Movie Reviews

Whiplash (Review)

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If you haven’t seen it, perhaps you have heard, it’s a bit like getting a 107-minute mild electric shock. This film is an experience.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (who is thirty by the way), it challenges—from its very first minutes—notions of abuse being a one-way street. From the very opening scene, I said to my friend “funny how these two people feed each other.”

It starts out with Andrew (Miles Teller), a drummer, and Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), his elite college’s band instructor, in a dark studio. Its opening scene presents a predicament that is so visceral because it’s so true for anyone who lives out of their comfort zone: Fletcher repeats and demands so much that we sense the impossible and the tendency toward hopelessness. When really this film seems to be asking us (from the very first scene) what it would take to say “fuck hopeless, I’m here, and I have to move forward.”

And that’s precisely what Andrew does, the entire film—it’s like he’s never entertained the idea of hopeless … OR hope for that matter. He’s operating outside this sentimental loop. He’s kind of mad. And you watch him drive deeper and deeper into this madness—through scenes, like tunnels, that shunt him more sincerely toward his goal.

Like when he has dinner with his extended family and they start picking on what he does, and he starts picking on what they do, and he’s a total elitist about it but you wonder “does it bother me? That he acts like this?”

Or like when he explains to the girl he’s dating, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), how it’s going to go if he gets more serious with her and that it won’t work. And she looks at him and challenges what he says but has no good comeback except to say what the rest of the world does to him: that he’s messed in the head. And we agree with her, for a while, but not forever.

Andrew’s father, Jim (Paul Reiser), is a consistent (except at the family dinner … hmmm), supportive figure who reflects at once the heart in him and the weakness/failure that he longs to smash and rise above. This is not a foreign dynamic for people—in fact for many of us, it lends handsomely to the emotive run of the plot as a factor that is one of our conscious or subconscious drives in life, a dynamic that is all too real.

This movie continuously challenges your allegiances to its characters’ motivations. We just watch Fletcher—like some kind of predictable force of nature—abuse person after person. His words slice like a surgeon around any sense, whatsoever, of culpability regarding the severe impact he’s having on the mental health and lives of the musicians under his charge.

By nature ultra sensitive folks, musicians at the level portrayed in the film are also in possession of a level of discipline and drive that could so very easily, and often does, set them directly in harm’s way to feed a cycle of abuse. Indeed, Fletcher has a full buffet of feeding options every, single day it seems.

The plot is pretty straightforward but contains an essential twist that is completely obvious, but presents a range of surface and deep protracted consequences in terms of power shifting. When Andrew finds himself out of school yet still interacting with Fletcher, the dynamic shifts, but not right away.

No longer is the institution dictating the nature of this abusive relationship, yet like a cast that’s taken off a limb, the limb is still a bit stiff, and we watch Andrew continue to feed the abuse by sitting down for a drink (willingly!) with Fletcher. Yet we wonder, through excellent writing that built this scene, is it really abuse? Even as we know damn well—it IS!

A few days pass and–at least at an unconscious level–the new dynamic sinks into Andrew. To our delight, it does become conscious. The final scene of the movie is a testament to what happens when a power dynamic falls away while its premise remains. We watch, as we have in other films, the abuser relinquish power to the abused, who takes it back with timing, muscle and cunning. Like a hungry animal with a human mindset. Yet this is not a tired, cliché ending. In fact it’s not settling so much as breathtaking.

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Review: Lust, Caution (2007/timeless)

LC_2When Ang Lee directs a movie based on the writing of Eileen Chang, you know you’re going to get something incredible. Watching this presented one of those rare times where my expectations were through the roof and the actual experience took me further, to outer space, to feelings I wasn’t quite ready to visit.

Basically, I sobbed through all the credits–and, while I am a cry baby at movies, it has been years since I cried this hard over a film. I mean, I don’t think I would want to watch it with anyone but my sister or mother or a close  friend. It hits a very tender spot.

People who know Lee’s work know that’s how it can be with him. But few may know Chang. She was an incredibly popular writer in China, depicting, among other things, life in the 40s under the Japanese occupation. She had a way with the pen of cutting right into the bone of behavior and circumstance–I am always energized and refreshed when I sit with her writing … sometimes disturbed, almost always haunted.

Give Lee her writings and Tony Leung a lead roll and you’re not just going to a movie. You’re signing up to have a penetrating, lingering, unspeakable and cathartic experience. The plot, basically, revolves around a shy yet precise protagonist, Wong Chai Chi (played by Wei Tang, a relatively new actress who is well cast), and her involvement in an acting troupe turned nationalistic espionage ring hell bent on killing a key political figure, Mr. Yee (played by Tony Leung, who has been rightly described as one of the most talented actors in international cinema today).

Chai Chi’s acting (inspired by naive dedication to nationalistic propaganda) prompts standing ovations, and thus she is chosen as a key pawn in a plot to seduce and track Mr. Yee, who is well aware that he is wanted by many rings. He is also a mafia-grade interrogator/assassin–and is thus notoriously difficult to pin down and is never, ever prone to divulge anything factual, even with his wife. Chai Chi makes it into a circle of women, including Mrs. Yee, and works her way steadily into the closer graces of Mr. Yee, who is poised like a snow leopard–elusive yet precise when he comes to light … and coaxed only mystically toward what he senses and desires in Chai Chi.

This film builds slowly. Yet when its points begin to flesh out–when Mr. Yee makes moves with Chai Chi and the two finally get involved–you realize it was well worth the wait. Structurally, the film opens with a point in time just before the climax and works us back a few years to watch everything catch back up. Nothing super innovative there, yet the effect would not be the same without this loop–like a thread doubling back round a needle’s eye and running through to meet the end (this is as close to a spoiler as I get). We meet the circumstances we saw initially with a different feeling in our guts–a feeling that things are going to get very tragic, soon.

In the end, the film’s title says all a person needs to know about the unique gist of the film. While it is not unique in real life, few, if any, film teams have pulled off with such visceral precision the portrayal of the danger in getting so close to another person when matter-of-fact circumstances absolutely forbid it. Furthermore, few films display with such simple elegance what is important to a man–even one who appears in all ways impossible–to soften and the way a woman can be completely possessed by the effects of intimacy, to the point of flowing into an entirely different stream of her existence, a stream that jeopardizes it, in fact.

This is a bit of Shakespeare meets Shanghai–Romeo and Juliet in the era of Japanese-occupied China. But with a twist. In the end, it is not fate so much as regrettable betrayal and human limitation that breaks this party up, yet neither suffer less for it … perhaps it was fate after all.

I want to be more than vague, but really I would just spoil it if I went any further. To echo a sentiment of a reviewer on IMDB, who said that if he had been younger when he watched this, he wouldn’t have understood it: if you have ever loved, deeply, you will get a lot out of this film.

PS: I had wanted to watch Lust, Caution for years, but many outlets only offered a cut version and, being very comfortable with R+ sex scenes and curious as to what Lee wanted to portray, I held out to find a copy I could rent from a library that was uncut. I suggest the uncut. I can’t imagine missing a moment of this one.

 

 

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Movie Reviews

Review: Senna

 

Screen Shot 2014-08-02 at 9.04.34 AMThis one is hard for me because it’s in my top five. I mean, so much of it can’t be touched with words. But I’ll try … at least I’ll try to get you to watch it if you haven’t.

Just as a note, whenever this film beckons me, I watch it again because I know it’s for a deep reason and I’ll be balanced somehow by it–it has a power I can’t explain, to ground me into myself and feel understood. I think this man made a lot of people feel this way just by existing.

You go into this one thinking you’re going to watch 1.5 hours or so of cars along ribbons of tarmac, announcers, some hot Brazilian race car driver spouting off about fame. At least I did, kind of. And I love race cars, and fast cars, and just … cars, so I wasn’t so turned off but wasn’t so eager, either.

But then, people were saying it’s a “spiritual” experience. So I was like “huh, let’s do this then.”

I rented it through Apple, sat down, watched, cried my eyes out, hit menu and play, and watched it again. I watched it as a single double feature the first time folks. And every time I watch it, it’s like the first time.

First of all, logistically, the soundtrack, by Antonio Pinto–who also infused the movie City of God–is impeccable for the purpose. And the footage they dug up is unbelievable. The way it’s all directed and edited (I like to say choreographed because this implies elegance) just baffles. The director, Asif Kapadia, and writer, Manish Pandey, deserve so much credit. Pandey is an orthopedic surgeon for crying out loud!

This film starts out as a sketch around the politics of racing yet, through some swift yet subtle turns, plunges you into the heart and soul of a man who is old beyond his years. A man who was born to appear a hot-shot yet is really anything but.

As I watched, as the music calmed me deeper and deeper into the message, I couldn’t move. I just froze and observed a person so in touch with their soul that it squeezed my throat.

We see him misunderstood, praised, winning, sharing, being his hot self. But underneath there is something so profound going on. And above it all there is a sense of mysticism around his very being that, in the end, draws the largest funeral to that date in human history around his passage out of his body.

A few things that strike me the most about this man’s life (and the way it’s framed by this film) follow:

•We all have moments where we see something nobody else does, where we must suck it up and continue. His life is a reflection on this part of our experience that we all need once in a while.

•He never took credit–he always surrendered it up, to God, to spirit.

•He lived in spirit and it was HIS business. It wasn’t a show. It was his mode of operation that, if noticed, was insanely difficult to keep up through the illusions that fame throws at a human being.

•He sublimated his anger and ego–while you could see the struggle, which is part of the magic because you can relate to it–he was an incredible alchemist given the circumstances.

•He always knew he would die young. Even though he didn’t want to know. The struggle of him not wanting to know is what this film lifts out with genius. You observe him throughout the film, wrestling with an ego that was growing despite his constant efforts to check it. An ego that wanted to win, that couldn’t stop even though his soul knew better, that wanted to live longer without changing–that wanted to have what it eventually ate.

•Ego fought but lost the match right before he died–in those last nerve-wracked hours. Over the film you witnessed it growing, yet something in him, something of spirit, didn’t want that ego–knew it was headed for its own destruction. And as a viewer, I gasp and clutch my chest each time to witness destiny rise up on such a situation and plunge a sword straight through a human’s struggle with duality.

I watched this again last night and, although I should have expected it, was shocked at how much I cried all over again, like I hadn’t seen it before. There is an arc to this film that just sucks you in. It’s a total experience–an attempt to capture what watching his life must have been like for his fans, in real time.

If you like racing, you will love this movie. If you are on a spiritual path, you will love this movie. If you like hot Brazilian men who drive fast cars, you will love this movie.

It’s a value-add folks, and I bow humbly and gratefully to those who put it together.

 

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Review: Saving Mr. Banks

SAVING MR. BANKSThis is definitely one in the ‘wait for it’ category. It’s got some stuff working against it–big budget, Disney, stars who usually ride the integrity line but have been know to trip over it–but word on the street prompted me to give it more consideration and even a rent click last night.

In short: Tom Hanks (The Man with One Red Shoe) and Emma Thomas (Dead Again) star in this big budget tale of the making of Mary Poppins. Yeah, I know, you don’t know those movies … or maybe you do and are seriously tickled by nostalgia now. Anyway, allow me to digress away from digression to continue this review:

I’m writing about this one because:

a) It manages to take a true-life story and surgically carve out a plot that keeps the audience suspended in the beautiful, colorful, cheerful elements of a time period–indeed, we are warmly invited behind the scenes to witness a process around creating a children’s movie inspired by an incredibly dark childhood

b) Like the protagonist, I (and many others) experienced the disabling reality-check of losing a parent when young as well as the side effects of an alcoholic parent

Basically, this film was so resonant, so earnestly crafted and yet so light-hearted that I can hardly believe it exists! It was like eating a bag of marshmallows without the sugar low … like someone invented very nutritious marshmallows.

