Obnoxiously happy

 

happy

Dear World,

My apologies if my happiness has gotten a tad obnoxious of late, but my life is blessed in so many ways that I simply cannot keep the joy inside, nor truthfully do I wish to.

Alongside the wonderful gifts I am given every day, I am routinely presented with insane opportunities to express and explore the passions that light up my soul, whether it is writing or photography or sharing knowledge.

But beyond even that, I sit in complete awe at the wondrous passions of the people around me; people with amazing visions of who they are and how the world can be.

I know painters and actors and writers and musicians; parents and partners and children and pets; athletes and industrialists and service workers and technicians. And every single one of those people bring me insane joy simply by following their own passions, whether within their titles or not, and allowing me to be witness and in some cases, participant.

Even watching perfect strangers experience their worlds, or Nature express itself from day to day, brings a beauty and elegance that I simply did not choose to see in my former life but do now.

So how can my heart not burst forth, my spirit soar and the laughter ring forth?

I am both a newborn child seeing things for the first time and an ageless ancient finally understanding the patterns that have always splayed out before my once dulled eyes.

That is my joy. That is my happiness. That is my love.

And unasked, that is what I share with the world.

Miss Sloane misses mark – review

sloane-poster

I am a sucker for politics and intrigue, shows like The West Wing and House of Cards (British & American versions) forming a regular staple of my creative diet. Thus, it was with great anticipation that I lined up to see Miss Sloane (trailer), an inside look at the cut-throat world of DC lobbyists, whom many consider the parasitic infection that Washington just cannot (and will not) shake.

Sadly, Jonathan Perera (writer of Miss Sloane) is no Aaron Sorkin or Beau Willimon. In his defence, however, it is likely that neither were Sorkin and Willimon on their first produced screenplays.

The movie follows the string-pulling machinations of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), an ice-water-in-her-veins win-at-all-costs lobbyist who works for one of the most powerful firms in Washington. This woman has no scruples and is willing to get behind anything that earns a paycheque and raises her status inside the Beltway. Anything, it seems, except for the gun lobby.

And when she is presented with an opportunity to make guns more appealing to women in the hopes of killing gun control legislation coming to the floor, she instead jumps ship to a boutique firm (read “poor”), run by Rudolpho Schmidt (Mark Strong), and takes up the opposing cause.

sloane-pairing

More could have been made of Strong’s moral angst over hiring nuclear weapon Chastain

Once the ball starts rolling down hill, it steamrolls over everyone in its path, and the story becomes a ballet between Sloane’s new firm and her old one, led by a very angry George Dupont (Sam Waterston) and his lead hitman Pat Conners (Michael Stuhlbarg). Until recently, Conners was Sloane’s partner in larceny. The rest of the movie is simply watching puppeteers pull strings.

Thus, this movie is a character study of people without character; a morality play completely lacking in morals.

As such, it is incredibly dark and even with its climax and moment of supposed triumph, you leave the theatre positively suicidal at the prospect that this story even starts to approximate reality.

In one way, it is fascinating to watch completely manipulative characters toss around human lives and feelings as though pieces in a game of Risk or Stratego. I think it strikes at our voyeur nature, tying in with the modern fascination in so-called reality television and amounting to little more than emotion porn. This movie could easily have been titled 50 Shades of Sloane.

sloane-puppetry

The strings may be invisible, but the puppet dances

At the same time, with no shred of humanity in these characters, it is difficult if not impossible to invest in the main combatants. At best, we mourn the cannon fodder that litters the field of combat. It is like watching a movie about the invasion of Normandy and really only being able to appreciate the kid who is killed as he steps off the landing craft.

And this is precisely where Perera’s developing skills let him down and his contrast with the current political masters is at its most notable.

