On Jane the Virgin and the terrible wonder of tragedy

I’ve written before about the “reality” of Jane the Virgin, which somehow always roots its soap opera shenanigans in realistic human emotion. Perhaps never have I felt that more than with the midseason finale of season three and its next-week aftermath, which kills off Jane’s still-new husband Michael and then jumps forward three years into the future. Michael’s death was shocking, yes, and well-acted, and though I cried at that episode, it was the next one that really got to me. It opens with Jane’s Alba, explaining gently but firmly, that Jane will always feel different from now on, that truly nothing will ever be the same. And yet, she says, just as firmly, Jane will once again find things to love. She’ll find beauty in her life, find a way to let the light back in. And as impossible as it seems to Jane at the time, it turns out to be true. On both counts.

The episode of Jane the Virgin that showed Michael’s death talked a lot about memories — how we form them, how we perceive them to be absolute truth thereafter, though they’re informed so much by the circumstances and the layers of years piled onto them. Some memories, the episode says, are seared into our brains as brightly as a camera flash, though the parts around them fade into the background. This, I know, is true as well.

The saddest part to me, of this new Jane reality, as well as maybe the most heartbreakingly real, is the show’s efforts to show the true weight of the trauma Jane has suffered. She is no longer nearly the same person she was when we began the journey with her, and she’s changed in a way no accidental insemination, kidnappings, and almost-deflowerings she’s experienced along the way. She’s lost Michael, the person she thought would be there with her for the rest of her life — to share her burdens, her triumphs, her milestones and frustrations — and for something as sudden as it is random. And the loss is twofold: of both Michael himself — a person with dreams and secrets and complications and unknown, untold layers — and of the Jane she was when she had him, a Jane who was complete in ways she will never be again. (Not to mention the knowledge that Mateo, young as he was, will probably never remember the man she loved and lost, who was such a big part of her life.) She has to carry, alone, the weight of every new milestone, every triumph and frustration, knowing that Michael’s life will stay frozen forever in that message on her phone, excited about buying bodega oranges, while hers continues forward, inexorably. Every moment she lives is a moment he doesn’t.

And yet. The true tragic paradox of humanity, the terrible and wondrous secret, is that our losses propel us forward, for better and for worse, for we can never know what might have been but only what is. Jane has lost her husband and her partner, and there will always be a level of guilt in forcing herself to move forward when he cannot, to let in the light and even, eventually, happiness, to realize she can still laugh and love and experience life. And (terribly, wondrously) to know that some of the things she experiences would not have come about if not for his dying: maybe even some of the most beautiful parts of her new existence. The chasm will never fill, but flowers may grow around its edges, with thorns that make you bleed and blooms that dazzle with their beauty. Jane may live the rest of her life wondering why and what if. But maybe she will also wonder at the things that have knitted together in the space between. May all of us be so lucky.


The hyper-real reality of Jane the Virgin

In case you haven’t gleaned from my previous posts, the CW is my favorite television network (and possibly the only one I regularly watch). True, I am probably a few years removed from its target demographic, but my love for its predecessor the WB, and the shows I watched at my most impressionable age — Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls — endures. I’ve gotten older and the hair and makeup has gotten more polished, but the CW still serves up a consistently solid roster of shows that can be popcorn-fluffy yet poignant, completely far-fetched (two centenarian vampire brothers feuding over a high school girl) and surprisingly relatable (a high school girl struggles to understand what her path in life should be after a tragedy).

Lately a show that’s impressed me in this regard is Jane the Virgin, the telenovela adaptation that debuted in 2014 and is now in its second season. The show’s premise is admittedly, and proudly, wacko — a 23-year-old virgin is accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of a multimillionaire hottie hotel magnate/cancer patient, then decides to keep and raise the baby — but in some ways, it’s one of the more realistic shows on TV. Few shows bother to even nod in the direction of “blue-collar” lifestyles anymore, especially live-action shows, preferring instead to give their characters massive apartments and vaguely defined but apparently extremely high-paying jobs. Jane isn’t immune to this problem — its title character does have a TV star father and a filthy rich baby daddy, plus an apparently endless wardrobe of adorable day dresses and wedges — but its characters do worry about money, and the trio of women at its center live in a one-bathroom house that Alba, the matriarch, has been in for many years.

