Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Summer Movie Diary: The World's End

Date: August 27, 2013
Time: 5:30 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: Derrick
Food:  Shared Pizza Verde, shared chips and queso, peanut butter shake
Runtime:  1 hour, 49 minutes
Rating: R
Director:  Edgar Wright

Quick Impressions:
I’ve been very excited for the final chapter of the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy (aka the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy) since before I realized that there was a Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy.  Don’t get me wrong.  I saw and enjoyed and own both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, but I didn’t realize they were part of any specifically planned trilogy until I started seeing press for The World’s End earlier this year. 

If you didn’t know about this yet, don’t feel too bad because I don’t think Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost knew about it either until production was already underway on Hot Fuzz.  I don’t know if the three of them set out specifically to create a thematically linked trilogy back when they first did Shaun of the Dead, but I’m positive that they didn’t think up a name for it until the making of the second movie.  (Film buffs are probably familiar with Krzysztof Kieślowski’s acclaimed Three Colours trilogy (in which each film is named for a color of the French flag).  Americans are less likely to be familiar with the Cornetto frozen treat made in the U.K. by Wall’s Ice Cream. (It’s basically a Drumstick that’s flat on the top and a bit lighter.)  If you’re looking for Cornettos over here, you can find them in Shaun of the Dead (in strawberry), Hot Fuzz (in blue wrappers), and The World’s End (in mint green).

Of course, The World’s End is perfectly watchable even if you’ve never laid eyes on a Cornetto (or the previous two entries in the trilogy, to be honest).  It works quite well as a standalone film, in fact.  But it’s also fun to think about how the three movies are thematically linked.  (My husband had quite a lot of interesting things to say about that on the drive home.)

I’ve been excited for The World’s End since I saw the very first preview, and to my immense satisfaction, I loved the movie.  It’s definitely one of my favorite of the summer (and easily my favorite of the second half of the summer).   It’s also my favorite of the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy.  (My husband sort of agreed, but I get the feeling that he truly slightly prefers Hot Fuzz.)  Maybe it’s just that I’ve been feeling so old lately, or maybe it’s that I’ve been increasingly suspicious of the wide-reaching influence of the internet, or maybe it’s that I’m sick of action movies with no character development, or maybe it’s that I prefer mint chocolate chip ice cream to strawberry and vanilla.  Whatever the reason, The World’s End really worked for me.  I enjoyed it from start to finish, even though the beginning’s a bit slow and the ending’s a bit weird.  It delivered exactly what I expected and actually (to my delight) a bit more, as well.

The Good:
As someone who spends most of her free time writing novels that nobody publishes, I have to say that though I honestly loved several aspects of The World’s End, what appealed to me most was the writing.  Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have put together a brilliant screenplay, funny and relatively action packed but with a highly relevant, serious subtext (that eventually becomes the actual plot), immensely compelling characters (particularly Pegg’s character), and some charming touches that really won my admiration.  As always, even though the movie calls itself a comedy, the characters themselves are experiencing mortal danger as they fight for their very survival in a life-changing, high-stakes journey of self-discovery.

Now I liked Shaun of the Dead (particularly the scenes Shaun imagines of rescuing his mother that involve Penelope Wilton skipping).  But having just rewatched it over the weekend, I am quite sure when I say that I find it the weakest of the three films in terms of script.  (Of course, as the first film, Shaun wins points for novelty.  Back when it came out in 2004, nobody was expecting a self-proclaimed “zom-com.”  Now the zom-com is on the verge of becoming a legitimate (and teeming) subgenre.)  Shaun makes a clear and clever point—many young people sleepwalking through their lives without goals, dreams, or hope are basically zombies already—but by making that point so effectively, it gives us characters that are (and must be) kind of dull most of the time.  Shaun himself is just a guy wandering aimlessly through a prolonged late adolescence until something makes him realize he must change or lose everything.  Simon Pegg plays him well, but there’s not all that much to him, and he’s not really all that interesting until fairly late in the movie.

But right from scene one, The World’s End establishes Gary King as an eccentric, larger-than-life type character who demands to be the center of an interesting story.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Pegg play a character quite like King before.  Both my husband and I really loved the pointed reversal of the usual Pegg and Frost formula.  This time around, it’s Nick Frost’s character who has his act together and Simon Pegg who’s playing a needy, unstable goofball.  He’s really wonderful at it, too.  The character is so over-the-top.  You’d think he fell out of Shakespeare or Dickens or Harry Potter.  Some people might find Gary too much of a cliché, but I think he’s marvelous.  Too often, the leads in action films (and even in comedies) seem vague and interchangeable.  But there’s only one Gary King.

Maybe this will sound crazy, but I think when studios green-light big budget summer movie projects, they often forget a key ingredient of really successful films—characters.  All the time lately, friends tell me that they prefer TV these days to movies.  And why not?  Most TV shows succeed because the audience gets attached to a charismatic set of characters.  Maybe I just feel this way because I’m not big on mindless action and explosions, and I don’t mean to sound callous, but I think something like a car or house exploding on screen is much more interesting to the audience if we know and care about the people who might be inside. 

The World’s End gives us a lovely set of characters, five (however unwilling) Musketeers, each of whom gets a compelling story arc.  Everybody who follows Gary back to Newton Haven goes home for his own reasons.  They all have a story, and we get to watch the drama play out onscreen.

Eddie Marsan’s had a long and seasoned career, but he first got my attention in Happy-Go- Lucky and I also associate him with the new Sherlock Holmes movies.  He’s reasonably hard edged in both of those projects, so I didn’t expect him to turn up in this playing a character like Peter.  He’s very good, though, and I found Peter’s backstory and driving source of personal torment one of the most interesting in the film.  He has a quiet moment in the pub and a loud moment in the woods that pair quite nicely.

Martin Freeman (who is in the previous two Blood and Ice Cream films and is famous now as Watson in the BBC Sherlock and Bilbo in The Hobbit) is also good as Oliver.  I loved his nickname (the reasoning behind it and how it became relevant again—like you kind of know it will the whole time because why else include those details). 

Nick Frost seems surprisingly comfortable in a role that is dramatically against type.  I’m amazed that he plays a character representing maturity, conformity, and respectability so powerfully.  Amazingly, Frost is equally good at seeming wronged and wounded and shaming Pegg whether he plays the friend who’s been outgrown or the friend who’s done the outgrowing.

Paddy Considine’s Steven is probably the least interesting character.  What’s fascinating, though, is that for a moment, Steven seems poised to take over the leading role in the film.  He’s more the type of character who would ordinarily be the lead in an action film.  He has numerous admirable qualities, romantic feelings for the right person, and the sort of vaguely generic presence that studio’s seem to look for in bankable action stars.  So though I’d call him the least interesting of the core group, the character still has enough fascinating qualities to hold my attention.

There’s a fairly nice part for Rosamund Pike, too.  I’ve always liked her (ever since I first saw her in Die Another Day, and it’s pretty hard to like someone when your introduction to them is Die Another Day).  A sympathetic female character to round out the cast seems essential given that the other protagonists are a group of men whose goal is to get increasingly drunk.  I mean, men who set out to drink a minimum of twelve pints of beer in one night may not always do or say things that night that would make their mothers’ proud.  So if there’s a woman along for the ride, it’s much easier for the movie to side-step an unintentionally misogynistic tone.

Pike’s character also provides a love interest whose existence makes possible a pairing of romance and bromance.  In the end, two couples come to a realization about the true meaning of their relationship.  To be honest, Pike participated in many of my favorite moments of the movie.

Early on as I watched, I planned to comment at length on the topical subtext of the film, but then the longer I watched, the more the movie itself addressed the topic directly.  So if you want to know what I’m talking about, see the movie.

I was also extremely pleased that The Soup Dragons’ “I’m Free” was actually used in the movie.  It’s never been my favorite song, but after hearing it so often in the trailer, I kind of wanted to hear it again.  Ordinarily, the songs that play in the trailer aren’t actually taken from the film, so that was a surprise treat!  Actually, I really liked most of the songs that played in the movie.  I might just buy the soundtrack.

Best Scene:
The first scene practically made the movie for me.  It definitely hooked me.  The movie owned me after that.  Barring a serious misstep, I was its creature and would watch it dutifully to the finish.

The set-up is so simple, and yet so clear.  It’s not so much Gary’s story.  (Almost everyone has a story like that kicking around somewhere.)  It’s how much the story means to Gary.  When we see where he is telling it, we learn so much about him.  And when he’s puzzled by one listener’s question, we learn even more about him.  And when the listener rephrases the question to clarify, and we see the reaction on Gary’s face, we learn everything about him.

Best Scene Visually:
My favorite thing about the movie is the clever use of the “Out of Order” sign.  From the first scene, I really liked The World’s End, but I fell in love with it when that sign showed up.  Seriously, I went on and on about it in the car on the ride home from the theater.  The phrase is so loaded with relevant meanings and applications.  And then the sign later serves a practical purpose.  And then later still you realize that in some ways, it’s the rallying cry of the entire movie.  I could talk about it for ages, but I don’t want to spoil the movie.

Sheerly in terms of how things look, one of the best scenes involves Peter in the woods.  The visual joke early on of the beers and the water is well done also.

Funniest Scene:
The trailer does contain some of the funniest moments in the movie.  Oddly, though, they’re still funny in context even after being spoiled. 

Not everything is spoiled, though.  There’s a scene when several friends try to identify each other that’s good for quite a few laughs.  And every time Pierce Brosnan shows up, it’s incredibly hard not to giggle.  Just the fact that he is, indeed, Pierce Brosnan for some inane and inexplicable reason seems terribly funny.  David Bradley is a scream as Basil, too.  (The movie really plays up his potential for comedy, and it helps that most people probably know him as Argus Filch.)

I also think a moment punctuated by Nick Frost walking into a door is pretty great.

Best Action Sequence:
Funniest to me may be the scene involving the twins and Sam, which also gets my vote for Best Action Sequence.  Runner up would have to be Gary’s race to the finish with Andy (and a legion of others) in hot pursuit.

