This is Lorraine Toussaint as Yvonne “Vee” Parker. We might call her a new character in Orange is the New Black‘s second season, but she’s well-known to two of Litchfield’s current inmates… for complicated reasons. She is the best female antagonist I’ve ever seen, and one of the best antagonists ever.
To Taystee (Danielle Williams), Vee is the foster mother who finally gave her a home. Sure, that home was the locus of a powerful drug corporation. But Vee knew how to inspire loyalty and a sense of family — and we can see her use exactly the right strings to pull Taystee back, to transform her into the loyal soldier she used to be before prison.
In flashbacks we learn exactly how Vee has earned such loyalty from Taystee: by providing exactly that feeling of belonging and family — as well as just the right dose of race pride — that her life lacked beforehand. Moreover, Vee is the best possible “mother”: smart, powerful, admirable. The fact that she runs a drug empire is incidental to her maternal effects on the lonely Taystee.
Once Taystee is on board, Vee pursues the loyalty of a small group of other young Black women to build her prison “family” — using a variety of the same techniques carefully calibrated to each woman (maternal gentleness, tough love, gestures to racial unity and vague promises of uplift and power). But not Taystee’s gay best friend Poussey (Samira Wiley, whom the New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum aptly describes as “radiant”). Vee persuades Taystee to join in the exclusion and demonization of Poussey, a mean-girl process so real and devastating that I almost couldn’t watch those scenes.
Red (Kate Mulgrew) also has a history with Vee, but in her case it goes back to earlier prison days as competitors for control of the prison’s black market. Witnessing Red’s anxiety about talking to the leonine Vee for the first time gives us an insight into her character that we hadn’t seen before: for the first time in years, she worries that her aging will lead Vee to sniff out her weakness. In anticipation, she visits Sophia’s salon to amp up her fierceness.
And yet when they meet, they embrace warmly, like old friends.
Indeed, it is Vee’s capacity to convey warmth and insight that makes her so powerful, and so capable of deception. Witness her effect on the perpetual outsider, Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” (Uzo Aduba). She insists on calling her Suzanne. With a few correcting glances from Vee, Suzanne stops undermining herself and her mental stability, and speaks with new confidence. Under to heat of that seeming maternal affection and guidance, Suzanne glows like a light bulb and happily serves as Vee’s henchman, the muscles to Vee’s brains.
With everything else going on for me this summer, it took me forever to finish Season 2 — but throughout I marveled at the manipulative twists and maneuvers of Vee, who is the best antagonist I’ve seen in FOREVER. And it’s partly such a great character because she’s a woman who has learned to use people’s assumptions about her to her advantage. Think about it: we love a good bad guy — Alan Rickman in Die Hard, Heath Ledger as the Joker in The Dark Knight, Kevin Spacey as the horrifically Bible-obsessed baddie in Se7en — but when was the last time you saw a female antagonist worth remembering, for all the reasons why women learn how to extract power and manipulate others using their femininity?
But don’t get me wrong: this is not just a portrayal of a great female antagonist. This is the best antagonist in years, full stop.
Feast your eyes, friends.
The TV series Louie (2010-present) does a better job of showing us the uncomfortable, complicated aspects of dating (that amazing episode in which he sort of falls for the guy in Miami!) than almost anything else I’ve seen. But no matter Louis CK’s shlubbyness, he dates women who look like Parker Posey:
So consider me interested in this episode, “So Did the Fat Lady,” when a funny fat woman flirts with him and asks him out, and Louis turns her down. Nota bene: he spent the first part of the episode with a buddy on a “bang-bang” — that is, they ate a full meal together at one restaurant, then departed to another restaurant for another full meal. It is the nadir of self-destructiveness by a couple of fat guys; they hardly speak as they eat themselves stupid during this bang-bang; they’re not doing it for “fun.”
Yet when Louis and Vanessa (Sarah Baker) walk along the riverfront and he offers her a half-hearted, “You’re not fat …”, she lights into him.
“On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys,” Vanessa says. “Why do you hate us so much?” And for an amazing seven minutes, she lets him have it. You should watch the full episode for the whole setup, but the scene is available here.