Also realistic (or at least more so than most series) is how the show deals with parenthood. In this show, pregnancy is not just fodder for either complete, unreserved joy or juicy scandal (though it is both of those at various times); it’s also rightly presented as a massive, life-altering event that carries with it huge implications for both present and future. Jane has to navigate all the ways her “life plan” is derailed by a pregnancy out of her control; Xiomara, her mother, a grandmother at 39, decides firmly that after raising a child to adulthood she’s ready, finally, to focus on herself. Neither woman is villainized or lionized; they’re two sides of the same coin, examples of the choices and trade-offs that all women have to weigh. Plus, there’s the messy, stinky, frustrating reality of parenthood itself: Jane the Virgin may have some of the shiniest hair on TV, but its characters change their fair share of diapers and talk about the physical reality of motherhood (leaking milk, peeing yourself) in ways that are uncommon for a primetime show.

Similarly, it’s a peek at a family dynamic you don’t see much of on TV. Families typically mean young children; shows centered on twenty- and thirtysomethings generally all revolve around groups of friends, with parents showing up for the occasional holiday episode or guest appearance. Jane the Virgin, on the other hand, is all about family — the one you’re born into and the one you decide, at some point, to create for yourself. And the Jane family is strongly, beautifully women-centered. Jane still lives with her mother and grandmother, and while they all usually get along, occasionally long-running tensions about choices and lifestyles boil over. Three generations and two countries of cultural differences are represented, and they form the base of all the women’s conflicts even as their deep love for one another cements their bond. Their polar opposite is Rafael, who feels his family has always been deficient; his love of Jane stems largely from his view of her as the one who can give him the picture-perfect nuclear family he feels he was denied. Women run the show on Jane the Virgin — literally (it has a woman showrunner) and within the various character permutations. Even Petra and her mother, who have been pseudo-villains for most of the show, have a dynamic that, while twisted, is also rooted in the kind of deep familiarity that only family members can share.

What’s interesting about all this is that Jane the Virgin otherwise operates in an extremely heightened world. The colors of the Miami scenery pop off the screen, the plot lines often detour into magical realism, and there’s even an omniscient (or nearly so) narrator who chats directly with the audience. On a lesser show this contrast could cause tonal whiplash, but Jane the Virgin somehow manages to balance its continuous telenovela hijinks and its more grounded reality while also occasionally having the characters comment on the wackiness of it all, without taking you out of the moment. It’s an impressive balancing act, with the bonds between the characters keeping everything from tipping over into total ridiculousness. For every highly choreographed Britney Spears cameo there’s a moment of realness in which a character expresses uncertainty about her choices or fear for the future. It all adds up to a show that’s highly entertaining while also insightful about the human condition — it’s merely a bonus that those humans just happen to be ridiculously attractive.

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Weezer’s Blue Album, visualized

Get ready to feel old: Weezer’s Blue Album — the album of “My Name Is Jonas” and “Buddy Holly” and “Say It Ain’t So” and “The Sweater Song” and a few more of your favorite Weezer tunes — is turning 22 at the end of this month. It’s the same age as Justin Bieber and Dakota Fanning. It’s already been drinking legally for a year and vote for three. It’s just three years away from being able to rent a car without paying a premium!

The Blue Album (technically called simply Weezer) was one of the first CDs I bought, back when I was just discovering music beyond whatever was on the radio as one parent or another drove me around, when buying CDs meant standing in the music aisles at Barnes and Noble and agonizing over which $16.99 purchase would give me the most happiness for my accumulated allowance’s worth.

The Blue Album is now a bona fide classic (as any amateur karaoke night will ascertain), so in honor of its birthday, here’s a word cloud of all the lyrics from its ten tracks. (Click on it to see a larger version.)

Screen Shot 2016-02-17 at 6.37.36 PM

Other fun facts: The whole album (according to A-Z Lyrics’ record of the lyrics) is just 2,221 words long. “The Sweater Song” only contains the word “sweater” three times. There are 13 individual names mentioned (plus the band Kiss): Jonas, Wepeel, Buddy Holly, Mary Tyler Moore, Jimmy, Daddy, Jesus, Steven, Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler, Ace Frehey, Peter Criss, and Kerouac. And I was a little bored at work today.

