Thursday, February 27, 2014

Unfinished Song

February is nearly over and I haven't been to the movie theater all month. The snow and cold have managed to bring out all my hibernating instincts so I've been relying on my new trusty friend OnDemand for all my movie-viewing needs. I've been on a lucky streak so far because each one of my choices has been a sure-fire hit; from Blue Jasmine, The Butler, Dallas Buyers Club, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, and the last this past weekend, Unfinished Song. This sweet, funny and poignant British film's original title was Song for Marion and stars Terence Stamp, Gemma Arterton and the magnificent Vanessa Redgrave.

Unfinished Song is the sentimental and inspiring story of Arthur, a grumpy old curmudgeon, and his dear wife Marion, whom is recovering from a fight with cancer. Marion is everything that Arthur isn't; sweet, kind, friendly and determined to live whatever is left of her life to the fullest and surrounded by her dear friends, a rag tag group of senior citizens that are part of a local chorus. The chorus' musical director is young Elizabeth (Arterton), a high school music teacher by day who moonlights by helping the OAP's (Old Age Pensioners) get their groove on singing songs like "Let's Talk About Sex" and "Ace of Spades."

Despite having a lovely voice, Arthur avoids the chorus like the plague; limiting his contact to dropping off and picking up Marion for rehearsals. Grouch or not, Arthur is dedicated to Marion; lovingly and sometimes a little too controllingly taking care of all of her needs by himself, and only reluctantly calling on help from his poor son James, who seemingly can do no right in Arthur's eyes. The love and dedication between these two very different people is mutual though, as Marion is the only one who seems to be able to tame the beast and see the real man hiding behind the scowling mask. The OAPs enter a competition and thanks to an incredibly moving solo from Marion qualify to advance, but her hopes and Arthur's life crumble when it's found that Marion's cancer has returned and that there's no hope. As the two face the uncertainty ahead, it will take all of Marion's love to help Arthur find his voice and his way.

Oh, this was so good! I loved it. It was once again another Kleenex moment for me, but worth every tear. Though it was a fictional story, the film reminded me of the documentary Young@Heart which I watched and reviewed back in 2008. The film movingly deals with love and loss and while some will say it's overly sentimental and trite, I say so what because it still delivers. It is funny and heartbreaking and heartwarming and I was too busy wiping away my tears to worry about the fact that I saw the ending coming from a mile away; plus the acting, Redgraves in particular, more than makes up for any and all faults you might find with the plot.

The humor is sweet and light and comes from the sheer absurdity and contrast of seeing these little old ladies and men singing about sex and doing the robot. The singing, namely the solos from Redgrave ("True Colors") and Stamp ("Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)") will just slay you. OMG, I was a puddle (a messy, snot-nosed puddle). As for the acting, there is palpable emotion in every scene with Stamp and Redgrave, as their love envelops you and you see each of them through their eyes - the way Marion and Arthur see each other. Redgrave was amazing; practically radiating grace, beauty and wisdom. You believe in Arthur's goodness because Marion does and that is all thanks to Redgrave's captivating and believable performance. Stamp shines in Arthur's moments of vulnerability, when the gruff exterior falls away and you're left with a man scared of the future and heartbroken at the depths of his loss.

Do yourself a favor and watch Unfinished Song; truthfully you won't be able to finish it with a dry eye, but after the laughter and tears you'll be left with a smile and a song in your heart.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Paging Mrs. Reddington

OnDemand has become my new best friend lately; my go-to place for movies and missed episodes alike and it saved the day yet again when after skipping The Blacklist Monday in favor of an early night in bed, I was able to catch up with the latest episode (“Madeline Pratt”) last night. Red was back in rare form; witty, charming, and thoroughly conniving. Unlike episodes past, this week’s blacklist target was actually intriguing because she seemed to play a direct role in the larger picture and story arc involving Red and his past. We first see Madeline Pratt, whom the bank employee interestingly enough addresses as “Mrs. Reddington”, as she’s emptying a safe deposit box in an Istanbul bank, and later at a hotel bar where she meets Red in order to recruit his help in stealing an ancient effigy currently residing at a Syrian Embassy.

There’s definitely more than business between these two. As Maddie (how Red later refers to her) tells him “You stood me up in Florence I had to get your attention somehow.” Truly the narrative surrounding the effigy isn’t nearly as intriguing as the seductive and sassy interactions between the winsome duo, and it quickly becomes apparent that there is tons of history between these two to be mined for clues into Red’s enigmatic past.

