“Whiplash”–Disturbing or Inspiring?

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As Oscar season approaches us again, I want to draw attention to a fine movie that was nominated last year for best picture, an independently made film that had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to receive critical and box office acclaim. “Whiplash” is the story of a young, talented drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), studying at a music conservatory, and his merciless mentor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), whose methods of drawing out the best in his students venture into abusive territory (think Simon Cowell with singing contestants, except add blood). Although audience members may sway back and forth between respect and annoyance, and dare I say, amusement at Fletcher’s extreme personality and methods, I know of several people, myself included, who report that the movie ends up inspiring the creativity in us. We need that toughness, I think, to bring out what simply cannot be discovered in us with just family and close friends telling us, “You’re great. You’re the best.” That kind of biased critique is what leads the unsuspecting to embarrass themselves in front of crowds, or to self-publish books that have not been vetted by the professional world.

I always am in favor of accepting honest and helpful, yes, even brutal critique. Of course, it’s hard, but if you want to be a professional, you will have much harder things to deal with in your career than critique that might hurt. Suck it up and take your medicine!

There is a fine line, though, between helpful critique and flat-out abuse. The kind dished out by Fletcher would break the dreams of the most flimsy creators. I’m not sure that that’s a good thing. Many who might give up under those circumstances may actually be geniuses in waiting who need not only the brutal critique but also some uplifting encouragement. My feelings about Fletcher’s methods can be summed up by addressing one telling scene near the end of the movie. Fletcher famously says, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than, ‘Good job.’” I would say that the seven most powerful words in the English language are, “Good job…but it could be better.”

 

Remember This Good Courtroom Drama?

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My library’s discard shelf has been changed forever. On a particularly lucky day (for me), I cleaned out the shelf of all the John Grisham novels. These weren’t ragged, falling-apart copies; these were hard copies with clean dust jackets in good condition, probably a patron’s donation that the library didn’t need. My life has been elevated because of it.

It put me in mind of the many movies that have been made of Grisham’s books, in particular, the one that made Matthew McConaughey a star. If you haven’t seen this 1996 film, it’s still just as engrossing as it ever was. A Time to Kill is based on Grisham’s first novel, which was rejected by a bevy of publishers and only dusted off once more after he gained a name with later novels.

A Time to Kill, as other Grisham stories, is set in the Deep South, this time targeting the issue of race relations and asking the pointed question, ‘Can an African-American man who has murdered two white men get a fair trial, or even a jury of his peers?’  Of course, it’s not all so simple.  The two dead white males were violent scum to start with and show no remorse for their actions.  Although they committed the initial crime, the rape and attempted murder of the African-American man’s little girl, the issue for debate is, can justice prevail in a situation like this?  Even though vigilantism is against the law, who among us would not entertain the thought of meting out our own punishment if our loved ones were victimized?

That is the position taken by defense attorney Jake Brigance, played by McConaughey. He is incessantly driven by the specter of such a heinous crime befalling his own wife or little daughter, not by cash (what a concept!) which his client, Carl Lee Haley, doesn’t have.  His perseverance is admirable in the face of death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, and of the very real possibility that his budding law career could go up in flames faster than the cross burned in his front yard.

Despite a lot of advance publicity to live up to, McConaughey carries the lead well with his down-home Southern charisma and natural ability.  And he is surrounded by great supporting players here—Kevin Spacey is remarkable as the self-assured prosecutor aiming for career-boosting headlines in a case he knows he can’t lose.  The large cast includes Sandra Bullock as an ambitious law student who likes to flirt; Oliver Platt, a sex-starved divorce lawyer who provides plenty of comic moments so essential to this film; Donald Sutherland, a brilliant but alcoholic disbarred attorney who took a wrong turn somewhere; and Ashley Judd as Jake’s loving wife.  McConaughey and Judd’s scenes sizzle, quite possibly because the makeup department overdid the sweat.  Or maybe the Brigances need to invest in an air conditioner.

At two and a half hours, A Time to Kill is gripping courtroom drama with fine acting, thought-provoking realism sprinkled with many fun-to-watch characters.

