Aug 12 2015

Mr. Holmes and the unreliable narrator in all of us

maureen

Mr. Holmes isn’t your typical summer movie. It’s a unique take on the character of Sherlock Holmes. Ian McKellen owned this role and was a joy to watch. In 1947 Sherlock Holmes is in his nineties, tended by a prickly cook (Laura Linney) and her perceptive young son. Holmes’ memory is fading and he’s trying to remember the particulars of a long ago mystery involving a glass harmonium. It was his last case. The case that caused him to retire. And now we cannot remember why.

Watson has died. Everyone associated with the case is gone. As Holmes tries to recount the case to the boy, it comes back in bits and pieces. Holmes has just returned from Japan where he’s gone to obtain some alternative herbs to help with the memory loss. His herbalist, another player whose part is uncertain.

Holmes’ medical doctor tries to get him to accept his condition and make care arrangements for himself. For someone for whom old age is a scant few decades away, parts of this film hurt to watch. In one scene Holmes’ doctor has him make a mark in his notebook every time he forgets something. Some pages are full. It’s devastating. Everyone who faces old age dreads this possibility.

Director Bill Condon keeps the pace slow and deliberate, yet the film moves as it switches between flashbacks to the younger Holmes working the 30-year-old case and the old recluse relating the tale to his young protégé Roger. When he feels up to it Holmes instructs Roger in his hobby, beekeeping, and in his trade, deductive reasoning. Roger helps Holmes sift through his letters and regrets.

The film made me think about the concept of the unreliable narrator. Holmes’ famed logic and attention to detail is now a jumbled mix of images and ideas. He is uncertain whether what he remembers is what actually happened. Filling in the gaps requires more induction than deduction. It turns out that Watson’s recounting of the tale takes extensive literary license, written for entertainment rather than accuracy. So Watson is also an unreliable narrator to Holmes’ life. Yet, given Holmes state of mind, we cannot be sure whether of Watson’s version is entirely wrong just because Holmes dismisses it.

All stories come down to the perceptions of those who tell them. Two people can witness the same event and tell very different stories. Perhaps we are all unreliable narrators relaying our stories as we remember the details, informed by our own perceptions and infused with the emotional tones we experienced at the time and how we feel about it now in retrospect. In the end it is the intentions of the storytellers and the need for reconciliation that reframes Holmes’ last case to help him find peace in the final chapter of his life.

God is the only one who knows our whole stories from beginning to end and what they mean. We live the stories we perceive, the ones others interpret based on their perceptions of the evidence, and the one that really is. It may only be on the other side that he know our own real stories and we may not even recognize some of the stories we’ve lived.

 


Jul 17 2015

5 random movies I liked on Netflix this week

maureen


Short Term 12 
is about a “short term” care facility for teens who can’t be at home but who, for whatever reasons, don’t fit into any long-term care models. Two twenty-something counselors, Grace and Mason, both former at-risk teens themselves, work through their own relationship challenges as they try to make unconscionable situations bearable for the teens in their care, some who have been in “short term” limbo for years. Brie Larson’s Grace is a wounded healer in every sense. Unresolved issues in her past come rushing to the surface as she herself in Jayden troubled girl she tries to help. It’s the little moments with each of the kids that makes the film so good. The film’s humor and honest emotional responses keep it from being the typical maudlin “inspirational” drama. Writer-director Destin Daniel Crettion shows, instead of preaches, compassion, empathy, and restoration. While the film reveals something so broken in our society, rather than focusing on all the issues associated with the problem, it offers a glimpse of a few starfish thrown back into the sea.

 


The Babadook‘s brand of horror is psychological deconstruction rather than a gory dismemberment. Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) was widowed by a car accident on the way to the maternity ward. Six years later her child, Sam, is a scary little kid she can’t understand or seem to help. Sam knows it’s there, that monster in the closet or under the bed, creeping out from the dark cracks in the house. It’s real and it has a firm hold on his perceptions. Amelia’s torment over her inability to rescue her son grips her as tightly as her growing realization that the Babadook is real. Writer-director Jennifer Kent uses image upon fractured image – a bizarre picture book, a series of strange film clips on the television, murky flashbacks to the accident- to lead the audience into questioning the reliability of Amelia’s point of view, and thus what we’ve seen through her eyes. Just as I felt after watching Pan’s Labyrinth, The Babadook left me questioning whether I’d just seen a horror movie,  a psychological thriller, or some combination of reality and metaphor.

 

In a World centers around the voice-over industry. Lake Bell wrote, directed, and stars in this funny, satirical look at competition and self-worth. Carol (Bell) is a voice coach whose competitive, egotistical father is a top dog in the voice-over world. Carol is a little uncomfortable with herself. She doesn’t want to be defined by family and colleagues who are considered more talented and successful but in many ways she’s let them define her. Though Carol wants more in her career she’s seen what unbridled hubris does to relationships so she is deliberately non-competitive and also a little naive. When Carol wins a coveted gig her relationships suffer. This is a thoughtful film about how professionals respond to one other’s success in a competitive marketplace.


From Time to Time, directed by Jullian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), is ghost story, murder mystery, and period piece set in two different time periods. I watched it because Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville are in it and because it’s based on one of the books in the Lucy M. Boston “Green Knowe” series I read and loved in elementary school. Near the end of World War 2 13-year old Tolly, played by Alex Etel (Millions), is sent to live with his father’s mother, Mrs. Oldknow (Maggie Smith) while his own mother desperately tries to get information about his father who is missing in action. Mrs. Oldknow is peculiar and a little distant, but believes him when he tells her he’s seen ghosts. Alex becomes involved in a 17th century mystery with the help of ghosts of children who lived and died at Green Knowe, the name of the house. More than anything else From Time to Time is about relationships.


In director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an independent cameraman who films gruesome crime and accident scenes and sells them to local news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who operates with the philosophy of “if it bleed, it leads.” Bloom gleefully applies everything he’s learned from internet self-help success videos, he’s obsessed with them, to nightcrawling.  Is Bloom devoid of moral reasoning or simply willing to cross any moral boundary to achieve his goals? Nina comes across at first as merely ambitious, but it seems that the boundaries she’s already crossed makes it easier for her make the compromises Bloom demands of her if he going to keep feeding her ratings-boosting gore. Rather than playing Lou as a easily-to-peg sociopath, Nightcrawler lets the audience observe and decide. He’s so bizarre and creepy that, like the scenes he films and sells, it’s hard to look away. In a strange way this makes the audience is complicit in the very practices the film seems to indict. It’s worth watching for Gyllenhaal’s performance alone.

 

 


Jul 12 2015

Inside Out: Emotional Intelligence made easy (at least to understand)

maureen

CONTAINS SPOILERS: Pixar’s Inside Out is about what goes on in our heads when we respond emotionally to experiences. Writer/directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen tell a familiar story to which anyone can relate in a way that offers insights and causes personal introspection beyond anything we might expect from an animated “kid’s” movie. I’ve never seen a story told in exactly this way. It’s refreshing.

Mostly set inside 11-year old Riley’s brain, the animated film deals with the stress brought on by change and the conflict we experience when we try to respond the way we think we are supposed to respond rather than expressing our authentic emotions. Five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, are characters in Inside Out who help her process the experience of moving.

Inside Out suggests that we not categorize our emotions as “good” and “bad.” The story is told from the point of view of Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, who understands that Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) can help us avoid danger, and Anger (Lewis Black) can inspire positive change but cannot see that Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith (The Office) has a purpose. Joy believed there was something wrong if Riley’s dominant emotion was not always joy.

The crisis in Inside Out is that Riley’s perspectives and identity are threatened by the toll taken both by stressing over this big change in her life and by hiding her true feelings about it because she does not want to disappoint her parents. Action in the film switches between scenes depicting the effects of Riley’s crisis on her emotions, her memories, and her identity, and scenes of Riley interacting in her new environment. The animation inside Riley’s brain is richly colored and complex while the scenes outside are simpler, with more muted tones.

