with the loss of her child. Puck starts to backslide into his old ways now that Finn isn’t around to keep him on the right path. Santana and Sue both loathe themselves for how terribly they treated Finn in the past without ever having a chance to tell them how they really felt.

I don’t want to turn this into a total recap in the vein of my past TV reviews/recaps, but there were moments beyond the terrible realness of the performances and subtext of the episode that did the things Glee can do so well (when it tries to be genuine programming). Mike O’Malley has long been one of the show’s unsung heroes as Burt and when he breaks down over having not given Finn enough hugs and how he wished he had handled Finn’s “faggy” comments about Kurt’s lamp differently, it was emotionally wrecking and then Carol talks about how she always wondered how other parents moved on after losing a child and how she’s now totally lost. It was like being punched in the stomach. Puck and Bieste have always had great moments together and this episode was no different when they mourned the loss of Finn together. And, Jane Lynch, who consistently has some of the funniest moments on the show and the most tear-jerking, has a talk with Santana later on about how she might have hated people, but she loved Finn and the senseless tragedy and wasted potential of his death

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But, the two moments that of course brutalized me the worst were at the very end with Rachel and Mr. Schuester. First, Rachel has her conversation with Mr. Schue about how all of her life plans have been devastated and her dreams of growing old with Finn will never happen and that she’s scared that one day she’ll forget his voice. The only time in my entire life that I cried that intensely was when I read the eulogy at my grandfather’s funeral that my dad had written but couldn’t read himself. The salt in my tears was burning my eyes and the side of my face had gone completely numb. I was sad when Cory Monteith died but watching Lea Michele’s genuine despair was literally more than I could even begin to handle. I was in the midst of deep, full-body sobs to the point that I could barely breathe during every second she was on screen.

And, then in the final moments of the episode where Matt Morrison finally had a chance to show how much he was hurting hit me. That hit me mostly on a story level though because of a subplot involving Finn’s letterman jacket that Kurt kept and gave to Santana but was stolen from her. You thought it was maybe Puck but it turned out it was Mr. Schuester who needed one last reminder of the student who gave his career and life a new direction. And Mr. Schuester who’s become something of a running joke in the fandom (because he has no adult friends outside of Emma and Bieste) reminds us why he was the glue that held the series together in the beginning and how losing Finn was like losing a child to him. In an episode of heartbreak, it was a beautiful and wrenching topper.

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This episode wasn’t as “good” as “The Body” from Buffy if for no other reason than that Glee is seemingly incapable of keeping up a serious mood for more than an hour. While some of the darker humor of the episode hit the right notes (particularly, all things Jane Lynch per usual), some moments felt like inappropriate padded material like Tina going into Emma’s office for grief counseling only to start talking about her clothes and Emma handing her a pamphlets that say “Am I Callous” and “It’s Not All About You.” I get, in retrospect, that was probably something about Tina being in denial but it just felt awkward and out of a place in an otherwise terribly real episode.

Cory Monteith’s death was a tragedy. He was at the start of a fruitful career and had his whole life ahead of him, and he threw that away through drug abuse and addiction. But, as Kurt said, I don’t want to remember Cory Monteith by how he died. I want to remember him for how he lived. He was the relatable, every-man presence that was the necessary cornerstone in what made Glee work for so long. You might not understand the sexual identity issues of Kurt or the all-consuming ambition of Rachel but how could you not understand the fears and hopes and dreams of Finn who was just trying to find his place in a world where he wasn’t always sure if he was talented or smart enough to get by. Cory’s charisma and boyish charm were an under-appreciated aspect of what keeps Gleeks returning week after week, and he will sorely be missed.

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“The show must go… all over the place or something.” ~ Finn Hudson

In memory of Cory Monteith (1982-2013)