Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fall Movie Diary: Cloud Atlas

Date: October 30, 2012
Time: 6:00
Place: Cinemark 14 Round Rock
Company: Derrick, Rashid & Stephanie Shamsie
Food:  box of Whoppers, medium Coke
Runtime: 2 hours, 52 minutes
Rating:  R
Director: Andy Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski

Quick Impressions:
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking how much I’d enjoy having the Wachowski Siblings over for a Halloween party because—well, I mean, how could that not be interesting?  My alma mater required all undergrads to take twelve hours of philosophy, so I’m sure I’d have something to contribute to a discussion (though, let’s face it, if you’ve lured the Wachowski Siblings to your party, it’s really best to let them do the talking while you smile and pass out the shrunken head punch).

To be honest, I went to Cloud Atlas with relatively low expectations.  A friend currently reading the book has raved about it and offered to let me borrow it when he’s finished.  I’m looking forward to that and willing to believe that the novel is a masterpiece of sorts.  But in my experience, it’s far more likely for a book to be a masterpiece than a movie.  Plus what works on the page and what works on the screen are two decidedly different things that overlap all too infrequently.  In general, the more complex, burgeoning, and nonlinear the novel, the more likely the film adaptation will be a bloated, bewildering, pretentious, well-meaning train wreck.  (And the Wachowskis are not exactly known for concision, self-editing, and restraint.)

But Cloud Atlas surprised me.  This is probably the best film I’ve seen all year and certainly the most ambitious.  Despite its mixed reviews upon release, Cloud Atlas seems destined to make future critics’ retrospective best lists and eventually achieve the same cult status enjoyed by other initially underrated films like Blade Runner and Bringing Up Baby.  

Of course, the film is not without its little failures, but when it succeeds, it succeeds so beautifully, so brilliantly, so poignantly that in an instant, you forgive any shortcomings and missteps.  (Or at least, I did.)  There’s so much to love about Cloud Atlas.

And if you like Halle Berry and have been waiting a while for her to have another great role in a great film, here it is.  Plus Tom Hanks acts—I mean, really acts, not just acts like Tom Hanks.  (Don’t get me wrong, Hanks is a great actor, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen him tackle such a challenging role.)

Every year, some random, off-the-wall film with decidedly mixed and often emphatically negative reviews seems to sneak into Best Picture at the Oscars.  Usually, I don’t like whatever movie pulls this trick, but this year, I’ve got my fingers and toes crossed hoping that it’s Cloud Atlas.

The Good:
I retained my initial skepticism for some time.  Halfway through, by the time I had all the stories straight and realized there weren’t going to be any additional stories, I decided that Cloud Atlas was definitely making a more positive impression than I’d anticipated.  But to be honest, until the movie ended by tying everything together so powerfully and eloquently, I’d really watched it assuming that it was all going to devolve into a big, convoluted mess.  (The last time I had such a strong suspicion so thoroughly proven wrong by the surprising cohesion of a film’s ending was when I watched the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie back in 2003.) 

The whole time I watched thinking, This will probably be a big mess at the end, but at least this part is good.  Oh and this part is good.

However, Cloud Atlas really stunned me by in the final act rising to become something greater than the sum of its parts. 

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Halle Berry):
Luisa Rey is a wonderful character because you really care about her.  That’s astounding considering that there are like a billion other characters in the movie, and Halle Berry herself plays five of them.  Berry also gets tons of screentime in the storyline that is chronologically last, but I prefer her as Rey.  (In fact, I really liked the other character—I think her name is Meronym) entirely because I liked Luisa Rey so much.  (The characters felt a strange connection to each other through the ages, and traces of their past incarnations affected me too, I guess.)

She brings an intensity (that feels strangely relaxed and natural) to every scene, but if I had to pick one moment, I’d call out the scene when she returns (bedraggled) to her apartment and interacts with two separate people and entirely different ways.

I haven’t heard anybody talking about Halle Berry for Best Actress, but why not?  Who is her competition at this point?  The little girl from Beasts of the Southern Wild?  (I’m not trying to diminish Quvenzhan√© Wallis’s performance, by the way.  She was fantastic, but there have to be four other nominees, and so many of the other lead actress performances being touted as best have yet to be seen by most people (and in some cases all people)).  I think Halle Berry deserves serious consideration for her work here.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Tom Hanks):
Tom Hanks has a great part in this movie.  If every actor represents a single soul in its ongoing incarnation (as I assume), then Hanks gets to portray the soul with the most dramatic journey of self-discovery, purgation, and growth.  He gets to show tremendous range, but (perhaps ironically), I like him best when he’s playing his most likable, Tom Hanksy role as the sympathetic scientist strangely drawn to Luisa Ray.

I have a feeling that most people are going to prefer him as the post-apocalyptic protagonist Zachry, however.  And my husband really loved him as Dermot Hoggins.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (The Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer):
In the past, I’ve been a casual fan of the Wachowski Brothers’ work.  I mean, I really liked The Matrix Trilogy (except for the second one and the third one), and I thought they did a great job with their live action Speed Racer, a film unfairly savaged by critics.  (I remember at the time people complaining about how weird it was.  To them I say, “Have you ever seen the original anime version?”  I think the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer is pretty faithful in spirit to its source material.  Now you could ask, “But why did we need a live-action Speed Racer movie in 2008?” and I wouldn’t have a good answer for you, but I’ll bet the Wachowskis would, and that’s why I want to invite them over for Halloween.

Anyway, before seeing this film, I was woefully ignorant about the career of its other director, Tom Tykwer.  (I didn’t even know how to spell his name correctly until five minutes ago.  I’ve been saying Cloud Atlas was directed by The Wachowski Siblings and the other guy.)  As it turns out, Tykwer directed Run Lola Run and the “Faubourg-Saint-Denis” segment from Paris, je t’aime.  (That’s the one with Natalie Portman, one of my favorites in the movie.  Of course, practically all the segments are “one of my favorites” because Paris, je t’aime was my favorite film that year.)

What’s funny is that my three favorite segments in Cloud Atlas were all the ones directed by Tykwer.  Meanwhile, my husband’s favorite segments were the three directed by the Wachowski Siblings.  (That’s uncanny since we didn’t even know until the credits how they’d split the directing duties, and I didn’t even sort out which segments were done by whom until I got home.)  What’s more, my husband and I saw Cloud Atlas with friends, and after the film, I discovered that our friend’s favorite segment was my least favorite and vice-versa.

This is such a beautifully made movie.  Every part is so different, yet the film’s final message is so wonderfully cohesive.  I truly believe this deserves a nomination for Best Director (though I tend to doubt that it will receive one).  You could pick out just about any scene in the movie to justify the nomination.  They’re all stunning and all strong, each in a different way.

The trio should also be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.  I personally loved the way various characters delivered lines in narration that seemed to be profound quotations from the novel.  I’m sure some people probably found this annoying, but it made me want to read the book and offered lots of food for thought.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Ben Whishaw):
As easily as I instinctively rooted for Luisa Rey, I found Robert Frobisher’s character amazingly intense and sweetly tragic.  I will admit that because they have similar appearances and often wore lots of make-up, I had trouble distinguishing between Jim Sturgess and Ben Whishaw (who is going to be the new Q in the next Bond film) in most of their incarnations.  Whishaw, however, was absolutely outstanding as Robert Frobisher.  I liked the way he responded when Jim Broadbent’s character tried to keep him from leaving.  The moment in the bath tub is very poignant, as well. 

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (The Rest of the Supporting Cast):
Okay, I’m not really going to comment on thousands of moments, but I will say that I particularly enjoyed the performances of Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Keith David, James D’Arcy, and Doona Bae.  And my husband and I were particularly drawn to David Gyasi as Autura.  (And then you have people in less substantial but still played roles, people like Susan Sarandon and Hugh Grant.)  Of all of these, I’d say that only Broadbent has a shot at supporting actor.  He’s wonderful in his most sympathetic role and great in the scene when he’s speaking with his brother on the phone.  Supporting Actor is such a crowded category, but Whishsaw, Broadbent, D’Arcy, Gyasi, and…You know, I was going to commend the best of the supporting cast, but I find myself needing to list all their names again.  The cast is quite solid.