Later when Red approaches Cooper about Maddie being the next blacklist target and the plan to help her steal the effigy using Liz’s help in the robbery, he inadvertently (or purposely, you never know with Red) exposes Liz’s hidden talent by saying “luckily we have an ace of spades among us.” The comment of course raises a red flag for Cooper and Ressler who question Liz about her past, saying her father’s criminal record didn’t show up in her background report and neither did hers, to which she testily replies she doesn’t have a criminal record and Ressler pipes in “because you never committed a crime or because you were never caught?” which she mysteriously answers with a simple “Yes”; no further explanation as to whether it was no crime or not caught. Hmmm.

Red later introduces Liz to Maddie as Nicole, a supposed cohort of his with the skills necessary to assist in the robbery. At the meeting, Liz expertly palms Maddie’s cell phone with all of the skill of a seasoned professional and does the same again when stealing an ID card as someone brushes past her on a street. This of course opens up a whole new can of worms and introduces a new array of questions about Liz’s own past because her demonstrated thieving skills prove that this good girl wasn’t always so good. It seems like the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree after all, and Lizzie is turning out to have a mysterious past of her own just like daddy. Double-hmmm.

The most eye-opening moment in the episode came though when Red tricks Maddie into believing he’s been tortured and in a gut-wrenching confession goes on to tell her about the Christmas Eve 20 years earlier when he ran out of gas with a car full of gifts and after walking home opened his home’s front door to find everything covered in blood. The pain in his voice seemed too raw to have been an act, so while the torture was a ruse to get the location of the effigy from her, I think the confession was very real. After rewinding and watching that scene again, what struck me in his comments was that he said “they’d love the story, daddy running out of gas…They’d get such joy from telling that story at my expense.” It’s the “they” that gets me; in that word is he referring to his wife and child or “they” referring to more than one child. Also, while he does mention all the blood he also goes on to say “I can still smell the nape of her neck, feel her little fingers on my cheek, her whisper in my ear” which means she survived whatever attack occurred.

Another item of note in the episode was Madeline’s countless references to Florence; bringing up “last summer in Florence” multiple times, including one time when she angrily questions why he didn’t show, saying “Florence was our way out, a fresh start.” When Red makes the above confession about the events 20 years earlier, he blames that event for his absence from Florence and many other places in the years since. What makes the timeframe of his absence from Florence (last summer) just a little intriguing is that it coincides with Lucy Brook’s faked death (June 8, 2013) as listed in the obit Red was holding during "The Alchemist" episode (see below).

Also, in the coming attractions for next week’s episode Red says “she already faked her death to elude me, now she’s back” so assuming the episodes are meant to be running in real time, despite my initial impression that he was just learning about Lucy through the ViCAP database search that he did during the "General Ludd" episode, in fact not only was he aware of her existence at that time but given his wording also already in her pursuit.

Egad, instead of answers, we got more questions. Now for some upcoming spoilers; the next episode will be titled “The Judge” and stars the great Dianne Wiest. also reports that Fringe’s Lance Reddick will have a guest spot as “The Cowboy” one of Red’s many assets, “but when Red gives him a new assignment, the results will leave Red in shock.” About the assignment, TVGuide later revealed: “Let’s just say Jolene, the woman who’s been getting a little too close to Tom, may not be such a mystery for much longer. She actually has a connection to another Blacklister who we’ve already met.” Hmm…stew on that for a while.

I must say while “Madeline Pratt” wasn’t a great episode in comparison to some earlier favorites, like Stewmaker or Anslo Garrick, it at least advanced (even if only by inches) the overarching mythology of the show. The coming attractions for next week look oh so juicy so despite an undoubtedly late, late night on Sunday thanks to the Oscars, I definitely won’t be skipping next Monday night (even if it means red eyes and bags under my eyes the next day). 'Til next week.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

And Down the Stretch They Come!

Can you believe it? The Oscars are only 5 days away people. Woo hoo! After all the campaigning, schmoozing, and in some cases I’m sure downright groveling, the die has been cast and the winners (good or bad) will be announced this Sunday, March 2nd. I cannot wait for the big day; I’ve already selected my Oscar gown and menu (just kidding on the gown part, the menu is a done deal though).

I’ve kept an ear open of late for Oscar-related news and I can report that there are going to be plenty of celebrity sightings (duh!), nominees and non-nominated presenters are set to include Robert De Niro, Sidney Poitier, Bill Murray, Kim Novak, and Sally Field, to name a few. Last year's acting award winners will also all be there to pass the baton (Daniel Day-Lewis, Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence and Christoph Waltz). As in year’s past, we’ll also get some memorable and wonderful (fingers-crossed) musical performances including U2 performing “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” and Pharrell Williams with “Happy” from Despicable Me 2.