 

Oscar Night 2014

Oscar night 2014 was a little more bearable than usual for me, because of Ellen DeGeneres. I used to always love the Oscars and look forward to them, but in recent years, I’ve felt a bit detached from them. I haven’t seen, or even heard of many of the nominated movies, and…y’know…even the big winners seem to fade away fairly quickly, don’t they? Really, how many can name last year’s winner? Two years ago?

DeGeneres did two things that freshened up the show for me. First, she wasn’t political and she wasn’t inappropriate. Even if the nominated movies aren’t all family-friendly, the Oscar show should be. There are all ages watching. Second, I loved her jaunts through the audience. Things like taking selfies and posting to Twitter, and ordering out for pizza sort of made the stars relate to us, even if they don’t really. For a moment, we could imagine we have some things in common. I hope she’ll be back next year. We’ll order some pizza and watch. And I will now post this to Twitter.

“Saving Mr. Banks”–the Genesis of the Disney Movie

Clapboard & cinema reelMary Poppins, the beloved Disney movie of 1964, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and won numerous other awards, has been known for decades. What hasn’t been as well-known, until now, is the story behind the story. In Saving Mr. Banks, Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney, and Emma Thompson is brilliant as P.L. Travers, the contankerous creator of Mary and a real test of patience. How Disney and his people were able to work with her to bring her book to the screen is a testimony to how dedicated they were to this endearing children’s story.

The flashbacks of Pamela Travers’ childhood with her sick father in Australia greatly inform the 1961 storyline of the development of the screenplay for a film Travers really didn’t want to see made. We’re glad she did finally allow it to be made since the film allowed many legions of families to be introduced to her characters.

Sadly, Travers never allowed any more of her Poppins books to be adapted, and thankfully, Saving Mr. Banks doesn’t delve into that aspect and leaves us on a much more happier note, just like Mary Poppins herself would have done.

 

“The Book Thief” Reminds Us of the Value of Reading

Clapboard & cinema reelThey nominate ten movies for Best Picture at the Academy Awards now, where it used to be only five. I, movie lover though I am, albeit a picky one, have wondered how they can find ten movies that are good enough to be considered for that prize. I’ve looked over this year’s list, and why, oh why, is The Book Thief not on there? This adaptation of the bestselling YA book is high-class in every way, from its moving story and portrayal of history, to its acting and cinematic look.

Sophia Nelisse, who plays the main character Liesel, a Russian girl whose destitute mother had to give her up to foster parents in Germany, is a find. Word is, she gave up her ten-year-old dream of Olympics gymnastics to take this role. She’s definitely multi-talented. She carries a big movie on her small shoulders, with ample help from Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson.

The story pulls in the viewer with its voyeuristic look inside Nazi Germany and what it was like for locals, i.e., it was a scary experience. But the story is made personal with a slice-of-life look at a young girl whose life difficulties are made a little better when she learns to read and commences to “borrow” books without permission. She doesn’t care what the books say, she just wants to read. She serves as a good reminder of the power of reading, alerting us to the oft-forgotten ideas of humility and gratitude for this basic necessity which transcends so many other needs. Oscar missed out with this one.

A Wayback Film Recommendation for Valentine’s Day

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo

1996’s The English Patient has several attributes that earned it the Academy Award for Best Picture. Based on Michael Ondaatje’s Booker prize-winning novel, it uses elements of Greek tragedy, with fateful characters fighting moral battles and being mercilessly enveloped by their own environment.

