Dear Academy (on Foreign Language Films)

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

I don’t often find myself agreeing with Guy Lodge, but I have to admit he’s got a point. You spend a significant amount of time and energy trying to be relevant, trying to appeal to a younger audience to preserve your existence, which I’ll concede is a necessary part of doing business. However, the same effort should be spent on some of the more systemic issues that plague your organization, and the Foreign Language Film category is a fine example. Its perspective is outdated. While attempting to promote fairness in allowing a single film from each nation, you allow the nation to choose what film will essentially represent it. Potentially, and actually, silencing filmmakers who may not fit that nation’s current ideology or how those in power wish to be perceived by the rest of the world. And by treating this as a sort of “cinematic Olympic Games” you privilege the nation over the filmmakers. The sole purpose of your awards is to recognize excellence in filmmaking, and it is those efforts that should come first and foremost. It wasn’t until 1956 that foreign language films were given an official category, and the time has long since passed for this award to be re-envisioned. I don’t believe there is a simple solution or a quick fix to what ails this category, but we are well beyond pretending that it is just fine the way that it is.

Sincerely,
Kerry

Word & Film: The Intersection of Books, Movies, and Television

Just stumbled across this site today.  Had to tell my partner-in-crime about it immediately.  “The Intersection of Books, Movies, and Television” is actually her middle name. 

Page to Screen: Alice (1988)

Lewis Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of those stories that everyone knows even if they have never read it. The White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter have becomes so embedded in our culture that the allusion to them is instantly recognizable. While most people are familiar with Disney’s 1951 version Alice in Wonderland, the story has been filmed dozens of times dating as far back as 1903. Among these various adaptations is Jan Svankmajer’s Neco z Alenky. The Czech title translates to “Something from Alice” but appears most often as simply Alice. Unlike the animated classic, Svankmajer presents a singularly dark vision of Carroll’s story, which, while jarring, is remarkably faithful to the themes of the novel.

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Svankmajer’s work is deeply rooted in the Surrealist aesthetic, which uses shocking imagery to confront and resolve the contradictions between the dream state and reality. This revolutionary movement is commonly associated with the work of artists such as Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel. For those who are accustomed to the Disney version or think of the story as mere children’s literature the use of surrealism may seem disturbing, but the two are not as incompatible as they first may appear. The illustrations originally created to accompany the text were designed by John Tenniel who Carroll commissioned for the project. For the most part they are quite harmless but some can be considered somewhat unnerving in a work intended for children.

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The image of Alice with a tiny head atop an elongated neck is a prime example of how Carroll and Tenniel did not feel that the bizarre and surreal would be out of place in this narrative. Surrealism is founded on the idea of navigating dreams and reality. From this standpoint it offers an ideal perspective for looking at Alice’s journey. Chapter 1 begins with Alice sitting bored stiff along a river bank and feeling “very sleepy and stupid.” All of this provides an explanation for the visions that follow; how a simple little girl could step into a fairy-tale with talking animals, disappearing cats and playing card soldiers. She is dreaming. Finally, the fact that Surrealism is so closely associated with revolution makes the pairing with Alice’s story an inspired decision. Although it is a work of children’s literature, Carroll’s novel is strongly centered on issues of growing up and the challenges of transitioning from childhood into adulthood. Adolescence is one of the great periods of revolution that all individuals must experience, which is part of Alice’s continued appeal; the fantastic setting and memorable characters are introduced within a period of development the is universally relatable. Surrealism may not be the obvious choice in addressing the story, but it provides a unique lens through which to consider the text’s deeper themes.

Despite the surrealistic twist, the costuming and design of Svankmajer’s film has a consistently Victorian English style. The most notable exception to this is a highly comical allusion to the film’s contemporary origin. Alice has barricaded herself in a room as the White Rabbit pursues her. He breaks through the panel of the door and sticks his head through in homage to the oft-imitated scene from Kubrick’s The Shining, which was released just a few years prior to Alice. Keeping within the Victorian period for most for its references, there are several classes of reoccurring images that are built in a kind of theme and variation manner that reflect not only the surrealistic aesthetic but also address the fundamental ideas behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The first group of images involves play toys such as dolls, building blocks and tea sets. Unlike the novel, Wonderland is not so much a land as a creepy dollhouse with a maze-like series of rooms. The images remind us that this is clearly not the Disney version of childhood but it is about childhood nonetheless. Alice’s difficulties upon entering Wonderland mirror those of every child: she has impulse control issues (eating and drinking without thought to the consequences) and she seems to be either too little or too big to achieve her goals. As adults, people tend to look back nostalgically on childhood as a carefree time in their lives forgetting that with that innocence comes inexperience, and being a kid can be absolutely terrifying.