As I’m sure you’re all aware, Ellen DeGeneres is this year’s host; a safe choice for the Academy especially after last year’s Seth McFarlane debacle (I actually found him funny, though I know many were offended by his sexist humor). I think Ellen’s warm and kind vibe and her brand of silly and light humor will be the perfect tool to set the jaded crowd at ease. She’ll entertain, she’ll keep it light, make them laugh, and undoubtedly keep it classy.

This year’s amazing crop of films and performances has me a little stumped in picking the winner and losers, but that has not deterred me from taking a stab at making some educated guesses. So without further ado, below are my choices in the six major categories (lead actor and actress, supporting actor and actress, best director and best picture). I went above and beyond and not only listed my personal favorites (should win), but also who I think will win and those heartbreaking snubs (shoulda been here) that kept some very deserving recipients from attending the big night. The predictions are listed in what's supposed to be an Oscar gold-hued font, but it's looking a little green to me right now. Oh well, you get the idea.

Best Picture
"American Hustle"
"Captain Phillips"
"Dallas Buyers Club"
"12 Years a Slave"
"The Wolf of Wall Street"

Will win: 12 Years a Slave
Should win: American Hustle
Shoulda been here: All Is Lost

Best Director
David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street)

Will win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Should win: Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Shoulda been here: Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)

Best Actor
Christian Bale (American Hustle) (2nd Oscar nomination)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska) (2nd Oscar nomination)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) (5th Oscar nomination)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) (1st Oscar nomination)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) (1st Oscar nomination)

Will win: Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)
Should win: Each is very deserving but I'd love to see Leo bring one home; his body of work merits it
Shoulda been here: Robert Redford (All Is Lost)

Best Actress
Amy Adams (American Hustle) (5th Oscar nomination)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) (6th Oscar nomination; won once for The Aviator)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity) (2nd Oscar nomination; won for The Blind Side)
Judi Dench (Philomena) (7th Oscar nomination; won for Shakespeare in Love)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) (18th Oscar nomination; won for Sophie’s Choice, Iron Lady, Kramer vs. Kramer)

Will win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Should win: Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Shoulda been here: Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks)

Best Supporting Actor
Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) (1st Oscar nomination)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) (2nd Oscar nomination)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) (1st Oscar nomination)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) (2nd Oscar nomination)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) (1st Oscar nomination)

Will win: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Should win: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)
Shoulda been here: James Gandolfini (Enough Said)

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) (1st Oscar nomination)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) (3rd Oscar nomination; won for Silver Linings Playbook)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) (1st Oscar nomination)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) (4th Oscar nomination; won for Erin Brockovich)
June Squibb (Nebraska) (1st Oscar nomination; at the tender age of 84 no less)

Will win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
Should win: Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) or June Squibb (Nebraska)
Shoulda been here: Oprah (L. Daniels, The Butler)

As I said, I can’t wait for the big night and the inevitable drama, moving speeches, and of course surprises (love those). Tune in to the 86th Annual Academy Awards this Sunday, March 2 on ABC at 8 PM ET to see who takes home Oscar gold.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Glitter and Glue

Back in 2008 I read and loved Kelly Corrigan’s first novel, The Middle Place. The Middle Place was a warm, funny and poignant memoir which juxtapositioned Kelly’s past and present, highlighting her then battle with breast cancer and memories of her youth growing up in Philadelphia and her incredible relationship with her dad. The book was never maudlin or depressing and more than a story about cancer it really was a loving tribute to her dad. The love and warmth between father and daughter was palpable through every shared snapshot of their life.

Since I had so enjoyed Kelly’s first memoir, I had readily added her latest, Glitter and Glue, to my 2014 book preview list post back in January and finally read it last week. Glitter and Glue is Kelly’s new memoir and meant as a heartfelt homage to her mom, as noted in her book dedication in which she simply states “This one’s for you, Ma. Long overdue.” The memoir’s title comes from her mom’s honest and unsentimental assertion that while her dad was the glitter of the family, the lovable joker that all her kid’s loved and gravitated towards, she was in fact the glue; the one that got things done, the disciplinarian, the accountant, the appointment scheduler, etc.

In the book, Kelly shares insights into their early relationship and her mom’s general parenting guidelines; “She looked at motherhood less as a joy to be relished than as a job to be done, serious work with serious repercussions, and I left childhood assuming our way of being with each other, adversarial but functional, was as it would be.” Whereas her dad was her friend and cheerleader for whom she could do no wrong, her mom took her role seriously and felt that what her kids needed wasn’t another friend, but a mother. No warm and fuzzies here and in these honest revelations you readily feel the distance between the two in those years; easily imagining teenage cold shoulders and eye-rolls directed at a strict and stoic parent.