Saving Mr. Banks draws its strength from colorfully masking the drama of an emotionally-paralyzed genius author (P.L. Travers) being forced to reconcile her past baggage with the help of a sing-song Los Angeles creative team and interactions with Disney himself. We witness the contagion of her deep despair as the Disney artists fight against her controlling, heavy, relentless adaptations to life itself.

We see that the film in essence documents the power of human love, vision and dedication to turn one woman’s incredible misery into a movie that would bring joy and laughter to millions of children (Poppins, incidentally, was the first film I ever saw in a movie theatre!).

Through its very basic interspersion of past (20s/30s Australia) and not-so-past (1960s LA and London), the film helps us easily into the shoes of all of the characters, with particular focus on Disney and P.L. Travers (the author of Mary Poppins). Moreover, filmmakers today have discovered a way to ride a line between fantasy and reality given camera angles/lenses, makeup and high definition technology so that you experience something just beyond real, in a way where you can detach, enjoy and let the deeper elements of what is being expressed slink around your defenses.

The next morning you might wake up, like I did, into a dream, of highlights you remember from a film like this. Deep thoughts about your own life that suddenly other people understand, all-to-well … what few would be able to say directly, and many would join together to convey in a film like this: that the hardships we face, in early life or anytime in life, are opportunities to find grace, and in more intense cases opportunities to make something so deeply touching to countless other people. Everything we see as a weakness has the potential to be our greatest strength. If we’d only have the courage to step forward, firm-footed, letting go of our fearful grip on the past.

But is it really that simple? Never.

We see how difficult if not impossible it is to let go of the past for Travers as it was absolutely essential that she didn’t in order to write her masterpiece! Her father preached to her young ears that  life is an illusion, supporting her deepest motivations as a successful author of a fantastic, pseudo-fictional tale of Poppins. But it could never be totally fiction, and life could never be completely fantasy to a girl who lost the love of her life at such a young age–watching her father’s slow-motion, horrific, and eventually lost battle with alcoholism. The rest of her life, clearly, is spent creating–through incredibly consistent displays of extreme control of herself and every conversation and interaction she took part in–scenarios that prevent any possibility of such loss, ever again, even if it meant extreme isolation even in crowds (the bar scene in the movie might cause people to wonder why it’s even there, but it’s perfectly essential to the outline of her character).

Disney and Travers, Disney and Travers … but to me, the most important character in the film is her driver, Ralph, by (Paul Giamatti). He provides a striking contrast to how one handles extreme disappointment.

Over the course of the film–through her ice-cold, demanding, correcting ways–you see that he doesn’t expect anything from Travers and moves with a lot of grace around her rigidity. It’s as if he understands her but has not taken such an approach on life himself and doesn’t at all realize that his approach is far, far more functional. Indeed, through the film we realize he more than understands her, because–due to his daughter’s disability–he is on an almost identical path.

Just like Travers, Ralph has had to reconcile extreme disappointment related to the disease* of a loved one. His path, however, doesn’t allow him to control anything because his daughter is alive and needs him to continuously let go of himself and his idea of the way things ‘should be’ so that he can love her. He has been on an underrated path of grace since the moment his daughter was born. By that comparison, the death of a loved one would be a cake walk, only marred by a person’s sense that they can control everything thereafter in a perfectly futile attempt to ensure that nothing like that could ever happen, again.

 

*Alcoholism, beyond addiction, is a disease folks–alcohol is widely known among toxicologists as the only drug so powerful that, when you are deeply addicted, you need a bridge drug (barbiturates) to get off it without dying.

 

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Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

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This one won’t leave me.

This is the story of a man (Walter Mitty by Ben Stiller) who has been traumatized into a way of living that is half dream and half reality. Sounds a bit like Science of Sleep (an all-time fave of mine). The reason I love and find this theme underrated is that it recognizes the complex inter-wiring of our mental and emotional worlds. The idea admits that daydreaming is kind of an adaptive mechanism for someone who feels displaced and too sensitive to push through and lay a new path through the landscape of human experience.

Anyone on drugs would acknowledge escape as their MO as well. It’s all addiction. Even if you aren’t plugging a syringe into your vein on a daily basis or downing shots in a secret bar stop on the way home, you still need to ask yourself: what are you addicted to? Is it legal or illegal–is there any question that it could be just as devastating either way? Daydreaming to the extent that Mitty does is arguably destructive–in his case to the degree that his dad’s death must have destroyed his sense of trust in the world.

Stiller’s posture and looming, faraway gaze convinced me that I HAD to love his character, because I somehow related to his situation–how he was trapped in a hyper-secure life inspired by great insecurity, to the point of living mainly through intense daydream sequences that cause everyone in his vicinity to find him a bit strange. Likewise, the other well-cast characters inspired appropriate levels of allegiance and disgust to immerse my mind in the plots and points.

The color, cinematography and wide camera shots create a super-real effect throughout the film, which is nice, because I hate it when a film is indecisive about what it is. This one is more a challenge to reality than a look at it, almost in the same way that Life of Pi is. And yet it’s more variegated (to the relief of those who grew tired of the boy, boat and tiger).

The plot revolves around Mitty’s intermittent dips into fantasy, and a series of events that yank him out of this habit and throw him into living a more action-filled life. Some of the key sub-plots involve his discussions with an eHarmony representative, his obsession with a woman at work (Cheryl Melhoff by Kristen Wiig), his interactions with his boss at Life Magazine, and his reconciliation of the magazine going digital rendering his job as the manager of photo negatives obsolete. But the main plot vein runs up from the deep and surfaces more than halfway through the film. It involves his relationship with the elusive and legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (by Sean Penn).

This relationship is introduced when O’Connell sends through what he terms his greatest photo of all time, as a negative packed amidst a gift and a letter, an unusual display of expression and appreciation toward Mitty. Problem is, the one photo he claims is the best among a string of negatives, number 25, is missing. As the announcement of Life’s last print run is made, the pressure is on for Mitty to produce this photo for the cover. But O’Connell is highly elusive and constantly on the move, refusing to be tied down to any mode of formal communication.

Amidst taunting about his daydreaming disposition, Mitty faces additional pressure to do his job right for the magazine’s grand finale. If there is one thing he’s done all of his 16 years at the company, it’s keep track of negatives. Wrongfully accused on yet another level, he sinks into himself but somehow through discussions with this eHarmony representative it dawns on him that he hasn’t done anything in so long that he should live a little. So he sets out to find O’Connell. Through his adventures we are taken to Greenland for the first time in blockbuster history, and thanks to the cinematography, it’s an unforgettable experience.

The chase continues to Iceland and Afghanistan as Mitty goes from a man who’s greatest thrill of any given week is taking the subway to his mother’s house for cake, to a Himalaya-climbing, professional skateboarding survivor of shark attack and massive volcanic explosion. Indeed, Mitty was due for a life change, a celestial transit of sorts. When he meets O’Connell, he’s so worn down to his own essence that we might be a bit surprised by his candor in approaching such a legendary figure.

The scene of their meeting is the absolute climax of the film, alluding to the deepest layer of its meaning: a moment lived and memorized, more than merely photographed, daydreamed, or documented, is by far the most worthwhile, if we only have the guts to be in it, the patience to recognize it and the will to allow it to take us over.

From there we have a succession of such moments, which become all our own, which become a rich life. From there, we build this confidence that, from our very breath outward, we use to direct a life that we alone are charged with deeming worthwhile.

In the end, a person must master fantasy, hearsay, authority, propaganda, programming, media framing and peer pressure enough to live a life in the realm of what anyone could term authentic. And yet it’s a worthy goal for sure. I for one, as much as I might delight in any level of recognition for accomplishments, crave such an unadulterated consciousness when going about the business of life. I write about this movie because it provided a nice related compass point.

 

 

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The Bridge on the River Kwai–Review and Bonus Expat Confessions

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 1.50.35 PMCan We Escape Principle?

About a month ago, I watched a classic movie called “Bridge on the River Kwai.” This is both a review of that movie and of life as an expat. Because in reality there are so many parallels between this movie and living in a country where the society is so different, so … ad hoc.

River Kwai didn’t win seven Oscars for nothing. The slow build of the plot is dotted by scenery and acting that, for the time, was unprecedented in quality. The idea is that a group of captured British and American soldiers are held in a Japanese PoW camp in what is now Thailand. The conditions around the camp are so wild and infested that escape would surely be met by death due to impotable water and ubiquitous disease.

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 1.52.07 PMOne American soldier named “Shears” (William Holden) escapes, however. Drama around his ordeal aside, this character seems insignificant for most of the film. Meanwhile, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) experiences a special level of detention in the camp because he won’t cooperate with the building of a bridge. For months, he’s kept in a small doghouse, locked away from sun and fed like an animal. He develops a kind of rickets and looks awful. His acting combined with makeup and setting are edgy in terms of bringing you into the feeling of what it was like. It’s important that we feel how he did, too, because we need to understand the will power driving his actions–that he would volunteer for that experience based on principle.

(BTW: The jungle sets and attention to detail in this film are breathtaking for the year it was made.)

Anyway, the Japanese code of honor eventually overcomes the situation as Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) chooses to release Nicholson over killing himself—the bridge has to be built and he can’t figure out how to do it in time. But Nicholson can.

Upon his release, Nicholson is seized by a drive to make his country proud and defy the circumstances—he’s going to build the best bridge known to man and show all the Japanese (and in his mind, the world) what British leadership and workmanship is capable of achieving.Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 1.50.54 PM

This is where Shears comes back in. We find him recovering from a harrowing escape and near-death levels of disease in a military hospital setting along a tropical beach. He’s pulled out of a fling with a nurse to face Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) who calls his bluff about his rank and gives him an ultimatum. Either go back to the camp and help the Americans blow up the bridge or face imprisonment for lying about status.

Faced with this decision, Shears reluctantly joins Warden and a young officer (this character adds a dash of innocence and objectivity, as does the medic’s character … you just have to watch it) as they cut back through the tropics and find the bridge. This is where I have to stop the review because this is where the best part of the movie occurs. It’s kind of like an amazing song that just builds and builds and then ‘bam!’ it all comes together. The sheer choreography of the plot—the way that the characters dance their way into your interest and make you squirm in your seat, and the way they seem to stand aside to reveal the bigger idea being expressed—is worth studying if you have any interest in film.

When it’s all over, we see Nicholson, Shears and Warden in completely different lights. We don’t know what to feel at first. But eventually, we are kind of left with the concept of principle.

We realize that Nicholson’s drive based on principle is one we all seem to live by. If we look inside ourselves, we are programmed according to principles. And yet, how does that work out when you are in an environment that is, in so many ways, over your head.

Screen Shot 2013-09-04 at 1.51.16 PMWell, it’s easy, you just continue according to your program and then one day you are forced to open your eyes, wide. You see that everyone and everything around you is so much more complicated than it was when your program was developed, back in your hometown, in your school days, at your kitchen table, dorm, first office job, in your first relationships.

If you’re an expat, you’ve actually made a quantum leap. And this movie hit me so hard over the head precisely because it showed me through its artistic precision how that quantum leap renders many principles and programs obsolete. This is especially the case in Qatar, where the jungle is replaced by the unwillingness to leave a nice, comfy existence. The war backdrop and criss-crossing of cultures is replaced by a maniacal pace of human development and mass influx of people from all cultures chiming in their efforts. We are coexisting and it’s strangely similar to what this wartime film examines.

What I’m finding, after almost five years as an expat, is that I have fought this, hard. I insist on my principles and it’s killing me. However, what other principles and programs are there?

A big part of me wakes up some mornings and wants to scrap them all. But that’s not the key either. In fact it’s stupid AND impossible. It’s a very meticulous process to go through experiences with your programs in place, interact with people, discover that they don’t work, try again based on program modifications and find that they still need tweaking and on and on and on.

