Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Fall Movie Diary: Amour

Date: January 30, 2012
Time: 7:20 pm
Place: Regal Arbor
Company: Derrick
Food:  small rootbeer, free popcorn
Runtime:  2 hours, 7 minutes
Rating:  PG-13
Director:  Michael Haneke

Quick Impressions:
All day long, the Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child” has been running through my mind (probably because I took a long walk with my daughter who kept pointing out that the trees and stiff reeds had broken in the wind instead of surviving like the reeds that bent.  She, of course, was showing off her knowledge of Aesop’s Fables.  I was thinking, “It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for.”)

That’s a rather fitting poem to have springing around in your mind while watching Michael Haneke’s Amour, a film about empathy and love in the face of decline and death.

Amour is not for everybody.  (To say otherwise would be a bold-faced lie.)  Most people who would truly despise the experience of watching the film will probably be kept away by the subtitles, but I am sure there will also be foreign film aficionados who fail to connect with this particular foreign film.  (For sure, it’s not a good choice for a first date—unless you’re the type who enjoys subjecting others to social experiments.  In that case, making this a first date movie will probably save both you and your date a lot of time.)  Some people aren’t going to like Amour because they find the situation hard to relate to.  Others won’t like it because they find the situation all too easy to relate to.  Frankly, I found the film powerful, moving, and incredibly well done, but I’m not sure I would ever voluntarily sit through it again.  (Well, yes, I would, but not for pleasure.  If I wanted to write an essay about it, of course I would have to re-watch it, then.)

If you’re not sure if the film is for you, I’ll just quickly remind you of the premise.  Amour is a two-hour Austrian film from the director of Funny Games (1997, 2007) about two French octogenarians in an apartment.  One of them is slowly dying (in French, inside that apartment) from a series of strokes which cause accelerated physical and mental decline.  The other one is the man who loves her.  If you think you’ll like that movie, then you probably will.

If after hearing the premise, you don’t want to see Amour despite its Oscar buzz, don’t feel guilty.  Don’t even give that decision a second thought.  Michael Haneke has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes three times.  He makes meaningful films about whatever he wants, and they’re usually well received (even acclaimed) internationally.  That should take some pressure off the rest of us.  Trust me, if you would prefer to watch Hansel and Gretel Witch Hunters instead of Amour, Michael Haneke does not care.

The Good:
In a way, it is strange that Amour is not for everybody because death is for everybody. 

In that way, if you’re put-off by the premise and choose not to watch Amour, the joke’s on you because eventually you’re going to end up seeing someone’s slow death anyway (even if it’s only your own).  (I suppose you might escape this by dying young in an accident, but good luck with that.  It’s pretty hard to pull off if you’re trying.)

Like Anne, my grandmother died at home in her eighties following a period of extreme decline after a series of small strokes.  My grandfather had died eight years before, so Grandma lived (and died) in our home where my mother (like Georges) cared for her as best she could.  By the end, Grandma’s mobility was extremely limited.  She didn’t use a wheel chair but should have.  She basically used my mother instead.  She was incontinent, mentally regressed to a child-like state and often confused and delusional.  She could speak with less difficulty than Anne, but what she said made little sense.  She avoided eating and often resorted to hiding her food or hoping my mother would forget to give her Ensure.  One day she told me, “I don’t know when I’m going to get better from this” because she thought she had an illness like the flu, though she couldn’t remember the beginning of the illness.  Her confusion broke my heart.

To care for someone (in the literal, physical sense, day in, day out) requires often Herculean effort, both physical and mental. Georges is immediately sympathetic for that reason.  And because of her decline, Anne is immediately pitiable.  But Anne doesn’t want pity, and Georges isn’t trying to be noble to impress others.  He simply does what he must because he loves Anne.  Amour is a movie about the end of a love affair, a love affair that ends in death.

There’s a wonderful moment in the movie when the couple’s daughter, Eva (played by Isabelle Huppert) asks her father something like, “So what happens now?”

In Amour, Anne has a stroke.  Then she has an operation.  It fails, which means that her condition will continue to decline until she dies.  That’s the beginning of the movie.  It ends when she dies.  That’s what happens.  Life happens until death.

The people who show up to help and praise Georges all struck me as being (though kind) ultimately self-interested (not in a bad way).  They’re sorry for the couple and impressed with the husband’s behavior primarily because as humans they empathize.  One day something (like this or like something else) will happen to them.  We all die.

The character of Alexandre, the music prodigy (played by Alexandre Tharaud) particularly impressed me.  I saw too much of myself in his cringe-worthy reaction to Anne’s condition—“I made you this gift because looking at you makes me sad.  I hope you get better because I’m too young and naïve to realize that ‘getting better’ is not on the table.”  I hope I wasn’t like that when I was younger, but I’ll bet I was.  I’m probably like that now. 

Jean-Louis Trintignant is wonderful in the lead role.  I think he’s just as good as Riva, though his role makes fewer (and different) demands.  I love the way Georges says the name “Anne.”  You can tell how much he loves her just by the way he breathes out her name.

Isabelle Huppert (whose presence always makes me think of her hilarious turn in I Heart Huckabees) is also quite good as the daughter, though I found the character somewhat frustrating. 

Another (probably unintended) virtue of the film—it’s wonderful for people trying to learn French.  Seriously, with my four semesters of college French I could probably have watched it without subtitles and understood enough.  Most of the movie is just Georges and Anne talking.  And they talk very, very slowly in rather simple sentences about the kinds of things that often come up in foreign language classes.  Actually, I’d like to watch the film again (see, I knew there was a reason I’d watch it again) without subtitles to see how much I would understand.  I’m fairly certain that you could follow it even with no French at all because the plot is simple and the themes are universal.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Emmanuelle Riva):
All the time, I hear, “What a courageous performance!” or “She’s so brave!”  Well, if you want brave, I give you Emmanuelle Riva.  It’s not like she’s a twenty-year-old in prosthetics playing a declining old woman.  She is an eighty-five-year-old still in miraculous possession of good health and all her faculties playing a woman who becomes paralyzed, demoralized, senile, and incontinent after suffering from a series of strokes.

I will never have that kind of courage.

I mean, we’ll all die sooner or later, but when you’re eighty-five, it’s already later.  Then again, all eighty-five-year-olds know that death is coming whether they play-act decline or not.  But when Riva shows us the sad story of Anne’s decline, she’s using her real body.  How can you stay sane at eighty-five when you’re showing the audience the demeaning embarrassments illness brings upon a woman who has your real body?

Julie Christie was fantastic in the movie Away from Her, in which she was nominated (the year Marion Cotillard upset) for playing an elderly woman suffering from Alzheimer’s.  But looking ethereally beautiful yet vacant is completely different from showing everyone the physical effects of age and illness on your actual body.  (I’m not knocking Julie Christie’s marvelous performance.  I’m just pointing out that the demands of Emmanuelle Riva’s are far more brutal.)

Anne is a character who (though piteous) does not want pity.  She wants to maintain dignity and preserve normalcy for as long as she possibly can (really, longer).  My favorite moment comes when she tries to pour the tea, but the film is full of excellent moments.

By the way, Emmanuelle Riva’s eighty-sixth birthday happens to be February 24, coincidentally also the date of this year’s Academy Awards ceremony.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Michael Haneke):
The protagonists in this film are retired music teachers.  Presumably until Anne’s first attack, music is at the center of their lives.  But this movie has no soundtrack.  The entire film is silent (in terms of background music) except for very rare moments when music is actually played by one of the characters.  Meanwhile, you hear the strain in the silence.  You hear every mundane sound as what begins as something horrible settles into something routine and then gradually becomes a horrible routine.

