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Entries in eleanor morrow (57)

Friday
Dec022016

In Which We Went To Sleep For Fifteen Years

Hurt Those Creatures

by ELEANOR MORROW

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them
dir. David Yates
133 minutes

There is an ongoing trend, in the age of climate concern, to attribute human qualities to everything that surrounds us. This attitude extends to every creature in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, J.K. Rowling's not-so-humorous and not-so-exciting jaunt through the world that would eventually give birth to Harry Potter. There are oversized rhinoceroses desperate to mate, duck-billed platypuses who love nothing more than to steal, and mastodon-type creatures who only crave the touch of others. Would that any of the actual characters in this story had such manifestly human motivation!

It is almost shocking to see a Rowling film in which the actors are actually decent performers. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them manages a marvelous cast in comparison to the shit show that was the last gasp of Harry's quest to kill a man without a nose, that fellow who did something completely heinous: left him alive. In those last movies, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint looked completely checked out, not that they were really suited for their roles in the first place.

We desire a real love story, but instead of providing it, none of the characters in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them ever give over to animal instincts. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is the actor's usual sexless fop; despite being exposed to several beautiful women who invite him into their home, he can't escape quickly enough. His platonic friend Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) lives with her sister (Alison Sudol) and has no man in her life. "What makes Albus Dumbledore so fond of you?" someone asks Newt halfway through the film, but we never get the pleasure of finding out.

Despite being named after the most magnetic iteration of 20th century masculinity, the Muggle at the heart of these events, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), is a baker/veteran nearing 30 who works in a canning factory and has never had intercourse. During a particularly revealing interchange with Newt, Kowalski asks him whether he likes canned food. Newt just shakes his head.

Well, there is nothing wrong with canned food. Usually it tastes just fine, and it keeps forever. It's pretty good for the environment, but you have to understand that these are the types of people who only care about such things to the extent that they do not actually affect their lifestyle. Newt keeps all the endangered species he collects in his suitcase. In his head he is a progressive, but in actuality he is nothing more than a fancy zookeeper.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them inserts Newt in New York just after the war. In America, Muggles are colorfully referred to as non-Mags. You can tell that Rowling's trips to this country were relatively sheltered, because it is remarkable how completely whitewashed this New York is. Percival Shaw (Colin Farrell) is a magical official trying to track down a devastating cloud of smoke. If that idea excites you, you may suffer a coronary when the time travel yarn Harry Potter and the Cursed Child makes it to the screen.

The best way to do a prequel series would have been to create certain circumstances under which we could finally appreciate why the death of Mr. Potter was necessary – for example, it may have prevented Now You See Me 2 from ever being shown to audiences. If you have read the spoilers for Rowling's return to the character, you know that he has been basically put out to pasture in favor of his son, a spoiled brat with a famous father. There are no more orphans, just beneficiaries from Rowling's tremendous financial success.

I am probably too hard on Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling at least does a nice job unraveling the basic mystery here, and Yates' command of the various special effects required by the series has come a long way. The art direction of the animals themselves is immensely pleasing, and Redmayne's use of animals to save the life of a Jewish woman he barely knows is a lot more enterprising than a mere spell. There is one moment where Newt emerges in the Arizona wild where we actually feel the beginnings of a great adventure. A few minutes later, Newt's platypus is robbing a jewelry store, and all we want is to go back.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing at This Recording here.

Monday
Nov142016

In Which The Affair Remains Ongoing For This Man

What You Know

by ELEANOR MORROW

The Affair
creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi
Showtime

This summer in the Hamptons (think of how many sentences begin this way), two British actors were dining among Americans. In their native countries Damian Lewis and Dominic West can eat in relative peace. In a brunch spot that is known for attracting real actors and Real Housewives, the two mercilessly mocked an ongoing series of photograph seekers. I can't blame them for becoming annoyed at the depravity of an American cultural class which admires them as performers, but hopefully not as people. Don't be too critical of these heady auteurs: the Eton-educated Lewis and West pursue a hard but meaningful policy. They are bad men on the screen, and Stanislavsky demands they be just as disturbed on vacation.

It just got worse and worse for Dominic West's loathsome author, Noah Solloway, on The Affair. It wasn't fully clear how sinister he was until that definitive moment in the Hamptons. Noah is the kind of person who can do ten good things for one bad reason. Last season on The Affair, which is without doubt the most sexually enlightened series ever broadcast on pay cable, he had reached the heights of the literary world, and begun setting up a new life with his lover, Alison (Ruth Wilson). By the end of the season, he was about to do a three-year jaunt in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

During this phenomenal second season, which you should really go back and watch, the center of the show moved to his ex-wife Helen (Maura Tierney). In her vibrant youth, Tierney was a magnetic actress, too vulnerable to be the girl-next-door and too reserved to elicit anything but our admiring sympathy. She has carried this precious balance into middle age. One episode had her on drugs for the duration, and it was so gripping I squeezed all the juice out of an orange I was casually holding.

Divorce proceedings had begun for Helen and Noah, but there seemed to be a possibile reconcilation of sorts when he went to Fishkill Correctional Facility for a crime that she ostensibly committed — running over the brother of Pacey (Joshua Jackson) one foggy night. Three years seemed a bit much for this crime, but I suppose there was negligence involved. In any case, the third season of The Affair has Noah in a full beard, on parole, teaching at a New Jersey college.