While the way the brain works in the film doesn’t jive completely with brain research and psychology, it does a good job of showing the connections between emotions, identity, and memory. The different ways in which Riley gains identity: family, friends, sports, goofball, and honesty are represented as her Islands of Personality, while her memories are represented by balls colored by different emotions. The memories that define her perspective and outlook are represented as “core memories.”

Memory science indicates the way we process and retain memories is somewhat messier, but the idea that we reframe memories is borne out by research. Turns out the observer effect applies to our memories. Every time we remember something we change the memory a bit. As we mature our brains develop the ability to engage in abstract thinking, which allows us to process our experiences in a more nuanced way.  We come to recognize and acknowledge the mixed emotions that come with the complexities of human experiences.

Sadness is the heroine of the film. She displays empathy and authenticity. Her healing message is that grieving loss is a valid emotional response. Listening and validating another’s feelings, and “mourning with those who mourn” is powerful and helpful. Because Riley does not give herself permission to say “I am sad, I am hurting. I need comfort,” her Islands of Personality begin to collapse under the tension of trying to feel what she thinks her parents want her to feel and the need to express her authentic feelings about her struggle with moving. Riley acts out until she is able to acknowledge her sadness.

Self-awareness and truthful, authentic responses that come out of that self-awareness are important to emotional health and maturity, and to spiritual maturity. If our identities are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, we know that the “islands” of grace and hope cannot collapse. This understanding allows joy to mix into the other emotions we experience, but many of us Christians feel we must put on a happy face all the time because we think it’s what God expects, or that this mask of happiness will attract others to faith. Jesus would never have promised and provided a Comforter if we weren’t going to need one. He would never have let himself be called “Man of Sorrows” if God expected unfettered joy. Honest emotional responses help us to develop empathy for others because we, like our High Priest, are able to be touched with “the feelings of infirmities” that we all experience. To everything there is a season and when it’s time to weep, we will be emotionally and spiritually healthier if we let sadness take the lead.

 

 


Jun 7 2015

What I learned watching Netflix last week: Relationships are Hard and Forgiveness is Essential

maureen

This week on Netflix I watched Chef, Drinking Buddies, Detachment, and The Judge. Though very different in plot, character, and tone, they shared a couple of common themes: 1. relationships are hard and 2. forgiveness is essential.

Chef is a comedy about a divorced chef played by writer/director Jon Favreau, who is trying to rediscover his creative mojo with support from his son played by Emjay Anthony, friendly ex-wife Sofia Vergara and faithful sou chef John Leguizamo. Chef Carl Casper seeks personal satisfaction and creative expression through his career at the expense of time with his son. Events conspire to change that and he rediscovers who he is as a chef as he reconnects with his family and re-prioritizes relationships. Carl even get’s a second chance in some of the most adversarial relationships in his life.

My takeaways: Forgiveness is a reset. When both parties are amenable, forgiveness can move any relationship into mutually beneficial, mutually transformational experience. Flow, self-actualization, personal fulfillment – whatever you want to call that sense of completeness and happiness we all hope to find in life – involves satisfying relationships not just professional success.

Drinking Buddies is a comedy that explores the line between friendship and romantic involvement, fear of commitment, and honesty in relationships. All of these themes play out as an undercurrent to the action and the dialog, which, in a refreshingly naturalistic approach taken by director/writer Joe Swanberg, was all improvised by the cast who were given the general story arc. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake M. Johnson) are co-workers in a Chicago craft brewery. Each is in a relationship with someone else. Luke has been in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick) for six years and considers Kate a buddy. Kate is in a less serious relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston). A weekend at a lake cottage confirm that Luke and Kate have much more in common while Jill finds herself attracted to Kate. The four individually grapple with serious questions: What do I owe someone in a relationship? What do I owe myself? What constitutes cheating? Do like-minded people necessarily make the best partners?

My takeaways: Part of the work in any relationships is accepting that everyone and every relationship is complex, fluid, and flawed. Alcohol definitely enables the flawed aspects. Part of the work in a romantic relationship is being willing to commit not only physically but emotionally to that one other person.

Detachment is a drama starring Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who is a perceptive and gifted communicator but instead chooses to stay aloof and uninvolved. As much as Henry’s personal baggage compels him to remain detached, his compassion and passion for troubled young people wins out. Detachment is set in a big-city school populated by frustrated teachers and administrators (played by a really great cast including Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner) caught in big-city education bureaucracy and politics. Many care but can’t understand the apathy and animosity of their students. My one problem with this film, perhaps the one that earned it that green splat on Rotten Tomatoes, is that it takes the opposite approach from Drinking Buddies and is heavy on telling rather than showing. That said, teachers sometimes have to tell because students don’t always see the subtext. Besides some of Henry’s rants are incredibly perceptive and well expressed. Detachment is sad and dark and offers no easy answers.

My takeaway: Baggage is unavoidable and no excuse to withdraw. Sometimes the relationships that are the most trouble are the ones that carry the most opportunity for personal growth and tangible grace. Open up.

The Judge is a courtroom drama starring Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer and Robert Duvall as his estranged father Judge Joseph Palmer. Hank is a successful lawyer in Chicago who doesn’t believe he can ever atone for his past failures or earn his father’s approval. Now he must defend his father in court. Directed by David Dobkin, this film is packed with relationship dysfunction and difficulties: How do grown children deal with a parent who might be losing mental function? How do families explain complex situations to a mentally challenged member? How does forgiveness keep working when the consequences are life-changing and on-going?

My takeaway: Stop trying to atone, ask for forgiveness when needed and forgive when asked. Accept where the relationship is right now, even when it’s tense, without burning bridges or laying down ultimatums. Give relationships space to heal and grow. Keep showing up.

 

 

 


Jun 4 2015

Game of Thrones’ religious zealots and freedom lovers

maureen

AryaI’ve got a few musings on Game of Thrones. I noticed a couple of parallel themes concerning religious zealots and freedom. I have no idea whether this was intentional by the show’s creators or simply a projection of themes I’ve been pondering personally, but here are my thoughts:

Cersei possesses some of the qualities I find most reprehensible. She grasps for power, wealth and position. She manipulates, lies, and betrays to get her way and cover herself. Trying to use the Faith Militants to get at the Tyrells backfired. Now she’s locked in her own dungeon by the Sparrows, religious zealots who worship the Seven, until she confesses her sins. I’m not sure Game of Thrones could have done anything that would make me root for Cersei Lannister, but I find religious enforcers just as reprehensible as everything Cersei represents. Cersei is resisting and I’m pulling for her.

Forced confession and repentance is not confession and repentance at all. Making people comply to religious rules and bow to religious authority is not redemptive.

Melisandre takes compliance a step further.  She serves the Lord of Light that her religion teaches is the one true god. She uses sex as conversion therapy, has visions at the most convenient times, and, when those coercions fail, sacrifices those who won’t convert in a big bonfire. She’s convinced Stannis that he is the reincarnation of one of her religion’s legendary heroes and that her religious practices are responsible for his victories. She is now trying to convince Stannis that offering his daughter as the next human sacrifice is the only way to assure his next victory. I don’t know whether Melisandre is scarier as a true believer or a master manipulator. Is Stannis finally going to wake up?

The message “convert or die” is a sure sign that dark forces are at work no matter what the messenger calls the god.

Arya Stark goes to sleep whispering the names of heinous people who have hurt her and her family. The litany of names reinforces her hatred for the people on her list and her determination to see them pay. We pull for her. We want her to get revenge. But now she’s come to the House of Black and White, this strange cult that worships the many-faced god, a conglomeration of all the other gods worshipped in the GofT universe. They focus on the god of death in each of these other religions. They seem to believe that assassination is an act of mercy carried out as dispassionate religious ritual. Part of Arya’s training is that she deny her identity so she can learn to change her face and lie. Not all in, Arya hid her sword Needle in the rocks instead of disposing of it as she was told. Are the names fading? Is Arya the acolyte actually going to drink the kool-aid? I hope not.

If you are going to make a litany of the names of your enemies, maybe it’s more constructive to make it a prayer of goodwill for them. Forgiveness is freedom.

