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

Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Reader and Haevnen

Two excellent films that open up a can of ethical worms:  The Reader and Haevnen.

The Reader is a fantastic film about an illiterate woman who gets a teenaged boy to read books to her.  Then, as a law student a decade later, he happens to be at her trial for the murder of several hundred Jewish people during WWII.  She allowed them to burn when their quarters were bombed instead of unlocking the doors.  But she couldn't have written down the plan people are accusing her of masterminding because she can't write.  He knew that, but he remained silent.  She was ashamed of her illiteracy - so much that she'd take a jail term rather than admit it.  And he was ashamed of the relationship he had with her - enough to keep him silent when he could have saved her.

It's about the atrocities of Nazi Germany, but also about all the times we all choose not to act when clearly the high road necessitates action.  We convince ourselves we're not doing anything wrong because we're just sitting here.  We're not doing anything, we insist, so how could we possibly be doing anything wrong?  It's a funny little denial that gets used too often.

And it's about how much shame, and preserving our ego, can lead toward unethical action.  How often we're kept from doing the right thing because it would be embarrassing.  A little thing like that - public opinion, can lead to such heinous crimes.  Funny that.

Haevnen is about two boys who get into mischief.  They both have dads who were unfaithful in marriage.    One father is painted in a much more sympathetic light as a doctor with Doctors without Borders.  It's curious that his career choice almost absolves him of his immoral personal choices.  I didn't mind as much even though he clearly hurt his wife.  But look at all the good work he's doing under horrid conditions somewhere in Africa!  He's not such a bad guy.  The film paints three-dimensional characters so we can never be sure about anybody.  Nobody's all good or bad.

One of the boys is being bullied at school, and the other beats up the bully in order to keep them safe.  His dad tells him hitting doesn't solve anything.  The boy replies, it does if you hit hard enough, then nobody will touch you again.

This good father comes across as a bit of a wimp when he's faced with a jerk of a parent at the playground, and the stronger boy insists he should fight back.  The dad goes back to give the guy a good talking to, and gets slapped in the face.  The father insists he won, but the boys are clear that the other guy doesn't see it that way.

Sometimes violence is necessary to stop a greater violence.  Sometimes asking nicely for an apology gets you slapped.  People are often unreasonable, and we need measures beyond reason to convince them to behave.  Some people will never be nice unless they're forced to be.  But if it's not nice for us to force them, then what do we do?

It's tricky, eh?

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Best Years of Your Life?

It started with The Assassination of a High School President.  It's a light mystery of sorts as a ne'erdowell school journalist tries to uncover who stole the SATs.  Trust no one.  It has fun old-school mystery lines like, "Clara was one tough cookie.  All I wanted was a taste."  It reminded me of an episode of Community when Chang gets a little overzealous as a security guard.

What I like best about Assassination is that the teenagers, most of them anyway, look and act like teenagers.  And who wouldn't want Bruce Willis as their principal?  Or the notion of an in-school suspension meaning kids are locked in a room for the whole day monitored by a reliable student!

Then I watched a movie to which many reviewers compared Assassination:  Brick.  It's got that gumshoe detective quality, but it's much heavier.  There are many nods to The Maltese Falcon, right down to the cane, and burgeoning film buffs should check that out first to get the references.

Brick is a murder mystery involving high school kids.  It honours the genre more than reality, which works for me, although I have a hard time accepting Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a tough guy.

Then I ventured into another Joseph Gordon-Levitt film, Mysterious Skin.  From the Netflix synopsis, it sounded like it was about aliens.  It wasn't.  Not really.  It's a stark and brutal exploration of childhood sexual abuse.  It was excellent, but I wish I had watched the films in reverse order!  I have issues with children.  Anytime I watched an episode of ER back in the day, if there was a kid in the trailer, I'd switch channels.  I don't like seeing children sick or hurt.  This film was sneaky and led me into their world before it became clear what was happening.  Well, before I caught on anyway.  It was worth it, though, because of the realistic way the aftermath of it all played out.  There are many different ways people are affected by sexual abuse, but the affect for anyone is hard to shake.


The overriding message?  Adults don't understand anything!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Weekend

Andrew Haigh's The Weekend is a lovely movie.  It's about a one-night stand between two men that turns into more, but is doomed because one of them is leaving the country at the end of the weekend.  It illustrates that the length of a relationship isn't correlated with its intensity.  At all.

It's similar to Before Sunrise in that aspect - another favourite of mine.  I also liked Before Sunset, but I worry that a third (possibly in the works) can't work as well.  Once people are together for a time, once they're stable, then the story isn't as interesting.  Then it needs peripheral characters to keep the action going unless someone's dying - or, god forbid, having babies.  Maybe they'll get a cat.  Another Year is a good example of a film about a comfortable stable relationship. It got good reviews, but I found it boring.  And it wouldn't be watchable without the weird friends coming and going.  

There are a few very realistic discussion in The Weekend about the annoyance and difficulty of being gay in public.  It's not as dangerous as it once was, but it's not entirely accepted either.  There's a perception that it's easier in the US, and he's going to find out.  

Both men reveal a practice of tracking relationships - one in writing, and the other on tape as an art installation.  The art aspect reminded me of another excellent film:  Me and You and Everyone We Know.  Miranda July plays an burgeoning artist who films people talking about photographs or pieces of their lives.  It's actually worth it just to see the different things she films - like her shoes talking to one another or the game she plays walking down the street.  But I like quirky.

Me and You is also about the difficulty of connecting - the push-me-pull-me of first meeting, the  resisted desires that can mess up an otherwise enjoyable life.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Movies about Moms

It's bizarre how often I hunker down for a line up of random movies I found on Netflix or elsewhere, just random choices, and they turn out to have very similar themes or plots or something. The first time it happened, years ago, back when I went to rental stores for my movie options, I found Rachel Getting Married and The Tracey Fragments - both about a girl whose little brother died while under her care. That's a pretty specific plot line to randomly select twice in a row!

The two movies I just saw that were remarkably similar: Away We Go and Sunshine Cleaning. They both got mixed reviews. I loved them both.

They both featured a woman and her sister (to a lesser extent), and how they dealt with losing their mothers at a young age. Both movies made me miss my mom fiercely. They play opposite one another well with respect to relationships: Away We Go has a couple that seems to get on swimmingly. The guy adores his pregnant girlfriend. In Sunshine Cleaning, the main character can only get men to want her, not stay with her. Such is.

But where Sunshine Cleaning shines a little brighter, despite its harsh reviews, is in the attitudes both women have about fitting in with the cool kids in their respective lives. In SC, she figures out that she really doesn't want to hang out with snotty rich women anyway. She loves her weird job, and who cares if they have an issue with it! In AWG, she doesn't feel like a real adult, or anything more than a total mess-up, because her house isn't nice enough. She's not happy until she has a house that looks right - that looks like the type of house an adult (a wealthy adult, really) would have. I kept hoping she'd pull a "there's no place like home" and just add some insulation to her old place. But she doesn't. The stuff in her life is what develops her character.

A shame.

Movies about Affairs

I watched three excellent movies that, by chance, have a similar theme that affairs are terribly dangerous things yet sometimes necessary to preserve our sanity.

Broken Embraces

A poor woman (and sometimes prostitute) hooks up with an old rich guy for the purpose of getting her dad some medical care. He becomes obsessed with her and pretty much owns her. After some years, she has an affair with a man she really loves, so the old guy destroys the lover's career. This is a beautiful movie, and it's very easy to see how each character got swept up in their role. It's also all about filmmaking and writing, and the creative process in general with nods to Orson Wells.

Little Children

A bored housewife is married to a man weirdly obsessed with one specific internet porn character. The housewife hooks up with a stay-at-home dad. They have sex while discussing how pretty his wife is. What's with the mundane conversations during sex? That's not sexy. Maybe it's to show that their hearts aren't really in it. They reference Madame Bovary who also coped with a boring life by messing around. The affair here isn't out of love, it's just a coping mechanism, a way of distracting them from grieving a fantasy life cut short by children. So at the end the characters re-think it all even though their marriages are troubled at the outset. All the relationships are a bit messed up.