Another collection of images concerns sewing notions like a needle and thread, pin cushions and, especially, scissors. Their macabre use throughout the film leaves the viewer with a lasting impression, which will never let them look at a pair of scissors the same way again. As a traditionally female domestic task the use of sewing materials is appropriate to the story but they also reinforce the concept of Alice in a period of transition. She will need to acquire certain skills that would be expected of a woman in her society. She is moving from playing with dolls to learning how to care for a child of her own. The tea party is a good representation of this; nothing about the Hatter and the March Hare’s behavior makes any sense to her. In an individual’s transition from childhood into adulthood they must learn how to properly conduct themselves in a social setting where to a child the rules can be just as puzzling as being told to have a glass of wine when no wine is present.

The final class of images is entirely connected with taxidermy. The White Rabbit is stuffed with sawdust, specimens appear in jars and the inhabitants of Wonderland are largely reanimated skeletons.

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Natural history was a popular feature of nineteenth-century English culture, particularly with prominent figures such as Charles Darwin, and Carroll did research into the animals that appear in the narrative as he developed an oral story into a polished novel. So these images, though shocking, are not entirely without merit, and they address one of the novel’s most overlooked themes—mortality. The poem, which begins Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland contains the following stanza:

Ah, cruel Three! In such an hour,
Beneath such dreamy weather,
To beg a tale of breath too weak
To stir the tiniest feather!
Yet what can one poor voice avail
Against three tongues together?

Despite the bloom of youth and the beauty of the summer humans cannot escape the fact that the Fates have set the length of their days and one day they will die. Much of the poetry in this novel and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, pertains to death, which is the natural extension of a novel of development; just as this is a story about transitioning from childhood toward adulthood, there is the inevitable transition from adulthood to death. These are challenging ideas for people to face regardless of their age. Lewis Carroll chose to address them using the guise of fantasy while Jan Svankmajer chose to confront them with the force of Surrealism.

Alice is certainly an unconventional adaption of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it is worthwhile not only for its own sake, but also for how it can enrich our understanding of Lewis Carroll’s novel. It also holds a valuable place in film history for how it has influenced other filmmaker’s such as Tim Burton whose 2010 adaptation Alice in Wonderland bears marks of Svankmajer’s style. This twisted spin on a children’s classic may not be for all tastes, but it is an incredible cinematic achievement that leaves the audience thinking twice about what lies beneath that rabbit hole.

Things that Go Bump in the Night

The British Film Institute has unveiled its new season entitled, Gothic:  The Dark Heart of Film.  The project, which begins in October, focuses on Britain’s great tradition of horror and gothic romances.  It aims to throw new light on some classic masterpieces and introduce some little known gems. Gothic explores one of Britain’s biggest cultural exports as revealed through four compelling themes: Monstrous, The Dark Arts, Haunted and Love is a Devil.  Gothic will celebrate the very British genius – rooted in literature and art – that gave rise to some of the most filmed characters in our on-screen history: Dracula, Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde. Gothic introduced the nation to sex, unleashing dark passions and breaking taboos along the way, circumventing what was acceptable to view onscreen and then selling it to America – who imported the genre with true bloodlust.

Check out the official website for the project here.

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

FYI: This review may contain spoilers.

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that you have just written and directed the third highest grossing film of all-time. You’ve tirelessly devoted your life to this project, and now it’s time to kick back and relax. So, the question becomes, how will you spend your summer vacation? I’m sure for many people this scenario would involve and remote beach somewhere and exotic beverages with tiny umbrellas in them. However, if your name happens to be Joss Whedon, this apparently means having a bunch of friends and family over to your house and filming Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Just when I think I couldn’t love this man any more….

