Tag Archives: Cancer

The Music Never Stopped (2011)

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Sentimental but sweet, like biting into a candied confection you haven’t tasted since the idyllic days of your youth, “The Music Never Stopped” is elevated beyond ‘disease of the week’ territory by terrific lead performances. Good storytelling leaves the viewer with a genuinely warm n’ fuzzy feeling, while J.K. Simmons’ development not only as a father, but as a man is inspirational without being too maudlin.

Henry Sawyer (Simmons) is a traditional dad and husband who provides for his wife Helen (Cara Seymour,) but is completely incompetent in handling anything to do with the management or the upkeep of the house. After many years of marriage, Henry still needs his wife to decide for him if the milk in the fridge is bad and can’t fathom the idea of Helen getting a job.

Henry and Helen have a son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci,) who has been absent for almost twenty years after having a fight with his father and running away from home. One fateful day, Henry and his wife get a life-changing phone call- Gabriel has suffered a brain tumor that destroyed his short-term memory and is lying disoriented and confused at the hospital.

Left reeling by this news, Henry initially grapples with feelings of resentment and bitterness at the prospect of seeing his son. But when it is revealed that music from the time period he broke away from his father’s interests and eventually, ran away from home help Gabriel retain memories, Henry really steps up to be the father his son needs.

Music is an extremely important component in the lives of the Sawyer family, and “The Music Never Stopped” features a fantastic old-timey folk-rock soundtrack. Initially it seems somewhat silly that Henry would take Gabriel’s decision to break free from Henry’s musical interests so badly.

But it is also important to understand that it wasn’t just Henry’s music Gabriel was rebelling against- it was his whole way of life. Henry’s politics, socioeconomic beliefs, lifestyle- Gabriel was rejecting of these in favor of the new groove that was sweeping the young people of America at that time While Henry’s thoughts and feelings were becoming old hat, Gabriel was becoming what Henry feared and hated- a hippie.

In many ways this is a standard story- there’s a mother who just wants everyone to get along, a gruff dad, a medical crisis, and even a Doctor (Scott Adsit) who exists merely to say “no, this can’t be done.” There is a sweet romance between a kind woman (Mia Maestro) and a disabled man that never goes beyond chaste PG-13 kisses. The character of music therapist Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond) is never anything more than a stock inspiration to a desperate family who’s prayers are answered in the form of good, hard science.

However, the outstanding performances of the three leads (Simmons, Pucci, and Seymour) have  to be taken into account. You know you probably shouldn’t be moved by the somewhat predictable story, but the filmmaker hits all the right notes so that somehow you find yourself falling under its spell.

Director Jim Kohlberg incorporates genuinely heartbreaking moments into the script (such as the reunion between Gabriel’s adolescent girlfriend (Tammy Blanchard) and the addled adult Gabe,) and both Gabriel and Henry’s points of view are served well, instead of using them as an opportunity to put down a certain set of political beliefs.

Adapted from Oliver Sacks’ essay “The Last Hippie,” “The Music Never Stopped” is tender and bittersweet, an example of somewhat formulaic film-making hitting it’s mark. I’m totally looking forward to seeing J.K. Simmons play the asshole jazz teacher in “Whiplash,” for which he won an academy award. This man is one of the most incredibly versatile character actors in Hollywood!

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The Quarry by Iain Banks

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“The Quarry” is a novel focusing on the slow-paced exploits of an appealing narrator, eighteen-year-old Kit, and seven exasperatingly mean-spirited nincompoop side characters, whose rants and abrasive political views take up a copious amount of the book. Kit, a high-functioning Autistic with an avid video game fandom, lives with his abusive, foul-mouthed (and dying) father Guy in a ramshackle house on the edge of a quarry. The house is scheduled for demolition as soon as Guy kicks it and the government vacates Kit, who is wondering seriously about the probability of supporting himself after his father’s death.