Of course, Haneke gets a great performance from all his actors, but I think his true genius lies in the way he presents them to us.  This is a movie that raises difficult topics and forces you to think about them.  There aren’t a lot of movies like that.  Most “difficult topics” movies ask questions.  But Amour already seems to have all the answers.  They’re just not always pretty.

Best Joke:
If you’re hoping for a comedy, look elsewhere.  But there is actually a very funny one-liner delivered by Georges during their discussion of funerals.  My husband and I both laughed out loud.  (I mean, we went, “Ha!”, not that we fell out of our chairs laughing uncontrollably for minutes.)  Nobody else laughed.  I don’t understand why not because it was funny.  Georges and Anne don’t laugh, but they don’t have to because they know each other so well.

Best Scene:
There’s a particularly powerful moment (chilling, really) when Anne tries to fill her tea cup.  The scene leading up to it is good, but the moment is beyond good.  I felt it viscerally.

I also love the stories that Georges tells Anne, both of them.

The scene when Georges wanders out into the hallway has a distinctly eerie ending.  There’s quite a lot of visual symbolism at work in this film, but a movie review is not the place to go into details.  The plot here is straight forward, so talking in depth about the artistry is what would spoil the movie.

The Negatives:
The film is not exactly what you’d call pleasurable to watch (in the traditional sense).  But I think I’ve made that clear by now.  The slow pace, silent rooms, and bleak content aren’t flaws, however, since they’re all done deliberately to achieve precisely the effect that the director wants.  But don’t go into this expecting a sentimental, Hollywood love story.  The film is brilliant, but for mainstream audiences mediocre is sometimes a lot more satisfying.

I’ve heard some people complain about the ending.  I do think that what happens to Georges (I mean specifically) is not completely clear, but I also don’t think it needs to be any clearer than it is.  (I mean, we’ve got the gist of what happened.  Do we need the details?)

What happens to Anne should not be shocking.  Seriously, how are some people shocked?  If you don’t see that coming in the first (to be charitable, I’ll give you) thirty minutes of the movie, then you are not paying attention.  I’m hardly the best guesser of movie plots, and I could see that coming right from the start.

But here’s what bothers me about Amour.  Throughout, a central concern is that Anne wants to preserve her dignity.  She does not want to become a spectacle or an object of pity.  Georges is sympathetic to her wish for privacy.  At one point, he pointedly tells their daughter that her mother is bed-ridden, diminished, incontinent, and so forth, and says that such things don’t need to be seen.  I agree with him.  Why linger over a person’s sad deterioration?  Give the woman the privacy she longs for.  Let her die on her own terms behind closed doors.

But here’s the thing—all this stuff that doesn’t need to be seen, Michael Haneke has made an entire two hour movie about it in order to show it to us.  And we see it all.  We see the lesson in diapering, Riva’s naked body (including her breasts), the leg exercises, the sputtering incoherence, the withered, paralyzed arm.  We see her repeated pleas to stop living like that.  We see the times (some of them heart-breaking) when the couple loses patience with one another.

Now maybe Haneke’s point is that despite our wishes, such things must be seen.  Nobody wants to stare death in the face, but it’s not like our reluctance is going to make death give up and go away.  So much of what happens to Anne is so ugly and so inevitable.  Yet even in the face of such ugly inevitability, Georges’s love is beautiful (perhaps doubly beautiful because its existence is so puzzling).  Why do we mortal creatures bother to love at all?  Why do we give our love to other mortal creatures?

I don’t know (but that doesn’t matter).

Amour is a great film and like most great films, it’s not easy to watch.  It’s beautiful (but not glamorous), sad (but not maudlin), intense (but not overproduced), tragic (but not contrived).  It’s just a story about the central concerns of humanity—love, life, and death.  Georges and Anne could be anyone.  We all die.  If we’re fortunate, someone cares.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Penelope Says

January 1, 2013

I hear that mouse. I have the feeling he's looking at me right now.
4:05 am

Since seeing Les Mis, we've all been spontaneously bursting into song. Derrick is usually humming "Look Down." Penelope, for some reason, has been singing, "Lovely ladies, waiting for the poor." (And then she rhymes it with "going to the store." That's not how the song actually goes, of course, but that's for the best.) And then every hour or so, I forget I haven't been singing aloud and spontaneously fling out my arms and belt out, "The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of Fraaaaaaaaaance!"
5:02 am

Penelope (casually glancing up at the movie, wisely): You should never shoot a gun in the house.
8:17 pm

Penelope: When is the clock going to ring?
Me: Do you mean when will it be midnight? In about twelve minutes, it will be your birthday, and you will be four years old!
Penelope: Hooray! And then I will throw up this ribbon in the air. And Midna will make her fireworks. She will make the whole room turn gold! It's going to be such a beautiful sight!

She's now got a Happy New Year hat on and is standing mere inches from the clock, leaning forward, and singing to it, "O, clock, when will you ring? Whenever will you ring? And then what will we do?"
11:52 pm

January 2

12:07 am

January 3
My camera looked precarious on the kitchen table, so I moved it to a safer place--except on the way I tripped over a bunch of stuff and it crashed onto the kitchen tile and so did I, and now it's broken.
12:46 am

Penelope (singing): What do we have at Nellie's party? We have extrusions!
Her Play-Doh cookie frosting kit came with a piece called “the extruder” used to squish the dough through a tube.
1:01 am

The Four Seasons according to Nellie: Christmas, summer, fall, Halloween. (“Is it summer? Why not? My birthday’s already over!”)
4:55 pm

Penelope: Did you get a new game on your Kindle today?
Grandma: No, they didn't have any good games.
Penelope: (creeping nearer to investigate) Um, what bad games did they have?
11:13 pm

January 4

So, Four is not a good nickname. Penelope was rolling around on a giant exercise ball, and I told her, "You're being a little crazy, Four." Derrick thought I said, "You're being a little, crazy whore." He was like, "Um, that's kind of harsh. I know we say some crazy things in this family, but have you considered your audience?"
12:37 am

Me: (getting polish all over Nellie) Hmm. Your nails are hard to paint.
Penelope: Aunt Merry doesn't think so.
Me: Aunt Merry doesn't think so? I see. But I'll bet you hold still for Aunt Merry.
Penelope: Not usually.
Me: I have seen you hold reverently still for Aunt Merry. Quit wiggling!
Penelope: I'm sorry, but I have to toot!
Me: You have to toot during your pedicure! You couldn't have tooted during your manicure! It had to be during your pedicure.
Penelope: I'm not getting a pedicure.
Me: Yes you are. I'm painting your toenails right now. That's called a pedicure.
Penelope: Ohhh. I thought it meant a place where dogs eat ice cream.
Me: You thought it was a PETicure.
Penelope: Yes.
2:16 am

Penelope: Dad, you didn't get me my Sprite, and you didn't get me my candy.
Derrick: I wasn't going to get it tonight. Maybe in the morning when I go out...
Penelope: I want gummy bears and gummy worms, so I want two bags...(watching his face, pathetically) just two bags, that's all I want!
Derrick: Sweetie, if I get you any candy, I'm just going to get one bag, okay?
Penelope: Let me think about it.
2:41 am

Because Penelope wiggles, her nails were very hard to paint. Because Penelope "juggles," the floor was all too easy to paint.
2:42 am

January 5

I'm worried about the mouse. I hear it squeaking a lot suddenly. That makes me uneasy.
4:32 am

Penelope: That car just tooted.
Grandpa: Well, you know, sometimes if a car needs a tune up, it will backfire.
Penelope: No, that was definitely a toot.
Grandpa: When the engine...
Penelope: Just trust me!
8:20 pm

Penelope (from the back seat as we drive over a bump): Dad! I don't want to go home right now! We're going home?
Derrick: No, we're not going home yet.
Penelope: Then why did I feel the thumpthumping?
Me: (realizing) Oh, she's used to turning over the train tracks.
8:21 pm

January 6

Penelope (as I help her get dressed after her bath): Do I smell something delighting?
Me: Is it your strawberry body wash?
Penelope: No. That is fruity, and this is fragrant. I'm sure I don't have it.
Me: Is it my odorant?
Penelope: Oh! Can I have some odorant???

