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November 18, 2008

Visions of Adulthood Dancing in My Head

Super popular series MadMen focuses on a Madison Avenue ad agency and its inhabitants in the year 1960. I don't have TV but rented the first season on DVD. The plots bring up many interesting social, cultural and psychological issues, set in a period that is our current time's roots.

MadMen

Good writing and acting and a stylish design aside, what has riveted me to the series' story lines is that this time in history is our current time's immediate predecessor. It's so far away and yet just beyond the door. It informs much of what we don't think about. So much has changed since then, it's almost unbelievable. In this time, men work and women are almost all wives or secretaries. There are three maverick female characters who most modern women will relate to, myself included. They are the wealthy and commanding dazzling leader of a Jewish department store, a free spirited unmarried commercial artist living in the Village and a (scandalous) divorcee who moves into the lead characters' suburban community with her two young children and the other mothers can't figure out how or what she's about.

These societal questions have me thinking more deeply than usual about what adulthood is, what adult roles are and what I myself want out of life, relationships, work and love. I've never seen this period portrayed in a way that made me realize what it was like to live in it as a young adult unless it's just hitting me this way because of my own time when watching it.

In keeping with these thoughts, the other day I thought about the Joni Mitchell lyrics from her song Court and Spark:

“It seemed like he read my mind
He saw me mistrusting him
And still acting kind
He saw how I worried sometimes
I worry sometimes”

Like MadMen and other stories and art, there are moments when meaning pops out and talks directly to us. I heard these lyrics differently than I had heard them before and it made me think about Joni Mitchell writing them and feeling them as an adult. When I first heard them, I thought of them at face value. Now I feel that “adult worry” and the worry in a relationship too is such a deep and troubling thing and I get so much more from what she is saying. I guess you never stop growing up in life, if you're lucky, that is.

October 10, 2008

Grace of My Heart

Grace of My Heart is a killer song by Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach and a brilliant movie by director Allison Anders from 1996 that traces the roots of modern music from New York's 1950s Brill Building up to the 1970s.

Grace of My Heart

Illeana Douglas stars as Denise Waverly aka Edna Buxton in Grace of My Heart

Unique and masterful actress Illeana Douglas stars as a female singer/songwriter in an era that champions only guy grouups initially. She becomes a songwriter and the story follows her life through different musical eras and personal highs and lows. A music lover's dream, all the music for the movie is original and written by people who were either performing during the times and in some cases their children (Louise Goffin, daughter of Carole King and Gerry Goffin). Larry Klein, producer and ex-husband to Joni Mitchell, produced all the music and has a small part as a record producer in the film. Other stars include John Tuturro and Matt Dillon, both giving stellar performances. One of my all-time favorite movies and soundtracks. (Note stellar singing by Kristen Vigard.)

In the superior commentary by director Allison Anders, she notes that Ileana Douglas' lipstick and nail polish in the scene above were created to match the 1960s recording studio sound baffling exactly — the type of design touch that makes this movie a thrill to watch as well as to listen to.

September 18, 2008

Progress

Bramwell is a BBC series from 13 years ago (1995) that explores the courageous life of a female doctor in 1895 named Eleanor Bramwell.

Bramwell

This series is captivating. I defy anyone to say that progress has not been made after taking in this series. No matter how dire our current world, we have made strides we usually take for granted. A female physician was extraordinarily rare in 1895 and was frowned upon. It was said that women had smaller brains and weren't equipped to be doctors. Diseases were shushed, operations were undertaken with risky anesthesia (a miraculous invention in itself), racial divides were enormous and squallor and sickness were rampant and misunderstood. A highly recommended show for historical interest, perspective and great period settings.

September 14, 2008

Your Due Season

In the uplifting movie, Daddy's Little Girls, there is a preacher who inspires the lead character, played by Idris Elba, not to grow faint (of heart).

Don't Faint The lead character is a good guy who faces numerous challenges.

At left, Idris Elba as Monty in “Daddy's Little Girls.”

He has three little girls, an ex-wife with a thug drug dealer boyfriend; he served jail time for a wrongful accusation of rape and he is trying to earn enough money to own his own garage despite obstacles.