The Negatives:
The only thing that truly disappointed me about The World’s End is that it has such a fascinating topical subtext, but then at the end, it just comes right out and says everything it’s hinted at and alluded to before.  And when I say it comes right out and says it, I mean it quite literally says it in an actual conversation that becomes essential to the plot and any forward narrative progress.  I do think it’s better when we’re allowed to connect the dots and fill in the gaps for ourselves (although I’m glad Bill Nighy gets a part).

From a narrative standpoint, the extreme nature of the ending may annoy some people, too (though personally, I liked it.  There’s a moment with Nick Frost that made me think of Cloud Atlas and smile).  This is also a movie that neatly wraps up every single loose end, so you don’t get to imagine a bunch of potential scenarios for yourself.  Again, that wasn’t a problem for me, but it might annoy some.

Probably what most people who don’t respond positively to the film will find off putting is its slow start.  I really liked the character of Gary, but if you don’t, the beginning of the movie is going to feel interminable and painfully protracted.  If you’re in it for the robots, you have to wait quite a while until you actually see one.  Personally, I would have loved the film even if the robots ended up not making an appearance after all, but the characters that I found so enthralling may not be to everyone’s tastes.

What really bothers me is that less than a full decade has passed since the premiere of Shaun of the Dead, and yet Simon Pegg appears to have aged at least one hundred years in that time.  I guess that makes sense because I feel a hundred years older now than I was in 2004.  But it is a little hard to wrap your mind around.  How did the kid who took forever to become a grown up suddenly become somebody at the extreme back end of middle age looking back on a broken life in only nine years’ time?

Overall:
I’ve been dying to see The World’s End all summer, and I’m so glad I finally did.  I loved it.  For me, it’s the strongest installment in the Three Flavours Cornetto (aka Blood and Ice Cream) Trilogy (with Hot Fuzz next and Shaun of the Dead coming in third).  You don’t need to see the previous collaborations of Wright, Pegg, and Frost to enjoy this movie, though.  The World’s End is probably not going to be everybody’s favorite summer movie, but it was one of mine.  At worst, it’s a pleasant way to kill a couple of hours, so why not give it a try?  

And once you do see the movie, the one way to conclude this review becomes obvious.  "Exit, pursued by a bear." 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Witches' Party Night by Penelope J. Rayburn

The Witches' Party Night
by Penelope J. Rayburn [as dictated to Mommy]

Chapter 1. Hide-and-Seek in the Haunted House

The witches were out on a summer day, and they played hide-and-seek.

"You count!" said Marilda Scarypot to Raz-Uh-Muttazz Snazz.

So she went and hid. She hid in her house in the kitchen cabinet. Then her friends tried to find her in every place of her house--except the cabinet.

So Marilda Scarypot jumped out of the cabinet and said, "I won!"

Her friends said, "Oh, we were just about to look in the cabinet."

Just then something very exciting happened!


[Penelope: This is one of those cliffhangs.
Me: A cliffhanger?
Penelope: Yeah, a cliffhanger.
Me: Do you want me to write that?
Penelope: (like I'm being ridiculous) No! Of course not! That wouldn't sound very good!

I love her witch names! She made them up herself! Marilda Scarypot! She just colored that one right before we started writing down the story!]

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Penelope's Sentences

1. Dinah went into the swamp with her friend Squeaky Simba.  It was muddy, and it was gross.  It had old water.  Then her friend got carried away into the water and got stuck and sank and drowned.

2.  Dinah heard her friend buzzing because bees hypnotized him.  And when bees hypnotize you, you start bizzing.

3.  Dinah was upset because her friend Squeaky had peed on her.  He did it because he had to go potty so bad and couldn't hold it, so that's the end of the sentence.  I know it's a scandalizing end.

4.  Dinah was upset because her friend had gone.  Dinah was alone in the swamp, and there were bees buzzing around.

Summer Movie Diary: Lee Daniels' The Butler

Date: August 20, 2013
Time: 7:30 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: Derrick
Food:  Shared Pizza Verde and chips and queso, and chocolate peanut butter milkshake
Runtime:  2 hours, 12 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director: Lee Daniels

Quick Impressions:
Why aren’t “true” stories ever true anymore?  I wish there were a real man named Cecil Gaines who survived a traumatic childhood event to become a White House butler serving under Presidents Eisenhower-Reagan.  I wish Cecil Gaines had two sons named Louis and Charlie, and that the latter fought in Vietnam while the former was a Freedom Rider who knew Martin Luther King personally.  As I watched the movie, I thought such a thing (though undoubtedly convenient for constructing a narrative) might be possible.  But it’s not actually true.  I can’t deny that I’m disappointed.

Danny Strong’s screenplay is based on an article by Wil Haygood about a man named Eugene Allen who really did work in service at the White House (beginning with the Truman presidency, in fact).  And Allen really did have a son named Charles who served in Vietnam.  But Louis is completely made up.

Well, okay, that’s not a true statement either.  Obviously somebody like Louis Gaines did exist.  (Quite a lot of somebodies, I’m sure!)  Somebody’s son was a Freedom Rider who went on to dedicate his life to the Civil Rights Movement.  A number of sons (and daughters) did that.  It’s just that none of them was the contentious elder son of a White House butler named Louis Gaines (or Eugene Allen).

The wife and her drinking problem seems harder to rule out completely.  (I mean, a son who makes headlines as an activist and runs for Congress either does or does not exist, but who knows what kind of undocumented demons a rarely mentioned wife may face on her own time.)  But that aspect of the screenplay seems to be largely rooted in Danny Strong’s imagination as well.

How I wish it were all true!  That aside however, The Butler is still a pretty good movie.  It’s definitely great as a conversation starter, and it would make an excellent introduction to the Civil Rights Movement for a young audience because of its compelling and accessible dramatization of key events and (more importantly) ways of thinking.

After seeing the previews, I was under the mistaken impression that the movie would be too syrupy and misty-eyed, but actually it’s not that kind of film at all.  I was surprised and pleased to find that it’s actually fairly complex and definitely not afraid to shy away from violence, brutality, and other ugly realities of racism.

Also this movie should win some kind of award for the creative casting of past American presidents.  Just when I thought, They’ll never find a more uncanny choice for a White House role than this, the movie upped its game and blew my mind yet again.

The Good:
Lee Daniels favorably impressed me with Precious.  (And I just learned recently that he also directed The Paperboy.  For some reason, I didn’t realize that.  Now maybe I’ll see it.  Up to this point, all I’d heard was that Nicole Kidman pees on Zac Efron, which is hardly a reason to watch a movie.  Don’t get me wrong.  If I have to see someone peeing, I suppose Nicole Kidman is one of the more palatable candidates, but I’d rather just save the money and watch movies that are less focused on peeing.)  (But I don’t think the movie is really focused on peeing.  I think it just got a lot of weird press.)

Anyway, I’m also interested in the suddenly exploding screenwriting career of Danny Strong (whom I remember fondly from his days as Jonathan on Buffy).  I’m also fascinated by the Civil Rights Movement and by the way a person’s (or a society’s) worldview and understanding of history can change completely following a shift in perspective (and by the fact that when this kind of change happens, many of us fail to realize our views of reality and understanding of the past have changed). 

Also I love the Oscars, and you can see from the previews that the Weinsteins are hoping Oprah will win an Academy Award. 

So there was a lot to recommend this film to me, and for the most part, The Butler did not disappoint. 

Amazingly, this movie is openly about history and Civil Rights, and yet it still manages to be less heavy handed than Elysium.  The Butler does convey a staggering number of “lessons” and “morals,” but it dishes them out in an artful way and allows us to agree or disagree, to engage with the film in a way that works for us.  The screenplay is pretty well written.  (It is not completely true, and it is sometimes boring, but leaving that aside, it has a number of shining strengths.) 

Not only is this movie often (genuinely) funny (there’s a lot to lighten the mood), but it also raises a number of emphatically clear questions without sacrificing artistry, ambiguity, or complexity.  It really does make you think.  It gives you some pretty compelling stuff to think about to get you started, but from there, you’re free to continue the discussion in any number of directions. 

I very much liked the suggestion that there is more than one way to be a hero.  We’re presented with such a paradox.  Cecil and his family and friends are thrust into a world in which nobody (at least nobody of their race) can possibly win no matter what they do, and yet a number of people still manage to make progress, and they make that progress by following a number of different (and sometimes seemingly opposed) paths.  For me, Cecil is easier to identify with than Louis, since I’ve always been a big proponent of, “Just don’t make trouble and do whatever they tell you, and then they won’t get you, and when you’ve finished, they’ll leave you alone, and you can do whatever you want.”  This is not the most courageous way to live, mind you, but it keeps you from getting murdered (usually).  Cecil’s behavior is clearly hugely influenced by the (unintentionally dramatic) object lesson his father gives him in the first scene.  (I don’t know what my excuse is.  Nothing like that ever happened to me.)  The lesson of that first scene is crystal clear—do not make trouble.

Of course, even though Martin Luther King himself speaks up to defend Cecil’s way of living and to extol his contribution, the end of the movie leaves us with this gross, despondent feeling.  Does Cecil’s way actually work?  Has he really been living or just avoiding being murdered?  What’s the point of it all?  The movie’s really a bit subversive in that way.  Cecil is being honored (by the fact that a film is being made about him) as a hero, and characters in the movie recognize him as a hero, but this recognition leads him to realize what a Pyrrhic victory it’s been.  Having a “successful” life—by the standards of what the world allows him—has cost him his whole life.  It’s hard not to wonder if the movie is secretly trying to show that Cecil is less a hero than his son.  Perhaps he’s part of the problem without being aware of it.  And yet, the movie tells us that he is heroic.  Dr. King explains how he’s heroic, and the film shows us repeated examples of this.  So what are we to take away?  That sometimes doing one of many possibly right things does not feel right?  That one person only makes a difference because of his influence on/interactions with others?

