'Don't Be a Moron'

I was having lunch with a friend who’d survived a heart attack a couple of years ago. When I asked him if he had any dietary restrictions, he shared the story of going to his doctor post-coronary with a written list of questions about what he should or shouldn’t eat going forward.

The doctor took a look at the list, then ripped up the paper and threw it in the bin.

“Here’s my dietary advice,” said the doctor. “Don’t be a moron.”

“What do you mean?” asked my friend.

“I mean,” replied the doctor, “use your common sense. Eat heart-healthy food most of the time, and if you really fancy the odd bowl of macaroni and cheese, enjoy it.”

While I was a little taken aback at the bluntness of the advice when I first heard the story, I’ve come to realize that it’s a fantastic response for pretty much any kind of question people have about how to live their lives.


‘Don’t Be a Moron’

The next time you meet some person who is utterly captivated by some undertaking that completely mystifies you, give him the benefit of the doubt. Hold back on your instinctive imputing of excess spare time and hang the obsession in a tickler-file in the back of your brain to pull out and think about in the shower or the post-office line. If you’re very lucky, a little of that delight may rub off on you, too.

I noticed that touring — which is wonderful in some ways — is absolutely confining in other ways. It’s so difficult… you just can’t think about anything else. You try your hardest: You take books with you and word processors, and you’re definitely going to do something with the time. And you never do. It’s so easy for it to become your exclusive life, this one and a half hours every evening that you play. And I just thought, “I’m losing touch with what I really like doing.” What I really like doing is what I call Import and Export. I like taking ideas from one place and putting them into another place and seeing what happens when you do that. I think you could probably sum up nearly everything I’ve done under that umbrella. Understanding something that’s happening in painting, say, and then seeing how that applies to music. Or understanding something that’s happening in experimental music and seeing what that could be like if you used it as a base for popular music. It’s a research job, a lot of it. You spend a lot of time sitting around, fiddling around with things, quite undramatically, and finally something clicks into place and you think, ”Oh, thats really worth doing.” The time spent researching is a big part of it. I never imagined a pop star life that would’ve permitted that.

Monday Assorted Links

When Procrastination doesn’t keep me from doing what I should be doing, I fall back on creating a links post.

  1. Digitized K-mart in-store background music (1989-1993). As Susie Bright said in her Facebook post, “This is a soundtrack waiting for its porn film.”
  2. Pick your guru carefully.
  3. 19th-century views of the Year 2000.
  4. Alternate Histories has released its 2015 Holiday Pack!
  5. The James Randi documentary, An Honest Liar, which I saw via Netflix. Randi fought the good fight, but as his nemesis Uri Gellar says near the end, “We won.” And as the movie shows, Randi’s own need to believe is great. The most bizarre scene is an old television clip of him hanging upside-down, escaping from a straitjacket, while a woman in elegant poofy dress sings “You’ve Got the Magic Touch.”
  6. We suffered a break-in earlier this year. Nevertheless, I draw the line at this.

Pre-Med: Preparing the Instruments

hamishmacbethThe producers contracted with Dominic Minghella to create this new Doc Martin series for Buffalo Pictures and ITV. By 2004, Minghella’s credits included writing stints on TV series and TV movies, so he knew the business and knew what was needed. But the credit that probably secured the job for him was his time as writer and script editor on the Hamish Macbeth series (1995-97).

Based on (but in no way resembling) MC Beaton's mystery novels, Hamish Macbeth was an easygoing police constable in a remote and picturesque North Scottish village who dealt with the escapades of the eccentric locals and the stray bad apples who come to town. The location shots were magnificent, there was a large cast of village characters to help and hinder Hamish, and -- just to complicate his life a little more -- he suffers romantic misunderstandings with two local women. Macbeth's job entitled him to poke his nose behind usually closed doors, talk to all manner and classes of people, and be privy to most everyone's secrets. A single episode could shift tonally from light rural humor to grim mystery to romantic heartbreak to outlandish adventure-type setpiece.

Minghella therefore had experience creating the texture of the kind of world that the new Doc Martin would inhabit.