Best Action Sequence:
I loved the chase scene when Hugo Weaving was trying to hunt down Halle Berry and Keith David.  Honestly, though most of the characters were quite compelling, Halle Berry’s Luisa Rey was perhaps the most sympathetic.  (Or maybe I should say that she was the easiest to sympathize with.   From the moment of her introduction, Rey seems trustworthy, honest, determined and likable because of both her integrity and her vulnerability.)  To be honest, I would have just as eagerly watched a movie focused exclusively on the Luisa Rey plotline.  (For one thing, I loved the way that James D’arcy’s Rufus Sixsmith (whose very name was another highlight of the movie for me) gave that sequence and the one that immediately proceeded it in time, a more understandable and immediate connection than many of the other sequences in the film shared.)

Best Scene Visually:
In visual terms, the segments directed by the Wachowski Siblings win (though, of course, it’s not a contest).  The obvious standout is the sequence that follows Doona Bae as the mysterious and eventually iconic Somni.  (I forget which number Somni she is, to be honest.)  The scenes in Neo Seoul are stunning and have a very Wachowskish look to them.  When I say that I liked Tykwer’s scenes the best, I do not mean in any way that I did not like the other scenes.  Neo Seoul is dark and sleek and trippy and gorgeous.

Best Scene:
Jim Sturgess has a great moment with Hugo Weaving near the end (and a great moment with David Gyasi near the beginning for that matter), but probably the most resonant single scene is the one in which Doona Bae is shown something that changes her mind (and in so doing, eventually changes many other minds as well).

Funniest Scene/Best Joke:
Overall, the funniest story belongs to Jim Broadbent’s Timothy Cavendish.  Of course, there’s nothing funny about his predicament, but his entire storyline is presented with such humor.  The moment when Dermot Hoggins guarantees that his book will be a best seller is unexpected and darkly hilarious (though a trifle disturbing).  And the entire escape plot is genius, especially what happens in the tavern.  Broadbent also gets one of the most intriguing lines in the movie, one that seems like a throwaway joke, a tired pop culture reference that turns out to be a central theme of the movie and foreshadows a pivotal plot point.

The Negatives:
Probably the film’s most glaring flaw is that despite its stated focus on the heart and the soul, it manages to be so paradoxically cerebral.  Put another way, Cloud Atlas is nearly three hours long and tells six (apparently) separate stories that dizzingly span time, space, and genre.  Its message may be poignant, soulful, heart-felt and moving, but you can’t share in the beautiful profundity of its ending sequences without first using your brain quite a bit for like two and a half hours.  The film is high concept and so intricately plotted that you don’t dare look away.  Surprisingly given this complicated set-up, it’s never really dense or hard to follow, but for the first hour or so, it’s really impossible to connect the dots and have the faintest notion of how all the storylines tie together.  And because the film jumps back and forth from story to story constantly, getting invested in any one storyline takes quite a while. 

There are going to be people who (perhaps reasonably) refuse to make the time and focus commitment necessary to engage with the film.  I am sure that people will get confused and walk out, fall asleep, or zone out before they ever get to a point of understanding. 

The movie has something to say, something quite beautiful, cogent, and moving, in fact.  But you gave to give it a chance to deliver this message through the means it deems necessary.  Imagine being approached by a stranger on the street who tells you, “I want to share something with you, so please pay attention.  I just need two hours and fifty two minutes of your undivided attention.  Now imagine that the person approaching you is the director of The Matrix.  (Once you imagine that, of course, this exercise becomes literal rather than hypothetical.)  Some people just aren’t going to want to commit to watching this movie, and there’s probably nothing that anyone else can do about it.

Another, more superficial problem is the make-up.  At times, it’s wonderful.  At other times, you feel like you’re watching a high school play where one of the students got a little too zealous with the old-age make up.  In some ways, the movie is a little bit like a big budget game of Where’s Waldo.  I personally thought it was kind of fun trying to pick out all the actors, but some might reasonably replace the word fun with the words tedious and distracting. When I learned—several years ago—that Katharine Hepburn played a Chinese peasant in a Pearl S. Buck adaptation, I thought I’d seen the height of ridiculousness when it came to trying to disguise one race as another.  But this movie not only uses yellow face but also whiteface.  I don’t think I have ever seen a person of color in whiteface before.  That’s not exactly a negative.  Or is it?  I’m not sure, but it is an oddity for sure.  (Though on the plus side, this film has a commendably multi-racial, multi-cultural cast, and wonderfully inclusive message.)

One final complaint.  This is perhaps a bit petty, but I personally found the dialect in the scenes set in the furthest future a little off-putting.  At first it seemed silly and contrived, but I tried to get past that and finally succeeded.  Still, though, I don’t understand why Zachry saw a greenish devil figure muttering at him all the time.  I still don’t know completely who that guy was.  I thought I had figured it out, but then something happened to make me unsure.
I could write one-thousand pages in response to this movie, but instead I’ll simply say this:  See Cloud Atlas.  If you don’t, you’ll be kicking yourself for it in your next life.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Fall Movie Diary: Seven Psychopaths

Date: October 23, 2012
Time: 4:15 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Derrick
Food:  large mixed Icee, popcorn, Reese’s Pieces

Runtime:  1 hour, 51 minutes
Rating:  R
Director:  Martin McDonagh

Quick Impressions:
What a weird movie!  Seven Psychopaths, Martin McDonagh’s follow-up to his (by some standards) hit debut feature In Bruges is easily the strangest film I’ve seen all year.  That’s not an insult (or a compliment either, actually). 

Before seeing the movie tonight, I’d heard lots of people compare it to Quentin Tarantino’s films, and now that I’ve seen it, I have to say, that comparison seems way off to me.  I mean, yes, on the most superficial level, both Seven Psychopaths and your average Tarantino project include scenes of graphic violence mixed with scenes of long conversations.  But Seven Psychopaths does not feel like Tarantino at all to me. 

Actually, the dramatized imagined ending to the film-within-a-film that Sam Rockwell’s Billy proposes feels more like Tarantino than the…what’s the opposite of film-within-a-film?  The film-without-a-film? (It’s more than a frame story because it’s the main narrative.  I kind of like calling it “the film-without-a-film” since the story centers on a screenwriter’s efforts to come up with a script to fit his chosen title Seven Psychopaths.  All of the action in the movie occurs because Colin Farrell’s distractingly named Marty finds himself without a script, and hence without a film.) 

Before I go any further, let me make it clear that Billy’s ending is like a bad imitation of Tarantino.  I’m not trying to insult Tarantino.  I’m a fan and personally wanted Inglorious Basterds to win Best Picture (though I knew it wouldn’t happen).  But though Tarantino and McDonagh both use graphic violence and long conversations in their films, they use these elements differently.  Tarantino’s graphic violence has a giddy manic energy missing from Seven Psychopaths.  McDonagh’s conversations have a soulful depth, sort of an aching pain (and a surety that the soul is eternal) that you don’t usually get in Tarantino. 

I’m not trying to call Tarantino’s work inadequate (far from it).  I’m just trying to point out that if you approach Martin McDonagh’s work with the assumption that he’s trying to be like Quentin Tarantino, you’re going to think Seven Psychopaths is a spectacular failure.  But that’s not because McDonagh is trying and failing to be like Tarantino.  If anything, the audience is failing to take McDonagh on his own terms.  (And I actually think whoever edits the movie trailers is doing McDonagh a tremendous disservice because the previews for both his films are guilty of overselling the comedy and action and downplaying the soul-searching and philosophy.)  McDonagh succeeds brilliantly in being like McDonagh.  (Besides the obvious director/screenwriter and lead actor connection, Seven Psychopaths has quite a bit in common with In Bruges tonally).  Perhaps as McDonagh continues to make films, audiences will come to have a better understanding of his work in its own terms.

The movie that Seven Psychopaths did remind me of a bit was Adaptation.  (Again, the experience of each movie is totally dissimilar, but the gimmicky premises are quite alike.  I’m not going to draw out the similarities here.  If you see both movies, you’ll know what I’m talking about immediately.) 

My husband noted, “There have been a lot of movies about writing a screenplay lately.”  I haven’t noticed a particular rise recently, but maybe I just haven’t been paying attention. 

I mean, there are always lots of things written about the writing process.  It’s easiest to write about what you know, after all.  So writers just love to write about writing!  They always have.  They always will.  (Trust me.  I’m a writer myself.  In fact, I’m writing a book all about writers writing drawing on my own experiences of writing my writing.)  (Just kidding.)  (Partially.)