But this movie's really about perversion and desire. Many people on the street have different sexual desires. We are pretty accepting of some these days to the point that we admonish those who don't accept differences. Our desires aren't within our control, so they aren't to be questioned: homosexuality, transsexuality, pornography.... But we draw the line at pedophiles. Of course there's one on the street - the creepiest depiction of a pedophile ever (who was once the teen-hearthrob at the left there). And an ex-cop whose wife just left him becomes obsessed with harassing the guy. There's a good scene in a restaurant with the pedophile on a blind date with a woman who's on meds after a breakdown. They lament how people want you to just get better and be normal in the snap of their fingers. They connect in their knowledge that it doesn't work that way. Then he gets creepy again.

I Am Love

The main character (Emma - another nod to Flaubert) is a bored housewife in a very wealthy family empire. She hooks up with her son's friend as they connect over cooking. It reminded me loosely of Like Water for Chocolate because of all the scenes in the kitchen. I loved that Tilda Swinton looks like a real middle aged woman, yet is depicted as desirable.


Her son figures out what's happening in a scene very similar to a scene in Little Children where the unfaithful character's wife flashes back to all the little signs of the affair in the middle of a dinner party. He storms out of the party followed by the mom who shoves him, and he falls and dies. She grieves briefly, then uproots her life to be with her true love. She is understood solely by her lesbian daughter who has only come out of the closet to the brother who just died. The daughter gets that we have to follow our heart, not social convention.

I can totally believe someone would have a affair with someone much younger. But I can't believe she'd ditch her kids for him. They're pretty much grown up, but she really risks her relationship with them by doing this. The only one who was bothered by it, died, but that solves that problem in too tidy a way.

But what if your heart leads you away from your children, whom you also love? Does romance trump mothering? Or is that a selfish move? Little Children, the American film, suggests it's selfish. The other two (Spanish and Italian) suggest romance is all that really matters.

I lean towards the kids. I think I can live without romance. I'm not bored by being home because I also write and paint and do everything I would be doing without kids. I sometimes say my life would be better, but I think that's just an excuse for not doing enough with my day. Really, when all the kids are away, I'm not more social or productive than otherwise; I just putz around on-line. But then again I've never been loved like the women in these films.

Has anybody?

Hanna and World's Greatest Dad

Most people know about Hanna. It's been reviewed all over the place and gets full or almost full star-age from everyone.  The film is really exciting and fun. That's it. And that's why I'm a blogger and not a world-renowned film reviewer regardless my penchant for watching 5 or 15 movies each week! It's about a girl of 14 or so being trained by her dad to be a killer much like Kick-Ass and Leon the Professional - both excellent movies. It's not particularly thought-provoking. It's nice to have a friend. We can never be too sure who we can really trust. Typical fare, yet done in a very edge-of-your-seat way. The ending left us with a LOT of questions, and is a perfect set up for a second film.

I think most people (I'm guessing based purely on my own ignorance here) don't know about World's Greatest Dad though. It's a couple years old. The title and the fact that it stars Robin Williams might throw people off if they think along the lines of Mrs. Doubtfire. WAY off. The only similarity between the two films is it's about a dad. This one has a pushover single-dad struggling to connect to his son who is a total douche bag played by Daryl Sabara. (Who? He's Juni from Spy Kids!) The son is into asphyxi-masturbation and obsessed with obnoxious porn, but of course has never touched a real live girl. What would Mrs. Doubtfire say about that?! Even worse, the dad teaches high school English at his son's school, so getting a call from the principal about your son being obnoxious again is more profoundly embarrassing because it's your boss. I relate to that one first-hand being a teacher at my kids' school, but, touch wood, my kids are generally delightful.

This is a funny, light-hearted, and very thought-provoking, movie about teen suicide, sort of. That makes it sound crass and offensive, and it is a bit, but in a way that actually works. The characters are stereotypes of people we all know, and it's relatable in that sense, if a bit over the top in places. We immediately know whom to like and hate, but it's a comedy, so two-dimensional secondary characters are allowed.

The dad makes some bad decisions and gets swept up into a web of deceit, but we can at least understand his motives. What do you do if you really can't find anything to like in your kid despite trying very hard for years to connect, and then he's suddenly dead. You grieve, yet it's also a bit of a relief. We're not allowed to think and say things like that though. We're supposed to have unquestioned unconditional love for our little ones. But what if they're total jerks? (Doris Lessing does an excellent job of tackling this issue in The Fifth Child, by the way.)


The son doesn't actually kill himself; he dies accidentally while masturbating with a tie around his neck. The dad makes it look like a suicide to give him a somewhat more honourable death, and he writes a note as if from his son. The dad writes novels on the side that nobody will publish; all he wants in the world is to be read. Suddenly, with the publication of this profound suicide note, everybody's reading him. So he writes his son's journal. And it just snowballs from there.

And I wonder to what extent we judge the morality of his actions by the extent he benefits from them.

There's a sub-plot about the dad's relationship with a female teacher. At the beginning of the film, he worries about being alone. By the end, he says, "The worst thing in the world isn't ending up alone. It's ending up with people who make you feel alone."


Midnight in Paris

Loved Midnight in Paris.

I loved Owen Wilson in this surprisingly non-moronic role. I loved all the supporting actors. I especially loved Adrien Brody, Kathy Bates, and Marion Cotillard.

But I hated Rachel McAdams. I hated her in Sherlock Holmes too. She was good in Mean Girls, but anything else seems like too much of a stretch. Her lines are flat and dead. She reminds me of Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Zooey Deschanel in, well, anything. All beautiful women, but their lines just sit there. Melanie Griffith was great in Something Wild where she seemed to play her real self, but anywhere else she was empty. But many people would disagree with me...

Anyway, when I left the theatre, I couldn't help but look at my city differently. Not to compare it with Paris, but to really look at the bits of crumbling bricks, and the odd collection of chairs on someone's porch, and the tiny initials in a heart at the corner of a building. The film is all about art and literature, and it name-drops all over the place. I have a background in fine art, so I was in my element.  But beyond the trivia, the film reminds you to SEE the world around you.


The film is reminiscent of Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo in its time travelling elements. It plays to the message that life is unsatisfying so we long for somewhere else to go that might be more perfect - might be a better fit because we just don't feel quite right where we are. And Gil, the main character, figures this out and decides to stay in the present time. But then he decides to move to Paris instead of returning home to California. At first I thought he just didn't get the message in full, that he still needed to change something. But no. I think he got it. We can never fit in perfectly, nor be completely satisfied in our lives. But they don't have to suck either. We can make changes within limits like moving to a city that suits us better.

Tree of Life or Will It Never End?

Sorry for anyone who was blown away by Tree of Life. I though it was boooooorrrrrrring! Roger Ebert gave it four stars, which usually means a lot to me, but this time I just think he's waxing nostalgic on his own childhood. He loves the realness of the scenes of the kids playing. I see this realness every day in an unlocked house and a big lawn not too different than the movie. I can watch this in real life from my porch. But watching kids get into mischief for 139 minutes is not my idea of a good time.

To be fair, the A/C in the theatre was set to freeze, and two women sat down in front of me just as the movie started, in a packed house, smothered in perfume. That coupled with the jerky camera movements, and I wasn't feeling great to begin with. But I actually considered leaving at the 90 minute mark. From 90 to 139, I was checking my watch compulsively. Every time the screen went still or dark for a second, I whispered, "Please let it be over," under my breath. BUT IT NEVER WAS!

Okay, it was eventually, but geesh!

If you're going to see it, and you're thinking of leaving half way through, I'm here to tell you, you won't miss anything. Go ahead. Just stand up and walk out.

Here's the gist of it: A family in the 50s has three boys. One dies likely in Vietnam, and we don't know which one until the end, but I didn't really care by then. We get to watch how the mother resigns herself to this tragedy. She's very religious and the film starts out with a quote from Job, and there's a sermon in the middle about Job in case you didn't catch the parallels to the movie yet. (Job's the dude that God is a jerk to just to see if he'd still be faithful to him. Well, Christians would say God isn't a jerk to him, He just allows the devil to mess with him. Same difference.) Anyway, there's flashes back and forth between this family, and a son 40 years later or so - I didn't catch which one it was as I watched, so I'll leave that out even though IMDB has his name listed - who is still trying to get his head around the death of his brother decades earlier.