(We call deodorant odorant.)
2:48 am

Penelope: This car's fancy!
Me: Why is this car fancy, Nellie?
Penelope: Because I like it!
4:04 pm

January 8

Penelope (with her wooden rosary): I'm taking my rosary to bed with me.
Me: Oh, that's nice. Are you going to say your prayers and say, "Hail Mary, full of grace"?
Penelope: (hanging the rosary on her bed frame) No, I'm too tired to say that right now. I'm just going to hang this by my bed while I'm sleeping, so the angels will know I love Jesus.
3:55 am

Dinah: (as we prepare to read) Who is Aesop?
Me: Aesop was a slave who lived a long time ago in Greece. That's where Penelope's name comes from. Once there was a Queen Penelope in Greece.
Penelope: Yes, that's my Other Penelope.
Me: Oh, your Other Penelope is a queen in Greece?
Penelope: Yes, I used to be the queen there once, but then when I was done being the queen, I gave my crown to my Other Penelope. I gave her all my princess things when I came here.
Me: I never knew that you were the queen. Why did you give up your throne?
Penelope: Well, I'm only the queen during Christmas, and my Other Penelope is always the queen in the summer.
Me: Oh, I see. So what did you do when you were queen?
Penelope: Well...Midna....Midna asked me to make....Well, I made breakfast for Midna every day.
Me: You did? So what you did as queen was make breakfast for Midna?
Penelope: Well, yes, but then she wanted me to make her dinner, too. And I wasn't going to do that. Making Midna breakfast is good for a queen, but making her dinner too--that's a slave! So I didn't want to be a slave, so I stopped being the queen and came here where we don't have slaves any more.

Aesop's fables are very profound, but Penelope's stories are far more entertaining.
4:05 am

Penelope (standing right next to me, answering my question repeatedly, with increasing volume): Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes!! Yes!!! Yes!!! YES!!!! YES!!!!!!!!!
Me: Yes! I heard that the first seventy-five times you said it!
Penelope: (wisely) Yes, but I had to say it seventy-six times.
Me: And why is that?
Penelope: Because it's a tongue twister. That's why I said it so fast.
4:38 am

January 9

Hook: Be careful, puny pirate. That mountain you're standing on is an active volcano!
Penelope (as Jake): That's the plan. It's going to blast me right into your firetruck to get back our gold. Don't worry, Izzy! Everything's arranged! There's so many gold!
Izzy: There is so much gold! So many pieces of gold! Look at them all!
1:02 am

Me: So how about after I finish heating up our peas, we play pirates for half an hour, and then we'll watch a nature show while I write?
Penelope: No thanks.
Me: Well, what would you suggest?
Penelope: How about we play pirates for a long time, and then...never stop? Does that sound like a good idea to you?
4:30 pm

I wish that like BAFTA nominations, Oscar nominations were announced at 7:30 am London time. That would be far more convenient.
11:48 pm

January 10

Penelope: Here is my story. It's called The Goose and the Orange. The Goose and the Orange signed Nellie Rayburn. The orange fell into the river. The goose found it, and the goose ate it. But it got stuck in the goose's throat. The goose couldn't swallow it. She said (chokes), "Somebody get it out." The goose was making so much noise, a werewolf came. He ate the orange out of the goose's throat. Then he plugged her up with a cork. And he left her that way for a while. But after a while, he ate her up, too, because he was so hungry. And he said, "That's so yummy." The End. He was in the pool. Isn't that a nice story? [Dictated and read, Penelope approved]
Here’s the best part! Me: What’s the moral of that story? Penelope: The moral is, don’t call somebody for help if he wants to eat you!

She just came up to me holding an orange and started to tell this story. We’ve been reading Aesop’s Fables for the past several nights. Obviously, they’re making an impression.
12:47 am

Captain Hook: I know a lot of good pirate fables. I learned them from Pirate Aesop.
Penelope: No, Aesop wasn't a pirate! He was a person!
Captain Hook: Well, isn't a pirate a person?
Penelope: Yes, but Aesop was a slave. He lived a long time ago in a cage with a lion, and the lion was his friend I think because he tells a lot of stories about him.
1:01 am

Penelope (who has been jabbering to Derrick): Daddy, put that story on facebook. It was very funny, so put it up on facebook where everybody can enjoy it.
D: Well, sweetie, I didn't actually hear what you said.
Penelope: Oh but it was very funny and important.
D: Tell me again. What was it you said.
Penelope (as if astonished): I...I don't remember!
2:30 am

Penelope (jumping out in front of me, holding her rosary theatrically in front of her, in a booming voice, like an action hero): I'll make you cross! (immediately starts to crack up) Hahaha! That was a joke!
3:44 am

When I was trying to convince Penelope to come and brush her teeth, I heard her in the bedroom saying, "Thank you...thank you...thank you...thank you...thank you..."
Me: Penelope, what are you doing?
Penelope: I'm just saying, "Thank you."
Me: Who are you saying "thank you" to?
Penelope: Jesus!

As it turns out, she was grabbing a rosary bead every time she said "thank you." She did not stop until she had touched every one, and then she ran over and declared, "I'm finally done!"
3:47 am

I don't know why I find Oscar nominations such a thrilling topic, but I am especially glad that we've seen everything nominated in the major categories except Zero Dark Thirty and Amour which haven't been released here yet. This means if I want to do an Oscar write-up, I don't have to go hunting around for a way to see Nicole Kidman peeing on Zac Efron as soon as possible! On the one hand, it's fun to catch up on stuff you've missed, but on the other, what if you can't find it in time?
5:47 pm

January 12
Even though we've now read Androcles and the Lion, Penelope still thinks this illustration [it shows a man with bound hands being released into an arena with a lion] beside the introduction is a picture of Aesop. She told me, "He probably changed his name for the story because Androcles is such a nice name."
2:41 am

Me: Well, if we keep leaving out food every night we will never get rid of the mice.
Penelope: Midna! Last night she wanted to have a cheese fight, so she through a piece of colby jack in my face, and then she shredded the rest on the carpet.
Me: Well if Midna keeps throwing cheese on the floor...
P: Oh, man! We were just blasting it. It hardly got on the floor!
2:55 am

I cannot remember the last time I've danced so much! [We went to my friend Nicole’s wedding.]
4:14 am

January 13
Penelope: Please come play!
Me: Penelope, I'm so tired! I'm going to sit down for a while.
Penelope: (theatrically) Wa-ah! No one will play with me!
Me: But look! You have all those toys. Can't you play by yourself?
Penelope: No! I can't do the voices!