The preacher says that your “due season” is so close at hand, it's right there almost next to you. He says that the proof is that you feel like you are going to faint. And when you feel like you are going to faint — don't faint. 

It has the ring of truth to it; it's like things having to get worse before they get better. Just when you think you can't take it any more, when you have been beaten down beyond belief, that's when relief is on its way. But there are many times in life when we are all sorely tested. It's why stories like Job in the Bible have so much resonance, because this struggle remains an aspect of life that we have to go through at times to get to the “other side.” (Watch a clip of the preacher here.)

There's no sin in getting weary;
the sin is giving up, says the preacher.

Whatever trial you are going through, these words may be of comfort. Know that when you feel like you are going to faint — don't faint — and your due season is imminent. 

September 2, 2008

Comedy and Drama Together

Preston Sturges is one of the greatest movie makers of all time. 

Preston Sturges' Christmas in July

Above: Earnest stars in Preston Sturges' “Christmas in July,” Dick Powell and Ellen Drew, in a story that doesn't date about goals, success, love, work, loyalty and life's inescapable mixture of pain and pleasure.

During the late 1930s to the mid 1940s, Preston Sturges wrote and directed seven of the greatest popular movies ever made and was a huge success at the box office too. Besides brilliant writing, casting and cinematography, his standout ability in his greatest works is the knack of combining broad humor with gut-wrenching drama in the same story without making you feel like they are at odds with each other.

August 10, 2008

Satisfying Storytelling

Monarch of the Glen is a BBC television series set in the Scottish Highlands that lasted seven years.

Monarch of the Glen

Extremely popular in Britain, the series deftly portrays a family cast with constantly entering and existing characters. Unique in its mixture of comedy and serial intrigue, the setting is almost an additional character. Central to the plotline is the fact that Archie McDonald has become the new laird (lord) of Glenbogle Castle. The laird system is a holdover from hundreds of years ago that lives on in parts of Scotland. These huge castles are impractical in today's world, costing a fortune to maintain and requiring constant upkeep. The laird and his family are an important part of village life, being the landowner of many surrounding homes and a sort of royalty. This series makes you feel part of the family. You come to understand the draw of Glenbogle, whose real life counterpart is alive and struggling in Scotland. A very enjoyable and satisfyingly long series. The father, Hector, played brilliantly by Richard Briers, is my favorite character. He is so great, it's hard to know what to attribute to the writing and what to the actor; he makes throw-away lines masterful.

August 3, 2008

Anthropomorphise This

Best talking cats



In case you were in any doubt as to whether or not cats are people, this should put your wondering to a stop.

July 28, 2008

When One Door Closes…

…Another One Opens.

For cool head murder detective Ross Tanner, played by Clive Owen in the Mystery series Second Sight, this metaphor works several ways.

Mystery Series Second Sightin a field that prizes powers of observation above all else, star investigator Ross Tanner is losing his eyesight to a rare and unpredictable disease called Azoor. The disease is caused by a virus and can reverse, can cause slow vision loss or can cause complete blindness — perfect scenario for a troubled cop along the lines of many great mystery detectives, to drive him nuts and make doing his job that much harder. Ross has to hide his confounding predicament to those around him.

This series is so cool, it seems as if it could have been written by Oliver Sacks. As Tanner's eyesight lets him down, other powers of observation become keener and a touch of ESP seems to be a payoff. Clive Owen plays the role adeptly, with simplicity, intensity and passion. Fun stuff for mystery lovers and people who know that life's unpredictability is one of the best mysteries out there. 

June 12, 2008

My Favorite Bald Movie Star

Bruce Willis and Telly Savalas have their appeal but you guessed it; it's Caspar the Friendly Ghost for me.

The Fabulous Caspar the Friendly Ghost

Besides being captivatingly adorable, Caspar is a very interesting character. The still at left above is from a 1940s cartoon where Caspar is crying because everyone is scared of him and he just wants to be friends with people. Finally, this little baby fox, named Ferdie by Caspar, shows up and immediately loves Caspar. There's actually a lot of drama and emotion in the story. 