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Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to the home of his good friend Leonato (Clark Gregg) for what amounts to a week-long house party. Upon arriving, Claudio (Fran Kranz) finds himself smitten by Leonato’s daughter Hero (Jillian Morgese), but his professions of love are met with scorn by confirmed bachelor Benedict (Alexis Denisof). But Benedict has his hands full owing to the presence of his former flame and Hero’s cousin Beatrice (Amy Acker) with the two constantly at each other’s throats. Inspired by this “merry war,” Don Pedro decides to have a bit of fun and recruits the rest of the party to convince Beatrice and Benedict that they are secretly in love with each other. However, among the houseguests is also Don Pedro’s brother, Don John (Sean Maher) who , incensed with his sibling, is plotting to do whatever it takes to ruin the happiness of those he thinks have wronged him. Will Claudio get his Hero, will Beatrice and Benedict ever get over themselves … of course they will people! It’s a Shakespeare comedy. But watching it all unfold is positively hysterical.

By and large the members of this ensemble are not exactly what you would call Shakespearean actors, i.e. individuals who have the ability to render the lyricism of the language in such a way that seems natural and maximizes the power of the words. This is no mean feat because the language isn’t natural; it wasn’t when the play was first performed and it certainly isn’t in 2013. It is an incredible skill to make it seem so. For this cast what is most important is that they made the sense and feeling of this language intelligible to their audience. The humor, jealousy and passion are imparted in an artful and entertaining fashion that would please even viewers not otherwise inclined to watching a Shakespeare production. Admittedly it is a bit jarring at first to hear them utter those words because it is speech that they are unaccustomed to, but eventually the rhythm and cadence they take becomes less distracting. The ensemble is composed of actors from Whedon’s various other projects (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Firefly, Dollhouse, The Avengers), and that camaraderie not only makes for an enjoyable experience (these folks clearly love working together) but it is an essential quality to the story. These characters are brothers-in-arms, lovers, family and their affection for one another is what gives the play its charm.

Much Ado About Nothing is unique among Shakespeare’s works in that the events take place within a rather confined space (Leonato’s estate) over a finite amount of time (just a few days). Seeing as it was shot in his own home, Whedon is uniquely familiar with his setting and utilizes the space to its full story-telling potential. The plot revolves around conversations being overheard, intentionally and accidentally. How the scenes are established with people prying around corners, through windows and under furniture is visually creative and narratively amusing. The decision to shoot the film in black-and-white also contributes to the play’s restrained nature. It lends a classic touch to the images and allows the audience to focus on the characters’ relationships to one another and within their environment. Everything about the production is stripped down and simple, making the actors and the dialogue the true stars of the show.

Apart from modernizing the setting, Whedon make very few alterations to the original text. As with most film adaptations of Shakespeare, some lines have been deleted , but unless you want it to be three hours long and include a fifteen minute intermission it’s something of a necessity. One change was the film’s opening sequence in which we see something of the history between Beatrice and Benedict that is only alluded to in the text. For those who don’t have much exposure to Shakespeare this scene goes some way to explain the antagonism that exists between them. It also highlights certain lines of dialogue because the audience is privy to the source of their bitter barbs. Another modification that Whedon made was to change the gender of a few of the roles, resulting in more speaking parts for women, which somehow seems appropriate in a play that is essentially an evenly matched battle of the sexes. But this also increased the sexual humor, which I imagine is something the playwright would have heartily approved of.

This play is memorable for Beatrice and Benedict’s clever exchanges , but behind those witty words are two people who are absolutely terrified. Benedict’s aversion to matrimony stems from his fear of being humiliated by giving his love to a faithless woman. What could be worse than giving a woman your heart, and believing you have hers, only to learn that you’re not the only one? Just ask Claudio. Beatrice, likewise, is afraid that no man can be constant to just one woman, which was justifiably fuelled by her previous encounter with Benedict. Truly, what could be worse than swearing your devotion to a man only to have him reject and abandon you? Just ask Hero. These are two insecure people too smart for their own good, who are forced to watch their worst fears come to light. The result is that they turn to one another, and trust in their hearts rather than their heads . Love is a risky business. But the joy of finding the person who is right for you vastly outweighs any dangers.

This is a classy, sexy, and funny film. So, get thee to a theater. You will not regret it.

Review: Man of Steel (2013)

FYI: This review may contain spoilers.