Yes, playing with Penelope is more like putting on a play for Penelope!
4:41 pm

As my dad grinds coffee in the kitchen...
Penelope (sitting on the couch, staring at a page of her Tinkerbell coloring book): Grandpa! I am trying to concentrate! GRANDPA! I AM TRYING TO CONCENTRATE!
Me: Well, honey, he has to grind the coffee! See? He's done now.
Penelope: (staring into the coloring book, muttering) Well, I was TRYING so hard to concentrate, Grandpa!
4:43 pm

Me (as I open the refrigerator, looking for the eggs, absent-mindedly singing): When the sky falls...
Penelope (slides between me and the open refrigerator door, singing out): When it crumbles! (sees the eggs) Oh good! There are eggs! Eggies are peggies!
Me: Eggies are peggies? What does that mean?
Penelope: It was just a joke! You know! You crack me up...said the nut! (laughs boisterously) A joke.
10:50 pm

January 14

Penelope: Jake and his crew should be in bed by now. [She puts them into the bag of shoes hanging on the bathroom door.]
2:30 am

Penelope (looking at an illustration as we read her Aesop's Fables book): The Ant and the Dove, huh? Well (pointing to the ant), this must be the dove, and (pointing to the dove) this is obviously the ant.
Me: Are you sure about that?
Penelope: Yes because ants always fly through the sky, and I've heard that doves just crawl around on their little red dove feet and live in their dove hill.
Me: I see. And who told you that?
Penelope (holding up a dinosaur with a wicked smile): This rhinoceros.
Me: Are you sure that's a rhinoceros? I think it's a triceratops.
Penelope: (accurately) It has too many horns to be a triceratops.
Me: Oh, that's true.
Penelope: (sadly) You don't know what you're talking about.
5:21 am

January 15
Derrick (who after story time always lies down with Penelope until she falls asleep) just sent me the following:

Conversation I just had with Penelope:
Me: which way do you want me to lay?
Penelope: let me think
Me: away from you?
Penelope: yeah, so I can play Disney games when I'm supposed to be sleeping
Penelope: let's forget about that
3:10 am

Penelope had had been coming up to us asking each in turn, "Did you toot?"
Grandma: (wisely) Penelope, did you toot?
Penelope: (grinning in a most suspicious way) Noooo. It has to be Grandpa because he's the biggest tooter in the world!
Grandma: And you're just the little toot?
Penelope: No, I'm not! Not like Toot and Puddle!
10:01 pm

January 16

Penelope's saying good night routine has gotten rather elaborate. Tonight she gave me a kiss and a hug, informed me sweetly that I smell like "perfumed cherries and goldfishes," asked me to listen as she prayed an unintentionally blended version of the Hail Mary and the Lord's Prayer, gave me a high five, a low five, a fist bump, an extra awesome fist bump, then led me through a modified version of this hand-swishing secret shake she calls "the Sagitaw River," and then she gave me another hug and a kiss, then she karate chopped my wrist for some reason, then she performed an interpretive dance set to her own music, and then she told me she loved me again about twelve times.
3:30 am

Me: Penelope, you're something else!
Penelope: (Horrified) No I'm not!
Derrick: She just means that she thinks you're funny.
Penelope: Oh! I thought you meant I was a mouse or something! I was like, no I'm not!
3:31 am

Hmm. Because I like Jeopardy!, facebook has helpfully placed in my newsfeed Recent Articles about Jeopardy!, which consists entirely of this headline, "Panic Has Subsided. Democrats Gun-Grabbing Plans in Jeopardy." Unless I see Alex Trebek on TV promoting "Gun-Grabbing Week," I'm going to have to assume that there's been some mistake.
3:38 am

January 17

Overheard from the bathroom...
Derrick (to Penelope, who has just thrown up): I would try not to eat anything for now. You should probably just sip some water.
Penelope (in a sad little voice): But will you get me some gummy bears? I promise I won't eat them.

She keeps going into the office to get Derrick. I guess he makes her feel safe. I asked her, “Why didn’t you tell me you didn’t feel good?” And she said, “I wanted to keep it a secret.” I asked, “Why?” She said, “Because I don’t like it.”
3:47 pm

Penelope: When I burp, my eyes feel sour.
6:40 pm

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fall Movie Diary: Zero Dark Thirty

Date: January 15, 2012
Time: 5:10 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Derrick
Food:  medium Sprite

Runtime:  2 hours, 37 minutes
Rating:  R
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Quick Impressions:
I’ve got to say, sitting in a darkened movie theater watching CIA operatives interrogate terrorists while all around me my fellow Americans munch popcorn and slurp drinks is a pretty surreal experience.  Even putting aside what Zero Dark Thirty is trying to convey, just the act of watching it makes you think.  What do some people sacrifice for our freedoms?  And whose torture/death/life has made possible my lifestyle of sitting in the dark, eating junk food, and forming my own impressions of Hollywood’s take on reality?

Going into the movie, I knew only what I’d briefly heard on the news about bin Laden’s killing back when it happened.  As someone who writes movie reviews, I definitely went in invested in determining if Jessica Chastain deserves to win a Best Actress Oscar and if Kathryn Bigelow was (like Ben Affleck) snubbed in the Director category (or merely undeserving).  And of course, I was curious to see firsthand evidence of this (much media inflated) “torture controversy.” 

These kinds of concerns all meant far more to me than finding out what actually happened to Osama bin Laden.  Why did they bury him at sea so quickly?  After the movie, my husband and I were discussing the fact that we still don’t know, and the movie (of course) doesn’t address this at all.  But you know what?  I don’t want to know.  I’m perfectly happy to sit in the safety of my cave and watch the shadows projected on the wall while I munch my popcorn and remain both untortured and untorturing (directly, at any rate). 

Sometimes, I think to myself in dismay, I haven’t accomplished much in my life, and then I see films like this and think, Thank God!  I cannot emphasize enough how strongly I never want to do anything politically important or be anyone worth assassinating or interrogating. 

Zero Dark Thirty is a movie full of people doing significant things.  Because of the work they do, lives are saved and lost.  (Stakes that high would give me a panic attack.  I could never work for the CIA.)  The movie is fast-paced, well-plotted, consistently engrossing, and absolutely anchored by a star-making (and yes, Oscar worthy) lead performance by Jessica Chastain.  

I was not a huge fan of The Hurt Locker.  (In fact, I found it insanely overrated and definitely not the Best Picture that year, but that may be because I watched it at home on DVD while trying to keep my infant daughter from looking at the screen during tummy time.)  In my estimation, Zero Dark Thirty is a far superior movie, more compelling, more entertaining, more important.  Why Kathryn Bigelow didn’t get an Oscar nomination is beyond me.  (Actually—here’s a conspiracy theory I can get behind!—isn’t it odd that all the directors most likely to give Steven Spielberg a run for his money didn’t get nominated?  Don’t lots of those Academy members get together and vote in blocks?  The truth is out there!  And don’t tell me that more people felt passionate (and positive) about Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour than Argo and Zero Dark Thirty because that kind of logical thinking is no fun at all!)

The Good:
Jessica Chastain’s performance anchors this movie, and the whole thing works only because the character of Maya is so believable.  (I’m not saying that I believe everything in this “true” story is true.  I’m just saying that the character feels authentic, and the mission clearly matters to her.  Through her confidence and determination, Maya convinces the other characters to believe in her passion project, and she convinces the audience, too.)  Without this charming CIA’s answer to Captain Ahab, the movie would lose its thread and (if the Zero Dark Thirty is to be believed) the hunt for bin Laden would have lost traction and direction as well.

