Tag Archive: movie

Eric Goes to the Movies

I have two best friends, one is an African-American woman who teaches at Harold Washington College, and the other is my friend Eric who has cerebral palsy and lives in a group living facility called TLF, for Temporary Living Facility through an organization called the Association for Individual Development. In Eric’s case, his placement at the group home is more of a permanent housing solution rather than something temporary.

Eric and I love the movies, and we try and catch a film at least once a week. Most recently, we saw the Disney Nature film Monkey Kingdom, and before that, we went to Woman In Gold, the story of how the Nazis coopted much of the fine art that belonged to Jews in Germany and Austria. Generally, Eric is a very gracious critic, and likes most anything we watch together. When asked what he thinks about a particular film, his two standard responses are, “It’s good,” or “It was okay.” I’ve never really heard him pan a film although I have on one or two occasions caught him checking his watch. His favorite film from last year was the critically acclaimed Whiplash, about a jazz drummer and his dysfunctional and abusive relationship with a teacher who pushes him beyond the bounds of what is acceptable in order to make him one of the “greats.”

The hard part about hanging out with Eric is that I never really know how much to help him. Cerebral palsy is a movement disorder and in Eric’s case he has stiff muscles and somewhat useless legs. For someone with cerebral palsy, he’s pretty independent and gets around with the assistance of two silver arm crutches with black handles that go around the back side of his forearms. When climbing stairs, he will put one crutch in front for balance and scissor-steps to the door. When he’s just walking down the street, however, he pushes both crutches ahead of him, and propels himself forward at a pretty good pace.

Still, I’m tall and have a long stride, and I never really know if he wants to me walk ahead and get the door, or slow my pace and keep him company. For some reason, it seems more awkward to ask him what he would prefer rather than guess. Half the time I walk ahead. The rest of the time, I slow my pace.

The really awkward moment, however, used to be when we would to the movies and Eric wanted to order nachos or onion rings and two hot dogs or something equally difficult to carry when I myself wanted popcorn and a Coke Zero as well. I found myself in line sending up a secret prayer that he would get Peanut M & M’s or something else that I could easily tuck into my back pocket. A guy named Alex who works at the Regal Cantera theater we usually go to made all the difference one time when he simply asked, “Do you need help carrying your food to your theater?”

Ever since then, I simply ask for help if we need it, and I no longer have to send skyward those foxhole prayers of desperation when I worry whether I’m inconveniencing someone else. The lesson I’ve learned is to ask for help when I need it, and not to be embarrassed about someone else’s disability when he’s the one living with cerebral palsy, not me.


Creative Hack

I didn’t have all that much interest in seeing the new movie, The Interview, before the latest controversial threat, seemingly coming from North Korea, that anyone is goes to see the film faces consequences similar to what happened on September 11th, 2001. The film comedically explores the idea that two US citizens traveling abroad could assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and in the fallout controversy, Sony Pictures’ computer system itself was attacked and hacked, and private emails and information was leaked to the press.

The Sony company is based in Japan, and the studio portion of the company have decided not to release the film anywhere in Japan, citing Japanese citizens who are currently being held in North Korea, and Seth Grogan, one of the films stars, has cancelled his press promotional tour for the next few days.

This whole fiasco reminds me of the controversy over the freedom of creative expression. Books such as Ulysses, by James Joyce, and To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, have been banned in the past in an attempt to keep people from being exposed to ideas or expressions of ideas that challenge the norm. This is, in all likelihood, a forgettable spoof that would have otherwise disappeared shortly after its release, but it’s now garnering more attention than it would have otherwise, simply because the North Koreans take even a comedic attack on their leader as a serious provocation. My mind casts back to the time when Salmon Rushdie’s life from the Ayatollah of Iran for writing a book called, Satanic Verses.

I think we must work to retain the right to artistic freedom as one of the most fundamental, basic, and important freedoms we have.