Guy has cancer and isn’t expected to make it much longer. To accompany Guy in his final days- or drive him to an early grave, the more likely outcome (with friends like these, who needs enemies?) a group of Guy’s university friends come over to the water-damaged wreck of a house. I won’t go into great detail describing them for you; suffice to say they are horrible people, intellectual wannabes/ vacuous losers who aren’t really there for Guy at all.

No, what these self-righteous pricks want has nothing to do with altruism- they have their sights set on a missing videotape that allegedly contains shocking footage that nobody wants found. I was initially sucked in by the mystery of the tape, but the resolution of this plot thread was disappointing to say the least. I hate to say bad things about this novel- writer Iain Banks was dying when he wrote it and it was obviously a very personal project to him. Indeed, “The Quarry” has some very good qualities- just not enough.

You’ve got Kit’s story for starters. If you focused on Kit and cut out all the extraneous bullshit (i.e. the side character’s political crap,) you’d have one hell of book. Kit has a unique way of seeing the world due to his condition, and for every moment he was self-absorbed and painfully immature, there was another where he was charming and likable. And that’s as it should be- people with disabilities aren’t saints, and pretending they are is nothing less than careful, calculated nonsense. I’ll never look at traffic jams the same way again after hearing Kit’s wonderfully quirky take on their spiritual dimension.

Sadly, about 25% percent of “The Quarry” is simply unnecessary- long, pointless tirades haranguing the bureaucratic bullshit of just about everything. None of the characters besides Kit are remotely likable, and even the only one who serves as a friend to Kit, film critic Holly, ends up betraying him in the end. Kit wants to believe in Holly, and convinces himself she cares about him and has his best interests at heart. That’s not the point. We don’t believe in Holly. If anything, we believe she should get her free-loading ass out of Kit’s house.

The creepiness of Kit’s indecent  interest in mom-figure Hol didn’t even bother me. I just found parts of the book terribly dry and didactic. The character’s scathing monologues are more exhausting and annoying than affecting- does anyone actually talk like that? And do we really want to have anything to do with these terrible, and more to the point, completely uninteresting people?

Iain Banks’ first novel, “The Wasp Factory,” was great, and there really are moments that shine in “The Quarry.” I like Kit’s way of dissecting the fine points of the  everyday niceties that don’t come naturally to him, although sometimes he seemed more socially intuitive than most neurotypical  people. I just see a lot of filler that would be better off in the writer’s paper wastebasket. It’s a shame that he didn’t write a better book with his last time on earth.

Gran Torino (2008)

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Actor/director Clint Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a grizzled old bulldog of a man. Truculent and more than a little racially biased, Walt is the recently widowed father of uncaring sons, who would like nothing more than to put him in a rest home and get his house and his things. Old Kowalski laments at the state of his neighborhood, which is getting bought out by racial minorities, and is starting to attract an unsavory gang element.

When shy, bookish Hmong teenager Thao (Bee Vang) is pressured by his thuggish cousin into attempting to steal Walt’s beloved Gran Torino automobile (which is, along with his lab Daisy, the only thing Walt truly loves) as a gang initiation, Walt thinks his relations with his neighbors have hit an all-time low. But an unexpected friendship with the youth may be a reprieve for both of them.

Protecting Thao and his strong-willed, bright sister Sue (Ahney Her) puts Walt at odds with the local gang attempting to indoctrinate Thao and leads to a final, dramatic confrontation. Meanwhile, a well-meaning priest (Christopher Carley) has promised Walt’s deceased wife to get him to come to confession, and habitually visits Walt trying to offer him a Catholic perspective on the events surrounding him.

“Gran Torino” is outwardly a pretty simple movie about a prejudiced man coming to terms with a changing America and learning to value Minorities through the humanity of his neighbors, and all the actors, including the Asian non-professionals, give affecting performances. I noticed that early on there’s a little too much exposition offered by Walt’s family, which is a bit strident but keeps the drama moving at a steady pace, as Eastwood has a lot to cover.