The declaration that “I’m writing a screenplay about writing a screenplay,” or “I’m writing a novel about writing a novel,” or “I’m writing an essay about writing an essay,” is all too common and usually met with reactions ranging from “How wonderful for the pedagogy of our craft!” to “You suck [because you’re a self-absorbed, solipsistic, lazy egomaniac: implied].” 

In general, I’m fascinated by metadrama (the whole, play-within-a-play thing) and have been for a long time.   And, of course, personally, I connect to the storylines involving the frustrations of creative writers because I am a frustrated creative writer.

But this subgenre is really over-burdened, easily dismissed as self-indulgent, and too easily actually self-indulgent.  (You can quickly get bogged down in the gimmick and end up saying only that you like to say stuff and wish you had something to say.)  Of course, great writers use the “writing about writing” thing to say something more.  (I often feel like the only person in the entire world who isn’t in love with The Tempest, and most people who love it probably don’t even think of it as a piece of writing about writing because Shakespeare makes it so much more.)

I know it’s taken me a long time to get to the point, but here it is—Seven Psychopaths has one.  (A point, I mean.)  In fact, it makes a pretty emphatic point, and the writing-about-writing gimmick and not-quite-Tarantino-like graphic violence and prolonged conversations are only vehicles for making that point.

Personally, I think Seven Psychopaths, if not a great film, is at least a film that puts forward great ideas.  McDonagh (well on his way to becoming a great director) actually has something to say, and he says it very memorably and in a remarkably distinctive way.  (This movie is many things, but formulaic is not one of them, for all its metadramatic, tongue-in-cheek meditations on formula.)

And now that I’ve said that much, let me add that Seven Psychopaths might actually be a great film.  I’d need a few more viewings to decide that.  Already, just getting some distance from the film has improved my opinion of it.  (The longer I think about it, the better it seems.)  I could easily write ten essays about it.  (And ten more essays about the process of writing those essays!)

The Good:
Hollywood really is obsessed with psychopaths right now.  (And not only Hollywood—independent films, foreign films.  Even the BBC television series Sherlock makes its Holmes a self-proclaimed “high-functioning sociopath” whose nemesis also has psychopathic tendencies (or at least aspirations).

Why?  Why are we all so eager to pay so much attention to deranged killers or those who do not seem able to empathize with others in a neurotypical way?  (And why are we so fuzzy on what the terms sociopath and psychopath mean precisely when neither term is used as a diagnosis in the DSM IV?  Clearly our lurid fascination has nothing to do with science or healing.)

McDonagh seems very interested in this question.  He’s also ready to start up a debate about what it really means to be a pacifist.  How many self-proclaimed Pacifists really put their ideologies into practice when push-comes-to-refusal-to-shove?  What would happen if more people were Pacifists and more Pacifists remained committed to carrying out their principles? (As someone who chose a Civil Disobedience theme for several rhetoric classes I taught, I’m really fascinated by questions like these, so earnestly explored by McDonagh who refuses to keep the discussion theoretical.)  Also, is violence ever justified?  Is violence ever sane?  Is society itself psychopathic?  Does the media enjoy portraying society as psychopathic?  Do these words even mean anything?  What does mean something?

The great part about McDonagh’s film is that it addresses huge social issues that are enormously relevant while at the same time taking issue with how and why people make films while at the same time exploring the writing process while at the same time offering thrills, laughs, action, and characters with genuine heart.  (And also there’s a really cute dog in the movie!)

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Martin McDonagh):
I don’t actually expect McDonagh’s script to be nominated for Best Original Screenplay.  In fact, I don’t expect this movie to receive any Oscar nominations at all.  Now, the Golden Globes are a different story.  For In Bruges, Colin Farrell did win Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy at the Globes, who are usually very kind to non-American actors and directors.  But this year, Les Miserables will offer pretty stiff competition in the Musical or Comedy category.  Plus, the way the Globes do it, we can also expect ArgoThe Beasts of the Southern Wild, and probably even The Master to be categorized as comedies.  (Argo really might be.)

So, I think Seven Psychopaths will be out of luck. 

However, it’s still very early, and you never know.  Seven Psychopaths might sneak into Original Screenplay.  I highly doubt it, but the sequence that begins with Marty finding Hans’s recording, and concludes as Hans finishes dictating it is pretty powerful.  The first group conversation in the car on the way out to the desert is also extremely well done, probably the best scene in the movie.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Sam Rockwell):
If any character stands out here and seems to scream, “See me! See me!” at Oscar voters it’s Sam Rockwell’s Billy.  Although I’ll admit Rockwell is a good actor, I’m not always a fan of the characters he plays and the projects he chooses.  His performance here, though, is definitely something special.  Billy is so strange, and Rockwell remains committed to the bizarre character right to the end.

He’s great in the scene in the car.   I think his other big scene involving the car is also pretty well-played.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Christopher Walken):
Walken gives the most emotionally resonant performance in the movie, but I think he has a snowball’s chance in hell at a nomination. 

Walken gets all of the most dramatic moments.  He’s situationally the most sympathetic character, the one with tremendous integrity and all the best lines.

I’d gladly give him an Oscar for the scene in the bar when he listens as Marty tells him his story.  That moment really packs a punch.

Other Performances:
Colin Farrell deserves some credit, too.  He has a wonderfully expressive face, and I’ve always thought he’s compelling to watch.  In recent years, he has really matured as an actor and is delivering some fantastic performances.  He’s very strong here in the least showy part.

The part of Charlie was originally meant for Mickey Rourke who dropped out of the role taken over by Woody Harrelson.  Time and again, Harrelson has demonstrated a gift for comedy.  He has wonderful comic timing and seems to enjoy playing characters most people would regard as strange.  So much of the movie wouldn’t work if Harrelson didn’t manage to sell his obsession with his Schih Tzu and his bizarre and inappropriate temper.  He manages to make Charlie comically ridiculous but believably anguished all at once.  He does a fantastic job.

Zeljko Ivanek (whose existence spellcheck refuses to validate and who also appeared in In Bruges) excels in a small part as do Harry Dean Stanton, Gabourey Sidibe, Olga KurylenkoLong Nguyen, and Linda Bright Clay. 

Funniest Scene/Best Joke:
I laughed out loud over and over again at the scene in the car when Billy offers his own take on the oft quoted line generally attributed to Gandhi, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.”

The scene in the car is truly fantastic.  The pace picks up at this point, and we finally begin to see the point of the whole movie as it all falls into place before our eyes.

Best Action Sequence:
It’s hard to beat the action sequence that Billy proposes in his imagined ending to Marty’s film, but I actually like the way the real final showdown plays out, particularly Billy’s dramatic and (comically) devastating gesture as it ends.

Best Scene:
My favorite scene is the one I already called out, the proposed film scene exploring the journey of the “Buddhist psychopath” as suggested and described by Christopher Walken’s Hans.  I particularly like Walken’s line evaluating how the scene ends.  He delivers the line very well, and the entire scene is incredibly powerful.

Harrelson’s scene with Gabourey Sidibe is the highlight of the film to that point.

The Negatives:
Some things about this movie didn’t feel quite right.  The resolution of the storyline of the Zachariah character (played by Tom Waits) didn’t seem adequate to me.  I think, more than anything, the character is included as a kind of weird red herring just to make viewers less sure that they know how everything will play out.  When we saw a little more of his story, I was pleased.  But that “little more” made me hunger for even a little more than that.

Also the beginning of the movie is almost flat.  More than anything, the tone seems unclear.  Is this film supposed to be a comedy?  The jokes don’t come very fast.  It’s not all that funny.  The characters are all a little weird.  And are we supposed to be focusing on the story-within-a-story or the main narrative?  Is this whole thing going to turn out to be a dream?  Which storylines and characters matter the most?  Which character (if any) can we trust?

By the time you figure out that Seven Psychopaths is actually a pretty philosophical and soulful meditation on the nature of the human condition and the role and nature of Violence (always at war with Pacifism both within the human race and within every human), the movie is half over.  On a second viewing, this would probably improve, since we’d know what kind of movie we’re watching right from the start. 

