The Profile That Haunts Me

The first text message arrived while I was in the hospital.

I didn’t see it immediately because my phone’s battery had died but instead saw it while I was on my way to a gluten-free bakery in the East Village because I had only been able to eat a cup of peaches and a banana while in the hospital. The text was looking for “Maureen” and I kept staring at it, a bag of baked goods in one hand, phone in the other as the rain fell on me while I listened to “Europe Endless” by Kraftwerk.

“I’m sorry, but you have the wrong number,” I responded.

Having switched numbers before, I assumed Maureen was the person who had the number prior to me. I’ve run into situations where I’ve gone to sign up for rewards programs at stores, only to be told, “Oh, we have you in our system already. Linda?” I didn’t think much of it as I headed home, ready to finally eat, take a nap, and watch one of my favorite movies.

The messages for Maureen continued to come in for the next few days. As I sat in bed trying to build a Twitter bot, many of the texts were just “Hey Maureen,” followed by a photo of an erect penis. I blocked those numbers, but for the ones looking for “Maureen” and trying to set up a time for a date, I told them they had the wrong number. The first message where I was told where these people were getting my number was from a guy wanting to go on a bike ride who used “OKC” in the message, which led to me thinking it was from a guy from Oklahoma City I met at a meetup. By Friday, I had learned from a guy who would call me a “lying bitch” these men had found my number from a profile they had matched with on OKCupid. I reached out to OKCupid, told them what was going on, asked them to deactivate the profile, and spent the next few days apologizing to every guy who texted me.

In the middle of being incredibly sick, I was dealing with what seemed like more mysterious harassment. I had been dealing with tweets, direct messages, and emails from people who were fans of a comedian and podcast host–a redundant title when talking about a comedian in New York City–since late October, when I was so tired of the barrage of tweets and emails that I broke down crying in the self-service area of the Red Hook IKEA. The messages and tweets had become more sporadic, but as I got these text messages, my mind kept thinking these were connected, even though the fans seemed to be centered in New York while all of the guys who were texting me were from Los Angeles.

A guy texted me from a bar on an evening on a weekend, wondering where “Maureen” was. I explained what I knew and apologized profusely to him, but he was more intrigued than anything. J., as I’ll call him, explained to me he got a free drink and went to a bar near where he lived, which made it feel like less of a loss for him. When he got home–he is to date one of four guys who did not call me a “lying bitch,” a cunt, send me a dick pic, or a sexually explicit message–he sent me a screenshot of the profile for “Maureen” and the text of the conversation he had with the person behind the profile.

“Maureen” featured a picture of me from 2015 where I’m coyly smiling during critiques for DrekFest, a festival of intentionally bad plays in Chicago. Knowing this was a photo that had been my Facebook profile picture, I initiated the process of deleting my Facebook account, hoping it would stop this problem. I kept staring at the screenshot, noticing the details the person behind the account and created. “Maureen” was older than me and a couple inches taller. I would learn from talking with J. that “Maureen” claimed to have three college degrees, was Jewish, a smoker, and fluent in Hebrew. “Maureen” was in the messages to J. very vague, not willing to talk about things of substance, as opposed to me where I will talk about things of substance, I’m just incredibly prickly, stubborn, and cold on dating apps.

Two days after this discovery regarding “Maureen,” I received a text message for a guy looking for “Jenny,” a librarian. I told him he had the wrong number and rolled my eyes as I prepared to hide out in the woods of New Hampshire. I then received a message on Twitter from someone who follows me, letting me know he had matched with “Jenny” and it seemed to be someone who was harassing me. I thanked him, largely because it meant I was able to mentally prepare myself for what would likely be an onslaught of sexually explicit messages from random guys in the greater Los Angeles area. I emailed OKCupid again, letting them know the latest update to the bizarre saga, and headed off to New Hampshire.

As I drove north, I kept receiving text messages from guys looking for “Jenny,” wondering why she never showed up at their apartments, if she was still interested in smoking weed, if she could send them photos of her pierced nipples, if she wanted to get Korean barbeque tacos that night. The pierced nipples brought me back to the tweets I had received in October from fans of the comedian who kept suggesting I have pierced nipples, but I thought it was probably a coincidence and wanted to focus on enjoying being away from the city and this craziness.

When I returned to an area of New Hampshire with more reliable cell service, I had dozens of text messages from guys looking for “Jenny,” as well as one guy who had tried five times to FaceTime with me. I tried to get information from the guys to figure out who was behind the OKCupid profiles, but I usually reverted to my usual prickly, stubborn, cold public persona when someone would suggest I had daddy issues because I wasn’t ready to bone at a moment’s notice.

Eventually, a guy sent me info about “Jenny.” I did a reverse image search and discovered the sole photo of “Jenny” was from a post on The Chive of girls who were definitely a bad idea of things to do this weekend because women are “things” to Chive readers. I emailed OKCupid again with this info, this time also frustrated by the presence of ads for the website that promised all over the subway that “dating deserves better.”

As I waited for a response from the site, I did more digging and found out that “Jenny” claimed to be a librarian for the Los Angeles Public Library who lived in Boyle Heights. If there is any good to come from being harassed for several months, it’s that claims made about you by random people on the internet. The people who initially harassed me in October, leading to me crying at IKEA because having to put back multiple boxes for a wardrobe was a bridge too far, had insisted I was a filthy slutty librarian from Los Angeles who had worked for the LAPL and had moved to New York City to stalk their favorite podcast host.

