"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016)

It's got an amazing cast, each of whom I absolutely adore. The director directed some of them in Bridesmaids, which is absolutely hilarious. The editors were responsible for 40-Year-Old Virgin and Anchorman, two favourites. But don't slam me as anti-feminist when I say this is a horrible movie, and I wonder if it got 73% on Rotten Tomatoes because reviewers were wary of giving a bad review.

There are a few great scenes, but it all falls apart. Kate McKinnon (whom I think was channelling Quicksilver, but my kids don't see it) does a dance that could have been funny, but it's almost painful to watch her exchange with Kristen Wiig. It's not the acting, but that it's filmed oddly so they feel like they're in different rooms, as if they filmed all their lines one at a time, then meshed them into a scene together. There were many times the film had a strange, filmed-by-high-school-kids type of feel to it, which is what prompted me to actually look up the editors.

This genre of film is right up my alley, except I cringe at ridiculous incompetence disguised as humour (Chris Hemsworth being baffled by glass or how to answer a phone or the difference between his eyes and ears - actually). The homage to the original was heavy-handed. Some of the cameos were worth the two minutes of film, but others were wasted. The remake of the title song was painful, and the much-hyped heavy metal concert scene was positively bland, Ozzy's micro-appearance notwithstanding. Who goes to a concert at four in the afternoon? The action scenes felt plodding. And then it all ended in the middle of a boring sibling argument over a car. No final joke. It just panned out to credits with some non-funny 'bonus' bits that are now to be expected.

Despite passing the Bechdel Test (among others), it didn't feel like a feminist celebration. This is making the rounds on Twitter, and it's far funnier than the movie it describes:


There's an awkward sub-plot that shifts the genders on the stereotype of bosses hiring a ditzy secretary for a little eye candy at the office. Maintaining a sexist trope but switching the genders doesn't make it any less sexist or offensive, or, in this case, any less dumb and annoying. The film doesn't have to solve all the problems with sexism, but it would be nice if it didn't add to them. That sub-plot wasn't part of the original film. Annie Potts was sexy, but she was no bimbo.

I wonder, though, if we're so excited to have a female version of a male film, that we're wary to say anything wrong about it, especially in the face of the kind of criticism it received before it was even released because of the female leads. We need movies like this to prove a point, that they can be good. And they can be, it's just this one isn't. And that's okay. There are an awful lot of movies with amazing male actors that are completely unwatchable. It happens. And the small but vocal faction that is obsessed with denigrating anything female-driven just needs to be eye-rolled into oblivion.

Some women have argued that every feminist should be supporting Hillary, but it's not feminist to vote for just any woman or to blindly support anything a woman does. It's feminist to support the principles that will erode inequality and oppressive stereotypes. Having female leads isn't enough to make a film feminist, or for this feminist to suggest anyone see this film. Ever

Fractured Land

I went to see this at the Perimeter Institute last night, and was so excited to meet the star of it, Caleb Behn, Eh-Cho Dene and Dunne-Za hunter, fisher, activist, and lawyer. Unfortunately, he cancelled. It was disappointing, but the film made it clear that he's a seriously busy guy! It was worth going to see the film anyway.



It's a perfect film for my Native Studies class. It brings in the notion of a split identity, of the relationship with the environment, the need to regain legal control over the areas being destroyed, and the challenge of putting it all together.

Behn's parents are polar opposites: his dad endured the residential school system and spoke at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and his mom is the highest ranking female executive at an oil and gas company. He's trying to cope with a system that destroyed his people, and she's trying to change the system from within. They divorced when Behn was ten, which he refers to as the first great break in his life.

The film lets us dwell on some beautiful scenery juxtaposed with concerns about checking game for contamination before eating it and the quickly dwindling number of animals to hunt. Behn lives in Northeastern B.C., land covered by Treaty 8, and the third largest hydrocarbon deposit in BC. It took 88 years to turn the pristine land into an industrial wasteland. The area is rife with cancers and birth defects.

The bulk of the film is about the treaty obligation required of any corporation or government entity to consult with Indigenous peoples on any action that could impede their rights. But they reveal that most of the consultations were for show, a quick by-the-way long after all the paperwork was completed with little in the way of real information provided to allow impacted groups to make an informed decision. Behn's grandfather commented that the government "makes the words dance on paper."

At this point one gets the sense that it's all so much about money and greed. The energy corporations rubber stamp the consultation and, in one historic day, they were able to make $476,000,000. Fracking is facilitating a new land rush. Behn relates, "They came for the trees, then the gold, the fur, the children, the oil, and now the gas." The government propaganda ads suggest that washing a car near the roadway is worse for the groundwater than pumping chemicals and fresh water down 2.5 km for the shale gas, leaving behind tailing ponds that end up back in the water system. The oil and gas company activities are regulated by their own industry. And LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) is being targeted for international markets in Asia. It's not about the jobs; it's about the fortunes they'll make. The attitude is one of getting not just what we need to survive, but as much as we possibly can - in the words of Rich Coleman, "to win this race before the rest of the world." Except the faster we extract, the faster we destroy our own land.

The film brought in many voices to add to Behn's experiences. Hydrologist Gilles Wendling explained that nobody has clearly examined exactly where the waste water goes. Dr. Robert Howarth, Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology at Cornell warned that LNG emissions will soon rival the tar sands. An industry spokesperson from CAPP suggested that gas below the earth is a gift from the creator, and she explained that the industry will shut down a fracking site in a minute if there's any problems - except they never have despite all the many concerns raised. If they destroy the headwaters of the Tahltan River, they will destroy everything downstream.

Little Tahltan River

Behn had only positive things to say about the good heart of the people working on the ground in the industry. It reminded me of Julia Butterfly Hill, two years up a tree to save it from logging, explaining how fond she grew of the loggers, reminding us that we need to change the system, not demonize the players:




But many of the workers on fracking sites are itinerant who move on after 4-6 weeks to another of the 28,000 wells in B.C. The landscape is disappearing under the weight of one proposal after another, a death by 1,000 cuts.

Behn was able to speak at a moratorium on fracking and realized, "If we get this dialogue wrong, things will be very very dangerous in our territory." His speech was well-received, but then they moved on to the next item on the agenda. "There's so much more to politics than speeches and young people raising their voices." It's hard to get our heads around the slippery inner workings of the system.

The film also raised some interesting psychological issues about suffering, authenticity, and the burden of fame. Behn was born with a cleft palate, and he believes it made him more empathetic towards others. I've often commented to classes about the number of famous activists who were raised with some type of early hardship. Behn suggests it's good to have suffered: "Sometimes pain can be good." Personal pain can open our hearts to others in a way that might not be reached if we've never been a little cracked. Behn grapples with his own authenticity as he recognizes the benefits he's had from having a mom in this lucrative industry. And some of the Indigenous protesters insist that "you can't tear down the master's house with the master's tools" because he has a law degree from their universities. There's a split between the old traditions and modern day culture that's hard to bridge. And Behn is startlingly honest discussing his new fame as an activist, how girls made themselves available and he didn't always act honourably: "Relationships are the clearest expression of my failures as a man." The film did a brilliant job of getting us to really understand the complex experience of fractured people, of all of us.