Caspar is the CutestCaspar doesn't want to just be like any other ghost, going out every night to scare people; he wants to be nice; he goes against the crowd and it ain't easy. Like many great heroes, he takes the path less traveled and it can be a lonely, scary road. The fact that he looks like a little baby makes him even more hilarious and lovable. I always loved Caspar as a kid and I would guess that subliminally to me as a tot, part of the reason was likely because of his determination to forge his own way. Another reason to love him is his unfailingly upbeat nature. He is a brilliantly drawn character, inside and out.

June 1, 2008

Alchemical Edibles

Three excellent movies all carry themes surrounding the magical properties of food, yet all three are extremely different.

Like Water for Chocolate movie

Like Water for Chocolate has fairytale aspects in pictorial style and script. The story is of a young couple who fall in love as children: Tita and Pedro. Tita's mother won't let her marry because as the youngest daughter, her destiny is to take care of her mother for life, an odd family tradition. So the man marries her sister to be near her (I know, I know but it's a story and a good one). Their lives go on and there's lots of magic involved, in her cooking and all around. This is a funny and deeply touching movie about life's anguish and passions. (In Spanish with subtitles)

Babette's Feast great movie

Babette's Feast is an adaptation from Isak Dinesen's beautiful short story. This is a tale of sacrifice, simple lives and the meaning of choices, which culminates in a meal that represents everything good life has to offer. The acting is superb. One of my favorite movies ever. (in Danish with subtitles)

Simply Irresistible magical food movie

Simply Irresistible is a likable lighter romance about a young woman who is losing the restaurant left to her by her brilliant chef mother. When the clutzy cook starts to put emotions into her food, everything changes. It's a cute comedy but the concept of putting passion into your work is the same as in the other two films mentioned.

Most people enjoy great food; the notion (or in this case, potion) of big feelings transforming recipes is a nice one that engenders “food for thought.”

May 27, 2008

Sometimes Love is Hiding Between the Seconds of Your Life

That is the tagline for Cashback, the intriguing movie mentioned below. 

Cashback Reveries on Time

Turns out Cashback was first a short film that won a Tribeca Film Festival award and received an Oscar nomination. The short film, which is included on the DVD, uses much of the exact same footage as the longer version but it shows how vital editing is to a film. Besides additional concepts and story line, the full version is light years more interesting than the short. All the sensitivity about the meaning of time is missing in the short, although the creator must have had the seed of it in his mind. The two main characters are developed in the full-length version too. Great job fleshing out the full-length version.

A Moment in Time

Concepts of time travel, stopping time, freezing a moment in time lead to complex thoughts and have made for some great stories.

Stopping a good moment in time

Cashback is a movie whose root concept is about freezing time. An insomniac art student starts to use his extra eight sleepless hours and learns how to freeze time. The ultimate message is to appreciate a moment. Time After Time has several threads involving time travel and is about man's quest to understand the role time plays in our actions and desires. The hero tries to prevent Jack the Ripper from accomplishing his crimes and the message, ultimately, is that love is stronger than anything, including time. Both thought-provoking movies approach the concept of time in clever ways, with satisfying conclusions. Time may rush on but you can still savor a beautiful moment in time.

April 26, 2008

Poignant and Superb Films about Jewish and German Atrocities

Movies have an uncanny ability, when done well, to take you inside a time period and characters' lives. I've seen a wealth of movies over the last year, all foreign creations, dealing with issues relating to Jewish and German struggles.

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others focuses on an East Berlin Stasi (State Security) official's spying on an artistic couple's lives and his personal transformation. It sensitively portrays a realistic character's life-changing experience through tragedy and the equally powerful concept that art cannot be suppressed any more than love can be, regardless of tyrannical ruling forces. One of the best movies I've ever seen. Lead actor Ulrich Müre is mesmerizing. The extraordinary major motion picture debut by director and screenwriter Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck.

Black Book

Blackbook is a blockbuster style movie in cinematic beauty and effects while telling the story of an invincible young Jewish woman caught in Holland during World War II and forced to flee for her life. She subsequently takes on several identities and ends up working as a spy. She moves to Israel after the war; one of the only movies I've ever seen that shows an inside vantage point as to the huge modern-day significance of Israel for many Jews. Great acting, particularly by the astonishing Carice Van Houten.