Tyrion and Daenerys had a heart-to-heart about compromise. Daenerys has been conflicted about how to implement her ideals as ruler. She’s rightly uncomfortable with the idea that she might be endorsing violence by allowing it. She’s already compromised and resorted to killing to establish her power. Now she’s got an advisor in Tyrion who is telling her she’s wise to continue on this course “for the greater good.” The alternative is to become the High Sparrow. This is an alliance that has some legs. Can’t wait to see what comes next for Tyrion and Daenerys.

Sometimes the cost of leading free people is to leave room for them to choose evil with the hope of leading them to choose good. It’s a tough and messy course.

Jon Snow, now leader of the Night’s Watch, allies with the Wildings to fight the White Walker invasion. He’s not out for power or to change their way of life. He’s offering a mutually beneficial alternative to all of them becoming wights, the GofT version of zombie servants of the Walkers. Could the head Walker, aka The Night King, be the long lost Benjen Stark from Season 1? Is Jon Snow’s demise going to the Ned Stark shocker for Season 5? I hope not. My theory is that Jon’s mother is a Targaryen and that Jon and Daenerys are the match that can win the game. If that doesn’t pan out my money’s on the Direwolves.

“Give me liberty of give me death” takes on a whole new meaning when being free means living on the other side of the wall.

Ask the Maester is great source of explanation for all things Gof T. Check it out.


May 25 2015

5 Things that make a great war movie

maureen

Memorial Day is a great day for a good war flick. What makes a good war movie?

saving private ryan1.  A sacrificial hero. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. A good war flick communicates the loyalty and loss that going to war requires. A good war flick takes the hero on a journey that involves loss of innocence, growth of character, acquisitions of skills, and development of trusting relationships with other soldiers.  Capt. John Miller, a 30-year old married English teacher from Pennsylvania leads his company through Omaha Beach and into France in search on one man he’s been ordered to find. Miller is the picture of intelligent integrity and responsibility as he leads men he’s grown to care about into harm’s way on a mission he’s not completely behind.

Real soldiers say the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is an accurate picture of the chaos and horror of a real battle. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan has all the elements of a great war flick, a great sacrificial hero, a worthy cause on both an epic and personal scale, a great ensemble cast, and carefully crafted and researched battle scenes.

black hawk down2. Research. It may sound nerdy but a well-researched war movie brings history alive. Authentic replicas of costumes and weapons, settings that mimic the real thing, re-enactments of specific details, dialog that voices that particular time period go a long way toward giving the audience a glimpse into what it was like to be there. There are times when keeping the story on track or developing a strong character arc requires altering or leaving out historical details, but those decisions should be deliberate choices that serve the story rather than the result of sloppy research.

Black Hawk Down depicts the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993 which occurred during the American intervention in Somalia. In polls of soldiers who actually fought and military historians, Black Hawk Down is frequently chosen as a film that is historically accurate. According to Dan Ryan, a soldier who served there “the uniforms were right, the way the soldiers talked and acted was right, the weapons were right.” A realistic portrayal of war often relies on realistic depictions of the responses and interactions of the soldiers involved.

band-of-brothers3. A group of soldiers. The bonding and loss that takes place between fellow warriors creates unique relationships. The obvious representative film for this is Band of of Brothers, a collaboration production between Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. This HBO series premiered in 2001 and follows two lieutenants from training camp in Georgia to the end of the war in the European theater.

The series not only depicts the war effort but some of the simple practical aggravations that war brings involving everything from supplies and communication to strained relationships and military .

A highlight of the 10-part series are brief interviews with actual veterans of Easy Company.  It’s worth a Memorial Day marathon.

war film glory4. Inspiring Heroism. The protagonist soldier who understands why he at war and heroically supports that noble cause at great personal sacrifice can really inspire.

Brotherhood, courage, loyalty, and  overcoming prejudice are big themes that inspire in Glory, a 1989 Civil War film directed by Edward Zwick. Matthew Broderick plays Col. Robert Shaw, an idealistic white Union commander of a newly-formed black regiment who must learn to lead. Denzel Washington’s Private Trip has a powerful character arc as he overcomes his own anger and prejudice. Ideas like heroism and nobility can come off as corny, but Glory avoids corniness this by simply telling the stories of strong characters who grow as human beings through the experience of fighting together.

When the audience can get behind the reasons for the war being fought on screen it’s much easier to focus on the heroic and noble aspects of war. Glory doesn’t glorify war but it does glorify the heroic and noble character that serving in war sometimes inspires in imperfect people.

apocalypse now5. Battle scenes. Most war movies involve at least one epic battle. Soldiers protect one another. They fight. They lose friends on the battlefield. They kill. The sometimes they get to use cool equipment. Sometimes they have to get innovative with the equipment they have. Stuff blows up.

The helicopter battle scene in Apocalypse Now is one of the most epic in film. Target after target is destroyed. Machines, trees, and soldiers flash in confused cacophony to a score of Wagner’s Ride the Valkyries. The audience can practically smell the Napalm and it doesn’t smell glorious.

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film about Vietnam isn’t an “inspiring” war film about a noble cause. The psychological toll of this controversial war unfolds in the development and degradation of the main characters, Willard, Kurtz, and Kilgore, played by Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall.

In a film in which there is conflict over whether that war should have been fought at all, the tone is often dark, cynical, or fatalistic. Films about wars like Vietnam often focus on the horrific aspects of war. Sometimes the worthy cause a war film communicates is avoiding war altogether.

 

 

 

 


Feb 8 2015

Birdman, Creativity, and Meta narrative film

maureen

Birdman leaves a lot open to individual interpretation and its ending has spawned multiple theories. SPOILERS in the link! It may require multiple viewings to solidify those theories. I think I need to see it again to decide.

Riggin, the aging star of superhero films is trying to make a comeback with a stage play by his personal muse Raymond Carver. He wants to create something great and is willing to sacrifice everything to make this play work. His relationship with his family is strained and his professional colleagues question his artistic decisions. Throughout the film he interacts with his superhero persona, Birdman who props up his sagging ego. Shot as one continuous take to reflect Riggin’s stream of consciousness throughout the story, Birdman takes the point of view of an unreliable narrator who may be delusional or may be possessed of supernatural powers. The film may or may not offer visual cues to help the audience distinguish reality from fantasy, if any of it is fantasy.

How it begins provides a more definitive perspective. Raymond Carver’s quote begins the film:

“And did you get what you wanted from this life?”
“I did.” “And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

This film raises some questions about the nature of creativity, ego, and recognition. What do human beings hope to get out of creativity? While creativity is a means of expression it is also a means of communication, how others respond  to what we’ve created matters, even when we pretend it doesn’t. Do we interpret how others receive and accept what we communicate through our creations as how they receive and accept us. Do we evaluate the worth of our creations by the responses of others, especially our creative peers and educated critics of our arts? How is the creation itself affected when the creator’s motives for making something becomes approval and adulation?

Birdman explores these questions but offers no definitive answers. Riggins struggles with what playing Birdman has made him in his own mind and in the eyes of the public. While it hasn’t gained him the respect or acclaim he craves, it did make him popular and beloved among audiences. Audience response is especially critical for performance artists. Without an audience there is no performance. And yet what is popular with an audience may not be popular with critics. Riggin wants so much to be respected for his art by his peers but being Birdman places him on a lower tier in the eyes of peers and critics.

Interestingly much of the critical commentary garnered by the film itself reflects this theme. The film is up for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, best supporting actress, screenplay, cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing. It’s already won awards in some of these categories. Director/Screenwriter Iñárritu is getting lots of well-deserved attention. Lubezki’s unique and challenging cinematography is mentioned in just about every review.  The acclaim former Batman star Michael Keaton has received for his performance is exactly what his character Riggin wants. It will be interesting to see what the Academy does with Birdman. Though his isn’t the only Oscar-worthy performance, I do think Michael Keaton deserves the Oscar for this. 