I didn't leave the film feeling any better about the world, but I felt less alone in the fight, and really really lazy for the pittance I offer compared to the men and women on the front lines.


Before the Flood

First of all, I love that this Leo DiCaprio film, directed by Fisher Stevens, was free to watch everywhere on the National Geographic Channel for a while. But if you missed it, here's the gist of it.

Without ads, it's 90 minutes, jampacked with information. The pacing is good, and that's key. I can't help comparing it to Josh Fox's film, because there are marked similarities - both feature one man, a passionate novice in the field, talking a little too much about himself as he flies around the world narrating his learning experience through listening to a variety of experts - many of the same experts even - as he aims to get some kind of a hopeful conclusion. But Leo's film works so much better. It helps that he has funds and connections - where Fox had footage from drones, DiCaprio had footage from space - and that he's a much better orator and has an incredible cinematography crew (and it doesn't hurt that Trent Reznor did the music), but what Stevens and DiCaprio got from the interviews and what they did with the material, the basic trajectory of the film, is what nails it as the superior vehicle to inspire positive change. In 2000, DiCaprio interviewed President Clinton on Earth Day, and they talked about the need for citizens to use better lightbulbs. He recognizes we're getting nowhere with that kind of rhetoric, and he does a good job at getting at the big picture quickly.

DiCaprio frames the film with a discussion of Hieronymus Bosch's famous triptych: The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is timely as Bosch died 500 years ago this year and you can take a really interesting, brief online tour of the work. The painting hung over DiCaprio's crib as a child. My parents were wary about giving me a book of his work when I was about ten. It's pretty disturbing for a little one, depicting our deal with God, our fall from grace, and the hell that awaits us for all our sins.



He also starts and ends the film at the United Nations as he took on the role of the UN Messenger of Peace with a focus on climate change back in 2014 when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarked, "If this boat is sinking, then we will all have to sink together." And then he gets moving. Here's a very brief summary of pertinent remarks made with each place or person interviewed:

ALBERTA, CANADA
Michael Brune of the Sierra Club explained how the economy is based on fossil fuels: oil for transportation and coal and gas for electricity. We're going to more extreme sources now with mountaintop removal, fracking, offshore drilling, and the tar sands - the most devastating way to produce fossil fuels that poisons miles of rives and land and requires the clear-cutting of the boreal forests. On a copter flying over the sands, DiCaprio said "It looks like Mordor," which is exactly what Maude Barlow said about it. He started shooting The Revenant in Alberta, but they had to move to Argentina because there wasn't enough snow in the winter in Canada.


BAFFIN ISLAND, CANADA
Dr. Enric Sala of the National Geographic and Jake Awa, their arctic guide, looked at the sea ice and watched the narwhals passing by. The arctic is the air conditioner for the northern hemisphere, and by 2040, we'll be able to sail over the North Pole, unencumbered by icebergs and all that snow.

GREENLAND
Professor Jason E. Box, a climatologist, thinks our projections are conservative and Greenland will be gone in a few decades if we stay on our current path. He showed DiCaprio how a climate station works and that it just looks like broken down pool equipment.

FLORIDA
Mayor Philip Levine suggested we bring all the unconverted to Miami so they can see first hand the "sunny day flooding" they get randomly. It's taken $400 million of taxpayer money for a pump project to keep the city out of water, and that will just buy them 40 years of time before they'll have to leave. Yet officials in Florida are banned from discussing climate change thanks to the work of Rick Scott and Marco Rubio.

WALL STREET
Michael Mann, an American climatologist, says we have as strong a scientific agreement on climate change as we do on gravity. There's opposition because of politics, lobbying, and industry creating a massive disinformation campaign. Scientists are vilified and attacked by congressmen. Mann has received death threats, an FBI investigation, and threats to his family. The lobbyists don't have to win a legitimate debate; they just have to divide the public enough for them to stay their course.

Front groups funded by the Koch brothers ensure all legislation supports fossil fuel interests. They're doing everything they can to protect that wealth. They own the house of representatives, with James Inhofe, the snowball dude and the largest recipient of Koch funding in the Senate, receiving $1,837,427. These people are engaged in an effort to lead us astray in the name of short term fossil fuel profits. These companies have invested all their money in one basket, and they're not going to let anything happen to it. And they control the government through cash flow. Check out this 30 minute documentary if you want more info on the Koch Brothers' War on Climate Science.


CHINA
Ma Jun, at the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, explained that China has surpassed the US as number one polluter because the pollution of the world's industry is all dumped there since we've outsourced all our factory work. They want to hold power plants accountable, and have made a cool national pollution map database that makes all emissions public, transparent, and updated hourly. They won't let companies operate in the dark. But this was only possible because China's media talked about it constantly. It motivated China's policy of green growth.

NEW DELHI, INDIA
Sunita Narain, at the Centre for Science and Environment, explained that the biggest problem in India is poverty, so energy access is as big an issue as GHGs. There are 300 million people without any form of power generation; they burn cow dung to cook on. Finance Secretary Ashok Lavasa, said that they need electricity to be affordable and coal is cheap. But if they all start using it, then the entire world will be fried. One US citizen uses as much energy as 34 Indian citizens, and lifestyle consumption has to be at the centre of the discussion. Sunita explained that if the US will shift to solar and wind, if they lead the way in turning their back on the fossil fuel industry, then everyone will follow. But DiCaprio lamented that it's just not going to happen. It's a fossil addicted country. So then India won't do it either. Here's the thing: if a wealthy country can't find a way to stop using harmful energy sources, then the poor countries look at that and don't see why they should bother. The sacrifice is so much greater for the poorer countries, but the rich countries aren't going to bend on this. So we're screwed. The rich can withstand the first hits of climate change, but the poor are already impacted today. Only the poor really see that it's real and it's urgent.

PACIFIC ISLANDS
Anote Tong, President of Kiribati, regularly deals with severe flooding into fresh water ponds so there's no drinking water on the island. Soon they'll be underwater. They're trying a policy of migration with dignity: they bought land and are offering to relocate people away from the coast by choice. But the reality is that they won't be able to accommodate all their people. Tommy Remengesau, President of Palau, showed an area that was a community just a decade ago, but is completely gone. Small island nations contribute the least to climate change and feel the worst impacts.

ECOSYSTEMS
Jeremy Jackson, PhD, an American marine ecologist, says that what we've done to the rest of the world is criminal. We're reversed half a billion years of evolution by destroying ocean areas that once were dominated by abundance. They went underwater to look at areas with dead coral reef. In the last 30 years, 50% of all coral has been lost. Oceans are a stabilizing force, but they can't take in CO2 as quickly as we're producing it. Lindsey Allen of the Rainforest Action Network says we're taking away ecosystems that normally help us stabilize climate by clearcutting and slash and burning rainforests. Farwiza Farhan, HAkA Chairperson, flew over the fires in Sumatra, Indonesia. They were intentionally set in order to make way for rows and rows of palm oil tress. It's the last place in the world with elephants, tigers, rhinos, and orangutans living together, but palm oil has taken over 90% of the forest land. Ian Singleton, PhD, runs a sanctuary to try to save them. The animals he doesn't save, die.  (Leo and Fisher almost died filming the fires.)