Thanks for the memories, Weezer!

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Home Alone came out 25 years ago today, but it’s never really gone away


Home Alone has been one of my favorite holiday movies for as long as I can remember. It’s got that perfect combination of humor, sentimentality, and satisfying personal narrative that makes it eminently watchable — plus there’s a weird fascination in comparing cherubic eight-year-old Macaulay Culkin with … present-day Macaulay Culkin.

Since the movie is having its 25th anniversary, I got to write about its enduring popularity for Vox — and learned a lot of things about it (including some things I probably should have known already). For instance, it was written by John Hughes, the ’80s movie king responsible for Sixteen Candles and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, among many, many other films. I learned that Hughes always wanted Culkin as the star, but director Chris Columbus auditioned more than a hundred kids anyway, before realizing there was no one better than Culkin. I learned that Marv and Harry probably would have died from their Kevin-inflicted injuries in real life, and that the crew was constantly in fear for the stunt performers’ lives. (I also learned it is a bona fide holiday tradition in Poland, possibly even more so than in America. The more you know!)

Most of all, researching this story just reminded me of what a weird, unpredictable combination of hard work, cash, and serendipity it takes to create an enduring classic. Articles that reflect back on the making of hits like this always make it seem like fate — like the stars aligning to create something that will sketch itself onto the public consciousness for decades to come. The creators often talk about when they realized they had something truly special on their hands. For Columbus, it was during the first test audience screening. He told Chicago Mag:

When we previewed the movie for the first time in Chicago, it was amazing. You’re in a situation where the audience was literally running from their seats to go to the bathroom or to get popcorn, and they were running back to their seats. It was like a rock concert. John [Hughes] and I kept looking at each other. That’s when we knew we had something special.

There’s something so interesting about the happenstance behind nostalgia; the properties you consumed endlessly as a child were likely not totally your choice but rather were selected by your parents or drilled into your brain via advertising. I’ll never have memories of watching Frozen as a kid (still haven’t seen it, actually), but kids growing up today have probably had the merchandise adorning their rooms since before they could be fully conscious of it. I’m all for every generation getting their own heroes to look up to and their own high-tech equivalent of the Talkboy to go along with them. But I hope someday I’ll still get to introduce my kid(s) to the misadventures of Kevin McCallister — preferably with an epic brownie sundae as a movie-watching snack.


If you’re so inclined, you can read my full Home Alone piece at Vox.

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An ode to The OC, finally available to stream after all these years

About a week ago, the CW’s streaming platform, CW Seed, started streaming every episode of The OC. Josh Schwartz’s first show aired from 2003 to 2007, and its first season still evokes wistful odes about the practical perfection of its awesome zeitgeist-seizing power and unparalleled hipness from pop culture journalists. And far be it from me to argue with them: I came to the show late, stumbling on an all-day marathon of its first season on the embarrassingly-but-accurately-named SoapNet, and was immediately seduced by its shiny, Chanel-clad wiles. I spent probably seven hours holed up in my parents’ bedroom drinking in the antics of Ryan, Seth, Marissa, and Summer, not to mention the grown-up but still wacky charms of Sandy, Kirsten, Julie, and Jimmy. Later, in college, I bought the complete box set, which I still break out on rainy days (read: when I’m bored at home and my internet is down).

I was too young (or too culturally ignorant) to be on the 90210 bandwagon during its heyday, so I don’t totally understand why The OC was considered such a revelatory reimagining of the teen soap genre. But even without that knowledge, it’s incredibly impressive that Josh Schwartz, at just 26, created such a fully realized world, with its own language, wardrobe, and (most important) soundtrack that burned through plot faster than a super-dramatic meteor streaking through the atmosphere.

Granted, some things don’t hold up very well; there are some pretty now-insensitive LGBT plots, and the characters’ utter inability to just freaking be upfront with one another starts to feel more frustrating and more like wheel spinning with each rewatch. What’s just as good today as then, though, is the rhythm of the show and of the characters’ impossibly witty dialogue. Scenes of the Cohens standing around in their gorgeous kitchen swapping quips about Yogalates over bagels and schmear made me long for a family whose sense of humor and words-per-minute powers of speech were so perfectly in sync.


