Tag Archives: Friendship

Book Review: The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke

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Rating: B/ Considering that I had already seen the excellent film adaptation a few years before, this novel held few surprises for me, least of all the twist ending alluded to in it’s lyrical title. So it’s a good thing that Laura Kasischke focuses more in her writing on lyricism and less on plot. With the lovely, vivid writing, I still felt like I was getting something new out of the experience of reading the book even though I pretty much knew the story. The Life Before her Eyes is a good book, not a great one. The writing can be meandering and sentimental while at the same time being lush and gorgeous, starting off the bat with a Sophie’s Choice type situation and gradually touching on aging, sorrow, and regret in a bittersweet manner. Continue reading Book Review: The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke

Movie Review: Puppylove (2013)

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    Rating: C/ Puppylove opens with two 14-year-old kids preparing to have sex. The awkwardness and authenticity of this scene made me think the movie itself was going to be more realistic than it was. But no, the ick factor of this film goes way above and beyond a realistic amount and into a level of ridiculousness. Let me explain. The girl in the movie, Diane (Selene Rigot) is a young teen and looks barely old enough to be weaned off Barbie dolls. She also seems to be in love with her ineffectual father (Vincent Perez) (Freud would be proud.) At the beginning, we see the girl, Diane, befriend Julia (Audrey Bastien,) the remarkably self-possessed nymphet daughter of overbearing intellectual parents who is all too aware of her effect on men. Continue reading Movie Review: Puppylove (2013)

Au revoir les enfants (1987)

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A single look can change everything.

Louis Malle’s heartbreaking autobiographical film is set in 1944 at Catholic school in Nazi-occupied France, and chronicles a naive preteen’s wrenching coming-of-age. Julien Quentin (Gaspard Manesse,) a well-to-do adolescent mama’s boy, thinks he knows everything there is to know about the real world, but things are about to get a whole lot realer, and life a lot more harrowing, during a seemingly uneventful stint in boarding school.

A pixyish, somewhat androgynous child already contending with impending puberty, a harrowing experience in it’s own right, Julien is first seen bawling out his doting mother (Francine Racette) at the train station, where she prepares to send him on the train to school. “I don’t give a damn about dad, and I hate you,” he sniffles, caught in the throes of typical adolescent self-absorption and angst.

But Julien finds unexpected pleasure and enjoyment at the academy, where he roughhouses and plays with the other boys in his age group, sells black market jam to the crippled kitchen hand and school outcast Joseph (François Négret,) and strikes up a tentative friendship with a low-key, musically gifted boy named Jean Bonnet (Raphaël Fejtö.)

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The nosy Julien does some prying and discovers that his new friend is actually a Jew, named Jean Kippelstein, and smuggled into the school by the altruistic and rebellious Father Jean (Philippe Morier-Genoud.) A hell of a priest and a hell of a good guy, Father Jean quietly defies the Nazi Occupation and does what he thinks is right regardless of what society expects of him.

You might think that 20th-century upper-class French kids are somehow less rambunctious than the modern American preteen, but this movie will inform you otherwise. The boys in this movie, are rowdy, wild, combative, and often rude and mean. They just don’t have an Xbox to lull them into complacency. Most of them are more or less completely unaware that their country is in discord, preferring to roughhouse, haze the new guy, and read each other the dirtiest book they know (The Arabian Nights, the veritable Fifty Shades of Grey of their time.)

Filmmaker Louis Malle chooses wisely not to make the boy characters too worldly or introspective, instead deciding to stick to a more realistic approach to adolescence. And the movie is not without it’s humor- when Jean and Julien wander off during a treasure hunt and get lost in the woods, they run into a scared wild boar and are charitably wrapped in a blanket in the back of a German military vehicle and returned to school.

When they return home to their peers, however, Julien elevates the story to legendary heights- now there was not one, but one hundred mad boars and the soldiers shot at them as they ran through the woods. Why, they barely escaped with their lives. This provides some comic relief, but it also has a lot of truth to it- stories all seem to get bigger in the minds of young boys.

