Film Club: While You Were Sleeping

There are many reasons why I shouldn’t like While You Were Sleeping. The entire plot is based on the thinnest of misunderstandings, even by rom com standards. Peter is the victim of a creepy, prolonged mind game by Saul and Lucy. No way anyone would believe that someone engaged to fancypants Peter wouldn’t have a giant rock on her ring finger, which should have stopped the plot dead in its tracks right there. Anyone who has lived in Chicago for even a month would know northside Peter supports the Cubs and not the White Sox. And yet, it’s one of my favorite movies.

the delightful family from "While You Were Sleeping"

Is this sight scary or heartwarming? Depends on your tolerance for meandering discussions of Guy Lombardo and Argentinian beef.

The chemistry between Lucy and Jack sparks right away, and any scene with the whole family is gold. Obviously, the movie pushes the idea that half the reason Lucy’s in love with Jack is because she finally has a family she can join. When I was younger, I never believed that Lucy would be as friendless and alone as she’s shown to be, but the more time I’ve spent trying to fit in to new cities, the more I appreciate just how difficult it is to get set up with new friends. And I have the Internet, with its Couchsurfing and Meetup and things, which is more than Lucy had, back in 1995. Lucy makes friends at work, but when your job is sharing a small booth with one other person collecting subway tokens, you don’t meet a lot of people. Besides which, she’s grieving her father, who died just the year before. It’s actually not surprising that she’s so isolated.

Meeting the Callaghans, who are marvelously open and friendly (perhaps a bit too much so, to a strange woman who claims to be engaged to their comatose son), would feel like coming home. And then you get to sit through dinners talked at such cross-purposes that in my family, when things are getting similarly ridiculous and rowdy, someone just yells out, “I never said he was tall!”

Of course it’s a Cinderella tale, and we can’t forget that Lucy would never afford that trip to Florence on her own, while the upper-middle-class Callaghans can shell out for it no problem. But I’m willing to go along with the idea that the real treasure Lucy gains is the love of a family, and their wealth is a nice bonus.

Other great things:

  • Despite her timidity in other areas of her life, Lucy has no problem cracking wise with her boss or putting the love of her life gently but firmly in place whenever he starts going off about whose type she is.
  • Jack tries to do the right thing by not sharing his feelings with Lucy and messes it up royally, which is endearing.
  • Peter is such a self-centered jag that you don’t really mind he’s the victim of a terrible mind game. Peter Gallagher does a great job of playing a guy so into himself he’s not even worried about being that into himself; he’s equally concerned about whether he sucks as a person or whether his outfit sucks (maybe more concerned about the outfit).
  • Joe Jr., a strange amalgam of Queens and southside Chicago, is a glorious punchline in every scene, and I hope his future involves strutting around in his own pair of high heels.
  • Lucy’s apartment is in my old neighborhood of Logan Square–I tracked it down on Logan Boulevard a few winters ago. Those buildings really are that gorgeous.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Lucy never once brushes her hair in this film and she is the heroine–god bless the mid-’90s.

And Elsie has the best answer to “would you like some more wine?” ever. She says, “Oh I don’t drink anymore.” Beat. “I don’t drink any less, either.” For a grandmother like that, you might fake an engagement to a man in a coma, too.

In Praise of Sam Rockwell

I am slowly working my way through the Sam Rockwell catalog. Basically, I want to see anything he’s been in. Doesn’t matter if it was a bit part, because Rockwell’s genius is stealing scenes no matter the role. He’s easily one of the best character actors working today, and also, bonus, he is extremely attractive.

No foolin'

Apparently his mainstream breakthrough was as a vile criminal in The Green Mile, but I remember first seeing him in Charlie’s Angels, in which he plays a shaggy, soft-spoken geek who turns out (11-year spoiler alert) to be the ruthless villain. For a summer popcorn film directed by a man known only by his made-up last name, this actually showed Rockwell’s range nicely. He was easily the shy nerd kissing Drew Barrymore, and just as easily the pompadoured cad shooting her through a window and lighting up a cigarette.