This is at every level of socialization and living as an expat–from conversations with a bank teller, to ordering sushi over the phone to explaining your standards to a lover and opening yourself to all of these people’s perspectives, sometimes too late, but at least in time to learn. Now, I don’t think a lot of people do this, actually. I think  a lot of people go into another country and say “this is me; this place is weird; I’ll make the best of it—neither are changing.”

But I came here, I left the US, to be changed. I was tired of my insular existence. I was tired of being trapped in my original programs. So here I am–open wide. Looking at myself, tweaking, trying, growing, changing, at a pace I can’t even track, from a person I don’t think I’d recognize if I met her.

I study Nicholson because he was so attached to principle that, well, you just have to watch the movie. I don’t want to end up that way. And so every day, I have to look at the lessons and make the modifications. In some cases, as with Filipinos for instance, I have to manage every situation, yet not so much that I’m cruel or cold, which, when I’m really tired of managing every single thing all day long, is a tall order.

Still, I have to. They come from a place and a lifestyle that is laid back and not as intricate and proactive. In fact it’s downright poor there and for me to critique them is really inhumane. At the same time, I have to forgive myself because I have my programming too … thing is, only one of us is ever in a mode to change it. Me.

I come from the opposite society. It’s like a bull running through a China shop when I get into a business situation with these people. But I see now that I am the one with the understanding of the dynamic. And with that understanding comes responsibility and the opportunity to get stronger, more resilient, more in tune, more dynamic, more present, more intuitive. Just plain more. Every day, it’s another onslaught of lessons, totally improv. I pass, I fail, I ace some, I fall on my face. But I’m in it, and every single time I’m sensitive to what happened.

Principle says: “they can see what’s going on, why don’t they think about creative and proactive ways to solve the problem in front of us?!”

Reality says: “they are present, participating in a system according to rules and either too scared or too new to understand how to take the situation to another level.”

In the movie, principle said: never give in, build the bridge to the highest standards, live off pride and shove it in the face of the Japanese.

But reality said something waaaay different. If you are an expat, watch this movie. Even if you’re not, it’s good.

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Somewhat Haphazard Rave/Review: Game of Thrones Season 1

ImageThis isn’t a movie review but if shows like these keep coming out, a lot of us will have a lot less use for cinema.

At first, I was kind put off by this series. Being a person who spends her morning reciting chants related to gratitude, peace, cooperation, clarity, I had to take a few deep breaths after the second episode and ask myself: “is this good for me, really?” But my sister told me to hang on through episode three when “the guy with the big boobs” (Khal Drogo) slips closer to center stage. Only my sister can woo me into such a superficial state as this, yet I am continuously in awe at how much stands to be gained from following her suggestions.

Indeed, this show’s a swift drop kick into the rough side of reality in a medieval fantasy land, yet it’s a necessary look at some characteristics we barely recognize because we live such easy lives. Life and death sit on the shoulders of the politicians, and every episode features at least one life-affirming line. Amidst the lingering, earthy brothel scenes and the slashed throats, ripped-out tongues, horse decapitations and heads on spits, there began to take shape some deep meaning. In other words, the characters started to feel like family.

I’m not going to go into much detail in this description, except to say that the story is based on various clans of people who are increasingly positioned in greater and greater states of tension with one another. A couple of characters are so slimy and snaky that you find yourself cheering at their death. Others, so noble and critical to the plot that their demise causes shock and tears.

These people, their lives, their situations, are so well constructed that they linger steadfastly in our minds; in essence, they could be any part of our egos. We KNOW these people, and in some cases we ARE these people and would aspire to do the same things if the circumstances were more base. Just because we’re not galloping around with shields, bartering over dragon eggs, slashing people’s entrails out with swords and sleeping with our siblings doesn’t mean we can’t go there with them in every way but physically.

Tyrion Lannister  inspires us with his ability to overcome his stature as a constant advertisement of weakness–his wit more than compensates for his height. The ‘bastard son,’ Jon Snow  can’t seem to hide his anger at being an outcast at birth, but neither can we blame him as his endearing heart and inner conflict texturize the plot. Unrequited love eats through the chest of a bitter queen, Cersei Lannister, who manipulates the crap out of every situation with a precision so great that nobody can quite get her under their thumb—that look in her eyes does. not. change. … and we come to depend on it as the shadow of all that’s good in a world we’re increasingly absorbed in.

There’s the integral Stark clan, lead by Catelyn and Eddard, who’s words and actions summon everything in us that is good and brave, upright and truth-telling. Yet, truly, nobody in this series is immune–shit hits even the best people’s fans.

Prince Joffrey Baratheon is so unbelievably twisted in his weakness and delusion that I almost can’t stand to look at him! And his black soul’s twin, Viserys Targaryen, is the definition of insecurity and power-hungry volatility.

I could go on and on, but of course I must mention the couple who adds all the super nature, meaningful sex and tribal violence to the mix. “Moon of My Life,” Daenerys Targaryen and her “Sun and Stars” Khal Drogo. These two have something special if they can turn a dragon bloodline meets undefeated pony-tail (big-boobed) warrior, royal sex slave turned primal horse-heart-eating love queen couple arch into the TV romance of the decade!

So many more characters fill up a chessboard of circumstances, motivations, allegiances, strengths and weaknesses.

The coolest thing about this series, though, is the time it’s set in. It’s a lovely escape into crude, life and death contracts, no-holds-barred sexuality and the reemergence of honor, deception, bravery and cunning in their most Technicolor form.

Beyond this, every character hits us and, one day or another, as we’re humming the show’s theme in our heads, we realize that they all must exist to some degree in us if they resonate so strongly. It’s a good one to get into, shadow side and all.

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Movie Reviews, Poetry/Prose

Watch This; Everything is Changing

This video, while a cartoon and an advertisement, transcends both of these categories completely to become a precise analogy of change.

The girl is attached to her phone, just as we can be attached to anything in this world. Suddenly, and shockingly, she is eaten by an adorable (yet terrifying in its indifference) panda, which represents transience.

When she enters the world consumed by transience, she is still for a time attached to her phone as the only thing representing permanence.

The world of transience we are made to see is glorious in its epic proportions and fluidity!

Still, the girl wants contact with predictability as she floats and flies.

When she finally does find her phone, she is overjoyed, but you can almost see a tug of war has begun inside her.

Her joy is a reaction, a program. This program lives within each of us–the natural desire for structure, permanence.

And yet, everything is changing, slowly or quickly; it is!

The moment she waves goodbye to her tiny, whimsical pixie friend, you can see she has begun to lose an innocence about what is truly enjoyable and what is not.

Is it so enjoyable to go back to the world of friends and her phone?

Or has she begun to realize that not knowing what is happening next is a delight as well?

And when she returns, we are also returned to the reality that the ride is over.

A bit of bamboo and some snapshots reminds us though, that impermanence is a permanent aspect of our lives.

It is just beneath the surface.

When it gobbles us up at times, what better way to go than to embrace it?

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Movie Reviews

The Science of Sleep

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It’s one of my all-time favorites; one I’ve watched a couple dozen times. Yet I’ve never sat down to write about it.

This film more than most needs an explanation, because everyone I share it with finds it a bit too obscure. So let this veteran talk you through it a bit and maybe when you watch it (again?) you’ll find it makes a bit more sense. Sometimes all we need is for someone to connect the dots, right? Fair enough, because Michael Gondry doesn’t really put them so close together in this one.

At the heart of this story is the fact that Stephane Miroux (Gael Garcia Bernal) is regularly confusing his dream for waking life. We are often invited into this confusion as well: the movie kicks off with one of many dream sequences, all of which are only set off by the use of brown, cardboard props, abstract scenarios and various degrees of film speed manipulation.

As we experience this, we too get a sense of not quite knowing and are one step closer to the vulnerable position of someone who could live this way, suspended between a dream and reality. We also get a chance to take a unique angle on imagination and how it influences reality, for it truly is a kind of wizard of oz behind both our dreams and real life.

The first scene of the movie has us in a stage made of a brown cardboard counter and backdrop, a screen and a blue curtain. Stephane is hosting a program wherein he’s introducing us to how dreams are made, what goes into them.

Enter the grey reality that Stephane is moving to France to be with his mother, who has persuaded him there with the promise of a job as an artist. He finds out abruptly that she has fixed him up as a glorified calendar editor. Like a turtle recoiling in to a shell, he is further alienated from reality and only propelled further into his dream world by a rusty relationship with the French language.

His office mates look past this and prove highly entertaining forces in his life however, most notably Guy (Alain Chabat). Typically French, they pull no punches in their banter and whiplash-worthy body language. Guy is an incorrigible womanizer who is constantly trying to get Stephane to adopt his take on living in the moment and basically fu^% anything that moves. Stephane’s soft and somewhat confused psyche rebels against Guy yet still allows his input and friendship, as somehow, and strangely enough, it anchors him in reality more than anything else can … as the audience, we find scenes with Guy among the most grounding and entertaining … perfect intermissions dotting the portrayal of Stephane’s abstract, shifting world.

Stephane lives with his mother and she is the landlord of a building where two women live on the other side of his bedroom wall.  Zoe (Emma de Caunes) and Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsburg) make their appearance as they direct a struggling crew to move a piano upstairs into their apartment. Stephane lends a hand and gets it crushed. They offer him hospitality and introductions near the piano. Zoe is notably fashionable while Staphanie dons long, stringy locks and an understated grey sweater. Stephane prefers Zoe. He has overheard that they find their landlord a bitch so he pretends for a good part of the film that he lives elsewhere.

Upon hearing Stephane’s description of meeting the ladies next door, Guy immediately interjects his understanding of “liking the pretty one when the ugly one likes you.” We are bewildered by his ability to write a situation off to this and wonder if Stephane does, too. He does take a liking to the notion of going for Zoe, and yet Guy shows a bit of heart to suggest he not play around with Stephanie.

Over the course of some scenes we realize that Stephane and Stephanie have much more in common. While Stephanie is a wellspring of creativity, understanding and good conversation, Zoe is more like a pretty flower without the mother plant. There is nothing alive between Stephane and Zoe so that never even starts. Guy and Zoe, however, do mingle in moments of subtle hilarity. Stephane finds himself confused … he writes letters in his sleep, runs across the hall naked and slips them under their doorway, unwittingly revealing that he is their neighbor/landlord’s son.

All the while, dream sequences mix with real negotiations at the office as Stephane, like any newly-arrived expat, faces a kaleidoscope of adjustment and disillusionment. His proposal of an artistic ‘disasterology’ calendar series is met by Guy’s muffled laughter and his bosse’s sincere confusion. His dreams reflect frustration, a need to show dominance and overtake the business with his paintings of plane crashes and natural disasters.

His distorted dreamscapes foretell the reality of his mother’s dating life, the unearthing of suppressed feelings about his deceased father and the related tender ‘trust-dance’ interactions with Stephanie. But his real interactions with life, and with her, are choppy at best. He finds himself climbing across windowsills to break into their apartment and is caught. Stephanie kicks him out. It is at about this time that we realize he is emotionally investing in her.

In a particular scene that showcases his waking confusion and quixotic behavior, he rushes into the shared space between their doorways and asks Stephanie to marry him. Stephanie explains that she doesn’t believe in marriage and that she is pretty sure he prefers Zoe. Stephane walks down the stairs, pouting. Their simple argument illuminates a vulnerability that lives in all of us as we try to find courage to express love for someone else in the face of uncertain odds.

Eventually, Stephane’s art is accepted for a calendar series and there happens a party to mark the release. Everyone is there and yet Stephanie won’t respond to Stephane in a way that inspires his security. She in fact flirts with another man and sends Stephane into a panik, which he tries to stave by putting his open mouth under the beer tap. He passes out and is carried home.

