Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
November 2014

Big Hero 6
I am a great fan of Japanese cartoons such as Swept Away, not only for their graphic beauty, detailed visions of the real Japan, but also because of the ultimate morality of the stories. They are often about children, children who must overcome difficulties and grow into something more admirable.

The great surprise for me was that Big Hero 6 looked and felt more like a Japanese cartoon than a work of the Disney studios. The story takes place some time in the future in a city called San Fransokyo, a wonderful combination of both. Two young men, one a 14 year old and his brother Tadashi in college (Nerd School) live with their aunt because they were orphaned when Hiro (the younger) was only three.

He is a far-too-bright youngster bored by school and is well into delinquency gambling in bot fights (microbots instead of cocks) with very rough company. His brother invites him to his university lab where he meets Tadashi's friends, a motley multi-race bunch of nerds. Tadashi shows his brother his latest invention: Baymax, a robot healthcare nurse. Baymax is an endearing creation, looking like a giant marshmallow. I recall how well robots like this have already been accepted by Japanese elderly in nursing homes. Baymax is absolutely endearing, bustling around taking temperatures, asking on a scale of one to ten how much it hurts, and providing remedies and, when needed, hugs.

The rest of the story takes a darker but fascinating turn with a confrontation with scientific evil in the hands of an unsavory scientist. Young Hiro and his companions become the Big Hero 6 superheros enlisting a transformed Baymax into a multi-purpose giant warrior (with armor to hold in his fluffy stomach).

This is a winner!  You will not waste your time seeing this---and if you are lucky, a bonus short cartoon about a puppy who eats everything---except green stuff (vegetables) until he learns that a sprig of parsley can bring two lovers back together and they can create a new source of doggy food: a baby who loves throwing meatballs on the floor.

This epic science fiction film has been eagerly seen by Trekies who are fascinated by the idea of worm holes in space (a theoretical notion that space and time can be bent so that time travelers are able to travel faster than light to regions in the cosmos otherwise unreachable in a human lifespan.

It is also part of the popular catastrophe movies in which the earth, for one reason or another, has become unlivable.  If humans are to survive, they must find another suitable planet.

My movie buddies and I were transfixed during this three hour film, not moving a muscle! That says something for its entertainment value. I did not worry about the flaws in the film until I returned home and had time to think about  them.

The movie, directed by Christopher Nolan, starred the always wonderful Mathiew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, and Michael Caine, all of them engaged in a secret NASA program to find another home for their dying planet.

The earth, as shown in this film, no longer had rain (impossible) and year by year crops were dying, leaving the world in danger of starvation. NASA had long been defunded by the government because the taxpayers thought raising food was far more important than space travel. McConaughey, a former astronaut and now a farmer, widowed and father of a young daughter and son, has been summoned to a parent-teacher meeting where the teacher complains about his daughter's fixation on space travel, a silly notion, according to the teacher. She claims to know that the Apollo Program that took us to the moon was a propaganda stunt that was designed on a sound stage to fool the Russians during the cold war. This gave me a shudder as I recall all the idiots with conspiracy theories about 9/11.

He had also been summoned by the people in the secret NASA program, not defunded at all (phew!).

The rest of the film takes us on an incredible space journey and its consequences for humanity. Very exciting stuff. What makes this movie fascinating is how earthly religious symbolism is embraced by this space venture. The spacecraft is called Lazarus (the man brought back from death by Jesus); there are twelve astronauts, representing the 12 apostles who are ready to sacrifice their lives for the future. And there is timeless and trans-space love.

But now my complaints.  Just keep in mind that if the world were really to wind up without rainfall, and every day was punctuated by Dustbowl-size dust storms, the people would not have gas for their cars (oil does not descend from the heavens) and starvation would have caused all law and order to break down.

As for wormholes, I did hear an astrophysicist explain the theory but it is just a theory. We probably would not need a wormhole if we wanted to move to another planet.  We could probably do something with Mars.

Despite all these afterthoughts, the movie is fun, exciting, and is a moving elegy on human love. Do go see it.

Jon Stewart has endeared himself for me with the production of this marvelous, truthful movie. For a change, this left-leaning intellectual (and comedian) is not trying to tip-toe around calling militant and fanatical Islam a “religion of peace.” We see Iran in this film as a deeply divided country in which the pious Shiites with cynical authoritarian leadership are in control and a huge youth bulge is simmering in rebellion.

In 2009, the London-based Iranian-Canadian journalist, Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal), happened to be in Iran to cover its presidential election. He had gone many times before, working for the BBC with no trouble. But this time, he jokingly filmed an interview intended for the satirical news show that Jon Stewart produces. Then, the election took place and it was obvious that it was completely bogus. Ayatollah Khamenei announced the outcome before the ballots had even been counted, which outraged the young voters.

They poured into the streets demanding that their votes be counted, and were met by real bullets and the next day mass arrests. Bahari, usually very careful about what he did in Iran, was so outraged himself that he filmed the carnage and sent the film to the BBC.

The next day he was arrested while staying at his mother's home and hauled off for 118 in the notorious Evin Prison where he was brutally interrogated and tortured. His interrogator was a type I once knew well in Iran: pious, stupid, and brutal---a type used around the world as foot soldiers in dictatorships.

I have met another innocent person jailed on a trip to Iran-Haleh Esfandiari, a woman scholar at a Washington think tank. Her account is much like his: interrogated by a stupid man intent on getting a confession of spying from the hapless prisoner in solitary confinement.  In both cases, international outrage ultimately got them released.

What was particularly noticed by the authorities about Bahari was his family: his communist father imprisoned by the Shah's government in 1952 (where he died) and then his sister, a popular singer, imprisoned under the Islamic Republic, who also died in prison. This undoubtedly made Bahari even more suspect by the Islamist government.

The interrogator, who covered up his own and his unfortunate prisoner's stink with rosewater perfume, was marvelously played by Kim Bodnia. He was both brutal, ignorant, and at the same time pathetic. Bahari never turned him into a monster but saw him as he was, a cog in the machinery.

Good for Jon Stewart!  What fun that the Iranian government has bitterly complained that this film is a propaganda piece funded by Zionists and the CIA. Yes indeed.  Once, not a sparrow could fall from a tree that was not a plot by the British. Now it is the Israelis and the CIA. Happily, time is not on the side of the very ageing Shiite government.  Two-thirds of the population is under 30.

The Theory of Everything
I went to see this film reluctantly, not enjoying being depressed. It is a British biographical romantic film based on the memoir of the ex-wife of Stephen Hawking, a remarkable man who not only survived an illness (ALS) that generally kills within two years of onset, but still lives well into his 70s, and continues as a much honored theoretical physicist.

His wife, Jane, married him even knowing that they might only have two years together. Little did she know that she would have three children with him, and bear full responsibility for caring for a totally immobile man for decades. Even when he nearly died from pneumonia and the doctor recommended letting him quietly die, she refused and and he survived, now with no ability to speak or swallow.

Because of his great fame as author of books that sold in the millions (books that most people, myself included, could not understand), Jane was able to afford help with his care and secure a state-of-the-art device that could speak for him.

Eddie Redmayne's performance as Stephen was astonishing, and must have been physically exhausting.  Felicity Jones played Jane, a woman with stubborn faith and amazing self-sacrifice.

Although this film is being sold to us as a romance, I found it painful. But that might not be the case for you.

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