So Doc Martin’s genetic code includes: movies, setting, a production framework, and a writer skilled in creating episodic stories blending humor, drama, and romance. The producers also kept the “Doc Martin” name while dropping “Martin Bamford”. As that character had been created by Ferguson and Crowdy, good business sense dictated creating a new character not beholden to another’s copyright. The new character would now be called Martin Ellingham, his surname being an anagram of Minghella. Clever, that.

Another consideration was taking ITV’s fish-out-of-water idea under advisement and pushing it a bit further. Northern Exposure is probably the most obvious template for this sort of series; the 1990-1995 series was a big hit with its story of an uptight, big-city doctor bemused and frustrated by the quirky residents of a remote Alaskan village. Rob Morrow’s Dr. Joel was obnoxious and spiky, but he softened a bit as the series wore on and fell in love with the beautiful Maggie; the unsophisticated yet accepting community surrounding him patiently tolerated his bad attitude with warmth and good humor.

It was a good, smart show (for a few seasons, anyway), but why remake Northern Exposure in Cornwall? Why remake Hamish Macbeth, for that matter? What could be done to make Doc Martin's tone different from other fish-out-of-water, city-mouse-meets-country-mouse stories that dot the English literary and televisual landscape? What could be the central conflict that would drive the storytelling?

The answer was to take what worked for Northern Exposure — the culture clash between high-powered, no-nonsense doctor and sleepy little backward village — and push it to its logical, humorous extreme: make the protagonist so cranky and unlikable that, as Clunes has said, the village would be united in horror against him.

This is classic fiction writing 101 (and I mean that in a good way; we too often forget the basics): put the character in conflict with his setting to bring forth both his best and worst traits. That’s an aspect of story structure lacking from the Bamford movies and Hamish Macbeth: those characters loved living in their villages. They wanted to fit in. They had friends and allies. And to be fair, that's probably a reason viewers tuned in to watch those shows. But having the new Doc Martin be irritated every time he strolled through the village or examined his patients might spark more vigorous comic moments and give the character more bite. This sweet setting demanded dollops of vinegar.

Leading to the question: what was the tone of the show going to be? Straight-forward medical drama? Light drama with humorous touches, a la All Creatures Great and Small? A bit of soap opera, a bit of comedy, with a few bits of seriousness tossed about here and there to leaven the tone? How quirky and eccentric could the stories and characters become before they tipped over into too silly?  How quickly should the romance get started and how would that play out over the series?

Many such questions and choices must have presented themselves and even more decisions had to be made. Committing millions of pounds to any entertainment venture requires hard-headed decision-making behind the scenes: planning, budgeting, contracts, casting, cinematography, catering, editing, promotion, etc. No matter what the viewer may think as they see the whimsical story unfold before them, very few big decisions about that story are left to chance.

In the end, the movies leave only trace amounts of their DNA in the TV show: a doctor named Martin, a lead actor, a director, and a setting. The blueprint created for the first six episodes of Doc Martin— all written by Minghella and directed by Bolt — established a durable template for the series that came after. It also spawned a character better adapted for his TV surroundings and the rigors of weekly episodic storytelling.

All that’s left is to get our irascible doctor pointed in the general direction of the Cornish coast…

A Facelift for Shakespeare

A new translation effort aims to make all of Shakespeare’s plays comprehensible to today’s audiences

Source: A Facelift for Shakespeare


I once interviewed an actor playing Hamlet who preferred using Shakespeare’s language in a production where the rest of the cast played a revised text. He felt the text was perfectly understandable if it was capably played, and that removing Shakespeare’s language constrained him from fully inhabiting the character.

I sympathize with McWhorter’s points insofar as reading the plays; but if I’m watching a performance, then I think the music of the words, and the actors’ skill (movement, intonation, characterization) will convey the meaning.

But the question remains: who would fardels bear??

 

 

The Price We Pay for Sitting Too Much

For every half-hour working in an office, people should sit for 20 minutes, stand for eight minutes and then move around and stretch for two minutes, Dr. Hedge recommends, based on a review of studies that he has presented at corporate seminars and expects to publish. He says standing for more than 10 minutes tends to cause people to lean, which can lead to back problems and other musculoskeletal issues.