Everyone he meets in this new life knows about his past because they read his book. Noah Solloway is the kind of author who writes only from his own experience. This is a necessity, since he only gathers flashes of what other people feel as it relates to himself, and cannot assemble these insights into a larger whole. This is Noah's crippling flaw, and boy does the guy pay for it.

On campus, he meets a comparative literature professor (Irene Jacob) who looks at him the way I look at a croissant. It feels like The Affair creator Sarah Treem could not wait to get Noah Solloway on a college campus, because from Noah's amusing scene meeting with his parole officer in his own classroom, to the traditional parody of a horrid writing workshop, Noah seems satisfyingly out of place among all these normals. Only he could turn the wackiness of higher education into something reassuring.

Treem sets up an exciting enough cliffhanger for the end of the first episode. When The Affair gives us the usual satisfactions of its noir concept, we are pleased enough. Treem is the kind of writer who is good at everything she does, it is only a matter of what she chooses to do.

The Affair's subject matter is so wide-ranging from episode-to-episode that when it finally coheres as a whole, the entire stunning achievement comes suddenly into view. The more imminent pleasures of this New York-based series are to be found in Noah's misanthropic little phone calls to Alison, his chopped but respectful way of speaking to his ex-wife, in the fashion he begs a liquor store owner for forgiveness. Even the most powerful can be reduced to desperation in only an instant.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.

Thursday
Nov032016

In Which We Smoke Crack Out Of Lady Mary's Lightbulb

Imitation of Life

by ELEANOR MORROW

Good Behavior
creators Chad Hodge and Blake Crouch
TNT

Atlanta
creator Donald Glover
FX

Michelle Dockery is tired of being cast as Lady Mary. She has range, you understand, the kind of range you can only fully fathom when you see her smoking crack out of a light bulb. In Good Behavior, Letty Dobesh is a con artist and recent parolee who was imprisoned for child endangerment. Her black son lives with her mother, who does not allow her to come into a few feet of the boy. She waves at him from a window and sobs a bit.

Buying crack is no treat either. In the south, you apparently have to buy crack from a trucker holding a gun. At least he did not point the gun at Lady Mary. I started to wonder at some point during this drug deal why she didn't just ask Pitbull for the crack? Or Flo Rida? Miami can't have been that far.

It is open season on the American South, and North Carolina writer Blake Crouch returns to series television after two mediocre seasons of his post-apocalyptic jaunt, Wayward Pines. Fox was no longer interested in working with Crouch, whose books do not have a large enough audience to draw television viewers and whose concepts remain overly conventionable.

His most marketable project were the stories based around this female con artist. Good Behavior is the least gritty show about a crack addict you can imagine. When Letty Dobesh does not call her parole officer back, he is super understanding. When she does not show up for a mandatory meeting because she is repurposing aspects of her hotel room to smoke crack cocaine out of, he's like, "Get me next time."

Letty is stealing jewelry from a hotel room (never stay in a hotel if you can help it) and she hides in a closet while two men discuss the killing of a woman. Instead of just moving in with her life, Dockery throws on a blonde wig and picks up one of the men at the hotel bar, pretending to be a school teacher. This is not the North Carolina I know and love.

Dockery's forehead is intense in this show – since she has to wear so many wigs, bangs are an impossibility. Where she gets the money for these wigs is an open question. She has sex with the murderer for some reason – it is never explained why. The next morning she wakes up while he is in the shower, drives to the house where he is going to commit a crime to prevent it. It is a good thing there is a loaded shotgun in the house, since she has no plan other than that.

The South looks no better in Atlanta, Donald Glover's FX series about being poor after dropping out of Princeton. Earn (Glover) manages his cousin Alfred "Paper Boi" Miles, who he alternately admires and is disgusted by. He has a child with Van (Zazie Beetz) who alternately admires and is disgusted by him.

There are tons of things in Atlanta which are rarely seen in television. Glover's character eschews his previous roles as a sunny jokester and is the most depressive, depressing protagonist on television. One episode finds Van and Earn at a Juneteenth party hosted by a white optometrist and his African-African wife. The praise and condescension afforded Earn at the event is confusing to both of them. The reception of Atlanta by mostly white critics pretty much parallels the white host telling Earn, "You've never been to Africa! You have to go!"

Diet racism, as I believe it is now called, is amusing to satirize. It tends to feel like empty calories after awhile, but mostly Earn is in his own distinct world – white people are only background noise to him. Atlanta simultaneously makes white people feel a lot better about themselves for watching it, and creates its own distinct version of being black in America. You would think these two things would be in conflict with each other, but Atlanta takes place at such a wonderful, deliberate pace that conclusions and inferences have to wait for the entire story to be told – not simply an abrogated part.

This way of storytelling is so much more enjoyable than having scene-after-scene thrown in our face. We learn everything about Letty Dobesh in forty minutes. After ten episodes with Donald Glover's moody alter-ego, we still wonder.

Eleanor Morrow is the senior contributor to This Recording.