Kelly acknowledges the slow evolution of her relationship with her mom and how it came to pass thanks in part to her travels in Australia while in her twenties when she served as nanny for two children that had recently lost their mother. This early mothering role helped her to not only better understand and appreciate her own mother but actually unconsciously adopt her parenting style and rules; from snubbing sugar cereals to staring down adversaries, Kelly begins to see more of her mom in herself and realizes that’s not such a bad thing after all.

What seems like a lifetime later, after many years, two babies and cancer, Kelly says that lately “it seems like the only person who can lift the anvils that sit heaviest on me is my mother.” She didn’t come to that all at once, though maybe it was inevitable, given life’s many knock you down lift you up moments, as well as the slow-dawning wisdoms that come with maturity, experience and time.

While I found this small book enjoyable and a definite must read for moms and daughters alike, I must admit that in comparison to The Middle Place I found it slightly lacking in warmth and poignancy. Maybe it’s because most of Kelly's insights focus on anecdotes dating back to her childhood, and other than the bracketed references at the beginning and end of the book in which she discusses her adulthood realizations about her mom, the book doesn’t offer many examples of the newfound warmth or connection between mother and daughter.

Reading this book did make me reminisce about my own relationship with my mother, which was in such stark contrast to the writer’s experience that it gave me a deeper appreciation for what I had, though to be honest, I always knew I hit the lottery when I got my mom as my mom. Mom and I had one of those “mommy and me” type of relationships which Kelly references in her book; we were each other’s best friend, confidant, and cheerleader. I will admit though that my love for my mom deepened with time, as I’m sure it does for most adults as maturity helps us to fully value all of the hard work, sacrifice, and selflessness inherent in being a great parent. Unlike Kelly, as a child my mom was that kind, gentle and warm constant in our lives; holding our hands through an illness or wiping our tears through injury or heartache; though like all moms with more than one child, taking care of a home and working two jobs (full-time and part-time), she couldn’t be there 24/7 but we understood.

I think it’s not only maturity that strengthens or deepens our bond with a parent, mother or father, but also the fact that as an adult you’re now in a relationship as equals. Not only that, but as an adult you also better appreciate your parent as a whole person; seeing them as something more than just your mom or dad. Sure I loved my mother for being my mom, but I also adored and respected her for everything else that she was that the role of mom didn’t encompass; she was loyal, brutally honest, patient, meticulous, and with a wicked sense of humor I envy to this day, to name just a few of the traits that made her special.

I would definitely recommend Glitter and Glue not only for what Kelly has brought to it, but really for everything each of you will bring to it and take from it as well because through its pages you’ll find yourself transported to your own dear memories and insights with a renewed appreciation for one of the most underrated, underappreciated jobs in life, that of mother.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

This Dark Road to Mercy

Wiley Cash’s This Dark Road to Mercy is a coming of age story and page-turning thriller centered around two sisters, their wayward father, an ex-cop and a psychotic killer bent on revenge. Twelve-year old Easter Quillby and her six-year old sister Ruby are adjusting to their foster home since the death of their mother from a drug overdose. When Wade shows up after school one day it had been three years since Easter had last seen her father; going back to the day he’d signed papers in court relinquishing his parental rights. Easter had “always called him “Wade” because it never felt right to think of him as “Dad” or “Daddy” or anything else kids are supposed to call their parents. Parents who got called things like that did stuff for their kids that I (she) couldn’t ever imagine Wade doing for us (them).” When Wade longingly says "I just want to spend some time with you and your sister", Easter quickly dissuades her father from any crazy notions of a sweet family reunion, telling him "You can't. It's too late."

A few days later a determined Wade sneaks into the girl's room through a window and removes any option, telling the girls that they've got to go with him. Wade's sense of urgency and fear strikes a chord with Easter, who'd had an unfriendly visit from a menacing stranger, Pruitt, asking questions about Wade. In fact, Wade has good reason to run and hide since he's carrying around a duffel bag full of cash stolen from none other than Tommy Broughton, the Don Corleone of the local hillbilly Mafia. With the girls in tow and idyllic dreams of fatherhood, Wade takes off for Myrtle Beach unaware of the fact that he's being trailed by Pruitt, his old baseball foe whom he'd accidentally disfigured and ended his baseball career, and also Brady Weller, the girl's guardian ad litem, an ex-cop looking for a little redemption of his own. With baseball and the Sosa and McGwire home run record race as the backdrop, the thrilling chase is on and we the readers are taken along for the ride as we try to anticipate each next move in this dark cat and mouse chase.