As OKCupid banned the IP addresses associated with the profile, I kept digging and found out my name had been shared to the subreddit for the podcast hosted by the comedian, as well as with an incredibly ludicrous story that even I don’t believe, although it involves a lot of conveniently deleted posts. I talked this through with my therapist and psychiatrist, both of whom were much more concerned about this than me. (“No one has threatened to kill me since October,” I told my therapist. “And even then, that was, ‘Kill yourself, you fat Jewish slut,’ which is much less threatening than what I’m used to.”) I gave myself permission to be angry about this and then went back to living my life normally by visiting family, going camping, practicing aerial acrobatics, reading books, and spending a gratuitous amount of time in The Bronx for someone who lives in Brooklyn.

I have not changed my number, but I have accepted I will probably never use another dating app or website again. Even though I was affected by this as the person whose phone number was distributed through a dating website, there’s this huge question in the back of my head as to if I can ever trust people I’m not meeting face-to-face. This decision is made easier by dating in New York being a hellscape filled with creeps, finance bros, and stand-up comedians who think they’re entitled to sex. The few men who don’t fall into these categories always tell me to be nicer, to smile more, to lose weight, to wear contacts instead of glasses, or to stop dressing in layers. But there is the thought that someday I might move and eventually I’d like to settle down, have a husband, maybe kids. I am in a place where I have learned to love myself, from my frizzy dark brown hair to my feet that have pronounced tan lines in the summer, embracing my laugh that is so loud, I’ve been asked to stop laughing at Upright Citizens Brigade shows.

But much like the men who went to bars and coffee shops waiting for “Maureen” or “Jenny,” I have spent too much time at bars in Manhattan and at incredibly trendy performance venues in Gowanus, waiting for men to show up after they charmed me online. How many of these guys I matched with on Tinder, Coffee Meets Bagel, or Bumble were like the profiles men in Los Angeles matched with, malleable to be whatever the guys were interested in? How many of these guys were just someone with a phone or a computer who was really bored?

I still talk with J., who keeps encouraging me to come out to Los Angeles so we can hang out, to which I always reply, “Southern California is my home and I’m long overdue for a visit!” With two other guys who weren’t creeps to me, I’ve found myself wondering because I didn’t see the full transcript of the conversations or all of the profile for “Maureen” and “Jenny” what they were led to believe.

How old do you think I am?

What interests do you think I have?

Do you think I’m incredibly well-educated?

Do you think I’m a practicing Jew?

What were you told I enjoy doing in the bedroom?

What version of “me” do you prefer?

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LGBT Representation and Happy Endings

Young adult fiction focusing on LGBT characters was a really depressing genre for a very long time.

A majority of books in this genre focused on tragic, but unfortunately realistic stories of LGBT teenagers. They accepted who they were, maybe found a significant other, were kicked out of their home by their parents, and they moved on with their life. In the mid-2000s, “Boy Meets Boy” by David Levithan felt nearly revelatory simply because it had a happy ending. The boy got the boy and there was very little bigotry involved.

Levithan’s oeuvre continues to be one of the more optimistic entries in LGBT young adult fiction, although there are increasingly more novels being written about teens who identify as LGBT who get a happy ending. In a manner similar to “Boy Meets Boy,” there’s something oddly refreshing about “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli, which was published in 2015. Even though the premise comes across as a little intense–Simon, a closeted gay teenager, finds himself falling in love with a pseudonymous pen pal known as “Blue,” but his emails to Blue are discovered by another student, who blackmails him–it feels like an effervescent book with an incredibly happy ending. Reading it to me felt like being wrapped up in a comfortable blanket and watching my go-to comfort food movies or clips of American Treasure Robert Preston performing. (None of the books I read repeatedly are particularly cheery, although I do get an immense delight over Dante’s descriptions of how popes are tortured in hell.)

Albertalli’s novel is the basis for the movie “Love, Simon,” which was released last month. The big news with the film is it’s the first film released by a major studio (20th Century Fox) to focus on a gay teenage romance. While there has been some criticism and reflection on the fact there’s a heavy emphasis on how Simon is an average guy–a monologue that brought to mind a short speech Nathan Lane gives in “The Birdcage” while wearing a suit as an attempt to seem more masculine–as well as how Simon is seemingly contrasted to Ethan, another gay student, the movie does present itself as very approachable, which is arguably good as it had a wide-release and is being distributed internationally.

This approach also presents a gay man who does not fit into the feminine stereotypes assigned to most queer male characters in major projects. To my mind, the only other lead queer male characters in major screen projects who hew closer to masculine gender norms are Will on “Will and Grace” (more on that later), Jack and Ennis in “Brokeback Mountain” and Armond in “The Birdcage,” and even his character wore foundation, owned a drag club, and did an incredibly kinetic bit of dance choreography. As deeply frustrating as it is to have yet another major studio project focusing on a gay man who is portrayed as fitting in more with male gender norms, it is worth noting it does go against the overwhelming portrayal of gay men being incredibly feminine, which oddly feels like a form of progress, even if it simultaneously comes off as regressive to have a character trumpeting his averageness.

More startling is the fact the film does have a happy ending. If you look just at the more significant LGBT-focused films released recently–“Carol,” “Moonlight,” and “Call Me By Your Name”–two of them end with ambiguous endings and one ends with a devastating scene. Even if the end of “Love, Simon” is interpreted as ambiguous, it still feels more uplifting than the final moments of “Carol” and “Moonlight” because, in the world of the teen movie, we assume the couple at the center finds happiness and stays together forever. It’s aspirational, while in adulthood we start to realize how much harder life is.