Nowhere would you find the inarticulate mumblings of My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks (Ryan’s inability to drop the L-bomb notwithstanding); nor would you get the overstudied, tongue-twisting SAT test of a Dawson’s Creek or the Wikipedia-breakingly thick pop culture references of a Gilmore Girls. The show introduced its own terms into the lexicon (Chrismukkah and minty, anyone?), and despite all the gun-waving, face-punching, overdose-taking, embezzling drama it packed in, it for the most part remained a sunny, funny show.

It’s also interesting to see how Schwartz and co. let the characters evolve over time. As Ryan, Ben McKenzie was probably the best of the “teen” actors, but Adam Brody is the natural scene stealer, his almost-manic Seth adding much-needed zip to scenes with the more taciturn Ryan.

I would never deny you, Seth Cohen.

I would never deny you, Seth Cohen.

Kirsten and Sandy were of course one of TV’s most perfect couples, but my favorite was always Melinda Clarke’s Julie Cooper-Nichol-almost-Cooper-again, who softened over the years from a manipulative witch into a loving, game mother so believably it made her season one evilness seem mostly just like well-intentioned overprotectiveness. Mischa Barton remained a pretty terrible actress but was one of the most beautiful criers on television, and her death at the end of season three at least gave the remaining cast some poignant material to work with.

Josh Schwartz went on to make Gossip Girl, another teen-centric soap that took over the zeitgeist like a particularly invasive form of algae. You can see all its hallmarks in The OC: the bon mots, the fabulous wealth, even the onscreen relationships echoing in real life. But though GG lasted six seasons to The OC‘s four, it’s not as beloved by people still as The OC was, because it lacked the California show’s warmth and heart. There was no shortage of OMG moments, but Gossip Girl‘s characters were beautiful and nasty, power hungry and mercenary. At the core of The OC is a tight-knit family who love one another even when they don’t understand one another, who stand by each other even when things get rough. At the core of Gossip Girl is the last Birkin bag Barney’s had in stock. The OC grounds all its over-the-top drama in characters we genuinely care about (not you, Oliver), and though both series ended with a big wedding, only Summer and Seth’s brought me dangerously close to (happy) tears.

So I’ll raise my Newport Beach iced tea to you, The OC; may you live on for many Chrismukkahs to come.

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Is it time to retire James Bond yet? (Yes. Yes, it is.)

Last night I went to a screening of Spectre, the latest James Bond movie starring lumpy Brit Daniel Craig and directed by Sam Mendes. I am not by any means what you’d call a Bond superfan; I missed the last two movies, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall (or saw them and promptly erased them from my brain). I also didn’t know much about Spectre except that it had some fab (and highly publicized) leading ladies in Léa Seydoux, Naomie Harris, and Monica Bellucci as (finally, praise the lord) an age-appropriate love interest for 007; and that, per the Sony leaks, it had a shitty ending.

So I wasn’t expecting to love it, but I figured it’d probably be entertaining. So I watched it. And I am unashamed to tell you that I thought. It. Sucked.

Spoilers ahoy — you’ve been warned.

WOW was this movie not my bag. First off, it was almost two and a half hours long, which is one of my least favorite movie trends (along with studios remaking movies as “lady movies” to double their cash). Second, those much-ballyhooed leading ladies? Naomie Harris as Moneypenny is just there to do men’s secretarial work. Léa Seydoux, though she gets a couple badass moments, is still there mostly to wear clingy dresses and fuck Bond once before professing her love for him after they’ve known each other for like two days. And Monica Bellucci? One of the only “Bond girls” in more than five decades to be anywhere close to Bond’s age (51 to Craig’s 47, versus Seydoux’s 30), who would be far too hot for him at any age? She appears for maybe eight minutes of screen time, three of which are spent making out with Bond’s face wearing the suit she buried her husband in while he pins her against a mirror. It’s like these movies have the mentality of a horny teenage boy who thinks any two people left in a room together for more than five minutes are bound to start screwing each other, because that’s just what adults do.