Nowhere in Africa

Nowhere in Africa follows the true story of a family where the husband realizes that Germany is becoming unsafe for Jews in the late 1930s so they move to Africa, one of the only relatively safe options at the time. The daughter (real life author, Stefanie Zweig) grows up with an unusually varied cultural view. The wife struggles with Africa's difficulties and deprivations. Their whole family back in Germany is killed. And life in Africa is still unsettling for Jews, not to mention that an intellectual lawyer has to learn to work a farm. Powerful and moving.

Aimee and Jaguar

Aimee and Jaguar centers around a wealthy married woman with young children and a gutsy Jewish woman who meet and eventually fall in love (the married woman's husband is a lout). Stylish, believable and emotional, it's a very different take on World War II tales, based on the real life experience of the married woman (Lilly Wust as told to writer Erica Fischer). Another in-depth and beautifully done portrait of a scary time in history.

Aurevoir Les EnfantsAu Revoir Les Enfants is based on director Louis Malle's own life story about a Jewish boy who was hidden in his boarding school during the time of World War II. Criticisms have found this film cold but I found it poetic in its spareness; the story of children told simply. The talented young Jewish boy is eventually found by German soldiers and killed. Very sad.

These movies passionately portray gut-wrenching cruelties committed during the time of World War II primarily and have made me feel as if I know what it felt like to live at that time and with such conflicts and pain. However, perhaps my favorite in this exemplary bunch is The Lives of Others, focusing on the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is astounding to me that Germans created the situation of the East German Stasi and the Berlin Wall after having gone through World War II. It's almost as if they wanted to punish themselves and their own country.

April 8, 2008

Fear or Faith — Stake Your Claim

Human / angel stories are often funny and poignant.

AngelA, the Movie

Through good luck, I found the movie, AngelA, an unusual and deeply touching, stylish flic by director Luc Besson. Highly recommended — original in approach: part film noir, science fiction, morality tale, buddy story, romance. In fact, I like it so much, I just want you to see it.

More Angels


More Great AngelsAnother angel movie I love is from the 40s, called The Horn Blows at Midnight, a hilarious encounter with Jack Benny at his best. Anyone who hasn't had the pleasure of this tale has a treat in store, available through Amazon, although amazingly not at Netflix. I hope the movie studio responsible will have the sense to release it on DVD. Meanwhile, don't throw out your VCR if you know what's good for your movie chops.

Harvey There are other well-known movies about humans and angels or other-wordly spirits, such as Jimmy Stewart's Harvey, also great fun but the above are two of my personal favorites, though very different from each other. Food for the creative spirit, imagination and even soul.

 

 

 

Jimmy Stewart had his hands full of angels, as he played George Bailey in one of the most popular movies ever, It's a Wonderful Life. By the way, this movie didn't do well when it was first released and won no Oscars or awards.

It's a Wonderful Life

Stills from ”It's a Wonderful Life.”

September 2, 2007

Tex Avery's “Red Hot Riding Hood”

1940s animator Tex Avery's “Red Hot Riding Hood” deftly mimics human foibles through exaggerated cartoon characters.

Wolfie Hot on the TrailRed Hot Riding Hood

Cells from “Red Hot Riding Hood” with an excited Wolfie and a provocative Red 

The short starts out to tell the “Little Red Riding Hood” tale with typically drawn characters. The cast starts complaining that the story has been told this way a thousand times. The narrator relents and unveils the risque new version “Red Hot Riding Hood.” Red is a sexy lounge singer, Wolfie is a debonair “dog” and Grannie is a hot-to-trot after-hours club owner. Red is based on several leading Hollywood glamour girls of the time (Betty Grable's body, Heddy Lamour's hair, moments of Katherine Hepburn's voice). Wolfie wants to devour Red but Red fends him off, liberated as she is; Grannie wants to devour Wolfie and cartoon hijinks ensue. Cute and silly, the cartoon still represents a morality tale of sorts. Wolfie is overtaken by his passions and dies trying to conquer them. Poor Wolfie.

September 1, 2007

Lenny Bruce's “Thank You Mask Man”

Voiced and written by Lenny Bruce, the animated cartoon, Thank You Mask Man, follows the adventures of a masked hero. Mask Man's fans are trying to thank him but he keeps galloping off so they start to get mad. Then he decides to bask in their adoration and misses helping out on a crime. Then he decides to check out homosexuality and the fans are grossed out. It's very cutely drawn.