One of the main reasons why I loved it was because it feels like there are still very few happy storylines given to LGBT characters on screen. Even though there’s an increasing amount of LGBT characters in television and movies, they are often secondary characters. There are still plotlines about characters struggling with their identity, which isn’t a bad thing since Simon not being out is one of the things that drives the plot of “Love, Simon” and questioning your sexual orientation or gender identity can be done deftly, as in the case of “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”, and “Transparent,” all of which have multiple LGBT characters.

This isn’t nearly as TV shows still killing off gay characters, particularly lesbians, a trope the website Autostraddle memorialized in enamel pin form. With the recent love of rebooting and reviving TV shows, there have also been more outdated portrayals of gay men. “Will and Grace” brought back with it the butch-femme dynamic of friends Will Truman and Jack McFarland. “The Tick” had an unfortunate subplot where the gay sentient Artificial Intelligence on a weaponized boat has a crush on another character and sexually assaults him, which is played for laughs. (I have not seen any episodes of the “Roseanne” revival and cannot comment on the gender non-conforming character.) While one of these is much more troubling than the other, the way Will and Jack are portrayed on the show, even if it seems outdated, is wildly viewed to have helped make most of America more accepting of gay people. It was there on network television and in a way that felt palatable to most people.

“Will and Grace” wasn’t the cultural pieces that told me it was okay to be gay–those would be “Victor/Victoria” and “Six Feet Under”–it likely helped teenagers struggling with their sexuality to realize they too could have a future and be successful in life, even though the masculine Will is the one portrayed as having the steady career. In the time between the original finale for “Will and Grace” and its return, LGBT representation in the media seems to have grown and characters can now even be found on shows on Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. We have also seen the rise of social media, which ultimately does connect people with similar interests, and an expansion of how people can consume stories with streaming platforms and podcasts.

On the podcast “The Adventure Zone,” brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy, along with their father, Clint, get together to record themselves playing roll-playing games, which results in a gripping piece of storytelling. The four hosts routinely have characters, both playable and NPCs, in their role-playing campaigns who are canonically not straight white men like themselves. In the first season of “The Adventure Zone,” the Balance Arc, one of the three main characters, Taako, was an aloof gay wizard who dressed in a feminine manner but used he/him pronouns. Throughout the series, there are multiple lesbian characters who are often more competent than the main trio. More impressive than the inclusion of these characters is the dedication of the McElroys to listen to the constructive feedback from the podcast’s fans regarding the representation of marginalized people on the show. It is one thing to have diverse characters in storytelling, it is another thing to do it well, something a lot of writers still struggle to do.

As the arc continued, listeners met Taako’s sister, Lup, who is a transgender woman. Lup is an unapologetic badass who will hurl a fireball without blinking an eye, a contrast to her brother. While there tends to be a narrative around trans people having them adhere strictly to the gender norms matching their identity, the podcast presents a character who is simply allowed to be herself, without any criticism. It provides people listening another positive representation of transgender women, further reflecting the world we actually live in, despite it being set in a fantasy world.

What is even more heartening is Lup is seemingly a fan-favorite and a frequent subject of fanart and cosplay. This means it is quite possible to create a well-rounded LGBT character who fits outside of the standard characterization and have them embraced by fans. There is, of course, a huge difference between a podcast, albeit a very popular one–Travis, Justin, and Griffin McElroy also host the immensely popular podcast “My Brother, My Brother, and Me”–and a TV show on a major network or a movie released by a major studio. If “The Adventure Zone” was less successful than it is, there is significantly less loss posed to the McElroys and Maximum Fun, the podcast’s distributor, than a movie studio or TV network that spends millions of dollars on a project. But it means it can be done and should be done. (It is worth noting Sara Ramirez is currently playing a masculine-of-center bisexual character on CBS’ “Madame Secretary”)

Seeing as how “Love, Simon” performed very well at the box office, it would be nice to see major studios releasing movies focused on LGBT characters, even making those portrayals more diverse. This can come in a variety of forms, be it race, disability, or gender expression. But at the same time, there should be a hopefulness to the stories presented, something being done increasingly well in media. Let LGBT characters have a happy ending because it allows real people to see everything will be okay.

Modern Stagings, or, You Can Have a Good ‘Tosca’ and Make it Modern

The Metropolitan Opera debuted its new production of “Tosca” on New Year’s Eve, marking what appears to be the end of the saga of what is quite possibly the most troubled production in the Met’s history. The production is likely one to please Met audiences for years to come based on the rapturous response from the audience at the Saturday evening performance I attended.

Outside of the news regarding how many principal people have had to be replaced for this production, this “Tosca” carries the noteworthiness of being a new production of “Tosca” a little more than eight years after the Met debuted another version.

The 2009 production was done by the late Luc Bondy and was famously met with boos from the audience. The production contemporized the opera, set in 1800 Rome, but also vulgarized it with aspects such as Scarpia feeling up a statue of the Virgin Mary. Although not the most controversial production the Met has done during the tenure of Peter Gelb as General Manager–that title would go to 2014’s “The Death of Klinghoffer”–it was one that became noteworthy because of the response from the Met’s audience.

In the program notes for the new production, Gelb addresses the reason for going with a new, more traditional production of “Tosca”:

The Bondy production taught me a significant lesson in what Met audiences want. When it comes to a classic like Tosca, they want beautiful scenery.