Walt’s family really doesn’t give a crap about him- his bitchy granddaughter (Dreama Walker) tries to convince him to will the car to her when he “like, dies” (she says this right to the old man’s face!) and his grandsons sift through his stuff at his wife’s wake with a marked lack of respect. The kids’ father, Mitch, refuses to hold his children accountable and he and his wife are just as eager to claim Walt’s possessions as their offspring are.

Still, Walt finds a surrogate family, so to speak, with the people he least expected to. Walt is outwardly a pretty typical, ignorant, angry, and surly old man but he does behave in some surprising ways while developing at a believable rate. I’m not completely convinced he had removed the stick from his ass at the end (he still uses a very biased rhetoric, ‘gook,’ ‘slope,’ ‘beaner,’ etc.) but that makes his more believable because if he acted like a Disney character by the conclusion of the movie no one would buy it.

Carley plays one of cinema’s only sympathetic priests and he is appealing, as are Vang and Her. Despite the dark subject matter, there is light and humor allowed into the otherwise bleak story. Clint Eastwood does a good job of bringing Walt to life, and the ending is sad and tender but uplifting and hopeful at the same time.

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The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

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Garth Stein’s gently unique bestseller is a tearjerker featuring the most unlikely of protagonists- Enzo, a mongrel of uncertain lineage with a keen and brilliant mind that yearns to escape its canine body. Enzo’s owner, Denny Swift, is a race car driver who excels on the track but has pretty shitty luck in general. Enzo is devoted to Denny and his wife Eve’s little daughter, Zoe. So when Zoe’s happiness is put at stake by Eve’s slow death by cancer and a ensuing court battle brought on by Eve’s meddling parents, Enzo must do all in his limited power to mend Zoe and her father’s lives.

Enzo may be an unreliable narrator at times (consider his limited experience with people outside his family’s immediate circle,) but he’s twice as smart and observant as your average protagonist and he knows plenty about the follies and frailties that inhabit the human soul. In fact, Enzo is so fascinated by the inner workings of mankind that he hopes to reincarnated as a man. But before his increasingly imminent demise comes around, Enzo is determined to protect those he loves- especially when Denny is falsely accused of abusing a minor, which is used in the courtroom to keep him from his beloved daughter.

I’m not ashamed to admit I cried at this book. Sick, injured, and dead doggies hit a nerve for me, so watching Enzo deteriorate physically was a rough journey for me. Readers cautious about reading the book should know that the end result is bittersweet and ultimately uplifting rather than nihilistic and relentlessly gloomy. I don’t always agree with Enzo on his musings (such as his hope to become human, people aren’t such hot shit) but it is hard not to care for him when you consider his devotion to his family and his unique viewpoint.

The secondary characters aren’t developed nearly to the point of the canine protagonist, and some of the aspects seem a little childish or even ring false, but other whimsical components (such as the metaphor of the zebra) work more efficiently than they probably should. Things seemed to move a little fast (Eve was there and gone so fast I didn’t have time to blink) but the plot-lines worked reasonably well and summed up to a nice, quick read.

I am not at all a fan of NASCAR or automobile racing in general, but I didn’t find the prose concerning racing overbearing, and even, through Enzo’s eager eyes, could theorize a little on why people liked it The Art of Racing in the Rain
is a solid book which is a must-read for dog lovers and avid fiction readers alike.

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By The Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters

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Although it has some examples of grating and cliched prose (all of which is typical for YA lit,) “By the Time You Read This, I’ll Be Dead” provides a fairly accurate look at the confused and self-despising mind of a suicidal teen. Daelyn Rice is at boiling point- after various attempts to take her own life, she has joined a suicide completion web site and is determined to succeed this time. Her parents are amiable but clueless- her classmates, cruel, and her teachers apathetic. Daelyn’s head brims with contradictions, despair, and hopelessness. She both hates the world and hates herself- but will the eccentric Santana draw her out of her suicidal shell?

Daelyn was an simultaneously tragic and profoundly frustrating. She’s a sick little girl, and considering her history of bullying by both the kids and adults in her life, that’s no surprise. I was so mad at Daelyn’s parents, though of course I felt bad that their daughter detested them and wanted to kill herself. I don’t know about you, but if I was locked in the closet for eight hours by some students and pissed my pants, my dad would be tearing the bullies, the teachers, and the administration a new asshole.

