Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Fan: Microcosm and Macrocosm -- Human Woundedness from A(lienated) to Z(ootopia)


Alienated 2016. Writer/Director: Brian Ackley. Producer: Brian Ackley, Princeton Holt, and Cassandra Riddick. Actors: Taylor Negron, George Katt, and Jen Burry. Streaming on Amazon Prime  

First thing first. Let me say that yes, there is an alien invasion in this film and in the long run it probably doesn’t really matter. Yep, that’s a spoiler but I kinda doubt if anyone who watches this movie will care about that -- after he reads my review. It’s a good flick -- or at least it was liked by yours truly. But do not go into this movie thinking we have a scifi movie on your hands.

Meet Paige who is married to  Nate. Conspiracy theorist, visionary, isolationist, artist, possibly self-involved, Nate has seen what he thinks is a spacecraft. Trouble is: Nate is trying to get Paige to understand and Paige is having none of it. These two are in a communication and marriage meltdown. Whether it’s because Paige doesn’t understand Nate’s artistic spirit or feels just plain jealous and slighted, it’s hard to tell. At least in the beginning. Sure, Nate includes h himself in all his paintings. The artist part of me can kinda understand that. The characters in my novels pretty much resemble me in parts. And don’t all artists basically do art about themselves? So yeah, I understand Nate a bit. But there’s also the other side. And if there is one thing about this movie it’s that there is always the other side -- a side which the viewer sees, but which the active participants in this marital breakdown are reluctant to see. The other side is this: Well, why the heck is is putting himself in all his pictures? Can’t he vary his drawing style a bit? Why is he putting himself in a painting which he is giving to Denise, the widow of his best friend? Yes, yes, I get it: he is showing her he identifies with loss. Or he is showing loss itself. But dangnabbit, if you sense that your wife is jealous of the might want to rethink that whole art project.  And really why are the lights on the spacecraft like the lights on your painting to Denise? Is there something you don’t know about yourself, Nate?

Why continue willfully on your own way if you sense the discussion is really about something else? And “sense” is the operative word here. One gets the feeling as one listens to this long painfully grievous conversation --yep! This entire film is a conversation-- that one needs to be willing to sense the other person’s side and that these folks are fully capable of willing themselves to….but they just have reached the point where they don’t want to will themselves to understand any more.

I swear this movie would be good for a marriage counseling class. Again, I repeat, the whole alien invasion thing has very little to do with the plot. It doesn’t mean the film is bad. It’s a very good, very harrowing, very painful film. Just...well, if you see it on AmazonPrime, it’s best to know what you’re getting into. So back to our marriage problems:, Nate can decide to perceive Paige as jealous or as needing affirmation. Paige can decide to see Nate as an artist or as self-centered.

But let’s get to the third character: Griffin, this odd guy next door who -- for all we know may or may not exist. Griffin is the kind of neighbor who asks the kind of deep questions folks in indie films ask. Thing is: he kinda knows an awful lot about Nate, who seems to be the only one who sees him. Is Griffin an angel? Is he God? I don’t think he’s God or even an alien. Griffin is the kind of character who can either make or break an indie film because, heck, he gives us a sermony voiceover at the end.

The ending is an open-ending. We don’t see any human bodies so it’s possible our lovers still exist and are alive on another planet somewhere. Heck, they might have been raptured! Thing is though: the earth doesn’t seem destroyed, just kinda ya know… emptied. And if it is emptied, or --heck-- if our main characters are least they are together and committed to being willing to understand each other.

I remember the days when alien invasion movies ended with humans triumphing over their reptilian exo-skeletoned baddies. Heck, I remember the days when the earth survived all kinds of disasters. Not so, now. It has often been said that if we Earthers were to be challenged by a larger looming evil --heck, if we Americans were all challenged by some external evil-- we would all finally join together. Uhm, I’m not sure of that. Human willfulness and selfishness are both pretty strong. So in the end, our main characters come to terms with their lives and with the changes to their world. Is that a good thing? And if so, how? Is harmony between humans, come what may, all that matters?