I must admit that when bin Laden’s death first made news, I was bewildered (and, honestly, horrified) by the insane outpouring of glee from around the nation.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not trying to diminish the horror of 9/11 or to suggest that those who lost loved ones didn’t deserve closure, and I know that revenge is a dish best served cold and everything, but I really felt distanced from everybody’s giddy rejoicing and started to wonder if something was wrong with me.  I’m not saying killing the man who instigated so many innocent deaths was the wrong thing to do (though in some ways, having him stand trial would have been more satisfying if logistically difficult and potentially risky).  It was the public’s reaction I felt alienated from.  I mean, hunting him down took so long, and it’s not as if each one of us outsmarted and killed him personally, and…I don’t know just so many things.  Relief, I understand, but jubilation and gloating?  It’s not like we destroyed the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom.  Terrorists continue to exist whether the old man on dialysis has been shot or not.

But while watching the movie, I could definitely appreciate why finding and killing bin Laden was so important to Maya.  And when she gave an impassioned speech, saying, “You don’t understand,” the importance of taking out bin Laden and his continuing role as a figurehead actively encouraging attacks against the United States (and other Western powers), I believed that, too.  You’re right, Maya, compared to a woman who has spent her entire adult life in the CIA and essentially a decade learning how terrorist cells operate while tracking al Qaeda operatives in the Middle East, I know absolutely nothing about Osama bin Laden’s world and the importance of taking him out.  Because of Maya, I feel like I got the point of the entire operation for the first time ever.

I attribute the film’s success in this area to the skill of the screenwriter, the director, and the lead actress.  (And that’s why most films work, isn’t it?  With a great script, skillful direction, and solid performances, any movie is bound to be good!)

Chastain’s isn’t the only performance that makes the movie exceptional, however.  From the entire cast, the performances are universally strong.  Particularly captivating is Jason Clarke as Maya’s early mentor and later colleague Dan.  I have to say as Howard Bondurant in Lawless, Clarke impressed me less than anyone else in the cast.  He was mediocre and unremarkable there, but here he’s marvelous, so good that he probably deserved an Oscar nomination.  (But so did Dwight Henry and Leonardo DiCaprio to name only two of many.  This year, there were far more worthy supporting turns than slots to honor them.)  In many ways, Clarke’s character was far more compelling than Maya’s.  (Certainly, he’s harder to understand.  What to make of someone who routinely tortures in such a professional manner and then goes off and feeds an ice cream cone to monkeys?  If he had stuck around, he would have stolen the movie, but, of course, a guy like that can only end up in Washington D.C.)

For most of the movie, Chastain’s and Clarke’s characters dominate the story.  Early on, the only other character who gets nearly as much of the audience’s attention is fellow CIA operative Jessica, a likeable if flawed character played perfectly by Jennifer Ehle (Elizabeth Bennet to Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy.)  Joel Edgeton (so prominent in the previews) shows up really, really late but practically carries the last thirty minutes of the movie when Chastain (by necessity) fades into the background for a bit. 

Rounding out the cast, a number of supporting actors show up and get the job done without being distracting.  I love Mark Strong.  He comes in fairly late, but he’s powerful in this as in everything.  Mark Duplass and James Gandolfini are also strong in relatively small parts.  Kyle Chandler seems like he’s playing the same part here he did in Argo.  (I realize that technically, he’s not, but he really seems like basically the same guy.  He really does it well, though.)  Oh, and Harold Perrineau is also in the movie.  He played Mercutio in Romeo + Juliet, and from the moment he showed up, I spent the rest of the movie racking my brains (in vain) trying to remember where I’d seen him.  (Most people probably know him from Lost, but I’ve never seen it.)

As I was watched the movie, I was so captivated by following the “true” story that I didn’t stop to think about Reda Kateb’s performance.  I sort of took him for granted, in the moment basically believing he really was Ammar, the first guy they interrogated.  As I think about this, I realize that Kateb’s performance must have been pretty great since I was able to lose myself in the story this way and think of him only as his character.  (Through most of those scenes I was preoccupied with the problem of the torture and the puzzling character of the torturer.  That the torture victim was also an actor giving a performance somehow got sidelined by my brain, but that’s probably a testament to his excellence in the role.)

Zero Dark Thirty also benefits tremendously from Alexandre Desplat’s wonderful score.  (Like my other two favorite scores—for Beasts of the Southern Wild and The Master—this one missed a nomination, but Desplat is nominated for scoring Argo.)  (If you ask me, Zero Dark Thirty, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Moonrise Kingdom, The Master, Anna Karenina, and Skyfall should have been the nominees for Original Score.  But that’s six already, and I have to admit Life of Pi has a lovely score, too, and I know nothing about music.  So there you go.)

Sound is a real strength, too.  Not only does the movie give us realism in gunfire, but it also makes the most of sounds like the clacking of computer keys, the rustle of the wind.  It uses sounds to transition fluidly from one scene to the next.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Jessica Chastain):
I’ll be honest, I loved Silver Linings Playbook, and until I saw Zero Dark Thirty, I wanted Jennifer Lawrence to win the Oscar, but now I’m torn.  In terms of sheer merit, Chastain’s performance is more difficult and better.  (Because of the weird amount of controversy this film is generating, I actually still expect Lawrence to win, but I find Chastain’s work more deserving.)  In any event, I love them both and think they’re tremendously talented Hollywood newcomers.  (I also think that Jessica Chastain spent at least half of her Golden Globes acceptance speech trying to drive home the point that Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t deserve to win the Oscar because she’s only twenty-two, but I’ll talk more about all that in the Oscar write-up I’m working on.)

Chastain is versatile for sure, though she’s got to be a lot like her character in terms of being consumed by professional drive because how on earth could she have a satisfying personal life when she’s played major roles in 147 movies in the past forty-eight months?  To me, Anne Hathaway cutting her hair and eating dry oatmeal (which is delicious, incidentally) is a lot less impressive than Jessica Chastain coming out of nowhere to appear in 85 percent of all prestige pictures released in the past two years.  (Don’t get me wrong, I love Anne Hathaway, but I also love dry oatmeal.  So does my husband, and nobody has commented on our frighteningly waifish look yet, so I’m assuming Hathaway didn’t pull off the Fantine physique on dry oatmeal alone.  Either that, or we’re eating the wrong brand of oatmeal.)

As the relentlessly driven Maya, Chastain carries the movie (unlike Lawrence, who plays the lead actor’s female complement).  Were the character of Maya not totally believable, Zero Dark Thirty would quickly lose its audience and become a film more of the cinematic caliber of Act of Valor (a movie with engaging, authentic action, and weak performances by non-professional actors playing formulaic characters).  Maya is a difficult character to play because she’s the type who internalizes everything and always remains professional.  If she acts out, she acts out in self-righteous rage, the one emotion that her male colleagues will respect.

Despite playing such a restrained character, she gets a lot of showy moments with scenes dedicated to her rage, grief, panic, and tears, and Chastain nails all of these scattered moments of variation.  The rest of the time, she’s all driven intensity.

I expect her Oscar clip to be the scene where she’s screaming at Kyle Chandler, but that’s not my favorite.  Two moments really stand out to me—when she first speaks to Reda Kateb in an early interrogation scene, and when she starts writing with her red marker.  The red marker stuff really encapsulates the character, as far as I’m concerned, and these moments are among the most difficult because if the actress goes too far, the integrity of the character goes out the window.  Chastain pushes it, but just the right amount.

Best Scene:
Others will have different favorites, but I personally liked the bit with Jason Clarke and the monkeys the best.  If Mark Boal wins a screenwriting Oscar, it will be at least partially because of this scene. Kathryn Bigelow hasn’t been nominated for Director, of course, but the movie really shines again (and shows the work of a talented directing/writing team) when Jennifer Ehle’s character waits for her source.  The suspense (and unsettling suspicion of the outcome) that we get here is wonderful.  We know what’s going to happen, but that’s only because of well-placed cinematic clues.  Obviously these events are interesting in their own right, but they’re captivating because of the work of the writer and director.