The Price We Pay for Sitting Too Much

Pre-Med: The Doc Martin Movies

Telling the story of Doc Martin is a complicated business from the start: do we begin with the first movie, Saving Grace (2000), and then watch the two movies that followed-- Doc Martin (2001) and Legend of the Cloutie (2003)?

Or should we instead watch them as part of the character's chronology -- that is, start with the prequel Doc Martin and its sequel, Legend of the Cloutie, that lead in, kinda sorta, to Saving Grace?

In a way, it doesn't really matter since the movies have no narrative overlap with the TV series. Yes, there's a Doc Martin. Yes, there's a Cornish fishing village. Yes, there are a few key creative people behind the scenes who remain constant. But after that, the similarities stop dead. If you're coming to the movies after bingeing on the TV show, it's like glimpsing the face of a long-ago friend from a long way off, then realizing when you get closer they look nothing like you remembered.

Let's start with the best movie first, then. Saving Grace is a perfectly charming low-budget indie that the UK can do so well and the US can do hardly at all. Of course, the only reasons we're interested in it now, 15 years after it was made and released, are Craig Ferguson, Martin Clunes, and Doc Martin.poster - saving+grace

But before we get to them, let's talk about this as a movie, because it really is good fun. It has a good variety of light drama and farce, beautiful landscapes, wonderful actors, and a few actual themes that hold the movie together without weighing it down.

The cinematography, too, is lush. We see more of the surrounding landscape, more of the rugged coastline, than we do in the TV series. And for whatever reason -- the lighting, the lenses -- the pictures just look more ravishing.

And the main story, of a widow (played by Brenda Blethyn) desperate to raise money to save her home by helping her gardener (Ferguson) grow high-quality marijuana in her greenhouse, is strong comic material that gets the story moving (though it takes half an hour to get to this point).

Brenda Blethyn -- when she can tamp down the panic and nervous tics (always a problem with a Blethyn performance) -- is a sympathetic and resourceful Grace, who discovers what she's really made of as the pot deal begins going wrong and a French drug lord starts taking an interest in her potent homegrown product. There's a madcap, farcical finish and it all ends happily, as it should. The status quo has changed for all of the characters, even minor ones, and for the better.

Another factor in its favor is the script by Ferguson and Mark Crowdy (who will go on to have a long association with Doc Martin). Ferguson, at this point in his career, was a jobbing actor/writer/comedian/filmmaker and Saving Grace is one of a string of productions from those years. As an actor, he's funny, amiable, and has an easygoing presence. As a writer, he and Crowdy juggle a lot of characters, give most every actor at least a couple of scenes where they can show their stuff, and keep all the plot plates spinning at just the right speed to a satisfying payoff.poster-savinggrace

In the creators' commentary, the director Nigel Cole and Crowdy suggest that of all the cast members, Clunes was probably the one best known to a British audience due to his Men Behaving Badly sitcom. Clunes provides cheery support as Ferguson's pal, the pot-smoking Dr. Martin Bamford, and it's much of a piece with his other comic work up to that time. The Bamford character is a nice enough bloke, but bumbling and, by his own admission, not a very good doctor. Clunes turns in a fine but undistinguished supporting performance in the ensemble. It's not a star-making part.

No, the real star is Port Isaac, the Cornish fishing village cast as Port Liac in Saving Grace. When Ferguson's character, in a drowsy post-pot haze, stares out at the ocean and says, "I love it here," he's expressing one of the movie's strongest themes.

Because Port Liac is a place that draws people from all over to it. And more than that, it transforms them. It's the Land of Faerie where magic happens. The old joke of the village knowing everyone's business is true here, but it's not played for the same old laughs. The villagers know Grace's predicament and strive to let her keep her dignity, as much as they can. They even know about Matthew's pot-growing and simply turn a blind eye. The village truly seems to be a snug harbor for its residents and a welcoming wonderland for outsiders.

Which is why the next movie is such a nasty jolt.

Dr. Martin Bamford's arrival in the village in Doc Martin (set at some unspecified time before Saving Grace) is greeted with suspicion and gossip. There's a poison pen leaving incriminating photos under wobbly jelly molds (a wonderfully bizarre touch). Bamford is bullied and tossed about and harried by busybodies. There's even a town meeting to decide whether to expel him.

