Monday, March 9, 2015

Laina At the Movies

By Laina Farhat-Holzman
January 2015

Into the Woods
Meryl Streep playing a fairy tale witch and singing her heart out is one of the best reasons to see this film version of the Steven Sondheim musical, but not the only reason. Fairy tales are not just for children; the original versions of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales reflect how brutal life really was in Medieval Europe and contain Indo-European myths much older than Christianity.

Watching this movie on New Year's Day with my once-a year movie going husband, I noted that he did not instantly fall asleep (triumph!) but that both of us grew restless during the last half hour of this 2-hour film. I would have been perfectly happy had it ended with “happily ever after,” but thinking about it later, I realized how many splendid layers this film had.

One clever thing was to group six of the most familiar tales into one story: having a childless couple who were village bakers longing for a child (Thumbelina?); a witch who had carried out a vendetta against the baker's father by making off with his little sister (Rapunzel); Little Red Riding Hood encountering a wolf in the forest (cautionary tale); Cinderella longing to go to the Prince's ball; and Jack, a cheeky peasant boy climbing the beanstalk to steal from giants. In this film, they all live in the same village and have an intertwined adventure.

The layers in the mythology include differing venues: village life; an impoverished farm; a royal city; dangerous woods that represent the world of nature; and a place in the sky where giants live.

All the characters wish for something that they do not have: a baby (the bakers): enough to eat (Red Riding Hood, her granny, and the wolf); enough money to buy back a favorite cow (Jack); marriage to a prince (Cinderella); release from the tower (Rapunzel); and keeping her child safe from the world (the witch).

Children were another key concern. In Medieval life, the death of babies was so common, even among the upper classes, that mothers did not want to get too attached to a child who might die. They were sent away to be cared for by others (the witch and her adopted baby). And children who survived gave their parents concerns. Red Riding Hood (her red color representing puberty, perhaps) was warned not to talk to anyone in the woods, but she does talk to a seductive wolf. Jack's mother was concerned that her child was dim witted; He sold their cow for a handful of beans, which turned out to have good and bad consequences.

Another issue is the sad life of widows: the witch (many old women were considered witches); Jack's mother, widowed and very poor, despairing over her feckless son; and Red Riding Hood's granny, living alone in the forest, and dependent upon her granddaughter for food.

The reality of Medieval life was the frequency of famines; food was a real issue. Merchants traveling alone in the woods often wound up in the next town's butcher shop as “white meat.” Little Red Riding Hood was always hungry, as were Jack and his mother, whose cow no longer gave them milk. And, of course, the wolf, who never ate his full. An old lady and a little girl are not much of a meal.

And who were the giants (ogres) living in the clouds from whom Jack stole treasures? They were the calamities that beset Medieval Europe: war, famine, and climate change (the “Little Ice Age,” 500 years of misery for Europe.

Finally, there is always the issue of wishes. Do we get our wishes answered, will we like them when we do, and what to they cost us? The last half hour of this movie dealt with that issue. The goody-two-shoes in me would have preferred to drop that issue.

This was indeed an “epic drama” that followed the incredible life of an Olympic runner and war hero, Louie Zamperini. It followed not only his survival on a life raft when his plane crashed in the Pacific, but also his internment when “rescued” and interned by the Japanese Navy in what had to be the most miserable experience a human being could possibly have survived. For two hours and 17 minutes, I sat through what I could only call torture porn. I cannot believe that a human body could survive what that man could have endured, and disbelieved that he looked as well as he did when he returned home to marry his sweetheart. I was also enraged that his Japanese torturer was not executed, and left the theater convinced that anybody who thought that the nuclear bombing of Japan was wrong should see this film. What was Director Angelina Jolie thinking!!!!

Taken 3
This entire movie could have been aborted if the chief of detectives (played coolly by Forest Whitaker) had realized then that his chief suspect Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) could never have slit the throat of his ex-wife in his own bed and yet gone out and brought back still-warm bagels. It just would not have happened. He never thinks to ask until well into the movie what Mills does for a living (a retired secret agent who knows how to disappear). But then, there would not have been such a breathtaking and much-too-long chase through Los Angeles freeways, from amazingly easy unclogged East L.A. all the way to the Malibu Canyon.  Car chases with no end! Enough to make Angelinos jealous!

And this time, Neeson who in past movies has had to rescue his daughter and his ex-wife in such garden spots as Paris and Istanbul, Los Angeles is a letdown. But Neeson isn't. He is still quite a hunk. And one can feel very safe at the thought of being rescued by him. Especially at times like today, with thugs like the humorless crowd like the ones who find it necessary to kill cartoonists in Paris.