Also, the dancing. He famously loves dancing, and shows off his fancy footwork at every opportunity. I’ve seen him shake it in Charlie’s Angels, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Moon, Iron Man 2, and The Winning Season. No, watch, he’s really good:

I don’t think I’ve seen him in a movie in which he wasn’t unhinged or just a little off. At some point in every film, his eyes go wild with desperation or dark with hopelessness. He often plays someone with a hidden side (Charlie’s Angels, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), or a dangerous side (Snow Angels, The Green Mile), or both (Moon). He invests his characters with such emotion and commitment that I find myself marveling at the humanity he reveals in even his most despicable characters. I’ve read actor interviews about treating their villainous character as the hero of the story in order to find their motivations, but I didn’t really get what that meant til I saw several Rockwell movies close together. He’s never smarter than his sadsacks or kinder than his killers; instead, he knows his sadsack’s frustrations and his killer’s sick itch. He must be a novelist’s dream actor, since he so easily conveys the paragraphs of internal turmoil and meditation usually lost in translation from page to screen.

I’d love to see him on stage and see how his intensity plays out there. But until I get that chance, I’ll be looking out for him in whatever projects he chooses next. Coming soon, Cowboys & Aliens! I’ll be enjoying him, whether he’s looking like this:

Poor clone man, what is your identity now?

or this:

You still look a little lost. I will definitely help you find your way.

Photo 1 from here.
Photo 2 from here.
Photo 3 from here.

Film Club: Out of Africa

 

What a surprising movie, dearest fellow travelers! When the film started up, and Meryl Streep started in with yet another perfectly practiced accent telling tales from long-ago days while the camera swept over idyllic African vistas, I rolled my eyes and wondered why I’d let Netflix talk me into this. But it turned out to be an impressive film, a romance that investigates what it means to be a relationship, and a historical drama that doesn’t completely romanticize the rich white people’s experiences and their influence on the native black people.

one of many sweeping vistas

Image from http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film3/blu-ray_reviews51/out_of_africa_blu-ray.htm

Karen von Blixen-Finecke lived a pretty amazing life, marrying twice, growing coffee in the highlands of Kenya, building a school for Kikuyu children, writing a famous memoir, and making sweet, sweet love to Robert Redford. Okay, that last part is just what Meryl Streep gets to do in the film adaptation, but it’s based on real events with Karen’s lover Denys Finch Hatton. The movie’s PG, so we don’t see so much as a boob, but the steaminess of the romance is easily conveyed nonetheless.

My favorite part of the romance was how it was allowed to be a little rough-edged. Sure, there were plenty of scenes in which Karen and Denys share tender moments, or gaze deeply into one another’s eyes, but the conflict between the characters was never resolved to either party’s satisfaction. They were deeply in love, but Karen needed him to be home more often, creating a joint life with her on the farm and not jetting off to do safaris for months at a time, and Denys clung to his independence and his ideal of being able to love someone without possessing them or their time. The movie shows just a couple arguments about their differing needs, but they’re well-written and fair to each character. Karen could easily come across as a needy nag, and Denys could easily be a commitment-phobic cad, but we get to see the validity of both their positions, and the pain it causes them to be unable to compromise on their deeply held beliefs.

How often do you get a romance like that in the movies, one that doesn’t work out (not a big spoiler there; when the movie starts with a voiceover telling us that a man “gave the greatest gift” it’s no big leap to surmise that it ain’t gonna last and probably someone dies), but not because of outside forces like other lovers or an inconvenient death? One that doesn’t work out because love isn’t enough to sustain a relationship if other factors don’t line up like shared ideas about how relationships work and how to balance independence with commitment.

Karen's wedding outfit in "Out of Africa" -- 1913 fashion, yes please!

Image from http://pinoyfilmzealot.wordpress.com/2011/04/19/t500fc-369th-out-of-africa-sydney-pollack-1985/

The other major part of the movie, of course, is that this is a film set in colonial Kenya, a place ruled by a small group of upper-class British men who hardly considered their African “subjects” as anything more than servants and hunting guides. Now I know that Pollack was a sentimentalist, and there is definitely some unfortunate romanticizing and simplifying going on here, but there’s also a surprising amount of complexity and sensitivity. For example, Nairobi in 1913 was far from a homogeneous place but was rather  a multicultural hub, with Somalis, Indians, Kikuyu, and Europeans all interacting, and the movie shows that in tracking shots across the marketplace as well as in the background of many tête-a-têtes between main characters. Also, Karen’s  connection to the Kikuyu in her life is genuine, and her interest in improving their lives (treating wounds and illnesses in an informal hospital, securing land for her tenants when her farm fails) is real, and appreciated by the beneficiaries. The fact that she says she must get land for “her” Kikuyu, well, that’s paternalism for ya. (Ugh.)