At his bedside, Stephanie whispers the reasons he faces such setbacks between them. It’s a reason we don’t have to be so confused to understand. The fears and the ghosts born from juxtaposing dreaming and waking life could be just as well all in our waking imagination.

He continues to push her away until the last moments of the movie, but his actions betray him and he cannot bring himself to leave her apartment. Instead, he climbs up to her loft bed and hides. The end of the movie sees her join him as they drift into a dream sequence featuring a grey horse and cellophane sea that has been a work in progress throughout the film.

The love story in this, while abstract and somewhat messy, is the most realistic portrayal of how two people get together. We all have a resume of things we have been through and are working on. Stephane doesn’t seem to have the option of covering this up, at all. And yet, the match is made.

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Movie Reviews

Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her)

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The question that was so precisely distilled by this film as I tearfully embraced its end was this:

“What does it take for any of us to learn how to return to our innocence?”

The answer, of course, is one that winds and turns on an axis of every individual, differently. And yet we whirl together.

This film has become my new #1, of all time. Perhaps it was the bookending with accessible yet genius modern dance performances (having studied and performed modern dance in college, I can say that these were quite, well, perfect). Perhaps it was the precision with which the the scenes in time were juxtaposed, to tug with maximum emotive force, yet so gently.

I don’t know. I am still in the throws of reflection. Here are some observations that initially strike me as genius. The rest I will leave to you if you have not seen. For this, my friends, is a sacred production … one that I more than hesitate to explain, for I am gratefully unable to be stretched beyond words.

Vaguely, the plot revolves around two men–Marco (Dario Grandinetti) and Benigno (Javier Camara) whose lives have been intertwined with women–Lydia (Rosario Flores) and Alicia (Leonor Watling)–who are in commas.

The twists and turns of both of these relationships are best discovered in the watching. While at first you will likely be mesmerized by the perfect pace, genius time skipping, clean script and sensual choices of Pedro Amodovar (not to mention the person in charge of casting), you will soon be pulled deeper into personal passages that find a settling point within Marco. And what a fitting actor to lead you into what ultimately transpires.

His profession is that of a travel writer, an occupation chosen out of love, not for the craft but for a woman. In this occupation, his antennae have become acutely sensitive not only to all that is taken in by the senses but also to the textured experiences of others. As the film slopes down from its climax, we realize how much we need him to translate the rest of the story, emotionally. We become him; we have to take him on, take his feelings as ours. Indeed, without his soft underbelly exposed to what his unusual emotional intelligence must process, this film would be like any other (but still better).

We realize that both Marco and Benigno found their lot in life through their love and devotion to women. Benigno’s path is riddled, however, with hardships (that he endearingly smiles in the face of). As Marco looks on, he is coaxed closer to Benigno by destiny’s hands. And yet, a perfect scene–during a visit across plexiglass at a psychotic ward where the reflections subtly yet precisely overlay their faces–captures something more than destiny or coincidence can explain.

Although they are propped up in the film’s trailers and posters as the premise for the film due to their striking beauty and symbolism, the bullfighting scenes are fleeting plot anchors. The symbolism is no less important, however. The bull in the first fight, bloody and tired, is conquered by Lydia (a famous female bullfighter), who has just before the fight shown absolute resistance when prompted for her feelings around a breakup. Her gesture to slay the animal aligns with this need to fight her feelings (the bull symbolizing the sheer, relentless power of emotions), and thus show the world her powerlessness (blood-strewn bull topples to the will of the human mind and its contrived traditions and social pressures).

The second bullfight scene, however, is wildly different. It displays surrender and the start of cascading events and crisscrossing of lives–its resolution is not seen until late in the film, when Lydia’s ex lover returns to the side of her bed … albeit not under ordinary circumstances.

The film is dotted with the refreshingly-candid and delightfully-crass banter of ordinary people. It provides a poignant backdrop to the main characters. We see clearly that these chatty, gossipy people are locked into the eye of life’s storm but have seemingly never gone through the big “doughnut” of thunder-struck madness to get there. Missing out on the juice of life through their squatting in the comfort zone, they half-bake the stories of the lives of others to invent drama. The main characters are those living right in the storm, looking for that center. As they find it, so too do they discover a return to innocence that can only be attained by passage through the weathering of life.

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Movie Reviews

The Puffy Chair (Strangely Comfortable)

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It is to my heart’s delight that these types of Indy-real films, which graced almost exclusively the narrow confines of the Sundance channel just three years ago are leaking into the mainstream. I think this is because people are fed up with worn-out plotlines, perfectionism and CGI that has us feeling less than adequate … this as well as a general, yet overwhelming need to get real.

The Duplass brothers* are frontrunners in this real-life, weird-is-the-new-normal movement.  And their 2005 release “The Puffy Chair,” is at once a testament to the complications and the hilarity of everyday life.

The story kicks off with a conversation between a couple who are dating but who obviously are at an unconscious yet, obvious to the observer, crossroads in their relationship. When, in the opening scene, Emily (Katie Aselton) violently removes her dinner plate from their romantic dinner table while her boyfriend Josh (Mark Duplass) talks guy with a friend through a cell earphone, we know our souls will find some satisfaction in this film.

Hooked into the characters, we then observe them heading off on a road trip so that Josh can retrieve a puffy purple chair that he found on E-bay and surprise his dad with it on his birthday. Along the way, they decide to stop in at his brothers ‘for a quick chat.’

The brother, Rhett (Rhett Wilkins) is promptly sketched out as pretty removed from the mainstream of human ambition. Dead-head long lags in speech, strong tendencies toward alienating esoteric lines of reason and his fascination with a video he took of a lizard on a bit of foliage are stacked neatly on top of one another during his intro. He’s really out there, and we want to know how this will mix with the plan.

Of course he wants to go along for the ride, which creates another twist in the already-worn wire connecting Emily and Josh, but she roles with it.

A kaleidoscope of action ensues:

Emily and Rhett being forced into awkward positions, including peeing in a bottle in the van, so that Josh can save 10 bucks on a cheap motel.

A shotgun, illegitimate wedding—complete with a hand-picked daisy bouquette and a speech by Josh that is unsuspectingly moving—and next-morning divorce between Rhett and an earthy-sweet yet unsettling woman he meets in a movie theatre.  Note the most award-winningly hilarious, and good-painfully long lovers, dance scene ever made.

An argument in a hotel room between Josh and Emily that is so poignant in its illumination of the complicated web of reasons that couples find themselves in when things are not really working out.

Solid-gold dialogue between Josh and the guy who sold the chair, and then the resulting cathartic scene wherein Josh has to summon his inner dragon to retrieve the chair from a reupholster’s shop.

I won’t spoil what happens to the chair in the end, but let’s just say that Rhett is involved, and it’s almost, but not quite, spiritual.

The conversation between Josh and his dad is particularly enlightening and is followed by a resolution between Josh and Emily.

Roll credits.

Where’s the plot, you ask? It’s there. Sitting on the chair. It’s all about trying to make something work when all along it’s really not.

This is not a feel-good film on its surface at all. In fact, it’s more of a roll-on-the-floor in agony because it’s so awkward experience that, over the days you process it, will have you feeling good that you are not alone. Indeed, others are strange, too. Because strange is not so strange after all. In fact, strange is the new real.

PS: Mark Duplass is one hot cookie, IMO … mmmm, enjoy!

*Special thanks to my sister who went so far as to ship two Duplass Brothers movies to me overseas recently.

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Movie Reviews

The Weight of Our Lives

I know, I’m like the last person on earth to see this film, which I cuddled up with my two cats to behold. In terms of methodology and form, the film was inspiring, sharp and genius. In terms of effect, the film is depressive yet sobering, imploring the audience to contemplate life itself and how human beings are often violently tossed about by its whims.

The filmmaker has a keen sense of the two-dimensionality of the medium: they (figuratively) take the reel and snip it in dozens of pieces, moving time forward and backward, showcasing scenes in a way that they catalyze each other’s contents. First-rate acting and gritty scenery make this film really hard to avoid total absorption–I mean, you are there and you are curious as to what is next or what happened before. And the funny thing is, you don’t really expect a happy ending or conclusion, you just want to be with these people and feel what is going on. This is all you are actually allowed to do. And in the end you find out that this is the whole point, to be alive through others who are going through very intense situations in order to stretch yourself.

Art should stretch you. And this is successful. Here goes a synopsis and evaluation. My ‘issues’ with the film are at the end, per usual (with the ones I like anyway).

The movie opens with Paul Rivers (by Sean Penn) sitting on the side of a bed, in the sunlight, smoking a cigarette as Cristina Peck (by Naomi Watts) sleeps. His hunched posture and pensive yet somewhat hopeless body language indicate that this is not the average morning after.

In a blink of an eye and a cut of the reel, we’re introduced to Cristina’s husband Michael (by Danny Huston) and two daughters … basically the normalcy of her picket-fence life. Then in a flash she is discussing substance abuse in a group therapy session. Another scene later on invites you to her session of coke snorting in front of a mirror. You see this scene twice through the course of the movie.

Is this about drugs? You wonder.

Next we meet Jack Jordan (by Benicio Del Toro)–preaching to a stocking-cap-wearing kid in his late teens about the saving graces of Jesus Christ. The kid isn’t taking it in and as he rejects the information, Jack becomes more and more infuriated … because this kid is reflecting a part of him that is asleep, basically, if you want to break down the psychology of it.

The scenes revolve without any need for chronology, just flash after flash of these moments in life–in the lives of each character and then in their lives criss crossing. The effect of this is a much stronger dose of emotion as scenes become unhinged from the bigger picture and stand in their own rights, raw and present, without comforts of present or past. Like life itself.

Paul’s scenes after that first one of him sitting by the bed, smoking, are at first a display of him being wasted and dreadfully ill. Connected to tubes, dying, first. Then, after a few scenes on other characters and events, we see him wheeling oxygen to a bathroom and trying to smoke a cigarette before his wife, Mary Rivers (by Charlotte Gainsbourg) gets home, but she smells it on him and she moves into scolding mother mode a bit, indicating that she is at the end of her rope, looking after someone who won’t look after himself. We are introduced through the revolving doors of scenes to Paul and Mary’s relationship as one that is not of love so much as codependence when he is sick and unrequited love when he gets better. Mary loves Paul. But Mary, as we are made aware early on, has a past that prevents her from conceiving without an operation. So she is working on that and with Paul ill is begging for his sperm so she can have his baby when he dies.

It’s a quarter way into the movie and we’re not sure what the illness is yet, we don’t know what to make of Cristina because so far the scenes just show her with her kids, guiding them through a cake-baking session in their kitchen, snorting coke, hugging Paul yet sometimes happily married to her husband Michael. Michael’s character is never quite fleshed out–he is featured in a phone message and in a few scenes running with their girls along the sidewalk. Other details are keenly avoided to condense the effect of the moments themselves–free from any distraction of what any of these people do for a living, where they are living (beyond small town or suburb in a four-season climate) or even their greater personalities beyond their responses to the events that take place.

The director, writer, editor, whoever, make keen decisions about the utility of details instead of details for details’ sake. We know what kind of car Paul drives–a saloon car of a person set firmly in the middle class–and we know that he is fascinated by math and probably a teacher … the corduroy jacket says teacher but again we are never sure because the only time math is mentioned is when he is explaining its wonders to Cristina, and leaping off of his fascination around numbers to explain that so many things in life must align to bring two people together. Yet it’s not romantic, the feeling around this. It’s real, it’s touching but the romance is gone just as much as the hope has been dashed by other scenes we’ve seen. We can’t buy into them happily ever after because, as we recall, Paul was so ill in some scenes, Mary was so desperate for his sperm in others, and at one point early on, he was on life support so … Sure, he’s a comfort, but we get the undeniable impression early on that he invites a lot of heartache into Cristina’s life.