But here and there throughout the movie there are montages of the birth of the world and evolution complete with dinosaurs and video footage of cells moving in a body. We are to be reminded that we're part of everything, or we're just specks in the grand scheme of things, or that how we look at a flock of birds flying in the wind - as a single unit - may be how God looks at us or how we should look at ourselves. We are everything and nothing. Dying sucks, but it's part of life.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: If you want to see a really good movie about the grief that hangs over a family after the death of a child, watch Rabbit Hole. If you like the whole we are nothing and everything bit, then watch Mr. Nobody, or this (the relevant bit starts at 3:42)....

Barney's Version

Barney's Version is a great film, but I question the way the wife is characterized by some reviewers as "a saint" rather than a doormat.

Barney pursues this woman who he claims he loved at first sight. He's so excited by his own reaction to her that he doesn't really care that much that it's not reciprocated. She tells him to leave her alone because it's his wedding day. He persists, and eventually wins her over. They dote on each other, but tensions erupt, well... bubble a bit, when she has some successes and he ignores them. When she does her first on-air interview, he misses is because he's busy watching hockey. She clarifies to him his actions, and he offers to sleep on the couch. She refuses - they will always sleep together. When she goes away for a few days, he's lost without her. The film suggests that shows just how much he loves her. She tolerates him being drunk and offensive to her friends and ignoring her successes. Then he makes a fatal mistake with another woman, and she ditches him. She's never exasperated with him. She's given in to the myth of love means never having to say your sorry - or some such nonsense. She accepts him for who he is. I suppose he's good company.

I hate that he has an affair because I wanted to see if she'd ever leave him without that one catch. To me, it was an easy out. The relationship sucked for her, but she was committed until he broke his vow. That gave her an opening. It's similar to one character's backstory in Adaptation in which the character's wife left him after a car accident. It gave her an excuse, an exit strategy.

I don't think this is love. This is a guy who needs arm candy, sex, and a caretaker. He has no interest in giving back to her. He'll buy her roses, but he won't be kind to her friends, nor will he stay sober to catch the highlights of her burgeoning career. Once he wins her over, he won't make the smallest efforts at kindness or let her shine. She's more of a pet he keeps than a partner he loves.

I wonder if the people that think this woman is the ideal wife just want to be able to have this type of one-sided relationship in which they get it all. They can be boorish and cruel yet get the girl because she's convinced to love means to tolerate crap. Male reviewers want to believe they can be out of shape and drunk and still be loved by a woman who takes over the boring parts of their lives for them. It's an ideal relationship only superficially. You can't really feel love without giving and being their for them and doing for them. Sure it's great to get a Christmas present or a bunch of them, but it's even better to have your own gift to another opened and appreciated - for someone to know they are loved and respected, not just wanted.

Dogtooth. Weird.

oI just finished Dogtooth. I'm not sure what to say. It was disturbing. Some reviewer thought it was funny. I didn't get that. I though it was mainly sad and tragic. Homeschooling gone terribly, terribly wrong. Everywhere there's talk about those crazy parents who taught the kids different words for objects. I think we like that. On some level we really wish we could do that - just mess with people like that. As a teacher, I often joke that I could tell them epistemology means toilet paper and they'd never be the wiser - but mainly I'm making a joke about their obedience and lethargy.

This is serious. The parents aren't just messing with the kids for fun. It's deeper than that. And I didn't really find it entertaining. I think I was grimacing from start to finish.


Escaping or Just Living

I love watching movies. I watched three last night.  When I was little I lived for the Movie for a Sunday Afternoon. Almost any genre was fine with me. I'd watch with other people or alone. When I lived with my first boyfriend, we didn't have cable or Pay TV, so I'd watch movies scrambled. We got TVO, though, and I spent every Friday night watching the foreign film festival until he got home from pick-up hockey. Typically the guys would barrel in as the second feature would be just ending, and I'd be on the couch with tears running down my face shushing everyone, "Just ten more minutes!" Then he and his hockey buddies and I would talk into the wee hours. Once VCRs became standard household fare, and I was no longer the slave of the networks, I was hooked. Now there's Netflicks. Yikes.

I paint, and read, and write, and go for walks. In the summer I bike fanatically. Sometimes I renovate my house. Those all seem like reasonable ways to spend time. Watching movies is somehow embarrassing. I don't tell people I might watch six or seven movies in a week. If I read as many books, it would be impressive. I'm not sure what the difference is. Am I escaping life by watching so many movies or is this just what a particular life looks like?

The movies last night were all highly rated, but I didn't love any of them (NO spoilers): Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Tamara Drewe, and Blue Valentine. They left me depressed.

Dragon Tattoo is a murder mystery with gruesome rape scenes and many pictures of mutilated women. I'm not sure why it's so well-received. I found it disturbing. At least the main character was female, smart, and in control of the situation. She doesn't really fit in anywhere either, but she makes a go of it anyway. It's got that. But I'm not sure that makes up for the horrid visuals that I'll never get out of my head. I think I'd prefer the books.

I thought Tamara Drewe would cheer me up. It's light fare, and based on Far from the Madding Crowd. I loved Hardy as a teenager. I saw Tess with Nastassia Kinski when I was 14, then read all his books. Tess was so totally ripped off, and I related to that feeling. Sometimes people just take what they want, then ditch you and look down at you for giving it up. Jerks. I loved Bathsheba too despite her arrogance because she didn't need men the way so many other women I knew seemed to. Well, at least she tried to run her place by herself for as long as she could. The film is similar with the three suitors and a crazy dog, a rock star (named Sergeant) replaced the sergeant, and it ends the same, but it didn't have the same feel to it. Maybe it's my age, but I was more interested in the sub plots of the spurned author's wife and the bored teenagers than the main plot of the new girl in town - and the setting. I would love to live there forever. The spurned wife was really the one managing everything on her own, and the teenagers were engaged in their mischief. Tamara didn't do anything. She's a successful journalist, and she was writing a novel, but she wasn't doing the work to survive the way Bathsheba did at the start of it all. Okay, she was, but she didn't seem to struggle enough for my liking. It all came too easily for her to make her very interesting to me. I think the film was too short and light to capture the feel of the book. Tamara accepted proposals and propositions way too fast to show a truly independent spirit. It was cute, but nothing amazing - along the lines of Notting Hill.

I ended the trio with Blue Valentine - the movie I was most looking forward to seeing. I found it boring and annoying. A couple meets, marries, becomes contemptuous, and divorces. There's lots of fighting - none of it interesting nor poignant. There's a lovely little scene of her dancing while he sings, but it's in the trailer, and that's about it. It's sad and frustrating that people can't figure out how to live and love better. She wants to grow and develop as a person, to do more than just exist, and he just wants to play. She's stagnating with him. But what really bugged me about it was that the entire film took place over six years or so - judging by the age of the little girl, but everyone ages significantly. It's likely just a means to be able to separate the early and later scenes as they go back and forth, but I think they could have come up with something better. Almost everyone gets glasses over those six years, but most bizarre is her dad went from early middle age to needing an oxygen tank. Those were some six years! If you want a really good Ryan Gosling film, see Lars and the Real Girl.

All in all, relationships are hard to do well. Just like in Mr. Nobody, the take home message is make sure both of you are in love before you get going too far. But that's sometimes hard to figure out. Sometimes it feels like you're in love because someone's familiar or comforting or they make you laugh or feel something. And sometimes you're really truly in love and then it all just goes away. Poof. And sometimes it doesn't go away, but you just can't live with them anymore.

But there are moments in there. Moments of pure connection where we feel so understood and listened to and cared about. That's all that there is, my friends.

Mr. Nobody and the Complexity of Entropy

"Everything could have been anything else, and it would have had just this much meaning." - Tennessee Williams (maybe - the film says so, but I can't find it anywhere, and I'm a big fan of Williams)

ETA - a reader, Kurt, e-mailed me with the short story it's from:  "The Malediction".

Mr. Nobody came out two years ago, and I haven't heard much about it. Roger Ebert didn't even review it. I'm not sure why not. It's quite an existentialist trip. It's like Inception mixed with Slaughterhouse Five, The Butterfly Effect, Eternal Sunshine, and a little Monty Python thrown in near the end with a nod throughout to the very old cartoon strip, Little Nemo. There's also bits that reminded me of the book Johnny's Got His Gun. It's all very weird and wonderful. All the actors are excellent.

Suspend disbelief and just get lost in it. (No spoilers below.)