Denys, unlike most of his fellow white men, admires the native Masai and Kikuyu people for having their own traditions, stories, and lifestyles. He still feels totally entitled to hire a local man to be his servant as he wanders the country shooting all the wildlife, of course, and that is an entitlement the film does not address. His admiration also too often veers into Noble Savage territory, but he still provides a welcome contrast to the boorish paternalism of the other members of the ruling elite in the film.

Malick Bowens, yes please

Image from http://www.imdb.com/media/rm3819084288/nm0100942

He also provides a great moment of real moral conflict for the audience to participate in, when he argues with Karen over whether the local children should be educated. Her view is that of course the children should learn how to read, as it will undoubtedly improve their lives and it is unfair to deprive them of it. Hard to argue with, except Denys points out that this will just create little Englishmen out of the children, and since they already have their own culture, do they really need the European one imposed on them? It’s hard to separate out the good of educating people from the harm of doing it by a colonial master’s mandate. Not to mention that it’s not like the Kikuyu children weren’t receiving an education already; it just wasn’t a traditionally European one involving books and schools. And all this swirled about in my head after watching a Hollywood romance! Not bad.

By the end of the (very long) film, I was totally engrossed in the life of this complicated, strong woman and the many people she comes to know and love during her time in Kenya. Apparently, the title for Blixen’s book came from a Latin saying, “Out of Africa, always something new,” and a few inevitable Hollywood clichés aside, this movie delivers on providing a few new ways of portraying love and colonialism on the silver screen.

Also, the cinematography makes me want to visit Kenya, like, yesterday.

Scripts For Your Consideration

Idea #1: Cashing in on the Wedding Movie Trend

Mlle. O’Leary and I were discussing the many weddings we are both attending this year, and we decided we could totally make money off the Hollywood wedding movie trend by borrowing liberally from real life and hokey clichés alike. Girl has ten weddings to attend in one year, and they’re all her close friends and cousins, so she’s a bridesmaid in each. Girl is an Etsy maven, so rather than buy a new dress for each occasion (which she can’t possibly afford, and which she wouldn’t want to anyway because she is Independent and Quirky), she makes over the same dress for each wedding. Of course, she keeps running into the same Boy at all the weddings, and he is always wearing ties that look really familiar but Girl can’t figure out why. There is much malarkey over mistaken identities, wardrobe malfunctions, etc., and in the end Girl’s dress can’t handle any more reworking and it falls apart at the last wedding in a dramatic fashion.

I'm gonna rock that green dress, once it's made into a miniskirt and the sleeves disappear

Image from http://www.ioffer.com/i/McCalls-7847-Wedding-Bridesmaid-Dress-Sewing-Pattern-14898800

In the Hollywood version, Boy helps Girl get to a David’s Bridal, where she realizes she just wants to be like everyone else anyway, and she buys the dress. In the indie version, Boy reveals that he comes from a long line of tailors, and works some magic that makes her dress more beautiful than it ever was before. (Even indie movies have to let the boy save the day, after all.) Boy and Girl realize that the ties he’s been sporting at all these events are from her Etsy shop, so it was Totally Meant to Be.

Hollywood title: Sew in Love. Indie title: Fitting In.

Idea #2: Punking the MBAEs

I saw an ad on the train for an MBAE program — a Master’s of Business Administration for Executives. So instead of just getting a post-graduate degree in how to make more money than everybody else, you can get a post-grad degree in how to make way too much more money than everybody else. Yay?

it ain't good

Image from http://www.financialsense.com/contributors/james-quinn/the-age-of-mammon

Script goes like this: A fresh batch of MBAE students, eager to learn how to make hard deals, screw over their workers, and buy ten yachts in the process, enters the class of Teacher. Teacher is actually a plant from the unions (evil unions!) sent to fix the American Dream from the top down, but passing as a billionaire coming out from retirement to share his pearls of wisdom (it has to be a he, or they won’t listen) with this generation of CEOs. So eager are they to learn Teacher’s secrets, the MBAEs take all sorts of lessons in ethics, collaborative work, and diversity. They’re transformed from evil future CEOs into decent people, and they wield their power for good, bringing the pay disparity back down to a reasonable level and redistributing wealth across the land.