So, we can't seem to stop people from buying these products, and we can't seem to get the government to stop the companies from destroying the land. What else can we do?

How stupid are we that we can't see the connection between our constant consumption of these products and the destruction of the environment, or, at the very least, the destruction of animal habitat directly leading to significant extinctions?? Buy what you need, not everything you want, and stay low on the production chain.


HOW TO TURN IT AROUND??

Professor Gidon Eshel, PhD in environmental physics at Bard College, says the easiest and most important thing we can do is to change our diet. Tonight. The foremost reason for deforestation is beef, which is an inefficient form of food. 70% of agricultural land in the US is for cattle feed. And cows produce methane, CH4, which is 20 times worse as a GHG than CO2. It's great if you can go vegan, but it helps even to change from beef to chicken. And that's something we can all do immediately.

Elon Musk, CEO of Spacex, a Tesla Gigafactory, has made battery storage a priority. He built a Giga factory that can create power with just solar and wind. We just need 100 gigafactories to power the entire world. It's very manageable. We just need a few industrial companies to do the same thing and we'll get there very quickly.

Gregory Mankiw, Professor of Economics at Harvard, says we need a hefty carbon tax on any activity that puts carbon in the atmosphere to nudge people in the direction of doing the right thing.

BUT, my concern with this argument is that when cigarettes are taxed, people don't stop buying them. They need to get cancer to stop smoking, not a price hike. They need to see the direct consequences of their behaviour before they'll change. A gradual rise in price doesn't affect us enough. Maybe if it's a huge increase very quickly we'll actually change. We need a carbon tax that will affect industry enough to change their practices, not citizens.

Then he went on to explain the flow of power. When Obama first started he wouldn't support gay marriage because it polled terribly. But once the people got on board, he supported it. Politicians aren't elected leaders; they're elected followers. They'll say whatever the public will support. So we just need to get the public to really understand how this all works!

John Kerry, Secretary of State, says the Paris negotiations are different because Obama was able to announce his intentions to reduce with Beijing. The two largest emitters made a public declaration to reduce, which is a huge statement. The concern in the interim is that people are being displaced and there will be wars over water, and any extremist philosophy will appeal to a desperate people.

Johan Rockstrom, Stockholm Resilience Centre, says we're moving quickly towards 4° warming in this century, and we haven't been at those temperatures in 4 million years. We're moving faster than predicted and seeing impacts already. At 3° warming, regions will become unlivable and agriculture will collapse. We're hitting feedback loops where the melted ice leaves behind dark earth that absorbs more of the sun's rays. We have a really small window for world leaders to fix it. It can be done, though. Germany is at 30% renewable power, and Denmark is using 100% wind. Once we invest in it, then we have free energy forever.

BUT, I think this is the whole stopper for investors. It doesn't make financial sense to invest in something people will just need to buy once. If we can't get out of our current growth economic mindset, then we'll never survive.

Barack Obama says the Paris summit is a massive step forward, but there's no enforcement and we just have to take it on faith that each country will hit its own targets. It's historic because each country is locked into targets, so the architecture is in place. But we have to have increasingly ambitious targets for the next twenty years.

BUT - the next twenty years?!? That's way too gradual a change! We really don't have twenty years to get to the targets that we should be imposing today. Will Hilary have big enough balls to do what's necessary? Could anyone stand up the the money infiltrating congress through corporations? Which leaders will actually, for real, fight climate change when it means cutting their own funds?

Dr. Piers Sellers, an astronaut and director at the Earth Sciences Division, NASA, with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, says the science community hasn't done the best job of communicating the threat to the public. It's like an ant trying to understand an elephant by crawling around it. From space we can see everything and how it all works together. There are satellites looking at every aspect of earth every day. Their climate simulation tool shows the biggest impact will be the slowing of the gulf stream which will stop the transportation of heat to Europe, so it will get much colder there, and the moving of the precipitation belt, so there will be more drought in hot areas. This is going to fuel conflict in Darfur and Syria. It will make the US dustbowl much drier in the next decades.

The facts are crystal clear, but there are ways out of it. We have to stop burning fossil fuels right now. We need the people to come out of the fog of confusion with the issues, realistically appreciate the threat, and get on with it. 

Pope Francis says this is our home; it is going to ruin. Our common home has fallen into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point. He made a call for action to stop global warming and poverty, to accept the modern science of climate change. We must speak out as loudly as we can and immediately take action. 

Leo DiCaprio's address to the United Nations: We have the means to stop the devastation, but lack the will. We must go beyond the promises of the agreement with no more excuses and studies and manipulation by fossil fuel companies. The world is watching. We'll either be laudified or vilified. It's up to all of us.







How to Let Go of the World

I was really looking forward to seeing the latest Josh Fox film on fracking. I loved Gasland (for which Mark Ruffalo was just added to the US Terror Advisory List for promoting), and then Chris Hedges gave this film a nod, which means a lot to me. And then one reviewer wrote that the film will "restore your faith that we, as a people, have the power to save ourselves." Exactly what I need. So I bought it on iTunes and settled in for some enlightenment.

Maybe my expectations were a smidge too high.

It fell into the same problems that made Rob Stewart's films less than stellar. In Sharkwater, Stewart had long dramatic interludes focusing on himself and the problems he experienced being unwittingly thrust into activism. And then in Revolution, he spoke at length about beginning to learn about the environment. At least Stewart, near the end, seemed to recognize the part he himself was playing in exacerbating climate change with all the air travel the film required. Did it really require it, is the question. Stewart starts asking himself some really hard questions, which I respect. Fox doesn't go there.

Like Stewart, Fox is just learning - or, at least, he presents the appearance of just learning about climate change. He's been in this a while, so I can't imagine he doesn't get the big picture yet, and I'm really not a fan of the technique of feigning ignorance to get people on board. It feels like he hadn't done any research before the shoot so we could watch him discover what it is to "eat from the tree of knowledge, and now there's no going back." I want a documentary to tell me something I don't know, and tell me with confidence. I want a climate change doc, especially, to tell the world everything they need to know to get with the program. There were too many shots of Fox walking through forests in awe of nature - look at that spider! and that tree! and that bird! Even worse, most of those shots weren't of the forest, but of Fox looking at the forest. We were to be enthralled by his wonder at nature, not by nature itself. If he were my son, this would be my favourite movie ever. But he's not.

That gets to the bigger problem here: that this film is way too focused on Fox to be compelling to anyone who isn't related to him or doesn't have a crush on him. It starts with a painfully awkward dance to show how happy he is that a river nearby won't be polluted with oil. It was a hard-won victory, and I get the celebratory tone, but there are other ways to show joyfulness without forcing us to watch a guy dance in his living room for the entire opening credits. He finds it helpful to cope with tragedy by playing the banjo. That's really nice for him, but it's doesn't necessarily translate to helping us cope by listening to him play.