The opening scene seems a little weak right from the start.  I was told it was like Tarantino, and it does seem like Taratino—with dialogue that isn’t as clever.  The ending of this scene is very welcome and a huge improvement on the scene’s beginning, but then the pacing slows and everything gets a little confusing.  The story seems to lose momentum because we don’t know where to focus.  A second viewing would improve these things, but what happens when audience members walk out before the movie is over because they’re fed up with being confused and exasperated?  (Of course, I’ve never walked out of a movie—except to follow someone who was ill or when I was ill myself.  If you do walk out of movies regularly, I think you’re likely to miss out on some great cinematic moments because of your own stubbornness and impatience.  (So there!)  Still, it’s easy to imagine people getting exasperated.)  To be clear, I did not want to walk out, but we were in the theater completely alone, so audiences may not be connecting with this movie, and it could be because the beginning is different than what they expect.

Something else that seems really odd to me—the women don’t have much to do.  Olga Kurylenko’s role seems stronger than Abbie Cornish’s, though the former has less screentime.  That makes sense because this phenomenon is called out later on in nice little metacritique by Christopher Walken.  But here is what’s puzzling.  The only women who do have substantial parts, the only women who actually do anything that means anything or dominate the scenes that they are in are African American.  Now, mind you, I’m not complaining.  There are far too few strong parts for African American women in movies in general.  I just wonder what McDonagh is up to.  Maybe he’s just calling out the racism of American movies and audiences.  (I mean, you notice that these women are African American.  If we were a colorblind society, we wouldn’t notice.)  But that seems a little unfair because the characters themselves explicitly call it out over and over again.  It’s not like the characters’ race is ignored.  Even when telling his backstory, one character is sure to mention the race of the woman involved.  I am really not sure what is going on here.  Perhaps it’s McDonagh’s way of calling out the oppressed-become-oppressors-by-seeking-justified-vengeance trope which often is exploitatively employed by ultra-violent movies.  He’s definitely up to something, and I’d like to know what.  Maybe I’ll come away from a second viewing of the film with greater insights.  Who knows?

At first Seven Psychopaths seems a bit too clever (and a little too slow) for its own good.  After watching the whole thing, however, I’d say that these apparent failings of the movie were really my own failings for going in with a faulty set of expectations.  Seven Psychopaths is not without its flaws, but it’s still a really entertaining movie that actually has something to say (and not just a clever gimmick for saying it).  Based on his first two feature length films, I’d say Martin McDonagh has tremendous talent as a director and definitely a distinct voice and vision as a screenwriter and director.  I look forward to his future features and would like to see Seven Psychopaths again.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Penelope Says

October 8
P: I can't believe it. I had a Bible card right here of fruit and two brothers and animals and fire. And it just vanished right before my very eyes!
1:59 am

Penelope: (laying out Bible picture cards, unbeknownst to me) Izzy, I'm going to tell you a story. Once there were some guards fighting at a castle wall. Then an old man came out carrying a, a staff. He said, "This sun is too hot" because it was burning him. Then came another man into the thick rain. He said, "This rain is too cold." Then Peter said, "Mary, you are just right. Will you marry me? You have to, or I won't let you leave." Mary said, "Okay, I will marry you. Peter, you are just the man for me." Then they got married, and she goed off to college!
Me: Where did you hear this story?
Penelope: (immediately) From Jesus!

Grandma, perhaps not the greatest story ever told! (I've hope I've got this right. I tried to type it up on my phone, but it froze up, and I made her retell the story. I don't think the college ending was in the original.)
2:22 am

She added: But there's also another story. Mary said, "No I won't marry you, Peter." She went off and found another boy, and poor Peter had no girls to marry, so he decided to marry a pig." This gospel has been tampered with!  That part about the pig is most unlikely!

Penelope (sneaking around the fireplace): Mommy, I'm going to have to tell you my plans.
Me: What are your plans?
Penelope: I'm trying to get a bag of Skittles. (Mom put them up on the mantle in a spider basket.) But...
Me: You want me to get it for you?
Penelope: Yes.
Me: That's a good idea. I don't want you to fall.
Penelope: Yes, I don't want to hit my head like you did.
Me: That's true because I had to go to the hospital.
Penelope: That would hurt!
2:40 pm

Little girl at the playground: Hey! A ladybug!
Penelope and Me: Awww!
Little girl: I can pick it up (squeezes it)
Me: Careful!
Little girl: It's alive. It's just sleeping. Oh, but now it's dead.
Me: (sadly) Oh.
Little girl: (nonchalantly) That's okay. There are a lot more in the grass.
Penelope: (sadly) Oh dear. Poor little lady bug. That's so distressing!
Little girl (laughing, to me): Did you hear her? She said, "Poor little lady bug! That's so distressing!"
5:55 pm

We nearly had a crisis coming home from the playground today. Penelope (who had been holding Dinah) suddenly asked, "Where's Dinah?" We were halfway home but doubled back. As we approached the playground, I could see tons of kids everywhere in the park. I told her, "We might not be able to find her now. Somebody may have picked her up and taken her home." Nellie was sobbing and wailed, "Oh! If I had known this, I would have left her at home!" Luckily, Dinah had been found by a family we'd passed walking in that direction as we were walking away. The father thought Dinah was ours, and we arrived at just the right moment. Penelope was so grateful and immediately (and loudly) said a very long and involved prayer for the future health and prosperity of these "very kind people." Then she told the story of how God created all the trees and flowers with help from some unsung hippos.
6:00 pm

[In response to a comment]  I feel very guilty about squishing stuff that doesn't attack me, but that's kind of crazy since I go out of my way to kill mosquitoes and flies. On the other hand, I go out of my way not to kill spiders—as long as they're not on Penelope’s toys. One has been living on the wall just behind my shower door for at least a month.

It seemed sad to me that the child only thought of the ladybug's death as a potential inconvenience to her that was negated by the existence of other ladybugs to play with. But I have no mercy for bugs I don't like, so I'm very inconsistent. Maybe in a past life I believed in reincarnation and that somehow explains all these hang-ups and loopholes of mine!
6:26 pm

[Am I sure he’s not poisonous?]  Not completely sure, no, but none of the others in the house have been poisonous. I am sure that his web is full of bugs, and so far he hasn't bothered us at all. Even if he's in the web when I shower, we just ignore each other. So I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt until he makes a move.
6:56 pm

Earlier tonight Derrick let slip a rare four letter word, and Penelope immediately repeated it with interest and asked, "What does that mean?"
Just now...
Me: (to Derrick) It's a damn good thing...
Penelope: (interrupting) "It's a damn good thing," what does that even mean?
Me: It means I need to be more careful what I say.
Penelope (running over to Derrick with a mischievous smile): Do you have anything to say, Daddy?
Derrick: I do not.
Penelope: (smiling) How about now?
10:57 pm

October 9

Penelope (as we read about volcanoes): You know, there's another kind of magma. (Voice full of delight, draws out the word) Chocolate magma!!
Me: Chocolate magma? Where do you get that?
P: From China.
3:12 am

Reading Penelope's new favorite book, Volcanoes, over and over again at bedtime kills my voice because Dinah constantly interrupts with zany questions and preposterous claims. Not only is Dinah's voice loud and high pitched, but I also have to think up new jokes as I go while remembering the old ones she likes. I feel like I'm performing a vaudeville show in bed. By the end I'm exhausted. Anyway...
Last night...
Me: (reading) The earth is round--like an orange...
Dinah: Oh! Yes, I would like an orange! Thank you for asking.
Me: No, Dinah, I don't have an orange. I was just reading that the earth is like an orange. (reading) It is made of layers of rock.
Dinah: An orange isn't made out of rock! (So you get the idea)
Just now...
Penelope (leaving our solar system puzzle to run into the kitchen): I'm just getting this orange I saw for Dinah. Here Dinah, you can finally have an orange. Don't worry. It isn't made out of rock like the earth.
Dinah: Oooh! It's so fragrant.
Penelope: What does fragrant means?
Me: That means you can really smell it, and it smells good.
Penelope: (pushing the nose up to the orange) Oooh! It is so fragrant! It smells just beautiful. It is as fragrant as odorant (what she calls deodorant), but you can eat the orange! But Dinah, you shouldn't eat odorant! That would taste yucky!
3:58 pm

Penelope (working puzzles): Dinah, why is Dopey so big when the other dwarves are so small?
Dinah: Because Dopey is standing in the foreground closer to us. I think that's called forced perspective. [Maybe not in art, though.]
Penelope: You got that right, sister!
(I laugh)
Penelope: Me and Dinah are funny.
9:02 pm

Penelope: (completely out of nowhere) You can't see vampires because they're sneaky and tricky.
9:46 pm

October 10

Penelope: What's that horrible smell in my mouth?
Me: I don't know, but we'd better brush your teeth.
P: I can't help panicking. Ohhh! Ohhh! See? I can't help panicking.
Me: Don't panic. There's no reason to panic.
P: Well then can I eat more of my yogurt?
1:41 am

Penelope: Ohhh Dad! This is my favorite candy bar. I never believed I would get a candy bar like this again. Now all my wishes have come true. I love this candy bar!