I mean...what?? Where the hell is the cozy quaint village from Saving Grace? Where did all of these mean, petty villagers come from? How in the world can bad ol' Port Isaac in Doc Martin evolve into to cuddly li'l Port Liac in Saving Grace?

What changed?

The first thing, obviously, was the creative team. Crowdy became an executive producer, Clunes' wife Phillipa Braithwaite became the producer, and Simon Mayle the writer. Crowdy, Clunes, and a few supporting actors were the only carryovers from Saving Grace.poster-docmartinmovies

The second thing that changed -- and not for the better -- was the creative reason for making the movie. I do not know the whole story behind why Saving Grace was made, but it must have struck Ferguson, Cole, et al., as a fun story to tell. One of the things that makes Saving Grace so much better than the movies that followed is that it is a finished work of art. Instead of the story continuing, there are no stories left to tell.

But Doc Martin was explicitly created to give Martin Clunes another TV vehicle and that prompts a different set of creative questions and decisions. Something about the character and the locale -- the Cornish fishing village of Port Isaac, where the movie was set -- struck a chord in the actor. It must have seemed both a landscape and a potential comic territory not being worked by anyone else.

Unlike some freelancers, Clunes took his career into his own hands by creating Buffalo Pictures, which co-produced the Doc Martin movies. By developing his own properties, Clunes could guarantee himself some ongoing employment and artistic and financial control over the production -- always depending, of course, if there was a buyer for the product.

Another consideration, surely, was to break free of his earlier Men Behaving Badly character. Clunes became the embodiment of laddish underachieving with the character of Gary Strang, which he played from 1992-99. It was a good run, but time to move on to other challenges. Although Clunes had made a few movies, mainly supporting parts, telly was his home field. (I can't find any indication that he's done stage work, though he surely has the voice for it.)

So instead of telling a story that needs to be told, Doc Martin needs to find a story to tell. And that puts different pressures on the writer.  The brief was probably along the lines of, "Devise a way to get Dr. Martin Bamford to Port Isaac. Give him an adventure. He falls in love with the village. He stays."

Mayle, whose IMDB credits end with the two Doc Martin movies (isn't that interesting, he said, stroking his chin), had no end of constraints. As played by Clunes, Bamford is not markedly different from Clunes' typical juvenile male leads, so how can the writer make that kind of underdeveloped character interesting? (Bamford's love of the weed is not in evidence at all here or in Cloutie.) And Mayle had to create a storytelling vehicle that would fire off future TV stories featuring Bamford.

Very well then -- throw the character in a ditch, pile on the trouble, and see how he handles it. Trouble always evokes character, right? Start with an uncomfortably misogynistic plot point where he deduces his wife cheating on him with his three best friends, drag him through freezing wet moors in inky darkness, and then deliver the bedraggled, yet still remarkably mild-mannered, character unto Port Isaac, which is undergoing its own crisis. Get Bamford mixed up with the crisis right away, maybe even mistaken for the bad guy by the villagers. And simmer -- without ever coming to a full boil.

(Although, if you're making these movies as explicit prequels to Saving Grace, why change the village's name from Port Liac to Port Isaac? Ah, who cares -- it's just telly.)

Clunes is a fine actor and low-key comic performer, but in the TV movies his character is so mild, even when he's harried, that his presence barely moves the story's needle. Bamford never has a clear goal, seems to run away from rather than to something, and spends most of Act 2 searching for a cell phone signal. This is not promising.

Mayle responds to this by making most of the village characters hostile, suspicious, and generally unpleasant -- surely this conflict will rouse Bamford to life! But no, Bamford lifts his eyebrows at them in bewilderment or mild irritation before thumbing his cell phone to suss out a signal.

Piling on conflict can be a valid storytelling strategy, but the conflict should force the character to make dramatic decisions at some cost to himself. Which doesn't happen here. Even though the village eventually rallies round Bamford, there's no sense of triumph or accomplishment. Because the story was meant to end this way, there's little emotional satisfaction to Bamford's decision to stay.

Still, Mayle delivers a well-made script and he cleverly makes the bad guy the village doctor, so that when he's hauled away, Bamford is there to take his place.