Like Stewart, Fox does it all, and sometimes it's better to spread the jobs around a more talented pool. His narration is stilted, with long dramatic pauses mid-sentence throughout. There aren't rises and lulls in the intensity of his tone; it's all drama all the way through: "Just a few months later.  New York City.  Was about to get.  A wake-up call."  Couple that with a really quiet voice juxtaposed with sudden bursts of loud extended musical interludes meant my finger hovered on the volume the whole time. He had some great footage from a camera strapped to a drone, and he had the cash to film in twelve different countries, but he didn't spring for a steadicam, so much of the tromping through the forest had a Blair Witch effect.

He collected the usual litany of talking heads: Bill McKibben, Michael Mann, Elizabeth Kolbert...  but only for a few minutes each. If I had the chance to chat with Elizabeth Kolbert, I'd have so many more questions to ask. She's got a wealth of knowledge that was largely ignored. And the McKibben interview was in a food court, and they decided to include their argument with mall security about filming in the mall. I struggle to see the purpose of that clip - why they'd choose a food court to film in, and why they'd choose to highlight the conflict. Is it to mirror the pipeline protests? A corporation vs citizen struggle? He was just a security guard doing his job. Weird.

He threw in some stats about increasing weather events, rising sea levels, endangered animals, factory farms, ocean acidity, threatened protesters, that the window to slow the expected 2° rise by 2036 closes within a year from now (NASA thinks we may have already hit 2°), and that all our 40-year-old pipelines are going to break. He referred to the Amazon rainforest as the lungs of the world even though the oceans create significantly more oxygen. Standard stuff. But a few of his poignant pieces of information were learned by most of us in grade three: "People. And animals. Exhale carbon dioxide. Trees. Take in. Carbon dioxide."

What I learned? To make a good documentary, you really have to get over yourself and your personal learning experience and make the subject matter the star of the show. Read some Monbiot before you start shooting so you don't sound like you've never heard of any of this before, and so you can temper your amazement at what's being shared. A lot of it is old news to anyone remotely familiar with the issues, like that Republicans don't think climate change is caused by human activity. Even better, read the IPCC reports that came out in 2014.

As far as learning basic information about climate change, there are better films to watch to understand all the meetings leading up to Paris. Like this one at only 4 minutes:



And then Grist also explained what happened in Paris, but in much more positive terms than Fox:



So his big question, the big draw to the film, is the focus on what won't be destroyed by climate change. His thesis is that we'll still have courage and creativity and resilience and all sorts of other wonderful human attributes that should be celebrated. But, I think we won't have any of those if we don't have any humans left. This is where some knowledge of Naomi Klein's and Gordon Laxer's plans for change would have helped add some substance to his song and dance. He's struggling with how to cope with all the knowledge, but he hasn't gotten far enough in depth in his own journey to have us walk with him. He seems to want to escape rather than actually cope with the reality of it all - to actually feel that reality.

By comparison, a much better film on the complexity of coping with the environmental destruction in our own backyard is Fractured Land with Caleb Behn. Both Behn and Stewart were willing to question their own motives and involvement in a way that Fox skirts around, refusing to acknowledge, which leaves his film feeling superficial at best. And of the three filmmakers, Behn's film offers the most complex understanding of the situation and leaves you with the most hopeful spirit. We can't have real hope if we distract ourselves with music in the face of significant loss. We have to have a clear path to walk to help make it okay.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Truth is Like Poetry

... and people fucking hate poetry.

It's a line from the excellent film The Big Short, which is brought to us by Adam McKay, the director known for goofball comedies like Anchorman and Step-Brothers. But it's nothing like that. At all.

It's listed on IMDB as "Biography, Drama," but it has its funny moments. It's really a rare form of docudrama. It could be used for a flipped class in economics. Star-studded, the actors break the fourth wall from time to time to explain what really happened. And, even better, to help us grasp the essentials of complex subjects like derivative trading and synthetic funds, they use celebrities to act out analogies in mini-seminars throughout the story.

You can get essentially the same story from Inside Job, but nobody wants to see a bunch of talking heads explaining how the market collapsed. Instead of watching real people talk about real events that they experienced first hand, we want to see actors bring some colour and staging to it all. Curious, but there it is. And it really works!  People will see this and understand. Well... they'll understand more than they did two hours earlier.

It's similar to what happened with Trumbo, a 2007 documentary, and Trumbo, a 2015 drama. People will watch the latter because of the stars in it. Except the former documentary is significantly better entertainment.

Ryan Gosling as Jared Vennett (Greg Lippmann)
Steve Carell as Mark Baum (Steve Eisman)











Christian Bale as Michael Burry

In The Big Short, the actors are perfectly cast, but what's particularly impressive is that they carried out the mission to create an engrossing vehicle for a very upsetting message that so many knew about and chose to ignore or actively bury with pleas like:  "Could you please stop being such a buzzkill, dude?"

Now if McKay could do it again for climate change....


ETA this link "debunking" the film (h/t Larry). The article clears up some aspects of the film, but I put debunking in quotes because the article takes the film to task for making these men out to be heroes saving the day. I didn't think they were portrayed that way at all. I thought it was pretty clear they were also con men taking advantage of, what they hoped was, the stupidity of certain players in the system. At one point, Vennett clarifies that he's no hero. And although Baum waited to trade his shorts until the very end, and even though he seemed to feel badly about it, he still did it knowing, very clearly at this point, that he was also part of the problem. They were heroes the way Newman and Redford were heroes in The Sting. They were conning the cons, but they were still clearly immoral themselves. It's just fun to watch them in action.

ETA another criticism. I'd say the errors listed in this one are errors of omission rather than inaccuracies. When I saw it, I noticed they don't get into the shift in governmental policies starting in the early 70s. It might be too much to ask in a film that passes the 2 hour mark, but it would have been amazing from a teaching p.o.v.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Ending 2015 With a Flurry of Films

I just wrote a comment on a blog that suggests that The Hateful Eight, a neo-spaghetti western with a damsel in need of rescue, is all about hate. Here's my response (You can see a longer analysis here, but there be spoilers):
I saw it twice now - I'm a big Tarantino fan. From a plot p.o.v. it's clearly tied to Django, but I think the style is more reminiscent of From Dusk to Dawn (which he wrote but didn't direct - so it doesn't count in his tally). He gave a brief interview in which he explained that the movie started as a continuation of Django, but then he decided to change the character to remove any hero in the film to ensure the film is devoid of a moral centre.  
I didn't pick up on hatred as a primary theme, however, despite the title. It felt more to me about a discussion of justice. They each have a personal moral code, although some waver more than others. There isn't one who stands out as the good guy in the bunch, but the film explores their reasoning behind their actions and allows each character's motives to be understood. The murders are either a means to enact a sense of justice or a mere necessity in furthering their own survival or that of a loved one (using the term 'love' loosely). When the original gang get to Minnie's, they don't kill the lot out of hatred - they feel no ill-will towards the women whose deaths are quick and relatively painless - but as a necessary step in their plot to save one of their own. Couldn't that be called an act of love?
Despite my second viewing, I didn't actually love the film as much as some of his others, well, all of his others. It's got some superb acting, and I agree with the hate-themed blogger that Jennifer Jason Leigh steals some of the pivotal scenes. Her quiet little grin speaks volumes. Many of the characters have likeable aspects and moments when they charm the viewer. But it's a movie about patience, and it's not just the characters who need it. It's a really long, claustrophobic film, for better or worse. I'd give it a B+, but do go see it.