Also offensive? This film doesn’t even have the decency to have an original plot. As I watched it, all I could think about was how it felt like a retread of this summer’s miles-more-fun Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. A shadowy government agency is forced to shut down, as one maverick agent with superhuman capabilities stumbles on an evil multi-country plot to destroy the world and has to take it down with the help of his small band of loyal friends and a gorgeous woman. Even Spectre letting its female lead take down some baddies is something Mission: Impossible did already, and much, much better. I thought MI5’s decision not to have its leading lady go for a roll in the hay with Ethan Hunt was one of its best decisions; as I wrote after seeing the movie, “It’s a smart move by Cruise et al. to move his character away from dashing romantic lead toward more of a (no-less-dashing) mentor figure rather than having him stray into verging-on-creepy cradle-robber territory.” Sadly, the Bond franchise has most definitely not gotten the memo. (There’s also a villain who sounds like Woody Allen and a truly tiresome Bond backstory, about which the less said, the better.)

This is all bad, but it’s not even the worst part of the movie. No, the worst has to be how purely joyless, and airless, this ponderous thud of a blockbuster is. Things that should be exciting — Bond takes out three cars with a rapidly disintegrating plane! Bond uses his magic watch to escape his maniacal face-drilling sorta-stepbrother! Bond kills two goons while handcuffed and with a hood over his head! — instead feel rote and robbed of all their tension. Situations are introduced and resolved so quickly they barely have a second to let the audience feel the tension. Instead we’re merely left staring into the vacant blue of Craig’s eyes to contemplate how his expression barely flickers whether he’s contemplating yet another woman’s naked body or a man who’s just had his eyes gouged out of his head.

Spectre is no doubt intended to be a throwback to classic Bond movies; there are references galore, including a fluffy white cat that was my favorite part of the movie. But honestly, all they did was serve as a giant reminder of how outdated the whole idea of Bond is. This is, after all, a hero created in 1953. Hilariously, a big part of the plot of Spectre involves a character repeatedly pointing out that Bond — and the entire 00 program — is hopelessly outdated. This guy advocates for drone strikes and increased surveillance; granted, he’s in cahoots with an evil mastermind who wants to sow chaos and discord worldwide, but dude has a point. A drone doesn’t get tired. A drone doesn’t have to take a break to seduce a woman half its age before changing into another slightly-too-tight suit. A drone won’t steal your £3 million Aston Martin prototype.

So the question is: Why are we still making movies about this slick, womanizing, DGAF white guy when his fictional foes lampshade his obsolescence and the real-life star says he’d rather slash his wrists than make another one of these movies? He’s old-fashioned, but in the worst way, and all the modern technology in the world isn’t disguising it well. People have been making Bond movies since 1962. It’s time to shake things up. If the gadgets and the suit cuts can evolve, the gender politics sure as hell can. And when the same old mold is churning out duds such as Spectre, really, what is there to lose by trying something new?

Update: I wrote about how the Bond franchise by taking a few lessons from Mission: Impossible for Vox; you can read it here.


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Heartbreak and word choice: The Last Five Years

Falling in love: an extremely hazardous undertaking.

Falling in love: an extremely hazardous undertaking.

My day job requires me to be a massive grammar nerd. My days are filled with constant internal debates — that or which? alternate or alternative? palate or palette (or pailette??), which might seem like the seventh circle of hell to some but to me affords endless opportunities to contemplate just how nuanced and byzantine and gloriously, wonderfully confusing this language we call English is. And that’s just what I was thinking about recently when reconsidering a movie I watched a couple months ago, The Last Five Years. In case you’re unfamiliar, it’s based on a Broadway show of the same name by Jason Robert Brown, and follows Cathy and Jamie (Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan in the movie) through their meeting, marriage, and breakup. The twist: Cathy’s story starts at the end of their relationship and moves backward, while Jamie’s does the opposite; they intersect once, in the middle as they marry.

As you might have gleaned from the premise, it is a downer of a movie (though with some fun songs); you probably don’t want to watch this if you’re having one of those “I’ll be alone forever” evenings. Anyway, it wasn’t until a while after I watched the movie that I really considered its title: the last five years. See, my first real boss taught me the subtle but important difference between “last” and “past”: Most people would use them interchangeably, but she explained to me that last really means final, as in the end-all, be-all — my last days on Earth, the last unicorn, etc. Yes, the movie takes place over the course of Cathy and Jamie’s five-year relationship, so it is technically their last five years together (as well as their first) — but if Brown just wanted to convey the passage of time he could have called the show The Past Five Years. I don’t think most people even after a breakup would consider their entire relationship a slow and inexorable slide toward its bitter conclusion, so if the title were meant to convey the end of the relationship maybe it should have been called The Last Two Years, or The Last Seven Months Except That One Weekend We Went to Montauk, Because That Was Pretty Fun Still.