“Tosca” is undoubtedly a classic, largely because of the legendary 1953 recording with Maria Callas performing the titular role. Like two other Puccini operas–“La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly”–and Wagner’s Ring Cycle, it is an opera a person who has never attended the opera has likely heard of.

The underlying issue with Gelb’s comments regarding his mea culpa for the Bondy production is he seems to miss what people want when it comes to the classics, overlooking the repertory of his own company.

There is a very good reason why I mentioned “La Boheme,” “Madama Butterfly,” and The Ring Cycle a couple of paragraphs earlier because they are operas that are done many times by opera companies. If you look at The Met’s season, they will likely have “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly” every year because those are operas people like attending. The current production of “La Boheme” has been around for decades and was done by Franco Zeffirelli, who did the production of “Tosca” that had been in the Met’s repertory before they decided to give it a gritty reboot in 2009. You might also recognize Zeffirelli’s name because he directed the 1968 film version of “Romeo and Juliet,” which is probably still shown in freshman English classes. Zeffirelli is a director who sticks to the original setting and is very ornate in the production design. If you see something that was directed by Zeffirelli it will be very beautiful to look at in a way similar to a Renaissance painting. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t work for everyone, possibly even feeling a little shallow.

The current production of “Madama Butterfly” done by The Met was overseen by Anthony Minghella and premiered in 2005. In this production, the opera starts off with two performers on stage appearing to raise the curtain, revealing the stage flooded with red light. A woman ascends the stage, a train of multiple fabrics trailing behind her, and she raises a fan aloft before beginning a pantomime incorporating a second fan. She performs in silence for nearly 90 seconds, coming into the light, before the action of the show really starts as Lieutenant Pinkerton is to marry Cio-Cio-san. The image of a woman standing at the top of the very modern, almost metal, staircase, her fan held aloft as we see her silhouette surrounded by red light has become an image not just used to advertise “Madama Butterfly” at The Met, but to advertise the institution itself beyond the annual marketing campaign. (The current one is “The Voice Must Be Heard,” which I like, even if nothing will top Lyric Opera’s “Long Live Passion” campaign.)

The Met has quite a few productions that are modern takes on classic works. Be it their productions of “Madama Butterfly,” “Elektra,” the surrealist take on Humperdink’s “Hansel and Gretel,” or Julie Taymor’s uniquely Julie Taymor version of “The Magic Flute,” the last two of which are performed every year as the “family operas” during the holiday season. Anything that is a classic can evolve with the time and be adapted to fit a director’s vision, as long as they understand and respect the text. This is often seen in the theater where you can have revivals of plays where a production can shine a light on a text in a new way, or the intent of the author is vulgarized. One of my favorite theatrical productions of this decade was Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s “Othello,” which set the action of the play within a motorcycle gang. As a direct result of Mark Clements understanding and revering the text, the concept worked very well, resulting in a production that was particularly haunting and moving.

The trouble with the performing arts is walking a fine line between boldness and satisfying donors and subscribers and respecting a text to the point it isn’t allowed to breathe. In Sir David McVicar’s “Tosca” at the Met, the grandness of the set almost suffocates the emotion of the production, particularly in Act One. McVicar understands how to stage “Tosca” and the production consistently proves it understands how to have the performers move around the stage at the right musical cues, but the production ends up having the problem of being very pretty to look at. This shifts in act two when Sonya Yoncheva sings “Vissi d’arte…” because of her incredible vocal performance and the fact she can act. Act three is when the production really succeeds and it is aided by the scenic design. The design of the Angel Terrace at Castel Sant’Angelo helps add to the gloom of the act–opera is rarely subtle. It also helps this evokes an open space, which honestly allows what is occurring to be emotionally effective, filling every part of the space.

This isn’t a criticism of McVicar in general as I found his staging of “Elektra” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago with Christine Goerke singing the titular role to be utterly stunning. The problem is the Met, particularly Gelb, thought the way to rectify the misstep of Bondy’s staging was to go with a production as traditional as possible. The result is a production that can be performed for decades and will please subscribers and donors. It’s not bold, it’s not something to make you think on the subway ride home, but it will provide for an enjoyable evening at the opera.

There is a reason to be concerned opera might become too traditional and shy away from more daring productions. There will be missteps–I’ve seen plenty of modern interpretations in theater that have missed the entire point of a text–but those must be made in order to find something that works. The Met’s current version of “Madama Butterfly,” an opera that is enough of a classic to result in scores of adaptations, could have failed, but it has instead become a production audiences can see over and over.

As opera finds itself trying to move towards the future, particularly as the Met itself struggles financially, a compromise must be made in order to attract a new, younger audience. The question comes as to if you have a very lovely production that will please your current audience, or if you go out on a limb and create a new vision in order to make a classic survive for decades to come.

Chain Restaurants and the Snobbery Surrounding Them

News recently broke of Applebee’s parent company deciding to close 160 Applebee’s and IHOPs. The decision is due to declining sales, largely the results of millennials, who seem to be killing everything. DineEquity has decided to take Applebee’s back to how it was — all you can eat deals and the 2 for $20 menu–and stop trying to have menu items to appeal to Millennials.

I am a millennial and I haven’t been to an Applebee’s in four years, which makes me part of the problem. I have, in the past year, been to IHOP, Red Lobster, Cheddar’s, and the greatest of all chains, Village Inn. I also made it to a TGI Friday’s and a Chili’s (too) in the time since I’ve made it to an Applebee’s. I live in the largest city in Wisconsin and am the type of cool, hip millennial — I compost and there’s currently an IPA from a Wisconsin brewery in my fridge —  they are trying to appeal to, but is inevitably killing the restaurant.