The New Yorker links it to The Revenant. I had read much about the extremes Di Caprio had to endure to film this. He was excellent in it. There are some amazing, gut-wrenching scenes, but I didn't care enough about him to be fully engaged in the film. I wasn't emotionally affected by any of the deaths. It's just a brutal story of one man's quest for revenge. It's a beautifully shot film, but it's also really long! I'd give this one a B-. It's well done, but if it came to Netflix, I'd give it a pass.


Completely unrelated, except for the death of the main character, is The End of the Tour about one weekend in the life of writer David Foster Wallace. It's had some mixed reviews, but I was captivated. For most of the film, it's just two guys talking, mainly in a car, and reviewers have made the obvious connection to My Dinner with Andre. Eisenberg is pretty much exactly the same as he was in The Social Network: jittery and defensive. We kinda feel badly for him except he's pretty dickish. But Jason Segel was bang on. And what a stretch from anything else he's done! After the film, I obsessively watched a ton of interviews of Wallace, and Segel nailed his mannerisms, his dismissiveness, and his raw openness with others. It was similar to watching Will Ferrel in Stranger than Fiction. I'll give it a qualified A-. I think I liked it more than most people would.

The movie I really wanted to see, though, was Trumbo. And, unfortunately, it didn't live up to my expectations. I love old movies and old TV shows, and there's a marked difference in the way people move and interact in the films that can be seen in the talk shows and game shows of the period. Everyone has been schooled, from a young age, in walking and greeting and standing in a way that is lost on us now. I remember as a child being pulled upright in my desk by my hair by the teacher if I forgot my manners for a moment and dared to slouch. Sitting erect was mandatory as we listed to math drills - and that was 25 years after this film was set. That might go unnoticed except the film is otherwise seamlessly meshed with actual footage of the time. Bryan Cranston is solid, but, and I hate to say this, Louie CK's performance was jarring. It took me out of the film at every scene. I'm not sure if I've just seen too much of his stand-up to believe him in anything else, but he didn't have the same effect for me in American Hustle. I'll actually go so far as to suggest he ruined the film. It's a qualified C+. I might have just built up my prior expectations too much.


Spotlight was fantastic. A great cast. A suspenseful story. Excellent timing and story arc. It was excellent. Go see it. It's an A-.

Finally, Mommy, a Quebecois film about a mother with a son with extreme ADHD, was excellent. The actor who played the son, Antoine-Olivier Pilon, nailed the part. The behaviours were strikingly similar to those I've seen in my classroom over the years.  It's an exercise in extremes of mood taking us through back-to-back scenes of violence and joy repeatedly. This is no coming of age film. A-.

Left on my list:  The Big Short and Anomalisa. Neither are playing anywhere convenient, so I'll have to wait until I have the will to learn a new bus route.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Lives of Others

I have this poster on the wall of my classroom:


It's important to know. It's necessary to understand how things work. And then it's vital to act rightly in the face of the truth.

That's the message in The Lives of Others, a gripping film with one of the best final three words since Ironman. A Stasi officer in East Berlin, with eyes and ears on a playwright of dubious intent, decides to help the man just this one time. That sets off a foot-in-the-door type of psychological effect: Once we help a little, we tend to help a little more.

The director, von Donnersmarck, was only 11 and living in the relative safety of West Berlin in 1984, the Orwellian year when the film begins. Timothy Garton Ash (there be bold spoilers!) laments the details of the film: The Stasi weren't so well dressed. The students would have been in uniform. The entire thing looked too Western.... But that kind of truth is less important than the reality of the fear and desperation of the times - the general anxiety of day to day life when we can trust no one. It becomes all too clear the reality of the slippery slope we could face if we continue to allow C-51-type intrusions into our freedoms.

Within a fictional totalitarian regime, Alan Moore explained, "Artists use lies to tell the truth," and that line had a presence as I watched. This idea is crucial in the film when the artists' lives and livelihood are at stake as they embed statistics in poetic prose. But that very risk is what makes spreading the truth all the more important.

Garton Ash asks if high culture humanizes us, and he shares this bit of trivia:
"Maxim Gorky records Lenin saying that he can’t listen to Beethoven’s Appassionata because it makes him want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of little people, whereas in fact those little heads must be beaten, beaten mercilessly, to make the revolution. As a first-year film student, von Donnersmarck wondered “what if one could force a Lenin to hear the Appassionata,” and that was the original germ of his movie."
If anything can turn us from cruelty, it might be art. Films like this precariously transport us to a place of heightened empathy as we live through the character's dilemma. We become a little more moral, a little more courageous in the process.

What affected me most in this film, however, was the plot driven by one man of power unable to completely have the woman he desired. People must pay the price for his loss. This is an issue no less disquieting in our pseudo-enlightened times thirty years hence where men scorned still prove menacing whether on a real life date or during on-line encounters. Women can expect sexually aggressive threats from total strangers for politely rejecting advice. Stealing away with a woman to force her hand in marriage has been illegal since the 12th century, but I fear tactics have merely gotten more subtle in their execution.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Movies about Suicide

I saw The Skeleton Twins a while back, but just finished Before I Disappear. The former had some big names behind it (Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson), and it was good, but I absolutely loved the latter.

They're both about a brother and sister finding a way to connect and saving each other in the process. They both start with a suicide interrupted by an important phone call.

Wiig and Hader are excellent as estranged twins in this drama. They coincidentally try to kill themselves on the same day, then spend the film trying to recover. But I would have been okay with them living or dying. I wanted to know what happened to them, but I wasn't routing for them. It's nice that they lived though.

Before I Disappear started life as a 19 minute short by Shawn Christensen called Curfew, about a man trying to commit suicide until his estranged sister calls begging him to watch her daughter for her. Both films have the same actors, but they're a couple years older.

It's not just grittier in location choices and set-up, it's more real and raw. We're right with Richie as he makes all the questionable decisions he makes. By the end of the movie, I was completely invested in what might happen to him.

Of course it's not the case that people need an external reason to commit suicide, but when Richie attempted his life, I completely understood why he would go down that path. In The Skeleton Twins, I understood on an intellectual level only. They didn't let me in deeply enough for me to resign myself to their suffering. They seemed more self-absorbed than depressed. It's not, of course, that we can easily judge depression from the outside, but in a film like this, we need to feel it in the characters. It helps if we like them a bit better too. I love Wiig and Hader, but their characters were pretty thoughtless. Still, their on-screen chemistry made it enjoyable to watch.