The main character's name is Nemo Nobody, which translates from the latin to Nobody Nobody. He's the everyman. He's really old and explaining his life to a reporter, so the movie is in flashbacks, BUT he has lived along several different paths. He refuses to choose which path was the right one, the actual one, which frustrates the journalist who's trying to nail it all down in a soundbite for the public. But as long as you don't choose, everything remains possible.

The problem with that last line is that not choosing is in itself a choice, of course. At one point he tries to choose everything, will his life to go in one direction, but that doesn't work either. We have to be open to our options, and choose when we're able, but the choices are typically already made in our heads before we begin to act on them. We can't avoid our own thoughts. We have to choose authentically. Everything we do has an effect even when we stand still. It certainly was the case for Nemo. There clearly was a right choice, or a better choice at least - one that kept him near the girl he loved; the one who loved him back.

Much of the film wavers between three possible love relationships. One with mutual love, and two with one-sided love. One-sided love just doesn't work. One person cannot love enough for two no matter how hard they both try to pretend it's all good. This is an important lesson. So many people waste so much time trying to get people to like them. It is or it isn't. Pick again.

I was just reading about entropy the night before seeing the film. Coincidence? The movie defines entropy as a movement of all of life towards a state of dissipation and increasing disorder. It's from the second law of thermodynamics which says that, in a nutshell, heat always flows towards cold so nothing can ever be perfectly stable; something, somewhere, will take the heat and squander it. So every isolated system grows more disordered with time. From The Canon, entropy is "a measure of how much energy in a system is not available to do work. The energy is there, but it might as well not be. Where there is energy, entropy is sure to follow, with crowbar in hand...[because] order by definition, has restrictions and limitations, while disorder knows no bounds." That bit is reminiscent of Nietzsche's Apollo and Dionysus theory, and why the Greeks were wrong. Then Angier ends that chapter of her book like this:
But before we get carried away by a formaldehyde gloom, let's remember that, whatever its eventual fate, the universe still has an awful lot of time left to play, and that it is a comic genius and an aesthete that defies its innate sloth, its entropic drift, with sustained symphonies of disciplined beauty. The universe loves patterns, and it can't seem to stop finding new styles of light and character, and functional forms and dysfunctional forms just for the fun of it. From formlessness came the cloud of glory we named atom, from ashes and dust came stars so formally formed that we can tell by their light how long they will shine and when and how they will die. Atoms were not content to stay in their element, as lonely elements, but instead linked arms with other elements, becoming the molecules of which our world is forged, and the chemistry was right to scoff int he face of the law, and declare, Let's go get a life.
Or, in the film, "We can know when stars will die, but not what we will do in the next two minutes."

It's also got bits about mental illness, which I related to - about chasing the bear away, but it's so frustrating because we can't find this bear, and it won't go away on its own. On the surface, the film is essentially about parents who make a really bad decision to allow their child to choose between them when they split. That was the catalyst in Nowhere Boy also. I'm glad that tactic is largely out of date now - or I hope it is. Children shouldn't be made to feel responsible for everything that happens from a decision so enormously life-altering as picking between parents. They're just little!

The Kids are All Right? Not So Much

The Kids are All Right is not to be confused with the excellent movie, The Kids are Alright. So, first of all, I don't really get the title. What makes the kids okay?  Or is it that they have moments where the kids come up with an intelligent idea or two? The kids in the movie each hung out with a bullying best friend, which isn't "right." So they're clearly not right all the time. The moms worried about the son being gay, but he wasn't, so is that what's "right"? Or is the right-ness that he knows he's straight, he's correct about his sexual orientation whereas the moms were clearly in the wrong on that one. I'm confused. Anyway, some spoilers below but, really, nothing you couldn't guess from the trailer.

What's the hoopla about this movie? Maybe I'm being too hard on it because I was really really looking forward to this film, and it just didn't meet my expectations. I worry a bit that people think it's amazing just because the moms are lesbians and everyone wants to celebrate that. It's great when LGBTQ relationships are depicted as regular folk in movies, but it can't be enough to carry the film. Because if you take out that one ingredient, it's just about a couple who are getting stale, who connect with their donor who sleeps with the wife, which shakes up the marriage and upsets the kids, but they all live happily ever after. There wasn't a moment of clever dialogue. There weren't intriguing ideas presented that I had to go away and really think about for a while. There weren't unusual or intense characters presented. And there weren't, really, amazing acting skills being showcased here except, maybe, Mia Wasikowska. Bening is cute as a button, and she does a reasonable job, but I'm always conscious that she's acting. I never get lost in her performance. Look, she's doing cold and uppity. Now she's doing upset. Now she's doing sad. But maybe that's just me. Is she getting kudos just because she was able to kiss Julianne Moore convincingly? I've kissed worse.

Their daughter is leaving home for the first time, and the grief that could bring to some parents was barely registered. I know it's a light-hearted film, but comedies don't work when they gloss over pain. Their son is hanging out with a total jerk and the obsessive parents are practically oblivious. They mention disliking him, but they do little else even though they seem controlling in most other aspects of their lives. Everyone seemed a little flat in their performances.

I understood Ruffalo's character most. He's a player who suddenly realizes what he could have had, but doesn't, and he attaches with some desperation. But the family's reaction to this bothered me. There wasn't an ounce of understanding. He got full blame for the affair, and they wrote him off. So long as he's not there, they're all fine, right? There wasn't any resolution of any depth here. They held hands at the end - big deal. I predict Bening's character will go back to being controlling and Moore's character will meet someone else pretty darn soon.

If you want to see a good comedy about people having affairs and the problems that brings, check out Hannah and Her Sisters. I'm not a Woody Allen groupie, but this one is very good. It's hilarious, yet Allen has a way of still showing the grief and heartache and anxiety an affair can cause. It makes us react. Or, even funnier in my eyes is Play It Again, Sam. Remember that scene where Linda's getting into bed with her husband, but she's looking at that little skunk Allan got her. I know exactly how she was feeling. I wasn't watching her; I was right there with her.

If, on the other hand, you want to see a marriage in crisis acted beautifully in a way that gets you so involved you want to hug them and you cry for them and you really feel for each of them, and you cheer for them when they work through their crap and actually begin to get to the other side, then watch Rabbit Hole, and give this tripe a pass.

If what you're really after, though, is a excellent film with a lesbian couple at the centre of it all, I wish I could recommend one. Better Than Chocolate almost gets it. The story line could be so good in someone else's hands, but, like The Kids..., it's superficial and flat which is such a shame because it's so close to being really good! But I'm a Cheerleader is hilarious, but it's campy. It's not a realistic portrayal of a relationship, but it's still a lot of fun. The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love is cute, but by no means an excellent film. Actually, I loved the family in that movie - the main character's two moms were exceptional, but there's not enough of them. Go Fish has got to be one of the worst movies ever made, but it's still on top ten lesbian film lists because there's just not enough good lesbian films out there. There are others I can think of with a lesbian couple in the background, but not at the centre presented as normal, regular folk just going about their lives.

One that works better than most, actually, is Kissing Jessica Stein.  It's sort of about a lesbian couple, but one party is reluctant to fully embrace the identity.  It touches on some realistic issues though.  

I think this all means we're not far along enough to treat lesbian relationships as part of an excellent movie instead of the main focus, the special effect that will draw in enough of a crowd that the rest of the film can be painfully mediocre.

Any other lesbian film suggestions? Any truly excellent ones out there that aren't about the lesbian-ness of it all, but about life in general?

Winter's Bone and Animal Kingdom

"I said shut-up once already with my mouth!"

These two films are a tense and depressing look at the pain caused by drug addiction and then some. They were excellent. I watched both these movies behind spread fingers in places. NO spoilers below.

Winter's Bone is reminiscent of True Grit - it's the story of a young girl, Dee, in the Ozarks looking for her father and coming up against some tough characters in the process - but the dad and others are all running meth labs in this one. Of course they're all using too, and they look it. I love the girl in it; she's got balls the size of coconuts. And her uncle reminded me of a sketchy Dennis Hopper. I miss him. All the characters are a bit scary and dangerous. The interesting thing is how some real creepers end up seeming nice relative to the other truly creepy dudes. There was a plethora of creepy. The tender moments mixed in helped keep us going. We all need something to hang on to.