I have an odd fondness for casual dining chains.

As I enjoy bringing up, I grew up in Iowa. Many of the chains mentioned were in the area I grew up in and I have many memories tied to going to those restaurants. Breakfast on the weekends with my family at IHOP, going to Applebee’s and Olive Garden for a nice dinner, eating at Chili’s with my mom the evening before we visited Rockford College, eating Village Inn whenever we damn well felt like it because pie is good, blasting Billy Joel from my mom’s car in the parking lot of the Cedar Falls parking lot while dancing with a friend at 11 p.m..

Red Lobster is more emotionally tied to a good memory as it was often the choice of food when my dad was in town after my parents divorced. The Red Lobster in Waterloo with its muted blue color scheme and coastal decor comes to mind when I sit down at one of the gussied up restaurants in the chain in the Milwaukee area. As I sink my teeth into one of the Cheddar Bay Biscuits, memories of me, my sister, and our father seated in a booth, making “Blazing Saddles” references and talking about school come to me.

Cheddar’s, a chain I learned about while attending Michigan State University, provided me some comfort while traveling through Iowa in November. While the mistake was made of playing Michelle Branch’s “Breathe,” I found I enjoyed my food and it did exactly what I needed it to do, which was provide me with a filling, tasty meal in a comfortable setting that also helped stave off my migraine.

When I eat out, I don’t frequent larger chains.

This largely comes from most of the chains having restaurants in the suburbs, while I live in the city (Applebee’s has a location in Milwaukee near where I worked a couple of years ago, but I always forgot about Applebee’s when I got lunch and instead went to Rocky Rococo or a Jewish deli with a location in the Grand Avenue food court). There are several wonderful locally-owned restaurants in the Milwaukee with delicious food. Two of my favorite Milwaukee restaurants are in walking distance of my apartment, which is convenient as I hate driving. I am also a granola-munching, Birkenstock-wearing, composting Millennial, so I am immediately inclined to support local businesses. The bigger issue for me is I actively enjoy cooking and use it as a stress reliever, which is the main reason I don’t go out eating as much as some people.

This would be different if I lived in lots of parts of Iowa. While I can get delicious baked goods at Comet Cafe or Honeypie, my best option in Iowa would likely be the Holy Righteous Village Inn. There are plenty of great locally-owned restaurants in Iowa–Montage in Cedar Falls, Bar La Tosca in Ames, The Brown Bottle in Waterloo, which I admittedly like for its atmosphere–but there’s not nearly the abundance you find in areas like Chicago or Milwaukee. Even in East Lansing, I found myself usually going to chain restaurants when I ate out with my father.

There is a problem with me admitting that I would likely go to chain restaurants more often if I lived in Iowa, which is that it plays into the snobbishness found in urban areas towards chain restaurants. Most people in urban areas think chain restaurants are for the “thems” in Middle America, the type the media keeps claiming Hollywood and liberals don’t know anything about. They automatically assume all chain restaurants are bland, tacky restaurants with a lot of cheesy shit on the walls and the only people who eat there are conservatives.

This was even brought to me by someone who was from Huntington Beach. As he sneered about how people in Iowa are probably depressed and think gourmet food is Olive Garden, I fired back and bought up how a lot of good memories that are tied to those restaurants. I also pointed out he’s from Huntington Beach, which sounds like a SimCity scenario waiting to happen and doesn’t even get an authentic Don the Beachcomber.

And I’m incredibly liberal and happen to love cheesy shit on the walls, especially if it fits the theme of the restaurant (I love tiki bars for this very reason). When I went to Village Inn, I actually enjoyed the cutsey orange signs plastered on the walls while I ate breakfast for lunch, listening to the familiar elevator music. I will be the first to admit there are very bland chain restaurants–I know I’ve been to Ruby Tuesday, but I cannot tell you anything about the food or atmosphere–and some that seem to have bad business models. But some of the restaurants have food I genuinely enjoy. Besides, where else am I going to be able to get a breakfast platter at 10 p.m. and a slice of pie?

What people need to admit is there can be bland food at locally-owned restaurants. Small towns might have greasy spoons straight out of a movie, but the food might not be very good. Even popular, locally-owned businesses can fail to deliver with good food, even though people will continue to throw accolades their way because they perceive a locally-owned restaurant as being innovative. Red Light Ramen has overpriced, bland food with putrid smelling and repugnant tasting drinks, but people will continue to go there because it’s something different and popular from an acclaimed local chef.

Allow people to enjoy the restaurants they like. If you enjoy a national chain, there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean you have to stop voting Democrat or you have no interest in food. If you only eat at locally-owned restaurants, that’s also okay. If you think Red Light Ramen is great, I might lose some respect for your food choices, but you can keep enjoying $13 ramen and alcoholic beverages that assault your tastebuds. There’s no reason to look down at people for eating at different restaurants and maybe chains like Applebee’s will stop trying to reinvent themselves. Maybe we just want what we liked in the first place. Then, maybe the younger generations will come back.

“Descendants 2” (2017)

descendants_two_ver3 Everything is awful in this world, so it seemed like a good idea to indulge in what is my pop culture guilty pleasure.

“Descendants,” which premiered on Disney Channel in 2015, ended up being something I liked far more than I expected. It had flaws, although most of those flaws are solved by reading Melissa de la Cruz’s “Descendants” novels. When the second movie was announced, I was mildly excited and intrigued, which is a feeling that has only grown since reading De la Cruz’s novels. Besides, it can’t be the worst thing I’ve seen this year.