I'd give Skeleton Twins a B and Before I Disappear an A.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Revolution

I saw and wrote about this movie two years ago, but it's being released to a wider audience now.

About ten years ago, Rob Stewart was making the film Sharkwater under his questionable conviction that, "If people knew shark populations were decreasing by 90%, they'd do something."

A question from the audience at a preview changed everything for him: "What's the point of stopping shark finning if fisheries will collapse by 2048?"

Stewart immersed himself in the larger issues with the ocean, until he got to the point of recognizing that, "The only thing we can do which will control ocean acidification is to stop burning fossil fuels." So then he got on the climate change activism path until he recognized, "We know what to do... it's down to political will," and that "We don't just have a climate problem; we have a human problem."  It took most of the film before he realized that all the planes he was taking to go around the world to talk about these issues and film animals might actually be adding to the problem.

All of the current problems are interrelated, and he didn't even touch on poverty and inequity.  We do have to fix them all, but we can jump in anywhere.  As we work we soon find the threads leading to the next issue.  It can be overwhelming, but we just have to stay afloat and keep on track to slow down our own fossil fuel use while we work together to motivate politicians and corporations (by whatever means possible) to change the system before it's too late.

The film has beautiful images that remind us of what we're going to lose if we don't get our act together. It makes it all the more devastating.

You can buy or rent the movie here.  For every movie sold, $1 will go to World Wildlife Fund.


Stewart also made a series of short educational videos.  Here is more information on...

Ocean Acidification:


Ocean Acidification World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Deforestation:



Deforestation World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Climate Change:


Climate Change World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Overfishing:


Overfishing World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.

Same the Humans:


Save the Humans World Issue Video from Rob Stewart on Vimeo.


Friday, May 29, 2015

Mad Max: Reality Road: an Even Darker Ride

It was so close.


First, the less important comparison:  It wasn't as gripping and shocking as the original Road Warrior, and my son called it before we went in:  more explosions and less rapey.  People don't accept casual rape scenes in movies like they did in the 80s.  This is a good thing, but it does take away from developing a sense of horror and brutality in this lawless world.  There were many of the same bits of humour in it, and really cool cars, but no sharpened boomerangs. But what it really lacked was character development.  Furiosa's backstory was delivered in an awkward scene of overt explanation rather than a more subtle development throughout.  We don't get to know the other characters enough to care about them.  There was no scrappy little kid surviving by his wits.  And when one of the wives died, I wasn't remotely upset.  I don't remember any of their names.  Somehow it lacked the same kind of tension that was such an important part of the first film, and this Max reminded me more of Indiana Jones than the original Road Warrior, but my kids thought I was nuts on that one. But there was one excellent scene that made me glad to have caught it in 3D.  Things blowed up real good!


But that's not the important comparison.  With a quick read of a few scientific journals, it could have been an authentic depiction of what we will likely face far too soon if we don't change the path we're on, and the movie could have been just that much more brutal because of it.  That they're fighting over water and searching for arable land instead of for oil (sort of), gets us part way there.

***spoiler alert***

A question occurred to me as I watched them suffering in the heat, using slaves to run pulley systems, and using fire for heat and light all within a contained city that turned out to be the best possible place to live:  What did they need oil for?  They didn't use it to generate electricity in any way that I could see.  And they made it clear there was no place to go to, so all that gasoline and ripping up the desert was for nought.  Oil seems to be a dead commodity in a post-apocalyptic world.  Just as well.

But one bit of reality was that whomever controls the water, controls the world.  That will be very true very soon.  Canada has lots of fresh water, but could we win against an American invasion?  Or will Harper erode our rights so much (which has already started) that the U.S. will feel the need to stage a coup and install a better leader for us under the guise of helping us reform a democratic system, and then take control of all our water while they're at it?

In the film, once the good guys win and kill the bad guy who was rationing water too stringently (and keeping slaves and many wives), they seem to decide to open the water for all without any rationing as if that's the nice thing to do.  But it's not.  It's as equally bad leadership as rationing too tightly.  Rationing will have to be a reality in their world where, like in Snowpiercer and The 100, there are too many people for too few resources.  Population control must be a top priority or they'll have to start culling people in ritual sacrifices.  

Just imagine, when the good guys made it out east and talked about going back and taking over the place, imagine that they had had one brief conversation about how they would run the place differently.  And imagine if their ideas actually made sense!   They could have excitedly talked about a fair means of delivering food and water, a choice of jobs on a rotation, a means to slow population growth...  and then we'd see the realization on their faces that no matter what they did, they would have to control childbearing.  Men and women just couldn't be allowed to have every child they wanted.  Saving women from the clutches of an evil-doer who controls their reproduction would have to be replaced by a different system of control rather than done away with completely.  Figuring out how to do that without being hated by the masses is the exciting bit.

The gang tries to find some green space that used to be Furiosa's home, but it's all dead now.  The soil is full of salt so nothing can grow.  One effect of climate change will likely be "the extension of salt-affected territories."  But something else that could have been included, that was slipped into Interstellar and discussed in The Sixth Extinction (which has already started), is that many of us will likely suffocate before we starve.  Here's my summary on the 3rd major extinction from Kolbert's book:
Ending the Permian period - 252 million years ago. This was the most devastating - called "the great dying." It was caused by an increase in carbon which acidified the oceans and, with the oxygen level dropping, most organisms probably suffocated. Reefs collapsed. It lasted maybe 100,000 years from start to finish, and eliminated 90% of all species on earth (104). The best explanation for this increased carbon is a massive burst of vulcanism in Siberia. "But this spectacular event probably released, on an annual basis, less carbon than our cars and factories and power plants" (123). This one is most similar to what we're currently experiencing, but these days we like to do things much, much faster.

It's not just water that would be a scarce resource, but oxygen would be too.  The main bad guy had the right idea with an oxygen mask, but they could also have made oxygen their drug of choice.  As the ocean acidifies (which is already happening), hydrogen sulfide is released into the atmosphere.  It tends to sit low on the ground, so they might be fine in higher altitudes but need oxygen masks on in the lowlands.  Just think of all the creative ways they could each design their masks!

And check out the effects of exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide: eye damage and degenerative nerve damage.  They could have had people riding through lower areas, and unmask a bad guy who suddenly has his eyes eaten away and falls into a fit of spasms!  It would also make the air more flammable, and there's so much special effects guys could do with that!  It was such a missed opportunity.

The horrors of real life scientific predictions are rife with great ideas for apocalyptic films just waiting to be taken, and maybe a disclaimer at the end with sources would wake up a few more people to the reality we could be facing.  Except that it might ruin their happy ending.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Birdman

From one interesting bit of trivia on IMDB, I take it that if King Duncan were a much-loved broadway actor, and Macbeth an action hero longing to be king of broadway, and Lady Macbeth a giant imaginary bird barking orders in Macbeth's ear, and the witches a cruel critic with the ability to foretell a prophecy, and Banquo a producer with the potential to lose everything at the hands of his best friend, well, then you'd have Birdman.  Instead of cutting a man from knave to chop to get the real action rolling, he drops a stage light on his head.  Riggan fears he's "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more."