Louie loves to make its viewers uncomfortable; the whole series puts its protagonist in the middle of the strangest, most cringe-making scenes it can cook up. This one is no exception. Vanessa doesn’t let up, phrasing her complaints in a way that make us confrontation-averse types watch our sympathies ricochet between her and Louie. She lets him have it, but not without forcing you to see her perspective. It’s a genius rant.
One could complain (and they have) that the show’s creator, Louis CK, wrote the whole thing. But I’m not sure that line of attack is worthwhile. In fact, I have an abiding fascination with other moments in history when male writers recount amazing moments when they found themselves absolutely bawled out by a woman. One of my favorites is Captain John Smith’s account of meeting Pocahontas in London in 1617 and having her rip him a new one for failing to observe the rules of kinship cemented during their time in Virginia. Smith recounts her speech in full, which ends condemning the English for their propensity to lie.
At first she seems like she’s going to be just another part of the kitschy Minnesota social landscape as created by the writers of Fargo — a series that uses the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film as a jumping-off point (and visual touchstone) for a different story, which they assert is true. The show tricks you: at first, the character of Molly Solverson seems neither as central nor as astute a detective as she becomes by episode 2 or 3. But by that time, you’ve sort of fallen in love with her.
Tolman is heavier than most TV actresses — by which, god knows, she probably wears a women’s size 10 (gasp!) — and prone to opening her gorgeous blue eyes just about as wide as they’ll go. She alternates observing a scene with an open mouth, and pursing that mouth in thought and perhaps a little judgment. All of which means that as you start to fall in love with her, her modesty, and her obsessive, perceptive views of the people and crimes around her, you realize that Tolman is not playing this for laughs even as she is trained as a comedian. Rather, we enter into the series via those beautiful eyes and connect to it through her combination of shyness, naïveté, and determination. She brings a soft persuasion to all her scenes, which is hard to do in a room full of Big Actors. The show is getting attention for all its male stars — Billy Bob Thornton as the riveting, mercurial hit man (really: he’s wonderful here); Martin Freeman hamming it up with an implausible Minnesota accent as the hapless Lester Nygaard; the terrific Bob Odenkirk as the dense new chief of police; Colin Hanks as a singularly unlucky Duluth police officer; and Adam Goldberg as a competing hit man who memorably delivers half his lines in American Sign Language.
What I’m saying is that our attention is — and should be — directed at Tolman, who is the real reason why the series works. Freeman’s acting is starting to grow on me, even though I still think he overacts his way through every scene; I don’t understand why Colin Hanks gets so many great roles (well, maybe I do understand); and I feel slightly peeved at the show’s insistence on getting so many yuks from Minnesota lingo and way too many characters with low IQs. But I’ll keep watching for Allison Tolman alone. She is a major discovery, and a major talent. Damn.
4 June 2014
I loved Veronica Mars, that So-Cal noir series that ran between 2004 and 2007. (Especially the first two seasons.) Her bitterness was so vividly explained. The class battles between the haves and have-nots always peppered the show, even as it cynically reminded us (as good noir does) that the wealthy and privileged have the means to insulate themselves against justice no matter how much Veronica tried to fix it. The series was also funny, with wonderful characters (Vinnie Van Lowe, the comic genius of Dick Casablancas). It ended too soon, and remains worthy of re-watching even now.
Veronica (Kristen Bell) was razor-sharp — that nose, that jawline, that cutting sense of humor — but the show was always fundamentally about her sadness, her loneliness. Perfect noir. Perfect for those of us for whom high school remains weirdly mythopoeic.
Considering that sharpness, you couldn’t be surprised by Bell’s post-Veronica career as Veronica’s opposite: a privileged mean girl (Heroes, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Parks and Recreation, the narrator’s voice in Gossip Girl). Which made me realize that her capacity for bitchiness always underlay her success as Veronica, too — Veronica was the girl who directed her meanness at the mean girls, overprivileged douchebags, and corrupt cops who made it so hard for the rest of us.
Now that we have a full-length feature film — made nine years later, and famously with millions of fan-driven Kickstarter dollars — does it still work?
Is this the kind of movie that anyone can enjoy, not just fans of the series?
I doubt it, especially if you’re paying for it. Wait till it’s on TV and, who knows? Maybe it’ll propel you to the series after all.
Will fans of the series be happy with this film?
