MUBI: Curated platform for unique films

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A few weeks ago, I finally got around to signing up for MUBI after to meaning to for the last… five years or so. When I first read about it, it was basically a streaming video-on-demand service that focused on foreign/indie/arthouse films, some quite rare, and has since become a highly curated platform where only 30 films are available at one time. In a way, of course, I would love to have more selection but at the same time, this limited selection makes me watch things I might not otherwise choose for myself and eliminates the often oppressive and crippling feeling of having too much choice. In some ways I like that it is not just a repository the way Netflix is; when a film disappears from the site, who knows when or if it will become available again? MUBI has also negotiated a few exclusivity arrangements with partners and distributors so is likely to be the only, or one of the only, platforms where you will be able to see some of these films.

So far I’ve watched about five films (I have to be in the right mood and have real focus since most films are in languages I don’t know; therefore, I must read subtitles). I love it so far, although if I were still engaging in my normal “binge” habits, I would have raced through all 30 available films in a few days and been left without content, other than the new film put up on the site each day.

I know it’s not going to be the right choice for everyone – most of my friends and family are not really into the kinds of films that typify the MUBI stream. If you’re hungry for the independent and unusual, though, it’s a great place to start and find unusual films from the world over – effortlessly.

The Netflix foreign language queue

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For the first time in forever – in the entire history of my Netflix subscription (which dates back to the DVD-by-mail-only subscription of the pre-streaming days) – my queue is under 50 objects. It’s astounding to have whittled down the list by so much (two-thirds).

The problem now is that the only remaining items are mostly films in languages I don’t understand at all (Romanian, for example, such as the one I’m watching now – Tuesday, After Christmas) or languages I understand to varying degrees but still need to glance at subtitles now and again (the Spanish language, French language, etc.). Either way, almost none of what remains in the queue is mindless enough that I can just multitask the way I normally do with half-brain-dead English-language fare, such as the seven mind-numbing seasons of Gilmore Girls or the next hurdle, The West Wing, of which I had previously seen quite a lot but not all. Upon second viewing, I’m finding it annoying. It’s great that there are loads of interesting things to see, but they will require my near-full attention, and I am just not sure I am ready to commit (as is the case in so many aspects of my life).

Why I Changed My Mind: Matthew McConaughey

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I know I am not alone in having shifted my view on Matthew McConaughey in recent months. With the swift one-two punch of his performances in Dallas Buyers Club and, more importantly, HBO’s True Detective, it’s hard to ignore his shift. Half-naked king of the romcom for much of his career, coupled with what seemed like very little personality, McConaughey has always been easy to peg, apart from a few good turns in a few mostly overlooked earlier films (A Time to Kill, Contact, Amistad and Frailty spring to mind. These films touched the surface of what McConaughey might be capable of, but he did not go in that direction – or perhaps he did not get the opportunity to do so until later – confirming the idea that men become more interesting as they get older – at least for me).

His path to “career rebranding”, which some have referred to as his “McConnaissance”, is chronicled in a number of articles that actually point to McConaughey’s wife, crediting her influence for his recent choices – not pushing him but supporting him to make his own choices. I have given that concept a lot of thought (i.e. “Behind every great man is an even greater woman”). While something quite that extreme might not be completely the case, I have seen a lot of cases where a person (man or woman) can be more of a follower until someone who is totally supportive of them and their vision for themselves inspires them to lead their own way. Perhaps this grounding influence moved McConaughey out of the mindless and shirtless romcom arena, in the more thoughtful direction his current career has taken him. As the New Yorker article observes: “The McConaughey that we are getting now is casually weird and much darker than expected. He seems unshackled after decades of trying to be a matinée idol, an affable, guileless human glass of sweet tea.” What better way to describe it?

McConaughey’s roles in small, somewhat overlooked films (later in his career), such as Bernie, quietly propelled him in a new direction. Then with a powerhouse succession of small and large roles in Mud, Magic Mike, The Wolf of Wall Street (the only part of the movie I liked), he was well-primed to take people by surprise in the aforementioned Dallas Buyers Club and the great True Detective.

Considered, reconsidered: I can’t definitively say that I love and revere McConaughey as an actor, but he is the best thing in a great show (True Detective) – I was hooked immediately. I do hope this trend of interesting and unusual choices continues.