But that might be a bit of a stretch.

It speaks volumes that hours after getting home from the show, all I care about - still - is the review they got from that nasty critic.  This movie owned me.  Long shots through hallways that take us to later times in the action force us to stay with Keaton's Riggan at every step.  The acting was fantastic.  Edward Norton had me so worried that he'd do something stupid to ruin everything!  He was a perfect asshole.

Why do I care so much that Riggan left that napkin behind?

The style was reminiscent of another favourite movie, Synecdoche, New York.  Things are a little weird, and we have to just go with it.  The music was perfect for this feat - at times chaotic and anxious, at other times a soaring theme takes us up with Riggan.  I love that characters would randomly walk past the musician as he played the background score.

For the record, I don't think we ever find out what the review said.  There was only one significant cut in the film, and then some fantasy sequences with Spiderman dancing on stage, with huge jellyfish in the ocean, and with a perfect life where the most important thing is having a daughter who looks up to her father.

Easily an A+

Saturday, April 26, 2014

K-W Charlie Awards for Student Films

Some bragging rights here:

My son and his classmates won first place at this year's Charlie Awards!   At 43 years, it's the longest running student awards festival in Canada.  It's not as popular as it once was, so I've offered to help build it back up to its former glory by next April.

Here's the film, Deep.  He edited out a few minutes for the Charlie's max 10 minute criteria, but I can only find the original:


Deep from William Snyder on Vimeo.

And the second place winner was this really cool claymation - but with sound (which I can't find):


Game Gramps from Burke Horst on Vimeo.

Burke added sound for the Charlies, but it was originally without sound for a youth video competition that requires a totally silent film under 3 minutes.  Burke won along with my kid, who submitted this one:


Time from William Snyder on Vimeo.

And now we're waiting to hear on a mental health video competition.  So far there are 140 competitors.  Will submitted this one:


As for the round, but forgive my likely bias on these ones!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color

Or, The Life of Adele, Chapters 1 and 2 - the French title, which far better captures the film.

Lots of details about the plot below, but they're not really spoilers in that the knowledge of them won't affect the film.  Nothing you couldn't see coming.

This is a film that I'd like to edit down myself to a more manageable two hours.  It's unnecessarily three hours long, and I know just the scenes I'd shorten.

The movie takes place over about ten years or so; it's left unclear.  Adele at 15 falls for a boy, but has eyes for a girl, Emma.  Then she and Emma finally connect, develop a relationship, move in together, grow complacent, split up, and Adele tries to cope with the loss.



I found the shifting in time jarring, but other reviewers loved it.  I kept feeling like I was missing something - like I must have drifted off.  One minute she's in high-school living with her parents, and the next, with the same hair-do that she can't leave alone, she's a teacher living with Emma in a very cool apartment that looks way too expensive for a new teacher and an artist to afford.  And the next minute, Emma has a 3-year-old with another woman.  Maybe it's a cultural thing, but I would have liked the occasional helpful heading, like, Four years later....

Adele never seems to develop a self.  She needs another person to stave off loneliness to the point that, when Emma gets busy with her art, Adele has an affair.  She's defined by her relationship and is lost without a connection.  There's one scene in which Emma encourages Adele to develop her writing in order to be happy, but Adele's happy just being with Emma.  That kind of thing.  And there are many scenes when Adele is alone, and she just stares out the window smoking.  And crying.  She likes her job, but, without Emma, she comes home to an abyss.

And I didn't care.  She isn't enough of a character on her own for me to care about her loss.  She's singularly focused on one person to the exclusion of the rest of the world.  It's a very sad film, but I didn't shed a tear.  But I also wonder if it's because of the music.  I hated the film Lost in Translation, mainly because I think Scarlett Johansson is a horrible actress - her lines are consistently flat.  But I cried at the end when a swell of music cued me.  But this film ends with Adele walking alone as an upbeat latin song brings us to the credits.  Maybe I misinterpreted the end entirely, but she looked distraught to me - still unable to get over Emma.  A guy she obviously isn't interested in goes after her, but in the wrong direction.  Another reviewer suggests it ends with the possibility of new love, but I think it ends with her unable to love someone else.  Not yet.

When Emma wants Adele to write, it's also telling in that she doesn't really acknowledge what Adele does do.  Her teaching and cooking don't seem to count in the same way.  They don't endure like art or writing might.  There's a pretension to Emma that distances her.  Her friends also go there arguing about Klimt the way art students are trained to do - at once intellectual yet vacuous.  Adele struggles with this in reverse at the beginning - wanting to discuss novels with a musical boyfriend who doesn't like books with long sentences. Adele is more authentic in her longing to talk about it all.  She has a pure desire about her books without any need to impress others. This mis-connection of passions again presents a barrier when she can't join in on the art discussions with Emma.   And Adele's love of reading seems to be forgotten in the second half.  Why didn't she pick up a book instead of staring out the window for days and years?

And some scenes go on forever!  There's Adele reading almost an entire story to her students.  The whole thing!  And there's Adele dancing while she watches Emma talk to her old girlfriend, dance, look over, dance, look over....  Scenes like this could have given the same sense of plot or character in a fraction of the time.  There are some scenes worthy of the length - dancing outside with the children, or floating in the water at the beach - scenes that quietly embody her internal turmoil.  But most needed a ruthless editing.

And then there are the sex scenes.  Uncomfortably long and pornified, they tell us little about the characters or their relationship.  There's an awful lot of bouncing and groaning, but scant gestural communication or connection between the lovers.  We don't get to see the build-up, the seduction, only a variety of positions that allow for adequate friction.  That was a shame.

But the film is captivating because of Adele's face.  She says so much with the slightest change of expression.  I was able to keep watching the entire three hours because she's a delight to watch.

For that, I'll give it a B.  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Genuine Artists: Strummer, Baker, and Rodriguez

A fantastic triple-bill of films about musicians filled my afternoon.  They're very different musicians, but  they all profoundly affected a ton of people because they get beyond the mundane - or immerse themselves in it.

Joe Strummer, front man for the Clash, is painted as a charming (but depressive) guy with a joyful spirit that brought people together.  Most of the interviews, of a really wide variety of people, take place outside with groups of people hanging out in front of a fire.  The film has a feel to it that made me want to live a different life just wandering around hanging out.  A brief, vicarious immersion in that bohemian lifestyle stayed with me.  It's a reminder of how unnecessary all the stuff is so long as we have the people.

The second film was also about a wandering soul:  Ginger Baker.  He was available for lengthy interviews with the filmmaker, which was very cool, and parts of the stories were animated stylistically so it wasn't just a montage of talking heads.  Nicely done.  But he came across as too quick-tempered to maintain any of the connections he made over his career.  He's bitter, and not for nothing.  Something I learned from the film is that only the songwriters get royalties for the music.  When he was in Cream, one of my all-time favourite bands, the songs were written mainly by Jack Bruce and Peter Brown.  They got all the cash, and Baker and Clapton got nothing beyond the money for touring and playing the initial recording.  I'd be bitter too.

