Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

Five movies about teenagers

January 5, 2011

By chance, I watched five movies in the past few weeks about teenagers, four of them girls. I can’t say I have any new insights into the teenage mind (for that, I suggest you at least read this), but here are my very brief reviews:

World’s Greatest Dad” stars Robin Williams and is R rated, for good reason.  It is an unexpectedly dark comedy and will no doubt offend some (e.g., those who don’t want to laugh when a teenager accidentally hangs himself during sexual stimulation).  I liked it a lot, though, and recommend it.

Hard Candy” is not a comedy, but is extremely dark.  Ellen Page and Patrick Wilson play the main characters, a 14-year-old and a much older “friend” she met online.  Both are outstanding in their roles and the low budget movie is very well made.  It earns its R rating for keeping you on the edge of your seat (if not under it) as the two play a cat and mouse game around the subject of pedophilia. Page in this role reminds me of Kathy Bates in “Misery” and Noomi Rapace in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”.  I recommend it.

True Grit” is a remake of a classic, and also classic Coen brothers.  As in “Hard Candy” the main character is a 14-year-old girl who has an unusual amount of grit.  The dark comedy is definitely here, if you can find it in the bleak surroundings.

The teenage girl in “Winter’s Bone” is as gritty as any of the above.  The movie takes you to a geographical place and sub-culture you very likely have not visited before.  This is also an excellent R rated movie.

The fifth teenager-themed movie I saw was “Easy A” which has a good cast and has received positive reviews; I expected to like it.  The best I can say is it was mildly entertaining, if  you like silly and campy. I didn’t this time; thumbs down.

A sixth movie, “Precious” , also features a tough teenager.  I blogged about it earlier (here), so won’t count it in this group.

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“Corny” isn’t necessarily bad — a book and a movie

June 9, 2010

I just read a book and saw a movie, and each had “corny” elements. But I highly recommend the book, and disagree with the critics who said the movie is terrible.  Corny, by the way, can be defined as “overly or simplistically sentimental” or as “trite and melodramatic.”

The book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, does have a sentimental and predictable main plot triangle, but is very readable and takes you to a world you may not have known about.  It could be minimized as “chick lit,” but this male liked it a lot.

The movie, Sex and the City 2, could also be dismissed as predictable and overly dramatic fluff (as most critics have said), and it is mostly meant for SATC addicts.  However, it deals with several important issues (marriage, parenthood, menopause, women’s rights, sexuality, friendship) and some of the scenes illustrate these issues in memorable ways.  Many will hate it (especially since it is 2 1/2 hours long), but I didn’t.  I found the Abu Dhabi segment interesting; I suspect they accurately portrayed some of the cultural contradictions.  I won’t rate it highly for acting, and the conspicuous consumption (and product placement) can get sickening, so if you go, go with low expectations.

The main reason I decided to write a post about this is I want to defend “simplistic, trite, sentimental and melodramatic” a bit.  Life experiences and lessons learned can be corny, yet also profoundly meaningful.  Melodrama and sentimentality permeate our lives, and seeing them in the mirror of art (or entertainment) can make us uncomfortable.  “Trite” means over-used, and “banal” means commonplace, but the other sides of those coins (to use a trite phrase) are “familiar” and “universal.”  Do we only value that which is original and unique?

Sexual abuse of women and girls — a strange day

February 9, 2010

My day definitely had a theme, because I saw, heard, or read four different takes on it. The theme was sexual abuse of women and girls, starting with this column by Nicholas Kristof, progressing to the movie “Precious,” then listening to Eve Ensler talk about girls and the challenges they face, finally capping off my unusual day with another movie, “I Can Do Bad All by Myself.”  They all interacted in my mind, leading to the conclusion that it would help to have more discussion of this difficult topic.

Kristof, a New York Times columnist, often writes about abuse of women as it occurs in undeveloped countries; he may even be the go-to authority on the subject.

The movie “Precious” is nominated for best picture this year, and should be a strong contender.  Despite what you may have heard, “Precious” has an optimistic component and goes beyond simply being a horror story (photograph above is of the main character, Precious).

Eve Ensler began a discussion of what it means to be female with the wildly successful “Vagina Monologues,” and continues to champion the cause of openness and full discussion of women’s issues.

Finally, Tyler Perry adds humor (and singing!) to the mix, but nevertheless takes sexual abuse very seriously in “I Can Do Bad All by Myself.”  No Academy Award nominations for this one, but I liked it.

My hope for this brief post is that you check out some of these four examples, give the topic a lot of thought, and do what you can to make the world a kinder and better place.

Big blue creatures with no body fat

January 8, 2010

I liked the movie Avatar (in 3D); even saw it twice. It is an amazing technical and visual experience and very well cast. Some of the story elements, such as the paraplegic hero and the way the avatars and their human operators work, are really clever. I’d see it again.

However, the story does have a “cringe factor” and this column by Brooks sums it up well:

January 8, 2010
Op-Ed Columnist
NYTimes.com

The Messiah Complex

Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.

This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization.

Avid moviegoers will remember “A Man Called Horse,” which began to establish the pattern, and “At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” More people will have seen “Dances With Wolves” or “The Last Samurai.”