Jack evolves through rotating scenes into someone who has adopted the ‘Jesus Saves’ rhetoric based entirely on his feelings about his past and an attempt to free himself from a wild adolescence. An important few scenes show him struggling with his manager at a golf club to stay on staff as he is rejected for a tatoo on his neck. “What are you going to wear a scarf?!” his manager protests as he cans him. He can’t seem to claw his way out of his past–and even the half-constructed idea of Jesus can’t pull him out in the end.

Jack has two kids and a wife Marianne Jordan (by Melissa Leo)–all living in a lower-middle-class setup, trying to make ends meet. Early on, we see that Marianne finds his clinging to dogma a bit scary at times and is bewildered when he tries to bring the malformed ideals into his parenting approach–see him asking his son to hit his daughter so she can learn to turn her other cheek … and see Marianne furiously grab the daughter like a lioness in protest of the male’s ignorance.

So we’re involved with these people by midway–seriously committed to what they are going through even if we’re not quite sure what it is yet. And we trust it will be revealed. I want to say more but that would ruin it if you haven’t had a chance to see it yet.

I will say this stuff though:

Watts displays her usual ability to go into the deeply troubled character who is twisting in the wind of her thoughts and feelings, bedraggled and tortured by them over the course of two hours. (She revisits the Mulholland Drive zone of her range.) Her response in a key scene to some bad news about her kids is pretty good.*

Del Toro displays a great range–he is charged here with playing someone wild who is trying to redeem his own existence as he pledges allegiance to dogma, eating it wildly from the jar procured by an intermittent mentor. Jack experiences something that interrupts this fanatical journey though, and as easily as he jumped all the way on the plastic, wabbling wagon of faith he has jumped off. He stands up and dusts off, a live wire who at once hates himself. Del Toro has clearly studied the self-effacing, self-destructing, self-loathing yet self-contained nature of this character. He makes my heart bleed for the struggle that Jack faces in just living a normal life when the cards were clearly against him from the start, somehow (again, we are never distracted by his past and somehow this lends to forgiveness because it doesn’t take a genius to see that he was born onto a bumpy road).

The few issues I have with this are:

Cristina at one point doesn’t want to press charges against Jack and seems totally depressed and unable to think of such a thing. But then, out of the blue, she becomes passionate about killing the guy and wants Paul to help her. Okay, I know that the circumstances around the original decision would render her totally depressed beyond action, but give us a scene in which she somehow envisions Jack or spends time thinking on him or having a conversation with Paul about him so that we get a bit of a signal that she could change her mind. The vignettes of her character as shown didn’t really help me on the leap from complacence to murder.

Additionally, I wasn’t quite convinced by her violent outburst at the news that Paul was in posession of something so dear to her. It seems that she was more rational than this, even in the depths of depression. Maybe she was on a coke high. But give us that scene a bit closer to the time he comes over to her house so we can expect this. Actually, I need that coke high a bit more consistently strewn because it’s not clear when she is high, how often, and this has implications on whether or not that is her character or the coke … I forget about the coke somehow and then her character’s unpredictability seems baseless. Maybe I have a bad short-term memory but this is about timing and layering and mirages, isn’t it? Dollop a little more coke in there for good measure I say.

In any case, the situations are unpredictable and you never quite guess how it fits together until the end. Like Babel, and Amores Perros–two films that employ the same type of editing–I care about the characters and am invested. Unlike these films though, I am deeply moved by the characters and affected by them and the larger message of the film. In fact, 21 grams is enormous and heavy and will stay with me a while as I digest and integrate its messages.

Some themes do not resolve themselves, indicating that life itself is not about resolution so much as process. A process that weighs 21 grams.

*The best performance I’ve seen around something happening to someone’s kids goes to Michelle Pfeiffer in Deep End of the Ocean (as random as that made-for-tv movie is). In the case of Watts, I couldn’t quite feel enough to cry with her. Pfeiffer makes me cry when she cries, she makes me want to scream when she screams–she injects you with her spirit … and I think that is an ability an actor is born with or earns through some life experience.

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Movie Reviews

Oscar Picks a Dark Night of Our Souls

Black Swan–A Review with Due Consideration of the Concept of the Dark Night of the Soul

Disclaimer:

Although I am sure they account for millions of ticket sales among the immature male audience members of the world, and likely caused jaws to drop among the older set as well as fake gasps of awe from women of my generation, I am not at all phased by the sexual themes that were in fact necessary for the development of the plot. (BTW: this film probably won’t screen in Doha.)

Some may consider the sexual references gratuitous and designed for ticket sales; paradoxically the film would not cover the real life our intelligence demands without them: it’s high time that these ideas were eliminated from the realm of dark taboo and lifted, at times, from their underground lairs where they’ve been driven in the name of social  standards (I am sure all involved in the making of the film would concur). Sexuality is fundamental to the human being and is at once one’s origins. Most of us are lucky to be born from passion and its expression.

The sensations are an integral part of the protagonists journey and the way they are portrayed in the film exclusively highlights a human being desperately searching for a way to reclaim her feelings and human nature despite herself. Some would call her methods and fantasies perverse, I would call them a stages in the development of a stunted, yet brave, human being–one description involves infinite shame and guilt, the other self discovery.

Finally, to deny these as a part of life is to contribute to the perpetuation of saintly perfectionist ideals and the related frozen, immature state of the human being. The protagonist’s mother represents the mastermind behind a life of contrived perfection–like a wizard of oz, she controls her daughter’s life in ways she never could her own. She is the essence of insecurity, seeking it through control of things outside herself. The protagonist’s eating disorder is simply a continuation of this expression within the confines of her own private, and ‘beshackled,’ world–control and self denial to achieve a fabricated sense of security due to an extreme lack of that within the self. Again, to see her experiment with sensation, masturbation, frosting on the tip of her mother’s outstretched finger, lesbian interactions–whether real or fantastic–should not be shocking to any woman who is mature and at once totally honest with herself.

In this respect, I hold this movie up and celebrate it as a challenge to those who haven’t yet had the chance to explore the ‘Dark Night of the[ir own] Soul’–as a journey to the part of the self that constatly longs for attention and acceptance and is more often shunned due to its ‘socially inappropriate’ nature. What we must come to terms with is that it will get attention whether we accept it or not, life will make sure of it, and only when it is accepted will it integrate and relax into part of our balanced, beloved whole self.

Review:

When I heard that Swan Lake was the premise for this film, I immediately considered watching it a daunting concept. The story is one of such tragedy–I mean, suicide is so heavy. And it was quite demanding to watch, really, yet it was a highly worthwhile. As a piece of art, it encouraged disillusionment about some ideas I took for granted as standards–something that excellent art of any medium does for me. This is all not to mention that it was a chance to see acting, directing and editing at its finest.

I will get to the criticism later and that would be of the writing–I think this is the only film that I’ve ever seen where the writing in some places was so poor yet the scene was saved by other elements and thus the movie survived as a piece of worthwhile art.

The film is about Nina Sayers (by Natalie Portman), an over-achieving ballerina who lives with her mother, Erica Sayers (by Barbara Hershey) on the upper-west side. She–as established through scenes of her excitement over a half pink grapefruit and and egg and her matter-of-fact visits to the toilet to curtsy and vomit–takes great pains to maintain a feather weight and perfect every move of every performance.

But when the role of the Swan Queen moves into her sights, her choreographer, Thomas Leroy (by Vincent Cassel), insists that she has the talent but not the character–that she has perfected everything but is not really anyone underneath the mechanical moves.

Thomas is at once sleezy and brutally honest and through the film I can’t decide whether I like him or detest him more. He abuses his power with dancers–pimping their sexuality out to his appetite and whim just because he can–and yet he is tapping in to an essential, sensual part of Nina’s character when he scolds her … right or wrong, he always has a true point:

“You need to let go!” “You are too mechanical.” “You need to stop being so weak.” “Do you enjoy sex? It’s important to know this. Go home and touch yourself.”

I couldn’t help but agree with him though–in a very maladjusted and abusive way, he is trying to get her to look at herself. She has no father and she seems to be sucking his harsh, direct tendencies like a vacuum.

We want to cry for her yet as the film moves on, we are urged to consider both sides. We begin to admit that Nina is a woman trapped inside of her mind, inside of the ideals of perfection, of the “good girl.” The movie develops a perfect parallel of how she became this way. In the beginning we may consider her mother a grounded, supportive “everything will be alright in the morning, it always is” figure in her life, yet we are gradually confronted with the fact that she has done much (symbolized in a music box that is repeatedly noted throughout the film) to preserve he daughter as a pre-pubescent little girl, to shelter her from life and keep her locked in a fantasy land of light and dark, perfection and imperfection. A shallow existence locked in the mind, hovering over the soul, the true essence of an individual, comprising light and dark and everything in between.

Within this womb of a world, Nina measures herself by strict definitions of how she ‘should’ be–standards that have nothing to do with the real world and the real people around her. The only person she relates to until the call to darkness, in fact, is Beth Macintyre (by Winona Ryder), a ballerina who achieves perfection in Thomas’ mind yet is tossed aside as old right as Nina takes over as apple of his eye. Nina in fact takes a few of Beth’s items from her makeup stand and clings to them like one would religious artifacts–in efforts to worship someone who has achieved the perfection her mother hadn’t and was pushing her to work toward.

But there is something different about Nina, and we are given a clue early on that she does have a connection to her soul born from a strength not of her mother (perhaps from the genes of her audacious father–a choreographer only briefly suggested in the film to have been much like Thomas and who impregnated Erica and left her to fall off the top of her career to raise Nina). When Thomas moves in to force a wet kiss, Nina bites him–we see that despite her position, her soul is wild and raging beneath, she is keen to his antics as much as her father would be, and there is someone real in there waiting to get the hell out and call bullshit what it is, to be born. After that bite, incidentally, he gives her the part of the Swan Queen.

As she prepares to perform both roles–of the light and dark swan–she experiences hallucinations and fantasies entailing self mutilation. The directing and editing help bring these home in that we are never quite sure what is real and imaginary until we wake up with her, into what really happened. We are dizzy, nauseous, embarrassed right along with her as her skin breaks open and bleeds, even as her legs break underneath her.

Nina is lead further in her pursuit of darkness by the presence of a visiting ballerina, Lily (by Mila Kunis). Lily is from San Francisco and her stereotypically west-coast free spirit and openness about sexuality provides a strong contrast to the austere and closed existence Nina has been locked within. Lily’s frankness and candid demeanor, her sexuality as advertised to both genders, everything about her is welcomed as refreshing after spending time in Nina’s world.

In a critical scene, Nina pulls away from her mother’s lame excuses to keep her in the shell of the apartment and goes out clubbing with Lily. Lily invites her to do drugs. Nina partakes and we are not sure if she was willing or not but really it is her soul that is … it is her soul that breaks those rules of her mind that night.

She becomes paranoid thereafter with regards to Lily, thinking that she wants the role of Swan Queen and is sabotaging her career. Yet, again, we see that Lily, like Thomas, while slightly sick in intentions is contributing to the Nina’s embrace of the darkness within her and in the world, as part of the whole of reality. This paranoia mixes with an attraction to Lily, however. In a sweep of cinematic genius we are taken into the concept of the spiritual mirror.

Nina has touched herself in a previous scene but her fantasy of a sexual encounter with Lily, which we are not aware is fantasy until she mentions it to Lily, indicates that huge parts of Lily’s personality mirror her own. As is always the case in real life, the person who provokes the strongest emotions and reactions in us represents a dormant, ignored or underdeveloped part of our own person. Lily’s sexuality, independence, lifeblood is within Nina and alive–yet Nina is so sheltered, so new to concepts that are within her that when someone else mirrors them, she can’t find the line between herself and the other.