But when you take The Last Five Years with the full weight of that word — last — it underscores just how tragic and earth-shattering this story is for these two people. They have had their last kiss, their last lazy batch of shared Sunday bagels, their last fight that ends in tears followed by apology sex. They are divorced; their relationship is over. There’s a sense of finality that can’t be erased; something has been broken that will never be mended. It’s the kind of pain that’s as physical as it is emotional, that makes you feel like you literally might die from it, and even once enough time has passed that you start to feel better, you’ll never be the same again. “Cathy and Jamie” have died, the title says; now there’s only Cathy and Jamie, alone once again.

What a lot of heartbreak in just one letter’s difference.

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Why there won’t (and shouldn’t) ever be a St. Elmo’s Fire remake

Recently on a bored weeknight, I sat down to watch the 1985 Brat Pack classic St. Elmo’s Fire. I’m not entirely sure why it is a classic, because it wasn’t really that good of a movie. If it were a 30-year-old person instead of a movie, it would have all the signs of having spent a few too many hours in the tanning bed. Not to say it’s surprising a movie whose success likely hinged on the It Kid status of its stars hasn’t aged well, but damn if this movie doesn’t seem like a frozen slice of a very different time — one that it seems nigh on impossible to update without scrapping basically everything about it besides the extremely basic (generic) premise.

See these people? They are all monsters.

See these people? They are all monsters.

The characters are what we’d today call the dreaded millennials: just-graduated professionals trying to figure out a place and a direction in life. They live (like me) in DC; they lust after one another; they struggle with money and relationships and various vices. So far, so relatable, right? But then you get into the details: Alec and Leslie (Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson) are on their way to engagement and live in an insanely cavernous apartment that they somehow afford despite Alec working on the Hill. Billy (Rob Lowe) is a deadbeat dad whose mullet, earring, constant face sweat, and saxophone-playing prowess make him irresistible to the ladies, especially Wendy (Mare Winningham), a frumpy, good-hearted virgin doormat who seems destined to be married off to an actuary type named Ralph. Then there’s the promiscuous, broke Jules (Demi Moore), and tortured, possibly gay writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy).

And then there’s the worst character out of all of them — and I include womanizing asshole Alec in that — Emilio Estevez’s character, Kirby. Kirby works at a shitty Georgetown restaurant to pay for law school, but his real job is stalking Dale, a beautiful doctor he met like one time and has decided is now his possession. Remember how Gaston treats Belle in Beauty and the Beast? Yeah, this is like that, except without any of the catchy song-and-dance numbers or raw-egg swallowing. Kirby is an actual monster: He literally stalks Dale to parties where he knows no one, then causes a giant scene; gets a job with an attache of some kind just so he can throw a party at the guy’s house to invite her to, then verbally harasses her roommate when she doesn’t show up; then literally stalks her some more, all the way to a cabin in the mountains, where she is having a perfectly nice, consensual vacation with a perfectly nice guy, and proceeds to act like a giant whiny baby and ruin their entire night. Oh, and then he mouth-rapes her before driving back down the mountain with nary an apology to either her or her boyfriend. And the worst part is, Dale is written to find this all vaguely charming and a bit amusing, rather than immediately calling the fucking police to get a restraining order.


Unless I’m missing something big, I have a really hard time believing anyone, even in the coke-addled ’80s, would find this character anything but repugnant. Then again, all of the characters are pretty repugnant in their own ways, with the exception of Wendy, though she’s such a wet blanket it hardly even counts.

What’s extra fascinating, though, is the economics of these people’s lives, so different from today’s millennials. If this movie were set today, Kirby would live with nine other dudes in a group house whose bathrooms hadn’t been cleaned once since they moved in; Alec and Leslie would share a studio in Glover Park and hate each other silently most of the time; and Kevin would be homeless and probably addicted to heroin. Jules wouldn’t be able to get even a single advance on her paycheck; Kirby in the movie switches from law school to med school to being a diplomat’s assistant without even breaking a sweat (whereas today he would definitely be a Subway sandwich artist).