I enjoyed this short novel (it really is a quick read) which drew me in more through its compelling characters than its storyline, which at times doesn't seem fully developed. The book alternates between three narrators - Easter, Pruitt and Brady, and each offers a captivating, unique and distinct voice though it's Easter that truly serves as both the tale's heroine and heart. Easter is feisty and brave and puts me in mind of some other great child characters which I've read, like Sally O'Malley from Lesley Kagen's Whistling in the Dark (though not as funny or witty) or Scout from To Kill a Mockinbird in her older than her age insights.

While you'd think it would be the more exciting aspects of the story that capture the readers imagination, like the chase or the villain, personally I felt they were the weakest links in the story; the chase is almost a none issue and the villain's actions given the reward and motivation seem entirely over the top. It's the more boring or staid (for lack of a better word) facets of the narrative dealing with character redemption and atonement that strike a deeper chord and seem more thoughtfully developed or defined. With Wade in particular, while he initially comes across like a thoughtless lout putting his girls in harm's way, by the end of the book you do feel like the character has shown growth and that it was genuine sentiment and love driving his actions as opposed to pure selfishness.

Overall, this was an entertaining read made so thanks to the memorable voice of its main character Easter, who offers a touching window into a child's heartbreak and hope when dealing with the fickle emotions and actions of a less than stellar parent. While This Dark Road to Mercy doesn't quite manage to pack a breath-stealing emotional punch, it does efficiently tug on your heartstrings.

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete

OMG…no more snow! I think even the kids are sick of snow days at this point. I’m sick of the snow, the storm-caused days off from work, but most importantly the endless shoveling. Winter has definitely lost all its charm and I cannot wait for Spring! Oh, the sheer thought of 60° days with warm breezes wafting through the air, shiny green leaves on the trees, and some pretty buds trying to peek through the soil seems a dream. For last Tuesday’s storm I was in the office by 6 AM in order to avoid a horror of a commute, so at 4:30 PM on the dot I was out the door and on the way home with fevered dreams of getting home, taking care of Jasmin, and after a quick dinner jumping into my bed and snuggling in for a long good night sleep but like a good sucker looking for punishment I checked out my OnDemand menu for new releases instead.

I struck gold in my search when I found The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, a small indie film which I’d desperately wanted to see last year and missed because of its limited release and the fact it wasn’t playing in a nearby theater. I didn’t get to bed quite as early as I’d planned but it was definitely worth it; plus, I slept all the better since bedtime came after a thoroughly draining good cry (yes, it’s a tearjerker; I was two-fisting Kleenex tissues it was so freaking sad at times, but watch it anyway because it offers a touching mix of heartbreak and hope all in one).

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete tells the story of 14-year old Mister, an inner city kid living with his mother in a Brooklyn housing project. School just finished and he’s found out that he’ll be repeating the eighth grade, but Mister has bigger problems weighing on his mind, namely his mom Gloria (played by Jennifer Hudson), a heroin addicted prostitute and Pete, the 9-year old son of a co-worker of Gloria’s who has seemingly made their humble apartment his home. Things quickly go from bad to worse when Gloria is arrested by police and in their effort to avoid being taken by child protective services the two young boys are left all alone to fend for themselves over the course of the summer. Facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles, they'll have to rely on Mister's courage and can do attitude in order to survive the mean city streets.

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete was such a beautiful and moving film. Tears or not, I just loved this gritty, sad, and all too real depiction of the burdens borne by many every day. I’ve heard the film described as part coming-of-age, part survival story, and it is that and so much more. It shines a light on the strength of the human spirit and how against all odds, sheer determination, perseverance and hope can win the day, and it reminds us all that friendship can be our mainstay in life; the pillar and foundation on which our lives are built that helps monsters seem less scary, mountains a little smaller to climb, and tomorrow a better day.

Watching The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete I automatically thought of Home Alone and movies of the like that make being alone in the world as a child (even if only for a few days) seem like a walk in the park, but I (and you'll) quickly realize this film is the complete antithesis of the first. Nope, no trips shopping for laundry detergent and frozen mac and cheese at the local grocery store, or a perfectly set table for one at the end of the day with a hot plate of food, or a sweet elderly neighbor to help them out against the bad guys. Mister & Pete have no cash for food so they have to forage in their own empty cupboards to make a meal (tomato sauce from a jar and canned green beans is dinner one day) and their neighbors only assistance comes when they help themselves to the apartment's front doorknob and steal the TV and all other appliance not nailed down. No clueless robbers to defeat here, but it's the every day obstacles and uncertainties of life, like hunger and illness, that make the fear more palpable and real.