Sin-o-matic (Okay – cinematic is what I meant…) and middle-aged sex lives

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To accompany a stack of bureaucratic kind of stuff I needed to do this weekend but had been shuttling off to some dark corner for “another day”, I decided to watch a bunch of films (or half-watch, as was sometimes the case). Strangely when binge watching in that kind of succession, I don’t remember everything I watched. The other night I saw a decade-old Japanese film called Quill, about the life and training of a dog that went on to be a service dog (and its eventual death). I can only remark that the Japanese make fascinatingly weird movies and observations, and I am always astounded by how much Japanese I actually remember. (It is definitely a use-it-or-lose-it language, but its grammatical simplicity lends itself to quick recall – at least for me.)

As for today’s viewing, I cannot even remember what I watched. I remember In a World because it just finished now. I expected to hate it because Lake Bell normally grates on me hard – and a vehicle that is written and directed by and starred in by HER – could I expect something positive? Expect, no. But be pleasantly surprised – yes.

But what else? I was in and out of the house all day, doing these bureaucratic tasks and baking some muffins – meaning that the films weren’t really my priority. And there were some tv shows thrown into it just to mix things up (and mix up my memory). I saw a German film called Lore (since World War II stories so ably buoy one’s spirits…). And a French film called Sexual Chronicles of a French Family. And then… what? There was something earlier that completely slipped my mind until I was semi-immersed (when I was not in the middle of making a frittata, anyway) in the Sexual Chronicles film – the discussions on middle-aged (and older) sex lives made me feel a kind of strange melancholy, made me think a bit of a poem from Howard Nemerov (“Reading Pornography in Old Age”*) and then took me back a few hours to the film I had seen earlier in the day – Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini (one of his, if not the, last roles). They are two regular, divorced, middle-aged people navigating the dating world, which – by their portrayal – makes it look just as awkward and fraught with missteps as dating at every other stage in life (even if things start out auspiciously enough – as though they have both gotten past insecurities and issues that tripped them up in earlier life). Yes, middle-aged, divorced dating movies, despite the sweetness of this one and its charming, funny and self-deprecating dialogue, depress me.

Hmm. And that’s enough said.

I leave you in Nemerov’s capable hands.

*Reading Pornography in Old Age

Unbridled licentiousness with no holds barred,
Immediate and mutual lust, satisfiable
In the heat, upon demand, aroused again
And satisfied again, lechery unlimited.

Till space runs out at the bottom of the page
And another pair of lovers, forever young,
Prepotent, endlessly receptive, renews
The daylong, nightlong, interminable grind.

How decent it is, and how unlike our lives
Where “Fuck you” is a term of vengeful scorn
And the murmur of “sorry, partner” as often heard
As ever in mixed doubles or at bridge.

Though I suspect the stuff is written by
Elderly homosexuals manacled to their
Machines, it’s mildly touching all the same,
A reminiscence of the life that was in Eden

Before the Fall, when we were beautiful
And shameless, and untouched by memory:
Before we were driven out to the laboring world
Of the money and the garbage and the kids

In which we read this nonsense and are moved
At all that was always lost for good, in which
We think about sex obsessively except
During the act, when our minds tend to wander.

Why I Changed My Mind: Ben Affleck

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My ex-boyfriend and I were at the movies in Reykjavik once when a preview for the film Hollywoodland, which starred Ben Affleck, appeared. The text that flies across the screen in the beginning of films with an authoritative voiceover read: “Academy Award Winner Ben Affleck” and my then-beau, despite hating people who talk in movies, whispered, “What? Ben Affleck won an Oscar?” At the time it was for his co-writing of Good Will Hunting, but seeing this “news” disappointed the guy – how could Ben Affleck win an Oscar? (Long before Argo won for best picture – note the guy isn’t likely to win any acting awards.)

Ben Affleck has long been the butt of jokes – we are not the first to make them, but the joking days may be (at least close to) over. After a lot of poor role and film choices and very public relationships (most notably with Jennifer Lopez), Affleck put his head down, made some good choices, started directing, married Jennifer Garner and had a family. I also would argue that he is not someone who overreaches – I respect actors who choose roles that may challenge some perceptions about them and may challenge their own abilities, but not so far out there that they become totally unbelievable. Affleck never bites off much more than he can chew.