This blurry line continues through the remainder of the film until a pivotal scene involving blood under a doorway and a towel, at which point Nina is completely herself and has completed the embrace of her entire, natural existence, which was formerly in part mirrored by Lily but suddenly emerges as an integral part of her (broken mirror in her dressing room reinforces this just before she goes out to give the performance we wondered if we’d ever see–and were stunned that Portman pulled off with such emotional precision–we are seduced by her for about thirty seconds and she is shamelessly dark and there is SO much grace in it!).

Again, it’s very important that people be comfortable with sexuality to grasp the full message of this film. The filmmakers put forward a very important challenge to society. What is so bad about acknowledging your needs, your natural desires, your own nature–for food, sex, expression. What is wrong with it? Because if it is not acknowledged, it is perversely stuffed or indulged in–one or the other. The overly-controlled ballerina is a clear archetype of buried desire and how it twists the soul. The question begs here: what is dark about natural desire, natural impulse, other than the fact that it’s not socially acceptable and thus in the shadows–even the shadows of one’s own mind?

Keeping nature in the shadows is dangerous, if not a needlessly arduous pursuit of the human mind. Yet there is a widespread compulsion among us to do just that. It can be because of smothering mothers just as much as mothers who left too abruptly to go out into the workforce or simply abandon the child in the name of finding their own life because motherhood wasn’t for them. Because either way, the child is left feeling that they must earn love, through constant reward and punishment or through never quite getting the love that was lost in the first place, respectively.

This compulsion toward what is perfect, toward external approval, keeps our natures in the shadows. Through entering the Dark Night of the Soul, through exploring desire, activities that were not traditionally part of one’s life and were not necessarily approved of, a person reclaims essential components of their nature. It’s a rough road–it’s dark. Nobody, while in that state, knows why the hell they are there. But when they emerge, they are that much more whole, connected to something deep inside themselves that provides security–the knowledge of their own presence, reality, being, with all of its feelings, tendencies, desires, no matter what is happening around them.

Experiencing life to the fullest, for many of us, involves this passage. Some will survive, some will not. In the film, we are not quite sure if she does–but her rigid ideals, most certainly die. And that semi-final performance, with the black feathers taking over her body, is one of the most triumphant I’ve ever seen!

Critique: The lines, especially those of Thomas, are so contrived at points it’s painful. Knowing his company and what needs to be explained, he never would spell out the premise of Swan Lake at the beginning unless his lines were doubling to inform a clueless audience–I guess a big-budget film needs to pay its bills and make sure even a five year old can understand it so he’ll tell his friends.  Sorry that was snotty. Okay so the other thing I noticed is that, and I don’t know how dancers will take this but I suspect they would agree, the ballerinas in this film were not true to form in their social approach. There was something a little too loose about all of them. While they needed to be this way for the film, and I love the message that the film brings across, I think that their conversations seemed contrived, overly-explicit for the context they already shared. Yet again, this is big-budget, this is American Cinema and let’s throw the details out to make a point. Considering the benefits stated above, I can’t care so much that it wasn’t subtle in its script at all … when many times, it would have done very well to be so.

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Redeeming Qualities of Scott Pilgram vs The World

Firstly and most importantly: wow.

This film is an experience more than a presentation–so if you have that in mind going in, you may not be as overwhelmed at me as I tried to figure out a) did I like that film and b) what was that all about, really? In the end, I did like it, and after a sound sleep and some reflection on the drive to work, there were a lot of moments recalled that helped me make sense of it, as much as a woman in her mid-thirties can.

A film like this reminds me that there are a variety of reasons to make and watch audio-visuals art forms. The reason I would give for watching this one is that it stretches the imagination and challenges the artist within the bracket of popular film expectations (be it a big chunk of our persona or a small member of our psychic society of alter egoes). It’s a chance to stretch out into the possibilities of what types of expression belong together and what types don’t–because, ready or not, all the ones in this film belong according to the maker.

Okay, so, the gist. This 20 year-old guy, Scott Pilgram (Michael Cera), falls for a girl who is new in town (Ramona Flowers by Mary Elizabeth Winstead)–this is twisted by his non-blossoming relationship with a 16 year-old Chinese high schooler (Knives Chou by Ellen Wong) labeled by his friends as a recovery non-girlfriend episode. Once Pilgram gets his foot in the door with Flowers, he must first face his discomfort in dumping Chou which opens him to some not-so-divine intervention in that he must then fight Flowers’ seven evil ex-boyfriends just to be around her.

It seems straightforward enough, but you find out within minutes that this movie, your experience, is not going to be predictable, that what counts as standard is in someone else’s hands–within a minute of the film’s onset, we see people’s names and titles flashing below them, their real thoughts captioned above them, items whizzing on and off screen, the real punctured by the surreal.

Nothing new, fantasy. But the ratio, the timing of fantasy injected into reality is what makes the experience unique, not to mention that this film is shamelessly made explicitly for those in their late teens and twenties but nonetheless will prove cathartic for the older set if they’re open. It’s user friendly … the script only lightly relies on the urban dictionary for lines.

Actually, although welcomed through most of it, I felt at many points like I was the older, older set while watching this film. Maybe it was the new flatscreen on which I viewed it, or maybe it was the fact that my senses have not been dulled by relentless punk rock in over 15 years, but there were points I had to push pause and check on the laundry, just to catch a breath, calm down.

The colors, the sheer rock-out of the scenes where Pilgrim lives as a real but fantastified video game character swinging and ducking wildly … I mean, everything was like a huge kaleidescope toy to this toddler-slash-older-set audience member.

Qualify this review by labeling it “redeeming qualities” because, sadly, the film and action and the way it was woven together did much to undermine the whole effect. I needed breaks not just for laundry and settling down but also because I became a bit bored with some repetitive elements of the film. I would have had a hard time sitting in the theatre through this one I think. And I’m finding as I sit down to critically think and write about movies that there is much to be said about the editor, whether they do it right or wrong.

Also, there’s a guy-girl balance that pleases the general audience and this was tilted quite noticeably toward the guy–the fight scenes were all about 20 seconds too long and the femininity, the nuance, what could be subtle was all but absent.

Still, there were moments that when I woke up this morning struck me as useful visualizations to put in my pocket. And with all the reading I do of Zen literature, all the philosophy I stuff in my brain about compassion and self acceptance, this movie, with all of its violence and action, delivers something really deep in the end. I am not sure how many people will pick up on the intention in the beginning of the last scene, but it saved the film for me–bringing it up to seven stars out of 10 from the five I was almost going to give it.

Other noteworthy details:

Late in the game, Pilgrim pulls a flaming sword from his chest and I kinda went nuts for that moment–intelligence amidst the action; and the sword when hit by his last nemesis, Gideon Graves (by Jason Schwartzman) breaks into pieces that evaporate into little hearts=awesome!

His roommate, Wallace Wells (by Kieran Culkin), is the kind of person we all want to be–his darkness is so gratifying and cathartic, his dryness is such a relief and yet he is tender. He is gay and SO okay with it, it’s a matter-of-fact aspect of his character in the film and this is, as paradoxical as it might seem, emphasized and refreshing. I want to see him in more movies, as a character actor … because he does that one so well and it’s necessary, like a dark, thick stroke on a painting to set items apart in the midst of other visual cues.

Life is like a video game, when you think about it–the challenge is always there, but the fighting must be tamed, rechanneled … in the older souls at least. It nonetheless lives, manifest in so many ways.

This movie is one to see if you: a) are between the ages of 15 and 25 b) are able to immediately adapt your standards and process a film after the fact no matter your age c) you play or have played a lot of video games involving sparring d) you enjoy punk rock and have a penchant for things that appeal to an ADHD-based thought process e) all or any combination of the above.

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Why I Love to Hate to Love Tron Legacy

Having waited for months to see this touted 3D blast-from-the-past escape flick, I knew I had unconsciously built it up as a life-changing experience. Yet all of this excitement was consciously tempered by the suspician that it would be built on a flimsy plot, which it was. In any case, I gave myself completely to the film and left the theatre feeling like I had been on a roller coaster that was fun but made my stomach hurt a little–for the conscious tempering didn’t reach my unconscious enough I guess and the disillusionment was a bit hard to take.

Breaking it down: The plot was actually well-designed but the lack of investment in key elements and character development was atrocious and left the scenes that should have sucked my very soul in with expert, CGI vacuum force relatively flat and unimpactful. I was totally into the gaming, the riding around, the amazing magic wands that turned into vehicles and flying machines. I was completely surrendered to the make-believe world that made total escape into the film nearly impossible to avoid. I was there and so were a lot of people. But getting us there isn’t enough and I feel almost upset about that, that the opportunity was wasted to really make a winning film.

Here are my deeper thoughts. First scene, we see young Sam Flynn, (as he ages played by Garrett Hedlund) in his bed, playing with action figures as his father, Kevin (Jeff Bridges in CGI) takes this opportunity to explain part of the plot to him. Okay, so a movie has to be squeezed into an hour and half these days, and I want to forgive the shameless scene multitasking, but I know a lot of film teams will work their tails off to somehow finess this given the time limit.

Within minutes, Kevin jumps on his motorcycle and peels out of sight–we later find out through the television news that he has gone missing. Sam’s grandparents are in the opening two scenes, and they take over in raising him but I don’t think I hear them say anything except when grandma says “Sam, you need to eat.” We are then abruptly whisked to the future, where Sam is driving his dad’s bike, which he fixed up. He’s on a mission to break into Encom, the software company his father owned and the one being taken over by dorky-slick bad guys and a snobby tech guru, all on massive ego trips. The only (non-caricatured) member of Kevin’s original business team at this point is Alan Bradley (played by the still devastatingly handsome Bruce Boxleitner).

Sam fudges a global announcement that Encom stocks will be traded in Japan and then leaps off the top of the company skyscraper to test his parachuting skills, all before going home to have a Coors promo moment at his bachelor pad. (As if this movie wasn’t going to make enough money.)

Alan shows up at his decked-out, grunged-up, try-to-look-like-I-don’t-try abode and they discuss the company and obviously unfold a bit more of the plot for us. Alan explains that he got a page from a number he hadn’t seen in 20 years, from Kevin. Sam is totally indignant, as any abandoned child would be, about the company, about Alan’s advice, about everything (and this I found to be one of the only realistic character development threads through the film). Yet he decides to take Alan’s advice to visit the old archade where Kevin’s page originated, anyway.

He enters the haunted old place, wipes dust off machines, kicks a jukebox into playing Journey and Eurythmics–giving us a moment to sink into nostalgia about the 80s–and then finds a secret passage into an office where he clicks a few buttons, is zapped by a lazer and enters Tron.

As I alluded in the beginning, I knew this would be so slapped together in some ways so I forgave the leap of techno-genetics and lazers changing human form so they can skip dimensions, etc. I forgave all the stuff any scientist would itch like a rash because I wanted the thrill. So I suggest people do this, too, if they want anywhere near their money’s worth.

Anyway, so Sam’s in Tron and he gets sent to play games and meets some girl and the action starts and it’s a good lot of fun. However, I still feel like I don’t know Sam enough to really love him. I like him, I get what the film makers want me to think of him but everything happened so fast until that point that I am kind of like ah well, whoever wins, wins. I’m not on his side because I don’t love him.

Soon enough he’s put in a life-threatening situation and is rescued by a mysterious driver who is assumed to be a man but then pulls her helmet off to be a perfect, black-bob-donning woman, Quorra (Olivia Wilde). A few UsWeekly moments later and we see Sam reunited with his father, who has taken up residence in a zen palace hidden in rocky terrain across the black sky from where his clone, Clu (CGI Bridges), is busy being a dictator and plotting the complete take over of Tron and eventually Earth.

The hollow character development continues throughout the movie and in my mind is its major downfall. I never get this sense of deeper connection to the pain of separation of father from son except through Bridges’ expert actor looks, which isn’t quite enough. I needed this built out more at the beginning and it wasn’t and it would have carried so much more and brought so much more thrill to every other scene.