Producers: Monica Lago-Kaytis, John Lasseter, Brad Simonson, Clark Spencer; Directors and Writers: Byron Howard, Jared Bush, Rich Moore; Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Animation 2016

Now, perhaps it’s me. But I find myself thinking there is something else to Zootopia other than the much-praised meta-animated discussion of racism. And don’t get me wrong! I do love the film’s insights into multiculturalism and racial dynamics in a cosmopolitan world. And hey! It’s a good mystery and great animation! Some of the racial subtexts were so good I actually had to google the writers to see if any of them were Black. Example: As a Black woman, I’ve had white folks --notably-- my white mother-in-law reach out to touch my afro. And the notion that a government official could make a drug from a flower and circulate it to the “predatory” classes was not lost on my ultra-conspiratorial Jamaican mind. And heck, I almost cried twice when watching Zootopia,  although I suspect that both racists and non-racists could feel the movie is speaking to them.

The first time I almost wept copious tears was of a scene uniquely connected to minorities; the other was a scene that a more generalized audience would understand. In the first scene, an incident is recounted of a little boy who was not allowed to belong because he was not the right uh…okay let’s call it ”race.” The second scene harkened to the kind of heartfelt sentimentality that is everywhere during the Christmas Season, Martin Luther King Day, or even the Special Olympics: belief in possibilities, hope in humanity and ourselves, and loving trust in our neighbors. So yes, I liked this movie a lot.

But yeah, that other thing. The other human element, a subtext which a more homogenous nation might more readily see. Forgetting racial matters, the movie is also an examination of the emotional equivalence of predatoriness and the emotional similitude of being a prey. In Alienated, the viewer is shown two equals involved in a subtle war against each other. Culturally, a marriage is an alliance and a balance of emotional power; there should be neither prey nor predator in the relationship. (Of course predation --or assumptions of predation-- happens a lot in some marriage...and Alienated is an examination of the battle humans engage in when they believe they are being preyed upon.)

But in the “real” world, there are no fast rules on how to discern predatory humans, preys, or wolves in sheep’s clothing. We humans often take on allies -- in religious systems, in social groups, in social status-- on the assumption that those who are like us are probably not going to destroy us. In addition to that, we learn to discern false flags, to intuit warning signals, to decipher behavioral patterns that hint at whether we are dealing with someone we can harm, someone who can harm us, someone who will defend herself if attacked, someone who will scurry away like a bunny. I remember reading about a psychological study which examined why certain types of people usually end up repeatedly abused. They send out signals that potential attackers hone in on: phermones, if you will. Other folks, with kinder or more enlightened or introspective hearts, might also sniff out the weaknesses of their fellow humans. But these kinder, enlightened, introspective hearts never attack. They are either able to spiritually check themselves, or identify with the possible prey.

In Zootopia, Judy Hops still has the instinct to fear those who may be destructive to her. From biological instinct and from past experiences, she is predisposed to distrusting Nick who is a fox. Heck, she carries around a spray just in case she meets an unevolved fox. Thus she is aware that she has been prey and might be prey but she is not willing to be ruled by her past experiences. Nick, on the other hand, has experienced being prey. One would not think a fox could be deceived but alas as a child he was. As a lover of the poet William Blake, I will just say that Nick too went from “Songs of Innocence” to “Songs of Experience” And now, he -- like Judy-- are on their way to singing “Songs of Regained Innocence.”  

In Zootopia, biology is believed to be the marker that signals the possibility of predation. A lion’s biology would make it a predator, a bunny’s or a sheep’s biology would make it a prey. But since the animals of Zootopia have evolved past mere biological urges, all desire for predation has changed. Oh there are still power structures, scheming, underhandedness, etc. But there is no predation. Let’s digress and consider that for a moment. Not from an animal perspective but from humanity’s. Will cruel humans ever evolve out of the need to be cruel to weaker humans?