The reason I decided to write about him now, though, is that I read in Mother Jones about his upcoming Congressional testimony on Congo. I don’t really like the way the article defends Affleck’s so-called authority on the subject:

“It’s pretty easy to laugh at the idea of the one-time Gigli and Pearl Harbor star now lecturing senators on atrocities in Central Africa. But the Oscar-winning future Batman knows his stuff. He isn’t some celebrity who just happened to open his mouth about a humanitarian cause (think: Paris Hilton and Rwanda). The acclaimed Argo director has repeatedly traveled to Congo and has even met with warlords accused of atrocities.” (Italicized emphasis mine.)

This kind of statement makes it sound as though just showing up a few times and having a few meetings with warlords imparts expertise. How do we know that these warlords did not just meet with Affleck because they liked Gigli and Pearl Harbor – and they spent their meetings talking about that together? I also don’t want to discount his expertise – I don’t know whether he has any or what the depth of it is.

Compared to a lot of people being named as ambassadors to countries they have never visited (see The Daily Show’s hilarious take on the “diplomat buyers club”) and have no connection to or knowledge of, I’d say Affleck’s got a leg up. I would also venture to say that most of the Congressional members hearing testimony from Affleck or from the line-up of Central Africa/Congo experts know nothing about the subject, if anything, about Africa as a whole. Comparatively speaking, Affleck is bloody well an expert.

Considered, reconsidered – I used to think Ben Affleck was a joke – as an actor, entertainer and, had someone laughably suggested, as a “Congo expert”. As I stated, though, the guy does not overreach when it comes to his acting, seems to have a healthy sense of self and good sense of humor about who he is – and then “does the time” when it comes to serious issues in which he chooses to get involved – and bottom line – he really does not have to. I have a newfound respect for the guy and have come to appreciate some of what he’s done cinematically. Quite honestly, as well, any light we (or he) can shine on atrocities in DR Congo is also welcome.

Me, I am just happy to take a look at the DR Congo passport (again!)

Congo passport

Congo passport

 

Driven by film – at least it isn’t Danish

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When actors die suddenly, à la prolific and talented-beyond-words Philip Seymour Hoffman, I want to spend a lot of time focused on watching films – whether they include that actor or not. Just to enjoy the performances that exist.

When I get sad – for good reasons or no reason at all I am also tempted by sad movies (believing while watching the stories unfold that things could always be worse).

Yesterday, apart from watching a documentary on Mitt Romney (and see his whole Mormon family pray together), I watched The Hunt (Jagten). Great film – disturbing, great performance from Mads Mikkelsen and, in keeping with my preferred theme of “it could always be worse” – I can see that the story of a man falsely accused of child abuse is one such strand. Speaking and listening to Danish is the other such strand. Any language one speaks, s/he can console him/herself that at least it isn’t Danish.

Why I Changed My Mind: Julie Delpy

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Julie Delpy is, for lack of a better term, a real woman. A woman of many talents, not afraid to be herself, not afraid to be quirky. And not even afraid to be a bitch. When she was younger, it was hard to see things like Europa Europa, her guest arc on the TV hit ER or Trois Couleurs: Blanc and see her as anything but bitchy – her roles were sort of icy or manipulative in ways that made it hard to see her in any other light. And things like Before Sunrise with the generally overrated Ethan Hawke did not lend any charm – a favorite “romance” flick for Gen Xers, Before Sunrise, never appealed to me (like most Gen X pop-culture goalposts and anthems, such as Reality Bites – also with Hawke or Singles, which still does not make sense to me).

The subsequent nine-year intervals between sequels to Before Sunrise, though, have made the films Before Sunset and Before Midnight quite compelling – and I think this is all down to Delpy. Since I don’t get and have never gotten the Ethan Hawke thing (somehow he was the one in Dead Poet’s Society who was singled out for attention, when it was Robert Sean Leonard‘s passionate and tragic turn as Neil that got my attention. Or the passionate, do-anything-for-the-girl classic guy-with-crush performance of Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet. What did Ethan Hawke do in that movie that was so remarkable except defy authority and be the first to jump up on a desk at the end? Yet Ethan Hawke has been the movie star and these others have been “television actors” in popular and well-respected shows, such as House and The Good Wife (and no, I don’t mean that in the snide way Warden Gentles did in Arrested Development), I can only imagine that the load is carried in large part by Delpy.