Despite the sheer malevolence of Francis and Claire Underwood in House of Cards, there is a vulnerability that helps us understand their razor-clad shells. Go further back to the true master of political intrigue—William Shakespeare—and you see the frailties of the otherwise horrific Macbeth and his Lady. Or perhaps my favourite: Iago from Othello.

frailty-in-venom

Underwood, Macbeth and Iago: Human frailty lies behind the face of a monster

Despite the play’s title, Iago is the true hero of Othello. It is his story that unfolds as he manipulates all those around him, working their weaknesses and frailties against them, truly uncaring of the destructive impact his actions are likely to have on even his own future. And yet, for all the venom and disturbing glee with which Shakespeare imbues his malevolent beast, the Bard is also sure to insert short references to why Iago is so morally misshapen.

To his credit, Perera refused to go in the opposite direction and give us some long-winded sob story of a slight or wound from Sloane’s past to explain her motivations, and in fact, makes it a point, several times, to complain about just such an approach.

But in the absence of any contextualization for the character, even the climax itself comes across as academic exposition rather than revelation. At best, the climax has audacity rather than soul.

There is no moment to cheer the outcome of the story because the outcome is as soul-less as the morass that preceded it.

sloane-perils

That which cannot be controlled must be destroyed

As though sensing this, the final scenes of the movie felt like a bit of a negation of what came before, attempting to soften the edge of Sloane and the story itself. I really wish the movie had ended with the climax.

Given these character challenges, the stellar cast performed well despite being largely wasted.

Chastain does ice well, her face and mannerisms giving away little. Mark Strong was mostly missing in action, through no fault of the actor. His character simply had little to offer. And Stuhlbarg is quickly making a name for himself as malevolent toady, and for that very reason, really needs to find another role to utilize other aspects of his obvious talent.

Miss Sloane was a great idea that suffered in the execution, and I am perhaps being a bit unfair to put the onus on Perera. Director John Madden—best known for Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel—would have had some influence on how this story played out, and given the pre-diabetic sweetness of his other movies, this story was a surprising choice.

As an academic exercise, I would love to see what Sorkin or Willimon would do with this concept. Each would create very different movies, I think.

In the meantime, I will be interested in seeing where Perera goes next.

See also:

Chastain enlivens political thriller ‘Miss Sloane’ (Lindsay Bahr, Metronews)

Jessica Chastain dominates as a Washington power player (Nigel Smith, The Guardian)

Richard Crouse (video, CTV News)

“Fury” and futility – a review

fury-movie-poster

Rarely am I stumped by a movie. Usually, I like the film, it is okay or it is bad.

But every now and again, a movie makes me work at an opinion. David Ayer’s Fury is one of those films, the 2014 film being released this week on Netflix.

Starring Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf and Michael Peña, Fury tells the story of an American tank crew in the last year of World War II, pushing deep into Germany but heavily outgunned by German Tiger tanks.

And there is my challenge with this film. I have now explained the entire movie to you, because there is no real point to the plot.

It is seriously as though a camera crew showed up on a battle site one day and followed a tank crew for a few days as it wound its way through various other battles into the belly of the Nazi beast.

Thus, I cannot really tell if this movie is an amazingly stunning metaphor for the futility of war—there is no glory here—or if it was just a badly penned film.

logan-lerman-and-brad-pitt-in-fury

Ideals clash with reality

To be fair to Ayer, who not only wrote, but also directed and produced this film, there is a human interest side to this story as the war-weary, battle-hardened tank crew is joined by doe-eyed recruit Norman  Ellison (Logan Lerman) who just days earlier was a typist for the military bureaucracy.

Thus, as the tank—the titular Fury—lurches from battle to battle, we witness the corruption of a pure heart by atrocities committed not only by the enemy, but by his fellow soldiers. And we see the toll this corruption takes on the boy’s tank commander Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) who personally starts that downhill process.

But again, to what purpose?

fury-respite

War taints even the most peaceful moments

Almost all war films seem to be based on men fighting toward a higher purpose, whether it is a battle that turns the tide of the war—e.g., Sands of Iwo Jima; Tora, Tora, Tora—or a moment of humanity amidst chaos—e.g., Saving Private Ryan—or men fighting for sanity within that chaos—e.g., Good Morning, Vietnam; Catch 22; Apocalypse, Now.

For me, Fury had no such pretense.

