Tag Archives: Aging

Poetry (2010)

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Poetry‘s juxtaposition between the achingly beautiful and the unspeakable is put nakedly on display in it’s opening scene, where a group of children playing on the idyllic shores of a beautiful river spot a schoolgirl’s floating body being swept down it’s currents. We soon meet Mija (Jeong-hie Yun,) the film’s protagonist, although we are initially unsure what ties this elderly lady to the dead girl, or why.

Mija is a cheerful, down-to-earth older woman who seems to be aging with grace, treating the people around her with kindness and a singularly sweet temperament that is hard for many people diving headfirst into their twilight years to maintain.

Mija has a grandson, Jongwook (Da-Wit Lee,) an ungrateful pizza-faced pipsqueak who’s mama can’t be arsed to look after him full-time, and I am not exaggerating when I say I have not felt such dislike for a fictional character in a long time. And don’t say he’s just a kid, because I just may puke. Jongwook is sloppy, piggish, ungrateful, and rude, but that is soon revealed to be the least of his vices when it comes to light he and his friends have been gang-raping the drowned girl, his unpopular classmate, prior to her death. Turns out the poor teenager leapt to her death, presumably to escape Jongwook and his friend’s abuse.

There’s other horrible shit going on here, as if the rape and the suicide weren’t difficult enough. While coping with the realization that her grandson is a monster without an ounce of pity or remorse for what he did, Mija also copes with her disconcerting loss of words and phrases, that slip from her mind like sand through a sieve. Turns out she has Alzheimer’s, and she also loses her job caring for an old stroke-afflicted man (Hira Kim) when he tricks her into giving him Viagra and makes a pass at her, looking piteously for one last bang on his way to the cemetery.

In the wake of tragedy, Mija loses much of her patience and warmth, but she tries to keep the walls from totally closing in on her by taking a poetry-writing class. But how does one find beauty in a world filled with so much pain and ugliness? Mija suffers writer’s block and on top of that, she has to come up with a lot of money quick to help pay the dead girl’s mother not to take her case to the police. Wondering why Mija makes the effort to protect her cretin grandson? I did too, but with her daughter out of the picture, Jongwook is practically her only family, and in her own strange way, she loves him, or at least feels like she ought to make the effort to save him from a regrettable fate.

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Poetry is above all else a character study, although the premise of a struggling grandmother attempting to cope with the unfathomable resonates too. Jonh-Hie Yun is incredible in the main role. It’s a remarkably understated and subtle performance that will make your heart ache with grief as Mija suffers through other agonizing day in a life no one should have to live. Mija dresses smartly and tries to have an upbeat, sunny attitude, but with no support system she begins to crumble.

She smiles for no reason, rather than face the alternative, and laughs needlessly, and sometimes she comes off as a bit vacuous, a silly old woman dealing with things way beyond her capabilities. But she’s not weak. After all, it takes strength to get through every day in your own personal hell and trying your best to appreciate the beauty life has to offer. So event though she seems daffy, Mija understands and observes way more than she lets on.

In the scene where she finds out her son had been sexually assaulting a girl who later committed suicide, there’s no big emotional breakdown where she cries out and sinks to the floor in a sobbing heap. But you can tell by the deadened look on her face she feels it fully, in her heart, and in her gut. The boys’ fathers think she’s a silly old bird, but you can see she is feeling the gravity of the situation more than any of the men are. It honestly shocked me how caviler the fathers were about their sons raping their classmate. Haven’t these guys taught their sons better about how to treat women? But poor Mija is the one who is thought to be a little behind, a little slow perhaps. A confused old lady. There are definitely traces of sexual politics and class differences, as Mija sticks out like a sore thumb among the men for her femininity and her inability to pay her share of the money.

Poetry is beautifully filmed, and that carefully observed attention to Korea’s natural beauty- even the more Urban, gentrified areas- belies the story’s tragic elements. It’s not a Hollywood movie- it’s not glossy or routine, preferring instead to delve into an exhausted older lady’s reasons for doing things, which are not always kind or easy. Mija is capable of cruelty, and she’s the guardian of a truly dreadful grandson, but we root for her all the way. How does one deal with awful circumstances. If you’re Mija, you keep your cool, smile, and try to find beauty- however hard it is to recognize- in a world that can sometimes offer little but cruelty and nastiness.

 

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The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines

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A work of fiction chronicling a life from the time of slavery to the civil rights era? Wow, I feel smarter already.