Soon we get to go into other fun scenes filled with action, and they’re all good, shameless plot development through overstatements notwithstanding. We understand vaguely who Tron is if we have seen the original but I think, honestly, this is assumed because Bruce Boxleitener in CGI wasn’t lingered on long enough (and in my opinion, you couldn’t linger on that guy too long … sorry, massive childhood crush revisited). Either that or he was in the moment I stepped out to use the bathroom.

There’s a transition point that revolves a bit around society on Tron and a character named Zuse (Michael Sheen). And it’s very cliche in its execution but moves the film and is kind of necessary to at least give us a sense that some societal order exists on Tron. Sheen’s performance is fun but can’t touch the cold heartedness of even Lex Luthor’s (Kevin Spacey’s) villain in Superman returns … in all fairness, he really didn’t have enough time to show us the character and develop his meanness. But we do get the sense of how he pimps himself out, which I guess is good for something.

The end of the film drags as Kevin, Sam and Quorra ride toward an exit portal, converse, develope the plot through rough script and hint at zen and meditation. By the way, I adore the Buddhist current that Kevin Flynn’s character interjects throughout the film–the emphasis on letting go of perfection to find it in front of you. This helped me to feel that the experience was salvagable–grease on the wheels of the roller coaster if you will and a nice swift lift up at the end.

If you want an escape, this is your film. If you want to be emotionally invested, go see something else–I hear Black Swan is good.

PS: Remember this?

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Movie Reviews

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

The intriguing thing about going back in time with cinema is just how much, despite technological and social advances, we might relate to the lives of people throughout history—that is, if a film has been built on the fundamentals of being human and thus stands the test of time.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, despite superficial title and trite references, is one such movie.

At first glance, this movie deceives. For what can possibly happen around a woman obsessed with Tiffany’s jewelry store? A lot. And the construction, flow and grip of this movie help us to process it, move with it and reap the benefits of contemplation as we embark on a romantic journey that is strangely new-age in its approach to how two people can heal each other. Aside for one slip,* this movie is flawless.

We find Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn) in the first–most famous–scene browsing through the Tiffany’s window along 5th Ave. in New York City. She trapses through the isles. A ritual walk through diamonds and precious metals. She is swiftly showcased in a scene with her male counterpart Paul (George Peppard) to explain that this trip to Tiffany’s is a sure cure for the “mean reds”–bad moods that plague her.

It’s immediately established that Holly is a woman of high standard, right down to the last detail–see tassled earplugs and blingy eyemask for sleeping. And Paul makes a first impression as a quiet, classic, unsuspecting, and devastatingly handsome gentleman. But Holly doesn’t let on that she even notices these qualities and we, as the audience, are kind of going “huh? girl, did you SEE this guy?”

The movie is a flowering out through deep complexities of contextual looks into their lives, and we soon yearn for them to get together—as an act of social symbiosis, a way for each of them to be saved by love.

Holly’s escapism into the party scene and the pursuit of partnership with the richest men in the world is presented as a psychologically complex attempt to deny a past wherein she was a poor, southern mouse who married at age 14 and took on a family of four. The only link to her past being her brother, Fred, who we never meet or see because he’s off fighting in the war.

The tension set up around Fred is genius for with all of her ardent efforts to escape the past, Holly is obsessed with this man and his return–their connection obviously close and serving a purpose to connect her with the only scrap of identity she has. This lack of identity is further set up through the cat she keeps–an orange tabby, who in my opinion deserves some kind of feline oscar for all of the scenes it made with its behavior. She calls the cat “cat” and “poor slob without a name.”

Paul’s situation is equally complex. He is actually a male prostitute—something that in the 60s must have been wild to behold as a concept on the big screen. But he’s a high-end one who serves only one client, the wife of a well-to-do elderly man who obviously does nothing for her. The client does little for Paul except cut him checks and put him up in fancy apartments. She’s obnoxious but real in character. One thing might save Paul, and that’s that he can write.

Holly encourages him with a battery of questions at the movies outset–“when did you last write?” she coos. “Yesterday,” he says matter of factly. “It’s a nice typewriter,” she continues “but there’s no ribbon in it.”

These little nuances throughout the movie become tiny anchor points for details shared later on–like when we discover half-way through that, as Paul explains his writing successes and payment for work, Holly had bought him the ribbon for his typewriter.

We are more directly cued into the ways that Paul helps Holly, for when her ex-husband, Doc Golightly (Buddy Ebsen) comes into the picture, asking her to ‘come home,’ Holly asks Paul to accompany her to the bus station and stand by her when she tells the old man to ride the bus back south alone. Doc tries to bribe Holly by threatening not to take Fred in on his return and to even write to tell him to take another tour in the war. Holly gracefully pleads for him not to do this and says she’ll take Fred in–thus catapulting her into an intensified need for funding to support another person in the future.

Paul and Holly, through colorful, sing-song scenes, build a friendship that in the entryway of their apartment building becomes romantic. We only see the kiss but the chemistry is so dead on that it’s really overwhelming and, if I may speak for everyone, we are satisfied with the notion of it.

The morning after their first night together, Paul opens his striking blue eyes and slides a bit in his soft, white sheets to find her gone. He searches for her around the city and finds her at the library, researching Brazil so that she can woo a rich, Brazilian politician, Jose ‘Villalonga,’ she met at a party to be her husband. It’s an ice-cold situation. Paul confesses love at this point but our chests collapse a little to watch him completely stonewalled by Holly’s conviction.

We are then brought into one of the great scenes in film in my opinion. For I judge acting by the actors ability to let go completely. When Holly and Villalonga are coming back from a party, he spots a telegram at her door. She steps forward in a hot pink dress and matching heals to interrupt his retrieval of it and they juggle it back and forth in play before she grabs it and smiles.

We are flashed into Paul’s room from which he hears her scream and glass smashing. He rushes down to her apartment to find Villalonga beside himself–innocent yet shocked at her behavior. Paul rushes into the room where Holly is completely possessed, haywire, screaming and pulling furniture over, smashing the carefully placed bottles of perfume on her beauty stand, ripping into down linens. Paul swoops right into the mess and gets a hold of her, and we see his presence, his steadiness as her limbs flail and she fights him–he gingerly releases her weakening form onto her bed and physically encourages her to to calm down as he places his hand on her shoulder and leans in a bit, waiting. She rests into a sob, and, sensing her stable, Paul returns to Villalonga.

The telegram, Paul discovers, declares horrific news. Villalonga still seems hesitant and voices concern about being with such an emotional woman who could put his stature on the line. Paul exits but not before instructing ‘the other man’ to go in and take care of Holly.

Complications include early revelation of Holly’s relationship to a mafia jailbird, who pays her to visit him and even tips her to stand up, turn around and walk to the restroom. This comes to bite her as she is about to depart for Brazil to be with Villalonga—she is arrested the night before, and Paul works some connections to see how she can be represented for only being a (paid) friend to a member of the mob.

To avoid too much exposure, Paul thoughtfully books a hotel for Holly and meets her at the precinct with items she would need most, including “cat.” Holly listens to him explain her accomodations and finds that there is still time to catch the flight so insists to the driver that they go to the airport. An argument ensues. Another amazing scene built on amazing writing and we are whisked into an ending where Paul breaks his silence and, in one of the most moving speeches I’ve heard, challenges Holly to look at her freedom as the cage that holds her back from true love.

*There is one, huge flaw in the movie, one that at the time seemed normal, I guess. Mickey Rooney is cast as an Asian landlord, decked out in buck teeth and oil with black hair slicked and thick, black glasses and a ghastly accent. An ‘artistic’ decision that ranks right up there in offensiveness with blackface.

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The Painted Veil

“As if a woman ever loved a man for his virtue,” Kittie (Naomi Watts) says to her mom in protest of a semi-arranged marriage to Dr. Fane (Edward Norton).

Watts’ ability to morph with seeming ease into this snide, immature female at the onset of the film is uncanny. And it’s a good thing because it’s upon this behavior and her maturation that the entire film is built.

Produced by and starring Watts and Norton, this expose of wealth, immaturity and how tragedy can hurl a soul into adulthood, pronto, was dreadfully underrated at the time of its release. And my sister and I still call it our little secret.

When it came out, it only showed at the indy house in NYC. Now that it’s on DVD, I do enjoy it as a lesser-known masterpiece but hope that one day the wider world comes to know it as a Van Gogh of sorts as well.

After watching it at least a dozen times, I can say that it’s flawless, and the director has made choices that render some scenes effortless in their grace, like dances. Perhaps it is the effortlessness of the scenes that caused me initially to take many for granted–even though I fell in love at first sight with this film.

The story opens with Kitty’s misery at being ignored inside of a hot, humid box carried by Chinese workers who are escorting she and her new husband, Dr. Fane, to a patch of Cholera epidemic in southern China. She’s steeping in selfish misery as those around her keep the wider world and those suffering just a few miles away in the fore-fronts of their minds. Dr. Fane is cold to her and we wonder why.

We are then zoomed back with her memories of meeting Dr. Fane at a dance. At his first sighting of her, we are romantically swept off our feet at his ardent pursuit. At the same time, we cringe at her selfishness as she tosses his heart aside like old meat.

Pressured by her parents and their impatience at supporting her a minute more, Kitty takes Dr. Fane’s hand in marriage, and once they make a newlywed move to Shanghai, she takes a lover as well, Charlie, played by Liev Schreiber.

Charlie is high society and her pride at their love is mocked as he turns his back on her to save face and keep his figureheads marriage in tact. She is about to leave for epidemic land and Dr. Fane, being no idiot, calls out her affair and gives her an ultimatum: get Charlie to marry you or come with me—anything else spells divorce.

She runs to Charlie who worms his way out as if he had done it a hundred times … instead of  just a dozen.

This is where the beginning of the film is revisited and taken forward. The couple sets up shop in the green, jutting hills and makes friends with another couple there—whose relationship is at first misunderstood as it seems just as much a white settler taking advantage of a Chinese prostitute. But we come to realize their love as real, just as Kitty realizes Dr. Fane’s intentions and what it would mean for her life to love him, too.

Her realization of adult priorities and her affection for Dr. Fane is catalyzed by encounters with nuns and orphans at a local, French Cathedral. They speak highly of Dr. Fane and she starts to see their point of view as well as the magnitude of disease in the area and how everyone around her is suffering, miserably. The nuns drop like flies to the epidemic, so Kitty lends a hand caring for the children.

One night thereabouts, after a few drinks and a lingering night of chat with their friends, Kitty and Dr. Fane make their way home, and thus begins one of the most romantic scenes I’ve ever seen. But what built up to it, the entire film before it, must be registered for this cinematic moment to deliver its power. It is a master craft, this scene—one where silence and music and natural sound are juggled as well as looks, camera angles and swift movement. It is a dance of the most graceful proportions.

But good things sometimes come to an end … check it out.

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Movie Reviews

DTFF

Doha, October 2010

Tired of big budget, repeating plots, I seek something extraordinary when I stare at the screen for two hours. And it’s at independent film festivals where I have the best chance of getting just that.

One of the things I was saddest to leave in New York City was my annual film festival routine. But there was hope—whispers were on the wind that Robert De Niro was bringing the big apple’s famous Tribeca Festival to, of all places, Doha. And he did. Two years on, I almost take it for granted that there was barely a blip in my access to these remarkable events.

What’s special about Doha Tribecca Film Festival, DTFF, is that it is a platform that not only serves to highlight budding film makers and their often-edgy work, but it also slices boldly into cultural realities using the medium of film, and this stands to promote clearer thinking around history abroad and/or what other cultures hold dear.