After the aforementioned “cold” roles in her early career, followed by some missteps like Killing Zoe and An American Werewolf in Paris, I think I could be forgiven my rush to harsh judgment. None of this is to say that her talents went unrecognized – I never watched these films and believed she lacked talent or was just playing variations of herself. I just wondered how it was that she always played this aloof or sometimes misguided character (thinking here of her “Leni” in Europa Europa – she was passionate all right, but the passion was wholly devoted to producing children for Hitler’s “pure Germany”. Perhaps in hindsight I can applaud Delpy’s believability because that role had to have been hard to pull off).

My re-evaluation of Delpy began when I saw Before Sunset. Yeah, I know – I hated Before Sunrise but still had enough curiosity to see where Jesse and Celine (the characters) ended up. I like to torture myself this way, watching things I don’t like, listening to music I don’t like – perhaps just to remind me that there are other, much more beautiful things to watch and hear in the world. But Before Sunset surprised me. Later I saw Delpy in other roles but really decided I liked her after seeing Two Days in Paris (and later, the even funnier Two Days in New York). (I also enjoyed the on-screen keying of cars that Delpy’s father engages in – dismissing it as “normal French behavior” – exactly what I have been trying to tell everyone who isn’t French!) Her performances were subdued and grounded in reality – and that transformed the way I saw her and interpreted her roles.

The change in my opinion also came about because I liked learning that Delpy is so active behind the camera as a writer and director – I love the idea that someone creates the stories they want to see, or they want to appear in. I have read a few interviews where Delpy has kind of downplayed the uniqueness of being a female director, particularly because France actually has quite a number of well-respected, well-known women directors. But this is rather an anomaly in the cinematic world. Not every country has a Claire Denis, an Agnès Jaoui, a Catherine Breillat, a Josiane Balasko, a Mia Hansen-Løve and the countless other women who direct films in France. Delpy can, I hope, forgive the rest of the cinema-loving world for admiring the rarity of her multitasking, multitalented jack-of-all-trades approach to her artistic career.

My feelings should not be overly influenced by what I read or the person Delpy is or appears to be – but the truth is, reading about her own feelings of insecurity or feeling like “a cow” after her child was born – and seeing how she actually looks like a real woman – a stunningly beautiful and stunningly natural woman – imbues her performances with a kind of earthy reality that is not easily found, felt or seen elsewhere. I don’t often have commentary on how actors and actresses look. They are resoundingly “perfect” and put together most of the time, and the especially beautiful and polished are slathered in accolades if they do anything that might make them seem anything less than perfect. It’s like becoming a regular or slightly unattractive person makes a beautiful person an automatic consideration for acting awards. Is that really the measure of how well someone acts? How much vanity they are willing to give up – temporarily, note – to alter their appearance?

Not the point. The point is that Delpy actually looks and sounds the part (“the part” being a woman in her 30s/early 40s). Contributing to the scripts for both Before Sunset and Before Midnight, the conversation – content and pace – throughout feels almost dull at times but in a refreshing and good way. Why? Because that’s how real conversation is. Sometimes it digs into emotion, sometimes it digs into feelings and insecurities and vulnerabilities, sometimes it is witty, sometimes it is just the kind of petty shit that people hurl at each other in moments of weakness, despair, anger. It’s not perfect – but in that way, it’s perfect. A perfect reflection of everyday life. In Before Midnight, Delpy especially – but really the whole cast (which is mostly Delpy and Hawke) – captures, with almost no action – the up-and-down nature of a relationship. Before Sunrise was lauded for supposedly capturing this, but it’s easy to have two young, idealistic adults meet and talk all night and have it be the most romantic night of their lives. Before Midnight, though, is entirely another level of “romantic” because it had to capture two people who had actually idealized each other when they were young – it showed the reality of what happens if someone pursues the “what might have been” or “the one who got away”. It isn’t going to be ideal. If anything, the dialogue and performances convey perfectly the fragility of relationships. All the things unsaid, the resentment, the misinterpretations – and the question of whether love is ever really enough.