Their struggles should be understandable, but they just feel hollow and horrible; why should we root for a guy who abandons his wife and kid and tries to rape his good friend, or really care about a spoiled girl whose only cross to bear in life is her obvious raging daddy issues? The movie ends relatively upbeat, but you have to wonder: Why? I guess that’s why this movie feels so fully ancient and untranslatable now: Its vibe, its characters, its message, everything about it, is just as selfish and decadent — and ultimately doomed to ruin — as the decade it was made.

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A few thoughts about Mission: Impossible after seeing the fifth (!) movie

The fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise came out July 31 this year, 19 years after the original. Tom Cruise, 34 in the first film, is now 54, and perhaps a tiny bit wrinklier around the face (thought not so much the torso, as a pointed shirtless scene reminds us). I saw Rogue Nation in the theater — paid $13 for it and everything — and it was a freaking blast.

I haven’t seen movies three or four, but this latest one at least purposely leans hard on the very “impossible” conceit inherent in the title: After 19 years, Ethan Hunt has basically achieved superhuman status, to the point where his associates toss him increasingly insane feats of physicality (“So all you have to do is hold your breath for three minutes”) like they’re giving him a particularly stubborn jam jar to open. It’s a smart way to poke a little fun at itself and give some humanity to unstoppable badass Ethan.

But perhaps the best part about Rogue Nation is that though he is still very much the star of the film, good old Tommy Cruise is more than willing to move aside and let his costars have a turn. Simon Pegg, the bumbling, goofy genius in more than one big-screen franchise, gets to take down a baddie himself; Jeremy Renner’s IMF director backs up his wayward agent with hardly a question asked. And most surprisingly, Cruises’s female lead gets to be a sexy, killer spy without having to bed Ethan at any point. Okay, the movie can’t resist the idea completely — one eye-rolly scene has Ilsa beseeching Ethan to run away with her — but she also gets whole action sequences without Ethan, taking on opponents twice her size and even saving Ethan’s bacon in the aforementioned three-minute underwater challenge. It’s a smart move by Cruise et al. to move his character away from dashing romantic lead toward more of a (no-less-dashing) mentor figure rather than having him stray into verging-on-creepy cradle-robber territory. Rebecca Ferguson/Ilsa might return in a later movie — which would be great — and she and Ethan might then wind up in bed together, but for this film at least she escapes in a hot car with all her professionalism intact.

The other great thing about the M:I movies is how their plots are now basically 100 percent pure MacGuffin. In that, they remind me of the other massive action franchise of a similar time period: the Fast & Furious movies. Both have been impressively performing hits, managing to bring back the same leads every few years to create something reliably entertaining. Beyond the ever-more-ridiculous stunts and set pieces, F&F’s appeal hinges on the chemistry of its main ensemble, while M:I rests on Cruise’s muscled shoulders and toothy grin. Both are wildly, hubristically American — F&F distinguishes whole cultures by a few shots and slightly different kinds of house music; M:I insists that the fate of the world lies in the hands of one American agent, who radiates so much goodness and importance that a total stranger working for a rival agency refuses to let him die on principle. It’s hilarious and soothing at the same time: Here, in these film universes, America occupies its proper place as the unquestioned, unbeatable leader of the world, with the superhuman movie characters as the essence of the American Spirit — unkillable, undefeatable, daring, and above all, righteous.

After I got home from the movie theater I put on the original Mission Impossible and found myself dazzled, as always, by young Tom Cruise’s pure charisma. At 34 he crackles with vitality, impossible handsome, unfailingly intense, the perfect encapsulation of a modern American movie star; nearly two decades later he’s still handsome but has mellowed slightly into the role. That might sound odd for a character who spends the entire film on the run from baddies of various nationalities, affixing himself to the sides of planes, and kicking the shit out of a man who looks like a mutant NBA player and is nicknamed “the Bone Doctor” — but it’s true. He carries himself like a man who knows exactly who he is — and, for that matter, who you and your mother and everyone you’ve ever met are, too.