I like the movie because it raises difficult questions and then provides answers that seem to be in conflict with one another.  It’s never too easy, never too simple.

I also love that the movie refutes the notion that I heard from many, many elderly people when I was a child—this zany idea that not everybody wanted to make trouble.  Some people were perfectly happy to be treated like second class citizens.  They were happy with the status quo.  The life of Cecil and his colleagues shows clearly time and again that just because someone smiles at you and treats you cordially, this does not mean that the person is fully satisfied or happy about being subservient to you.  Just because a doorman smiles at you as he opens the door, that does not mean that his favorite thing in the entire world is opening doors.  He’s just doing his job.  (Just like fast food workers or check out clerks in stores sometimes smile because they’re happy but more often smile because they’ve been told they’ll be fired if they don’t smile at the customers.)

This movie also does a great job of showing the ever rippling after effects of violence and hatred.  Cecil is traumatized by a violent act early on and lives virtually his entire life trying to avoid incurring any similar violence ever again.  Meanwhile, his son and his girlfriend gradually become more and more open to the idea of committing violent acts because they’ve been abused so frequently and so terribly by violent racist hate groups.  If you’ve ever wondered, “Why would anybody join the Black Panthers?” or “Why would anybody passively allow others to treat them as if they were inferior?” this movie offers some compelling answers.

Probably the best thing The Butler does is point out how much has changed here in our own country just in one man’s lifetime.  Sometimes people talk about Martin Luther King Jr. or Emmett Till as if they lived hundreds of years ago.  But it hasn’t been that long, not at all.

The Performances:
This movie has a cast and a half, and probably the most suspenseful thing for me was waiting to see what unlikely actor would show up in the White House next.  James Marsden seems like an obvious choice for Kennedy, but some of the others really astonished me.  Who would ever imagine Eisenhower played by Robin Williams or Liev Schreiber as LBJ?  When John Cusack showed up as Richard Nixon, I thought surely that was the height of zany casting!  But Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan?  And then—come on, seriously—Jane Fonda as Nancy?  (I mean, we’re supposed to smirk, right?)  Apparently, the casting director has a great sense of humor.  (I mean, doesn’t that cast list sound more like a punchline?  “…And Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan.”)

Here’s the surprising thing, though.  All of these actors end up being really good in their parts.  I was amazed at how quickly I got used to Robin Williams’s Eisenhower.  Rickman ended up being a surprisingly good fit for Reagan.  (If they make a full length Reagan biopic starring Rickman, I’ll be really, really excited.)  And as LBJ, Schreiber was much more convincing than I ever would have imagined.  Seriously, Schreiber is really great. 

(Jane Fonda’s good too, of course.  As my mom pointed out, “She does look like Nancy Reagan.”  Yes, she does.  That makes me think, “If it looks like Nancy Reagan, and talks like Nancy Reagan—WATCH OUT!  IT MIGHT BE JANE FONDA!!!!!”  That amuses me for some reason.) 

In general, this film contains some fabulous performances.  I was particularly delighted to see Elijah Kelley as Cecil’s younger son Charlie.  My stepson loved Hairspray when he was little, and at our house, we’ve always been particular fans of Elijah Kelley’s performance as Seaweed. Just the other day, my son picked out Hairspray to watch, and we all mused about why Elijah Kelley hasn’t had more big film roles.  I’m still wondering.  He’s so talented and charismatic.  And as Charlie he has some wonderfully funny lines that he really makes the most of, yet he’s far more than comic relief.  Kelley’s fantastic here and deserves more substantial film roles.  I hope his career takes off soon.

I’ve also particularly liked David Oyelowo since he first got my attention in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and he’s very good, too, as Louis, Cecil’s elder son.  To be honest, Louis has a more compelling part than Cecil.  While Cecil carefully keeps his opinions to himself and his emotions in check, Louis emotes his way through a series of dramatic misadventures, and Oyelowo does a great job of both gaining our sympathy and holding our interest.  I think he has a particularly nice moment on the bus, and he’s also good in the discordant dinner scene.

Early on (before the boys had grown up) I thought the most compelling performances (by far) came from Adriane Lenox and Terrence Howard as Gina and Howard, Cecil and Gloria’s friendly (sometimes too friendly) next door neighbors.  The pair not only have a perfect rapport as a bickering couple, but they also bring such energy and focus to the screen as individuals.  I’ve always thought that Howard is a marvelous actor, and I was really impressed by Lenox as well.  It’s not that either of them has a particularly difficult part.  It’s just that they both make it look so effortless.  They disappear into their roles, and you believe them as the characters totally from the first second they’re on screen.  (I wasn’t very familiar with Lenox before this, but I now see that she won a Tony for Doubt in the role Viola Davis played in the film.  I wish I lived within easy reach of Broadway productions.)

It was also really nice to see Cuba Gooding Jr. in a major role in a serious film again.  (He can be a great actor, but his body of work is wildly uneven.)  I liked him as the impishly lewd Carter Wilson more than I’ve liked him in anything for a very long time.

I’m also discovering that I really enjoy Lenny Kravitz as an actor.  For whatever reason, I was never that into his music.  But he’s got good screen presence, and I’ve never not liked him in a movie role.  Maybe I just haven’t heard enough of his music.  (All I can call to mind is “American Woman,” so possibly much of the fault is on my end when it comes to not particularly loving his music.)  I like Coleman Domingo, too.  He’s not in it very much, but it’s nice to see him.

This movie has a lot of blink-and-you-miss-them appearances.  You wouldn’t call them cameos exactly because the characters are significant.  But it is odd to see big name talents showing up out of the blue only to disappear again less than five minutes later. 

(For example, Melissa Leo is supposedly in this movie, but I don’t remember seeing her.  And when the end credits rolled, my husband exclaimed in disbelief, “Mariah Carey!??!”  I didn’t recognize her during the film either, but as soon as he screamed out her name, I realized, “She was his mother.”  Just like in Lee Daniels’s earlier film Precious, Carey is dressed down quite a bit but perfectly recognizable if you’re told that she’s in the film and start trying to find her.)

Vanessa Redgrave is in the film for a few minutes early on, and so is Alex Pettyfer.  Given all the rumors about how difficult he is to work with, I think his part is rather perfect.  Clarence Williams, too, comes and goes.  There are so many big names and famous faces that parade in and out again, it’s hard to keep track of them all.

Forest Whitaker gives the best performance in the film as Cecil (who, in terms of what he says and does is the most boring character in the story by far).  Cecil would be easy to play wrong because he very rarely says or does anything exciting or even significant.  (The most profound things he says are usually in the voice over narration.)  What a life he has!  But he spends most of it as a spectator.  The movie really only works because so much is going on within Cecil at all times, and Whitaker is a high powered enough actor to show us Cecil’s interior life.  Through his eyes, with his face, with subtle gestures, Whitaker shows us what’s going on within the character, and more than that, he makes us care.  We’re experiencing the highs and lows of the story right along with Cecil, and I think that’s mostly to Whitaker’s credit.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment, Forest Whitaker:
I’ll be stunned if Whitaker gets a nomination.  But it’s early in the year, and I haven’t seen most Oscar baity films yet, so I’ll just throw his name into the ring as a what-if.  He has a very atypical moment when Louis comes home for dinner that would make a nice Oscar clip.  Personally I love the resonant line he delivers when contemplating Mrs. Kennedy covered inher husband’s blood.  I think that’s also a particularly strong moment for the screenplay.

Most Oscar Worthy Moment Oprah Winfrey:
It’s too early to know anything, but if there’s one nominee in this cast, it’s going to be Oprah.  She doesn’t always have great luck with film roles, but this one seems written to get Oscar attention, and she gives it her all.  Even though she has a lot of showy moments, I think she’s particularly charming in her final scene in the kitchen, though for an Oscar clip, the moment on the couch with Terence Howard might be better.  I think she plays her sober moments better than her drunken ones, though she does remind me of Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter when she gazes into her make-up mirror on her dressing table.  That’s a strong scene, too.  What is it about make-up mirrors that make women seem so sinister and unstable?

Best Scene Visually:
The scene on the bus really got my attention—mainly because I just remember thinking, Why would anyone do that?  I don’t approve of “lazy” racism or “cowardly” racism, but at least I understand it to a degree.  In The Help, for example, I can see why Charlotte caves and does the wrong thing.  She’s weak, and society seems to be pressuring her to do the “correct” thing even though it’s morally wrong.  But what motivates anyone to go out of his (or her) way to hunt other human beings down, terrorize them, degrade them, injure them, and attempt to set them on fire?

My husband pointed out, “They don’t see them as human beings.”  (He wasn’t defending them, just pointing out their tendency to dehumanize “the enemy.”)

I replied, “Yes, but you wouldn’t set dogs on fire.”

He answered, “They might.”

Yes, they might—because they are a bunch of crazy murderers.  But my question is why?  Why?

I mean, I guess I can understand the perceived need to kill someone who gets in your way.  But why go out of your way to torture someone to death?  And then when you do, how can you be so self-congratulatory about it as if you’ve done a good thing?  I just really, really do not understand.  But the scene on the bus really got my attention.

Best Scene:
This may sound kooky, but my favorite scene was the final conversation between Cecil and Gloria.  It just seemed so real, so human, so normal, so ordinary, so typical, so authentic, so charming and yet so believable.  This exchange is so vital to the success of the movie because necessity has made Cecil so restrained, and for so much of the film he seems vaguely sad, a bit confused, quietly frustrated.  From the Nixon years on, everything kind of goes downhill for him—except his relationship with Gloria.  After seeing Cecil putting on a face for his employers and wearing that face for almost the entire movie, it’s uplifting (and a huge relief) to see his genuine face in an unguarded, loving exchange with his wife.  He’s been a great butler all this time, but who cares about that?  We want to see that he is also happy and reasonably fulfilled as a human being.  I loved this scene.