This rhapsody of bliss was brought on by a Hershey bar from the gas station.
5:22 pm

As I got out of the car and headed into the dentist's office for my cleaning, Derrick called after me, "Um, Dinah?"

Why in the world was I still holding Dinah? Wouldn't it be funny if I carried her everywhere from now on and only interacted with people as Dinah? She's my fearless, outspoken feline alter ego!
5:59 pm

October 11

P: (who has stuffed a plastic ear of toy corn on the cob through a hole in her book)  Dinah, why is there corn in Saturn?
Dinah: I don't know. Why is there corn in Saturn?
P: I don't know, but it's very tight!
12:19 am

Penelope (dumping her Snow White puzzle, but Dopey's head stays): What?! That piece didn't come out! Get with it piece! It's come out time, so pay attention! I'm so mad. I'm not mad at you, Izzy. I'm just so mad at that stupid piece!
12:27 am

Penelope: Mom, did this football game just remind me of something?
Me: I don't know. Did it?
Penelope: Did that football game just say Harrison?
Me: Yes, it did. Did that remind you of Howliday Inn?
Penelope: Yeah.
7:37 pm

Penelope: Now the Mitt Romney man doesn't look so happy now. But where is Barack Obama?
8:29 pm

October 12

Penelope (from the bathroom): Mommy can you come in here right away?
Me (going in): Do you need some help?
P: No, I just love you. Look! (Folds toilet paper across her knee, sings): I'm a little girl with snow white hair. (To me, conversationally) It's like paper mache, you know, but without the mache.
1:23 am

So Penelope's "evil sister" the Spooky Kitty deliberately flooded the bathroom floor with water from the sink. She was excited to show me, but when she realized I was upset with her, she came totally unglued. This is the third time I've gotten a hysterical and oddly earnest, "It wasn't me, Mama!" when asking for an apology. She refuses to admit that the Spooky Kitty isn't real and became so distressed finally yelling emphatically, "This night couldn't get worse! THIS IS MY NIGHTMARE! I'M HAVING A BAD DREAM RIGHT NOW!" When I said, "You're not having a dream," she screamed vehemently, "YES I AM! THIS IS MY NIGHTMARE RIGHT NOW!"
1:31 am

Penelope (as Dinah reads Eight Spinning Planets): Dinah, don't go too close to the sun!
Dinah: Ohhh! I sat in the sun!
Penelope: Oops! I forgot to put sunscreen on your toodle butt. Come here and open wide.
Me: Open wide??!!
3:03 am

October 13

Penelope (listening to Big John): Men started crying?!!
Me: Yep, what do you think has to happen for men to start cryin'?
Penelope: Ashes, mints, and too much pepper in their mouths.
3:49 pm

Well hmmm. I scratched my left eye with my fingernail, then closed my right eye around Pinkie's lunging tag, then rescratched the left eye, then potentially either chipped or cracked my front tooth, then this morning the water main to the house broke again and now it's pouring rain. Maybe there's a reason we shouldn't be going to Sweet Berry Farm this weekend.
4:05 pm

Derrick just blew my mind pointing out that the top ten is a larger group than the top ten percent if your graduating class has fewer than 100 people in it! That is so weird!
4:08 pm

Derrick (listening to the song You're my Best Friend): This is the song my dad put on his anniversary tape for my mom. (Touches my arm and sings) You're my best friend. You know, as far as the idea of it goes, you're my anchor in troubled winds, but I think sometimes in actual troubled winds, you're more of a kite.
(He mimes holding on while I die laughing)
D: I'm glad you thought that was funny. I guess it's actually a shelter in troubled winds.
5:55 pm

We're listening to an old mix of country songs since Dinah sings Ring of Fire (prompting Nellie to perform many unlikely songs about Johnny Cash when we read Volcanoes). Hearing Callin' Baton Rouge reminds me that I won that Garth Brooks CD my sophomore year in Laredo for perfect attendance the six weeks before when I did not attend the school. I remember being conflicted when they called my name and my whole class with huge smiles being like, "Go, go. You're going to get free stuff." When I told the person in charge, she was like, "Well this is for having no recorded absences, and you don't have any."
6:02 pm

Grandma: There's a mosquito in here.
Me: Really?
Grayson: I know. It just landed on me.
Me: I always worry about getting West Nile.
Penelope (groans, mutters despairingly): Me, too.
(We all burst out laughing)
Penelope: STOP IT!!!!!!
7:38 pm

Me: Should we watch Ghostbusters?
Penelope: Yeah! Yeah! Yes! Yes! I'll get the movie. Here's the movie!
Derrick: Somebody's excited.
Penelope: I love that marshmallow man the best!
10:24 pm

Penelope: Are you sure you're gonna cut that apple?
Grandma: Yes.
Penelope: But how are you going to get the seeds out? They might say, (high, squeaky voice): HAAAAAAOLLLP!!!!
10:33 pm

October 14

Me: My tooth hurts so much, and I cut my lip on my lipstick because it's down so low.
Penelope: (with Derrick's old keyboard she now uses as a toy on her lap) HA HA HA! That's so funny! I've got to post that!
12:35 am

Dinah: Ooh. The ring of fire! Just like Johnny Cash sings...
Penelope: I heard a Johnny Cash song today. (Sings) You can run and run and then you keep running and running and running and running, and you run...
2:28 am

Penelope: (tips over sideways in her papasan, lets out a low growl): Rrrrgghhhhhh.
Me: Are you okay?
Penelope: Wow! It looks like a flower now. Come on, Mommy! There's room for two! Maybe three. Are you laughing at me?
Me: Yes because you're funny.
Derrick: Because you're a funny girl.
Penelope: Or maybe because my papasan chair fell over like a flower.
6:30 pm

October 15

While playing Who's in the Dark With Me?..
Penelope: Dinah, there are ants in the dark with you, and they're biting your toodlebutt!
Dinah: Oh no!!! My toodlebutt!
P: Don't worry! I've got some bug spray. That will kill the ants. Now open up your toodlebutt. It will stop stinging in a minute.

Note to self: Do not let Penelope treat insect bites.
4:53 pm

Me: (feeling a Q): Hmm. Who's in the dark with me?
P: (Blurting out) Q! It's a queenguin!
Me: A queenguin?
P: That's a bossy, evil penguin!
5:06 pm

Penelope: (making up a story) Once there was a witch. She lived in a castle. It had sea weed and water and old musty ducks and creepy stuff and paint. The castle was in Norway. The witch ate terrible cherries. She loved spells. Terrible cherry spells. That was her favorite spells. Her spell made people and frogs turn into cherries, big cherries. Then she ate them up. She thought cherries were so yummy.
Me: Did anybody stop her?
P: No. Nobody ever stopped her. She turned everybody into cherries.
Me: Really? Nobody ever stopped her? There was no hero?
P: (groans) All right, I’ll put in a hero. (resumes) Then somebody stopped her. It was a prince. Then there was a princess. Then they fell in love. Then somebody chopped them up. It was the witch. She chopped up the princess and the prince. She turned them into cherries. And that’s the end.
Me: That's the end?
P: Yep. It’s a very sad ending.
5:42 pm

October 16

Penelope: This pumpkin just keeps growing and growing. There's just one way to put a stop to this. Right, Mama?
Me: What's that?
P: We've got to chop its head off!
12:38 am

Penelope: Mom, you crazy. You forgot to put the Great Pumpkin DVD away. I will just put it back in the box. Now I will just close this and put it away for you in the Halloween box. (Squeezing the box) Close, you! Arggghhh! (finding more DVDs) Mommy, you always forget to put these movies away all the time! This is going to take forever!
8:45 pm

October 17

Penelope: Mom, what's happened?
Me: This cartoon is in black and white. Cartoons used to play before movies, and color used to be very expensive.
Penelope: But color is my favorite rainbow!
12:17 am

I wish Penelope were a political commentator. She came up to me a minute ago and said in a voice of great controversy, "But did you know that Barack Obama was not always the president?" She should get a show!
12:19 am

Penelope: Help! My nose is in my ear! I can't hear!!!! I can smell my ear!!! I've got to put my nose in the right hole!!!