There is a scene where Judy chases a criminal through Little Rodentia, a town populated by tiny rodents. Our bunny cop, who has been pretty much among the tiniest beings in Zootopia’s capital city now has power to harm. However, she does not harm. She is quite aware of her power to accidentally step on those who are weaker or smaller than she is. In fact, the viewer also sees that Nick -- a predator-- is also aware of the little folks below him. Later, when we meet a big gangster, Mr Big, we discover that predation has nothing to do with size at all. Small, puny, people can be predatory too.     

This leads the viewer to begin to understand that preys can go against their biological programming and suddenly behave like predators. (Not gonna get into the whole nurture versus nature debate here.) So, it is no surprise to us when we see that one prey has been put-upon for so long that patience becomes anger, the need to control, and the active desire for vengeance.  I found myself wondering about the human “real world” counterpart of this situation. Do weak, put-upon people suddenly lose it? Why yes, they do!

Considering how volatile the world has been about racial matters lately, I’m not sure how many reviewers will wish to examine this aspect of the film. After all, racism is of national import right now. Being kinder and gentler to each other is kinda on the back-burner. Besides, reviewers, as a group, tend to be like other humans: there are some who are so emotionally strong -- or who have been biologically, financially, and racially linked to power-- that they may not see this little corner of the box. But, I’m hoping in those reviewers out there who understand what being prey is. They might see this subtext quite easily. And maybe their pens will be their swords and they can root for a film that basically tells us all to be excellent to each other.

Happy Creativity, all.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts -- Documentary

4.1 Miles
This joint US-Greece short shows the efforts to save refugees coming in by boat from the Middle East via Turkey. I was on the verge of tears watching this. The film is effective in showing how complex the whole humanitarian crisis is. Weeping children, many of them orphans, caring but wary Greeks who feel their island is being overwhelmed, especially because there is no infrastructure on the island to take care of sick, homeless refugees. A very sad but important watch. I suspect that even people who are hateful toward Moslems would be touched.   
I think I needed a trigger alert for this documentary. The focus of this story is on people in ICU in Kansas who are not going to recover from their illnesses. These people (if they are able, or if their families are willing) are given the choice of living or dying. Sometimes living implies being in a vegetative state until the body gives out. It's definitely a study about the ethics of medicine. This is a very, very, hard watch.  
Joe’s Violin

This is very touching. After a NYC radio station starts a musical donation drive, many people donated their instruments. This story is focused on a holocaust survivor who is giving up his beloved violin. Music meant a lot to him before the war, while he was in the displaced person's camp in Siberia, and after. He donates the violin to a young girl and they become friends. This girl also has endure some suffering of her own.  This is a very inspiring documentary. I was weepy throughout.
The White Helmets
Among the bombed-out houses and shelters in Syria are a group of people called the White Helmets who go through the rubble to find survivors and bodies.  It's another hard watch. It's just very difficult seeing all that suffering, but it's inspiring to see how brave these first-responders are. This is yet another film that those who dislike refugees should see.
Watani: My Homeland
 This depicts the life of a refugee Syrian family as they try start a new life in Germany. It's hopeful but felt slightly like propaganda. Unlike the previous refugee films where we are in the middle of a distressing situation, this film has time for reflection and even a bit of a happy ending. The conversations tend to be the kind of talk one hears when one is aware that others are watching and that one needs to say certain appropriate things. Perhaps because of this and because of the slickness of the finished production, everything recalled in tranquility, the film feels like any old documentary one might find on a news program.

What Should Win: Joe's Violin or 4.1 Miles.
In Theaters February 8th and On Demand February 21st
For a full list of theaters the short films are playing in, visit:
For information on how to watch On Demand, visit:

Watch the official trailer:


2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts -- Animation

Blind Vaysha
The plot of this story is simple. A girl, Vaysha, is born with one eye that sees only the past and another eye that sees only the beautiful. Although the village women try to help her, she never sees the present. This modern fairytale from Canada merges the philosophical and the fantastical, which is what the best fairytales always do. Watching the artwork is like watching a living ancient etching. An animated film that will cause much discussion among filmgoers of any age. This should win if the Academy members decide to go for a deep story.
Borrowed Time