Animal Kingdom is an Aussie film about a family of criminals, some better than others, and their war with the police and each other. The characters are just as mean, but are cleaned up enough to be slightly less frightening on the surface.

In both films the women seem powerless and just rolling with the punches, but they show their subtle and substantial power as the films progress. Both films point out the role police play in adding to the violence, and that we can never know who to trust. Ever.

The films are also about the hopeful dependence on family. We can't trust the police, for sure, but can we trust our family? We never know for sure. We can't ever put our finger on when people will shift from good to evil or back again. It's always a gamble. But once in a while, some people are okay, and that's about all we can hope for.

On Purpose

A lovely film, and perfect for an ethics unit at school: Never Let Me Go.

It's about kids that grow up knowing they'll never be adults because their purpose in life is to be organ donors. Pretty harsh, eh? A few ideas stand out for me. NO spoilers below. I was careful!

There are lots of people in the world treated like this crew - worse really. There is a multitude who know from childhood that they will never get to choose a career, or a love life, or a home when they grow up. They're expected to work in fields or in factories until they die. Or they get to be sold or are taken to work as a prostitute until they're unfit for work. If they can't work, once their purpose is fulfilled, they get tossed aside, sometimes to suffer heinous deaths. Not so different. They exist to ensure others, we, have an easier time of it.

Take another step back and most of us are given a purpose: to consume, to shop, to take out mortgages that are scams that will ensure we lose everything we ever had. We're here so an even smaller and wealthier group (not we) can have an even easier time of it.

Is our purpose what we're driven to do, what we're best at, or what others have in store for us. For these children it's the last option. Aristotle would go with the middle one, and I kept thinking of him throughout the film, in a nutshell: We must each fulfill our function with excellence. Find what you're able to do better than (or to the exclusion of) other people, then spend your life working towards excellence in that area. That clearly doesn't work as the definition of purpose for the kids in the film or with exploited workers in real life. It also doesn't sit well with me because what I'm good at isn't what brings me happiness, and working at what I'm best at seems to serve other people - the type that don't need any more service thank you very much. I prefer the first idea: our purpose is what we're driven to do - our passions. I don't expect the old greeks to be on-side with me on that one.

There are stories the children are told and many of them they believe. Some they deny believing, but when push comes to shove, you can see the hope in their faces. There are religious overtones as some activists try to prove the manufactured children have souls. But others in the film recognize that it doesn't matter. Proof of souls won't save the children. They're stuck at the bottom. They serve too great a need to ever be looked on as equally valuable. We tell stories ourselves - many that lead towards a mythology of entitlement: "You're better than those other kids." Even if kids barely register our words, they're taking it all in.

But it all gets wound up at the end with a moment of apology and forgiveness. Even people with little future still need to move on from a tainted past. Forgiveness is powerful stuff. But sometimes outrage is a better fit.

High Life and True Grit

I recently watched True Grit and High Life. Both were entertaining romps.

I particularly liked Matt Damon in True Grit, and I don't typically like him much. Sure I love the Borne trilogy, most his films really, but I never really took to him. Maybe it was the 'stash that did it for me finally.

Jeff Bridges has been a long time favourite. Dude! And Last Picture Show anyone? Fabulous Baker Boys, Fisher King, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, The Morning After, and of course, Crazy Heart. Nicely done, Jeff.

But, nominations or not, I didn't much care for the girl. Especially because I first watched True Grit when I was a 7 or 8, and I had a serious crush on Kim Darby. She was one of my formative role models of girlhood!

I have no poignant connections to make between the two films except that they were both sadly entertaining - a dark slice of life, and both about desperation.

High Life is about a bunch of stoners that try to steal money disguised as ATM repairmen so they can finally live the high life - that is, stay high all the time. It had some funny moments, but it was a bit too sad for me to be altogether hilarious. They were pretty realistic addicts.

On Strippers, Wrestlers, and Ballerinas

...and teachers?

I watched The Wrestler and Black Swan on a Aronofsky double bill. They both have as a theme the draw of the performance, that addiction to the audience even when sometimes the audience is cruel. Sometimes when the audience is truly nasty, it just makes you work harder to get that applause again.

One review of The Wrestler claimed it was the story of a man who overcame his need for the sport, and I wondered if the reviewer saw the same movie as I just watched. He did anything but overcome his need to perform. He got the girl; she came to him and asked him to quit, but he let himself lose her again in favour of the ring. He couldn't stop, not for love nor life.

She, a stripper, managed to wrestle free of the thrill of the cat calls on stage, but we don't find out the rest of her story. I imagine she went back to it. It wasn't how she primarily identified herself in the first place though. "I'm not a stripper; I'm a mom."

Black Swan has that same addiction. She wants to be the best and has to fight off her own demons (or use those demons) to get there. Whatever works.

Performing takes us to a different world where we can connect to people but in a way that's within our control. It's not an even relationship. The stripper can keep the client at bay because those are the rules. And it's a tricky shift to see people in the audience as people, as individuals, and for them to see you as a person instead of a performer of sorts. The audience reaction tells the stripper she's sexy and desirable, the wrestler he's strong and capable, the ballerina she's graceful and perfect, and the teacher?  Well, maybe he or she is wise or funny.

One-on-one, we have little opportunity to tell people everything we know about Plato or Nietzsche or math or science. I don't get to explain entire theories I hold or tell them how I've connected ideas between two philosophies. How often does a stripper get to entice when she's making breakfast in her housecoat or doing groceries in her sweatpants - and how often would she even want to? It's mainly on the stage or the front of the room that we get to show off our very best - a well-rehearsed show. It's often at least partially rehearsed. Little is left to chance. Sure we get hecklers here and there, but even our responses to them are at the ready.

Real life, real conversations between people instead of at people, is far more treacherous. It's all ad lib, and rarely do we get a captivated audience by chance - or, I should say, rarely do I get one. It happens from time to time, and it's exciting that finally I can show my neighbours or colleagues or children or partner that I'm more than just a hippie history teacher and negligent mom bent on saving the environment.

For some teachers, they get in front of the kids at school and can be a bit of a god there. Students might sit with rapt attention waiting for what wonderful thing they'll say next. In the classroom they can be admired and respected.

But that type of relationship can't entirely satisfy. The stripper, the wrestler, and the ballerina, are loved by many yet deeply alone. It's admiration and longing and glorification of the act, the act becomes the person in the audience's eye, but it's not really love per se, because it's just the idealized version of the person that's up there - well practiced with cue cards just in case.

Love demands more risks and greater losses. It's more work to maintain, and often it's pretty boring. But those personal connections provide respect and admiration for the self, not the performer. The stripper figured it out, but nobody else really did.

Howl and Narnia and Hopeful Despair

Howl is about the Allen Ginsberg's poem.  The film is about whether or not the poem is obscene and how to define good literature. It's an interesting question. The experts all spoke of form and style and word choice and theme - a formal art stance. I took art courses and aesthetic courses in university. In the art courses, everything hinged on formal theory. Everything. Either a piece of art fit, or it didn't. But in the philosophy courses on art, suddenly I learned about so many other ways to determine beauty that the world burst wide open for me. Howl speaks to me. And that is all that needs to be said.

The film is also about mental illness and difference. It's about our sense of reality vs. the social sense of reality. Is a psych doctor's reality necessarily right for us? So many bright minds go mad, become isolates, drink themselves dead. We're outside Plato's cave, frustrated that we can't communicate with the masses within. All those people with potential who've been mislead and distracted by the minutia of fashion and housework and gossip and reality TV and the weather.

I love the poem "Howl." I loved it as a teenager and still now. It gives me a similar feeling as when I read "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock": a kind of hopeful despair. There's a deep sadness for the loss of potential, the crappiness of our lives which could be so rich and fulfilling - but won't be. Yet they excite me and entice me because of the connection I feel to the words and the authors and other lovers of the poems. Other people feel this pain, other people feel similarly off, therefore we are not as alone.

There's a status to the poems that make them fodder for teen angst, and I feel a bit ashamed that they still touch me. I feel like I should be over that already, that I should grow up and settle down. But there it is.  Whatever.