Best Action Sequence:
The lunch counter sit-in (interspersed with preparation for it and the butler setting the table) is probably the strongest scene in the entire movie.  It’s paradoxically the scene that I think would be most instructive for children to see and the scene I think is too harsh and intense for children.

The Negatives:
I get so annoyed when true stories aren’t true.  I guess this one particularly bugs me because why couldn’t they find a way to dramatize the true story of Eugene Allen (the real life butler)?  I don’t have a problem with historical fiction if it’s honest about what it is, but the style of this film makes us believe that it’s basically true.  I mean I started researching a bit when I got home because you don’t expect every small detail to be true.   But the film definitely gives the impression that its story is broadly true.  And then you find out the man wasn’t even named Cecil Gaines.  And the name change itself would be forgivable.  You think, Well maybe his activist son didn’t approve of the film.  And then you find out he didn’t even have an activist son.  So that’s quite annoying.

When stories like this stray so far from the facts, it gives jerks the opportunity to say, “But it wasn’t really like that because this story is just made up to get people riled up!” 

During the height of the Civil Rights Movement, some fathers were in domestic service, and some sons were Freedom Riders and activists.  That is really true.  The disconnect between personal and professional (the face you show each other and the face you show them) really did (and does) exist.  The despicable violence in response to passive resistance really did (and though it shouldn’t sometimes still does) exist.  So the movie is showing us a generational (and beyond that temperamental, situational) tension that did exist.  There was probably a pretty pronounced generational divide in the thinking of some fathers and sons.  It’s just that this tension as it played out on a personal level wasn’t really the most tormenting and central concern of Cecil Gaines’s life (and not just because he didn’t exist and he’s really Eugene Allen, but because Eugene Allen didn’t really have a son named Louis who hung out with Martin Luther King).

I understand why Louis is given such a central place.  Basically by including him, Danny Strong is just putting a face on an entire generation/cross-section of society.  It’s pretty impossible to believe that an African American man of Cecil’s age could work at the White House during those years and not feel a bit of tension or distress regarding the activism of a younger generation.  Maybe none of those Freedom Riders was Cecil’s son, but any of them could have been his son.  So I see what Strong is doing.  But maybe it would have been more effective to tell two parallel true stories, one of Eugene Allen, and one of some real young man the right age to be his son, his symbolic son. 

Of course, without the inclusion of a Louis-type character, the movie would be pretty boring.  It might be better as a character drama, but it would be much less effective as a film about Civil Rights.   Cecil Gaines is a quiet, unassuming character.  He’s not exactly the most exciting guy in the room.  Forest Whitaker is, however, a very gifted actor.  He could probably make a story focused entirely on Cecil (with no Louis) work, but it would be a very different movie.  Watching this, I did wish that Cecil’s part of the story were a bit more exciting, or maybe that it built to a more dramatic finish.  Often the movie doesn’t feel like it’s actually headed anywhere in particular.  Since it’s all made up anyway, I think it should have a more exciting trajectory.

The never ending parade of celebrity presidents was something that I actually liked.  However, when it comes to high profile actors portraying unlikely presidents, not all men are created equal.  Cusack as Nixon remains the hardest to believe.  Don’t get me wrong.  He actually gives a decent performance.  It’s just that it’s so hard to forget he’s John Cusack—I mean, he looks just like John Cusack, no matter how much they artificially inflate his face!—and it’s so weird that John Cusack is playing Richard Nixon.  It’s weirdly distracting.

Another thing that’s distracting is Oprah Winfrey as Cecil’s devoted but troubled wife Gloria.  Now people slam Oprah’s acting skills all the time.  But the problem here isn’t that she’s giving a bad performance.  It’s just that she’s Oprah.    After the movie, my husband said to me, “For the first two-thirds of the movie, I was so distracted by Oprah Winfrey.  It isn’t that she was bad.  It’s just that she’s an icon.  When she’s sitting in the room, you don’t get lost in the story.  You think, Oh look!  There’s Oprah!”  I had a very similar experience, although I will say about the time Gloria stopped drinking, I stopped fixating on the fact that she was Oprah.  It is very distracting, though, but I don’t know what could have been done about it.  Oprah can’t help being Oprah.

I was surprised to get home and find that this movie is rated PG-13 because I think it’s harsher content is disturbing enough to warrant an R.  (If you can only say the F-word a max of three times—or whatever it is now—how come you can say the N-word one hundred million billion times while attacking people and attempting to set them on fire and still get a PG-13?)  Of course, I’m that weird parent who lets her kids watch all kinds of shocking stuff.  My stepson is ten and probably old enough to watch this if he expressed an interest, but if we did let him watch it, I’d feel like we were showing him an R-rated film.  I mean, don’t subversive things usually get an R rating?  This movie points out (explicitly) that although citizens of the United States routinely condemn other nations for their bad behavior, we often gloss over our own civil rights abuses.  The narrator flat out says this, and the film over and over again demonstrates the truth of his statement.  (It irritates me that they seem to have made up what happened to him as a boy.  Why not show a real, documented case of something similar, so people can’t whine that it’s made up?  I mean, Cecil Gaines may be partially fictional, but Emmett Till (referenced repeatedly in the movie) is 100 percent real.)  All this talk about being on the wrong side of history—I think the MPAA should have given this an R.  I’m sure by their odd standards, reality itself is R-rated.  But I guess the rating doesn’t really matter since I always ignore them anyway.  I guess it’s good that the movie is rated PG-13 because it could be a good teaching tool.

Overall:
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (which has to be called that to avoid copyright infringement, like Disney’s The Kid) is well-written, superbly acted by an enormous cast of famous faces, and thought-provoking enough to generate productive conversations for days to come.  It also gives us bright moments of genuine humor and a number of quirky presidential cameos, without sacrificing a realistic portrayal of the ugly, hateful violence that the passive resistance of the Civil Rights Movement sometimes incurred.  It’s the kind of movie that makes me excited that Oscar season is drawing closer and closer every day. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Penelope's Sentences

1. Dinah met a weasel, and she saw that it had a tail.  He tried to say, "Hello," but it came out like, "Woof! Woof!"  She thought that it was Pupcake, so she tried to take off the costume from the top, but it only came off from the bottom.

2.  Dinah caught Pupcake in her claws.  Then she cracked him open like an egg, and all his blood ran out.  Now he had no costume.  Dinah got mad at him and threw him in the garden.  And it was raining, and he was so cold in the night.

3.  Dinah read a story, and that's the end.

4. Dinah caught some flowers that were running away.  They came to life because they were so scared of Pupcake, so they were running.  Then she gave them to a weasel and read a story with him about a poor woman who had no bones.  [Me:  My goodness!  That is poor!]  Yes, and she would never have bones unless she made a wish.  But she was mean, so she didn't want to make a wish.  So she went on having no bones, and naturally, she died.  She didn't believe in God or fairies, and she didn't love anyone, so she was glad to die.  But that's only a story, you know.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Penelope Says

July 23

Me: Did I hear you say Grandma is torturing herself?
Penelope: (coming down the stairs) Oh yes, she is torturing herself all right.
Me: What do you mean?
Penelope: Well, she won't stop laughing.
Me: What's so funny?
Penelope: I don't know, but she sure is torturing herself.
Message from my Mom at that moment: My friend posted that that the natural flavoring of Bigelow's Raspberry tea uses the expression from the anal glands of a beaver! Bottom's up?!! And she's choosing a different tea!
2:44 pm

Derrick (as we leave the theater): I have two thoughts. The first is about the movie. That was *&#$@ scary. The second is that the urinals in the mens' room look like vaginas. You weren't expecting me to say that, were you? (Pleased with himself) And to prove it, I took a picture!
10:35 pm

Penelope and Daddy try to send their Kerbals to the Mun. As you can see, the Kerbals seem a bit concerned about the rocket. Derrick's like, "I don't think it's supposed to do that."
11:38 pm

Derrick (vague, monotonous counting, then): Uh oh! I might have just sent my kerbals into deep space!
11:41 pm

"I don't think I'm making it to the Mun." These two are cracking me up!
1:43 pm

Me: Did I leave the amoxicillin in the car?
Derrick: Just a sec. I'll go get it.
Me: I can get it. Hopefully I won't get bit by a spider. (Realizing that's crazy) Why would there be a spider?

Then right next to the car... [photo of a huge spider]

Yes, I think I noticed the spider the other night but didn't think much of it. That must have been why I was expecting him. I think he lives there.

I kind of like spiders. I respect them because they seem clean and focused compared to your sloppier, slimier crawling creatures. So I never kill them. One has lived behind our shower door for almost a year (or perhaps a few generations). But my habit of never killing them makes me worry that one day I'll die of a spider bite.
11:51 pm


July 24

We got home and Nellie and Grandma had just finished Toy Story 2. Now Nell and I are watching the out takes over and over again. Mrs. Potato Head yelling, "For the monkeys, of course!" is my favorite part of the whole movie. (For the past two days, Nellie has been driving Mom to madness by asking her every few minutes, "Can you talk like Mrs. Potato." They've been playing Mrs. Potato Head (and this evening spent a considerable amount of time cleaning the dust off Darth Tater).
12:02 am

Penelope: (who has mixed up the parts of Mrs. Potato Head and Darth Tater and now has them holding hands) Now they're going to rule the universe together!
12:35 am

Mr. and Mrs. Darth Tater admire their hanging monkey garden. [Photo to follow]
12:43 am

Grandma (as Penelope climbs all over her): Where does it say, "Jungle Gym, Play Here"?
Penelope: I'll put up the sign.
4:20 am

Nellie has a temp of 101.1, so we're trying to change my mood turtle necklace red by putting it up against her forehead, but so far, it will only turn purple!
4:29 pm

Doctor: I think you need a band-aid. (struggles with the toy band-aid box) Could you just open these for me, patient?
Patient: Here you are, doctor.
Doctor: You're very welcome. Now patient, let's get you fixed up. Here is some medicine.
Patient: (absent-mindedly) Mmm. Mmm? I guess that's yummy medicine!
Doctor (swallows some medicine, with wild enthusiasm) Mmmhmmm!
Patient: Oh, you take the medicine, too, doctor?
Doctor: Why yes, I do.
Patient: What are you taking the medicine for?
Doctor: Oh, just because you said it's yummy. Now hold still.
Patient: What are you doing with those forceps, doctor?
Doctor: They're called tweezers, actually. I'm just trying to make you well.
Patient: I see, but why are you using them on my arm?
Doctor: There is nothing for you to worry about, patient.
Patient: Actually I'm worried that perhaps you've taken a bit too much of my medicine to be operating on me.
4:55 pm


I'm feeling kind of dumb now because it just occurred to me that she might be uncomfortable and vaguely feverish because she's cutting molars. Basically her only symptoms are floating crankiness, hypersensitivity, pretty regular sneezing (but with no mucus apparent) and elevated temperature, usually hovering right around 100.