Thank You Mask ManThank You Mask Man by Lenny Bruce

Stills from Lenny Bruce's co-created (with John Magnuson) hilarious animated film “Thank You Mask Man” from the 1960s

Lenny Bruce strongly shaped what we consider funny today. Leading comedians George Carlin and Richard Pryor credit him for influencing them. Lenny Bruce is famous for being funny in a groundbreaking way (bringing in current events and ideas), for using obscenities, for having a six-month trial (for obscenity charges but having also upset authorities in the Catholic Church, the police and elsewhere) and for dying young (age 40) of a morphine overdose.

Lenny Bruce appeared on TV only six times. In 2003, 37 years after his death, he was granted a posthumous pardon for his obscenity conviction by New York Governor George Pataki. It strikes me as ironic to see the small button at the lower right corner of the YouTube screen: "flag as inappropriate." I agree that it needs to be there but it's funny to see it sitting there calmly below this Lenny Bruce cartoon, which no one would call inappropriate today.

Still from Thank You Mask ManMask Man Character

More great stills from the original “Thank You Mask Man” Lenny Bruce cartoon 

Becoming Yourself Through Creative Expression

Finding Forrester is a compelling movie released seven years ago.

Finding ForresterFinding Forrester

Sean Connery and Rob Brown star in “Finding Forrester”

A black teen played with heart by Rob Brown has big writing talent that shows up in an unexpected environment. This character befriends a wizened Pulitzer-prize winning hermit-like man played superbly by Sean Connery. They live in the same seen-better-days Bronx apartment complex. Stories about unlikely friendships are often good. The movie is well made overall, including a superior jazzy soundtrack that doesn't get in the way of the action.

William Forrester, the Connery character, hurls ideas at Jamal Wallace. He challenges him to become himself and let his talent breathe. We all have this chance every day, the chance to be who we really are through creative undertakings. Being creative frees us and opens us up to possibilities. It's more common to think of a teenager finding themselves as they grow up but everyone has the chance to live with creative freedom (at least in this country), no matter what our age or past. One of the well-written aspects of this film is that both characters help each other to grow and be free, illustrating that being creative and true to ourselves is a lifelong need.

March 23, 2007

What is Motivation and Where Does it Come From?

The puzzle of what motivates different people captures my imagination.

Motivation

When I ask people what motivates them, they usually answer with an unilluminating "I don't know." Illusive as it may be, people the world over are inspired to do, create and be amazing things, despite enormous obstacles and the plain old pull of lethargy.

"The Pursuit of Happyness," a movie starring Christopher Jaden Smith and Will Smith, is about the real-life story of Chris Gardner, a millionaire stockbroker who was homeless and penniless while working to get ahead. The movie is inspiring and captivating. Chris Gardner has written a memoir of the same title for those curious to hear more.

What this brings to mind for me is where motivation comes from, for any of us. Why and how can one person push and push and eventually overcome terrible adversity while another can't get moving forward? Depression and drug addiction tease the spirits of many yet some people overcome these trials also.

Witnessing people in drug recovery, I have seen lives go from one extreme to another, overcoming odds. These stories are modern-day Prodigal Son tales. I have no answers, just clues and questions. The 12-step programs have helped people where no other solutions have. I am in awe of the power of these well-thought-through systems, the components of which include honesty, open-mindedness and willingness (their acronym is HOW) as well as a sense of a power greater than oneself, unfailing group support and a focus on the moment at hand. The heart of these programs provides keys for all of us, not just those battling to overcome substance abuse.

Still, I am nagged with the question of what motivates people. Color motivates me. Music motivates some of my friends. Wanting to help people can motivate, wanting to achieve riches and other sorts of goals can move us forward. But none of these things in themselves answers the question "what is motivation and where does it come from?" It's a burning desire to overcome the odds but how can you harness it when all seems futile.

One answer is faith. One reason for the great success of the 12-step programs is that they do not require anyone to believe in a specific God, however, they maintain that a sense of oneself as a piece of a bigger puzzle is key. One simply has to see that there are powers greater than oneself to feel humble. This state of mind seems to be motivational and necessary.

Thoughts on motivation and faith to be continued…