The third film is a very different story: Searching for Sugar Man.  This is more of a detective story as a few interested fans search for Sixto Rodriguez, a musician barely known here, but with an enormous following in South Africa.  The music didn't get me for this one like it did the others, but the story is captivating.  Imagine having a talent that you think went entirely unappreciated and being completely unaware that people in another continent are nuts over you.  It's one thing to be the rare few with a talent like these guy have, it's another thing to have an audience that acknowledges that.  Without any appreciative feedback, how long will you believe you're as good as you think you are?  And maybe it doesn't really matter.  

Les Miserables and the Benefit of the Theatre House

I've seen Les Miserable, the play, live on stage and loved it.  The story is rich and full of thought-provoking dilemmas.  The music is lovely, and the story sweeps you away in a bucket of tears.

But I watched Les Miserables, the movie, on my laptop, and, while the singing was beautiful - particularly the children! - and the acting superb, it was long-ish, and I started reading at the same time.  I didn't get swept away.  Not a single tear was shed for their struggle nor their unbearable kindnesses.  Had I been in a darkened room with nothing to distract me, I might have loved it, but seen on a laptop with a pile of books at arm's reach, it lost its edge.

There are some films that can't be done justice on a small screen.  Producers should put a notice to that effect just before the opening credits:  If you're watching on a laptop, you'll be sorrily disappointed.  It might have been enough to give me pause.  But then I'd have to wait for it to come to a rep theatre to ever catch it.  A dilemma.  


Loved Ones

I chose an unwise film to watch while recovering from a lengthy bout of laryngitis.  My doctor's instructions, "Don't even whisper for the entire weekend," couldn't stop me from screaming at the screen while I watched The Loved Ones.

I haven't seen a slasher flick for decades.  They're not really my taste, but back in the days of pitching in to rent a VCRs to watch films, my buddies and I would always grab three movies to make the evening rental worth our while:  a comedy, an action movie, and a video nasty.  But I stumbled on this one by accident, totally unawares.  It looked like a teen-angsty type film at first, so I settled in for some fluff.  Once embroiled in the story, I couldn't stop.

And I forgot how fun it can be to be scared by a campy bit of blood and guts where so many characters choose to investigate suspicious activity all by their lonesomes.  

Brent's struggling to recover from accidentally killing his dad in one of his first experiences driving a car.  He cuts himself and toys with death, but when he stumbles climbing a rock ledge, his will to live proves strong.  Good thing, because he's going to need it.

For helping me to completely forget how much my throat hurts:  B+

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Funny or Annoying: Wanderlust, Five-Year Engagement, and 21 Jump Street

After all the doom and gloom of Revolution, I was up for something much lighter.  I found three recommended comedies I had never heard of before (which is often, but not always, a red flag).

Wanderlust has Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, and those two have made some stinkers in their time, so I was dubious. But the movie was light and held my attention enough to make me forget my troubles for the duration.  It's about two city-kids who go broke and join a commune.  People are people, and even in an all-loving, caring, trusting beautiful commune, there are jerks.  It's unavoidable.  It was cute. I'll give it a B-.

The second feature, The Five-Year Engagement, has Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Alison Brie.  I love them, so this had to be good, right?  There were parts that were actually so unwatchable, I kept my hand at the ready to fast-forward.  There's a few weird sex scenes, some with food that make no sense in any context, but not even in a funny way.  And it wins the worst scene in any movie ever: Blunt and Brie entertaining a kid by talking as Elmo and Cookie Monster.  I kid you not.  Painful.

Why did they agree to do that?  Didn't they see how horrible it was?  Did they get paid a fortune?  Or, I suppose, it's just not my kind of humour.  Because at that link above, many many people say it was the funniest part of the movie.

Even worse than the painful scenes of nonsense is that the entire message of the film is that if a woman outperforms her man at work, it will have painful consequences for everyone.  The solution:  women should ditch their amazing opportunities (as a tenure-track PhD) and follow their husband's dream to own his own restaurant which can only happen in a city at the other end of the country, of course.  Otherwise the guy will become a bum and grow weird facial hair and just give up at life. Geesh, women are so selfish!   It was kinda like Mr. Mom, except in that movie, the dad learns to stop being such a baby and step up - and it's actually funny.  

Okay, I admit I did laugh out loud a few times at Engagement, but it didn't make up for the awkwardly unfunny scenes.   At all.  But it's a C- in my book because, for some reason, I was compelled to watch it to its painfully corny ending.

But, then, I watched 21 Jump Street with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum.


It's that same sophomoric humour, but I was killing myself laughing.  It's clearly an A- for me.  And I thought about who to share the movie with, and it occurred to me how curious it is how we decide what's funny and what's annoying - because I have some friends who wouldn't consider watching any of these movies.

Sometimes sex scenes can be funny to me.  The scene in Grandma's Boy with the Barbie doll was hilarious, but Jason Segel having really fast sex in Engagement or even his different experiences in Forgetting Sarah Marshall weren't at all entertaining.  I found them uncomfortable.  And I found it tedious when Paul Rudd practiced pick-up lines in front of a mirror in Wanderlust.  What's the difference between these scenes?

I think unsexy sex is funny if the idea is new.  It has to be really original.  Maybe it's because I discovered fast forwarding VHS movies for kicks when I was ten, that it's not that hilarious to see it done in a big budget film.  But "You came on my mom!" is a new concept to me.  It's also a juxtaposition of the sacred and profane that can draw laughs.  Sometimes.  The other key is it can't be too close to home to hit a nerve.

I loved the first Harold & Kumar movie, but the Guantanamo Bay movie was too soon.  The prison is still in operation today, for crying out loud, and people really were sexually assaulted.  I know too much about the painful realities of the situation to be able to laugh at it.  Maybe ever.

People can get hurt in movies for our entertainment, but only certain types of people.  Most men can get hurt for laughs, but it's trickier for women.  It's hilarious if Kristen Wiig gets knocked down, but remember when a very young Brooke Shields tried a pratfall on the Tonight Show?  It was horrifying to watch.  She somehow provoked a sense of protection so it wasn't funny when she got hurt.  We're okay with people being hurt only if we think they can take care of themselves - or if we're made to hate them.  Even little kids getting hurt can be funny if they're annoying enough.  Or sometimes just if it's sudden and startling enough - right out of nowhere.  Or if they keep trying to do something but fail every time.  Okay, maybe it's always funny.  As much as I love cats, I laugh when they get hurt too.  It's been my experience that they're always okay afterwards.  They just shake it off and keep going, so it's rarely a tragedy.  Yet I feel a bit callous saying I get some joy from their epics fails right out loud.

Humour can't be objective because it has to do with individual experiences and sensitivities.  What's universal is needing to care about the characters and to understand the irony being posed, but I'm sure someone laughed his head off at the food sex scene in Engagement.  And somehow I think Jason Segel thought it was funny too, which is oddly disappointing.  We often make connections with people based on a shared humour which can reveal a shared background.  Funny that.