Hmm, that is perhaps less a great movie idea than a utopian fantasy, but I’m seeing it as a comedy, with all these middle-aged men doing homework on collective bargaining, first certain that this will help them learn how to crush such bargaining, and then looking bewildered as they realize they don’t want to. “What is happening to me?” they’ll cry, as tears stream down their faces and they don’t even call each other homos for crying like a little girl. They’ll all be too busy hugging and setting up universal health care.

Investors interested in making these ideas a reality, please apply within.

Film Club: Rabbit-Proof Fence

Damn, another movie that made me cry. Ask my family and they’ll tell you how rare that is — I’m the only one out of all five of us who is more likely, while watching sentimental schlock and genuinely moving fare alike, to roll my eyes than to have tears in them. Make no mistake, the director of Rabbit-Proof Fence fully intended to make me cry, and tugged my heartstrings all sorts of ways to make sure I did. But the story itself, plus three forlorn children onscreen, was enough to have me welling up at the end.

Rabbit-Proof Fence is an adaptation of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s book about her mother, Molly Craig. When Molly was 14, she, her sister and her cousin were forcibly removed from their home in Jigalong, in western Australia, and placed in the “re-education facility” Moore River Native Settlement. Under the White Australia plan of government, “protectors” of Aborigines were assigned to each state and territory in the country. They were supposedly meant to make sure Aborigines’ rights were looked out for, but in reality, they said who could and could not marry, where they were allowed to live, and whether they could keep their own children. It was established policy by 1931, when this movie is set, that mixed-race Aboriginal children were stolen from their families and placed in boarding schools that trained them for a life of working in white women’s houses (for the girls) or in white men’s fields (for the boys). The reasoning, like similar policies in the United States with Native Americans, was that it was best to assimilate the native population into the colonizing society, for their own benefit. Clearly it was better to be white, so whites were doing a public service by erasing Aborigines’ cultural heritage, never mind that grossly erroneous premise or the deep and lasting trauma to the parents and children.

The movie has a clear agenda, but for once I didn’t mind. The girls missed their family deeply, they couldn’t trust any whites they encountered because they would probably report the girls to the authorities and send them back to the settlement, and they walked 1500 miles to be reunited with the life and loved ones they knew. The movie didn’t have to try very hard to show that this was a really bad policy and a horrible affront to human rights — in fact, the movie tried a little too hard to show that the protector, A. O. Neville, truly believed that he was helping the Aborigines and couldn’t understand why they would possibly run away from the settlement. I mean, I guess that perspective is important, to show people that there was a majority of voting opinion that held this belief, because otherwise you’d just assume it was made-up, that it’s too obvious that you shouldn’t separate families based on racial prejudice. Because that is pretty damn obvious, but it wasn’t obvious enough to enough people until the 1970s, when the last children were ripped from their homes with official sanction before the government ended the program.

The most upsetting part about the movie was the very end. The last scene shows 2 of the 3 girls reunited with their mother and grandmother, the music swells, and we all feel relieved that they made it home. But then the voiceover comes up and says that Molly was sent back to Moore River with her own two children nine years later. She escaped with one of her two daughters and once again walked 1500 miles to get home, but that daughter was stolen from her and it was many years before she met the daughter she’d had to leave behind at Moore River. So Molly lost one of her children forever and reunited with her other child only after over 20 years of separation. This is why it’s called the Stolen Generations, plural; family after family was ripped apart in the name of racial purity and superiority.

Molly was torn from her mother, and then her children were torn from her. She was time and again denied her own family, her own choices, her own life. Despite this, she worked alongside her husband and became a mainstay in the desert community she knew and loved; in other words, she carved out her own life in spite of her country telling her she shouldn’t. I admire her immensely for that, and also her daughter for writing down her story and getting it published. Now, because of the movie, it’s a story that millions of people know, and that part of Australian history has been added back into the public consciousness. There are Stolen Generations deniers and former prime minister John Howard refused to apologize to Aborigines for the government’s actions, yes, but they know. People know. And that is the first step to action, right?