Meet Miss Jane Pittman, a 110-year-old black woman who lives on a plantation making meager wages from her white boss. She’s not a slave anymore, but she might as well be. She and her fellow  workers break their backs on the farm and receive next to nothing. Undereducated but smart as a whip, Miss Jane is quite a character. An unnamed schoolteacher convinces her to let him document her life in a series of audio recordings, suspecting Jane might have quite a story to tell. Oh, and does she ever!

Jane’s story encompasses almost a hundred years, dozens of characters, and a multitude of historical events. Jane has suffered years of abuse and heartbreak and has aged into quite a fine woman. She’s loved and lost, suffered and lost some more. But ages of struggle have given her a wise outlook on life. She’s been a slave. She’s been a wife, an adoptive mother, a warrior. But mostly she’s been quintessentially Jane, a experienced lady with a life time of memories to share.

I had never read anything by Ernest J. Gaines before The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but I had heard many good things about him. As soon as I got ahold of a copy, I devoured it relatively quickly (for a slow reader like me, mind). A slim volume with a lot of ground to cover, Jane Pittman maintains the no-nonsense and the plain speech of it’s protagonist. I must confess I liked Jane a lot. I adored her strength and her offbeat spirituality.

I found this book to be an enlightening and educational experience without being too preachy. It certainly contains a refreshing lack of white guilt. You’ve got your basically good, decent white men and your dreadful minorities, and vice versa. Your black characters are not above racism and barbarism and your whites are not incapable of compassion. I got the impression Mr. Ernest J. Gaines has a good head on his shoulders and has bigger fish to fry than moaning about the ghastly whites, while still accurately portraying how the white man has fucked things up for many.

On the down side, I found the take of keeping all the characters straight daunting, to say the least. There were about two Marys, two Alberts, and innumerable Joes scattered throughout this narrative. Characters are introduced erratically never to be heard from again. Also, I didn’t find myself liking the last segment of the book as much as I enjoyed the first few parts. Miss Jane Pittman is best when dealing with Jane’s early years or the white Tee Bob’s doomed infatuation with a mixed-race schoolteacher.

However, when Jimmy, a precocious black boy who Jane mystically insisted could be ‘the one,’ showed up, I was just about ready for the book to end. I guess after introducing a strong, progressive African-American character like Ned earlier on and leaving Jimmy little room to develop, Jimmy just seemed like an extension of Ned. Now I know the decision was somewhat deliberate, but I still found the part of the book focusing primarily on Jimmy to be a bit of a bore.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a fascinating novel featuring a delightful heroine. It’s brilliance is in it’s artful simplicity, and I am looking forward to catching up with Gaines’ other books.

Birdman (2014)

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They say “Everyone’s a critic,” and this seems to be especially true for film fans. What fan-boys and -girls of all ages often seem to forget is that the movie star is a person just like us, with feelings and faults- they eat, drink, shit, screw, and breathe just like us, they are not above being selfish and rude upon occasion (therefore I urge you not to take it personally if they decline an autograph,) and they feel hate and rejection from the audience like a regular person being criticized for they manner in which they do what they love.

However, the internet seems not to take a middle ground on celebrities- either they can do no wrong in the fanboys’ eyes or he cuts them down to size with the ruthless efficiency of a horror-film slasher. And in a society where well-liked actors are respected more than law enforcement officers, men fighting for our country, humanitarians and hospital personnel, the margin for error is small. People cannot believe it when an actor says something unbecoming or adverse to the ‘image’ they are trying to build (consider when Jennifer Aniston used the ‘R’ word and the ensuing backlash.)

When a actor has a certain squeaky-clean persona, people believe in that persona even if that performer seems to be less than who they appear to be. When Bill Cosby was accused of multiple counts of rape, no one would believe it; suddenly the victims were attention seeking ‘hos whereas it might have been considered differently if the accused was Joe-Bob across the street. Certainly some women have been known to lie about rape, but at what point is the evidence just too incriminating?

On the other hand, actors that have been considered to be ‘flops’ can’t catch a break- attacks on celebrities, particularly female celebrities whose figures and faces have been deemed unpleasing to the eye by the masses, often get extremely personal. Actors get defined by that one role that made them famous, look at poor ‘Chandler’ and the rest of the “Friends” alumni (except for a select few that have been able to stake out roles of consequence in other movies.)

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Riggan Thomsen (Michael Keaton) is Birdman. That is the role he is certainly known for; nobody remembers him in anything else, and no one certainly cares to. For Riggan, a mentally disturbed has-been with delusions of grandeur featuring an incarnation of his iconic character, life is a constant struggle to prove that he is capable of diversifying- that he can, and will, rise above his 90’s role that people have learned to love and hate him for.