The dual storyline is set amid the lush terrain of Tuscany in Italy and warmed by the deserts of Tunisia. It is 1940 and a biplane is shot out of the skies over the Sahara. Desert nomads rescue a man from the wreckage, a man burned beyond recognition but clinging to life by a thread. This torn and broken form winds up in an Allied army hospital where his nationality is guessed to be English. Five years later, horribly scarred and still waiting to die, the nameless patient is being transported through the mine-riddled Tuscan region when his French-Canadian nurse Hana (played by Juliette Binoche) asks to be left behind with the patient at an abandoned monastery so that she can make his last days comfortable. From here the movie travels back and forth across the five-year time span. The patient, who is Count Laszlo de Almasy (the talented Ralph Fiennes—no, put Voldemort out of your head) remembers more than he has let on, and over the course of the two-hour, forty-minute film, his secrets are unfolded. While working with a British map-making crew in Tunisia, Almasy falls in love with the wife of another member of the expedition. She is Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas), but the same desert that brought them together threatens to tear them apart. As was the case with the classic Dr. Zhivago, some of the most memorable love stories emerge from the most harsh of settings, and that holds true here. Beneath the heated passion of the lovers lie the early deep rumblings of World War II, and that, added to the unrelenting conditions of the Sahara and Almasy’s own obsession with his beloved, leads every character in this story to their final destinies.

Among those whose lives are forever affected by the secret lovers are David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe), a Canadian spy with hatred ruthlessly instilled in him by the Nazis and who is bent on revenge, the nurse Hana who has lost everyone she has loved but risks her heart once more for a Muslim minesweeper who faces danger every day.

These well-written characters are accompanied, if not overwhelmed, by stunning photography intended for a big screen—views of the gleaming white spires of an ancient Saharan city seen through the scrollwork of a window shutter, countered by the peeling-paint walls of the Tuscan monastery overgrown with foliage. One standout scene is when Hana, sizzling flare in hand, is hoisted by ropes to the ceiling of the cavernous monastery to view the fading and chipped Medieval frescoes painted by the hands of a long-forgotten artist. It’s just one magical moment in a beautiful cinematic portrait.

Books and Movies I’ve Loved

My son who is currently a student at Brigham Young University is in the process of applying to film school. One of his requirements is to list ten books/music/movies/TV shows that have had some effect on his life. Naturally, I began to come up with my own list of such that has had a major effect on me. In fact, it became an obsession—that’s just how my brain works.

You can really get to know a person by learning about the factors that have influenced them most. It’s an icebreaker, a little window into their personality, and with authors, it can give you a clue as to what informs their own creative expression.

Without further ado, here are ten things I came up with that have been the most significant creative influencers for me, not in any particular order. I bet I could easily come up with ten or twenty more.

The Little House book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder – I already loved reading when I hit fourth grade, but it was my teacher’s practice that year of reading aloud a chapter a day from novels that really set me on fire for reading, and eventually, writing. Her reading of Little House on the Prairie was my first introduction to Laura and her stories of mid-19th century pioneer life. I devoured the rest of the series, several times, and many of her descriptions of things like small prairie towns, textiles used for women’s clothing, and commonly eaten foods have informed my own western stories.

Native American potteryBury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – I’ve been through this tome twice, and for me it remains the single most knowledgeable and powerful description of the tragedy of the American Indian.

The Jackrabbit Factor by Leslie Householder – This quick read was my first introduction to the Law of Attraction and the power of positive thinking. I’ve read many things since which have completely changed my perspective on our own potential, and goals and how to achieve them, but this was what started me on the path.

The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis – Been through this one twice too. (I’d rather read a good book twice than a mediocre one once.) I loved Lewis’ humorous and thought-provoking take on human nature, temptation, and how to recognize and guard against evil.

The 5000 Year Leap and The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution both by W. Cleon Brass bookendsSkousen – I include these together because I studied them simultaneously as part of a course. These gave me a real in-depth understanding of the U.S. Founding Fathers and the principles they studied which shaped their ideas on freedom and government, and I gained new appreciation and awe for the Constitution.

Whatever Happened to Penny Candy? by Richard J. Maybury – A good, simple-to-understand explanation of the principles of sound economics, a subject I feel is very important to learn about currently, but which I always had trouble understanding before.

The music of Johann Strauss Jr. – When I was a girl, my father bought a collection (of LPs, remember those?) of all Johann Strauss music…and I was in heaven! It was my first real introduction to classical music, and to this day my heart thrills to hear “The Beautiful Blue Danube,” “Tales of the Vienna Woods,” “The Emperor Waltz,” and so many other majestic and beautiful pieces.