It's also weird that she's getting her six year molars at four-and-a-half. I keep thinking about how they gave her stuff to help her grow and help her lungs develop when she was born. She's definitely in the middle of the growth spurt, and I'm excited for her that she's going to be tall, but I hope she's not 7'2" by the time she's eight or something!
7:54 pm


July 25

Playing Monsters in the Doors again with the sandpaper letters, some of Nellie's:

For Z: A zibzibzooz--"It zips up your jacket so tight, so tight tight tight, and it pulls the seatbelt too tight on your car seat if you're a little girl, but if you're a bigger boy, it pulls a snake around your neck and tightens it until it kills you to your death."

For W: A wive-ula--"a giant uvula that tries to marry you as you're being swallowed, even if you don't like it at all, it makes you marry it because you have to cling onto it or you will be swallowed."

For L: "a lollipop that licks you and gomps you up in one bite!"

For O: Old Oily opossums--"They hang by their tail over the pot until they slip off into the boiling water and turn into Opasta!"

For X: Dont Open Till X-Mas--"because then when you open it, monsters jump out and try to kill you, and it ruins Christmas, so it's a trick you see."

For S: Sandmammeees--"They look like mummies, but they really are vampire mothers who live in the desert."

For G: A G-bra--"a monstrous zebra that tries to kill you in every way; nobody knows why it is called that, so that's why it's so mysterious."
12:20 am


July 26

Me (reading): If I should die before I wake...
Penelope: NO! NO! NO! We don't want THAT to happen!
Me: I pray to God my soul to take.
Penelope: Well, that's the best thing that could happen in that case, I guess.
Me: If I should live for other days...
Penelope: And that is what usually happens...
Me: I pray the Lord to guide my ways.
Penelope: I want Him to guide me backwards.
Me: Backwards?
Penelope: Yes, I'm going to pray that to God tonight, for Him to guide me backwards so I'll be back on my vacation at the beach!
12:13 am

Penelope: I will tell you the story of how Penny [the stuffed dalmatian] got to be a stuffed animal. First she died in the cemetery.
Merry: Oh dear.
Grandpa: That's convenient.
Penelope: She was walking in the cemetery, and a ghost strangled her. Then she floated into the store and came back as a stuffed animal. And then she saw the people and she panicked.
5:03 pm

Penelope: (explaining dramatically as a thunder storm crashes all around us) I wanted to flush the potty IMMEDIATELY in case all this storm made it stop working suddenly!
11:48 pm


July 27

Penelope pinched her fingers in the office door, resulting in genuine tears. As we got ready for bed a few minutes later, she said, "In the morning, can you please send Aunt Merry a text saying I broke a blood vessel? I want it to be the news of the day for the house. Everybody should know. Why are you laughing, Daddy?"
1:38 pm

Penelope: What's the maddox, Mom? Don't you remember "what's the maddox?" from last night. (gets mad until I say I remember)
Me: But nothing's the maddox with me.
Penelope: (growling) Well something's the maddox with me!

Merry, apparently she seriously intends to say, "What's the maddox?" in place of "What's the matter?" for the rest of time.
1:39 pm

Penelope: I have some baby names of my own. For boys, Peter and Tuvock, you know. For girls I like Baby Della, Rose, Pink Smell. Oh also Rose. And I like Gardenia. And I don't know if I mentioned that I like Rose. And also Courtney.
2:54 pm

Me: So who was your favorite character?
Penelope: I really liked the girl with the red hair, but the Wolverine was my favorite, of couse.
Me: (straining to hear) The Wolverine was your favorite?
Penelope: (like I'm dumb) Well yeah! He's the star!
6:23 pm

During the movie, Penelope leaned over and quickly kissed me on the arm like ten times, then slid over to my ear and whispered, "There! I knew I had some extra kisses in there!"
6:31 pm

Penelope's Newly Revised Favorite Movie List:
1) The Lion King
2) Clue
3) The Wolverine
4) Wreck-It Ralph

Just now, she announced, "I'm afraid The Wolverine beats Wreck-It Ralph in my town. That's my little invisible down." That's a surprise since she was just extolling Wreck-It Ralph's virtues out of nowhere in the car on the way to the theater. I asked if The Wolverine was above Wreck-It Ralph. She then told me her top five list. She's very emphatic about the fact that although she likes many other movies, there is no number five on the list, so it's a rather exclusive list, apparently. (Last night, though, after we watched Moonrise Kingdom, she announced, "Well that was a very nice movie! Didn't you think so?")
6:44 pm

Since we watched Sweeney Todd last week, I've been almost continually humming and singing snatches of the songs, particularly "The Worst Pies in London." Today as we were getting ready to shower after swimming...

Penelope (singing): This is probably the worst pee in London! It's hot pee from swimming! It's hot pee for pies! (Grins at me, then says) And then she throws it at him, and it splats in its face. [Presumably "it" is a pie filled with "hot pee."]

I realize this is a bit gross, but while we were in the shower, Penelope gripped both my hands desperately, stared up into my eyes, and said intently, "You must promise me that you'll write down my song as soon as possible because I would hate to ever forget it."
8:28 pm

What I heard: When I get back, my guys are oncologists, and the wife is gone.
What he said: When I get back, my guys are unconscious, and the wife is gone.

How did I ever understand the world before we could rewind TV?
8:39 pm

A couple of nights ago, the word "corrosion" figured prominently in one of our bedtime stories. Today, Penelope informed me in gleeful, borderline insane delight, "Mommy! Look! The pipe is corroding!"
8:43 pm

Penelope: Please can we wait for Aunt Merry to come home? Please!!!! Or I'll turn into a zodiac animal!!!!!
10:45 pm


July 28


Me: (suddenly realizing) It's every holiday on the piano--Easter, Valentine's Day, Halloween, Christmas! Happy Holidays from the piano!
Merry: Well that sounds like the mother I know. I don't know which mother you think you've had.
7:58 pm

July 29

Me: See? People name their children after Classical figures all the time. Think of Ulysses S. Grant.
(Derrick surprises me by bursting out laughing. He continues to laugh hysterically for like ten minutes. In fact, he is still laughing.)
Me: What?
Derrick: (through laughter) That's your example of why it's so common? Ulysses S. Grant?
Me: Well, yes, his parents weren't Greek or Roman.
Derrick: Someone from the Civil War? Really? (mocking me) People give their kids Greek names all the time. (mocking me, holds out his hands like it's obvious) Duh! Socrates!
Me: My point is that people who are American or English or whatever have always done that.
Derrick: But you could have used an example that was much more relevant to us today. I mean, you said, "Look Ulysses S. Grant!" You picked someone from 150 years ago. It's not like you said, "Look at my friends from UD..."
Me: Careful, if you start like that, you're going to prove me right.
(He is still laughing.)
Derrick: That's like if you said people name kids after Bible characters all the time. Look at Abraham Lincoln!
Me: Yes! That is like what I'm saying! His family weren't ancient Israelites! They were English! Well, I mean, their name's English!
Derrick: Yes, but you could have said, "Look at Aimee's nephew Jacob!"
Sarah: I know more about Abraham Lincoln than I do about...(I realize) HEY! YOU made up this example! I didn't say anything about Abraham Lincoln or Jacob! What I'm saying is, Abraham Lincoln's parents weren't like from...Ur!
Derrick: (mishearing) They weren't from Earth?
Me: No, from Ur.
Derrick: Oh! I was like, "I don't think I know this version!"
12:11 am

In the pool today, Penelope mainly stayed in one corner, climbing out and jumping in, taunting and trying to drown The Bad Whale (aka Derrick).
Penelope: Go away whale! Back to your lady! (later, as she licks her lips and crouches next to the ladder) I lick my lips and prepare for destiny. (Later taunting him) You don't scare me, whale! You're nothing but a bitter old tortilla! (Later after he's helped her up) Now, whale, are you ready to meet your final destiny after all that cuteness? (Later) I'm going to chop you up for my dinner!
Derrick: Why are my kids always trying to make me into things? What was it Grayson said?
Me: "I'm going to mix you up and eat your cupcakes. I'm going to make you into macaronis and put you in cheese!"
Penelope: Yeah, that sounds good, and I'll put a cherry on top, too. (jumping in) I'm going to chop you up for my salad whale. I'm going to eat you for my bread. (chopping the water in front of him) There! Now you're dumb and you're all a-crumb!
7:26 pm

Penelope: (who accidentally napped through dinner, eating her ham and crackers while we watch Fruits Basket and work her puzzle) Is this the wild boar one?
Me: No, this is a different episode. We haven't seen it yet.
Penelope: No, no! I mean this ham! This is the wild boar right?
Me: Oh yes, it's boar's head ham. [I have no idea if it actually is.]
Penelope: Oh good! I only eat wild boar because it has the best flavor!
11:07 pm

Penelope (coming up to me while I'm upstairs looking for Dinah): You'll never believe this. That blonde girl is Tohru's mother.
Me: I DON'T believe that. I thought her mother died.
Penelope: (brightly) She might have dyed her hair.
Me: No, I don't think she dyed her hair. Her mother died. I'm sure. The blonde girl is not her mother.
Penelope: Well she might be a friend of her mother.
Me: Let's rewind it.
11:12 pm

Dinah: (sitting on the puzzle) All the planets go around me because I am the center of EVERYTHING!!!!!
Penelope: Dinah, did you know that when the moon goes around the Earth, that is what makes the tides come in the ocean?
Dinah: No, I've never heard anything about that.
Penelope: (rolling her eyes contemptuously) So get a science book!
11:37 pm

July 30

Me (to make conversation): So what are you going to be for Halloween this year?
Penelope: Darth Vader, remember?
Me: Oh yeah.
Penelope: When Bubby and his brother come to trick-or-treat, they are going to be like, "Whoa. That costume is so cool."