With an estranged ex (Amy Ryan) and a mouthy daughter fresh out of rehab (Emma Stone,) Riggan’s life is definitely not easy. But while writing, directing, and starring in his own adaptation of a Raymond Carver story, he believes he can rise above what people expect of him. When his costar (Jeremy Shamos) suffers an injury onstage, the pretty starlet (Naomi Watts) offers her narcissistic, impotent douchebag boyfriend, Mike, (Edward Norton) the man’s role.

Riggan and Mike clash immediately, sometimes to hilarious effect. But for the most part, “Birdman” is a dark, depressing (albeit sometimes comedic) look into one man’s delusional wreck of an existence. Most of the movie is filmed in one continuous shot, with the camera following the characters around the broken-down theater. There’s a vibe of intrusion and invasion of privacy, the cast of Riggan’s play packed together like sweaty, discontented sardines and constantly bursting into each others rooms without invitation. This contributes to the films message about the price of fame- suddenly, your life is everyone else’s.

To some extent, Michael Keaton and Edward Norton are playing extreme versions of themselves, or at least the public’s’ image of themselves. Keaton is a bit of a has-been (this movie might change that,) mostly remembered for the title role in “Batman,” playing the character that Christian Bale is now famous for. Norton is known as a bit of a prima donna who micromanages the film he’s performing in’s dialogue, and while hopefully he’s not as much of a major arsehole as his character is, it can’t be an accident that Mike pompously tries to dissect the script at the expense of Riggan’s vision.

“Birdman” has a great ensemble cast which also includes Merritt Wever and Zach Galfianakis (God only knows how to pronounce that man’s name,) as Riggan’s passive and deceitful lawyer. Overall it is a darkly funny yet sad and bleak commentary on entertainment Vs. art, pretension, and the nightmare who to some is family.  However, director Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s 2006 film “Babel” is the much better movie and I think it should have gotten far more attention than it did, the whole thing (especially the plot thread about the deaf Japanese girl) was incredible. “Birdman” was, admittedly, the less compelling work.

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Love is Strange (2014)

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“Love is Strange” is a solid little film whose finale nevertheless left this viewer feeling somewhat half-satisfied, puzzling on whether that was ‘it.’ To be fair, the good far outweighs the bad for this project- writer-director Ira Sachs infuses “Love is Strange” with an honesty and a subtlety that is sometimes frustrating, sometimes heartrending, and the leads perform admirably in true-to-life, non-showy roles.

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) are an aging gay couple who have just tied the knot. Good for them, bad for George’s career- the Catholic School where George teaches music is displeased that George’s sexuality is now made known to everyone by his getting married. George is a believer and a well-loved teacher, but what does that matter to the fat cats who run the show, and are overeager to push George back in the closet?

Nothing it seems. Worse, now Ben and George can’t keep up payments on their apartment, so they are shuffled off to live with friends and family. Absent-minded artist Ben goes to live with a distant relative where he is treated like an unwanted stray and an annoyance in their cramped apartment. George, on the other hand, stays with a gay cop couple who party long and hard day in and day out, befuddling the old man.

“Love is Strange” is a quiet film with lots of static long takes, and it seems ‘real’ to a startling extent. Ben and George’s relationship is very sweet and passionate without being graphically sexual. The movie also has some interesting things to say about fidelity and ageism, and the value (or lack thereof, in some cases) of family.

I would have liked a bit more resolution to the plotline concerning the boy (Charlie Tahan) stealing the French books (though the father (Darren E. Burrows’) hysterical and accusing reaction is priceless.) The lovely Marisa Tomei plays the role of the boy’s mother and the wife of the relative taking Ben in, and the whole cast does a uniformly great job, including the young boy actor as the moody teen who doesn’t take to Ben’s presence famously.

The more I think about the ending, weirdly, the more ‘right’ it seems- the tenderness and the grit and the bittersweet melancholy of it- and my initial miffed reaction to the speediness of the wrap-up has more to do with my own personal response than anything to do with the quality of the writing or directing. That said, I think there could have been a little more added to the conclusion.

I don’t think “Love is Strange” is one of the best gay-themed movies of all time, but it certainly holds it’s own in a subgenre whose movies range from fantastically good to woefully poor. Lithgow and Molina portray aging New Yorkers equipped with a tenderness and a good humor that spits back in the face of mounting obstacles. If you’ve never heard about it until now, you’re not the only one; “Love is Strange” was miserably under talked about, and it’s certainly ‘strange’ that it hasn’t gotten more attention than it received.

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