Does this strange parallel make Birdman a meta-meta-narrative? Films like Birdman, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento and quite a few more, mostly produced in this century, represent a shift in film narrative. Stories are deliberately complex and non-linear.

Works and artists that represent innovation or transcendence, or those that mark transition from one era to the next, Beethoven and Impressionist art for example are the ones students study for generations to come. The rest are merely representative of a period or genre, albeit, some very good representations. These works are popular because they satisfy audience expectations and meet their aesthetic needs. Innovative works require more work from the audience and may even challenge existing aesthetics.

The audience must make a greater mental investment and may need multiple viewings to get what’s happening. The audience must not only suspend disbelief but also to surrender modern certainties for post-modern conceptualizations. And yet viewers of these films understand that they are watching a very deliberately crafted film that contains breadcrumbs from the creators of the film intended to lead both to discovering meaning but also to individual interpretation and theorizing. 

There’s no shame in going to the movie and enjoy a simple, emotionally satisfying narrative or just watch stuff blow up. There’s no shame in producing, directing, or acting in such a film. Perhaps the end of Birdman has something to do with embracing being part of creating higher art and being part of offering an audience a simple satisfying story or an inspiring hero even when it’s not considered high art.


Dec 24 2014

The Hobbit as prequel: my take on Desolation of Smaug

maureen

Trying to make a trilogy out of The Hobbit felt stretched “like butter scraped over too much bread.” While I really enjoyed the first two Hobbit movies, those two movies represented about 300 pages of the book while Desolation of Smaug covers the last 50. The dragon scenes were the best part. The Battle of the Five Armies took up most of the story and felt like they had been done – and better – in Lord of the Rings. It also could be that I am just too much of a Tolkien nerd for Desolation of Smaug to work for me. Continue reading


Oct 12 2014

Looking at Gone Girl through a Johari Window

maureen


SPOILER ALERT:

Gone Girl reminded me of the Johari window. JohariWindowThe idea is that there are four panes in every relationship that adjust in size through the course of the relationship. As we get to know someone the open pane grows. The hidden pane shrinks as that person chooses to disclose things about himself. Over time spent together we gain insights into that person and earn the right to speak share our insights about him so that through knowing us his hidden pane gets smaller. One would expect that the open pane would grow very large in a marriage relationship.

Applying this model to Nick and Amy Dunne’s relationship is disturbing because Amy’s hidden and unknown panes are so large. Everything Amy thinks she knows about herself is informed by something in her hidden window. According to most psychologists sociopaths know that they are sociopaths. They are very good at hiding this from other people and often come off as charming. They are also great manipulators. Amy carefully controls what Nick thinks is her open self. She also uses her relationship with him to manipulate him both through what he’s revealed to her through the open pane in his relationship with her and through what she knows about him that he doesn’t know about himself. Rather than using that information to enhance and heal their relationship, Amy uses it to manipulate Nick into taking the fall for her murder.

Nick illustrates that we don’t have to be sociopaths to seek to manipulate others’ views of who we want them to think we are. Nick tries to control his open and hidden windows with Amy because of his affair, but next to Amy, Nick is a rank amateur at manipulation. He’s not really built for it anyway. Giving him a twin sister is an interesting choice because twins tend to have an empathetic connection that lets them into one another’s blind and hidden selves. Margo may not know the details but she senses when Nick is not open and honest with her, and the more open Nick is with her the greater clarity he seems to have. To a great extent this empathy is the key to successfully tracking Amy’s moves. Continue reading


Oct 5 2014

Destiny, chance, and choice in the motifs in Forrest Gump

maureen

gump shoes“I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it’s both,” Forrest tells Jenny as he stands over her grave. Forrest Gump begins and ends with the feather caught on the breeze. Yet this seemingly random feather lands at Forrest’s feet and he picks it up.

It lands there as he waits for the bus that will reunite him with Jenny twenty-something years after their first meeting. He picks it up and puts it in his Curious George book, the book his mother read to him when he was little. Later it falls out of the book at another bus stop and is carried away by another breeze. (Notice how many films begin and end with bookend scenes like this.) 

A motif is a repeated image, symbol, object, or word in a film that points to a theme. When something is repeated several times in a film it usually is important. Forrest Gump has a number of motifs including the feather and the chocolates that point to the themes of destiny, chance, and choice.  Continue reading


Sep 13 2014

Reflections on Forrest Gump: Forrest knows what love is

maureen


Forrest Gump says “I’m not a smart man but I know what love is.” And he does. He loves his Momma, Bubba, Lt. Dan, and, most of all, Jenny.

Forrest shows his love for his mother by remembering and respecting what she teaches him. Mrs. Gump equips Forrest with an outlook that marks the way he processes the things that happen to him throughout his life. It is Forrest’s acceptance of whatever comes out of the “box of chocolates” that allows him to become a participant in historic events without questioning whether he belongs there. He accepts himself and believes he has something to offer because His mother instilled worth and confidence in him. He values other people in the way Mrs. Gump teaches him to value himself.

Forrest rushes into the Vietnam jungle to save his friend Bubba and ends up saving four other men. Forrest honors Bubba by following through with the plans they made to go into the shrimping business even though Bubba is dead. So deep is Forrest’s connection to his friend that he shares his fortune with Bubba’s family even though he doesn’t know them well and they think he’s stupid. Continue reading


Jul 31 2014

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is so good. Go see it.

maureen

Watching Boyhood is a reminder that all our lives are a series of seemingly insignificant vignettes that both reveal and shape who we are. Boyhood follows an episodic narrative style. It is driven by character and theme rather than plot. Shot over a 12-year period, scenes play out like a series of snapshots that communicate the mood and tone of what is happening each year.

It’s no accident that photography plays an important role in the film. Boyhood is like watching time-lapse photography. The audience sees Patricia Arquette’s hairstyles and weight fluctuate as she ages 12 years in a little under three hours. Ethan Hawke’s face develops lines. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up before our very eyes. Continue reading


Jul 20 2014

RIP James Garner and thanks for The Notebook

maureen

NotebookR.I.P. James Garner. I loved him as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, but he won my heart as Duke in The Notebook. Duke is the epitome of the faithful husband. Garner’s nuanced performance makes profound lines that could have come across as maudlin or trite completely relatable.

The film begins at a nursing home as the elderly Duke reads a story from a notebook to an elderly woman patient. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Allie doesn’t know Duke is her husband and has no memory of their life together. The love story that Duke reads sometimes seems vaguely familiar to her. As Duke reads the film flashes back to the action in the story.

SPOIILER ALERT: (Do yourself a favor and see The Notebook. Even if you are a guy. Not only the acting really fine, the directing and cinematography is amazing. The repetitive use of water and birds as motifs is masterful. And the romance is far deeper than your average Rom Com. It’s about the stuff that happens after happily ever after that defines real love.) Continue reading


Jul 4 2014

Movie Clips to celebrate the 4th of July

maureen


President Whitmore – Bill Pullman – Independence Day “Right to Live”


Stacker Pentecost – Idris Elba – Pacific Rim “United”

 


William Wallace – Mel Gibson – Braveheart – “Freedom”

 


Coach Boone – Denzel Washington Remember the Titans “Gettysburg”

 


V – Hugo Weaving – V for Vendetta “Revolutionary Speech”


Jun 29 2014

X Men: Days of Future Past

maureen

SPOILERS

X-Men: Days of Future Past  has some continuity problems, but I enjoyed it. Good fight scenes. Good character development. Great casting.  The X-Men saga deals with themes like good and evil, control and power, and intentions and consequences. Days of Future Past provides a 20/20 hindsight on how these themes have played out in earlier X-Men movies. There was a lot going on in the plot that may be lost on those who haven’t seen at least some of the previous X-Men movies.