The movie picks up a few months after the first one as Mal (Dove Cameron) is trying to get used to her role as the girlfriend of King Ben (Mitchell Hope). While she starts to crack from the stress, Evie (Sofia Carson) is busy designing dresses, Jay (Booboo Stewart) remains his athletic self, and Carlos (Cameron Boyce) is struggling to ask Jane (Brenna D’Amico) out to the cotillion. Ben eventually discovers Mal has been relying on magic to cope with the pressures of being his girlfriend (and queen to be), and the two have a falling out. Mal returns to the Isle of the Lost and confronts her old foe Uma (China Anne McClain), the seapunk pirate daughter of Ursula. Uma, bitter about not being selected to go to Auradon, teams up with Harry Hook (Thomas Doherty), to try to bring Mal down while Ben, Evie, Jay, and Carlos try to save Mal.

There is a glaring problem with most movie musical spectaculars on Disney Channel and it’s the over-produced songs. This goes back to at least “Camp Rock,” where there’s a song where Joe Jonas is sitting on a tree and there are a lot of background vocals, but he’s the only person in the frame and Demi Lovato is just standing there, listening. The running joke in my family is the leaves and twigs have incredible singing voices because there the audio has this incredible melody, but the only person singing is Joe Jonas.

This problem rears its ugly head during what, otherwise, is the best number of “Descendants 2,” “What’s My Name.” If you listen to “What’s My Name” on the soundtrack, it’s a great hip-hop number the cynical would argue is designed to make people excited for the film. But in the movie, all of the engineering of the number ends up detracting because the audio levels are so horribly uneven, causing some of Uma’s lyrics to become muddled and all of Harry’s verse to be lost.

Many songs for Disney Channel movies seem designed to be big radio hits, no doubt on Radio Disney. I’m sure there are no Disney executives losing sleep about how the production of the songs on Disney Channel movies will affect them, but it is incredibly distracting and I wish, as odd as this sounds, there was an element of realism to the songs.

Aside for three glaring problems, “Descendants 2” manages to be superior in almost every way to its predecessor. It possibly benefits from having the world of the film established already, but there’s a feeling by cutting out the Disney characters people love and focusing on their children, the movie manages to be enjoyable. The movie is even a full minute shorter than its predecessor and feels tighter in terms of story, failing to drag at any moment. Even the musical number that feels superfluous, which comes right at the end of the movie, is a delight to watch.

More importantly, you can tell almost every actor has grown in the time between the first and second films. No actor has improved more than Carson, whose jazzy version of “Rotten to the Core” remains one of my favorite things about this series. In the first movie, Evie was an enjoyable character, but Carson largely felt overshadowed by Cameron, whom I thought was bound to be a star if she kept improving after the first film. In every scene she’s in, Carson seems thoroughly engaged with what is happening around Evie and steals nearly every scene she’s in just by her presence. One only hopes she gets non-Disney Channel acting work because she proves in this movie she has the chops (and before anyone says, “Disney Channel stars can’t act,” I suggest you turn your attention to Cole Sprouse, who is giving a fantastic performance as Jughead Jones on The CW’s “Riverdale.”)

The villains in this movie also seem to be better cast. As much as I love Kristin Chenoweth, I don’t think she’s a great Maleficent. With that movie, it felt more like she was cast for her singing chops than if she was right for the role. Here, the addition of McClain and Doherty makes the film instantly better. Even if there weren’t a number of improvements, their performances are so delightful you could still enjoy the movie. McClain, who has a history as an actress and musician before this film, is, like Carson, so throughly engaged in every scene she appears in, you can’t stop watching her. While villains, as I have often pointed out on this blog, do not need to be written with nuance, McClain’s body language and line delivery brings the character the depth it might not have gotten with other actors. Doherty gives a performance so deliriously over-the-top, the script acknowledges it, and it makes the film better as a result. No one wants to see a muted version of the son of Captain Hook. The character of his father is already a mustache-twirling villain in the animated film–as well as Dustin Hoffman’s performance in the underrated “Hook”–so it makes sense the character here would be the same.

The songs in this film, largely written by people not involved with the first movie, are catchier and seem to propel the plot along better. There even fail to be any hip-hop covers of songs from the Disney renaissance done horribly wrong. The choreography, done by Disney favorite and director Kenny Ortega with Tony Testa, is more impressive and, in many numbers, feels more natural. As always, the costumes are incredible, particularly with three very important dresses during the cotillion. You even get the sense the set decorators had more fun with this movie with clever signs on the Isle of the Lost–although “Chum” listed as a size in Ursula’s Fish and Chips made me think of Chip Zdarsky’s comics.

The film stumbles with the performance given by Cameron, who unfortunately had the most to shoulder in terms of plot. Her lip syncing is not particularly good and she’s largely surrounded by actors who are giving better performances than her. There was one moment when I paused the movie when Evie and Mal are seated next to each other and I came back to notice how Cameron was just there, while Carson is actively reacting to what the other characters are saying. What helps Cameron is she was already really good in the first film–I was predicting her to be a star after the movie–so the movie doesn’t suffer too much by having a pretty decent actress in the lead role. I just hope before the third film–especially since Uma gives a “You’re not gonna believe this” moment–she grows more as an actress, even though she has been working hard on her music career.