With Doc Martin and The Legend of the Cloutie, Mayle has a different set of problems. Bamford is now the village doctor, an accepted member of the community, and looking for property of his own. He is no longer an outsider. What will generate the story conflict now?

Outsiders, principally, in the form of the obnoxiously scheming Bowden family, who outbid Bamford on his ramshackle dream home, and the two customs agents on the trail of suspected village smugglers.

It took me a long time to get around to seeing this movie, because the first 10 minutes of setting the stage, introducing the players, and hearing the plot gears wheeze into a sort-of shambling life just bored me to tears. I saw the movie in short bursts just to get through it.

And when Bamford goes into his elaborate plan to scare the newcomers by imitating the mythical "Beast of Bodmin", well, that was where I hung on out of journalistic duty and pouted through it. This is an idiot plot (as in, the characters have to behave like idiots for the story to work) and so I kept the movie at arm's length the whole time.

Cloutie is both well-made and middling; there are always more of these types of movies and plays than there are out-and-out bad or good movies. Its tone is a little more whimsical and less malicious, and the mysteries and potential dangers are teased out effectively. Bamford tries his absurd way to change reality, but falls back on the mystical, female-based, nature magic of the cloutie to do the trick. The Wiccan subplot is a fresh bit of storytelling that begins to open up the world of Port Isaac while grounding it in its rural locale.

Cloutie also tries to build an ensemble of actors and recurring characters. But this movie was broadcast two years after the previous Doc Martin movie -- would there really be that many fans who would remember the setup and recognize these characters, this world?

Ach, enough of this. Let's turn to the positive. People of color make an appearance in Cloutie, an event that doesn't even happen in the TV series (I haven't seen Series 6 and 7 yet). Also, there's barely a whiff of romance between Bamford and...anyone. He looks infatuated by Neve Mcintosh's character but does not flirt with her at all. With her long dark hair and direct gaze, Mcintosh sets the physical template for Caroline Catz's Louisa. But Cloutie reserves the love story for his Wiccan patient Lolita; Bamford, in fact, is instrumental in helping her meet the love of her life, which is sweet of him.

So the made-for-TV Doc Martin movies were not as good as Saving Grace and have not inspired confidence as a franchise. What do they get right? And do they have any assets the TV series could take advantage of?

The first thing the TV movies benefit from directly is Ben Bolt. His camera setups, framings, and movement (such as the point-of-view cameras for the poison pen and Beast of Bodmin shots) are a pleasant shock for anyone familiar with the consistent visual grammar he established for the TV series. He finds unusual, more visually jagged angles that make one see Port Isaac's buildings anew, and the movies find great big swathes of land where the camera can linger. The movies' situations, and more time to tell the stories, offer Bolt opportunities to experiment he will not get in the series.

I also like how the interiors are more cramped and shabby generally. This place looks more like a fishing village struggling through hard times -- you see how cold it is. This is not the chocolate-box village of the TV series.

All the movies emphasize the smallness of the village: everyone knows Grace's situation before she does, everyone knows that Bamford's divorce has been finalized. There's also, particularly in Doc Martin, the small-mindedness of the village folk who are suspicious of outsiders. All of these tropes get called up for use in the TV show.

But what emerges most powerfully as a storytelling tool from all three movies is the transformative power of the Village. The banker who looks out over the London cityscape as he tries to reclaim the mortgage on Grace's house is transformed by the village into a happier man, who also becomes the village's new pot dealer after Matthew retires. The French gangster marries Grace and settles into a quieter life. Martin Bamford transforms from an isolated and lonely young man into a member of a supportive community.

The village also expels those who resist transformation, such as the customs agents and the grasping and greedy Bowden family. By and large, though, the notion that the village is a place that can soften hardened characters is certainly one carried through into the series.

The Doc Martin solo capers were successful enough to secure a deal with Sky Pictures for more movies, but Sky's shutdown ended that hope. Still, it probably seemed a shame to have all that production scaffolding in place and not do something with it. So Buffalo Pictures shopped the idea to ITV, which preferred the idea of a series to the original plan of two self-contained movies a year. ITV had another suggestion: make the character more of a "fish out of water." [To be continued]

Entitled

From Elisa Gabbert's Title TK:

Another quality I dislike in titles: a rhythmic sing-songiness, as in Then We Came to the End. All the Light We Cannot See. I Know This Much Is True. (Wally Lamb used the exact same three-foot iamb pattern twice: The Hour I First Believed.) These titles are suspiciously regular in their meter. I distrust them. As far as meter goes I think spondees make for the best, snappiest titles: White Noise. Jane Eyre. Bleak House.