And no end to Russian thugs, uglier than ever, and endlessly sucking on expensive booze and kissing several willing hookers at a time in penthouse swimming pools, guarded by mindless and expendable goons, all very Russian indeed. Ah, how one misses the Cold War.  Or is it really gone?

American Sniper

Clint Eastwood has done it again:  made a wonderful movie. But let me get my feelings about the Iraq war out of the way. This is a contentious issue and my take is probably different from the great divide.

I think we were right to go in to Iraq to remove the dangerous and loathsome Saddam Hussein and his even worse sons, but were wrong to try to plant a democracy there. We poked a hornet's nest and created a civil war, breaking a country that was working. We should have handed it over to a competent general and then left.

That being said, we meant well, and stayed, and we created a nightmare war leaving it to a whole generation of young volunteer military who fought, were grievously wounded and dead (on both sides), leaving behind grieving and angry women and children. Because most of us had no skin in the game, these heroic warriors have suffered unpardonable neglect.

But this movie was not just about that. It was about something else. It was about character, the character of a remarkable man who was something of a rarity in our time: a genuine hero. Michael Moore, who, in my opinion, is just a very stupid man with a very big mouth, does not understand what a sniper does, should have paid attention to a key moment in this film. Kris Kyle's father explains to him and his little brother that there are three kinds of human beings in the world: the sheep, who do not understand evil; the wolves who prey upon them; and the sheep dogs who protect those sheep.  You must be the sheepdogs, he tells the boys.  When the wolf attacks, you finish it.  That is what a sniper does.

Kris Kyle's obsession was such that he sacrificed everything in his life to protect as many of his fellow soldiers in this God-forsaken war that he could, making decisions that were horrifying (what do you do when a woman and child come out of a house carrying a IED they will plant just before the next truck comes by? The woman is prepared to sacrifice her child for this.  What do you do when an Al Qaeda leader threatens the neighborhood with his weapon of choice, a drill, poised at the head of a child?

I am very glad that this was the movie of the week all over the country when it came out. Kris Kyle was a brave, good man, and we owe him our salute. Mr. Moore has my raspberry.

Black or White

This movie has of course annoyed all the professional race professionals who make a living out of going on about what the title of the movie implies: that one is either black or white. Director Mike Binder and star Kevin Costner really wanted the title to be Black and White, which better expressed the theme.

I went to see what I thought would be light entertainment, and came away not only entertained but what I thought was a profound movie about some real race issues in America that I wish the likes of the Angela Davises in America (who are Black and White but would never admit it) would go see this movie.

Kostner plays a grandfather who has already lost his 17-year-old daughter who had been seduced by a 23-year-old Black druggie, the one good-for-nothing son of an otherwise decent Black family. The young girl died in childbirth and Kostner, a prosperous Beverly Hills lawyer and his wife, raise the baby. Then one terrible night, a hit-and-run driver kills Kostner's wife and he is left to care for his grandchild alone. Her paternal grandmother seeks custody, with the help of her brother, a lawyer of the Angela Davis variety, who is convinced that everybody White hates everybody Black. One is either White OR Black in his mind.

Do pay attention to a wonderful ensemble cast of actors:  Kevin Costner, playing lawyer Elliot Anderson whose subtle variations of anger, drunkenness, love, and honesty are a wonder to behold. Octavia Spencer, who plays the Black grandmother Rowena Jeffers whose energy and face demands both obedience from her children and love that can melt an iceberg. And another of those Black and White little girls, Jillian Estell who plays Eloise Anderson, the grandchild, is the most adorable, most natural, intelligent seven-year-old since Shirley Temple!

One of the most interesting minor characters if Duvan, played by Mpho Koaho, about whom little fuss is made:  a survivor of (probably) Sudanese Muslim genocide of his entire tribe-a real horror, of which he is the only survivor.

What does he do:  he does not become a druggie; he does not become a demonstrator or a drunk or do law suits. He gets multiple Ph.Ds., learns nine languages, teaches them all, teaches piano, and tutors everybody. Not much is made of this in the movie other than he is very Black indeed.

Pay attention to what Kevin Kostner says on the witness stand when he is asked if he just hates Black People.

Pay attention to what happens to the ne'er-do-well son when he comes to terms that he is wired wrong. He just can't help himself. It isn't just a matter of his color.   And pay attention to the face of the Black and White woman judge (whose name I can't find).  She has a wonderful expressive face, as did the expressive Hispanic housekeeper in Elliot Anderson's house.  She never had to say a word.

Wonderful movie.  Ignore all the other reviews.

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