Au revoir les enfants is tender, true-to-life, and achingly sad. The children behave as children will, ignorant of the impending storm, and the adults talk worriedly among themselves. The matter of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is a series of decisions and choices, and morality doesn’t always triumph over doing the cowardly and ultimately shitty thing.

There is at least one main character who does a terrible thing (not Julien, whose ultimate act is comprised of folly. not malice) This person screws the others over and is presumably rewarded for it. The movie teaches a sad but true lesson- Happily ever After can occur for the most undeserving people. The righteous man is not always the one who gets a good outcome. And doing the right thing should be because it’s the moral thing to do, not because you’ll be rewarded for it.

The child actors do an admirable job in a foreign film that almost everyone with a taste for a rich narrative should find accessible. At the end of the movie, Julien says he’ll remember that last morning in January til the day he dies. You should remember this movie as such;  not because it is traumatic, but because it is moving and beautiful, without a hint of bitterness for a carefree childhood torn asunder by life’s cruel ironies.

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Up (2009)

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Not only does Up hold a long-standing place in my heart as my favorite Pixar film, it just might be my favorite animated film, period. It might be a slightly prosaic choice (as a independent movie enthusiast and borderline film snob, shouldn’t I pick something more obscurely cutting edge, maybe a mind-blowing, little-known Asian Anime?) but frankly, I don’t give a crap. It’s just that good.

My advice to the uninitiated is this- if you haven’t seen “Up”, stop reading this review right now and rent it, stream it, splurge on a purchase if you have to. Take your kid, take a friend’s kid, take yourself. It isn’t just ‘another kids movie,’ it’s got a huge spectrum of emotions and it sports one of the most beautiful opening sequences in film, period.

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Laughter, feels, and tears are all on naked display in this testament to childhood dreams and adulthood regrets as we follow elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) and chubby eight-year-old Wilderness Explorer Russell (Jordan Nagai) on the adventure of a lifetime. Carl, age seventy-eight, is a man with a lifelong dream; to take his wife Ellie to the site of their childhood obsession, the exotic and magical Paradise Falls.

We see a sequence with Ellie and Carl as children discovering their mutual interest in visiting Paradise Falls followed by a beautiful montage of the couple growing old together, which ends, sadly and perhaps inevitably, in Ellie’s deterioration and death (gently but heartbreakingly portrayed in a few oblique scenes of a hospital stay and Carl sitting, alone and dejected, next to the casket after the funeral.)

An undetermined amount of time passes following Ellie’s death, and Carl has grown into the quintessential grumpy old man, still grieving for his wife and his own inability to take her to Paradise Falls. When a rage-fueled mishap lands Carl on the direct route to a nursing home, the retired balloon salesman ties thousands of colorful balloons to his quaint little house and- surprise!- sails away before the rest home attendants who have arrived to take him away’s very eyes.

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There’s one little problem… Russell, the Wilderness Explorer kid determined to get his final badge for assisting the elderly, who in the process of pestering Carl gets stuck on the front porch when the house sets sail. After landing (rather conveniently) in Paradise Falls, Carl and Russell encounter talking dogs, including the sweet but dim Retriever Dug (Bob Peterson,) a sexually ambiguous exotic bird, but also a maniacal villain (Christopher Plummer) intent on taking what he believes is rightfully his.

Along the way, the sheltered Russell traverses the wilderness for the first time in his life, but is is Carl who learns lessons about bravery, letting go, and moving on from unfathomable grief. The irresistible Dug offers plenty of comic relief, and an unbreakable bond is forged between man and boy, man and dog, triggering a significant change in Carl’s attitude toward himself and life in general.

You know the old adage, ‘it will make you laugh and cry?’ It’s a bit stereotypical, but “Up” is one of the few movies that actually lives up to that saying. It’s heartfelt, funny, and surprisingly deep for a kids movie. But that’s just the thing. It isn’t just for kids, it appeals to all ages with it’s genuinely emotive storytelling, bright and textured animation, and timeless story of hope and renewal triumphing over resignation and bitterness.