This made much more sense when I looked over and saw her with Mrs. Potato Head!
12:27 am

Penelope (pulling a plastic hamburger patty out from the seat of the recliner): Dad! You were sitting on your meat.
Derrick: That happens a lot.
2:32 am

Me: We need to clean the bathroom soon.
Penelope: It's messy in here, too.
Me: Yes, it's going to be that way as long as you live with Mommy. I try to be clean like Grandma, but clean just doesn't stick to me. You'll be glad one day when you're a teenager, and I don't yell at you to clean your room.
Penelope: But I'm not a teenager!
Me: You will be one day.
P: No! I don't want to be a teenager. I want to be a fire girl!
Me: A fire girl?
P: I mean a fire boy!
Me: You mean you want to drive the fire truck?
P: Yeah!
2:37 am

Penelope actually believes that the biggest pumpkin we brought back from Sweet Berry Farm is still growing. She checks it about three times a day and honestly thinks it's getting bigger and that the only way to stop it is to carve it. (She also gives it kisses and said last night that it's dirty and needs a "pumpkin shower.") As her mother, I should probably explain that the pumpkin can't grow anymore, but I can't bear to disillusion her somehow. I finally told her that it seems odd that it would be growing but that it must be a magic pumpkin, so it should make a good jack-o'lantern.
3:15 pm

Penelope (who has left her painting to stand at the kitchen sink): Mom, I love you. Do you love me, too?
Me: Yes, of course I love you.
Penelope: Then don't look.
4:05 pm

Penelope (crankily): Mo-om! Let's have some fun!
Me: Well, what do you want to do for fun?
Penelope: Football! Outside!
7:01 pm

Working in the kitchen is much more fun with Penelope running back and forth as Chester warning me that Bunnicula is "a danger to our house hole!"
8:03 pm

Penelope: Daddy, maybe you'll be a clown because you're very good at clown tricks! Dad, you could be a circus clown! We could all be circus clowns!
Derrick: But I'm not very good at making balloon animals!
Penelope: Maybe your dad could show you how.
Derrick: Well, Will's daddy knows how to make balloon animals.
10:49 pm

October 18

Penelope: Dad, wouldn't it be great if there were Tiki trees of all different colors and...what do you call island trees? Oh palm trees of every color of the rainbow. Oh, I'm gonna dream about beautiful things tonight! And ducks and rainbows!
2:11 am

Me: (reading) Blue sharks are called the wolves of the sea.
Dinah: And wolves are called the children of the night.
Penelope: No, they are not!
Dinah: Yes, they are, by Dracula.
Penelope: Dinah, that is just a movie, you stupid!
Me (reading): Why do blue sharks really follow ships?
Dinah: Because on the ship, Dracula is calling to them.
Penelope: Dinah, Dracula doesn't live in a ship. He lives in a hotel. Everyone knows that.
3:15 am

So we had a traumatic close to our evening. Just before coming upstairs to read, I was letting Penelope "type her blog." She has her own Word file where I let her type gibberish. She had been begging to type all day, so I finally let her right before going upstairs. We were in her last two minutes when she typed too violently and ripped off the I key which I could not fix. I made a pointed effort not to lose my temper but told her I could not let her use my computer again since it would likely break more.

I told her sadly, "I thought you were a big girl now but maybe you're not old enough" (because she pulls at the keys and repeatedly resisted correction.) This was the one thing I said that she heard. Then she hysterically screamed over and over that she was big...even several minutes later out of nowhere.

I told her a new keyboard would cost a lot of money. She said, "But I found that money last night and gave it to Daddy," meaning a handful of coins. I tried to explain that a keyboard would cost a sack of coins so big it would weigh as much as she does. She assured me passionately, "Mom, I will look until I find those coins."

It was killing me to see her so distressed. I felt so frustrated by the situation. She wants to type and be like me. If I don't let her I'm a bad mom. If I fail to protect expensive equipment I need, I'm a bad wife for wasting money. (Derrick doesn't say that.) I feel like when I was a kid and lost a pen. I hated loaning pens when I knew I wouldn't get them back and couldn't replace them without help, but you can't be a jerk. I honestly don't know what I did wrong. It just feels like there was no right choice. It was just an accident.

Then Penelope said to me quietly through tears, "Mom, everything you just said to me broke my heart."

I burst into tears and had to leave the room (because Derrick had called Penelope to him). I just felt horrible. I had pointedly not yelled and tried to be calm, but as he had pointed out, I was going on and on in my explanation of why I couldn't let her use the keyboard again until it was fixed and she was old enough to do it gently.

When I returned, Penelope said, "Mom, I'm sorry I broke your I key. Do you forgive me," which let me know that she had not heard what I'd actually said since I'd said several times it was an accident and not her fault and not letting her use it was not a punishment. After we'd had a dramatic hugging session, Derrick went into the kitchen, and she told me, "And Mommy, I am sorry about the judgment." I have no idea what Derrick said to her.

I am realizing this probably does not belong on facebook, but I've already typed it. Sometimes I feel so lacking as a mother. Penelope is just like me. She is just exactly like me. And while that makes my heart swell with pride and empathy, I think she might find life easier if I presented less emotional behavior for her to mimic. I love her so much, and sometimes I just don't know what to do to be a better mother.
3:48 am

So...Saturday, we woke up to discover our water main had burst. The same thing happened last year, but the warranty expired just a few days too early. ARS came out and fixed the problem in a more long term and expensive way than they used last time. Then Monday morning, one of the fittings split, and we had to turn the water off again. They came right away and fixed it. This morning, the same fitting split again. They're not here yet.

On the bright side, at least the dentist's visit was not inordinately expensive since I did not, in fact, crack my front tooth. And the messed up "i" key really isn't affecting my typing. Thankfully, Penelope has not mentioned last night's fiasco at all!
1:12 pm

My mom: I told Nellie what happened, and she said, "How many days is the pipe going to break???!" This is a good question to ask the repairman.
1:27 pm

Penelope (with her rolling cheetah toy): Everybody, I found this cheetah in Africa. He wasn't wild. He didn't bite me. He was all alone without any family, so I had to take him home with me.
1:41 pm

Penelope (interrupting a political discussion between me and mom from the back): Mom, I have an idea for the presidents. I think they could all be the president together. That's what I was thinking.
2:15 pm

Penelope (handing us York pumpkin shaped peppermint patties): Here you go. These are from Grandma. This candy is named after Peppermint Patty. Isn't that a funny name? I have a song about peppermint patties. Let me get my invisible microphone...
8:51 pm

Derrick: I don't want you to sit up there [on the back of the recliner] because you may fall off and get smushed.
Penelope: I'm a lion. Lions are always prepared.
Derrick: I think you're getting lions confused with Boy Scouts.
10:16 pm

Penelope insists that I read her In a Dark, Dark Room, but she has her blanket over her head and has just announced, "This is going to be scary, so I'm going to plug my ears."
10:34 pm

Penelope: Will you play my new puzzle with me.
Me: (looking around) Where is it?
Penelope: (gesturing toward empty floor) It's right here. I created it myself. You have to fit together all the animals.
(I realize that it's imaginary. She goes on to give me the world's most complicated explanation of the rules.)
Me: So wait, how do you play it again?
Penelope: (sighing n exasperation): Here. (stretches out her arms as if unrolling something that isn't there) I will show you my blueprint. This makes it all very clear.
11:28 pm

October 19

Penelope (as Chester getting her bongo drums): Harold, let me show you how a real cat plays his bongos.
4:06 pm

October 20

Penelope: (stumbling blindly into me) I'm playing a game called No Peeking Until You Touch a Woman on Her Tummy. Play with me!
Me: Hmmm.
P: Come on! It won't even hurt!
1:39 am

Penelope: Dinah, tonight I went to see my fairy godmother, and my fairy godfather was there, too, and my fairy godsister and my fairy godbrother. They were so nice. I had so much fun. We played and played, and I swung on the swing. I swung so high. I was braver than all my friends, and I went in the treehouse, and I steered the pirate ship, and I petted the doggie, and Dinah, they even gave me presents!
3:00 am

Penelope (as everyone goes "on a bear hunt" in the back seat): Good thing I brought my life jacket, my invisible life jacket, I should say.
2:09 pm

Penelope: Mom, this Big Peach is exploding in my mouth like a volcano! Whoa, it's good!!! Hold on, Dinah! I hope my Big Peach doesn't go flying out of the car! That might be a disaster! I would be so hot, and it would go splat, and it would be so really gross, YUCK!!
5:41 pm

Penelope: Bubby, do you think it's the really end of the world?
Grayson: What?
Penelope: Do you think it's really the end of the world?
Gray: (cheerfully) Yeah!