Best Action Sequence:
The movie devotes twenty-five of its final thirty minutes entirely to action.  Normally, long action sequences bore me, but since this is the payoff of the entire film, of course, it’s all quite riveting (though unfortunately, the long stretches without much dialogue gave me a lot of time to decompress and suddenly begin to question what I had taken on faith before while trying to keep up with the story).

The Torture:
I’ll address this quickly since it’s become a huge talking point for some reason.  The movie does show waterboarding (though it’s not particularly traumatic to watch unless you’ve been waterboarded yourself).  The film doesn’t show anything gruesome, like fingernails being pulled off with hot pliers.  You don’t have to wince (unless you’re anti-torture and ashamed of your country).  Most of the torture involved is primarily psychological and demoralizing.  (Though of course, it’s not comfortable to listen to blaring music, hold your arms up for hours, be stuffed into a box, have the temporary sensation of drowning.)  So being squeamish is no reason not to watch this movie.  It isn’t torture porn.

Of course, some might argue that it’s far more insidious than torture porn (which is pretty transparent) because it gives viewers a positive feeling about the torture and leads them to identify with the torturer.  After seeing the movie, I will say that the principal characters in the film do seem to be in favor of enhanced interrogation techniques.  And they do seem to resent the interference of the Obama administration that (by cracking down on torture) is making it harder for them to gather reliable information.

But if that’s what Kathyrn Bigelow is being criticized for, then I have to think that the people doing the criticizing are being deliberately obtuse.  How can an artist make a realistic film about any serious subject without giving voice to ideas that some may find objectionable?  After watching the entire film, I would not immediately conclude that Kathryn Bigelow is an enthusiastic advocate of torture.  Maybe people are used to movies being so clumsy and heavy-handed that all of the characters do nothing but continually parrot the exact views of the writer and director.  If Bigelow wanted to spread the word, “Hooray for torture!  Let’s all waterboard with wild abandon!” then surely she wouldn’t have deliberately included so many problematic moments in her movie that add up over time and lead discerning audience members to begin asking uncomfortable questions.  For pete’s sake, isn’t there something to be said for artistry, for ambiguity?  There’s a reason that screenplays are far more often adapted from novels than from tracts.

Personally, I think the subject of torture in general is a little simpler than some make it out to be (or at least less of a talking point).  Is torture moral?  No!  Of course not!  There’s no room for debate here.  Torture is immoral.  Is torture necessary?  That’s not a question for me to answer.  I sit in the dark, watch movies, and eat popcorn.  But as someone who has extensively studied medieval and Renaissance history, I will emphatically say that torture certainly is not new, and I don’t think that it’s ever going away completely.  As someone who hopes never to torture or to be tortured, I am exceedingly glad that certain groups very vocally oppose torture so that forward thinking governments have the sense to disavow it publicly and are encouraged by public scrutiny to practice it in the utmost secrecy only when absolutely necessary.   But it seems silly to keep asking if torture is wrong.  Of course it’s wrong.  That’s the wrong question. 

I do think that the movie may be guilty of encouraging less critical viewers to believe that torture is just fine because the “bad guys” deserve it.  (I don’t think this is what Kathryn Bigelow is saying, but she can’t control how every viewer interprets her movie.  And of course, this is a good incentive not to be a “bad guy.”)  The trouble is, the movie shows us only the interrogations of subjects who are important, guilty, and withholding valuable information that they actually know.  What about the people who are telling the truth when they say, “I don’t know?” but must be broken anyway to confirm their lack of knowledge?  What about the people who are apprehended by mistake (the “Cinna the poets” of the torture world)?   What about the interrogators who aren’t as professional as Dan and Maya?   

Zero Dark Thirty never shows us any instances of torture not being necessary, or not being effective, or not being applied to the correct people.  That is a serious moral failing of the movie because not everybody approaches a film with the same inclination (or skills) for critical analysis.  Some people just believe everything they see.  If they see the good guys torturing the bad guys and winning in the end, then they believe that torture is okay.

There’s a reason that torture is usually done in secret at secret locations by people whose entire professional life is a secret.  The public is not supposed to know.  Maybe the movie shows too much reality for its audience’s own good.  Then again, maybe people just need to shut up and focus on real human rights abuses instead of the content of Hollywood movies.

A really bold movie would have shown us the same interrogation scenes from the point of view of the terrorists—like really from their viewpoint, showing how they sincerely believed in the goals of their terrorism, showing how they believed the United States had hurt them/become corrupt/deserved punishment.  Nobody would make that movie, of course.  You would have to be insane to make a movie like that.  But if somebody did, that would be a real controversy.  This is mostly a contrived, trumped up, fake controversy, and I find it kind of annoying. 

Why aren’t more people talking about the fact that this young woman was recruited out of high school by the CIA and allowed to spend her entire life obsessing over Osama bin Laden?  That’s what I want to know.

Other Things that  Bothered Me:
The biggest problem with Zero Dark Thirty is that it’s fully engrossing when you’re watching it, but after it’s over, you find yourself asking, “Okay, so just how true was that true story?”

It doesn’t help that it came out the same year as Argo (which is hard to forget because it’s scored in a similar way by the same person, and Kyle Chandler seems to be playing the same part).

At the beginning of the movie, we are pointedly told that this is a true story based on the first hand testimony of key people involved.  Then at the end of the credits, we get a huge message saying, “Okay, actually tons of stuff in this movie was just made up for dramatic purposes and isn’t true at all.”  We’ve all heard by now that the filmmakers were given an unprecedented amount of access to relevant information by the CIA (an organization known for, if nothing else, its forthright dealings and complete transparency in all things).  But then it’s also emerged recently that the acting CIA director has pointedly called out the movie for making torture seem like a more essential technique than it actually was in locating bin Laden. 

Okay, so if this is a “true story,” then why is the CIA bringing all this wonderful information to our attention?  What is their motivation for telling so much, and what else are they withholding?  And if what the CIA director is now saying is true, then why would the filmmakers make up a whole bunch of stuff about the necessity of torture resulting in a scandal that’s hurting the film’s Oscar chances (though possibly helping its box office take)?

What exactly is going on here?  After some discussion, my husband and I decided that we are just going to have to wait thirty years for Ben Affleck’s son to make another movie.  (And if he does, I hope we’ll see local police on hang gliders chasing the retreating helicopter through the air and almost catching it.)

Also, there’s this weird vibe toward the end of the movie that suggests that sexism may be working on Maya’s behalf, this sense of, “Isn’t she cute, flying off the handle?” and “What a sparkplug!  We’re not sending her for a psych evaluation because she’s female.”  “Gosh, isn’t she smart for a girl?  I’m the kind of man who appreciates smart women.  Let’s send in a team with no evidence.”  It’s weird.  Maya does everything to can to demonstrate that she’s a valuable part of the organization and that the biological fact that she’s a woman doesn’t even matter.  But clearly, it does matter to the men working with her.  They obviously respect her for all the right reasons, but sometimes I think they believe her for some awfully dubious ones.  I’m not knocking the movie (necessarily).  This all seems pretty realistic to me (but I’m not a CIA agent).  I’m just wondering if Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal are intentionally drawing attention to this odd dynamic, or if this is just the type of information the real “Maya” and company provided.

Zero Dark Thirty is intense and entertaining.  You can’t look away, and the story delivers everything that it promises.  Jessica Chastain gives a strong (and definitely Oscar worthy) lead performance.  Though given far less screentime, Jason Clarke is very nearly just as good.  And Kathryn Bigelow deserves another Oscar nomination for directing.  (She just didn’t get one.)  Don’t take children.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Goose and the Orange by Penelope

Here is my story. It's called "The Goose and the Orange." "The Goose and the Orange," signed Nellie Rayburn. 