She is pretty sold on being Darth Vader.
12:02 am
Penelope (making up a sentence for "ladder"): Pupcake climbed up a ladder up into space, far away, up up up. Far away, up into space, he put on his mask, so he wouldn't choke and die. That's the end for now. You'll find out more in the next sentence. What's my next word?
Me: Familiar.
Penelope: Pupcake saw somebody familiar. So he floated into space where he heard a meow for help. It was Dinah, you know. (aside to me) I know Neptune has no ground, but just for my own self, I'm giving it one. (back to the sentence) She was trapped in quicksand and needed Pupcake to rescue her. (explaining to me) So that's the end because I'm cliffhanging you know, like TV but at the end of every sentence. That way they will read the next one.
Me: The next word is "bonnet."
Penelope: Bonnet, huh? (frowning) Bonnets should not be in space.
Me: Well can you work with it?
Penelope: (Sighs, then says) In quicksand, Dinah was wearing a bonnet. Pupcake told Dinah, "Bonnets should not be in space." But he saved her anyway.
Me: Now can you use "ladder," "familiar," and "bonnet" all in the same sentence?
Penelope: While Dinah was wearing a bonnet, Pupcake found another ladder. He saw somebody familiar--Cookie! So he climbed up the ladder with Dinah on his back. Then they went to Cookie's house, and they rested there.
3:12 pm

July 30
Penelope (commenting on a TV character who is jealous of another): But everybody's different. I don't think he understands life.
9:59 pm

July 31

Penelope: (with a slightly affected giggle to Will who is doing a zany voice while putting together Mrs. Potato Head) You're funny, and I don't just say that to everyone.

I think that's her version of flirtation, but I don't think he noticed at all, which is probably for the best.
6:49 pm

August 1

Penelope (coming out of Derrick's office, looking very disturbed): Now Mommy, this is going to be a little bit shocking, but I'm afraid I'm just going to have to tell you. Daddy says that my molar--my molar on this side?--well he says that it hurts because the gum is over part of the molar! So that's why it hurts the gum. But apparently, it the gum will move in a little while.
Me: Yes, well that's normal because the molar starts out completely under the gums, and it has to break through as it comes into your mouth.
Penelope: Oh.
3:58 pm

Getting Penelope to read today was like pulling teeth. For the first page, she kept stalling, hesitating, rolling around, finding little toys, singing. Then she started talking like a minion, so I decided to teach her to play the ABC game. She surprised me by being very good at it, and we ended up playing for like half an hour, making up a scene about being scared by something on a camping trip. I was like, "Wow, she's good at this!" and then I remembered she was supposed to be doing her reading! So I finally convinced her to look at the book again.

Me: Will you please try your best for me? When you read so slowly, I can't tell if you're having trouble or just being silly.
Penelope: (reading very quickly for her, really at a normal rate) "See you there," said Mrs. Rogers. By the time Amelia Bedelia and Tiger got back home, they were both executed. Amelia Bedelia sat down. She took off her bonnet...
Me (interrupting): Wait a minute! They were both executed?
Penelope: I believe they were, yes.
Me: No, no. That says "exhausted."
Penelope: Well mine is the quick version. (pretends to read) They were both executed, so then they weren't exhausted any more ever again. The End.
6:17 pm


Penelope (interrupting her reading lesson yet again): Excuse me! I have to go potty! (runs away, and when she comes back) Hello? (hesitantly pushing open her bedroom door) I'm new here. I look just like your little girl, but I'm afraid I've killed her. So now you can be with me. My name is also Penelope. I'd love to be friends.
Me: I'm going to find it hard to be friends with you since you killed my little girl.
Penelope: But I'll be with you now. (she comes in)
Me: Hmm.
Penelope: Come on. I've never seen your world from this side of the mirror before. You can show me around and show me what to do here. I've never seen anything since I'm not your Penelope.
Me: Well how convenient. Now that you're here, you can do this reading she didn't finish.
Penelope: (clearly not pleased, thinks, decides reluctantly) That will be very interesting for me because I have never done reading before.
Me: Oh? You sound like my old Penelope. She never does her reading either.
Penelope (in a tiny, squeaky voice): I always do! (loudly) That's me in heaven speaking down. I mean, that's my other Penelope in heaven speaking down.
Me: Why did you have to kill my Penelope?
Penelope: Because I had to.
Me: Well that wasn't very nice. I don't see why you had to.
Penelope: I had to be the only Penelope. It's just the way it is for me.
6:25 pm

Merry, "Meet Cherry Merry Muffin." Um. Your dolls are having a serious wardrobe malfunction. The dresses are so old they either stay up in front or back. If you cover one end, the other flies up. I think it's that the crinkly stuff is warped. Nellie is like, "Why are they all wearing pink underpants? Uh oh! Wait they're not wearing underpants! We better keep them sitting down!" Btw, how do you play with these? Why is there a talking refrigerator shaped like a giant milk carton? His face keeps falling off!
10:54 pm


August 2

Penelope: (explaining a show to Grayson) Now this is the main character. She's a girl. She's not very...well...She's the main character, but she's not...well, I won't tell you. I won't tell you. She's not like them because she's a girl, but most of them are boys, so she's different because...I won't tell you. I won't tell you...
1:34 pm

Me (realizing I need to flip the calendar on the fridge): Oh! It's August!
Penelope: (sitting on the kitchen floor, singing a song she seems to be making up) I'm hungry but it's the oldest, oldest dog days. The dirty, dirty, dirty, dirty dog days. The hottest, hottest, hottest days. The old, old, old, old dog days!
8:07 pm

August 3

Penelope (sitting in the cuddle chair with Gray as he plays a video game): Bubby, how come you only have five bullets left?
Grayson: Birds?
Penelope: Bullets--but now you have eleven! How did you do that??!!
Grayson: I put in more bullets. (as someone tries to throw him off a building)NO! No one can kill the Great Awesomeness.
Me: Is that you?
Gray: Yes. That's what they call me. The Great Awesomeness.
Penelope: Hey, (giggling) that thing you're standing on looks like two alligator tooths.
Me: (mishearing and bewildered) Alligator toots?!
Penelope: NO! (laughing) Why would you think I was saying alligator TOOTS?
Grayson: Because that sounds exactly like what you said. (to a guy in the game who is attacking him) How about you fall off? How does that sound?
Penelope: (giggling) Why don't you kick him off the cliff, by the way? (giggling some more)
1:32 pm

Grayson: Uh oh! He almost shot me in my wee...uh...woo woo!
Penelope: I'm not sure you should say that word, Bubby! It's a little scandalizing!
Grayson: (yelling theatrically to entertain her) AHHH! My woo woo!
Penelope: Bubby, you probably shouldn't say that.
(Grayson isn't really paying attention to her ramblings)
Penelope: I'm not trying to judge you, Bubby. Now I'm not trying to judge you. But I don't think you should say that word around me.
Grayson: (pointing out truthfully) What??! But you say that to me all the time. I learned that word from you.
Penelope: (changing the subject) Why does that girl have a gun?
Grayson: Because she's my girlfriend...kind of...so she's with me, so she needs a gun like me.
Penelope: I don't think she should have a gun. I don't think you should have one either really. It's not sort of safe to save guns.
Grayson: But these guys are shooting me!
Penelope: I'm not trying to judge you...
Grayson: (high pitched) Ahhhhhhhhhhh!
Penelope: You shouldn't scream like a woman.
Grayson: Well, I haven't grown up yet, so I'm still at that certain age where I have a girl scream. Hey, is that the helicopter we just shot down? How ironic--that I met him again! I never wanted to meet him again...because...I just shot him down, and now he's on fire...
Penelope: (singing) He got burned up in the fire...
Grayson: Oh no! My buttock!
Penelope: Hey (eyes lighting up) what's a mattox, Buddy? Is anything the mattox with you, Bubby? Do you know what I mean?
Grayson: No.
Penelope: It means, "Is there anything the matter?"