“Up” is cute and charming, as lovable as holding a squirming puppy in your arms, but it never stoops to kitsch or silliness, or God forbid, being TOO cute (like the maudlin “Precious Moments” statuettes that are ubiquitous on aging Mormons’ mantelpieces.) Instead of sinking to the level of Saturday-Morning cartoon slapstick, “Up” takes a real human story and infuses it with extraordinary elements (an airborne house, dogs with collars that cause them to speak and quip like human beings.)

The fact that it’s not the other way around (a fantastical story with realistic features slapped on as an afterthought) is a very important distinction to make. Only a viewer with a heart of solid granite could remain dry-eyed through this film’s heartrending first twenty minutes, but it is by no means a bleak film. It’s a celebration of life, and what all of us have to offer to  and beyond the point of old age. We recognize the characters not as cartoons, but as manifestations of our own longings and emotions; and that humanity- the kind of feeling that transcends the majority of animated films- is what makes “Up” so special.

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Million Dollar Baby (2004)

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Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of boxing. At all. I don’t judge people who like it, but there you are. I just don’t see the appeal in big, sweaty, greased-up guys knocking the piss out of each other, having their remaining teeth flying every which way, and probably acquiring long-lasting brain damage at age thirty. Entertaining? Hell no. Erotic? No, it’s not that either.

So with boxing movies, and by extension all sports movies (football, baseball, basketball, etc.) I need a sort of human interest story to really capture my attention. Well, I can tell you if you’re looking for human drama, pathos, and an extra helping of tragedy,  Clint Eastwood Academy Award-winning film has that and more. There’s guilt, grief, denial, friendship, and major moral dilemmas. I mean big fucking moral dilemmas. The kind that keep you up at night.

Frankie Dunn (Actor/Director Eastwood) is a bit of a cranky old man and well-regarded boxing trainer who doesn’t train girls– period. This moral position doesn’t seem very well thought out- it’s less a legitimate position than a lunk-headed duh... I mean, girls wanting to box. Who’d have thunk it? Next they’ll be asking for equal pay and equal rights in all things.

So, being the kind of crank he is, he turns aspiring boxerette Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) away like a puppy in the rain. “There’s plenty of people who will train girls,” he says. But Maggie’s determined. She’s come from a trash family (when we later meet her selfish and spectacularly ungrateful mother (Margo Martindale) and sister (Riki Lindhome,) we see where she’s from, and why she wants to get out) and she believes that being trained by Frankie Dunn (who seems to have quite a reputation in the boxing world, despite slumming it in a tiny fighting hall) is the best way to get her where she’s going.

Eddie Dupris (Morgan Freeman) is just the janitor, but he’s inwardly wise and worldly in that quintessential Morgan Freeman (with a smooth as butter voice over and that great voice) and quietly observes the drama between Frankie and Maggie, occasionally sharing a barbed repartee with Frankie and giving him a gentle push in the right direction. Frankie’s heart is rendered stony with personal tragedy, including a long-time estrangement from his own daughter. Will he give Maggie the well-deserved training and fatherly input she needs?

One thing you can say about this movie is it does good by not saddling Maggie with an  unnecessary love interest, rightfully focusing on the paternal relationship between she and Eastwood. The two have good (platonic) chemistry as they somewhat predictably bond, but tragedy lurks just around the corner. I often felt Morgan Freeman was a bit too much of a catalyst to the events rather than a character in his own right.

The thing is, for the first thirty minutes or so I was planning to bitch that the development of the relationships in “Million Dollar Baby” were too trite and predictable (i.e. grumpy old trainer professes his hatred for girls’ boxing, grumpy old trainer is suckered in by girl boxer’s irrepressible enthusiasm, etc.) But then I realized that while these odd couple stories are not the most original premises in the world, they work. They’re compelling. Where would we be without the gruesome twosome in “Up,” or “Men in Black,” or to name a less known title, “Treacle Jr.” (one of my personal favorites?)