Time travel movies like this usually hinge on the idea that certain events drive change in history. A perfect storm of creativity, innovation, discovery, and technology bring about leaps in learning, communication, and industry such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Age. Perfect storms of ambition, animosity, and greed, along with natural disasters, have historically pushed nations, and at times the entire world, into war or economic depression. Days of Future Past brings us to that culminating moment in X-world when the government, reacting to the perceived threat they present, build big robots and send them out to kill all the mutants. Continue reading


May 31 2014

Searching for Sugarman encourages creativity

maureen


Searching for Sugarman is a story about one unique man, Rodriguez, but it is an encouragement for the rest of the observers and interpreters among us, the writers with a thousand posts and sixty followers, the musicians posting amazing songs with a couple of likes on Soundcloud, the artists whose gallery wall is Facebook, the creatives who work day jobs and create because they need to and want to even if they never get a check or an audience. Poets and philosophers write because they have something to say. not because they have something to gain. They have already gained, or they are in the process of gaining, some elusive but personally important thing that is the impetus for creating. When we cast our bread upon the water we have no idea when and how it might return. For Rodriguez it comes floating back nearly thirty years later. Continue reading


May 18 2014

Why Godzilla almost did it for me

maureen

SPOILER ALERT

I guess I like my monsters served with a little cheese and humor.

First the good stuff. Five cities were wrecked in fine style by well-imagined, well-executed prehistoric beasts. Lots of things blew up. There were some awesome clash of the scaly titans scenes near the end. Godzilla had wonderful sound effects, good graphics, and an exciting 3-D visual experience that made this a fun monster movie.

When I voiced my disappointment with the characters and plot the outcry from my family was, “What did you expect!?” Ok, ok, I get it. I know what Godzilla is supposed to be, but most world-threatened-by-____________(aliens, monsters, nature-gone-wild, military-experiments-gone bad, etc.) films  include some sort of clear, on-going conflict between major human players.

Godzilla was sort of the anti-Pacific Rim, last summer’s soap-meets-monsters blockbuster. Where Pacific Rim went too far, Godzilla didn’t give me enough. Nice round characters with clear goals and motives perform their roles earnestly and seriously. This is probably what you’d want in real life, but I felt like the film needed some human antagonists.

Even when the main antagonist is a monster it helps to have characters dealing with fear or guilt or displaying some hubris or ambition. The closest to conflict Godzilla came was a difference of opinion as to the best way to eradicate the monsters. Admiral Stenz was way too reasonable and professional. Dr. Serizawa (who, by-the-way, should have been close to 70 years old if his father was at Hiroshima) and Vivienne Graham made their recommendations and didn’t put up much of a fight. The young Brody family were all loving, brave and supportive.

The most interesting conflict played mostly off camera with backstory on Joe Brody. Introducing a conspiracy theory then killing off the theorist took away a lot of opportunities for entertainment and conflict. It might have been cheesier, but it would have been more entertaining for me to keep him around. Godzilla rushes through the coverup without giving the conspirators faces, except for Serizawa and Graham who are way too nice; a conspiracy theory needs a General Donald McClintock (Outbreak) or Albert Nimziki (Independence Day).  

Godzilla focuses almost exclusively on military response to the monster problem, which helped its length and focus, but I missed the disaster management piece that is usually part this type of movie. No Theirry Umutoni (World War Z) or Mike Roark (Volcano) to coordinate the response, no President Morgan Freeman agonizing over necessary sacrifices (Deep Impact). Last year’s World War Z used specific characters and scenarios to represent the conflicting complexities federal and local governments, the military, the press, hospitals, etc. might face in dealing with a mega-monstrous disaster. Godzilla included rushed scenes of nameless, faceless players. The best scene related to this was the baller bus driver on the Golden Gate.

The Mutos/Godzilla conflict reminded me of Jurassic Park. The part of the Velociraptors was played by the Mutos while Godzilla performed the T-Rex’s exterminator function. I did love the scene with the Mutos’ egg sac but, I didn’t find the Mutos as interesting as the Velociraptors. Godzilla himself was lots more fun but didn’t get as much screen time as the Mutos. I would have enjoyed seeing more of him.

Finally, having Godzilla tromping through San Francisco’s Chinatown made me long to have Hank Hill pop up and ask “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” Godzilla was originally imagined in Japan as a symbol of nuclear weapons and a metaphor for the United States so there was a certain irony in assigning the nuclear role to the Mutos. Whatever the thinking there, it didn’t matter much. It was still a bitching monster fight.


May 2 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel was just the story I wanted to be told

maureen

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lovely, funny tale told as meta-narrative, a story about a story being told. It takes place in an almost real land in an almost historical setting. I’m always tempted to wear pajamas to Wes Anderson movies because he makes me feel like a kid who is about to hear a story. Even though his themes and tone are definitely for grown-ups, his story telling style demands the suspension of disbelief that makes hearing a yarn as a child so delightful.  It’s not realistic but the story is consistent to it’s own set of rules and the themes are accessible and universal. It was an enchanting hundred minutes.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is populated with zany characters played by the usual suspects in an Anderson film: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, and newcomers to Anderson’s films: Ralph Fiennes, Saorise Ronan and Tony Revolori. The characters take themselves seriously in the midst of the surreal silliness of the plot. The deep sincerity of Gustave and Zero plays in stark contrast to the slapstick situations in which they find themselves. As concierge Gustave is the picture of solicitous perfection. Acting as mentor to young Zero, Gustave passes on his philosophy of service and his love for the grandeur of Grand Budapest Hotel.

One aspect of Gustave’s service is “taking care” of the needs of rich, elderly women who are guests of the hotel. His devotion to one such lady lands him in an inheritance battle with her children. Throw in a stolen art piece, greed and poverty, evil Nazi-ish cops, and romantic adventure  for Zero and oh, yes, a train; and the funny-sad-exciting-reflective story unfolds as told by Zero to the unnamed Author in 1968 whose book is being read on a bench by a teenage girl in present day. (Summarizing this requires several run-on sentences, so get over it grammar freaks.)

In addition to the financial appreciations, Gustave does seem to have a certain attachment to these older ladies, perhaps because they hold to the manners and customs of the age that is quickly slipping away. Years later, as Zero tells the story to another guest, he says of Gustave, “I think his world had vanished long before he even entered it.” The first few decades of the twentieth century marked a slow death to an era of manners and pretenses. It was a time when fortunes were made and flaunted and a time when people dressed up for dinner. Gustave and Zero’s story takes place in a similar time. Formality is beginning to relax in their world too, but Gustave is having none of it. The Grand Budapest clings to its shabby formality as it slowly wears out over the decades between the 1930’s and 1968 when Zero tells the story to the author.

Ultimately my take-away was a mood of  nostalgia for the times when  I sat cross legged on the floor, entranced as someone read me a story, or, better yet, embellished one told from memory. I remember visualizing unfamiliar settings and characters with the license of imagination. What I saw in my head skewed a bit from what the authors intended or what might eventually appear on screen when the story was made into a movie. Anderson has a way of making me feel like I’m reading a book and seeing it in my head but getting to share his skew. Like imagination inception.

 


Mar 26 2014

Saving Mr. Banks makes me wish I could watch flashbacks of other people’s lives

maureen

Saving Mr. Banks is the story of Disney filmmakers collaboration with Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to make the film. Mrs. Travers, as she insists on being called, is brusque, annoying, and controlling. She has very definite ideas about how she wants the story told and, uncharacteristically, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, bends over backwards to meet her demands in order to get the film made. It is hard to imagine anyone less playful than Emma Thompson’s dour Mrs. Travers. Her vision for the film is as serious and unsentimental as she is while Disney is playful and positive. His aim is to provide joyful experiences for people at his theme park and in his films. Naturally their visions clash. Continue reading


Mar 19 2014

The giving and receiving of grace in Nebraska

maureen


Director Alexander Payne says he shot Nebraska in black and white because “this modest, austere story seemed to lend itself to being made in black and white.” Modest and austere is a good description of the settings and characters in Nebraska. The word I think of is “real.” It was so real that filming it in black and white actually helped distance me from the stark reality of aging portrayed in the film.