Gabbert is talking of book titles here and then moves on to titling poems. When I wrote fiction and poetry, I always preferred lifting a line or word or group of words from within the work itself. I wanted the titles to arouse a little curiosity in the potential reader, who might then hear the click of the box when they read those words again in context. I also wanted something that sounded a little elevated without being too pretentious.

Though I adore Chekhov's work, so many of his stories' titles struck me as flat: The Duel, The Student, The Wife. I was perfectly happy for his stories to be written plainly; but I craved more memorable titles. Of which, to be fair, there are many: Ward 6, The Lady with the Dog, The Black Monk. His plays' titles adhere to Gabbert's terse preferences and I think cannot be improved on: Uncle Vanya. Three Sisters. The Cherry Orchard. All you need to know about those plays are in their titles.

My friend, the playwright Karyn Traut (for whom I have worn a bra and a muumuu-type thing onstage, though thankfully not in the same production), shared this tip from a class I took with her many years ago: The title is the poem of the play. I like that idea -- not only a summing-up, more than a declarative description. Connotation, not denotation.

Another quality I dislike in titles: a rhythmic sing-songiness, as in Then We Came to the End. All the Light We Cannot See. I Know This Much Is True. (Wally Lamb used the exact same three-foot iamb pattern twice: The Hour I First Believed.) These titles are suspiciously regular in their meter. I distrust them. As far as meter goes I think spondees make for the best, snappiest titles: White Noise. Jane Eyre. Bleak House.

Weasel syntax

Uncertain Terms | The Smart Set

The British technology journalist Ian Betteridge is credited with the adage “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” I want to make a similar claim: Any question at the end of an essay can be answered with the word yes. (Same goes, most likely, for poems, short stories, etc.) The question is a kind of weasel syntax that lets the author have it both ways: make a gesture toward profundity without having to commit to it.

Around the time of QUANTULUMCUMQUE, he summed it up to me thus: ‘Francis Bacon the painter said, “What I really want very, very much to do is the thing that Paul Valéry said, ‘To give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance.’” And I think that’s why the things I do are usually so abbreviated and quick.’

What we've been watching (and reading)

*

God, Dr. Buzzard, and the Bolito Man : a saltwater Geechee talks about life on Sapelo Island by Cornelia Bailey with Christena Bledsoe (2000). I read to Liz before she goes to sleep and we've found over the years that memoirs tend to be our favored material. This book is an oral history told by Bailey about her life on the Georgia barrier island of Sapelo, populated by the descendants of slaves who had worked cotton on the island. The memoir covers her life from when she was born in the '50s to the present-day, with lots of cultural history and stories going back to pre-Civil War times. Even in the '50s, the inhabitants lived in a supernatural world alongside the natural one; she talks about "haints," interpreting dreams, and the ghosts of dead ancestors always close by as daily companions. Bailey's easy way with a story and lively memories make this a delightful reading experience. We've not gotten there yet, but we will soon hear about the decline of the old ways as the young move off of the island and the few residents who remain fight off pressure from the State of Georgia, which owns nine-tenths of the island. The book's title derives from the Geechees' (cousin to the Gullahs) belief in the equal power of God, "Dr. Buzzard" (voodoo), and the "Bolito Man" (luck).

*

Tig (dirs: Kristina Goolsby, Ashley York, 2015). A documentary of standup comedian Tig Nitaro, who lived through one of the most hellish years one could imagine and her struggles with transforming some of those experiences into jokes and material, along with rebuilding her life and career. I don't want to say more, as I came to this knowing nothing of her struggles; as her story would turn a corner and go somewhere new and unexpected, I was swept along and as shocked or delighted as she was. Her bravery in so many aspects of her life -- not just shakily rebuilding her career but taking bigger and bigger personal chances too -- had me shaking my head in admiration.