The Trip to Italy

No indeed, I have not been to Italy yet, though I hope to remedy that in the coming few years, but I recently saw the film “The Trip to Italy,” starring Steve Coogan from “Philomena” and British humorist Rob Brydon. I have not seen the original movie, “The Trip,” on which this sequel is based, but one key element to any successful story is whether you would want to spend two hours in the company of the main characters, and in this case, I can answer with a resounding, “yes.” Their impressions of actors Christian Bale, Al Pacino, the Godfather Marlon Brando, and Robert DeNiro are spot on target. I have heard, however, that many of the impressions are retreads of those done in the original movie and they might not seem as fresh the second time around, and also, there is not enough plot. We learn about the main characters’ individual penchants and foibles, but much of the screen time simply follows them aimlessly around. In some ways, it’s meant to be a meditation on life and death, and a crucial scene takes place when Coogan’s character meets his son and a woman who join them on their journey at a burial site, attendant with shrunken heads, and references to Hamlet.

I was also not particularly taken with the anti-gay slur/attempt at humor in the first few minutes of the film, and found it off-putting. I don’t think two men should feel compelled to justify spending time together or taking a trip together without first establishing that they are clearly heterosexual.

Maybe I’ve read too many plot driven narratives lately–I’ve been immersing myself in murder mysteries as I prepare to write one–but this movie came up short in terms of a compelling storyline. One of the main plot points is that Brydon’s character, doing his best Godfather impersonation, lets Steve know he really, really wants to go to Sicily, yet he abandons this interest abruptly when Steve’s son promises to fly overseas for a familial reunion.

I have to admit, though, that in terms of tone, “The Trip to Italy” succeeds brilliantly, and reminded me a bit of the “Before Midnight” film series, starring Ethan Hawke, only more humorous. It’s worth two hours of time to be entertained by these two engaging characters, but I wish they had drawn more conclusions about what it means to suffer with existential angst.

A Shining Beacon of Light

“Don’t speak to me about grief!” Abraham Lincoln commands his wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field in the film “Lincoln.” Mrs. Lincoln fell into a deep depression following the death of her son Willie, and though the Lincoln family had four children, only Robert survived to have children of his own. Abraham Lincoln himself grieved deeply for his personal losses despite battling the south during the Civil War. A great book, “Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness,” written by Joshua Wolf Shenk, details the deep depression which haunted Lincoln throughout his life, and Shenk characterizes how Lincoln’s personal battles determined his greatness as a president.

Indeed, throughout “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, the audience is privy to a very human, flawed depiction of the visionary 16th President of the United States with the title role played by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis. At one point toward the end of the film, perhaps presaging his death, Lincoln laments, “Some weariness has bit at my bones.”

In this way “Lincoln” intricately interweaves both deft and subtle touches. The opening scene, the only battle scene in the film, shows Lincoln reviewing the troops, including both blacks and whites, and two soldiers come up to thank the president for all his inspirational words by reciting back to him the Gettysburg Address. In terming this address one of the most important speeches ever delivered, James McPherson called it, “the world’s foremost statement of freedom and democracy and the sacrifices required to achieve and defend them.”

Even though the film was a bit of a history lesson for me, it never felt turgid, stilted or plodding. Almost everyone knows that Lincoln was assassinated not long after winning a second term in office, but those who are not history buffs may not be aware of the intense political maneuvering in the final few months of his life. He had already issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but Lincoln wasn’t certain it was enough to secure freedom for all slaves. In effect, the debate was that the Proclamation seized all property from the seceding states, and slaves were considered property at that time, but it was unclear what would happen to those slaves once the Civil War ended.

It was imperative for Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, to clearly free the slaves yet backlash at the time was fierce. It turned out Lincoln and his advisors were not above “greasing the wheel,” offering patronage jobs for votes. Thaddeus Stevens, the foremost abolitionist of that era, played by Tommy Lee Jones, was forced to clarify his position in front of the entire Legislature to pronounce whether he supported “equality in all things, or only equality before the law.” This turned out to be a very important distinction.

My only critical comment was that the film’s climatic moment occurs right at the very end of the war, and it was unnecessary to include Lincoln’s assassination at the Ford theater in Washington while watching “Our American Cousin” on Good Friday, 1865.

For many, Lincoln and the Civil War have become what I would term a “dead event,” no longer resonating with those in our country who would just as soon forget the past. The movie “Lincoln” sweeps all that aside, making us care very much once again for this president and about this fateful period in history.