Why I Changed My Mind: Lucy Liu

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The other day I wrote a lot about Julianne Nicholson (and every time I write “Julianne” I am very tempted to write “Julianne Moore” since she springs to mind first) – which made me think a lot about the cast of Ally McBeal – one of the shows I have disliked most in my prolific television-viewing history. Many actors associated with the show earned my dislike simply because they were in the show. Some have redeemed themselves in other ways – at least partially – including Lucy Liu.

Lucy Liu has a long television history that I won’t recount. Her bit parts here and there in her early career were not memorable or offensive, but only worth mentioning to note that she has been around for a long time, paying her dues.

She has also been in a bunch of high-profile films, like Charlie’s Angels, which I could do without (even if I am quite sure she was, to use a phrase I would never use but am today, kick-ass in her role).  Perhaps more notable – and about when I started to change my mind about her – the Kill Bill films from Quentin Tarantino. Liu owned her role as O-Ren Ishii and is actually one of the more memorable parts of the Kill Bill series for me.

Another role that made me think twice was Liu’s presence in the musical Chicago. The first time I saw it, I hated it but sat through it anyway. Subsequent viewings have softened my feelings – and I have begun to appreciate it. Liu’s role as Kitty Baxter was not huge – but it was another that remains memorable.

I caught Liu’s roles in the inane Cashmere Mafia (not sure that one is forgivable), the sometimes very entertaining Dirty Sexy Money and ultimately a surprising role that I found quite redeeming, Officer Jessica Tang in the underappreciated cop drama, Southland.

Considered, reconsidered: Where I went from just appreciating Liu and feeling she had been fully absolved of her Ally McBeal and Cashmere Mafia guilt to actually really liking her has been her starring role in Elementary with Jonny Lee Miller. Her serenity and subdued smarts play well off Miller’s portrayal of the over-the-top mad genius, Sherlock Holmes. Liu embraces what has traditionally been a male role and turns it into something all her own in the Elementary version of this classic tale.

Why I Changed My Mind: Jamie Oliver

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In the overwhelming tidal wave of television chefs who show up everywhere, there are very few who interest me. I like to look back to the old days of TV cookery to the seemingly awkward Julia Child or the stark raving drunk Galloping Gourmet, Graham Kerr, filled the screen. Cooking on TV has always been a thing, often relegated to the domain of public television alongside quite tame “educational programming” (which was, fair enough, not always tame – most foreign films shown on American TV in the old days appeared on PBS – and those films are very rarely what anyone would call “tame”. After all, it was on PBS that I first saw the original version – not the inane Guy Ritchie/Madonna remake – of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away).

But things change, and everything is fair game as entertainment – even cooking. Enter the era of the celebrity chef, which arguably has made people a lot more interested in cooking stuff for themselves but has unfortunately launched some, let’s say, unqualified characters into stardom. Undeserved? Who knows? If someone wants to watch Rachael Ray, for example, who is a businessperson and entertainer – not a chef – and supremely annoying to boot – that’s up to them. These celebrity “food handlers” (since they are not chefs in many cases) entertain, bring in viewers and that’s the bottom line now that there are entire TV channels devoted to all manner of food, cooking, taking shortcuts in cooking and so on.

Most of these people – I can take them or leave them. Jamie Oliver is one that I could – or thought I could – easily leave. His accent alone bugs me (just for Esteban: “the shit just got reaw” – not even sure how to linguistically render in writing the dropped-off “L” at the end of words so characteristic of Oliver’s speaking), but then the messiness of his approach to food – always getting his hands deeply dug into all kinds of greasy, slimy foods – even to the point that he advocates wearing gloves to do it sometimes – makes me a bit queasy. I can’t pinpoint what exactly it is that annoys me. Even going to the grocery store and seeing his line of pastas and spices and whatnot – that is just too much. The overcommercialization does very little for me. Why would I buy a Jamie Oliver skillet when I can get a much cheaper and superior cast iron skillet and be happier with it? Personally when I buy kitchen goods, I don’t want any pseudo-celeb’s face on it. I will stick with the basics (even if there are times when tools that go beyond the basics and are extremely useful, even if singular in their use – like garlic presses or a “cupcake holer”. I am usually a firm believer in the “for every task, there is a proper tool” school of thought).