While comic book characters have enjoyed unprecedented success in recent years there is one name that has been conspicuously absent. It could be that DC Comics and Warner Brothers were gun shy after the financial failure of the last attempt to resurrect the character. Or it simply might have been the age old problem that has plagued our favorite Kryptonian, what do you do with an essentially omnipotent being? As Umberto Eco put it in The Role of the Reader, “Superman, by definition the character whom nothing can impede, finds himself in the worrisome narrative situation of being a hero without an adversary and therefore without the possibility of any development.” On page or screen this is a creative nightmare. Finding a challenge equal to the man who has no equal, making an extraordinary character identifiable to ordinary audiences and all the while thrilling them with the limitlessness of his abilities is a serious problem. As Superman Returns showed, just making a movie about what is likely the world’s most recognizable superhero is no guarantee of box office success. Which made everyone wonder if Man of Steel would have what it takes to make Superman soar again?

Faced with the imminent destruction of Krypton, Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) make the decision to send their son to a habitable planet to preserve what remains of their civilization. Raised by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) he has been taught to conceal his true nature out of fear for how people would react to something they could not understand. Now a grown man as Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) he wanders his adopted planet keeping to himself, helping where he can, but always moving on so as to avoid drawing attention to himself. When an object is discovered under the Arctic Clark is finally given insight into his origins and is placed in the path of intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams), whose journalistic curiosity compels her to find answers to these strange occurrences. But the world only becomes stranger with the appearance of General Zod (Michael Shannon), who was exiled for a rebellion on Krypton, hunting for a key, which would mean a second chance for Kryptonbut would result in the genocide of the human race. Torn between two lives and troubled by the lessons of two very different fathers, Clark must choose his own destiny and decide what kind of man he wants to be.

When asked why they had chosen Zack Snyder to direct Man of Steel, producer Christopher Nolan responded, “We were looking for a director who could bring a sense of optimism and idealism to this very American myth.” Which prompts me to repeat the question, why Zack Snyder? There is nothing in his body of work (300, Sucker Punch, The Watchmen) to suggest that he is suited to this material. If there is a common theme among his previous films it is the sliver of hope in the wake of overwhelming loss and destruction. This is undeniably a noble concept; however, the bleakness of such meditations does not translate well with the kind of hopefulness I would associate with the Superman mythology. Nor for that matter does the bleakness of Snyder’s characteristic visual aesthetic. This film could have been appropriately subtitled Fifty Shades of Grey given how unrelentingly grim the color palette is. I appreciate that in this effort to relaunch the character the filmmakers have decided to take a more serious tone; it is a move of which I am strongly in favor. However, the marriage of the tone and a visual style that is so desolate weighs heavily on the film, and fails to deliver that “sense of optimism and idealism” they hoped to achieve.

Apart from the fact the film is an aesthetic train wreck, the action sequences have all the grace of the proverbial ox in a china shop. There is one major action scene after another with little regard for story or character. This film is supposed to be a reboot to the series, a new attempt at an origin story; yet, I have no better idea who this Superman is than when I went into the theater. There was more character development in all six of the heroes in The Avengers than there was in the singular figure in this film. The story is set up in such a way that numerous flashbacks from Clark Kent’s past are interspersed amidst the action and contemporary events. Such occasions would have been the perfect opportunity to allow the audience to catch its breath and give the action some sense perspective within the character’s story arc, but instead these scenes are handled with no such carebut are treated merely as afterthoughts to move from one bombastic moment to the next. Not only are the action sequences overwhelming in number but they are also shot in a dizzying whirl of flying masses and crashing cityscapes so that you can never fully appreciate the images you are seeing. I could not help but walk away with the impression that all the elements were there for a good movie if it had been entrusted to a director whose vision was more favorable to the material.

For as much as a jumbled mess as I found the film to be, I was paradoxically glad that it has done so well at the box office because there were decisions made that I will be interested to see where it could take the series if it is given the chance to develop (a fact that has been assured by its tremendous financial success). After the now standard Bond movie opening to an action film featuring the destruction of Krypton, the story shifts to Kal/Clark as an adult. Instead of choosing to have an extended sequence at the beginning that follows his childhood, his growth is documented in relevant flashbacks throughout. It was a brilliant use of a storytelling device that sadly was not utilized to its potential, but I think it underscored the tension that exists in Superman’s dual identity to a greater extent than any previous cinematic appearance. While in Superman we see Clark Kent and Superman side by side, one isessentially mask for the other; the foppish persona he adopts is meant to protect his true self. But in Man of Steel there is more at work here. We don’t even glimpse the well-meaning Daily Planet reporter until the end of the film. Instead the struggle for identity we see is one between Clark Kent, son of Jonathan and Martha Kent, and Kal-El, son of Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van. He is the child of two worlds in a very literal sense. There are some very complex issues and implications about identity that have always been at play in Superman’s various incarnations, but when it comes to the big screen filmmakers have seemed to favor simplifying matters. Even though we did not get to see nearly enough of this dynamic in the film for my taste, I am intrigued about the direction this series might take.