Hope Springs

I would watch Meryl Streep read the phone book. She is that compelling onscreen. She is, in fact, the most gifted actress of our generation, the same way Katherine Hepburn was the most celebrated actress of her time. Streep has been nominated for an Academy Award seventeen times, winning three, for Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), Sophie’s Choice (1982), and the latest, Iron Lady, in 2011, whereas Hepburn was nominated twelve times, winning four.

The movie Hope Springs features Streep in an unusual, highly effective pairing with Tommy Lee Jones. The story shows two married people growing apart, mired in routine. In some ways it examines what I would call the uncomfortable nature of familiarity. When you are deadened to real feelings, having substitute conversations rather than saying what is actually on your mind, your marriage is stagnant.

Kay and Arnold seek outside help from a highly touted marriage therapist, played by Steve Carell. He first suggests an exercise where they hold each other. Watching Streep’s character reach out to touch her husband, the audience sees her hand shaking, nervous to disturb the status quo. As the most talented actress working today, Streep doesn’t waste a single gesture, be it a hand shaking, a nod of the head, repressed tears welling up, the magic as a smile as it colors her face. She shows love, fear, trepidation as well as, eventually, hope, simply by knowing the exact gesture to fit the moment.

Jones’ character Arnold learns that the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” can indeed be turned on its head. The movie celebrates the change from meaningless, mundane activity to the point where a couple might find a way to reconnect. The therapist tells the couple, “Sometimes when a connection is lost, we forget about how to want one another.” That is the journey the couple must take.

At one point, midway through the movie, Streep’s character declares, “You know how you always think you’re headed toward something. There’s always something to look forward to.” She despairs that now she’s grown too old to be surprised, to experience a feeling of wonder and hope. She fears she’s sliding on a downhill slope toward the end of life, and she can’t even rely on her husband to be her stalwart pillar of strength and, perhaps more challenging, to be present to her as they live out their life together.

His reaction to her attempts to resuscitate the marriage is to say, as a stoic figure, “There are some things in this life that you don’t say for a reason.” As a tax analyst, he values routine and predictability, and he is challenged by his wife to move forward rather than stultify in fear. As Carell’s character notes, “Even great marriages have terrible years.”

The trick, in my mind, is to love in spite of the obstacles. Who wants to get to the end of life, only to wonder, “Have I done all I could to make my life mean something?”

The title says it all: Hope Springs.

In Hollywood, especially for women, there aren’t all many roles as actors age.  After being relegated to playing the part of the mother or father, there are few roles for grandmothers and grandfathers, and the role of grandparents is generally relegated to minor characters.  Male actors have more options than their female counterparts, but even so, there aren’t all that many roles available. 

No one seems particularly interested in what older characters can teach us.  It’s emblematic of the way we treat the elderly in our society.  Other cultures revere their elders, but we just shove them into nursing homes, to be forgotten rather than honored.

That’s what makes the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel all that special.  Starring amazing actors like Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, and their male counterparts, including Tom Wilkinson, the story proves the point that it’s okay to want more out of your life, even if you’re in your golden years.  Rather than expecting less and less, the characters plunge into a foreign culture in Jaipur, India, enlarging their experience of their lives.  They might very well have said, “My life matters, if only to me!”

I’m reminded of a quote by Emile Zola:  “If you ask me what I came into this life to do, I will tell you:  I came to live out loud.”  Like other films such as Short Cuts, Valentine’s Day, and New Year’s Eve, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel follows each of its seven main characters in separate vignettes, but shows its protagonists coming together at the airport, intertwining their stories into one cohesive tale.

An interesting subplot follows Maggie Smith’s character Muriel who worked for many years as a housekeeper, but managed to stay isolated in her own, exclusively Caucasian world, and she is more than willing to reveal her extremely prejudiced viewpoints to anyone who will listen.  She has travelled to India for a cheaper hip replacement, and she is forced into interactions with Indians, and this rubs up against her xenophobia.  The story proves that prejudice, even firmly entrenched prejudice, can be overcome.  And life turns out to be about connectedness, not disconnectedness.  Rather than simply passing time until they die, the characters seek to enrich their lives.  It’s a great story, well worth telling, and well worth going to see.  Allow The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to transport you to another culture.