The film begins with Woody, an elderly man in early stages of dementia shuffling down the road with one of those “you may be a winner” promotional letters, determined to make his way to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Since he can’t drive anymore, he’s just going to walk. 76-year-old Bruce Dern plays Woody with authenticity and understatement. Woody isn’t a joke or a villain. He’s an average small-town retiree who is frequently grumpy, drinks too much, and has typical relationship issues with his wife and grown sons. Aging hasn’t made him this way, he’s always been this way. With aging the filters deteriorate so that we become more obviously the people we already are.

Woody’s practical, outspoken wife Kate, his successful son Ross, and non-so-successful son David are real human beings struggling to deal with the effect of aging on family dynamics. Woody’s irrational behavior and unsteady reasoning make it hard for Kate to live with him. She, in turn, keeps calling her sons for help with their dad, which is disruptive to their lives. Like so many families, this family is having to make some dreaded “decisions” about dad, who always before had the autonomy to decide things for himself. It’s a frustrating and painful time for any family whose lived through this. Watching Nebraska is like walking through it with friends or neighbors. The emotions and situations are absolutely spot on.

Younger son David, who is between jobs offers to take his dad to Lincoln in hopes that he’ll stop fixating on the letter once it’s clear he’s not a winner. He also sees it as an opportunity to spend some time with his dad. Their road trip involves a series of little episodes that are sometimes amusing and often frustrating for David. They spend a weekend in Woody’s hometown where old wounds and rivalries are rekindled. Thinking he actually won some sort of sweepstakes, Woody’s relative and old friends embrace Woody as a celebrity and possible benefactor. Kate and Ross join David and Woody for a family reunion and a revealing walk through Woody’s childhood home.

Throughout the movie David begins to understand and appreciate his father as a person rather than seeing him with all the labels attached. Alcoholic. Distant. Grumpy. Inconsiderate. Disappointment. Sucker. Inconvenience. Failure.

Family relationships always have baggage. By the time a parent reaches the point where a child has to step in there might be forty or fifty years worth of baggage. Imagine unforgiven offense, patterns of hurtful behavior, personality flaws, painful memories stuck to the baggage like those vintage labels on suitcases. To a great extent we define ourselves and others by those labels. If we are willing to peel off the labels we’ve placed on others because of past experiences and see who is under there, we actually create margin for change to happen in those relationships.

Nebraska gently nudged me to reminder that healing comes with forgiveness. Perspective happens when we experience someone else’s story as a participant instead of a spectator. Nebraska reveals how simply walking through an experience with another person changes the relationship. The characters don’t experience big character arcs or life-changing epiphanies. In fact, none of the characters change that much from the beginning of the movie to the end, but how they see one another does. In this film I saw a picture of the giving and receiving of grace.

 

 

 

 

Many


Mar 10 2014

The dark territory of True Detective

maureen

HBO-True-DetectiveCAUTION: SPOILERS.

True to form the last episode of True Detective called Form and Void features the dark and grisly conclusion to a bleak, dark series about two homicide detectives unraveling a ritual murder in South Louisiana. Errol, the incestuous, Cary-Grant obsessed witch king makes an utterly creepy grindhouse villain. Previous episodes offer up a series of tantalizing possible suspects and co-conspirators, including Cohle himself. The Tuttles come off as redneck Illuminati with a long reach and powerful resources. The story ends with many of these loose ends still flapping, but Cohle and Hart’s journey resolves, and that’s the real heart of the story.

True Detective‘s mysterious King in Yellow references a Robert Chambers story about a play that elicits madness and despair in those who see it. The story Cohle and Hart live as they work their case contains enough bizarre evil to induce similar responses. Cohle’s philosophic nature and nihilistic outlook make him particularly vulnerable to emotional and spiritual damage. Hart’s proclivities run to the more standard tropes TV cops use to cope. He cheats on his wife, drinks too much, and is disconnected from his children. Hart ends up in a place something like despair in which he’s lost his family and left his job after exposure to yet another urban legend horror, the baby in the microwave.

Cohle and Hart’s determination to close the case appears to be part-destiny and part obsession. In spite of a serious rift between them, when Cohle shows Hart the horror inducing videotape of one the victims, he’s in. This tape is used to induce former cop Steve Geraci. While immediate exposure to the tape loosens his tongue, Steve does not seem permanently traumatized by his experience, displaying the same self-interest after they finish with him that he has before. He tells them Sheriff Childress is the one who closed the case. Interviews in previous episodes suggest that Errol might be a Childress and possibly an illegitimate child of one of the Tuttles.

After making arrangements to unveil their evidence should they not come out alive, Cohle and Hart follow their leads to Errol’s house. Earlier the episode treats us to scenes of Errol’s Psycho-Louisiana-style domestic bliss. Cohle and Hart’s journey lead them into the heart of Carcosa where the evil is as thick as hot, humid swamp air. Continue reading


Mar 6 2014

Reflections on Monument Men and the preservation of the creative arts

maureen

Monument Men is about a group of art scholars who are trying to chase down caches of art taken by the Nazis before it is destroyed. Though I thought the film itself dragged a bit in places, it raised the compelling question whether preserving civilization’s art during a war was worth spending lives and using resources. The film’s answer was a resounding “yes.”

Statements at the end of the film outlined art and architecture that was lost, not only to Nazi pillaging, but to bombing by both Allies and Axis forces. It made me think of the loss of literature during the Middle Ages. Invasions and the resulting battles all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East resulted in destruction of literature. Goths and Franks, Huns and Muslims, Vikings and Normans, and Christian Crusaders all contributed to the destruction of classical and Biblical literature. On top of that, scribes themselves sometimes made a call of scrape off writings and reuse the paper since paper was scarce and everything had to be painstakingly copied by hand. As lives crumbled and cities burned some scholars, many of them monks, predominantly Irish, decided that preserving art and literature was worth the effort. Many important texts of Western culture survived to be studied by the likes of Washington and Jefferson. Reading Euclid influenced Lincoln’s phrasing in his Gettysburg Address. To a great extent centuries of scholars studied the same collection of literature known as the Western Canon.

American education over the last century formed a common cultural canon. A liberal education meant students were exposed to roughly the same set of pieces. With the ability to digitize, massive amounts of literature, arts, music is being preserved for the next generation. The question is whether the next generation will find it relevant and worth looking at it, much less sacrificing to save it. Through education and culture there does still seem to be a collection of literature, art, music, and film that provides a sort of post-modern canon, a collection of works experienced by most of us. With the variety of schooling options and subcultures, along with the trend toward personalization, over time, as a culture, we may have fewer and fewer pieces in common. I suspect each of us will form a personal canon based on individual values. Continue reading


Feb 13 2014

10 romantic movie scenes and why I love them

maureen

Karl and Ellie from Up
What I love about it: The wedding is just the beginning of the love story.

Jerry and Dorothy from
What I love about it: Making mistakes doesn’t make it “too late” to mend love.

Robbie and Julia from The Wedding Singer
What I love about it: Love is about taking care of the other person.

Jamie and Aurelia from Love Actually
What I love about it: Love makes being together feels so much more right than being apart.

Jack and Rose from Titantic
What I love about it: Trust is a huge part of the decision to love.

Noah and Allie from The Notebook
What I love about it: Love keeps promises even when it might not matter.

Harry and Sally from When Harry Met Sally
What I love about it: Love makes dear those strange little quirks that annoy everybody else.

Lloyd and Diane from Say Anything
What I love about it: Love sometimes involves waiting and holding up heavy things for the other person.

Beauty and the Beast
What I love about it: Love involves risk, vulnerability, and accepting imperfection in another.

Aragorn and Arwen from The Lord of the Rings
What I love about it: Receiving what another must sacrifice is as much a part of love as making sacrifices.

 


Jan 28 2014

Sherlock unmasked

maureen


SPOILER ALERT
Season 3 begins with Sherlock and John Watson absorbing big changes in their lives. John finds out his best friend isn’t dead, gets married, finds out he’s going to be a father, and get his old job back. Death, birth, marriage, and career change are major life events. Watson has strong adaptability, perceptiveness, and relationship skills so its no surprise he’s handling it like a Hobbit.