Yes, the Americans are the “good” guys and the Germans were the “bad” guys, but neither side in this film was any nobler than its counterpart. Within the confines of this movie, this was carnage and hatred purely for the sake of same.

As to the film itself; all of the actors did an admirable job, wearing the carnage of war on their faces and in their souls. Brad Pitt at his harshest expressed an internal dignity if not nobility. Shia LaBeouf was restrained. And Michael Peña really didn’t have much to do.

fury-movie

Truthfully, this film might have been stronger as a silent movie, as it was the facial expressions and battle scenes that told this story. The dialogue offered little to the visceral impact of this film (emotions are drained pretty early).

Beautifully shot, this is a grisly film and not for the faint of heart or stomach. Bullets and bombs don’t just pierce a body; they rip it wide open. The fallen remain fallen, to be ground into the mud by jeep tires and tank treads.

For all of these reasons—and it was a slow burn for me—I am coming down on the side of Fury being the embodiment of the ultimate futility and barbarism of war.

In this movie, even if you saved the person of Private Ryan or Ellison, the soul is long gone.

Remember

A good choice for Remembrance Day, highlighting purposeless sacrifice

12 Days of Gratitude – Nick

Nick BR

This is my friend Nick, an amazingly creative, nerdy soul who can’t stop giving of himself.

Although Nick may not say much until he gets to know you well (or until he sees a TARDIS), he is eminently worth engaging. And once you do find your way into his heart, he is an eternal refuge for weary souls and buoys your worst days.

Those who know Nick hold that gift dear. The rest of you should open yourself to this special man.

P.S. I firmly believe Nick will hate that I did this.

(Part Two of my 12 Days of Gratitude…because the rest of the news sucks)

Music and the soul

Alive Inside movie poster from the Sundance Film Festival

Alive Inside movie poster from the Sundance Film Festival

I am not a musician. I do not play an instrument, nor do I sing (not well, at least), and I do not understand how music is constructed. I do, however, like music and firmly believe that if we ever discover proof of a human soul, it will translate itself to us in the form of music.

I have, of course, no evidence to support this belief, although a recent experience at the Nashville Film Festival suggested I may be on the right track. The event was the showing of a documentary called Alive Inside: A story of memory and music.

The film, directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett, follows the story of social worker Dan Cohen who has spent the last several years bringing iPods to nursing homes across the United States. Cohen has found that even with the most neurologically shut down senior (e.g., clients with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia), revive when they music from their youth.

Director Michael Rossato-Bennett (l) and social worker Dan Cohen (r)

Director Michael Rossato-Bennett (l) and social worker Dan Cohen (r)

Slowly, as the story plays out, we are introduced to human husks that reside in these homes and palliative care centres. People who had once been husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, but who have been reduced to masses of barely interactive biological matter by their medical conditions.

And yet, when the headphones are placed over their ears and music pours down thin white wires into ear buds, those husks are infused with life. Like a balloon that only shows its true form upon inflation, the inert bodies and death masks take the form and substance of the human beings they once were.

Henry comes alive again as the music reaches inside

Henry comes alive again as the music reaches inside

Eyes glow with life, spines regain flexibility, paralysis becomes movement, and disengaged spirits connect with the world. If only for a few hours, the catatonic fog lifts and a human is reborn.

The science—discussed in part with Dr. Oliver Sacks—suggests that the familiar, beloved music of the individual’s past activates that part of his or her brain as yet left untouched by disease, effectively relinking the connections between their worlds within and without. That may be true, scientifically.

What was certain to me was that the music either reignited the spark that makes us human or provided the fuel that converted a seriously diminished spark into a sputtering flame. The results were miraculous.

Even in cases where disease hadn’t erased the person’s individuality but dampened it with manic-depression or multiple sclerosis, the music seemed to quieten the internal maelstrom enough for the person to re-emerge. The woman immobile without her walker, shoved it aside to dance to Spanish guitar.