For those frequent cupcake-filling emergencies

For those frequent cupcake-filling emergencies

But I will be damned if I don’t get pulled in every time I accidentally end up on a Jamie Oliver program on TV. I don’t even own a TV at home, so these accidents rarely occur. But because I spend most weekday evenings in hotels, I’ve got a wide range of channels – and twice in the last year, I’ve landed on Jamie Oliver shows and found myself glued to the TV. After he finished each recipe, I prompted myself, “Change the channel, damn you!”

But I was paralyzed. And why? Truth is – he was making stuff that sounded really amazing. Believe me, I don’t use the word “amazing” lightly because I believe it is one of the most overused and misused words in the English language. When someone tells me it would be “amazing” if I could make a tight deadline or deliver a box of cookies for their party, I think “amazing” is definitely overstating the case. But when you can create something that really wows the taste buds without overexerting yourself or spending all day doing it – that IS amazing. I am positively gobsmacked every time I can manage to cook actual food that really amazes someone.

The first Jamie Oliver program I saw (Jamie’s Great Britain, which was a fascinating look at food in Great Britain, in case anyone imagined that food there completely sucks!) featured roasted chicken and potatoes – I have now made both several times to great success, albeit with my own little alterations.

Yesterday, I turned on the telly and it was a program (Jamie at Home) dedicated to pumpkin and squash – be still my heart. He really highlighted the versatility of these kinds of vegetables – making an absolutely fantastic butternut squash soup, a duck and pumpkin salad and some butternut squash spice walnut cupcakes. Naturally I am going to try this stuff out next time I have a guest to feed. I don’t get around to cooking for myself but for others, I will go all out.

Considered, reconsidered – the important thing here is maybe that I can find Jamie Oliver annoying until the end of time, but what he does turns on my culinary curiosities and experimental bent – so he is definitely doing something right. The fact that the recipes are easy to follow and he makes them look easy if you follow a few steps does not hurt – and the results have always exceeded expectations.

Why I Changed My Mind: Minnie Driver

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During my recent headache-inspired film-viewing overdose, I randomly decided to see the film The Governess, starring Minnie Driver and Tom Wilkinson.

While some actors, actresses, musicians or writers strike me the wrong way right off the bat (and I later change my mind), I have no rational explanation for why I decided I did not like Minnie Driver. It was not her performances (all of which were superb, right from the beginning, e.g. Circle of Friends, or one of my all-time favorites, Big Night). There was just something about her that rubbed me the wrong way. Many actors I have disliked and about which I later changed my mind evolved or grew more into themselves, which explains the evolution of my opinions about them. It might not even be about their performances or their aging gracefully into different roles so much as it is about the roles they are actually offered.

But none of this was applicable to Ms Driver. Unlike someone like Kim Dickens, about whom I changed my mind, I did not groan to myself if I knew Driver was in a film – I still watched and enjoyed it. For a while she seemed to be everywhere and showed a great range – period pieces, drama and humor, smaller parts to leading roles, and eventually film to television. Arguably she is a bigger star than most of the people I sat on the fence (and eventually jumped to one side or the other) about – a fact that made her harder to avoid, had I wanted to.

It was not until I saw her in the underrated TV show The Riches (which itself was something I avoided during its original run) that I began to respect the depth of her talent. I think a lot of people sort of fell in love with her when they saw her in Good Will Hunting, but for me, I guess I could have fallen in love with her work, so to speak, much earlier if I had really been paying attention. Her work in the aforementioned Big Night was subtle and insightful, her turn as Debi in Grosse Pointe Blank was believable (in the most broad and comprehensive way – “believable” makes it sound like it was barely passable, when in fact I mean the opposite). Later her memorable TV appearances proved that she was also not afraid to make fun of herself and to make fun in general (Will & Grace in particular, but also more recently in Modern Family).

Considered, reconsidered – being in the public eye and putting oneself out there for the world to see, while a choice, is a vulnerable act. Actors are scrutinized constantly, so the armchair criticism of someone like me – on an individual level – does not matter much. But on the whole, if exposed to this constant criticism en masse – I cannot imagine it’s fun. The public’s – and fandom’s – taste is fickle.

That said, Minnie Driver has been delivering top-notch performances all along.