Ethan Hunt may only feel truly alive when he’s nearly killing himself, but he is completely at home with himself, as I imagine Cruise is with these movies. The suspense doesn’t come from whether Ethan can pull off stunt after wildly improbably stunt, because we, and he, know he can. And the plot, the original of which required many repeated viewings for me to wrap my head around, barely matters this far along the line. There’s a shadowy agency controlled by Britain’s prime minister that’s an evil polar opposite to the IMF? Sure! To save Benji from being blown to smithereens in a café Ethan memorizes a massive list of precise names and dollar amounts in the time it would take you or me to floss? Why not! It’s a weird corollary with these and, again, F&F: As the stakes ostensibly get higher and the action even more action-y, it’s easier for us to settle in with our popcorn and just enjoy.

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UnREAL and the lies we tell ourselves about love

This is the stuff dreams are made of. (Lifetime)

This is the stuff dreams are made of. Via Lifetime.

Yesterday a coworker of mine got engaged to her boyfriend. He surprised her with a ring at their moving-away party, and the women of my company spent a large part of today in throes of ecstasy over it. There were pictures of the ring, typed-out squeals of joy with so many exclamation points, and declarations that “even though I don’t believe in love, this convinced me.” Then this evening I finally watched the season finale of UnREAL, the fantastic Lifetime show whose tar-dark heart speaks directly to mine.

And those two events made for a fascinating juxtaposition: one a sincere display of love, one a show dedicated to exposing its fallacies, and both on some level peddling the same lace-and-roses fantasy. The showrunners of Everlasting, the reality dating show-within-a-show on UnREAL, traffic in all the trappings of love, ensuring that every ugly barb the contestants throw at one another is gauzily lit and gorgeous. But while Rachel and Quinn live every day steeped in cynicism, even they’re susceptible to the bullshit they create. Rachel has become so good at manipulating people that she manipulates herself into falling for the handsome, mercenary suitor. Quinn delights in sizing up and labeling each girl — whore, virgin, MILF — but when she lets her guard down she realizes she’s let herself get filed into the “long-suffering wifey” category. And the girls themselves, come hell or high drama and despite hard evidence of the falseness all around them, get sucked into the dream of — if not love, at least low-level fame. It’s astonishing.

But the real mind fuck, the genius trick the show pulls off, is working its magic on us. We are literally watching a television series about terrible people doing terrible things to others in the service of a terrible show we the viewers are supposed to scoff at — and yet UnREAL‘s showrunners manipulate us, through compelling television, into rooting for them. We root for Anna to win, we root for Quinn to be happy — hell, I even found myself rooting just a tiny bit for Rachel and Adam to end up on that beach together.

There’s a reason The Bachelor has run for 19 seasons, and it’s because we are inundated with these very specific fantasies of love and fulfillment, so constantly and so consistently, that they are impossible not to internalize. Even the most hardened cynic feels a prickle when listening to wedding vows; even the most avowedly anti-establishment badass would be touched by a proposal of undying love. “Will you marry me?” means will you join this club to which only I can grant you access? It means yes, I am willing to pledge myself to you legally, and thus you can be satisfied that the little question you always have, that question of am I good enough? am I desirable? has been answered, at least for now. I desire you, and thus you are desirable. And now that desire must manifest itself in bunting and china patterns and KitchenAid mixers that all, individually and collectively, must symbolize exactly who you are now that you’re attaching yourself to another person.

I’m not immune to this by any means. It’s all too easy to get me started on a tirade about the ickiness of the wedding industry, but I always cry at weddings and I secretly live for the Grand Romantic Gesture in movies. Thinking about someone proposing to me, about going through the steps of planning a wedding together…it feels thrilling and beautiful and, disturbingly, right. Disturbing because I have no idea how to separate what I want from what I am spoon-fed minute after hour after day. Like Rachel and like Quinn, I am seduced by the bullshit. I am told, “This is what you want,” and though I don’t want to want it, I do.

This isn’t to say that love doesn’t exist — even UnREAL has the glorious, albeit unconventional depiction of true love that is Quinn and Rachel. It’s just that in the fight against the tide of white satin and happily ever after, the deck is stacked so far against us that we can’t see the top. So even I, even the incredibly smart and deep-thinking women I work with, can’t help but give in.

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