The story of Alive Inside had a personal connection for me as I immediately thought back to my now-deceased grandmother Dorothy who fortunately had maintained her mental faculties except at the very end. Her apartment, as I remember it, was constantly filled with music, her CD player rarely turned off. New CDs coming into her home every Christmas, every birthday. Elvis, Michael Buble, The Mills Brothers, Motown and light opera. She was at her most contented when listening to music.

The caregiver...

The caregiver…

...becomes the care-receiver.

…becomes the care-receiver.

But the world was completely different when she was in the hospital—a life of cardiac issues catching up with her eventually. In the anemic, lifeless wards where wonderful warriors did their best to stave off the inevitable, I could see Dorothy’s spirit wane with each passing day. Even if I didn’t always think she was physically ready, my happiest days were knowing she was going home.

When something upsets the norm, ceases to function correctly or goes completely dormant, it is easy to set it aside and forget about it. When that something is a loved one, setting them aside is never easy but it is often easier than coping with the problem. And once set aside, forgetting becomes that much easier.

Seeing that a person is still inside that morbid husk of a human, however, changes everything. Knowing that we have committed a living, breathing, connectable loved one to solitary exile becomes less palatable, less conscionable.

Music isn’t the solution. It doesn’t reverse what has happened to the person biomedically. Within minutes or hours of the music ceasing, the individual typically deflates to his or her former shell.

But we who have witnessed the transformation, we have been permanently changed because we can never see that human shell the same way ever again.

We know that shell is not lifeless, and once we know that, there is no going back.

If you get the opportunity to see Alive Inside, please do. And be sure to bring plenty of facial tissues.

Risking it all

Risk

A friend of mine recently posted the above sign on her Facebook page, and I had no choice but to share it with my Facebook community (and now you). Although I find the sentiment a little negatively toned as worded, I completely agree with it.

As many of you know, I jumped off a cliff about 18 months ago, completely turning my life upside down in pursuit of the dream of being a screenwriter. To do that, I have made a large number of sacrifices to the way my life was, but in the interim, I have discovered some wonderful things—about me and my friends—that I might never have learned if I hadn’t.

Last week, I had drinks with another friend, someone who had made a similar jump to mine. Like me, he has had some wonderful times during this phase of his life, but he is also struggling with doubt and the sense that the years of effort haven’t paid off as he would have liked. Doubt is a thing I understand.

At this moment, I have no doubt or at least not about my dream. It seems as real and viable as ever. Its realization is simply a matter of time in and work on my part. I revel in these moments and wish my friend could feel the same way right now.

When doubt does creep in, however, I do my best to give it context.

The doubt: Can I afford this conference? Is this screenplay any good? Have I made a mistake? Am I a fraud?

The context: What is the alternative?

I look back at my life before I made the jump and I realize that I can’t go back to that. This is not to say that it was all miserable…I had love and support; I enjoyed aspects of my jobs; I met wonderful people. But in many ways, all of those positives were for naught back then because I was miserable.

I was living my life for other people. I based my identity on my job and what I did for other people. I was only as good, as valuable, as loved as other people told me I was, and deep inside, I truly suspected they were lying. Through no fault of theirs, I couldn’t have faith in them because I didn’t have faith in me.

So, when I finally jumped off the cliff, I realized that what I was risking was a life of well masked misery and distrust. Hardly much of a risk from my perspective.

I understand that others cannot always jump as wholeheartedly as I did. They have responsibilities that I did not have.

I have no children. My wife and I were separating for other reasons (nice to say she remains my strongest and most loving advocate and supporter). My family responsibilities had all but disappeared. My jumping would leave no one in the lurch.

So, maybe you can’t jump like I did. I’m not suggesting that it is right for everyone. But to not jump at all in pursuit of a passion is folly.

Every day you maintain the lie, whatever your personal lie is, is another day you risk it all.

It will be scary. You will have doubts. But you’re not doing anyone any favours, least of all yourself, by continuing to pursue activities, attitudes or a life that is crushing you.

I hope my friend relocates the wonder in what he is doing and continues to explore his adventure. If he will let me, I am happy to help him in any way I can.

He is a very lucky man because he is surrounded by love and support from a community of people who adore him and want him to be happy. I hope he can take energy from that. I know I do.