Dances With Wolves – In my humble opinion, the greatest movie ever made. No other film since 1990 has ever captured my imagination like this one. As a lifelong fan of the Old West, this film made me feel, for the first time, that I was truly there and could feel the spirit of it.

Antique store picture & bottlesLonesome Dove – Where Dances With Wolves gave me the Native American view of the Old West as it was, this 1988 miniseries did the same for the cowboys’ view. Its characters are so memorable, our family has quoted them for years.

The Harry Potter movie series – How did that get in here, right? Okay, it’s true I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy, but my reason for including this is quite different than my other entries. For two summers in a row, my two sons and I have watched all eight movies. We call it a marathon, even though we only watched one movie a week. It’s the memories of that activity with my boys that I so treasure, and will my whole life as they grow up and move on in life. What fun that was, and you know what? I loved the movies too, and J.K. Rowlings’ brilliant concept.

Well, there it is, 10 things, and I didn’t even get to Who Moved My Cheese? or Mark Twain’s Huck Finn, or the movie Glory or…

But I’ve got more reading, listening, and watching to do. Bye for now.

 

Film “Doubt” is Strong on Theme

Clapboard & cinema reelOscar season is upon us now–a good time to remember past nominees which may have gone largely unnoticed but which are well worth a look. Doubt received many acting and writing nominations at the 2009 Oscars and some wins at other awards. Today I welcome guest blogger Taylor Davis, who reviews this powerful film.

John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 film Doubt tells the story of a parish in peril as a pastor is accused of child molestation, and depicts the gospel principle that “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center” (1 Nephi 16:2).

Although the story is openly religious, taking place in a Catholic church and school and including several scenes of Father Flynn preaching sermons, this message is conveyed mostly in the familiar style rather than the abundant. The film shows a man facing the consequences of his sins in a way to which we may relate… or will relate someday.

Father Flynn is obviously shaken by the accusations against him. Whether or not he actually committed the crime is never revealed, though it is implied that he has a dark past, as he was thrown out of three other parishes in the past five years. His angry temperament when confronted with these accusations is a manifestation that, whether or not he did it, the subject is very personal to him. He hates its mere mention. The first time he is confronted by Sisters James and Aloysius, he does what any sinner might do: he retaliates angrily and changes the subject, asserting that he is unsatisfied with how the situation was handled. In this way he redirects all negativity away from him and at his accusers.

When the wicked are suspected of a sin, they will often do anything they can to hide it from the world and keep their reputation in good standing. In this way they act cowardly, and ignore the eternal and inevitable consequences of their actions. They will plug their ears and scream when someone tries to warn them of what will happen to them if they do not change, because the wicked take the truth to be hard. This is the theme of Doubt.

Doubt stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis.

A Wayback Film Recommendation: 1995’s “Restoration”

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The age of Restoration, as the opening narrative of the film Restoration tells us, is a period in British history when King Charles rescued his country from strict Puritanical rule and fostered a carefree open-mindedness marked by scientific discoveries and medical advances which challenged long-held superstitions. But it is also the poignant story of the restoration of one man’s soul.

Young Dr. Robert Merivel, played brilliantly by Robert Downey Jr., is a physician who is more interested in partaking of the physical pleasures of the age than in curing anything. Spoiled and schooled by daddy’s money, he has no idea that he is perfectly poised in his profession to be part of the dawn of a new era. He is distracted by the new ’60s sexual revolution, 1660s that is. The monarchy and all of upper-crust society live in a whirl of wanton lust and debauchery, and Merivel craves this life of leisure. His destiny is set in motion the moment he becomes the first man to touch a living, beating heart. This draws the attention of his idol, King Charles himself, who requires such a man to heal his beloved…dog. Merivel subsequently becomes the royal veterinarian and is given his own estate complete with clothing designers and “playmates”, and oh yes, an arranged marriage with the king’s mistress, Lady Celia, played by beautiful Polly Walker, the only rule being, he is not to become attached to her, in any way. That’s like asking a happy dog not to wag his tail. Next thing we know, Merivel is living in the fetid squalor of London’s slums, treating patients in a sanitarium. All is not lost though. Merivel has a lot to learn about the potential that rests within him and the stimulus it needs to awaken it. This man may not understand the difference between love and lust, but he understands compassion; he understands friendship in its truest form, and it’s not at all far-fetched that the secret to stamping out the dreaded plague which is gutting the land rests in his unassuming mind.