As for Narnia, if you can get over the Christian allusions, I like any story where the characters actually have character. It's an action movie, but they have to develop and overcome themselves. I'm a solid atheist, but there's a lot to be said for building character that I got from my churchly upbringing that is sorrily missing today. I don't think we need the church to bring it back; we merely need to believe it's necessary. Courage, sacrifice for others, kindness, patience, good works, love, forgiveness.... They got left behind when capitalism became the new false idol. "What sphinx of cement and aluminium bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?" Now we worship getting something for nothing, speed, efficiency, power, revenge, and greed.

Funny that.

Chaos Theory

I watched two movies that fit together quite nicely, and both really spoke to me: The Butterfly Effect (strongly advocated by my brother or I never would have gone there) and Rabbit Hole directed by John Cameron Mitchell of my favourite film of all time: Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

There's a part in Rabbit Hole where Kidman is given a comic book created by the guy who killed her kid, and I was so afraid her husband would destroy it. I didn't care nearly as much about the kid as I did about that piece of artwork. Make a copy dammit!! He worked so hard on that. These people are not to be trusted - they're too angry and broken to be rational! Get it out of that house! Spoiler alert: the comic book was safe.

Okay, real spoiler alerts from here on in:

The Butterfly Effect is about a guy who blacks out from time to time, and realizes that he can go back to these blackout sections of time to alter the future. But what he discovers is that no matter what he does, it never makes the future perfect. He can get close, but there's always someone damaged or suffering. He decides it's best if it's him. An honourable gesture, and it all works out in the end, I guess, except he and his girl aren't together - and she was pretty happy with him.

But the take-home message is that it will never be perfect. There will always be some suffering. Deal with it. And we can never really be in control of it all. Even if you can go back to the past to save the world, you can't know how your actions there will affect everyone. Marty McFly's parents got sporty. Who knew?

Rabbit Hole is about a couple who lost their child to a car accident - hit by a teenage driver right in front of their house. The teen writes a comic book about parallel universes. After Kidman rails against the God-lovers who thinks children die because God needs more angels, her mom (Dianne Wiest - I wish she was my mom) tells her everyone needs a form of comfort. Something. For some people it's God. Give them a break already.

Kidman reads more about this parallel universe stuff, and it's clear she gets some comfort from the idea that it's possible there's a different version of her, and her family, somewhere else, and in that version they're all happy and safe. This is just the sad version here. That really helps her cope with it all.  (It reminds me a lot of the Chaos episode of Community.)

Neither of those work for me, but I feel really good when I walk about outside and look at the trees and the moon. It's the same moon that you see too. It hangs out there for the whole world to see. It's constant - more or less. Nature reminds me of how small and insignificant I really am - but I mean that in the best possible way. My problems are petty little blips in the grand scheme of things. Nothing compares with eternity. And I'm part of this eternity - this galaxy. I'm larger than it all. And smaller too.

And that's okay.

A Serious Man

A Serious Man is the newest Coen brothers movie. The words of Henry Brooks Adams came to mind as I watched: "Morality is a private and costly luxury."

The story is great to watch if you ever feel like life isn't going your way. It can't be much worse than what this guy Larry is going through: marriage, kids, job, health - nothing's good. Nothing's solid. As soon as he gets his head around one reality, it all changes again. It's profoundly absurd.

The kids slay me. The son keeps interrupting the dad's tragedies with complaints about the TV reception. The intense self-centeredness of the teens, and in fact most of the characters, is comical yet very familiar, and it presents a nice contrast to the soundtrack of Grace Slick's words, "You better find somebody to love." There seems to be little real connection in the film. They're each adrift on their own islands.

Back to the morality. There are thieves and cheats and liars in the lot. Larry tries to live a moral life - he seems to be the only one remotely interested in doing the right thing, and it takes its toll on him. He gets ripped off by everyone because of his generous nature. Then as the tragedies build up in his life, he makes a pivotal decision to join the masses and become a liar himself, to cheat his way out of a tricky dilemma. Just at that moment, the phone rings with more bad news.

It's easy to be moral when everything is going well. It's much harder when we're struggling. We also note how immoral the very wealthy can become, but that's a different type of struggle - for fame, social ranking, and a love of money kind of strife that can't be easily remedied. Larry's just trying to stay afloat. And he dismisses his moral code in the process thereby also losing his integrity.

After Mother Theresa died, they found on her wall a version of the Paradoxical Commandments. In part...

The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spent years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway....
Give the world the best you have, and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. Give the world the best you've got anyway....
In the final analysis it's between you and God; it's not between you and them anyway.

As an atheist, I read the last line as it's between you and your self-respect, or your integrity, rather than God. Being moral is about doing the right thing because it's right, not for glory or respect from others. Morality is a private act. And sometimes it costs us big time.

I want to end with, "...but it's just right." But why is it right? Why is it better to live a moral existence and get dumped on than also be a cheat and liar to stay in the game? It's often the harder choice, and I wonder to what extent I try to be moral because I like a challenge. And perhaps it's just what gives me, personally, a sense of purpose in life.

Charles Taylor says, "For those who define the good as self-mastery through reason, the aspiration is to be able to order their lives, and the unbearable threat is of being engulfed and degraded by the irresistible craving for lower things." But he also names other ways to define the good, through religious means or honour or affirmation of the ordinary life. And I can't help thinking those others are just wrong even though I have no solid backing for my assertions.


With Nine You Get Spoilers

I saw 9 last night with my two teenagers. I left the little one at home despite her protests. In the first five minutes I was glad she wasn't there for this particular cartoon. There were some great monsters. It was, in brief, enraging because it's so close to brilliance.

Spoiler Warning

The first hint that this movie has strong religious overtones is that the safe place our heroes use to hide in is a church. Nevertheless...

It's 1939 and war has broken out, but it turns out differently than we might remember. An intelligent nuclear driven machine was created for good but used for bad. Standard. Just like in The Matrix, the machine took over and killed all the people. But the inventor of the machine realized the problem is he didn't give the machine a soul. The atheists in the group might say "a conscience" or "the capacity for ethical determinations." So he makes nine little machines that look humanish and finds a way to impart a portion of his soul in each. He dies making the last of them, 9, because his soul gets completely used up.

What I loved about the film is the idea that each of these nine creatures is part of the inventor. Among others, there's a superego who's obsessed with safety at all costs, little curious dudes, a brutish stoner, an intellect, and a woman - his anima. As a hermeneutical allegory, it was really cool. But that concept falls apart at the end and a few times before.

A few of the creatures get sucked up by the monster machine. They called out from the machine because they were trapped inside. But the machine doesn't ever sway its course. If the inventor was right, that it lack soul, then sucking up the creatures should have altered the machine's agenda - making it goofier after one, and smarter after another, etc. And the solution would be for the others to allow themselves to get sucked up to add to the kindness of the beast. But they don't.

Instead they find a way to kill the machine, and get the dude out. But they come out like souls and fly up to heaven. "Now you're finally free!" Barf. Somehow they should have all stuck themselves together to re-make one full person. But they don't. It ends with 9 and the female and the two little dudes together: a nuclear family reminiscent of the Teletubbies. And they comment that they've got the place to themselves. But what the hell will they do stuck there together? How long before they realize hell is other sentient beings?

It was all still very entertaining to watch. It's just unfortunate that it didn't go all the way - well, that it didn't go in the direction I was hoping. God is such an easy out.

HP6 and Whatever Works

Harry Potter 6 is well worth the 3 hours of film if you include excessive previews. It's a delight to watch! I particularly found it difficult to take my eyes off Malfoy. He went all out this time round. And whenever I see Maggie Smith (almost 75), I will always think of Miss Jean Brodie: "I'm past me prime gels," or, even better, "Six inches is perfectly adequate. More is vulgar!"

I don't, however, recommend this movie to a restless 5-year-old - not mine anyway. She loves all the movies, but only when she's watching them at home. For this, she was bored after about 20 minutes, and we had to make a few trips to the bathroom, and I was glad to have some toys on hand to entertain her because I wasn't bored in the least. She spent more time watching the audience than the film.

As for Whatever Works, I was sorrily disappointed. I hadn't thought much of Woody lately, but I loved Vicky Cristina Barcelona. So I was looking forward to something special, but it disappoints. The actors spoke like they were on stage, and the main character, Boris, spoke to the audience frequently, and that's typical for Allen, but I find it awkward to watch. It's impossible to get lost in the film when you're constantly aware these people are acting. I liked that Boris tells it like it is to everyone he meets. I tend to admire people like that. But his love interest, Melodie, was supposed to be his opposite particularly to his brilliance, but her stupidity was over the edge and grating. A few lines of hers were funny, but too many were just uncomfortable. He's the heartless brain, and she's the brainless heart, and they're both painfully two-dimensional.