Absolutely (more details below). But it feels like a TV show, not a film.
This film offers many pleasures — not least the way it managed to find every relevant actor to reprise his/her role from the series. The awful Madison Sinclair (Amanda Noret), the queen mean girl; the stoner Corny (Jonathan Chesner, whose appearance made me squeal with delight); even Veronica’s temporary flame on the force, Leo D’Amato (Max Greenfield) — not to mention the most crucial people, including Veronica’s father (Enrico Colantoni), Weevil (Francis Capra), and of course Wallace (Percy Daggs III) and Mac (Tina Majorino). Lucky that the plots pivots around Neptune High’s 10-year high school reunion, because otherwise you’d shake your head at the crazy confluence of familiar faces.
But the real reason Veronica has returned to town is that once again, Logan (Jason Dohring) finds himself accused of murder. They haven’t seen each other for nine years, and Veronica has remained with her public-radio boyfriend Piz (Chris Lowell) ever since. On the verge of landing her first post-law school job in New York as a corporate lawyer, she agrees to help Logan find a defense lawyer. Like, for one weekend only. Like she has that kind of self-control.
To his credit, Logan seems to have changed. He claims it’s his duty in the Navy — whatever it is, he seems unusually soft-spoken and lacking in the sociopathic tendencies that peppered his long history with Veronica. He now seems so self-possessed, almost like a stand-up guy. On the other hand, because of his past, no one really doubts that he might have the capacity to murder someone.
No wonder Wallace and Mac can see trouble around the corner. “In case it slipped your mind, Piz is the one without the baggage and the drama,” Wallace tells her, while Mac chimes in: “I will say this for him, he almost never gets charged with murder.”
“Just one of the things I love about Piz: no drama,” Veronica throws back at them. No one believes her.
Sure enough, before too long she has dug out her old dark, high-school era clothing for nighttime sleuthing, has scented out good reasons to believe a conspiracy is afoot, and she finds herself in Logan’s convertible, lit by the water and the neon and the jonesing for that crazy connection — the relationship that was epic, spanning years and continents, lives ruined, bloodshed….
As she tries to resist, she likens Logan’s appeal to an addiction she has broken. Or maybe she’s still in recovery. “Do I get a chip for this? Pouring the drink, swishing it, smelling it, leaving the bar without taking a sip. Is this what getting clean feels like?”
Serious question: will this calm version of Logan still be as good a kisser? That was a primary reason to enjoy his appearance all those years ago, and I have my doubts about this one. Tag line: he may have been a sociopath, but a damn good kisser.
I have only one complaint about this film (besides the kissing question): that it is a film and not a two-hour pilot for a briefly revamped series with a clear end date (say, 12 episodes). Director Rob Thomas certainly left enough openings for future work — the corrupt police force, etc. And with her knowledge of the law, this Veronica might be even more of a force to be reckoned with.
But I also have a lingering sense that this Veronica won’t take, and the important problem is the mythopoeic nature of high school in TV series. Something about a teen detective navigating poisonous social politics and corruption works in a way that a 30-year-old who’s passed the bar will not. As much as I enjoyed every minute of this film, with its cameos and repartee and that revived thing between Veronica and Logan: maybe it’s time to let it go, to let this be our swan song, that one-night/ high school reunion return to old friends, old flames.
Seriously, though: Piz? surely she could have found someone else by now. That’s just sheer laziness, Veronica. Think about the kissing.
This isn’t a terrible film. It’s basic heartwarming stuff, with great music and delicious-looking food layered on top. I, for one, appreciate a good food movie. And I like writer-director-star Jon Favreau well enough. I’m not going to tell you this is bad material.
What I am going to say that if I see one more film in which the ridiculously hot, fantastic woman is just waiting around for Señor Doofus to get his shit together — and their uniting is this badly plotted, I am going to lose it. (Spoiler alert.)
Yes, this is the woman — Sofia Vergara, for gods’ sake, she of the quickfire wit from Modern Family and improbably spectacular body — as Inez. And, that doofus-looking dude with the glasses? Yes, that’s a chef named Carl (Favreau), together with their son Percy. Not only are they now divorced, but Carl is a terrible father — perpetually late for his every-other-weekend visits, absent-minded, self-absorbed.