I also could not help but appreciate the filmmakers’ priority of reasserting Superman as a “very American myth.” I do not say this out of nationalistic bias; although, that is possible, but out of desire that the inherent American-ness of the character not be lost and one that is particularly relevant to our cultural moment. In 2006’s Superman Returns, Perry White (played by Frank Langella) asks his reporters to find out if Superman still “believes in truth, justice, all that stuff,” quite blatantly leaving off that bit about the “American way.” Somewhere along the line the American identity of Superman went by the wayside. Perhaps it was deemed too old-fashionedor maybe it would make the character less appealing to a global audience, whatever the case may be that part of his identity ceased to be a point of focus. But the creators behind Man of Steel clearly have decided to take a different approach, and they aren’t even remotely subtle about it. Superman watches football, he’s a Royals fanand when asked if he would threaten American interest replies, “I was raised in Kansas, General; I’m as American as I can get.” In his essay, ‘What Makes Superman So Darned American,’ Gary Engels identifies the character’s immigrant origins as part of his universal and continued appeal, stating, “This uniquely American hero has two identities, one based on where he comes from in life’s journey, one on where he is going.” America is at its foundation an immigrant nation. Each successive of generation must assimilate an alien past into a new future. It is a nation with tremendous power that has to learn how to exercise its abilities with wisdom and restraint. This is why Superman, and especially his American identity, is such a potent symbol right now. Like the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese and many others before them, a new wave of immigrants is struggling to find a place in this nation. As new technologies develop the debate arises as to what we what can do and what we should do. What makes Superman such an admirable character is that he represents the best of what the human race is capable of. He can be anything and do anything, yet he chooses what is good and virtuous and right.

I haven’t the faintest idea how Henry Cavill is going to stack up against every other actor to play this role or what he is going to distinctly bring to the table. I’m not sure what the filmmakers are going to do with the very different approach to the character of Lois Lane that they seem to be taking. There are many lingering questions I have about the future of this mythology because among the various priorities this film had character development simply wasn’t one of them. But I am relieved that we won’t have to wait another seven years to find out.

On Cliffhangers

A couple of weeks ago my father called me to ask when the season finale of Castle was going to air, because he wanted to avoid it. His reasoning was that every year the show ends on a cliffhanger and it has so annoyed him that he was going to boycott the episode; he would worry about what happened sometime in September. I can sympathize with my father’s feelings. It does feel as though many television shows feel as though it is essential to end every season so as to provoke an, OMG! What happens next?! response. In her recap of last night’s episode of Scandal, Liane Bonin Starr wrote, “it’s always good for an episode to end on a cliffhanger.” But I’m not convinced that is necessarily true.

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Cliffhangers have been around since the days of the silent movie serials in which a young woman would be tied to the train tracks with a locomotive steaming toward her or the hero would literally be dangling from the edge of a cliff. And then the screen would fade to black with the words … To Be Continued, in hopes that this would encourage movie goers to return the next week to see if the heroine was saved or how the hero got himself out of his predicament. I imagine modern television writers and producers have much the same motivation. They work in a market that is thoroughly saturated with other products that compete for their audience’s time and money, thus the impulse to leave the audience wanting more. And the cliffhanger is a tried and true gimmick in order to do just that.

Because the cliffhanger has become so well-used, perhaps even abused, I feel like shows should use it with care. The type of endings that I’m referring to are ones in which: someone is shot, a building blows up with one of the main characters in it, there’s marriage proposal but we don’t get to hear the answer or a major secret is revealed that will fundamentally change the dynamic of the show, and then, roll credits. There are very few shows that can end every season in such a manner without it feeling forced. Such endings can be genuinely exciting, but because the cliffhanger is so commonplace much of the element of surprise has already been taken away. As an alternative I’m certainly in favor of unresolved issues. It’s nice when we get to the end of the season and there is some closure to the story-lines that have been plaguing various characters, but it’s nice when not everything is tied up with a pretty bow; when we are left still wondering how some things will turn out. But that is very different from the catastrophic impact of the cliffhanger.