I have no idea what they're talking about back there!
5:35 pm

Grandma and Gray's 20 Questions games are pretty funny back there. Gray stumps her a lot. His mammal turned out to be a roadrunner. He never could remember the name of the dinosaur he was thinking of, just that it "has a thing on its head and walks on legs." I think Mom is thinking of a vegetable. Nellie just guessed, "Is it ham?" In this game, could be.
5:45 pm

The kids were watching old Pinky and the Brain cartoons this morning. Now from her car seat Nellie is singing over and over again, "Pinkie and the Br-aaaaaaain!"
5:53 pm

Derrick's vegetable...
Grandma: Is it edible?
D: Yes.
Nellie: Is it incredible?
D: Um...
Nellie: Is it ham?
Me: It's not ham.
Nellie: Aww nuts!
6:00 pm

Grayson's mammal that could fit in the palm of your hand and "if you did eat it, you would really sick"--a duck.
6:17 pm

TV: "My blood is in your veins!" "So is mine!" (Michael lunges at David)
Penelope: Now that's what I call a wooden stake!
9:32 pm

October 21

Guess whose water main is broken again???????????????????????
8:03 am

So our water had to be shut off again today because of a different leak (but still in the area they completely redid just last Saturday). The ARS guy came out but won't be able to get the fittings he needs until tomorrow. So for the record, this has happened Saturday, Wednesday, Thursday, and today. (Plus, ARS was here Monday and Tuesday "fixing" the first issue. I'm glad I showered last night!)
12:48 pm

"There can be only one!" Grandma and the kids are cuddled upstairs in her bed watching Highlander in the freezing room while we watch football downstairs. Carving pumpkins this afternoon should be fun without water.
1:00 pm

Derrick (to Dad and Grayson): So thin beef with pepperoni, and Gray, you'll eat some of that.
Grayson: Yeah.
Penelope: And I'll have cheese. (Suddenly realizes) Wait, Dad, are you getting pizza?
Derrick: Yes.
Penelope: (eyes lighting up, raises her hands above her head and squeals at Grayson) Ooooh! Pizza!
1:29 pm

Penelope: (coming down the stairs) This is the worst day ever.
Me: This is the worst day ever?
Grayson: (explains) She says that Butterscotch (her baby doll) broke both her legs by twisting them.
1:30 pm

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fall Movie Diary: Argo

Date: October 16, 2012
Time: 6:30 pm
Place: Cinemark NextGen Stone Hill Town Center
Company: Derrick
Food:  medium popcorn, large blue Icee, Reece’s Pieces
Runtime:  2 hours
Rating:  R
Director: Ben Affleck

Quick Impressions:
For the past several months, I’ve raved on an almost daily basis, “I’m so excited to see Argo.”  And every time my mother’s been within ear shot, she’s blinked and asked blankly, “What’s Argo?”  (Seriously, this has happened so often that we both joke about it constantly, and she’s now afraid to ask me about any movie I mention just in case it’s that one again.)  Of course, back when Affleck took on the project, I was the one asking, “What’s Argo?”  Vague descriptions made it sound strange and potentially less promising than all the high profile stuff Affleck was turning down. 

I’m a huge fan of Ben Affleck as a director.  I have a particularly soft spot for Gone Baby, Gone since I so often used it in my rhetoric classes back when I was teaching, and The Town was the strong follow-up that proved Affleck’s directorial debut had been no fluke. 

I’m happy to report that Argo is Affleck’s best movie yet and seems to be a shoe-in for a Best Picture nomination.  (At least, I cannot fathom it not getting a picture nod, and I’d personally give Affleck a nomination for directing, too.)  Of course, Argo also made me a bit sad as I realized that despite all the great performances I’ve seen by supporting actors this year, only five nomination slots exist.  Not everybody who deserves a nomination can get one. 

The Good:
In case my mother is reading, I’ll go ahead and say that Argo is about the CIA’s efforts to extract six American diplomats who escaped from the American Embassy in Iran just before the mob rushed in and took everyone hostage.  In Argo, these six Americans take refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber) and remain there in secret for several tense weeks.  Then a CIA operative skilled in extraction (Ben Affleck) comes up with a plan to make a fake science fiction movie called Argo that requires an exotic, Middle-Eastern shooting location.  He poses as a Canadian filmmaker and travels to Iran himself, ostensibly to scout locations but actually to bring the diplomats home with him.  Because these events were classified until about fifteen years ago, many people might not know how this story ends, so I won’t give it away here.  The film does an excellent job of building suspense, so, really, the less you know going in the better.

As an American, of course I’d heard of the Iran Hostage Crisis.  As someone born in 1979, though, I hadn’t heard much.  (I did get a little thrill when I saw my exact birth date written out in long form on a photograph of one of the actual passports shown in the credits.)  As a child, I heard names on the news but chronically confused the Ayatollah with Lee Iacocca.  (I’m serious.)  In high school, I never heard one word about Iran in class.  In college, I heard about the Ayatollah in Iran all the time—but only from Billy Joel because one of my roommates loved him, so We Didn’t Start the Fire got a lot of play on our apartment stereo.  So, naturally, as I watched Argo, the breaking news about the Russians invading Afghanistan didn’t surprise me at all.  Thanks, Billy Joel!  Neither my husband nor I knew for certain how the movie would end, though.  (I felt pretty sure it was going to go one way, however, because otherwise why make a movie about it?)  So if you don’t know much about the fate of these six Americans, I’d recommend reading up on it after the movie.

And now for a brief rant about the MPAA.  As I sat watching this film, I thought, This is wonderfully educational and thought provoking.  There is absolutely no reason that junior high and high school aged kids should not watch it.  Why is it rated R?  (I realize that Alan Arkin says his cute “Argo” catch phrase about a million times, but does anyone actually believe this will shock even twelve-year-olds?  What ought to shock them more is the violence, but most of the violence actually shown in the movie was broadcast on network TV in the early 1980s.)  This movie does have mature themes—and occasionally crass language—but it has no nudity or sexual content.  (And although it’s a well-known fact that teenagers never use crude language themselves, I think surely they have overheard adults using profanity in tense conversations with other adults.)  Argo certainly does not sensationalize or glamorize violence.  I think we need to reevaluate the movie rating system. 

I think this film would be useful in the classroom.  Now I’m not suggesting that students should be asked to consider the film’s version of events exclusively, but it certainly provides a wonderful jumping off point for further reading and discussion.

Argo is strong from the opening scene which sets an unexpected tone for the movie that follows.  It made me think fondly of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (and I just mean for the really obvious and totally shallow reason that it’s a comic about Iran).  From the moment the action starts, the Iranian mob seems menacing, so the choice to give some perspective by explaining the mob’s motivations before showing it in action added welcome depth to the film.  Obviously in two hours, the movie cannot do justice to the full complexity of the situation, but at least it can make us aware that the situation is complex.

Apart from the (fascinating) history and politics explored, Argo is a captivating piece of filmmaking, an entertaining and well-made movie on every level.  Alexandre Desplat’s score is lovely, always situationally appropriate without being overwhelming.  (Though I found it less captivating than the music for The Master and Beasts of the Southern Wild, I still think it has a shot at an Oscar nomination.)  I can’t claim any expertise when it comes to things like set design, costuming, art direction, even cinematography, but my guess is this film will be a serious awards contender in these categories because the scenes in the US and Tehran seemed convincingly 1980s.

Suspense is what this movie does best.  My husband said afterward that he didn’t know what the outcome would be.  I felt pretty sure (not because of historical knowledge but because I’ve seen movies before.  I feel kind of like Grandpa Simpson who when the family gathers nervously around the television set to see if Homer’s space shuttle will crash, “Of course he’ll make it!  It’s TV!” What I mean is that I thought I knew what kind of ending would have gotten the project green lit, but just like Grandpa Simpson, maybe I was only kidding myself).  Even if you go into the movie knowing absolutely everything about the situation (including the outcome), I’m pretty sure that the movie would still be suspenseful.  Even if you don’t care about history or politics, this is an incredibly captivating and well told story.  If there’s ever a biography of my life made, I hope Ben Affleck directs it.  (Or David O. Russell.  He would be good, too.)