The performances were exceptional. Jennifer Hudson was captivating as Gloria; believably conveying her character's utter hopelessness. Despite Gloria's destructive life decisions and the visible pain and heartbreak they were causing her son, as a viewer you're torn between disliking her and like Mister blaming her for all their woes, and instead feeling sympathy for her plight and understanding the vicious cycle of destructive behavior caused by drug abuse. Skylan Brooks portrayed Mister and he was downright amazing, perfectly capturing Mister's contradiction; tough on the outside but really scared and sad on the inside. He was hard as nails with his mom, disrespectful to his teacher, cynical of the local panhandler's claims of being a veteran, but yet you see him for what he is - just a scared boy - when he's crying in the bathroom stall at school after getting an F. A child forced to be an adult before his time, bearing a boulder-size weight of shame on his too thin shoulders because of his mom (oh, it broke my heart, when he sees scribbled on the bathroom stall walls "for a good time, call mister's mom"). Yet despite all that life has put on his plate, it hasn't beaten him down or erased his sense of hope or his will (or maybe need) to dream, like his dream of being a movie star.

Like I said, it is a tearjerker so grab the Kleenex and put away the sharp knives, but with that said still watch this film. Don't let The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete's dark or depressing material deter you from putting on your big girl panties and watching this incredibly poignant film that practically throbs with emotion -- hurt, anger, love but also hope.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

Inspired by a true story, Dallas Buyers Club stars Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto and Jennifer Garner in the redemptive tale of the real Ron Woodroof; a Dallas electrician by trade and rodeo cowboy who in 1985 is diagnosed with AIDS. It’s July 1985, Rock Hudson is on newspaper covers for being in a Paris hospital with AIDS when we meet Ron (McConaughey) for the first time; the ladies-man is having sex in a rodeo stall and later chatting up his buddies while making derogatory remarks about gays and Arabs-alike; living up to the Texas redneck stereotype, Ron shows himself to be both a homophobe and bigot. Later, injured at his electrician’s job, Ron is taken to the ER at Dallas Mercy Hospital where a doctor confirms that his blood tested positive for HIV.

The diagnosis comes as no shock to the viewer for despite his larger than life foul-mouthed persona, Ron’s physical state is far from the picture of good health; gaunt with sunken cheekbones, sallow sweaty skin and dark circles under his eyes, you wonder how he’s even standing up straight. Angry and affronted by the doctor’s questions as to his sexuality and possible use of intravenous drugs, he belligerently insists on the error of the diagnosis for as he so eloquently states, he “ain’t no faggot.” The doctor confirms the diagnosis and tells him that his current condition and blood cell count suggests he probably has no more than 30 days left to live and so starts the countdown.

In denial over his condition, Ron continues partying with the ladies and snorting cocaine, though he eventually comes to accept the truth and desperate and afraid, he returns to the hospital angrily demanding help and is consulted by the younger of the two doctors who saw him in the ER, Eve (Garner). Eve is in charge of a human trial of the drug AZT for which she elicits Ron’s participation, an offer he turns down when he gets no guarantee of receiving actual treatment since he learns it’s a double-blind placebo controlled trial in which some patients we’ll get the real thing and others will just get a sugar pill.

With his redneck buddies turning against him when they hear of his diagnosis, he temporarily goes around the system by buying stolen AZT pills from a hospital orderly but that avenue disappears when the hospital begins locking up supplies, though the orderly ends up sharing information on a doctor in Mexico offering hope in the form of unapproved alternative drugs. All alone without friends or work – having been turned away at the job site – it’s day 28 in the countdown when Ron collapses and ends up at Dallas Mercy yet again. He wakes up feeling better thanks to a blood transfusion and meets his hospital roommate, the beautiful transsexual Rayon (Leto), who introduces herself and tells him he’s handsome in a Texasy white trash dumb kinda way. Rayon is just a blip in Ron's radar initially, a brief passing meeting filled with charm and a friendly connection that was undeniable.

Out of the hospital but without a home now, Ron is at the end of his rope physically, mentally and emotionally when desperation puts him on the road to Mexico where he meets a doctor that offers him a new lease on life. Three months after arriving in truly dire straits, the doctor has managed to build up Ron’s immune system; informing him that with an immune system already comprised by the disease, AZT was toxic and literally killing him. Awed by the doctor's results, Ron sees an easy way to make a buck, so filling up his car trunk with drugs, he dons a priests garb and smuggles the life-saving drugs into the U.S. in order to not only keep himself alive but also line his pockets. Unfortunately, sales and word of mouth are slow until he meets up with Rayon again, when he makes her an offer she can’t refuse (a 25% cut of the business); and that as they say is history because business takes off like a rocket as these unlikeliest of business partners and ultimately dare I say friends, try to stay one step ahead of the FDA, DEA and U.S. government as they do whatever it takes to grow their business, stay alive, and somehow end up becoming heroes and a source of hope to those in need.