The orange fell into the river. The goose found it, and the goose ate it. But it got stuck in the goose's throat. The goose couldn't swallow it. She said [chokes], "Somebody get it out!!!" 

The goose was making so much noise, a werewolf came. He ate the orange out of the goose's throat. Then he plugged her up with a cork. And he left her that way for a while. But after a while, he ate her up, too, because he was so hungry. And he said, "That's so yummy." The End. He was in the pool. Isn't that a nice story? [Dictated and read, Penelope approved]

The moral:  Don't call someone for help if he wants to eat you.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fall Movie Diary: The Impossible

Date: January 8, 2013
Time: 4:40 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Derrick
Food:  pretzel bites, large mixed Icee
Runtime:  1 hour, 43 minutes
Rating:  PG-13
Director: Juan Antonio Bayona

Quick Impressions:
The tsunami of December 26, 2004, made a profound impression on me.  I always associate it with the death of my grandmother.  Even though Grandma died at home in bed months earlier, the two events got mixed up in my mind early on, and for me, they’re still intertwined.  Immediately after the tsunami, I remember donating to the Red Cross through, writing poetry, and thinking about the horrible sense of loss felt by so many. 

My grandma was eighty-six when she died, quietly in the night.  When we found her, there was a look of astonishment on her face, and her body was cold, an intense kind of cold I had never imagined existed.  I was still grieving for her (and trying to comfort my grieving mother) when the tsunami hit, and hundreds of thousands of people lost mothers, and fathers, and brothers, and sisters, and grandparents, and aunts, and uncles, and cousins, and friends, and homes, and their own lives, and everything. 

Grief is such a universally human thing.  We all die, and most of us live long enough to lose someone we love before we die.

Remembering the shocking coldness I’d felt when I touched my grandmother (whose name meant “white wave”), I listened to news reports and imagined an immense white wave dragging so many unsuspecting people to a cold and watery grave.

But watching The Impossible, I see that the wave wasn’t white at all.  In the film, it looks brown, sea water mixed with mud, blood, and who knows what else as it relentlessly (and obliviously) ravages the shore.

The Good:
What a beautiful movie!  I found the film genuinely touching and extremely well written with some magnificently memorable lines (e.g., “If it’s the last thing we ever do,” the entire conversation about the stars.)

What makes The Impossible really stand apart from other disaster films is that it’s a true story.  It’s not just the story of a fictional group of people struggling to survive a real event (like Titanic), or a largely fictionalized story about a real group of people.  It’s the true story of a real group of people that actually happened.  (Now, don’t get me wrong.  The true account written by one of the family members has been adapted for the screen by Sergio G. Sánchez, so I’m sure there’s some poetic license taken.  But this isn’t one of those kinds of Hollywood true stories where two historical figures who never actually met have long face-to-face conversations or fall in love or save the world, or something oft-seen and corny like that.)

The character of Maria amazed me.  She’s so strong, so sympathetic, and she offers such a powerful object lesson to her son.  Throughout the film, she struggles not only to survive but also—in the event that she doesn’t—to be the best parent she can in the limited time she has left.  Things you say and do when facing death are by necessity honest, and for those who live on, they have remarkable staying power. 

Eight years before my grandma died in bed, in December of 1996, my grandpa died unexpectedly in church where he had been asked to say the closing prayer.  With his last breath, he delivered the final line of his benediction, “I am with you always,” then promptly dropped to the floor, instantly dead of a massive heart attack.  (Grandma was standing next to him, and I was next to her.)  You really don’t forget a thing like that. 

And Maria’s the same way.  She uses every last moment, every last resource she has to make sure her son knows what matters.  Facing death, she “dies” in the way that she wants him to live, and “lives” because she doesn’t want him to have only the memory of her for guidance.  And to the movie’s credit, this comes across on screen very powerfully. 

As we watch, we do not know which of the family members will live and which will die, just as they themselves do not know.  But Maria gives her son such a beautiful example of how to live and how to die that we come to feel that either outcome will be equally satisfying.  (At least, I felt like that.  Don’t get me wrong.  I was rooting for the family to be reunited on earth, alive and well.  But there’s a profound beauty in it either way.  Despite the “meaningless” tragedy of the tsunami, the lives and deaths of those involved still have meaning.  No tragedy can strip us of our humanity.  In fact, the surety of death is one thing that we all, as humans, share.  It’s cliché and banal and all that, but it’s still true.  Tragedy brings us together.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Naomi Watts):
Naomi Watts has the advantage of playing an incredibly sympathetic character, and I expect her to get a nomination for Best Actress on Thursday morning (though I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to predicting this category since I still have not had the opportunity to see several key performances).

The particular horror that Maria endures translates especially well onto the screen since so much of it involves physical suffering.  In the safety of the theater, some of us may not be able to imagine (truly) being in a tsunami in a distant (from here) part of the world, but it’s pretty hard to look at severely torn and bloody flesh hanging from the body without thinking, “Ouch!”  And while some of us have no children, just about everyone has parents.  So it’s incredibly easy to sympathize with this woman’s plight. 

And then her response to her situation only makes us like her more. 

A fantastically sympathetic character like this could probably only be destroyed through a Herculean display of bad acting.  Fortunately, Naomi Watts gives us anything but.  She’s entirely believable as Maria, and quite likely to be nominated for Best Actress (though her exclusion is certainly not impossible).

I think her strongest work comes in the moment that happens just before the tree and in the climbing of the tree itself.  We appreciate what Maria does.  We see that she is compassionate and brave.  And then we more fully appreciate her nobility as we see how much she must struggle to remain alive.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Tom Holland):
Tom Holland is sixteen now, and I’m not sure how old he was when this movie was filmed, but he’s absolutely stunning as the family’s oldest son Lucas.  So much of the power of his scenes comes from what is unspoken.  He has a very emotive face, capable of communicating extreme joy at one moment and horrific despair the very next.  I’ve seen so many outstanding Supporting Actor performances this year, but I would not be disappointed to see him get an Oscar nomination.  At the very least, I’m sure he’ll continue to pick up accolades as a young actor in a break-out performance. 

One striking example of his skill in telegraphing first one profound emotion, then another on his very expressive face comes when he realizes some success in one of his projects in the hospital, and then realizes what he has lost while he was working on it.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment (Ewan McGregor):
I don’t actually think Ewan McGregor has any kind of chance for a nomination (though we’ll find out on Thursday).  If Best Actor is full already (with at least six incredible performances fighting for five slots), Best Supporting Actor is absolutely overflowing (and Tom Holland is light-years better than his co-star).

Still, I think McGregor has a very powerful moment when he makes his phone call home.  The intensity of his emotional response takes him and those around him by surprise, and it took me by surprise, too.  (When you step back and think about it, though, a conversation with a loved one from Henry’s ordinary reality would likely trigger exactly the sort of breakdown we get onscreen.  It’s one thing to experience such a nightmare, it’s quite another to have to verbalize it, acknowledging as you do that it is really happening.)

Of course, apart from this one magnificent, emotionally raw moment (played with perfect intensity), McGregor doesn’t really have a very showy part.  And Henry—even though I wanted him to be reunited with his family and everything—is an often frustrating character, nowhere near as strong and sympathetic as Maria. 