There's a lot of silliness around here. I don't think she's going to make "What's the mattox?" catch on like she hopes.
1:50 pm

Penelope: You could be a singer when you grow up. You might be handsome when you grow up.
Grayson: I'm always going to be handsome. You know that, right?
Penelope: Yes, of course.
2:05 pm

Penelope: (out of nowhere) Is Rudolf's nose really red?
Me: Yes. That's why he helps to pull the sleigh through the fog.
Penelope: I kinda don't trust that.
Me: What do you mean. Why not?
Penelope: Because nobody has ever seen Santa. Why is that?
Grayson: My friend's mom's cousin's friend's friend saw Santa once. He had a poofy white beard that was like crazy.
Penelope: For real?
Gray: Yeah, but he couldn't take a picture because he forgot to charge his phone. I'd like to set traps and track down Santa.
Penelope: Me too. I would like to be your partner and help you out with that, Bub, but it's going to be tough because you're only here on the weekends.
Grayson: Santa and I would be bros. I'd catch him. I'd be like, "Come here, bro."
Penelope: Well he wouldn't give you any presents then. I know that.
8:47 pm

August 4

Penelope (waking up from an unplanned nap): Dad, something doesn't feel right.
Us: Does something hurt?
Penelope: My tummy hurts a little bit.
(pause)
Penelope: Every time I look over at the couch, I feel like Bubby should still be here. And when I don't see him, it doesn't feel right.
Derrick: And is that when your tummy hurts?
Penelope: Yes.
11:47 pm

August 5

"She's cute. I think I've seen her in toys." --Grandma, commenting on the first episode of the new show Penelope discovered last night and is forcing her to watch, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan.
2:25 pm

Penelope: I'm so hungry.
Grandma: Do you want me to get you something to eat?
Penelope: (crawling up into her lap) Yes, I think I want...Oreo drinks.
Grandma: Oreo drinks??! No! That's for a treat! We're going to eat food.
Me: Oreo drinks?
Grandma: It shows on the package how to use the Oreos to make milkshakes, but we're not going to have those right now. That's for a treat. How about eggs, ham, cheese...?
Penelope: (with a sigh) All right, I'll have lime yogurt.
2:34 pm

Penelope (singsong): Are you my mummy?
Me: (hugging her) Yes, I am your mummy, and I'm always going to be your mummy.
Penelope: (walking into Gray's room) But where's my Bubby? (in an eerie English accent, sing song) Bubby? Bubby? Oh! (she picks up a weird rubber bouncy orange thingy toy and starts bouncing it)
Me: Are you my mummy?
Penelope: (shaking the orange thing) No. 'e's your mummy, and 'e's always going to be your mummy. (cocking her head to the side) But your mummy is a puppet, though.
Me: What? No! A puppet! (to the bouncing "puppet") Mummy? Mummy?
Penelope: (sing-song to the puppet) Mummy? Are you my mummy?
Me: No! 'e's my mummy!
Penelope (in shock): But 'e's my mummy, too! (gasps)
5:50 pm

Me: Man! I've already had two ear infections! I hope I don't have another ear infection!
Penelope (laughing like I'm crazy): How can you get another ear infection? You only have two ears!!

Seriously, I've only been off antibiotics since Saturday! What is wrong with you, ears?
10:33 pm

I'm not trying to knock Claudio Miranda or Life of Pi, but as we're sitting here watching Skyfall on bluray, I'm finding it impossible to believe this didn't win Best Cinematography.
10:36 pm


August 6

Nellie (at a totally random moment): Mommy! I'm a DVD!
12:03 am

Penelope: I remember when Grandpa Jim died because you told me. I imagine him looking like Poirot.
2:37 pm

Penelope (playing with her Little People nativity): Mom, did anybody ever nab Baby Jesus?
Me: You mean like kidnap him?
Penelope: Yeah.
Me: I don't remember anything like that in the Bible. Of course, there's a lot we don't know about Jesus' childhood. But who would kidnap him?
Penelope: (raises her eyebrows slowly) Remember that jealous king?
4:57 pm

Penelope: Yuki's brother is really weird. Who is your favorite one?
Me: I don't know! I like Kyo.
Penelope: Kyo is so funny.
Me: Yeah, I think so, too. But there are getting to be so many characters now, I can't keep up! It goes so fast! We'll have to read the books.
Penelope: Yeah, the book won't be as fast! It won't turn itself!
Me: That's true.
Penelope: Unless it's like one of those Harry Potter books, and it turns itself when we pet it.
11:31 pm

August 7

"Oh Jesus is the best. I love you so. I love Jesus. Oh oh oh! Jesus, Jesus come to me, so I can see you, please please please!"--the "yambs" in the nativity singing to Baby Jesus. ("And there's some kisses for Jesus, too.")
1:16 am

Penelope wanted to read the blog entries from when she was born as a bedtime story, but we had to stop because she got very anxious.

Me: I'm sorry. Did that make you worried?
Penelope: Yes, I was scared that I would die.
Me: But how could that happen? You know you're here right now.
Penelope: But maybe I died and then you got the little blonde Penelope you have now. There are other Penelopes, you know. In most ways, we look just alike.

(She also noticed that in her earliest baby pictures she had lots of dark hair.)
1:50 am


August 8

Me: (as we watch Mrs. Pingleton tie up Penny on Hairspray) So Penelope, next time you're naughty should I tie you to your bed with a jump rope?
Penelope (obviously going for a reaction): That might be nice.
10:46 pm


August 10

Grandma: My eyelashes are getting so long they're hitting my glasses.
Grayson: When I was little, I had the longest eyelashes in the whole world!
Grandma: You did, huh? In the whole world?
Grayson: Well pretty much in the tri-state area.
3:41 pm

August 11

Me: Would you like some focaccia bread?
Penelope: Yes.
Grandma: Careful! It's still hot!
Penelope: What's that on the top? Is that garlic?
Grandma: It's just herbs...
Me: Ooh! Yummy herbs and maybe some parmesan...
Penelope: Oh good because I'm planning to eat it in my vampire form.
3:54 pm

August 12

Me (reading a list of girls' names) Flora...
Penelope: (laughing) Floor-a! (later) Wouldn't it be funny if you got twins in there, like two girls or two boys or two girls AND two boys! You'd be like...exploding out babies! (laughing, shaking her head) It would be ridiculous!

I'm not pregnant. We're just looking at names.
1:54 pm

Penelope finished reading Amelia Bedelia and the Cat today. She wants everyone to know.
3:30 pm

August 14

Penelope (after finishing a time out): When I think back over the bad things I've done, it feels like I can feel my heart turning into a skull in my chest.
Me: Your heart turns into like a skull and crossbones?
Penelope: (dramatically) It feels like that.
Me: Well, just let those bad things go. They're in the past. Let's not think about them now.
11:30 pm

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Summer Movie Diary: Elysium

Date: August 13, 2013
Time: 8:05 pm (but really 8:25 pm for some reason)
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek
Company: Derrick, Rashid, Stephanie
Food: yummy Pesto, kale, spinach, something elsey cheese pizza, Tequila shake (it’s not called that)
Runtime:  1 hour, 49 minutes
Rating: R
Director:  Neill Blomkamp

Quick Impressions:
“Tempt not a desperate man.” 

I’ve read Romeo and Juliet far more times than I’ve seen Baz Luhrmann’s version, but for some reason, during most of Elysium’s big action scenes set on Earth, I kept hearing Leonardo DiCaprio’s voice screaming out desperately, “Tempt not a desperate man!”

That’s the moral of Elysium—well, one of the morals.  The whole thing feels like a cross between a parable and a video game, a visually sleek, briskly paced sci-fi adventure that dishes out both pointed morals and graphic explosions with a generous—and remarkably heavy—hand.

To be honest, I didn’t love District 9 (though I’ll acknowledge its many merits as a film).  From the start, Elysium appealed to me more.  It’s more conventionally told, and it also seems warmer.  Perhaps the star power of Matt Damon helps.  I found it easy to care about him, and I also was quite drawn to Diego Luna and Wagner Moura who plays Spider. 

Elysium is not a great film, but great films can sometimes be so ponderous to rewatch that I rarely revisit them.  This movie lends itself to repeated family viewing (as long as the family members are of a certain age.  It’s a relatively mild R except for a few gratuitously visceral (though blessedly brief) shots of surgical procedures and grisly deaths).

Though he looks at times like he’s dressed up as Doc Ock for Halloween, Matt Damon makes a compelling leading man, crazy Sharlto Copley (Wikus from District 9 )plays a delightfully unhinged villain, and Jodie Foster’s accent is more mysterious than her enigmatic speech at last year’s Golden Globes.  I just wish we got to spend more time on Elysium.

The Good:
The movie looks great.  The cinematography is top notch.  The effects never look out of place or distracting.  To be honest, most of the film looks like a beautifully rendered video game.  As I watched, I thought, Didn’t Neill Blomkamp start out making video games?  Not exactly.  As it turns out, he got famous for making some shorts set within the world of the game Halo.  Still, I knew he’d had something to do with video games.  This movie really, really reminds me of a video game.  First we learn the hero’s backstory.  Then we learn his mission.  Then he gets to pick up some cool gear (kind of like his main weapon).  It really looks almost exactly like so many of the PS3 games I’ve watched my stepson playing.  (They’re all very cinematic these days.)  Watching, you can even tell where the save points would be.

The whole set up of the world—what happens on Earth, how Elysium operates—didn’t really make sense to me.  (I don’t mean that I didn’t understand what we were told, just that the premise seemed inadequate in all sorts of ways if you ask any questions at all.)  But basically the Earth looks like a big Mad Max movie now, and while it’s probably better not to think too much about how the society got the way it is, we can still appreciate the visual distinction between Earth and Elysium.  They look so different.  We can tell them apart immediately.  (And too bad we didn’t get to see Elysium more.  It’s so beautiful there.)

The movie also has a more captivating story than I’d expected.  I actually enjoyed watching all the different threads come together.  (In the end, sadly, Elysium drops the ball and doesn’t give us the payoff that we’ve been waiting for, but at least it’s not an incoherent mess.) 

We spend most of our time on Earth, so it’s fortunate that’s where all the most interesting characters live.  Matt Damon plays Max, an immediately likable protagonist who is punished for being human and having a sense of humor (and also for larceny which his charm quickly makes us forget).  Damon makes the beginning of the movie extremely compelling.  I personally noticed that the more out-of-it he got, the less I engaged with the story.  But at the beginning before the action has really picked up, it's Damon’s charming portrayal of Max that gets our attention. 

Perfectly cast as the nefarious, heartless Capitalist factory owner, William Fitchner is brilliant as Max’s boss John Carlisle.  Early on, Fitchner’s scenes were some of my favorites.  He’s absolutely the right guy from the part.  Even his austere cheekbones seem to fit the character.

Diego Luna emits amazing vulnerability.  I loved him as Julio.  Warming up to Wagner Moura took me longer, but over time, Spider became one of my favorite characters (thanks largely to Moura’s performance because I honestly think the character is inconsistently written).

Alice Braga and Emma Tremblay (playing Max’s beloved childhood friend and her daughter) need more to work with, I think.  They’re lovely and Braga has some fine moments (the more intense the situation, the better she is), but I’m wondering if Blomkamp directs men better than women.  These characters are central to the story, but something always seems just kind of vague about them.  I don’t think it’s their fault.