Kids have been given their own pure versions of the fable, like “Pocahontas” and “FernGully.”

It’s a pretty serviceable formula. Once a director selects the White Messiah fable, he or she doesn’t have to waste time explaining the plot because everybody knows roughly what’s going to happen.

The formula also gives movies a little socially conscious allure. Audiences like it because it is so environmentally sensitive. Academy Award voters like it because it is so multiculturally aware. Critics like it because the formula inevitably involves the loincloth-clad good guys sticking it to the military-industrial complex.

Yet of all the directors who have used versions of the White Messiah formula over the years, no one has done so with as much exuberance as James Cameron in “Avatar.”

“Avatar” is a racial fantasy par excellence. The hero is a white former Marine who is adrift in his civilization. He ends up working with a giant corporation and flies through space to help plunder the environment of a pristine planet and displace its peace-loving natives.

The peace-loving natives — compiled from a mélange of Native American, African, Vietnamese, Iraqi and other cultural fragments — are like the peace-loving natives you’ve seen in a hundred other movies. They’re tall, muscular and admirably slender. They walk around nearly naked. They are phenomenal athletes and pretty good singers and dancers.

The white guy notices that the peace-loving natives are much cooler than the greedy corporate tools and the bloodthirsty U.S. military types he came over with. He goes to live with the natives, and, in short order, he’s the most awesome member of their tribe. He has sex with their hottest babe. He learns to jump through the jungle and ride horses. It turns out that he’s even got more guts and athletic prowess than they do. He flies the big red bird that no one in generations has been able to master.

Along the way, he has his consciousness raised. The peace-loving natives are at one with nature, and even have a fiber-optic cable sticking out of their bodies that they can plug into horses and trees, which is like Horse Whispering without the wireless technology. Because they are not corrupted by things like literacy, cellphones and blockbuster movies, they have deep and tranquil souls.

The natives help the white guy discover that he, too, has a deep and tranquil soul.

The natives have hot bodies and perfect ecological sensibilities, but they are natural creatures, not history-making ones. When the military-industrial complex comes in to strip mine their homes, they need a White Messiah to lead and inspire the defense.

Our hero leaps in, with the help of a pack of dinosaurs summoned by Mother Earth. As he and his fellow freedom fighters kill wave after wave of Marines or former Marines or whatever they are, he achieves the ultimate prize: He is accepted by the natives and can spend the rest of his life in their excellent culture.

Cameron’s handling of the White Messiah fable is not the reason “Avatar” is such a huge global hit. As John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard, “Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance.” The plotline gives global audiences a chance to see American troops get killed. It offers useful hooks on which McDonald’s and other corporations can hang their tie-in campaigns.

Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains.

Academy awards

February 1, 2009

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I have seen all five movies nominated for best picture, so will post my impressions of them (in alphabetical order).

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Very entertaining and a good stimulus for thinking about aging, life and death.  Pretty well-acted, but for me it is a distraction when superstars are in movies.  Not Brad Pitt’s fault, though.

Frost/Nixon. About much more than a particular slice of history (with modern day implications).  Also about a life/death struggle between two interesting and flawed men.

Milk.  Excellent docudrama with superb acting by Penn.  In this case, his star status did not detract (or distract) from the movie.  It is about historical events (which are well worth knowing about), but also about a very hot current issue.

The Reader.  Superb acting by the main characters, and gave me a lot to think about —  such as the consequences of our decisions to act, or to not act, in certain ways.

Slumdog Millionaire.  Entertaining and, for me, a bit jarring, with the rapid pace, time shifts, and intrusive (but excellent) soundtrack.  A gritty look at a very important social problem, with a silly romantic story to help the medicine go down.

My personal preference for the winner:  Milk. All of the others were also excellent and worth seeing.

Do not — DO NOT — deprive yourself

January 30, 2009

sleeper

In Woody Allen’s very  funny movie Sleeper (1973), he plays a health food store owner who travels to the future and discovers everything that was bad for you (smoking, fast food) is now good for you. I have often wondered whether, in such circumstances, I would change my long-standing eating preferences (which now happen to be “healthy”) so that I would eat heavy desserts, creamy sauces, sweets, McDonalds food, etc.  Now I dislike such foods, but if it turned out they were good for me, would I learn to like them?  The answer is, probably yes.

Over the last two decades, I have absorbed the culture of healthy eating to the extent that I PREFER to eat this way.  I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that I have brainwashed myself.  Which is a good thing.  There is ample and growing evidence that we can control our likes and dislikes to a great extent (it takes time and practice).

What I know does NOT work for me or many other people is to change the way I eat just to be “good” or “healthy.”  If I do that, I feel deprived, and will get angry, resentful, and ultimately go back to eating what I like.

The same is true for exercise; do it because you want to, not because you “have to.”   You will be happier, and healthier.  What’s the point of being healthy if you’re not happy?