The other problem is Hope is just very bland as an actor. I had initially thought it was the result of how the villains were more compelling in the first film, but Ben is a very well-drawn character in the novels. Hope, who has a larger role in this film, barely registers in this movie in terms of a presence, except when he’s singing in “Chillin’ Like a Villain.” Every line delivery is so flat and uninteresting, it destroys every single important moment he has. What’s worse is the audience really needs to care about about him and Mal, and I care a lot more about Evie and Doug and Carlos and Jane than I do about them because of how utterly uninteresting Cameron and Hope are as leads.

While this franchise is not the place to look for originality, it bothers me to no end Uma wants the Fairy Godmother’s wand so she can go to Auradon, angry over not being invited by Ben. I’d like to think they could have gone after some other noted magical object in Auradon instead of going after the one from the first film. It causes the movie to have the problem of nearly following the same plot as the first one.

If you’re not a stickler about your Disney movies and want something, anything, to provide some mindless diversion from the current world, <i>Descendants 2</i> while not high art, is enjoyable. Thankfully this movie doesn’t flounder around, considering Disney Channel only released this movie this year. One hopes the series continues to improve if they make another film and Sofia Carson gets some work outside of Disney Channel.

“Despicable Me 2” (2013)

despicable_me_two_ver7_xlgI kept thinking during “The Book of Henry” about how the film seemed to not understand how people work. More importantly, it felt like it didn’t know how children behave, particularly at different ages. The movie used the broad brush of having all of the children either precocious or cute in an age inappropriate way.

Then we have “Despicable Me 2,” which is a cartoon that, despite one flaw, manages to understand how people, particularly children, behave on a day-to-day basis better than “The Book of Henry” or quite a few other scripted TV shows and movies.

“Despicable Me 2” is an interesting film to write about because it feels like it’s the result of a pleasant surprise, similar to “Toy Story 2.” It’s likely Illumination Animation would have gone on to continue to release more films, especially when you look at how they already had “Hop” scheduled for release the next year. But “Despicable Me” managed to be a massive hit, probably bigger than anyone could have expected. Yes, that does mean some people have pre-judged the series, but it has spawned what, based on the second movie, are pretty enjoyable films to help escape the current world.

Gru (Steve Carrell) has retired from villainy to become a full-time father. After a research station is stolen by a giant magnet, he is recruited by the Anti-Villain League to find who stole an experimental serum. While undercover in a bakeshop with AVL agent Lucy Wilde (Kristen Wiig), Gru begins to suspect Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt), the owner of a Mexican restaurant, is the presumed dead villain El Macho and behind the theft. Meanwhile, the Minions begin going missing from Gru’s home and lair.

The “Despicable Me” movies fall back on some of the tired, annoying problems common in animated films, such as fart jokes, butt jokes, and pop culture gags that sometimes seem out of place. In the universe of “Despicable Me,” there isn’t nearly as much of a problem as in other films. In this film, there seems to be more than in the previous film–one character is named “Ramsbottom,” but I laughed–but it prevents the film from being too bogged down. No, I’m not sure I needed the Minions to make me wonder why none of the members of The Village People ever donned drag and went as the Chiquita lady, but the movie still works.

This is largely because “Despicable Me” often feels like what would happen if you made a Bond film without James Bond that was told from the perspective of the villains. Steal the moon? Steal the Great Pyramid? Steal the Times Square jumbotron? These are all things that have not only happened, but are completely plausible in the universe of the film. The area where the second movie trips up is with the villain. The motivations for the villains in the universe of these films is often, “Why not?” or a means of getting their names out there. But here we’re given a villain whose motivations often feel incredibly murky. Why this? Why now? Yes, we get a nice “Hoboken” gag out of it, but it feels underdeveloped.

The two other problems with the film stem from it losing its bite from the first film. It might be a problem with it becoming such a beloved film–it will be interesting to rewatch the “Shrek” films–but it also has the issue of Gru retiring from villainy. At heart, he’s still a bad guy, but he’s a bad guy with a heart of gold. He still never leaves home without his freeze ray and his knowledge of villains ends up saving the day in this movie. But without his plotting, the film feels like it lacks something.

The other key problem is the Minions, which is no doubt the result of them becoming such popular characters. While they do have a role in the plot of this film, they seem to spend more time on screen than in the first movie, which just feels unnecessary. They at least get their own movie, which will be interesting to watch, and it should be interesting to see how the third movie handles them as characters.

But at the end of the day, “Despicable Me 2” manages to be a fun, escapist comedy. This feels incredibly strange since it is an animated film with a certain fine balance of realism and playful absurdity. Even minor things like a joke at one point about how Agnes is reciting something for an assembly manages to be hilarious because of how true to life it is. It manages to be a family movie that isn’t stupid, which feels like it’s becoming increasingly difficult to make. It still is clever, with plenty of relatable moments and delightful sight gags. Even as an adult, after having my brain fried, albeit on my own terms, this was the right thing to watch and feel better.

There is a place for animated movies that aren’t the high art of Pixar films and are just enjoyable family entertainments. That might be what Illumination’s place in cinema is and there’s nothing wrong with that, especially since the studio seems to be good at doing that based on the “Despicable Me” movies and “Sing.”

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “The Book of Henry”

book_of_henry_ver2_xlgIt’s rare that movies in this series result in me actually saying, “I can’t believe I just watched that.” “Divergent” certainly made me say that, as did the end credits of “Catch Hell.” But as I was walking to my car after seeing “The Book of Henry,” I actually said, “I can’t believe I just watched that.”