At 92 minutes, it feels like it goes on forever, yet it really needs another half hour or so. Characters change paths abruptly and unbelievably. There's too many to get to know them very well in the time allotted, and most feel like they're just doing a first reading of the script. Instead of subtle dialogue and action leading the plot, everything's spelled out in efficient asides that are devoid of any creativity or poetry. By the end I felt beat over the head with the big message: Enjoy life in any way that works for you. There. I spoiled the ending for you, so you don't have to go. You're welcome.

Hannah and Her Sisters it's not. Too bad.

Bitter Film Bites

I ended up watching an oldie on TCM: Panic in Year Zero! with Frankie Avalon in a non-singing, non-Gigety role. It suited my mood because I recently had a very apocalyptic dream. I can't remember it at all anymore, but I do remember the feeling of having it.

I remember a different dream, however, in which I was auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance, and I made it to choreography, but I was wearing big black rain boots, so it was all very awkward. And I didn't want to take the boots off because they were my signature style or something like that. It felt like the end of the world albeit not literally.

Back to the film. It's 1962, and the Russians nuked most of the large cities in the U.S., and Ray Milland and family were fleeing into the countryside (where the radiation can't possibly get them). There was general chaos everywhere as people turned to lawlessness in the face of imminent death. One scene really made me mad. The dad and son go off hunting, and the daughter wants to come. But, of course not, silly. Girls shouldn't be using guns. Go back in the cave to make us lunch. Then the girl is raped by two bad guys, and the dad and son hunt them down and kill them (instant death with one shotgun blast to the belly - and no blood!).

It bugged me that the guys were obviously not very good protectors of this girl, yet they refused to teach her how to use a gun or even let her hold the thing for good measure. She wasn't allowed to protect herself yet was left alone. And it was all her fault for leaving the cave in the first place. She should know her place and do what she's told.

I got the same outraged feeling watching a very different movie: Straw Dogs. About his film, Sam Peckinpah said, "I didn't want you to enjoy the film. I wanted you to look into your own soul." Well alright then. I didn't enjoy the film. Even worse, I watched it with a bunch of guys who did.

The movie's about a mathematician and his pretty wife moving into the country where she gets raped. Apparently people should stay in the city for safety. Anyway, the wimpy math-dude gets clever over the course of the film and defends his home against a whole tribe of drunken rapist types. But that's just the thing - he defends his home, not his wife. The brutes sent him on a wild-goose chase while they buggered his woman, and he's more angry at being duped than outraged at the violation his wife has endured at their hands. His ego rates way higher than his wife's body and soul.

At the end, the nerd is setting up traps in his home. The wife is a bit useless. And my bf at the time turned to me and said, "If that ever happened to us, you better be more help to me than that!" He was right there with the protagonist. And I was right there with the wife. I was incensed that the idiot had no ability to protect his wife, yet she was offered no means to protect herself. It's his job to protect her, and he failed. She paid the price, but that's not what really matters. It's his feelings that matter. And it would have been just as bad for him, I'm guessing, had she successfully protected herself against attack. That would be just as demoralizing.

That potential scenario reminds me of New York, New York. There's a woman who can take charge of her life, and De Niro runs her down every time she tries. Instead of being her supporter, he's her competitor. Thank god he left. He was just a burden - but a charming burden.

The women in these first two movies were just offered up to the men, and the focus wasn't on their pain, but on how their poor men were holding up against some type of theft. In the Panic film, the mother tells Ray that their daughter is more worried about him than about herself. The poor dad is having to cope with his little girl's loss of innocence, and that's where our sympathy is meant to dwell.

And in NY, NY, Francine has to celebrate alone when she finally signs a record deal. Jimmy can't feel joy for her accomplishments because it puts him in second place.  And, apparently, that's what should really matter.


Benjamin Button

I watched The Curious Case of Benjamin Button last night. I didn't love it for the same reasons I didn't love Forrest Gump. It felt contrived and forced in too many places. But it sure pulled at my heartstrings. I was a basketcase by the end of it. And, unlike my mediocre reaction to Tom Hanks, I find it hard to look away when Brad Pitt's filling the screen - especially in scenes where he looks just like he did in A River Runs Through It.

Life and death as on-going and inevitable was beaten into us in the film. But I was hit by a few other themes, particularly the difficulty with being different, not fitting. Yet Benjamin actually did find a niche here and there - he managed to find a few groups of people that he fit with.

And I liked the ideas around love - how it's possible to be accepting that the time just isn't right and the people we love might be with other people until we're really to connect completely. And that even if we're in love, it's not always the best choice of housemate. Sometimes practical issues do get in the way of emotional bonds.

And I like the little bit on the randomness of life. Little things happen all the time that affect everything else, and we have no control over all these little things that end up changing our world in myriad ways. It's all a crap shoot. Well, of course there are choices we're able to make to blaze the trail in a better direction, but those choices aren't the only thing creating the path we walk. And sometimes they're barely even significant.


I'm always amazed when I come across similar ideas over and over in various places. I was in a bookstore and just flipped through a book that caught my eye: Anti-Cancer. Because of my family history, I have an on-going interest in new cancer theories or discoveries. But that wasn't what caught me. It was this:  Three groups of mice had tumours grafted on to them.
"One month after the graft, 63% of the rats that had received shocks but had learned to avoid some of them by pressing a lever had rejected the tumor. The rejection rate in this group was higher than in the control group (which had not undergone shocks), in which only 54% of the animals had rejected the cancerous cells. On the other hand, only 23% of those animals subjected to electric shock with no means of escape managed to over come their cancer. The helplessness of their situation had, it seems, hastened the tumor's spread....It isn't stress itself that promotes cancer development; it is the persistent perception of helplessness the individual has that affects the body's reaction to the disease."
So we're actually better off to be stressed out, but sometimes see an avenue out, than to never be stressed at all. So the fact that we're in a doomsday scenario these days what with the environment, the economy, and the proximity to 2012 and all, isn't a problem if we can see a direction to move in that will benefit our situation.

My question is, with situations much more complex than a shock that can be avoided, do we actually have to be able to help ourselves, or is it enough to have the illusion that we can help ourselves? Is believing that we're doing something the same as escaping the problem? And what if we just stop caring about the problem? Do mice ever acclimatize to the shocks? What if the shocks were minor at first then gradually increased?

And if I escape the problem by watching movies regularly, is that triggering the same cellular activity as if I actually escape the problem by avoiding the pain in the first place perhaps by no longer reading or watching the news?

I thought of these questions as I watched Vicky Cristina Barcelona. It's a gorgeous film. Several of the characters are trapped. An older woman is in a dead relationship but decides it's too late to move on, so when she meets a younger woman just starting a sparkless marriage, she tries to convince her to end it now. The older woman is being shocked and trying to escape by focusing on the other woman, projecting her pain elsewhere. The younger woman is being shocked but tries to get used to the pain. The others are in a triad that works well, a new member is a buffer muting the shocks betwen them. But when she leaves, they have to escape one another. And she is naturally restless so escapes all experiences before they get too painful, but thus endures a different kind of pain. Do all methods of escape count??

Until I just IMDB'd the film, I forgot it was written by Woody Allen. The dialogue made me think it was written by someone whose first language wasn't English. Everyone speaks in a very formal, grammatically correct way - how we might write to one another, but not how anyone I know ever speaks. That felt awkward, and I'm not sure what effect he was trying to achieve there. It's not something I've noticed in any of his other films. Beyond that, I could watch it over and over. But I'm a sucker for Woody.

Garbage! is Pretty Much Garbage

There's a film, Garbage!, that's being shown in select cities for FREE, which is almost unheard of. I got a notice to bring my students. Being a conscientious teacher that day, I bought the DVD to preview the movie.

Despite the exclamation point in the title, the film is painfully dull. It's marketed to kids of all ages, but I couldn't get any of my own kids to watch more than ten minutes with me. The camera is hand held, and, maybe because he's a such a dad, the cameraman sways a bit as he films. You know, like you see parent of little ones do whenever they see a babe in arms even if their own arms are empty.