Strong women (2 movies)

December 30, 2008

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4monthslrg1The impact (on me) of these 2 movies about women with forceful personalities was huge. I just happened to see them back-to-back and feel compelled to write this note. The first movie is Happy-Go-Lucky, and the main character, Poppy, is a very determined young woman who insists on a “glass-half-full” approach to life and people. The second movie is 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, and its main character, Gabita, is also determined — not to accentuate the positive, but to assert her honest and powerful sense of self in a harsh world (1987 Romania).  Both characters border on being irritating at times, yet I came away admiring them. You may not agree with the choices Poppy makes; and you surely won’t agree with some of Gabita’s decisions.  But you will not soon forget either one.  Warning: while the first movie is a pleasure to watch, the second is very disturbing (it graphically shows an illegal abortion, and many of the scenes will make you extremely uncomfortable).

Three short videos to make your day

August 18, 2008

These 3 videos are well worth watching (and brief: 1 min, 4.5 min, and 4.5 min).

[note: If you have a good internet connection and a wide screen monitor, be sure to watch them in full-screen mode (click on the icon in the lower right corner of the video frame on the website).]

  1. If your life is like this,
  2. take a deep breath, and watch this.
  3. Then go out and do this (or one of these affordable versions: here and here and here).

Let me know what you think!

The opposite of Happy-Well, in movies and in life

May 25, 2008

I just watched the movie that won Best Picture of 2007: No Country for Old Men.” I also watched another big movie this week: “There Will be Blood.” What do these very dark and pessimistic movies have to do with this blog, which is focused on how to be happy and well? Well, as I wrote previously (Life and death in the movies), good and bad, life and death, are two sides of the same coin. In Aging Well, Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant did not find that people who aged well had especially charmed lives free of stress and tragedy; rather, they were able to look at the glass of life as half-full rather than half-empty. They experienced deprivation and loss, but managed somehow to look at the positives. At the same time, denial of reality does not help one attain happiness and that is not what he is recommending. Nor am I.

Dark movies about evil people can jar us out of complacency and challenge us to dig deep to find something positive to hope for. In the case of both of these grim movies, one can come away appreciative that it was a movie, and not our own life. Depictions of evil, if done artistically and with a certain amount of irony, can themselves show goodness, in a paradoxical way.

I had not planned this, but it seems I will use movies to generate thoughts and feelings about life and viewing the glass as half-full. I love movies, and probably have seen 20 or 30 per year for the last 5 decades. (I have also read hundreds of books, but I find movies easier to use in discussion — partly because more people have seen them than may have read a particular book.) Some movies grab us intensely in a brief time, and that can be a powerful experience.

Disturbing movies can shake us and challenge us in a way that mostly happy movies do not (I loved “Juno” and “Enchanted,” for example, but did not feel particularly challenged by them). Other movies present a balanced view of good and evil, and affirm the better sides of our nature, while still challenging us with tragedy and loss (for example, the movies I discussed in my previous post).

Which other movies capture the hopefulness of positive attitudes in the face of adversity, loss, or despair?  Several come to mind immediately: “The Band’s Visit,” “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor,” “Walk on Water,”  and “Once.” I risk making enemies when I praise specific movies, because we all have such unique taste.

Of course, movies cannot really capture the stark contrasts of dark and light that most of us experience in real life. As a psychiatrist for many decades, as well as a person living a complex life, I have experienced tragedy and loss up close and very personal. But movies can be shared and discussed and can illustrate the kinds of profound dilemmas we experience in real life.

And some movies can help us “reframe” an event or response in a more positive way, or a way with more potential for hope, as described in Weight Management for Your Life:

When we consciously look at a glass as half full rather than half empty, we are doing what many therapists teach their patients to do: using willpower to reframe, or change a negative way of looking at a problem into one with positive features. This does not mean we should automatically tell a person who just lost a loved one, “Be happy, s/he is in a better place!” Usually, reframing is most useful when applied to our own situation. It should be done intelligently and sensitively, and the rule of thumb here is to reframe in a positive way unless there is a good reason not to. That is, do not use reframing as a way of putting on rose-colored glasses in order to deny or distort reality. A successful reframe is both potentially true (factual, realistic) and positive. “Half full” and “half empty” are both true, but only one is positive.

Life and death in the movies

May 23, 2008

I watched 3 movies in the past few weeks which deal with the essence of living and dying. The first was “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” based on the autobiography of Jean-Dominique Bauby who was completely paralyzed from a stroke but survived long enough to write a book by blinking one eye. The movie certainly confronts the viewer with questions about the meaning of life. To me, it emphasized the importance of communication and creativity. It also showed how important compassion can be. The second movie was “The Savages,” a work of fiction about a family (mainly a brother and sister) dealing with the declilne and death of their father, who was not a very positive force in their lives. To me, this movie also explored the meaning of life and the relevance of compassion.

Finally, I watched “Into the Wild,” based on the true story of a young man who leaves his parents and sister to strike out on his own, without money or attachments. I felt I was confronting the very essence of what it means to be alive and was, once again, impressed with the compassion shown by various individuals. I recommend all 3 of these movies.

I believe that, in order to fully live life and find some measure of happiness and emotional well being, one must in some way confront the inevitability and finality of death, including one’s own mortality. Hopefully, by so doing, one learns the importance of caring for oneself and others and also learns to give and receive compassion.