The plot of “The Book of Henry” is an utterly bonkers idea that I can’t believe a bunch of a-list people signed on to do this movie both in front of and behind the camera. I also am a little surprised this has a distribution company as major as Focus Features would distribute this, but then I remember “Collateral Beauty” exists. As I texted a friend after this movie, this a movie where almost every narrative decision is a hard left turn. And because of that, I’m going to let you know I am going to spoil this movie because I can’t talk about the insanity of this plot without spoiling it.

Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a 12-year-old wünderkind who is an investment genius, an inventor, a co-parent, and apparently went to medical school. In fact, in a movie that largely does not know how children behave–except in a moment with a great joke in the cafeteria late in the film–the only way we can excuse Henry’s stand-up philosophy in his fifth grade class is the fact that we are shown he’s such a genius, he can beat out the girl in “Gifted.” Henry largely takes care of his waitress mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), and his brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay). He even has a crush on the girl next door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler).

The movie has a distinct feel in the first 15 minutes of being a heartwarming film for the whole family, which would explain the fact I was the only person who went to the theater alone. Michael Giacchino even has a nice peppy score for the opening scenes as we see the idyllic small upstate New York town the characters live in.

But then we get to the first hard left turn, where the movie momentarily turns into an after school special on child abuse. Henry suspects Christina is being abused by her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris), but he seems to be the only person who cares. After the school principal (an underutilized Tonya Pinkins) explains to Henry she can’t do much because Glenn is the police commissioner, he decides to take it upon himself to figure out how to kill the police commissioner.

At that first twist, I wasn’t too surprised because that’s what I knew from the reviews on the internet. In fact, the general word about this movie was that it’s the movie about the boy genius who decides to kill the head of the police. And yet, that’s not the craziest thing about this movie. While Henry is in the process of his plot, he has a seizure and is diagnosed with a brain tumor by a doctor (Lee Pace), who is left speechless as Henry rambles off everything he can assume about the tumor. The movie then has the cojones to kill off its title character halfway through the movie. While this is such a stunning move, the big question is how the movie can sustain itself for the rest of the run time. In the midst of their grieving, Peter finds his brother’s notebook. From there, his mother is coached through her oldest son’s notes into killing Glenn.

That’s right. This is a movie in which a 12-year-old boy genius dies from a brain tumor and then, from beyond the grave, coaches his mother into killing the police commissioner, who is abusing his stepdaughter.

The movie really doesn’t become interesting until it gets to the point where we realize what the movie is becoming. In fact, you spend a majority of the movie up until Henry’s death wondering if we’re supposed to root for him. He is presented as such a smug asshole, you don’t know why every fawns over him. Then he starts plotting in intricate detail how to kill his neighbor and you actually hope he gets caught, that someone pauses and wonders what is going on with this beloved boy genius. And quite frankly, it’s a little slow up until the point where the script actually makes the decision to kill him off–with the tone, I was actually expecting for a miraculous recovery–and turn the movie into, “Hey, I’m going to have my grieving mother kill an abuser.”

The movie, which is written by crime novelist Gregg Hurwitz, feels more like it was written by a robot than someone who actually lives among people. If we explain Henry away as being a sociopath–or even being raised to be cold, like the Holmes family in the Charlotte Holmes novels–his behavior actually makes sense. Susan is portrayed as a doting mother who also wants to be cool, a woman who can barely get herself dressed most days, and a woman who feels lost while she’s raising this genius. I actually thought from the beginning of the movie this was going to be a poor man’s “20th Century Women,” which is actually an insult to “20th Century Women.” Peter is one-note and the rest of the characters feel so poorly fleshed out. Sheila (Sarah Silverman) is Susan’s co-worker that might be an alcoholic, but the movie is done with that character development as soon as it introduces it. Pace’s doctor keeps showing up for reasons that don’t really make sense and it is just explained away that he’s checking up on the family. Even Christina, who should arguably be one of the characters you care the most about, is reduced to an empty vessel that keeps insisting she’s fine. Like many of the films in this series, it creates characters just to fill up the screen, which is a major problem in a movie that should have a lot of emotional heft.

The script also has handles child abuse in a very clumsy manner. At one point, Henry comes bursting into the principal’s office and begins listing off the signs of child abuse. Child abuse in this film is treated as little more than a list of warning signs, including a moment where Peter offers Christina a cupcake when she’s not eating in the cafeteria and she says, “No.” While the movie does end up with the big murder plot entangling Susan, the child abuse is really just a moment for Henry to save the day. Much like how rape is often treated in storytelling, the child abuse in this movie is of more narrative importance for Henry than the actual victim. The closest we come to seeing any of the real emotional trauma she’s experiencing is when she’s dancing at the talent show, but I’ve also seen enough art and dance performances to know that most good performers emotionally connect to what they’re doing.

The worst part about this movie is it’s a very well-cast in what is ultimately a very competently made movie. Everyone involved here is just saddled with such a rotten script it ends up becoming a bad movie. There’s certainly something that could be salvaged from this movie. There could be a movie solely about a boy genius who tries to win the heart of the girl he has a crush on. You could have a movie about a single mother who, with the help of her two overly precocious children, helps her co-worker overcome alcoholism. You could have a movie about a mother grieving the loss of her oldest son who is pushed towards dating the neurologist who treated her late child, which would actually help answer the question of “Why does Lee Pace keep showing up?” You could even start the movie at Henry’s seizure and death and go with his mother discovering his notes and learning about his plot and her trying to deal with all of those details. Any of those would be better than this baffling mess of a script that led to us possibly having the biggest “What on earth did I just see?” of 2017.