This was a wonderfully honest and poignant movie about a flawed man who is put on a road to redemption by God, karma or fate. Woodroof was a far cry from the squeaky-clean heroic figures we typically see in these inspiring movies about someone stepping up to make a difference; he was a foul-mouthed homophobe who at the film’s onset judged a person’s goodness or worth strictly by their bedmates gender; a selfish man looking out for his own self-interest who seemingly stumbles into the role of activist and crusader by accident and I think truly changes to the benefit of not only himself but also thousands of others.

Watching the film and the depicted attitudes of the time it’s striking to see how far society has come in their attitudes towards this insidious disease and its victims. It was sad to see not only the sense of isolation suffered by so many, as those near and dear turned against them out of fear and ignorance, but the sheer desperation (and bravery) entailed in going up against something as big as the U.S. government and the audacity that that hopelessness engendered. Seeing Woodroof smuggling drugs through Mexico, bribing doctors in Japan or even going up against the FDA in court, you’re quick to remember that desperate times call for desperate measures and that everything is fair in love and war, especially when you’re fighting for your life.

The male leads in this movie truly shine. McConaughey's appearance is so far removed from the pretty boy looks of his romantic-comedies past that his physical transformation alone merits the award show attention he’s been getting; but it truly is his ease in conveying Ron’s anger and frustration with the government that is the most compelling component of his performance. The desperation conveyed in those hollowed eyes is palpable and his barely contained fury seems to seethe barely below the surface, like a powder keg ready to explode. McConaughey also adeptly offers a redeeming softness to Ron, as during the film's progression he makes an emotional connection with Rayon and truly comes to care for him. The sentiment between the two seems real, not forced or fake. Leto is amazing. There is a heartbreaking beauty and vulnerability to his performance that you don’t usually expect from a man. My heart broke for this man-woman-child that desperately needed someone to love him and nurture him for who he was. Honestly, while I was touched by McConaughey’s performance, I must say that it was Leto’s portrayal of Rayon that stayed with me beyond the film’s credits.

Dallas Buyers Club is a must see movie. It is not only a wonderful film with what I feel are performances of a lifetime from McConaughey and Leto, but it packs an emotional wallop in its message of hope, redemption and its reminder that we should never give up, never surrender.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Invention of Wings

I apologize for the week long gap since my last post but work has been crazy busy and the assembly line-like snow storms of the past week haven’t helped. I had gotten into a wonderful groove where I would draft my posts at night, then the next day I'd type them during my lunch hour and lastly stay a little late at work to polish them up before posting, but lately any and all daylight hours have been taken up with real work. As for the snow, I must say that despite their overall inconvenience, the storms and the resulting days off from work were a wonderful break from the hectic pace of the past couple weeks. They were a forced opportunity to decompress by reading (The Invention of Wings, which I finished during Monday’s storm) or enjoying a great movie (Dallas Buyers Club, which I watched on the eve of Wednesday’s storm; review post to come).

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd is the third novel from the best-selling author of The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair. Influenced by her own Southern roots, this latest novel is a fictional story inspired by the inspiring historical figure, Sarah Grimk√©, an abolitionist, writer and women’s rights activist of the 19th century. Born into one of Charleston’s elite families; her father a judge on South Carolina’s highest court and mother descended from the first families of Charleston, Sarah was “the one mother called different and father called remarkable, the one with carroty hair and freckles.” The middle child of ten siblings, Sarah had the temperament of a tortoise but she’d devised a slogan for herself as inspiration, “if you must err, do so on the side of audacity.”

It was November 1803 and Sarah’s eleventh birthday when her mother promoted her from the nursery to her own room in the grand three story house they called home and later at a birthday party gifted her with ten year old Hetty (Handful) as her very own waiting maid. Despite her young age Sarah had a firm understanding of the evils of slavery having witnessed at the age of four a brutal slave whipping which scarred her emotionally and worsened a speech impediment. To her mother’s horror and embarrassment, Sarah refuses the gift in front of the society ladies invited as birthday guests.

Her mother was a hard woman; “her name was Mary, and there ends any resemblance to the mother of our Lord” for she wielded her cane like a weapon against her slaves. The general knowledge amongst even the youngest slaves, including Hetty, was that according to missus a “slave was supposed to be like the Holy Ghost – don’t see it, don’t hear it, but it’s always hovering around on ready.” As Sarah pleaded with her mother to give Hetty back, she thought “give Hetty back. As if she was mine after all. As if owning people was as natural as breathing.” Sarah was burdened by the realization that she owned a slave and couldn’t free her; Hetty, a child puny in the extreme who was ten but looked six and for whom “the only thing of any size about her was her eyes, which were colored a strange shade of gold.”