It is obvious why Restoration won its two Oscars in 1996 for art design and costumes. The rich reds and golds of palatial splendor lavish a feast on the senses and are evocative of the story they are telling. A beautiful classical soundtrack brings this rich tapestry to life, as does a superb cast. Special mention should be made of Meg Ryan who plays a woman scarred by tragedy and wrongly labeled as crazy. Her convincing Irish accent makes her almost unrecognizable from the actress we know. Restoration is a journey in itself, and after we’ve traveled its dark roads we may find ourselves counting our blessings today.

True Grit: A Timeless Movie for Western Lovers

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The annual Western Legends Roundup begins tomorrow in Kanab, Utah, so in honor of that popular and nostalgic celebration of the Old West, let me recommend to you a recent western movie that will never get old for me.

So, everyone saw the original True Grit, right? The one starring John, yeah, you know who I mean. I don’t mind dating myself by saying that I saw it in the theater, and I have loved it ever since. It’s a classic. It’s impossible to write about the 2010 True Grit without mentioning the 1969 version. And I’ve just done so. Okay, now let’s move on.

If someone had asked you who you thought would make a western movie nowadays, would you have guessed Joel and Ethan Coen?  They surprised everyone by stepping out of their quirky niche, but they definitely prove their versatile artistic abilities with this production.  Make no mistake though; they have a brilliant story to work with.  Charles Portis’ 1968 novel was rife with brilliantly fleshed-out characters and riveting dialogue.  They translated it well to the screen, as if westerns were their specialty.

The film tells the story of 14-year-old straight-arrow religious Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) of Yell County, Arkansas, whose father was shot down by his hired man Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), a no-good drifter.  Mattie travels to Fort Smith to enlist the help of the meanest federal marshal around, someone she’s heard possesses true grit.  Enter Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a hard-drinking, fearless lawman with his own history of lawlessness, who dispenses justice readily at the point of a gun.  The phrase of ‘true grit’ applies to Mattie as much as to Rooster.  How a young girl manages to ‘hoorah’ a crusty, old cuss like Rooster is the core of the movie.  And newcomer Hailee Steinfeld seized the opportunity to own this story.  This was indeed her film—she is the narrator; the story is told from her point of view.  Because of this it was important to find just the right actress.  I saw a few out of the several thousand audition tapes, and it was obviously a tedious task to find a girl of a young age who would have any understanding or feel for the culture of the 19th century American West, a place quite foreign to today’s teenagers.  Steinfeld grabbed onto the role with the gusto of her character.  When Mattie awakens in her boarding house room to the site of a Texas Ranger sitting across from her, you know that her moral sensibilities are greatly disturbed, but she instead instantly takes command of the situation.  She minces no words.  No one who sees the movie will easily forget her.  

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Bridges is absolutely fun to watch as he mumbles and staggers his way through his role as Rooster, utterly unrecognizable as the movie star he is.  The Texas Ranger La Boeuf (Matt Damon) is the most changed from the original movie.  He’s amusingly arrogant but can’t be counted on even as much as Rooster.  Although their goals are the same, he clashes often with Rooster, but he’s likeable.

Carter Burwell’s musical score relies almost 100 percent on the pure, old sounds of Protestant hymns, a brilliant turn that subtly draws the viewer towards Mattie’s character.  With his seeming never-ending supply of renditions of the hymns, they are never repetitious or boring. 

Oscar recognized this film as one of its 10 best picture nominees, but for me, it was THE best picture of 2010.

Red Cliffs Lodge Movie Museum