On some level perhaps it’s nice that the movies take pleasure in setting up spectacularly gorgeous individuals with very ordinary-looking ones; it gives all us ordinary people a chance to dream. Of course it would be nice if every once in a while the ordinary-looking partner were female rather than the reverse. Shall we review Carl’s appearance?
According to the film, Carl’s problem is the high-intensity world of first-class restaurants. So when he gets himself summarily fired because the restaurant’s owner (Dustin Hoffman, deliciously good in this role) just wants him to keep making the same old safe dishes for their customers. Long story short: Carl loses his shit on Twitter, buys a food truck, rediscovers his love of cooking, and re-bonds with his son. And oh yeah, he and Inez re-marry.
…which is my problem. That’s when my mild pleasure at the delicious food, great music, etc. came to a screeching halt. Whaddaya mean, they get remarried?
Problem #1: Inez has no personality, no character, no motivation. Hence, their remarriage doesn’t seem to serve any of her interests, because she has no interests.
Problem #2: The only hint we are given for their being re-interested in one another is that little Percy appears to desire it, at least insofar as one of those “Gee, Dad, I wish you lived at home again” lines gets thrown at Carl.
Problem #3: The only hint we are given that Carl might still love her is when he gets irrationally jealous that she may have slept with another man. This is not an attractive quality in a man.
Problem #4: The only purpose of her (gorgeous, spring-loaded) existence is to serve as a reward for Carl getting his shit together. (Why isn’t his reward just a renewed relationship with their son?)
Oh, did I forget to mention that Carl already has a kind of relationship with Scarlett Johansson, whereby he seduces her regularly with his spectacular food? So, yeah, Carl OF ALL PEOPLE seduces the hottest women in Hollywood right and left.
Ordinarily I might not pause in my crazy schedule for a film rant on this blog, except that — hello — we just witnessed yet another shooting, this one at UC Santa Barbara. And as we’ve all heard by now, this one was executed by a young man angry that women were not responding to his seduction techniques.
No wonder the UCSB shooter believed that women must either succumb or die: films like this one promise men that women are just available to them, always. There’s no reason why Carl and Inez need to re-marry at the end; his real life change consists in having bonded again with his son. Inez is just thrown in with the package, because … well, we know why, don’t we?
I’m so tired. No wonder I like North and South so much — those characters actually transform.
Oh yeah, and one other thing, from this site:
The ladies are coming over tomorrow for the conflict of social and economic mores that is North and South, and I’m planning to win over new converts. This has happened before.
(Because it is four hours long.)
So by the time the ending arrives, and fortunes have shifted, and new reconciliations made, we’ll all be full and happy and less inclined to think that the moody Thornton will likely make a difficult husband for Margaret, and that the stern and judgmental Margaret will closely resemble her mother-in-law.
We’ll just focus on that kiss. Ahh. Summer is here.
18 February 2014
Very mild spoiler alert. If you, like me, are waaayyyy too busy in your work life to binge-watch and have yet to start the new season, and you don’t want to know even the slightest thing about this first episode — well, you’ve been warned.
The season opener is just as chockablock as you might imagine — intrigue undertaken by ruthless people capable of 3-D chess — all of which makes you question whether you can stand watching this level of immorality within government and media organizations.
The one thing missing: those moments when Frank breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to us, sharing his scary brilliant philosophy.
But then, at the very end, as Frank gets dressed in front of the mirror, he says in that voice, “Did you think I’d forgotten you? Perhaps you wish I had,” and he explains exactly why he committed one of the most stunning plot turns of this episode.
What he says, of course, is chilling; because Frank Underwood (that’s F.U. to you) tells it like it is. And yet. This intimate moment is like all the other ones he shares with us: he takes off his mask, reveals his thinking, rationalizes his moves. But he also frames the whole thing in an elaborate metaphor that — well, when it comes flowing out of his mouth, with all those turns of phrase and that ballsy certainty, us viewers become implicated in the crimes.
How is it possible that when he peels back the safe-for-the-public face and speaks to me directly, Frank makes me feel … relief?
How delicious. Can I also say that Claire’s clothes (and moral ambivalence) are just as gorgeous and watchable as in Season 1? I can hardly wait for more.