I realize that there are many good shows out there. Trust me. I am painfully aware of this fact. But if you write a quality show week in and week out, people are going to miss it when the season is over and look forward to it when it returns. You don’t need to resort to crazy gimmicks.

Review: The Sapphires (2012)

FYI: This review may contain spoilers.

Spring is a time for big moments: prom, graduation, new jobs, and new beginnings. These are times we are told will be with us for the rest of our lives. Landmarks where we declare we are no longer children but adults, we are no longer the person we used to be but an improved version of ourselves. The funny thing about growing up or changing at any age is that it never seems to happen on those big occasions. It’s in the moments in between when nothing is supposed to be happening that we find out who we really are and how far we have come. The Sapphires is about four young women on the cusp of some of the biggest moments in their lives, but the changes they long for don’t come in quite the way they expected.

In 1968 the Civil Rights Movement is sweeping across the United States, and in Australia the indigenous people likewise struggle for the rights afforded white citizens and simply to be recognized as human beings. Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) have been singing together since they were kids. During a local talent competition, the girls meet Dave (Chris O’Dowd), a down-on-his-luck talent scout who they convince to help them make it to Vietnam as part of a USO touring group. Along with their estranged cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens) they form a Mo-Town quartet, and through music and war they learn about life, love and themselves.

I recently expressed my disappointment at a comedy’s inability to balance quality humor with a thoughtful exploration of more meaningful issues, but this film is anything but a disappointment. Each of these young women is given a distinct personality and their own story arc in which we see how they grow and develop over the course of the narrative. Gail is the oldest; it has always been her responsibility to look after the others, but now she has to learn not only to let go and allow them to make their own mistakes but also how to let someone else take care of her, which is no easy task for someone who is used to being in control. Cynthia has recently been jilted at the altar, and responds by throwing herself at every guy who takes an interest in her as a means of dealing with her humiliation and anger. Kay is one of the Stolen Generation; a fair skinned Aborigine who was taken from her home to be raised to reject her ethnicity. Being reunited with her others forces her to confront her perceptions of her own identity and the woman she can choose to be. Julie is the youngest. She is also the most talented, and the one everyone says could really go places. But she has also has a child of her own to think about, and is torn between fulfilling her dreams and being with her son. Each of these characters is given her due, and yet the seriousness of their dilemmas, and the wartime setting, does not hinder the film’s humor but acts as a wonderful counterpart enriching both its drama and comedy.

As far as the humor is concerned, Chris O’Dowd may in fact be one of the funniest, most lovable human beings on the planet. Not that he is the sole source of comedy in the film, but he certainly is the standout. In many ways his character is pretty stereotypical—the drunken, irresponsible Irishman, but O’Dowd does make the most of it. Much like the other characters in film, Dave has his own growing pains as up to this point in his life he has just drifted by but now finds himself responsible for four young women in another country, which happens to be in the middle of a war zone. By and large the film tends to askew the horrors of wars, but this is actually a smart decision. The war time setting provides an important cultural and historical context while also providing dramatic tension. But the film’s limited focus on the war prevents it from becoming a kitchen sink movie, i.e. including so many dramatic, historical events that it collapses under its own weight. The limitation also keeps the drama from overshadowing the humor, and the film is first and foremost a comedy. With such great characters, delightful humor, and fabulous music this is a tremendously entertaining film.

Review: 42 (2013)

Apparently it’s true. The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything really is 42.

It’s 1945. The war is over, Hitler has been defeated and the world has changed. But not everyone is ready for the fact that things cannot go back to the way they used to be. The US set out to defeat evil in other lands but failed to recognize, or simply chose to ignore, the evil within its own borders. Here hatred had become so institutionalized that it seemed acceptable, it was taken for granted that this was just how things were. It would take a great deal of courage to make change a reality, and that courage should never be underestimated, and is not often given its due.

Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) has a mad, crazy idea. Motivated by business savvy and not a little guilt, he has decided to bring a Black player to Major League Baseball. Finding the right man won’t be easy, though; he needs to be someone who not only can play but also has the strength of character to endure the hostility his presence will create. Among the possible candidates emerges one Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) of the Kansas City Monarchs. Robinson is not the most gifted player, not to mention he has a history of challenging authority in the face of racial discrimination, but something tells Rickey that this is his man. As Robinson works his way from the Montreal Royals and eventually to the Brooklyn Dodgers, he faces racial intolerance on the field and off, making his successes professionally and personally even more worthy of admiration.

I cannot even begin to imagine the amount of courage, will and determination it took Jackie Robinson to accomplish what he did, but watching his story brought to the screen and seeing how the audience responded to what they saw was one of the most joyous experiences I have had in a theater in a very long time. It would be a daunting task for any actor to step into those shoes. In Hollywood’s first biopic on the player, The Jackie Robinson Story, Robinson played himself. But Boseman was more than up to the task of embodying the strength, resolve and even humor that was essential in bringing this legend to film. I think one of my favorite moments came when Robinson’s wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) says to her husband, “If they knew you they would be ashamed.” While the film only scratches the surface of the racial prejudice that Robinson and his family suffered, one of the reoccurring themes is that as people began to see beyond the color of his skin to the kind of player and kind of man he was the more they accepted and respected him. Many people at least, but not all. That’s an ending not even Hollywood could honestly sell.

Apart from possibly boxing, no sport makes for better movies than baseball. Even those who find the prospect of watching an MLB game akin to watching paint dry can’t deny the drama that it can afford the screen. Using quick editing and creative camera angles, the filmmakers brilliantly recreated why Robinson led the league his rookie year in stolen bases, and why he must have given pitchers nightmares. There isn’t much not to love about this movie. And if it doesn’t get you angry, make you laugh and make you want to cheer, I strongly encourage you to check your pulse and see if your heart is actually still beating.

Review: Admission (2013)

I read a magazine article once on the best advice expectant parents received, and one of these bits of wisdom has always stuck with me. A wizened father told his daughter, Our children usually turn out alright in spite of ourselves. I feel like there are a number of realities about adulthood wrapped up in that statement that all of us need to accept. First, our parents are not perfect. They are people, and despite our childhood certainty that they have all the answers, they don’t. Eventually we have to forgive them their mistakes and accept them for who they are. And despite the best efforts of parents not to make the same mistakes that their parents did with them, they will make mistakes that are uniquely their own, because just like the generation before them, they are human and occasionally they are going to screw up. Finally, becoming an adult, becoming a parent, does not endow a person with all the knowledge of the universe. Again, part of us seems to retain that naivete that once we are adults things will be simpler because we’ll know everything we need to, which leads to much frustration and confusion later in life when in fact nothing is simpler. All of these interconnected truths lie at the heart of Admission.

Princeton admissions officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) has everything she could ask for in life: she loves her job and is in line to become the new head of admissions; she lives with her stable English professor partner (Michael Sheen); her life has settled into a quiet routine and she is perfectly content with that. But things begin to unravel when her steady professor leaves her for one of his colleagues who he has gotten pregnant. Then, a high school principle shows up (Paul Rudd) claiming that one of his students, a bright but unconventional young man named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), may be the child she gave up for adoption. Oh, and let’s not forget her struggles with her feminist, 60s wild child mother (Lily Tomlin) who cannot understand her daughter’s conformity. To maintain some sense of control in her life she clings to what she knows best and focuses on helping Jeremiah with his application while trying to determine if he really is her biological son.

First and foremost I will say that this is a rather sweet movie. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd are every bit as adorable as you could ask for, and Lily Tomlin is wonderfully eccentric. My disappointment I think is that the film does not delve deeply enough into its more serious issues, nor is it funny enough to satisfy as a lighter treatment of life’s complications. It is neither one thing nor the other. The film does touch on some really poignant topics, like the repercussions of giving up a child for adoption and the relationship between parents and their children, but it only dips its toe in the water; it is as though the filmmakers were afraid they would alienate people who came to see Tiny Fey comedy by being too earnest. But for a movie starring Fey and Rudd, it is surprisingly low on laughs. There are certainly some very amusing bits, especially for anyone who has gone through the pains of the college admissions process, but it is far from being a laugh-out-loud comedy. It is a nice film but I probably would have enjoyed it more if the filmmakers hadn’t been so wishy-washy.