And I understand why parents don’t have the time and resources to homeschool their bullied kids. But don’t these people have any protective instinct towards their offspring? At first I thought Chip and Kim Rice were nice. Now I think they’re idiots. Daelyn herself is a somewhat unreliable narrator, especially in the way she portrays suicide. I would suggest that parents look up this book before they let their teens with depressive issues read this. I know you can’t always control what teens read, nor would they want to (adolescence is a time of burgeoning freedom) but the story is not exactly hopeful, and could be triggering to a certain audience.

However, for teens who are not suicidal-slash-are recovering, this is a compelling read. The Santana/Daelyn aspect was a little unbelievable. Trust me, I’ve been there, I’ve been drawn within myself and bitter and hopeless, and nobody pursues you to the point that Santana pursued Daelyn. After a while, they stop trying to open you up. And when they reveal Santana has cancer? Please. Figures that the one boy who follows her to the ends of the earth is extremely ill.
‘By the Time You Read This…’ isn’t for everyone. Depressing for some audiences, annoyingly one note for others, the book is best suited for people who have been lowered into the abyss of depression, either by traumatic life experiences or their own inner demons. You’re more likely to enjoy the book if you can relate to Daelyn to some extent. Which I did. Her downer attitude was exasperating at times, but that’s what bullying does to a person. Please. Bullying is not, and will never be cool. Don’t fuck with people.

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The Living & the Dead (2006)

Not your first pick for Mother’s Day, The Living and the Dead is morbid and horrifying, and I mean that, strangely, as a compliment. It is a family drama, a psychological thriller, a tragedy, an art film, all these things at once, and and despite it’s flaws, it doesn’t overextend.

The film opens with Lord Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd-Pack), a worn-down, silent shell of an old man, pushing an empty wheelchair through a quiet room. The image delivers the same feeling as a dark grey painting, lonely and despondent. He watches, lip quivering, as an ambulance pulls into his massive estate. Cut back an undetermined amount of time. Donald stands straighter. He maintains a kind of pride that must come with being one of the British elite, but he is grieving. He has a lot to grieve about.

His wife, Lady Nancy Brocklebank, is terribly sick and probably won’t be with him much longer. The bills are piling up, and they will soon lose their mansion. His son James (Leo Bill, in an over-the-top performance that works), dashes around the house with little clear purpose.

James is in his mid-to-late twenties. He is stuck in a kind of permanent childhood, the kind of childhood that is made up of nightmares, not whimsy. Although Simon Rumley, the director, describes him as “mentally challenged,” I suspect paranoid schizophrenia.

James is by far my favorite character in the film. He is a complicated movie creation, and his emotional limitations do not hold back his complexity or ambiguity as a person. Donald treats James with the casual cruelty that is most likely inflicted on the mentally ill more often than we think, condescending to him, forbidding him to use the phone or answer the door. James is desperate to prove to his father that he is an independent adult and plans to do so by taking care of his mother.

His father understandably rejects the idea. In an matter of days, James will have locked the door, shut out the nurse, skipped his pills, and may have destroyed the lives of those closest to him. Soon, as his lucidity deteriorates, the viewer begins to wonder if the past events were only in James’ head. This is a film for a patient audience — it’s a while before anything happens and the reality of the events is questionable.

The atmosphere is palpable, and the characters are well developed. There are many plot holes and unanswered questions throughout the film, as the story itself seems on the edge of reality, with its Gothic features and abstract images.

People have had different opinions on whether James is “good” or “bad.” He is a disturbing character, to be sure. He is not a sex maniac, mad slasher, or stony-faced killer, but an exceptionally childlike and deeply disturbed man. This movie might make you feel differently about a crime, in the paper, in which mental illness was a factor. Despite naysayers, The Living and the Dead is an emotional bombshell and thought-provoking film.