In this US short, a son recounts the tragic events that led to his father's death. A tragedy which he caused but was not responsible for and which has haunted him since that day. The cinematography  is breath-taking. The script is crisp, powerful, and heart-rending despite the sparse dialog. A lot of emotion and beauty in this 6-minute film.  Definitely not for kids. 
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
 This joint Canadian and UK noir has spectacular linear art, very reminscent of comic books. The story is excellent, the narration world-weary. The entire thing is stylish. But it bored me. Perhaps I'm burned out on good-for-nothing self-destructive types, but after a while I didn't care enough about the antihero and I kept wondering why such great art was being wasted on such a character. Perhaps it's the literature major in me but I've just seen too many stories about loser/users to care. This story added nothing new to similar stories and the backstory of ant-hero's life didn't give the viewer any reason to care about or understand him. So, while his friend the narrator was well-acted and worn down, the story seemed as inevitable and predictable as the anti-hero's path towards death.   

This American short about growing up, bonding, and paternal love is very sweet but it says nothing new. In it, a young girl realizes how much her father has influenced her. The color palate of the film is very painterly, giving the viewer a rhapsodic pastel rush of fleeting, nostalgic, images.


 This is a Pixar joint and it is utterly adorable. I had a big grin on my face. It's cute, hopeful, joyful, lovely...and it has a cute little baby bird. Yes, the cuteness factor is off the charts. Academy members who like cuteness should love this.

What Should Win: Blind Vaysha but I wouldn't mind if Borrowed Time or Piper won.

Friday, February 10, 2017

2017 Oscar Nominated Shorts -- Live Action

Ennemis Intérieurs (Enemies Within)
Ennemis Interieurs is a story that takes place for the most part in one setting: an official's office. But that particular setting resonates in its universality and specificity. Most people, in most places have been in this type of setting. Who has not had to meet a bureaucrat at some government office? But the setting is also specific and immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, will feel the resonance in their own way. 
The basic plot is this: An immigrant who has lived in France most of his life has decided to become a citizen. He is interviewed by an official who seems at first to be more a gatekeeper or police agent than a welcoming immigration office. 
This is one of the most harrowing short-shorts I've seen in a while. Even more harrowing than the many horror shorts I've seen. And the reason it's such a hard watch and such a painful slow burn is not because of the inherent creepiness that occurs when one sees someone being interrogated in a tiny room by a cold meticulous official bent on tripping one up. It's because one finds one's self getting angrier and angrier as the cruelty becomes more pointed and the trap becomes more inescapable.  It's been ages since a film villain has made me so angry. Most villains in movies are cool and we filmgoers generally admire their sang-froid and cold-heartedness. But the citizenship inspector is so reminiscent of that powerful real-world prejudiced villainous official who is hell-bent on destruction.  In this character, we see how pernicious, subtle, and vicious the prejudices of the powerful are. Highly recommended.   
La Femme et le TGV (The Woman and the TGV)

A woman whose life is passing her by is holding on to the past --its elegance, its proprieties, its routine. Part of her daily routine is waving out the window at a passing train -- the TGV. She has not greeted the new things of life -- things such as the internet, or people like the playful young guy who dared to park her car in front of her bakery. But then, one day, a letter arrives and it is from someone on the train. He has seen her waving everyday and he writes to thank her that he values that very human action. She answers that it is a habit she formed with her son in the old days. However, this new interaction with this unseen letter-writer becomes the catalyst which causes her to grow out of her old ways. 

I liked this film a lot. I can't say it is anything super-special, so I'm somewhat surprised that it is nominated as a short. After all, there are countless movies and shorts about people encountering something, event, or action that causes some life-changing momentum to be set in place. Perhaps I'm missing something about the film that makes me unable to see it's greatness. Perhaps it has national or cultural echoes --the death of small-town France, for instance. But I won't hold its simplicity against it. It is a sweet little short with a solid story and good cinematography.
Silent Nights

Every once in a while one comes upon a movie where one has a disconnect with the filmmakers. For me, this was such a movie. The story is about a young woman in Denmark who is working in a homeless shelter for poor legal and undocumented immigrants. She encounters a homeless man from Ghana and falls in love with him.  Because of this encounter, the man leaves Denmark with lots of money and the woman is left alone happily fulfilled with his child. Perhaps the blurb is to blame, which reads as: "The couple builds a life together, but a devastating secret from Kwame's past may undermine their happiness." SPOILER (which is not really a spoiler): The Ghanaian man is married with children.