If you bawled out every movie that featured a progressing bond by two people who have nothing in common, you’d have no movies left. Which is why I figure, we need our well-worn story lines. To some extent. Because something can be derivative and original at the same time. Well, the acting here certainly can’t be faulted. Outstanding performances all around. Hilary Swank proved her merit as a thespian in “Boys Don’t Cry,” playing trans man Brandon Teena, and once again with tomboyish pluck she shows us why she’s one of the best in the business.

Clint Eastwood is wonderful- he possibly gives an even better performance in this than he does in “Gran Torino,” a top-notch movie in it’s own right. He’s not just a gun-toting Republican tough guy with dozens of Westerns to his name- he shows real range and finesse as a troubled old man who tries to build barriers around his heart and refuses to let himself care about anybody. Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. He plays a role we’ve come to expect from Freeman- wise and pensive, with sage advice for the other characters, and he does a fine job.

I didn’t cry at the end because someone had already spoiled the twist for me, but it might have really gotten to me had I not gone in knowing more or less how things were going to go down. I think the characters came off as a little one-note while watching it under a critical eye (Maggie in particular seeming a little too perfect at times,) but overall “Million Dollar Baby” is just a good, emotional, wonderfully acted drama about allowing yourself to legitimately give a shit about someone again- albeit with tear jerking results.

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The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford

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Sheila Burnford’s animal saga is a nice little story that somehow doesn’t manage to achieve greatness at any point through it’s duration. Mind you. every child should read this charming novel once in their lives, and for the most part it has managed not to age since it’s first publication in the sixties; it’s a sweetly rendered love letter to house pets and the great Canadian wilderness as well as a suitable read aloud.

Still, The Incredible Journey’ fails to be truly riveting, and I’m trying to put my finger on the reason I feel this way. The story follows an irresistible bull terrier protagonist, Bodger, and his two animal friends (a Labrador and a Siamese cat) as they brave a arduous trek across Canadian soil to find their beloved masters. There are many challenges along the way, of course, presented in episodic fashion, and Carl Burger provides lovely illustrations portraying the animals’ daunting journey.

Two film adaptations came out after the books release, a 1963 version, the more realistic one by far. and a tame Walt Disney remake in 1993, a bastardization in many ways while still remaining a relatively charming family film. People who watch the 1993 film might get a confused notion about what the book itself is about. While “Homeward Bound” (as the remake is called) applies celebrity voice actors to the animal characters, there is barely any dialogue at all in the book. The animals certainly don’t talk.

Instead of giving the animals human voices, the novel concentrates one portraying the canines and their feline companion with their animal behavior intact while still making them likable and endearing. This book is a little darker and much more serious than “Homeward Bound,” and sometimes comes off as a little frosty and distant without the voices of the animals we 90’s kids have come to expect from childrens’ entertainment.

While the book is much more mature and artistically sound, there are times when one gets a chilly vibe from the brief volume, where individual events and supporting characters aren’t focused on for more than a few pages. The main thing that supplies this book with life is the exquisite charcoal drawings, cozy and warm additions to the text.

The real strength of ‘The Incredible Journey’ is Burnford’s obvious skill writing prose as well as her ability to make the animal characters sympathetic without having them say a single word. The old bull terrier, Bodger, will win your heart with his undying loyalty and steadfast sweetness as well as his adorable love of children and particularly the unlikely bond he shares with his feline friend, Tao.

Something about this book- maybe the slim size- makes it feel a bit unsubstantial, like a sweet that you savor before it all too quickly disappears down your throat and into your stomach, leaving you hungry for more. However, it’s a book that kids and adults should like just fine and it endearing, if like the metaphorical sweetie, not quite filling.