*

Silicon Valley, season 1 (2014). So great to have a Mike Judge TV series again and this one is so smart and so spot-on in its satire of the Silicon Valley culture. The culture is already so over the top, it's hard to see how it can be lampooned, but Judge and his writers do it. The skeletal and spectral Jared is my favorite character. Be warned that it can be pretty raunchy, particularly the last episode.

*

The Overnight (dir: Patrick Brice, 2015). When did quirk become the new normal? A thin piece that, after the mysteries are explained, starts rousing to some kind of strange life -- and then it's over. Afterward, I started writing an essay in my head on how the story sets up the characters and its themes, deconstructing why do the leading ladies and leading men look alike?, and finding evidence that at film's end  things are still not as they seem ... when I wondered why I was polishing my bucket to hold a drop of water. One of the quips I've seen all over the web lately goes, "Some things once seen cannot be unseen." This is especially true of Adam Scott and Jason Schwartzman's skinny-dipping scene.

*

Hello Ladies, the series (2013) and the movie (2014). How much of this series you can tolerate depends on how much you like the cringeworthy comedies that Stephen Merchant has created with Ricky Gervais. His hapless ladies' man and lame cool guy routine gets routine pretty quickly, while his character's willful ignorance, inability to learn his lessons, and punishing trials never seem to go further than trying to raise a larf. When I could get past the plots, though, I enjoyed watching his character Stuart hanging out with his friends and particularly his attractive tenant Jessica, and following their stories with more interest. The characters' craving for something they can't have blinds them all, one way or another. Merchant and his co-writers also have an uncanny ability to suggest tenderness and vulnerability peeking out from under the farce's bedsheets. The series' last two episodes were the high point, focusing on the characters with the comedy taking a back seat. The movie wraps up the series' loose threads with a hackneyed plot in the first half that shifts gears in the second to a serious study of this damaged character and his redemption. I was actually cheering for him at the end. And the movie sports one of the funniest sex scenes ever, so there's that.

*

Alice Gerard & Rayna Gellert, Laurelyn Dossett. We went to Duke's Music in the Gardens series to see these great folk performers. Because live performance by real musicians is what it's all about. Support your local artists.

*

Me & Earl & The Dying Girl (dir: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, 2015). A self-absorbed white high-school boy shakes off his cloud of mope after alienating his black friend and breaking the heart of the dying girl. Oooooo-kay. What makes the movie work is its kinetic storytelling (reminded me of Thank You For Smoking, for some reason) and the movie parodies. And maybe it's me, but I was really offended by the popular girl offering herself as Greg's prom date. Why did these characters give Greg the time of day?

*

The Audience (dir: Stephen Daldry, 2013) Seen via the National Theatre's live stream into selected movie theaters. An entertaining collection of vignettes showing Queen Elizabeth II's relationships with her prime ministers, from Churchill to Cameron. Funny, middlebrow, fast-moving, a few piquant observations on the queen's role in her country, Mirren is as masterly as they say, and I didn't believe any of it for a second. I prefer The Queen (2006).

*

I'll See You In My Dreams (dir: Brett Haley, 2015). So good to see Blythe Danner onscreen again, even in a posh Hallmark Channel type of movie; the supporting actors are great, the lines are funny, and Sam Elliott is sly and dry as the man who wakes Danner's character out of her late-in-life lethargy. Warm, affecting, encouraging. Despite a few lapses (are post-pot-smoking hunger binges really that funny?), everyone acts like grown-ups and it's nice to spend time with characters who don't make me cringe. As with most every movie we've seen this year, the performers are all appealing and make the material they play shine brighter.

*

True Stories (dir: David Byrne, 1986). An art-student type vanity project by Byrne that doesn't have a proper story, but that's also not the point. IMDB says there are 50 sets of twins in the movie. Why? Who knows? They're just there, the way the Talking Heads songs are there, the way the preacher is ranting on SubGenius themes, the way David Byrne stiffly narrates a day in the life of a small Texas town and its amusing small-town characters but never, I think, makes mean or mocking fun of them. He seems to simply enjoy them as they are. I enjoyed the movie's oddball stance and easygoing pace. John Goodman, in one of his earliest roles, is there with his screen persona fully-formed and grounds the movie with his heart and vulnerability. And, God, but "Wild, Wild Life" is a fun number.