I had problems watching Blair Witch Project for the same reasons.

The "smash hit" Garbage! is the amazing story of one family who collects their garbage for three months just to show how much crap an average family accumulates. We really could have gotten a shot of the very end result and skipped all the rest. The family didn't change their lifestyle at all - which I had expected, so it didn't show what we should do and how simple it really is to change, only what we do do. And the family wasn't funny or interesting or in any way remarkable - which I guess was the point - to find an average family. Sometimes it was a bit awkward to watch their tiffs.

And even though they use disposable diapers, which is a post all on its own, they still do twenty loads of laundry a week!! What the hell? I have a family of the same size, and I do two to four loads a week. Now, I make everyone use the same towel over and over every day for a week. Our society is so cleanliness obsessive it's ridiculous - not to mention unhealthy and time consuming.

I didn't come away with any useful lessons on how to reduce my garbage, just a guilt trip about how much we all use and, for me, a sense of superiority for not making nearly this much garbage, not using disposable diapers, not doing 20 loads of laundry, etc. I would have liked to see the garbage sorted further. This family has access to the green bin program, so they dump their diapers and meat and food waste there, and they have access to a blue box recycling program, but they still ended up with a garage full of garbage. Some of it was because of Christmas and Hallowe'en, but still. What's in all those bags??

The film does have little interesting segments about where garbage goes. It was divided under different headings so teachers could make use of the video a little at a time showing select bits of info, but then they'd have to pay for the rights - usually about $200 more. I don't think it's worth the cost and trouble for something I can just as easily explain without the visual.

It's not really that horrible a film; it's just so so disappointing when environmental films that are informative don't go all the way to being good too. And it certainly wouldn't keep the attention of a group of high school kids. The big climax of the film was that this family makes lots and lots of garbage. We suspected that all along. Big deal. The denouement: the family and their neighbours were all happy to see the garbage get taken away. Wow. Even though it's a documentary, it still needs us to care about the characters and keep cheering for them. They're probably very nice people, but I didn't root for them to keep storing their garbage.

Oh well.

Five Easy Pieces

When I was a pre-teen I felt a strong connection with Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces. He was free, doing his own thing, away from the expectations of a family of high-achievers. I longed for that kind of freedom. I longed for a lifetime of go-nowhere road trips.

Bobby was stuck in a family of musicians. He was brilliant, but never quite good enough or willing to work hard enough to get there. My parents were both professors, my sister was doing grade 13 math in grade 11, my other sister was valedictorian, the other, a musician and writer; my brother was “Deputy Mayor”- a title that evokes Deputy Dawg more than high-school politics, and my other brother won provincial math contests. Like Bobby, I’m the youngest of a large family, and the black sheep: I was a high-school drop-out and later an unwed mother.

Go me!

As children none of my siblings were like Tita, willing to love my foibles. They were more like Carl – just ignoring me, growing tired of waiting for me to come around – to finally be like them.  But I wasn't as charming as Jack Nicholson.

Bobby was aloof and cool. I mimicked that through my high school years. At the end of the film, we watch him stealthily ditching his pregnant girlfriend, but we don’t know where he’s headed – some say he’s going back home to practice piano and make amends, but it seems clear to me he’s headed for Canada, back into another mess with some other girl in another trailer-park town, or turning around to go back to Rayette.  Maybe, like me, he’s more responsible than he’d like to be. Is leaving his wallet with her a way of ditching his whole life up until then, or a leave-behind, an excuse to go back to her. He is certainly too fearful of his own family, of his own failure, to go back there.

I know just how he felt. After I quit school, I didn’t visit my parents for two years. I just dropped off the face of the earth. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t fit down the path they had laid out for me.  The big difference between Bobby and me is that my training stuck more – I couldn’t even pretend to leave the pregnant girlfriend. I stayed and did laundry and got old.

What do you do when you don’t fit into either of the worlds you inhabit – the uber-educated classics world of one-upping and leaving impressions, the “rest-home asylum" of pot-lucks and talk of children, OR the hard-working, rough-around-the-edges death metal world of scowling and tantrums? The second option seems more real, more authentic because it’s more intense, more awake. But maybe it’s just a sham too. So I look outwards to something necessary: life, the continuation of the species, concern for injustices, torture, and survival.

From a review: “Bobby cannot stand some of the more mundane aspects of this life – he wants more than Rayette (and possibly any other) can give him, yet he rejects the social sphere that can offer him more because of its implied intellectual (but vacuous) superiority. He is content in neither camp.... No matter where he goes, what he wears, or how he talks, he will not be able to find his place.”

Does Bobby have a responsibility to develop his musical talents? I felt a strong duty to use my abilities, to develop them in a direction most useful to humanity. But am I just developing myself enough to be used up by others?

It’s unsatisfying living cynically and hedonistically, like Bobby was. It gets old quickly. Imagining people holding the chicken between their knees is only funny so many times. So Bobby’s road wasn’t really cut out for me. A better path is one we’d want others to follow.

Harold and Kumar - Don't Go There

I loved the first Harold and Kumar movie, but the second, Escape from Guantanamo Bay, is horrid.  The film has tons of gratuitous brazilian waxed pubic shots and lots of semen scenes too. But worst of all, call me a prude, I just can't find the humour in sexual abuse. There's a running joke throughout the film about the meals at Guantanamo Bay consisting of a "meat sandwich" which alludes to the guard forcing inmates to perform felatio as their only sustenance.

I know it's all satire, and it's supposed to be anti-PC, but it seemed to make a mockery of the real torture going on at Gitmo. On satire:
"The best satire does not seek to do harm or damage by its ridicule... but rather it seeks to create a shock of recognition and to make vice repulsive so that the vice will be expunged from the person or society under attack or from the person or society intended to benefit by the attack."
This satirical torture just wasn't funny or ironic on any scale I can imagine. It was absolutely painful. I winced for most of the movie before being rescued by sleep.

I've Loved You So Long

SPOILER ALERT. I can't discuss this film without completely giving away the ending.

It's about a woman who has just been released from a 15-year prison term. Her sister takes her in until she can get a job and a place of her own. We find out that her crime was killing her 6-year-old son. Her husband testified against her, and their divorce was finalized while she was in jail.

"How could such an atrocious thing come into my head? What filthy things my heart is capable of."

I really connected with the killer, Juliette. She's quiet. People at her work complain about her aloofness. She's not a team player. The triangle between her, her sister and brother-in-law was reminiscent of the family circumstances in Lars and the Real Girl but with reversed genders. I also identified with Lars, socially awkward to an extreme. Awkward and quiet, sometimes possibly to the point of creepiness, they are both well-loved by many with little effort on their own part.

But the movie didn't take the path I was most curious to see. I had high hopes at the beginning. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Juliette wonderfully. I love how expressive her face is, telling us so much with the slightest movement. She looks hideous and beautiful and everything in between. She looks real. And in the beginning, it seems that she's got a dark soul that demands our exploration and understanding. At one point a new friend, who once taught in a prison, explains that people in prisons are no different than us, could be us. I nearly squeaked with anticipation I was so intrigued by this honest peek at the killer within, our heart of darkness. I was looking forward to the film shining a light on the dark corners of our soul. That's the path I wanted to travel.

But, here's the big spoiler, she only killed her son because he had a painful, terminal illness. It was a mercy killing, an act of love not cruelty or rage. Then Juliette is redeemed in everyone's eyes, and they all live happily ever after.

I wanted her to be redeemed as a heartless killer, as a person who took her evil impulses to the brink and worked her way back to civility. They discuss Crime and Punishment in the film, but don't get there themselves. When we thought Juliette was possessed with guilt, wrestling with her recollection of the killing, she was really just grieving her son's death. We wonder if she'll become remorseful, then realize she has no need for forgiveness. That wasn't a repugnant mental torture barely concealed we were privy to, but simple, acceptable sadness. Instead of the climax finding a means towards a gradual renewal of a woman after reaching the darkest point in her soul, it's a mere discovery of facts previously unmentioned. What a cop-out!

Okay, it's not a bad story. It's just a different story than I was hoping for. It looks at loyalty and love and loss, but just misses getting to a more profound depth of human understanding in its totality including revealing our hidden desires to harm.