Finest of the Earth bunch is probably Sharlto Copley who gets the fun job of playing the psychopath.  He does it with great panache and feels extremely authentic.  He’s playing someone insane and larger than life, yet his performance is one of the most natural in the entire movie.

Meanwhile, up on Elysium, everybody is a whole lot weirder, especially poor Jodie Foster who is always seen wearing a pants suit and standing up near a railing.  Apparently that’s what she does all day—strategically stand parallel to railings so we can see that she doesn’t sit down on the job.  She means business.  Foster seems a bit out of synch with the rest of the film, but she is a very good actress, and it’s nice to see her.  She doesn’t seem particularly suited to the role, but she definitely makes the most of it.  Faran Tahir makes the most of his limited screentime, too.

Funniest Scene:
It’s pretty hard not to laugh when Max receives his pills and the instructions that go with them.

Best Action Sequence:
To me the clear standout in the movie is the moment when Max and his crew attack their mark.  That’s a wonderful scene.  It’s genuinely exciting because all the separate threads we’ve seen so far are finally beginning to come together.  The action is constant and reasonably unpredictable.  Plus it actually means something.  It’s exciting.  Watching, I realized suddenly that I was quite eager to watch more.

The last action sequence, on the other hand, did not hold my interest.  By then, it was already clear what would happen.  Unusually (for me) I did not zone out.  I watched everything as it happened, but I didn’t care very much about the outcome anymore (never a good sign).

Best Scene:
By far my favorite scene is the one I just mentioned where Max and his crew attempt to complete their mission while under attack.  But I also like the intensity of the unpleasant scene when Kruger interrogates Matilda.

Best Scene Visually:
The crash (the one that comes late in the movie) is pretty exciting, though I must admit that probably my favorite visual early on was William Fitchner’s face.  It’s so gaunt.  I remember him at one moment in profile, surrounded by a white room.  That was just a very striking image. 

The entirety of Elysium looks magnificent.  The wait to get there began to feel interminable to me as the movie dragged on.  After a tantalizing early peek, I had so hoped that the film would soon take us to that beautiful world beyond.

The Negatives:
I like Jodie Foster.  I’ve always liked Jodie Foster.  When I was in junior high, I’d entertain (i.e. freak out) my little sister by having long conversations with myself as both Hannibal Lecter and Clarice, and we watched Freaky Friday so often that to this day, we still giggle at the mention of “Catty Kibble” or “that rat-fink Mary Kay.”  Jodie Foster is (and always has been) a talented actress with enough charisma to carry a movie.  But what is up with that accent?

I tried to give it a chance, but I found her accent pretty off-putting.  At first, it was just distracting.  The thing is, I’m sure she’s done an accent before.  She’s had such a long career.  But I don’t remember ever hearing her do an accent before (unless you count Nell).  Usually, Jodie Foster talks just like Jodie Foster whether she’s in the FBI, the old West, a panic room, her mother’s body, etc.  I guess she has often done a Southern accent, but that just sounds like Jodie Foster leaning a little further in to her natural voice. 

In Elysium, she seems to be going for South African and not quite getting there.  (I won’t claim to be a dialect expert, but based on what’s coming out of her mouth, and the director’s South African origins, that’s just what I’m guessing.  It’s possible she’s supposed to be from some other country in the Africa of the future, or maybe that she’s just a really lonely sociopath who’s obsessed with the movie Blood Diamond and is channeling her inner Rhodesian Leonardo DiCaprio. After all, I kept thinking of Leonardo DiCaprio during this movie, so why shouldn’t she?) 

Anyway, the first problem with her accent is that it’s not really working.  She leans into it heavily at the beginnings of words, phrases, sentences, but by the end of what she’s saying, too often, the accent at least partially disappears.  So she doesn’t sound South African.  She just sounds weird.  I guess you could argue that a crisp, pretentious, affected accent fits the character, but the mere fact that enjoying the performance involves coming up with arguments in defense of it is not a terribly good sign. 

The second (and by far the greater) problem with the accent is that it’s so distracting that Jodie Foster disappears into it.  It even seems to be distracting her.  She seems to be more concerned about talking in that weird way than about anything else.  So why not just hire a South African actress or let Jodie Foster talk in a more natural voice?  Why waste Jodie Foster?  She’s a brilliant and high powered actress, but we’re losing a lot of her performance here because of her distracting accent.  I think she should have dropped the accent.  Maybe it should have worked on paper, but clearly in the movie it doesn’t work, and when the director saw that happening, he should have told her to drop the accent.  So I’m blaming Neill Blomkamp for this one.

This brings up another point.  Except for the delightfully unhinged Kruger (played with panache by the actually South African Sharlto Copley) and his tiny band of off-kilter sociopaths, Matt Damon seems to be like basically the only white guy living on Earth.  (Remember, William Fitchner just commutes.)  Most people around Damon appear to be Hispanic or Latino (I’m using both terms because the population is very vague).  Almost everyone runs around speaking Spanish.  Meanwhile, Elysium appears to be under the thumb of evil white faux South Africans and for some reason, a puzzlingly well-meaning perhaps Indian or Pakistani president played by Faran Tahir.

Here’s why that bugged me.  Well, for one thing, it’s just too pointed, too heavy handed.  After seeing this movie and District 9, it seems impossible not to conclude that South African writer/director Neill Blomkamp has a lot to say about discrimination, segregation, class privilege, and other exciting inequalities.  Blomkamp was born in 1979 (like me), but he grew up under Apartheid in South Africa (not like me) and as he reached puberty, he got to see it end (or at least begin to end) before his eyes.  So of course, he’s got a lot to say about discrimination.  And he’s making a Hollywood blockbuster, so to make his own interests relevant to an American audience, of course he’s going to try to relate to us by stressing hot-button issues like border control and universal health care.  But come on.  Surely the people on Elysium have a better life for all kinds of reasons, but all the movie shows us is hordes of sickly, ethnically vague, Spanish speaking people trying to sneak into Elysium (with the help of illegal “guides” one of whom is named Spider) in order to get free health care.  I’ve seen political campaign ads that are more subtle. 

And here’s the other thing (really an aspect of the first thing).  When you make a movie so transparent, then you sacrifice the level of complexity necessary to make the world of the story seem realistic.  The whole point of a well told fable is that it teaches us a lesson.  There’s nothing in the story that isn’t necessary for getting the moral across.  But real life is much messier, more chaotic, just flat out bigger than that.  The story of Elysium is so pared down (so that we can’t miss the point) that it’s impossible to suspend disbelief and get lost in the world of the movie.  You just never forget that you’re being told a contrived little story with a handy lesson at the end.  Basically, Elysium is too simple to be satisfying.

If you examine the premise with any level of scrutiny at all, the whole thing just falls apart.  The set up doesn’t make sense.  The world as it allegedly works is not sustainable, and I find it hard to believe that things would actually be operating this way.  Okay, so Earth has fewer resources, but it seems like they’ve got plenty of room (lots of wide sandy expanses from where I was sitting) and lots of manpower.  Maybe they don’t have the cure for every ailment, but what’s to stop them from getting a few decent civil engineers?  Elysium doesn’t seem to be a separate place.  The people who govern Elysium seem to govern Earth, too, so why hasn’t humankind made a push to create a society where future generations can flourish?  I appreciate that the elite are a bunch of entitled jerks, but the way they’re living now is not sustainable.  They’re on a relatively tiny satellite, yet they have the technology to cure every single ailment.  Since they’re all so concerned about their families, they ought to realize that if they continue to reproduce, they will at the very least have to build a bigger satellite.

I guess I just don’t buy the movie’s set up.  How did things get this way?  My husband pointed out that on Earth, there’s a huge divide between the ninety-nine percent and the one-percent.  He pointed out that the less well off don’t cause as much trouble because we’re given a pleasant life to pre-occupy us.  And yes, the concept of bread and circuses for the masses is not new, but the fact remains that right now while there are people who don’t care about others and want only to suppress anyone who might take their wealth, there are also humanitarians, scholars, philanthropists, diplomats, activists who have very different goals.  Where are all of those people?  Did the robots kill them or something?  I mean, I realize that the movie is giving us a visually dramatic metaphor, an example of a disturbing trend.  But it doesn’t feel real.  The whole set up feels like a big, symbolic cautionary tale or a high budget slippery slope.

Most disappointing to me was the movie’s ending.  Early on, I was surprised (and really pleased) to discover that Elysium was setting up a plot much more intricate and complicated than the previews had led me to believe.  For a while there, every new scene brought a fresh complication, motivation, double-cross, unexpected ripple.  The movie takes its time and so painstakingly sets up all its wicked plans and double-crosses so very, very carefully.  And then at the end, they all have a fight with big, explodey guns and everything blows up.  What a huge let down!  Why take the time to create such a provocative situation only to end it all slapdashly in a relatively generic bloodbath?  My husband suggested that perhaps Blomkamp was going for some kind of “best laid plans of mice and men” effect, and I’ll grant that it’s likely that he wanted to cram yet another lesson in there.  But the second half definitely did not deliver on the first half’s promise.

And why did we need the scene with the bone saw?  Was the film in danger of getting a PG-13 instead of an R?  (I can believe it.  Except for the sporadic bits of graphic violence, the movie is very mild.)  I really am not a fan of gore for gore’s sake.

Overall:
Without a doubt, District 9 is the superior film, but I honestly think Elysium may be a more enjoyable movie.  I found many of the early scenes spell binding and intense, but the ending truly disappointed me.  It just isn’t as good an ending as the first half deserves.  Still Matt Damon is likable, the visuals are superb, the supporting cast is great, and Jodie Foster will definitely get your attention.  Elysium is one of the stronger science fiction films of the summer (which isn’t saying much, but might be saying just enough to get you to buy a ticket if you have nothing better to do).