Sherlock is dealing with change as well. His best friend is getting married; he’s picking up his life after a lengthy absence; he’s still dealing with life or death mysteries; and, oh yes, he lied to his best friend and nearly everyone else he knows. He let them think he was dead for two years and must now deal with the effects of that deception on all his relationships, even on Molly and Mycroft, who were in on the deception. In one way Sherlock’s return from the dead simply adds to his public mystique, but the press is focused on “how he did it,” an indication that his controlled image is unraveling further. Sherlock seems to be shedding some of his mystique in order to adjust to change, not only in his circumstances, but in himself. Continue reading


Jan 19 2014

Captain Phillips comes down to character

maureen

Captain Phillips was intense. The pacing, the acting, and the story were all compelling and emotionally draining. It kept my attention from beginning to end. The conflict between Tom Hanks’ Captain Phillips and Barkhad Abdi’s Muse provide a strong framework for the narrative. Tom Hanks seemed so comfortable in Phillips’ skin that he was able to put me there as well. Abdi’s performance gave Muse a humanity and even humor, that provided a multi-dimensional shadow to Hanks’ Phillips. Continue reading


Jan 12 2014

The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a journey

maureen

SPOILER ALERT. Inside Llewyn Davis begins and ends with the same scene outside a folk venue in 1960’s Greenwich Village. A flashback then picks up Llewyn who, while leaving his friends’ apartment after a night on their couch, accidentally lets out their orange tabby. Finding he’s locked himself and the cat out of the apartment Llewyn picks up the cat and continues his journey.

The audience is filled in on what’s happened up to this point, the event that has put Llewyn on this particular journey. He’s grieving the loss of his friend and music partner Mike and trying to restart his career as a solo folk artist. He sleeps on couches, has no winter coat, struggles with bitterness and tries to maintain what he considers his artistic integrity.

The Coens do love their mythology. O Brother Where Art Thou was a retelling of the Odyssey. A Serious Man was their take on the Book of Job.  “It’s never new. It never gets old. It’s a folk song,” Every story is a journey. And every journey is different. That’s what the Coens do. They take an archetypical pattern and make it individual to every single character they create. So many of the stories they tell involve some sort of journey, whether physical or internal. While the plot was loose, my take on Inside Lleweyn Davis is that it is yet another journey. 

Llewyn is a former merchant marine, several of the songs in the film refer to journeys, and specifically to the sea. We find out late in the film that the cat’s name is Ulysses (Roman name for Odysseus). At one point in the film Llewyn stands in front of a movie poster of The Incredible Journey, a movie about the long trek of two dogs and cat finding their way home. I read one review that compared Llewyn’s journey to that of Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Plausable. 

Llewyn has lost his singing partner Mike to suicide. He discovers he has a child he’s never seen. He has another about to be aborted. He is facing a crossroads in which he must choose to continue his dream of being a folk musician or move back into the more lucrative career of merchant marine. His father is dying. He keeps pushing the wrong buttons in his relationships with family and friends.  Llewyn’s quest takes him around the Village, to his family in Queens, and on a road trip with an aging jazz musician and his beatnik poet driver. Throughout this trek he continually carries and loses the cat.

Apparently the Coens added the cat after they’d written the movie. Whether its meant as a symbol or narrative device, the cat does hold this loose episodic narrative together. The Coens tend to trust their audience enough to leave some things up to interpretation.  Does the cat represent Llewyn’s psyche? Is it his shadow? Is it the herald of change? Does it represent his fleeting music career? Is it there to reveal that the heart beating inside this melancholy, irritable, self-absorbed character is larger than it appears? At some point during the film it seemed all these things. 

Llewyn’s story is like a folk song. A bleak journey of a suffering regretful man. So many of the songs in the movie are about loss. Songs like Fare Thee Well, Five Hundred Miles, and The Last Thing on My Mind are about lost love. Hang me o hang me is also about loss.  In the song, Queen Jane, a woman dies in childbirth. And so the film ends before Llewyn’s journey leads him to any sort of resolution. Llewyn sits beaten in the alley outside the venue listening to the future of folk singing inside. It’s left to each member of the audience to conclude whether he abandons the folk scene for the open sea or continues to plug away at his craft. Either way, I hope he got himself a cat.

 

 


Dec 25 2013

A Christmas Story in Movie Quotes

maureen

“Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.” – A Charlie Brown Christmas

“Oh, life is like that. Sometimes, at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at it’s zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters decend upon us.” A Christmas Story

“That’s another thing… Buddy you should know that your father… he’s on the naughty list.” – Elf

“Cause I’m a karate man! And a karate man bruises on the inside! They don’t show their weakness.” – Trading Places

“Well, I’m, uh, more the ‘I-don’t-mind-pushing-my-best-friend-into-but-I’m-scared-stiff-when-I-get-anywhere-close-to-it-myselfing’ kind.” – White Christmas

“You know what I’m going to get you next Christmas, Mom? A big wooden cross, so that every time you feel unappreciated for your sacrifices, you can climb on up and nail yourself to it. – The Ref

“But you don’t want to be bamboozled. You don’t want to be led down the primrose path! You don’t want to be conned or duped. Have the wool pulled over your eyes. Hoodwinked! You don’t want to be taken for a ride. Railroaded!” – The Polar Express

“Where do you think you’re going? Nobody’s leaving. Nobody’s walking out on this fun, old-fashioned family Christmas. No, no. We’re all in this together. This is a full-blown, four-alarm holiday emergency here” – Christmas Vacation

“They’re kind of the same thing. If you won’t use your heart, who cares if it gets broken? If you just keep it to yourself, maybe it’ll be like my rollerblades. When you do decide to try it, it won’t be any good. You should take a chance. Got nothing to lose.” – Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

“Just because I cannot see it, doesn’t mean I can’t believe it!” – The Nightmare Before Christmas

“Look Doris, someday you’re going to find that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work. And when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover those are the only things that are worthwhile.” – Miracle on 34th Street

“The Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day. And then – the true meaning of Christmas came through, and the Grinch found the strength of *ten* Grinches, plus two!” – How the Grinch Stole Christmas

“The Jews taught me this great word: Schmuck. I was a schmuck, and now I’m not a schmuck! – Scrooged

“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” It’s a Wonderful Life

“It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” – Love Actually

“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” – A Christmas Carol (2009)

“Hey, unto you a Child is born! It’s Jesus. And He’s in the barn. Go on! Go on up!” – The Best Christmas Pageant Ever

“If this is their idea of Christmas, I *gotta* be here for New Year’s.” – Die Hard

 


Dec 6 2013

Apartheid primer in film

maureen

On the death of Nelson Mandela, some friends too young to remember apartheid may wonder why Mandela is a big deal. Just as Hitler’s regime ended, a different form of persecution was instituted in South Africa. In 1948 the National Party government instated a form of racial segregation, but restrictions and controls on the black population had been in place since the days of slavery. In 1970 as the Civil Rights movement in the United States was making strides, non-white representation in the South African government was abolished. I know there are more, and maybe better films, but here’s my list of movies that helped me understand a little better.

Invictus is based on the true story of Nelson Mandela’s quest to bring the 1995 Rugby World Cup to South Africa just one year after apartheid was officially abolished and multi-racial national elections resulted in Mandela’s presidency. Mandela hoped to use the enthusiasm of black and white fans to help unite the country. Because the Springboks, South African’s national team, have always been white, many blacks feel betrayed by Mandela’s support for them. Mandela and team captain Pienaar form a mentoring relationship in which Mandela communicates leadership in a climate of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Cry Freedom is based on the story of black activist Steve Biko and white journalist Donald Woods. The film traces Woods’ journey into the Biko’s world. Woods discovers corruption and cover-ups in the South African white government, including suspicious circumstances surrounding the deaths of anti-apartheid activists in police custody. The powerful message in this film is that loving our neighbors as ourselves means that silent disapproval of injustice and oppression is not enough. Our neighbors burdens really are ours to bear.