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Alan Arkin):
Alan Arkin has reached that stage of his career where he wins awards just for showing up, and he does a lot more than just show up here, so I really like his chances for a supporting actor nomination.  To be honest, I’ll be shocked if he isn’t nominated, (but I’ve been shocked before, and it is a competitive category).  Going out on a limb, I’d say that Best Picture is the most likely nomination for Argo, but that of all the actors, beloved veteran Arkin is the most likely to get Oscar recognition for his work.

Arkin plays producer Lester Siegal who agrees to back the CIA’s phony sci-fi movie. Although there was a real Lester Siegal, apparently the character in Argo is a composite of several producers who were involved.  The film’s end credits do acknowledge that artistic license has been taken.  After all, the film is not a documentary. 

In many ways, Siegal is one of the strongest characters in the story (hardly surprising now that I learn he’s the fictional one).  It’s easy to root for him.  He’s charismatic for a start.  He’s also braver than he has to be.  Bringing those endangered diplomats home is not his responsibility, but he steps up and makes it his responsibility as a fellow human being in a position to render aid.  Audiences love a character like that, and I think the Academy is going to love him, too.  (I mean, it’s like the screenwriter dropped a member of the Board of Governors into a hostage crisis flick to play the hero.  What’s not to love?)

Arkin’s Argo related comeback is probably the easiest thing to remember about the movie since the key players adopt it as a catch phrase.  (Hearing it so often let me know that the movie was indeed rated R as I suspected it was and thought it shouldn’t be.)

Instead of having one big showy scene, Arkin is more of an engaging presence throughout.  If I were to select an awards show clip, I’d go with his scene in the screenwriter’s office when he was trying to secure rights to the script.  He’s very showy there, though perhaps his joke about the WGA in the scene before would draw more applause from industry insiders.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Ben Affleck):
If I had the power to influence the Affleck brothers, I’d force Ben to stick with directing, and Casey to stick with acting, not that Ben’s acting is necessarily bad.  Emphatic end stop.

In fact, I think Ben Affleck gives a perfectly serviceable performance as the very likable lead, devoted father and extractor extraordinaire, Tony Mendez.  But when I call him out for an Oscar, I mean for directing.  I went into the movie thinking Affleck’s a great director, but I left thinking that one day Affleck may be a Great Director.  (You know, they’ll devote chic film festivals to his oeuvre, and he’ll be a subheading on whatever replaces Netflix.)
When did I know that Affleck was such a great director that I needed to rave about him with inappropriate capitalization and French buzz words?  It was when the tower told the plane, “You are second for takeoff.”  I think I even yelled out loud, sub voce, “Seriously?!  Second??!” 

This movie is so suspenseful.  As the tense action unfolded onscreen, I went back and forth between thinking, “If they only had cell phones!” and “Thank God they don’t have cell phones!”  Really, anything that could prolong the suspense in any way happens.  By the end, you feel like you feel like your own life is on the line.  If you’re a nail biter or tooth grinder, you’ll leave the theater in tremendous pain.

Now the thing is, in well made movies, suspense like this really works, but in poorly made movies, it just annoys you and makes you want to scream, “Will you get on with it already!  This is taking forever!” 

Those final bits of intense suspense made me aware of what a brilliant job Affleck had done because delays like this kept us on the edge of our seats instead of prompting us to role our eyes and groan.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Brian Cranston):
Brian Cranston seems to show up in a minor role in every movie made lately (which is fine with me), but here he gets a fairly hefty supporting part as C.I.A. agent Jack O’Donnell.

I think Cranston’s a dark horse for a nomination.  He’s pretty far out of the discussion right now, but if the movie picks up steam, his chances may improve as well.  The scene when O’Donnell is raging around the office trying to get President Carter on the phone is awfully good.  When given the opportunity to rant and rave, some actors really go over-the-top and blow it, but Cranston channels tremendous intensity and authenticity into this showcase of his talents.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (John Goodman):
With so many great supporting performances out there this year, I would be pretty shocked if Goodman got nominated.  But a nomination for him wouldn’t upset me.  He’s great in the movie, too, as make-up artist/CIA contact John Chambers, who unlike Lester Siegal is a real person, not a fictionalized composite.  It’s extremely unlikely that Goodman will be nominated, but he’s great in the movie, and his first scene with Affleck’s Mendez in his trailer on set is pretty well played.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Chris Terrio):
I’d say that after picture, this movie’s most likely nomination will be for adapted screenplay.  One element that made the screenplay exceptionally strong was the arc of the Joe Stafford character (well played by Scoot McNairy).  His contribution in the airport scene is just marvelous.  McNairy gives a good performance, but I think it’s the writing that’s outstanding. 

Showing how Mendez’s relationship with his son influences his work is another strength of the script that Affleck uses to full advantage as director and star.

Best Action Sequence:
The storming of the embassy is done quite well in a series of early scenes, but the most exciting part of the movie is the extremely high speed chase near the end.

Best Scene:
Best, I think, is the Farsi explanation of Argo.  (The less said about it, the better.  I don’t want to spoil the film.)

Another scene that works really well is the moment when two worlds collide on screen as the costumed read-through of Argo takes place at the same time as the situation escalates in Iran.

Funniest Scene/Best Joke:
Who doesn’t love Arkin’s transformation of the name Argo into a snappy comeback/crude expression of derision?  That becomes less a joke than a rallying cry in increasingly desperate circumstances, but it’s good for a laugh, too.  Arkin has lots of funny lines.  So does Cranston.  So does Goodman.  In fact, considering the serious subject matter, it’s a very funny movie.

Some other great performances:
The supporting cast is very, very strong and composed largely of actors more known at this juncture for their work in TV.  All of the hostages do a fantastic job.  It feels like I haven’t seen Tate Donovan in anything this substantial since he was dating Jennifer Aniston.  (Maybe it’s just that he’s a regular on shows I don’t watch.)  He’s good, though I liked Scoot McNairy and the two women the best.  Clea Duvall’s character is admirably strong, almost the strongest female character in the movie.

The biggest standout as far as I’m concerned was Sheila Vand as Sahar, the Canadian ambassador’s housekeeper.  She has a couple of really wonderful scenes, first as she watches events happening at a neighboring house through an upstairs window, and then when she has a conversation with some soldiers (or maybe police) at the gates of the house.  The character is used to build suspense, but Vand manages to make her something far more than a plot device.  The intensity and humanity she brings to the role is outstanding.  Her eyes are so expressive, and, in fact, quite beautiful.

I also remember Philip Baker Hall and Tom Lenk being in the movie, mostly because they’re Philip Baker Hall and Andrew from Buffy.  (Oddly enough, Philip Baker Hall is not listed in the cast, but I am willing to bet my life that he’s in the movie.)  (You know, that’s extreme.  I’d better double check.  Yes, let’s just leave my life out of it and say that Hall does appear uncredited.)

The Negatives:
The only thing that felt slightly off to me was the scene when Goodman and Arkin keep being told not to cross the movie set.  It just felt a little forced.  In light of what they’d been told, why were they in such a hurry to get back to the producer’s room?  Did the guy telling them to wait just annoy them?  That scene felt slightly less authentic than the rest of the movie.

I’ve read that some Canadian audiences felt that the film negatively minimizes Canadian involvement and that to address those grievances, Affleck added some material to the end credits.  Personally, I think the Canadian ambassador and his wife (and particularly their maid) come across as extremely noble, heroic, and courageous.  How can you watch the movie and think anything else?  After all, they were the only people willing to harbor the six Americans and risked their lives in doing so.  And without the cooperation of the Canadian government (which seemed more consistently supportive than our own government), the entire extraction would have failed before it even got off the ground.

Argo is definitely a contender for a Best Picture nomination.  Even a win seems within its grasp.  It should get several Oscar nominations and is without question one of the best films I’ve seen this year.  It tells a wonderfully compelling (and almost ridiculously suspenseful) story and features solid performances from a capable cast.  Ben Affleck the director is three-for-three, and this is his strongest feature yet.  It’s fantastic.

Oh yes, and I loved the surprise cameo guest narration at the very end!