*

A Serious Man (dirs: Ethan and Joel Coen, 2006). Larry Gopnik is a nice man, but not a serious man, in the sense that his Jewish community in the Minneapolis suburbs would recognize. And when the trials of Job start assaulting him, he has no idea what to do or where to go for help. No blood, no gangsters, over the top in all the right ways, funny, fantastic period detail (the mid- to late-Sixties), anchored to a fine lead performance by Michael Stuhlbarg. The Coens never explain everything in their movies so there is usually something unresolved at its center. I like having some undefined spaces in a story.

*

Love & Mercy (dir: Bill Pohlad, 2014). Because we had seen The Wrecking Crew documentary a few weeks before, I got a kick seeing them portrayed onscreen in several scenes where Brian Wilson is crafting songs for the next Beach Boys album; for me, these scenes were the most fun of the entire movie. Paul Dano is incredible as the young, strung-out Brian Wilson who finds himself as isolated from the people around him as his 40-year-old strung-out self is under the care of a really creepy therapist. I never really bought John Cusack as the older Wilson. All of the "that can't be true" moments I experienced seem to have mostly happened as depicted onscreen. Wow.

*

Welcome to Me (dir: Shira Piven, 2015) Kirsten Wiig is terribly appealing as an unbalanced young woman who wins the lottery, stops taking her meds, and uses her winnings to stage her own Oprah-style show, dispensing bad advice and settling scores with everyone who she felt ever wronged her, from the second grade on up. The movie has the guts to take that premise to its logical conclusion and Wiig goes with it, as her at-first quirkily adorable character sinks into darker places. Hell is inside us and we take it with us wherever we go. This was a movie where, as I watched, I mentally charted the by-the-book plot points, reversals, higher stakes, final push, etc. An OK movie -- not bad but not great.

*

Philomena (dir: Stephen Frears, 2013). We were on a Steve Coogan kick after enjoying The Trip and especially after falling in love with his TV series Saxondale (2006-07). We'd missed this one on theatrical release. Philomena no doubt follows the same screenplay template as many of the other movies on this list, but I found the performers so appealing, the story so sad, and the anger so fresh, I didn't notice. The movie tweaked the real-life story, of course, but the bones are there. Coogan and Dench make a good team. Worth your time.

*

Still Alice (dir: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland, 2014). I remember seeing a TV movie decades ago with Richard Kiley and Joanne Woodward, where Woodward's character, a poet, is afflicted with Alzheimer's disease and begins slowly falling apart while her husband bewilderedly tries to understand and cope with the loss of his wife. I've also just described the broad outline of Still Alice, which sports a fantastic performance by Julianne Moore, and which features a sequence from the novel that had me on the edge of my seat. Aside from those assets, though, I can't say this movie said anything more to me than that decades-old one did. It's gorgeously filmed, and themes of connection/disconnection are always poignant. I choked up at the end when Alec Baldwin, as the husband, talks to their daughter; it's probably the only time I've seen Baldwin that vulnerable and it got my attention and past my defenses.

*

Vertigo (dir: Alfred Hitchcock, 1958). I backed a Kickstarter campaign for new seats at the Carolina Theatre, and one of the rewards was a backers-only showing of this movie with our backsides in the new comfy chairs. (Nice and cushy but they don't breathe after about 90 minutes.) It had been decades since I'd seen Vertigo, and watching it on the big screen was glorious -- it enhanced the richness of the colors, the swell of the music. The movie has a tone and pace unlike any other Hollywood product of the time, even other Hitchcock movies of the time. I kept trying to squeeze it into a noir box and it resolutely wouldn't go; it was too brightly lit and beautiful looking (those shots of San Francisco!) to be noir. But its storytelling is less about murder than it is mystery, mood, and tone poem. So many motifs (time, memory, reflections, the abuse of women by men) criss-cross the movie like webbing that its creepiness -- especially Scottie's obsessive remaking of Judy -- is hard to shake. Yes, it's dated, but it has a lingering power and gnawing aftereffect that few movies have.