Box of Moonlight (1996)

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90’s independent films give a different kind of vibe from the small-budget movies of today. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s the feeling of ‘newness,’ of being the first to do something (of course movies were being made outside of big budget studios before 1990, but there seemed to be a big boom in ordinary schmoes who weren’t big name filmmakers picking up a camera and making something). Indies then had less of a feeling of precalculation, less of a sense of ‘hey, we’re working with small actors and a low budget, but put in some well-worn tropes and we’ll have a guaranteed hit.’ Films back then were really out there. And, hey, there’s something I really like about that.

So, while past-trippin to the 90’s (which, admittedly, I don’t remember that well, I turned six in 2000) I rented Tom DiCillo’s very odd buddy comedy “Box of Moonlight,” starring a young (I mean, young young) Sam Rockwell and John Turturro, who pretty much looks the same to me, for better or for worse. Turturro plays Al Fountain, an uptight and lonely electrical engineer whose relationship with his wife (Annie Corley) is low on sizzle.

Al is having the king of all midlife crisis’, in which he actually has visions of things going backward- coffee pouring itself back into the pot, kids riding bikes backwards- in the way he desperately wishes he could. Nevertheless, Al doesn’t magically turn back the clocks and become younger (ain’t that a funny thing?) and can’t seem to get out of his slump. One day Al’s contract gets canceled and he tells his wife he’s still working the job, then bales to a rundown lake and vacation spot from his childhood.

On the way back home, he almost hits a strangers car on the road. This stranger turns out to be Kid (Sam Rockwell,) a gregarious, barely-functioning precursor to the sovereign citizen, living off the grid and running a oddment-selling business in a broken down backwoods trailer. Kid convinces Al to get him home, then finagles him (not by the powers of force, but by persuasion and a little coercion) to spend a few days with him at his decaying pad.

Kid’s home is a man-child recluse’s paradise. Every day Kid gets up whatever time he wants, has a breakfast of cookies dipped in milk, and goes skinny dipping in the lake. He has no responsibilities, no worries except for maybe food sources and the paranoid fear of the government tracking him down. Kid is socially hopeless, outgoing, flirty, and friendly, but his optimism is only matched by peoples’ contempt for him.

By most peoples’ standards, Kid would be delusional, or at least a borderline mental defective. By the movie’s standards, he is a manic free-spirit, living on the land. Despite vandalism, stealing garden gnomes,  and a potentially harmful prank on the police, he doesn’t really seem a danger to anybody. Al’s feeling of inertia begins to crack as Kid works his magic on him. Sisters Purlene and Floatie Dupre (Lisa Blount and Catherine Keener) work their own brand of magic on the men.

I like both main protagonists for different reasons. I like the Kid because he is funny and wears his heart on his sleeve. I like Al because I can relate to his loneliness and private pain. The brunt of an abusive father and an uncaring world have turned him cold, and the pain of his isolation is keenly felt in the scene where he overhears his co-workers mocking him. I love the little details in this movie, like the phone sex operators  dirty boys shoes and the NRA-centric country music playing on the jukebox  in the restaurant.

I did not like how casually Al’s infidelity was treated. His wife really seemed to be trying, which was overlooked in favor of Al’s fling with Floatie, who did not seem to be the brightest light on the menorah, if you catch my drift. I did like the friendship between Al and Kid, which seemed a little on the gay side at times, but they also puzzlingly eagerly sook out rendezvouses with women (?) Maybe somewhat homoerotic male bonding was their man-love limit.

“Box of Moonlight” is funny, sweet, unsentimental, and quirky without being full of self-conscious pop-culture quips. I’m not exactly sure what it was getting at but I certainly enjoyed the ride. It may not be of interest to most people, obscure as it is, but fans of independent films interested in going ‘off the grid’ (as Kid would say) should enjoy this excursion into eccentricity.

Note- I put the poster with the naked Turturro with a clock on my post because f’ing hate the DVD release cover. Dermot Mulroney was in the film for five fucking minutes of screentime total and his mug gets put on the front of the box, Where’s Rockwell’s face? He had ten times the screentime, and where is he? Oh, he’s the tiny little guy dancing on the bottom. Sorry. Pet peeve of mine:)

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