There is one key drawback to the edginess of films at these festivals—writers and directors can strike subjects from sharper angles, which can confine bliss to a limited set of appreciative audience members. Meanwhile, those on the outskirts of the artists’ choices may be left going “huh?” So as a veteran attendant of such events, one thing I have learned is that the more tickets you have in your hands, the better the odds that you catch something transformative—something that rocks your perception of reality or at least sticks with you for a long time.

This last festival, I took in five films based in five different countries. The first, Outside the Law, directed by Rachid Bouchareb, examins the divergent lives of three Algerian brothers who survive and are scattered by the Sétif massacre only to live out wildly different, yet equally affected, destinies in Paris. The movie prompts a necessary examination of the power struggle in Algeria and how it affects people therein. However, as an opening night film I found its position perplexing. It was a heavy weight on the red carpet. I wasn’t moved so much as set down into depressive and grey circumstances; but hey, I learned something.

The next film by comparison was a super-light, crowd-pleasing expose on Ireland, rural Ireland in particular. “The Runway,” directed by Ian Power, is loosely based on the true story of a pilot who crashes his plane into the Irish countryside and is temporarily deposited into a family who needs him. This film demonstrates the impressionability of the film scene in Ireland with elements that seem borrowed from big-budgets as well as CGI effects, as some of Ireland’s low-key magic is obviously sacrificed. I did get a good sense of scenery and accent as well as dreary realities and jokes, but I didn’t feel that the makers relied enough on Ireland as she really, naturally, is so much as what people already stereotype her and her people as.

Nevertheless, they tried. A magical element of the film festival is that you find yourself able to meet and ask questions of the director at the end of films—sometimes even sit next to them! In the case of “The Runway,” my appreciation was tugged deeper, from the quite-shallow end, as the director just a few feet in front of me explained how he and the producer interviewed nearly 4000 children to fill the main parts. He also explained how he only casted people from Cork so that their accents could be authentic. So in a sense, it actually was homegrown. Still, I found it a bit too, well, ordinary.

The film after this was where I started to hit a jackpot of sorts (see, like I said, you may not like all of what you see but if you take more in, you increase the likelihood of a really satisfying film experience). “My Perestroika,” follows the lives of five children who grew up in the former USSR. A documentary, its content is so rich and dramatic—in terms of described disillusionment and humorous cracks at government—that it escapes dryness by a mile. Although the subject matter is quite depressing, the people describing it are so tough that they carry all the weight of the circumstances while delivering the message in a wry, entertaining way.

“My Perestroika” left me with two strong memories. One involved a description by a woman of her childhood, when she would work herself into tears as she recited communist slogans at school—she explained how she really had no idea what she was crying about and how absurd it all appeared in hindsight. Another involved a man who was watching his son play along a lakeside as the film drew to an end. Prompted for his perspective on the changes to his country, he said that when he was young, he’d get this feeling that he wanted to die, but now at least, “things may be bleak but you don’t want to die.”

Film number four really sent me into dream land—and it helped that I was sitting next to the director and the star of the film and got the star’s autograph afterward. “Little Sister,” or “Mei Mei” in Chinese, directed by Richard Bowen, based on the tale of Cinderella (which, by the way, originated in China over a thousand years ago), is a colorful expose of Southern China and the symbolism that’s an essential part of the bedrock of culture there. The director’s choice to have a narrator speak over the plot distracts from the natural flow of the film, but over time I forgave this because it was striking in its construction, colorful scenery, costumes and fairy-tale elements. The story of Cinderella framed this way is fascinating and refreshing.

Bowen wrote and directed the film, which emphasizes the male and female symbolism in the sun and the moon, respectively. When the female protagonist, the little sister played by Xiao Min, is berated by her stepmother and forced into slavery around the home, the moon is pulled off course. A prince, living on an island, discovers the magical connection between the moon and little sister and despite urgings of his mother to marry royalty, pursues her as his bride. Magical elements and a special relationships between the little sister, an elegant white cod fish and a village elder see the story developing into a beautiful, family-friendly tale that is totally unconventional yet tight and moving in its construction.

I had just returned from a trip to Beijing when I saw this film, to so it was a great chance to tell Xiao Min “Xie Xie” (thank you) from the bottom of my heart—she seemed shocked by the attention to a performance that ranked up with the A-listers in the states.

Finally, I “went to France” with the last film, which I found pleasing and entertaining while my company found it all but annoying (again, these films are not made to please everyone). “Potiche,” directed by Francois Ozon, is the story of a housewife, Suzanne Pujol, played by Catherine Deneuve, who is at first portrayed as a decorated, unappreciated airhead. We come to know early of her husband’s antics as he runs roughshod over their marriage with his affairs and over her deceased father’s company with his hyper-conservative, paranoid business approach. As the film proceeds, we find out that Mrs. Pujol is hardly innocent herself. And when her husband falls ill, the business sensibilities she inherited from her father kick in as she takes over as head of the company.

This film is hilarious in its introduction of secrets in such a frank and matter-of-fact way that only French film has yet perfected in my opinion. Mrs. Pujol is transformed before our very eyes from helpless victim to victorious diva. Additionally, the second-strongest performance by Gerard Depardieu as a former lover of Mrs. Deneuve adds to the depth of the plot in that he is completely leftist and we are not quite sure for a while if her son is his or her current husbands or … ?

In the end, DTFF gave me so much more than the ticket prices foretold—they were in fact about a third of the price of an Imax ticket. But the performances, the talent and the insights into the edge of filmmaking and the way people live and are entertained around the world, and throughout history, blew that big screen away.

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Movie Reviews

Bruno

I’m going to say this right up front–I LOVED this movie. I know, it was over the top in so many ways. But what some may call sensationalism, I would call an effort to break through yet another mould of taboo that our society has outgrown. Sasha Baron Cohen, to me, is a journalist who uses humor effectively to expose modern society. Bruno is a glorious example of this.

As far as film elements go, this movie is packed with the right stuff–the direction and the timing of scenes and editing of scenes fuels intelligent humor. And the overall story arch, given all of the divergent parts, was pulled off quite expertly.

Now, I am pretty sure a lot of people started to check out when he poured the champaign from his lovers axx. But this is always the time in a film that tests the audience. And this kind of thing inspired my curiosity because Cohen has never let me down in terms of what he is trying to get across if I only bear with him. I just couldn’t imagine him involved in all of those things up front without purpose.

In the end, I was pleased. He managed to expose, as he always expertly does, the ludicrous level of judgment and rigid frameworks of consciousness alive in so many people around the world, including every audience member.

A few methods stick out in my mind:

First, he exposes his own character’s vein attempts to achieve stardom at any cost. After a failed attempt to debut a line of velcro fashion wear, Bruno finds himself on the sidelines of the in crowd and at a loss for an experimental lover on top of it. The mention of Hitler is intelligent in this zone of the movie because it was precisely these kinds of circumstances in his artistic and romantic career that drove the dictator to a level of megalomania that would see him kill millions of people. What Bruno as a character plays on is the perverse level of self-agrandizement that some (unfortunate) times fuels dilusion among those who strive for attention on the wings of failure.

His ‘adoption’ of African baby OJ is at once deeply offensive in all of its scenery and telling at the same time. The editing around the montage as he loses OJ on the talk show is nothing short of an hilarious expose of our continuous exploitation of Africa and the unfortunate to gain not only resources but also fame and attention. There was something reminiscent of David Wayne in that montage for me. Something that begs the question: “are you paying attention to how ridiculous things have become?!” And this is where my humor may take a dry, cynical curve in the road over a straight-shot drive though the scenic hills. I need to go to these creepy places sometimes so that I don’t stay in dreamland about life, because people are, indeed, prone to act crazy.

The interviews with parents about what they would be willing to expose their children to for fame really disturbed me. Stupidity is one thing, yet this was a series of attrocities that revealed so much if they were indeed real responses.

The scenes with him in straight counseling are again deeply sad, humorous and cathartic all at once. The overly-pragmatic logic flowing across the table toward Bruno as he asks for directions on how to be straight (to achieve fame) is so obviously contrived and for no good reason as far as nature, evolution and humanity is concerned. When he finally asks at the end of a long discussion “are you hitting on me?”, I died.

As usual, his quest goes to an extreme as he explores fake heterosexual expression among a group of hunters, who could not be less tolerant of homosexual behavior. There’s something blissful about his comments as they put the macho hunters ill at ease around the campfire. Not to mention his approach to their tents, naked.

Okay, about his genitals, I didn’t need to see them (because, while I don’t mind it, that level of visual is beyond what I consider appealing). But then again, so what if I did? At this point in time, why do we care so much about whether we see a penis or not? If anything, it’s nice to know a guy is trying to put that stuff on the table when women have been exploited for their chests for how long. Magazine racks and movies will attest.

Finally, the story arch as it dips beautifully upon the reunion of Bruno with his assistant. I don’t want to give it away but really there is something about this scene that doubtless creates a mixture of emotion in anyone who has followed the film. There is something real about his assistant in the midst of all of the plastic, fanfare, fame-seeking, offense, defense, getting off. And thus, he brings that reality to the movie’s end.

If you like Sacha Baron Cohen. If you want to be in on something like Madonna’s book “Sex.” If you want to explore the dimensions of life in terms of what people value and defend, just watch Bruno.

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Movie Reviews

Being John Malkovich

Took a look at a classic this weekend and was reminded why it’s in my collection.

Plot: Craig, a puppetier, (John Cusack) faces pressure from within and from his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) to get a job while waiting for show business to again–if it ever really did–support his passions. He gets a job in an office with low ceilings and falls in lust with a woman, Maxine, (Catherine Keener) who although is never elaborated upon professionally becomes essential to the plot. One day, the puppeteir finds a portal behind a filing cabinet in his office and crawls in only to be sucked into John Malkovich’s head–to experience what he does in every sense for 15 minutes.

After this experience, Craig approaches Maxine and tells her and they decide to start a tour service providing public access to Malkovich’s mind, for a fee of a few hundred dollars. Lotte takes a tour and decides she might be better off as a man. And other lines of plot weave in as the office boss is revealed to not only know about the passage but to have a specific, long-term use for it.

This film is infinitely complex in terms of its splicing apart of the human psyche. There are so many angles to explore it from that each time I watch it I feel I’m watching a different movie, depending on my mood. Spike Jonze displays genius in his choices of what stays and what goes in terms of character development. He had to choose wisely because what he is selling is semi-taboo psychological facts of life wrapped in fiction. Of course we can’t escape into someone’s mind through a tunnel behind a filing cabinet, yet we can find ourselves lost in the identity of a movie character for just a moment when our lives are a yawn or when we desperately need catharsis. In essence, what really draws us into this film are the facts of human desire, ambition, identity, sexuality that Jonze sets out on the table swiftly, without explanation and in a consistently comical way.

My appreciation of Cameron Diaz as an actress is fortified every time I see this film–it allows me to like her at all because usually she is pawned off for her legs or giggle or frantic, puppy-dog response to the foibles of life (at least try to get her to act!). This time she can’t possibly depend on those things. Indeed, this time she is a pitiful outfit of a woman who has a sexual identity crisis in the midst of a biological clock disaster manifest as her accumulation of a zoo’s worth of animals in her New York City cave of an apartment. She’s a mess. It’s positively refreshing.

Craig’s entrance into and transformation of Malkovich into a campy, unkempt puppetier is also delightfully disturbing and represents a truth we all know–you can have fame but you will still be you.

The most profound theme in the movie emerges with Maxine’s realization that she is indeed in love with Malkovich but only when a certain person takes over his mind. In essence, nobody wants to be Malkovich so much as have what he has, to be in his position. Nobody even wants to be with him so much as be near his position in society. The guy is prostituted over the course of 112 minutes and seems to vaporize along the end of the plot, so unimportant is his identity. And so unimportant are the identities of the other three main characters according to their own whims.

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