There are countless reasons why this movie annoyed me. The primary one, however, is that the music cues us to like the Ghanaian. Musical cues rarely work when a story is so facile. The writer in me wants sentiment --especially the sentiment of pity-- to be earned. In the end, the story comes off as a tale about a naïve loveless White girl who is taken advantage of by a Black man. Which is fine. But this is not what the filmmakers intended. The depiction of the immigrant is patronizing, his adultery is glossed over and repaid by monetary gains. The girl comes off as a dupe, and the film as self-congratulatory and simplistic. For me the story should have been more subtle and more morally complicated. For instance, is it possible for a poor man to love a woman who is giving him financial help and who ends up providing him with sex and a place to stay? A story like this --told in times like this-- should leave the viewer feeling troubled and perhaps confused.  
Sing (Mindenki)

This Hungarian short is utterly a-political, yet profoundly political. Unlike the failure Silent Nights and the pointed and devastating Enemies Within, Sing shows in a small setting -- a primary school-- that the political is often quite personal and that communal power (however small) can overcome evil....if only on a small scale. The story concerns a school choir, the choir mistress, and an upcoming contest which the choir mistress desperately wishes to win.  The choir mistress is not below using cruelty to get her way. What I loved primarily about this film was its kindness, its unobtrusive but powerful subtext, and its efficient storytelling. It may not be as devastatingly powerful as Enemies Within but it says a lot about how power could be challenged. I highly recommend this little short.

This short from Spain manages to be primarily about dance. I wouldn't necessarily call it a dance film, however. The dancing is interwoven like beads on a very thin plot string. But it works so well. The main characters are two guards who never speak to each other -- at least their communication is not verbal. They pass each other like ships in the night; dancing ships. The only verbal communication between them are the camera timecodes they exchange, timecodes which give each other clues to when and where their dance communication takes place. A good short, and like any good dance flick, the culmination of the story and the dance work perfectly together.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

review: The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan

The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ
by Andrew Klavan
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Nelson (September 20, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 071801734X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0718017347
I really like this book. Usually I fear reading conversion stories that are published by large Christian companies. Often, they are ghost-written by a Christian ghost-writer and feels very cookie-cutter by-the-book. Often those conversion stories don't feel quite literary. And no, I'm not into literary memoirs, but there is something to be said for actually seeing the personality of the writer and knowing one is reading words that are chosen by the book's subject instead of words chosen or written by a ghostwriter. But hey, that's just me. The writer in me can spot sameness in any book and apparently, there's a Christian style of non-fiction/memoir writing.

Anyway, moving on.

Another thing that's good about this book is that feels as if it was written by an excellent writer. There is a self-searching and an honesty that is apparent in this spiritual memoir. The book is ruminative and revelatory and much care is taken to show the inner workings of the memoirist. He talks about having to push past his knowledge that his background might have set him up to reject his faith in order to fit into White Christian Culture. Because the writer of this book loves books, the memoir has many literary references as well as many dissections of emotional, psychological, and spiritual challenges on the way to his conversion.  And he's very honest about his challenges, giving -- so to speak-- "a knife to any reader who might wish to stab him with" some supposed 'reason' for his conversion.  Most Christian non-fiction --in my experience-- just isn't that honest. And that's what I liked about this memoir.

One of the challenges he mentions was when he had that moment, the false epiphany of "No God." It reminded of what happened to William James, Henry James' Brother. If I recall, James had been walking through life when suddenly it occurred to him that God did not exist. It was such a sudden realization that it freed him, supposedly. Except that Klavan couldn't rest in that sudden (false) realization that God didn't exist. He pushed past it.

The book is very readable, insightful, and a great read. Highly recommended. I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.


Blog Archive