(I realize that this is a true story, and being in extremis excuses less than perfect judgment, but man, does Henry make some horrible decisions!  At one point, I thought, What on earth are you thinking?  What are you doing?  Later on, my husband mentioned the same scene and said delicately, “I’m not sure that he made the right choice there.”  I replied, “I’m sure.  He made the wrong choice.”  Then we discussed what we would do if—God forbid!—ever faced with a similar dilemma.)

There’s a point near the end when I dreaded the consequences of one of his choices yet again, but as I think of it, what happens there probably doesn’t seem like a choice to him.  He’s probably not actually thinking at all, and he certainly doesn’t have all the information about the situation that the audience does.  Still, that Henry is one nerve-wracking character!

Best Action Sequence:
At the end of the tree-climbing scene, I felt my shoulders and neck relax.  Only then did I have time to spare a thought for how tense I’d been throughout the entire scene.  (And here’s another great part of that scene.  Suddenly, they go from action to inaction, which (unfortunately) makes possible a period of contemplation.  I kept thinking, That must be the most difficult part.  What do you think about when you’re up in that tree?  How do you make the time pass?)

Best Scene:
The part surrounding the tree is the best part, I think.  What happens there—what’s at stake, how the characters respond, what it costs them to do so—is basically the movie in miniature.  But I also really love the scene when Geraldine Chaplin (better known to my husband throughout the scene by her whispered name, “Who is that? Who is that? Who is that? Who is that?”—I knew I recognized her face!) talks to Thomas about the stars.  Some of the best lines in the movie (including one explanation of its title) occur then. 

You may not agree with this movie, but if you walk out of it without getting a single thing that it’s trying to tell you, you’re awfully obtuse.  (Some people probably think that makes the movie heavy-handed and manipulative, but it works for me.  I think it’s well done.)

Best Scene Visually:
There’s a long, dream/memory sequence near the end that sort of reminded me of the title sequence of Skyfall.  It’s quite captivating.

Most Touching Tribute:
I’m assuming that what we see written on the paper held by Ewan McGregor’s character in the final scene is all true.  If so, how beautiful!  How moving and how sweet!  (Even if it’s not true, it’s beautiful, but I’ll bet it is true.)

The Negatives:
When the film ends, and you see a photograph of the actual family of five who endured this true-life ordeal, it’s quite a jolt to see that the seemingly Scottish Henry is actually Spanish Quique, the fair, English-speaking Maria is actually a dark, Spanish-speaking Maria, and the entire family looks Spanish because they are, in fact, a Spanish family (with Spanish versions of their Anglicized-for-the-film names).

Why, when these events happened to a Spanish family, did the (Spanish) filmmakers choose to make a movie (at a studio in Spain) about an (apparently) British family?  Making them all speak English is a choice that’s easier to understand because clearly the filmmakers wanted to appeal to an audience of (United States of) Americans (who spend lots and lots of money going to the movies and give out exclusive, high-profile prizes to the films they favor).  (Let’s face it, if the filmmakers just wanted to reach a large, world-wide audience, they could have stuck with Spanish.  It’s not like the family spoke Malagasy or something.)

The first thing I ever heard about this film—when I still actively trying not to hear too much—was complaint after complaint about the Anglicizing of the Spanish family.  Nevertheless, I still managed to forget all about that completely enough to be surprised by the family photograph at the end of the movie, so I agree that the difference is the sort of thing that you can’t help but notice.

However, I’m not sure that it’s all as insidious as some people suggest.  The film seems to be made with the full cooperation of the Spanish family (and is based on the account of one of them).  Plus, it was made by Spaniards at a studio in Spain, so it’s not like some meddlesome British filmmakers swooped in and stole the story to use for their own evil purposes.

Maybe they found it easier to get financing with Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts attached to star.  (Because where on earth would we find two Academy Award winning Spanish actors with sex-appeal and U.S. box-office draw who could convincingly play husband and wife? I ask facetiously.)

I intend to find out why they made this choice, but based solely on what I saw tonight, I will say that changing the ethnicity of the family in question shouldn’t matter.  Maria is very clearly a believer that we are all part of one human family, that people are people, that all life is valuable, that love and loss are universal.  And this is her story, after all.  Why not let her tell it any way she wants?

And, as a matter of fact, the film never tells us explicitly where these lovely, fair, English speaking people are from originally.  It seems to me the father is from Scotland, the son is from England, and the mother grew up in Australia where she used to hang out with Nicole Kidman.  All we really know for sure about their country of origin is that they’re not originally from Japan.

But I’m pretty sure that this ethnicity-shifting thing is still going to bother a lot of people, especially because the protagonists were transformed into fair, English-speaking, white people. And I will grant that the movie will probably make more money in the U.S. with this language/appearance change. (It’s not that most Americans can’t empathize with Spainards; it’s just that most English-speaking Americans aren’t willing to read subtitles.) Is the movie racist for Anglicizing its protagonists?

Actually, from where I sit, it seems that the filmmakers are making a concerted effort not to be racist.  Anyone could have experienced what this family went through.  Their ethnicity is not important.  Suffering is universal. 

But it’s still kind of a bizarre thing to do.  I mean, the ethnicity of the entire family was changed.  It’s not the kind of color-blind casting Kenneth Branagh often uses (as when Denzel Washington and Keanu Reeves are brothers, and the only difference that anybody around them notices is that one of them is wicked.)  It’s the kind of (seemingly unnecessary) change that for some people may make the story seem less true, less authentic.

Anyone wanting to be cynical, of course, can go further and point out that while the movie may not be racist, the average American film-goer is (though perhaps unwittingly so), so it’s a smart business move by the financial backers to insist on this kind of switch.  (Despite our ingrained ethnocentrism, though, I remain stubbornly convinced that U.S. audiences would still show up to see Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem endure a tsunami, just as long as subtitles were not involved.)

I have also heard vague complaints that the movie doesn’t focus enough on the suffering of the Asian people who actually lived there and couldn’t just get on a plane and go home at the end.  But the answer to that is obvious.  This film is based on the true story of a Spanish family.  If we want a different story, we should see a different movie.  Does that movie exist?  Not that I know of, and that is problematic, but it’s certainly not the fault of this movie that does exist.  That’s like blaming Les Misérables for letting some conflicted bread thief sing for two hours instead of starting with a documentary about the political climate in France leading up to the June Rebellion.

The white-washing of the protagonists aside, people are also bound to complain that The Impossible is emotionally manipulative.  (I know this because it made me cry, and whenever a movie makes me cry about something that is grand, spiritual, and profound, some people always complain that it is emotionally manipulative.) 

For me, the film works.  I thought it was beautiful.  But others might legitimately disagree.  (I cry very easily and usually enjoy crying.  I also tend to sympathize with basically everyone.  I even had a dream last night that Tom Cruise treated my family to a trip to the state fair, then wrote me an e-mail in which he expressed his sadness that I didn’t appreciate his work in Jack Reacher.  I felt terrible regret as I saw things from his point of view.  I wrote back, “But Tom, that was before we were friends and I knew about all the hours of preparation you had put into the role.”) 

Since The Impossible made me cry and kept me on the edge of my seat with worry, some people are bound to find it manipulative. But I don’t.  (I just think that Henry makes horrible decisions.  Still if that’s how it actually went down, what can the movie do?)

I found The Impossible captivating and touching, a disaster movie with heart (and soul).  I hope that Naomi Watts does get an Oscar nomination.  (We’ll know for sure on Thursday morning.)  Tom Holland gives a pretty incredible performance, too, and surely has a long, promising career ahead of him.  This family (and so many others) lived through a harrowing experience, and I’d imagine many beautiful things have come from their ordeal.  This film is one of them.