Ten year old Handful (the basket name given to her by her mother, since the master and missus got to pick a slave’s formal name), knew life would never be the same from that point forward. Handful’s mauma, Charlotte – the plantation’s seamstress, explained that she now had to meet all of Sarah’s needs and going forward she’d have to sleep on a pallet on the floor in the hall outside the door of Sarah’s room in case she was needed at a late hour. No longer could she rely on the warmth of her mother through the night as when they would snuggle together in the small room over the carriage house; where despite the smell of manure that made it seem like their bed was stuffed with it instead of straw it still proved to be a perfect sanctuary after a long day; where they worked on their beloved quilts and her mother shared stories of her granny-mauma and how there was a time in Africa that people could fly. “You don’t believe me? Mauma would say to her, “where do you think these shoulder blades of yours come from, girl?” patting the skinny bones that stuck out from her back like nubs she’d add, “This all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ’em back.”

Sarah longed to know things and become someone; dreams outside the realm of possibility given that a female’s education was limited to needlework, manners, penmanship, piano and the like. Yet she didn’t give up hope, after all a tiny acorn becomes an oak. Left with no recourse but to keep Handful, the two forge an unlikely friendship and though Sarah can’t free her physically she tries to free her mind and broaden her world by teaching her to read despite laws prohibiting it. The years pass and the two unlikeliest of allies and friends navigate through the choppy waters of their respective lives from childhood to adulthood, from Charleston to Philadelphia; we journey with them through Sarah’s heartache at a broken engagement, the death of her father, the disillusionment of unfulfilled dreams and her hesitant steps towards self-discovery; and we suffer with Handful through her mother’s mysterious disappearance, her longing for her and determined attempts to dig for the truth and her own personal agonies as a Work House punishment leaves her crippled; and as we share in their pain, struggles and victories we root for each to find their wings.

I so loved this book! It is a gripping, poignant and awe-inspiring tale that highlights the strength of the human spirit. Alternating chapters between these two richly written and complex women, Sarah and Handful, we are lucky enough to witness as each finds their purpose and voice, with Sarah’s metamorphosis slower and more hesitant, while Handful’s strength, like steel forged in the fire, comes from the pain, loss and hardship she resolutely endures. Each woman is fighting for freedom for as Handful wisely tells Sarah, “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way around.”

While Handful’s imprisonment is of a different magnitude and the more gut-wrenching in the tale, the facts of Sarah’s struggles are no less compelling since women of that time were slaves of a sort as well – slaves to society’s rules; with no rights, no access to education, unable to own property and totally dependent on a man. Each shows courage in the face of adversity, and the fact that one’s pain was on a higher scale didn’t diminish the other’s trials and tribulations for while Sarah wasn’t whipped or left crippled, her plight was still evocative as she is forced to leave her home, religion and family in her tireless and self-sacrificing crusade to find justice for others through the emancipation of slaves and later fighting for women’s rights.

Sue Monk Kidd has perfectly, as she said “grafted fiction onto truth” in this riveting and creative story which seamlessly weaves historical figures and events with an imaginary tale that offers a possible what might have been scenario. She has taken gems from the countless sources used in her research, including Sarah’s diaries, letters, speeches, writings and newspaper articles, to offer us Sarah’s voice (or at least her version of it) and to posit the doubts, fears and self-reflection the real Sarah might have endured whilst also giving us priceless insight into the horrors of slavery through the make-believe friendship with the fictional character of Handful for though the real Sarah Grimk√© received a slave named Hetty as her maid which she did befriend, the real Hetty died of an illness a short while later.

As I said the novel poignantly informs us as to the cruelty of the times. The moral blindness that made the atrocities inflicted on other human begins acceptable, such as the one-legged punishment (which I’d never heard about) seen as the more humane option instead of whipping that entailed winding a leather tie around a slave’s ankle, then pulling the foot up behind him and hitching the tie around his neck so that if he lets his/her ankle drop, the tie chokes his/her throat. As much as the physical suffering endured was tragic and heartbreaking, just as striking is the knowledge that living and breathing human beings with hopes and dreams had no more value than chattel to their owners; no more than the cow in the barn or a piece of furniture, as depicted in the novel when a will listing assets itemizes each slave and their dollar value.

The Invention of Wings is an amazing book which speaks to the indomitable power of hope and how one person’s courage can change the world; a beautiful and powerful novel that will make your spirit soar.