Forgiveness takes place in post-Apartheid South Africa. It is the story of a white South African policeman who is granted amnesty for his killing of an African National Congress activist (the group to which Nelson Mandela belonged when he was sent to prison).  It’s hard to watch this man’s struggle with guilt and shame for the killings he committed in the name of a corrupt system that no longer exists. He wants to make amends. He seeks absolution. The film explores big questions. What does it mean to be forgiven? What is required after that? Like Atonement and Unforgiven, the film exposes the tragedy of a life that cannot embrace the freedom of grace.

District 9 is basically Apartheid reimagined as science fiction. A disabled alien vessel hovers over the city where, fearful of their difference and unspoken intentions, the city has rounded up aliens and placed them in slum-like camps similar to those occupied by South African blacks during Apartheid. Told documentary style, the story involves a low-level bureaucrat whose eyes are opened to the “humanity” of his alien neighbors. This allegory drives home the emotional and intellectual justifications that can be applied when one group of human beings view another as fundamentally different.

Under African Skies is a documentary about Paul Simon’s album Graceland. It was recorded in South Africa during apartheid in violation of a UN cultural boycott. Graceland featured South African black musicians.. The film explores the responsibilities of artists to follow such mandates, however well meaning. 

 Cry the Beloved Country is set just before Apartheid took effect. It portrays two fathers, one black and one white, bewildered by the hatred around them that takes their sons and devastates their lives. This film brought the big picture down to the lives of two men. The message is that the human condition, the shared experiences, like grief and love, are universal.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” – Nelson Mandela


Nov 29 2013

Of Rattlesnakes and Mockingjays: Sacrifice and Symbol in Catching Fire

maureen

It started with Benjamin Franklin more than 20 years before the revolution. The rattlesnake was chopped into eight pieces. It illustrated Franklin’s editorial about the “disunited state” of the colonies and was originally used to encourage the 13 colonies to unite and fight with Britain in the French and Indian war. Revolution was not on Franklin’s radar at that time, but after years of paying a less costly tribute than the 13 Districts of Panem, seeds of revolution took root and Franklin’s “join or die” snake began appearing all over Colonial America The snake metaphor was later recycled into the familiar coiled rattler on the yellow background known as the Gadsden Flag. The snake and motto appears on Navy SEALS patches. Variations of the coiled snake and motto have been used by various political groups as a symbol of protest.join-or-die

Gadsden-flag-original-Marine-flagMockingjay_on_fire                                                                                                       In the first Hunger Games, the thirteen Districts were concerned about themselves. Each one sent their Tributes and kept their heads down. Some trained their Tributes in hopes of assuring survival and gaining status but mostly they hoped the Capitol would accept the annual sacrifice and ignore them. But something happened in the year’s time between the co-victory of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Melark in the 74th Hunger Games and the decision by the Capitol to bring them back for the 75th. What is the tipping point for revolution?

For the 13 Colonies it was Lexington and Concord. Fifteen years of griping about taxes and oppression came to a head when the British shed Colonist blood. The 13 Districts put up with the shedding of blood for seventy-five years, in a controlled way. Their revolution had failed and they were living with the Capitol’s bizarre vengeance. But they too have a tipping point.

Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins says that the ancient Greek myth of the Minotaur was her inspiration and that she views Katniss modern Theseus. According to the myth King Minos of Crete demanded fourteen young Athenians, 7 male, 7 female are paid in tribute. Athens paid to avoid war. Sending the young people into the labyrinth where he kept the Minotaur, Minos enjoyed blood sport with political motivation. That does sound a lot like President Snow. In the Greek myth, the demi-god Theseus volunteers to be one of the tributes and eventually defeats the Minotaur and saves the young Athenians.

Katniss is no demi-god, but, like Theseus, but she begins as a volunteer, a willing sacrifice in The Hunger Games. Salvation stories require willing sacrifices. In Catching Fire, Peeta is the volunteer and the other tributes are sacrifices. They sacrifice themselves to save Katniss, not because she’s Katniss but because she’s the Mockingjay.

Any revolution worth its salt is going to offer an inspiring symbol, like Guy Fawkes mask or Rattlesnake or the Mockingjay. Katniss is comfortable with the role of volunteer and sacrifice, she’s comfortable when she’s the one using her platform to convey a message, like putting flowers around Rue’s grave. But Katniss is not as comfortable with her role as symbol of the valiant Tribute when the Capitol tries to use her in this way. Now she’s the Mockingjay and the District dissidents are willing to sacrifice others to save her. They have plans for her as symbol of the revolution, plans that require sacrifice.

In thinking about the spiritual implications, Jesus as volunteer and sacrifice, as dissident and revolution leader, overturning the system wasn’t His mission. Love was His mission. Jesus wasn’t setting Himself up as a symbol but as a sacrifice. He lived in a brutal and oppressive age but wasn’t teaching His disciples how to stage an uprising, yet the results of His teaching caused revolutionary change. As Katniss is lifted in the helicopter, arms stretched out in the traditional “Christ figure” movie pose, Snow’s granddaughter says, “Someday I want to love like that!” Now there’s a goal worth starting a revolution over.


Nov 7 2013

Ender’s game and the uncertainty of perception

maureen

Ender’s Game explores reality and assumptions. Ender’s Game explores the consequences that come in attempting to separate the emotional and ethical self from the logical and strategic self. Ender’s choices seem reasonable if his assumptions about the games are true. Characters solve perceived problems using reason and strategy, often putting emotions on hold. The movie made me consider whether emotions are as legitimate a consideration in perception as logic and how perceptions alter reality.

For some reason I want to put Ender’s game in the context of two ideas from physics: the observer effect and the uncertainty principle. The observer effect states that observing a phenomenon alters it. Ender’s point of view, his involvement, the compassion and the creative application of strategy Ender brings to Col. Graff’s game sends its players on a different trajectory and alters the reality they perceive. What is real in a theoretical state is altered every time Ender applies compassion and emotion. In the same way Graff’s paranoia and perceptions concerning the Formics alters the security of earth from their attack.

When Ender views the game through Graff’s eyes something different happens than when he responds based on Valentine’s perceptions or Petra’s. Most of us do not respond to real life situations in a completely dispassionate and logical manner. We factor in our ethics as we lay out our strategies. Our emotions affect the execution of our logically conceived plans.

The uncertainty principle states that increasing the precision in which we measure one quantity (either the position or momentum of a particle) forces the loss of precision in measuring the other. Col. Graff’s games are designed to measure Ender’s strategic capabilities while Maj. Anderson’s explore his emotional state. Major Anderson, a child psychologist charged with evaluating the recruits, has Ender play a game that adapts to his emotional state. Ender alters the game and populates itself with people who matter to him. Reality breaks into the game in a way that Anderson did not plan or expect.

Graff’s game requires Ender to make strategic decisions requiring him to sacrifice people he’s never met. In order to succeed in Graff’s game Ender must separate his emotions from the game and make strategic choices in order to win.  It seems impossible for Ender to meld into a whole self in the games he is playing. The more he is aware of the tension within himself between compassion or strategy, the more difficult it is to achieve a balance.

Perceptions and assumptions also create a reality that may or may not be true. Fear drives the decisions of the International Military in Ender’s Game. Col. Graff fears that the Formics who devastated earth seventy years before will come back and finish it off. Though there has been no activity from the Formics, the defense program continues. The program identifies and recruits children whose gaming abilities indicate talent in military strategy. Those children will be pitted against the Formics in a wargame for the plant.

Ender, like his brother and sister before him is identified. While his brother washed out for being too violent and his sister, for being too compassionate, Ender seems to be the one who is just right. Graff sees this program as earth’s best hope for survival and believes that Ender is the one who will ultimately save the planet from the annihilation he fears. Sacrificing childhood to preserve the planet seems like a logical, perhaps even defensible, strategy if Graff’s assumptions about he future are true.

Who’s perceptions are defining reality and what motives are driving their perceptions? Jesus said that there is no fear in love and that perfect love casts out fear. Fear drives Graff’s perceptions. It alters his version of reality. Even without fear, strategy and perception can only take Ender so far. It is compassion that alters everything and reveals what is real.