Movie Review: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

Last year when I was living in Colorado I spent a bunch of time with my friend Stan James and along the way he gave me a copy of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It was fantastic. I read it soon after reading Chasing Daylight, a book that left me in tears (something that rarely happens), and they were an interesting pair. Chasing Daylight is written by high powered exec who documents how he spends his final months before dying of cancer. Diving Bell and the Butterfly is also written by a high powered exec who documents how he spends his days paralyzed — his whole body frozen except for the blink of his eye, which he uses to communicate letters and words to a speech therapist who then types out the sentences.

Both are powerful first-hand accounts which capture the preciousness of each day we live. They produced, for me, an effect of profound sadness followed by inspiration to "live each day of my life," and to feel grateful for that opportunity. The books also are a bit soothing for those of us who fear death and who expect nothing after death.

Last weekend I saw the movie version of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It’s awesome! I highly recommend it, regardless of whether you’ve read the book. It’s in French with English subtitles. I imagine it would be easy to screw up this kind of movie since the subject matter is so delicate. Yet this one pulls it off. It opens from the perspective of Bauby, paralyzed. We look out his eyes. Excruciating. Eventually we see him from the outside but the sense of stillness penetrates every active moment in the movie. Amazingly, despite the theme, the movie has several funny parts — laugh out loud funny, not cynical funny. This makes it more than bearable to sit through for two hours. The acting all around is superb.

I don’t see nearly enough movies. I’m glad I saw this one. It deals with a hard topic with infinite grace and has left me thinking about it several days later.

Darjeeling Limited and Family Relations In Adulthood

The other week I saw The Darjeeling Limited, a new Wes Anderson movie about three American brothers who go to India for a spiritual experience and bonding. It was good: funny, quirky, interesting cinematography. Seeing the three brothers try to re-establish both their own brotherly bonds and their relationship with their mom (who had fled to India to become a spiritual healer of sorts) made me think of a point that’s been rattling around in my head about family.

For most of my single, 20 or 30-something friends (their siblings and parents are usually alive and they don’t have spousal families), there’s a pretty strong correlation between their overall happiness level and their family relations. People who have bad or non-existent family relations seem to lead a more up-and-down life, whereas those who still get along with their parents and siblings in adulthood are in a better, happier position.

The obvious observation is that when you’re young and dependent, family matters because they exert so much control on your life. If you want to be miserable, have miserable relationships with your parents and brothers and sisters. The less obvious observation (ok – maybe it’s still obvious) is that even when you’re not financially dependent, even when you’re out of the house and building your own life, family relations still seem to impact your happiness in ways many people underestimate.

I know, we hear it over and over: Family matters. But here’s the rub: when we talk about the importance of family, we often talk about it in mushy wushy terms — the kind of later-in-life, formative, intense family bonding experience that Po Bronson wonderfully describes. That’s a fine ideal. Yet all I’m talking about is simply getting along. Neutral. Not bad. The key is to not have actively negative feelings. The key is for everyone to tolerate each other at the Christmas get-together and for family stress not to consume undue psychic energy.

There are plenty of books for teens on how to deal with your family. There are plenty of books for the recently-married on how to start your own family. There seems to be a market for those in-between these two life stages on how to maintain what you’ve got.

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On a related note, check out this touching reflection in the NYT “Lives” column from a guy who takes care of his father — and they, too, go to India, this time to trace the father’s roots together. Money graf:

We were both suffering from the need to say something in keeping with the scale of what we’d been through. Quite a problem, considering his default of emotional understatement and mine of lapsing into a crying jag at the first sign of human warmth. Standing there with his collar up and his left eye watering, he looked older than I’d ever seen him look. The bus arrived. We embraced, still reaching for something to say. In the end he just said, “Thanks for looking after me.”

Inspirational Music and Movies

I love inspirational music, movies, speeches, stories. Who wouldn’t want to be more inspired to feel more, do more, love more, dream more?

I recently came across the YouTube video of We Are The World, the #2 most popular music single of all-time in the United States. I had never heard of it, but apparently it was a music sensation in the 80’s. Some of the biggest American pop stars of the day came together and collectively recorded the song to raise money for African relief work. To see Paul Simon, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles, Tina Turner, Lionel Richie, and many others all together is magical. If you want an inspirational boost to start your day, watch the performance.

Elsewhere in the inspiration category, I saw the movie Joyeux Noel ("Merry Christmas" in English). This tells the true story of Christmas Eve, 1914 during World War I. The Germans, French, and Scottish lay down their arms and sing carols together. Touching, and highly recommended. I also saw The Pursuit of Happyness, the true story of a near-homeless man in San Francisco who turns his life around after numerous bad breaks and financial challenges.

Here’s my del.icio.us tag (other links) for "inspiration". Leave other recommendations in the comments.

Summer Movie Roundup

I’m trying to watch more movies this summer. I’ve been consulting friends and family and peeking at the IMDb top 250 list before adding a movie to the Netflix queue. So far I’ve seen:

The Pained Veil — A cholera epidemic hits rural China; idealistic western doctor goes to help; doctor’s wife has an affair. This is a fine movie but the affair plot line seemed a bit old to me, fantastic imagery of China notwithstanding.

The Departed — Awesome. Awesome lines (Alec Baldwin is genius), awesome plot twists, awesome acting. I loved it. I recommend it.

Seven Up — The famous British documentary which tracks a group of British children at age 7, 14, 21, and onwards. I watched the kids at 7 and 14 — fascinating to see how they develop. The group is socio-economically diverse. The interviewer asked the rich seven year old if he’s traveled much and the boy responds with a handful of names of countries. The interviewer asks a poor seven year if he’s traveled much and the boy says he’s been to the museum and local park.

Doctor Zhivago — In anticipation of my trip to Russia, I had to watch this classic. It’s long, but worth it for any traveler to Russia.

Munich — An intense movie about the Israeli olympic athlete hostages in Munich 1972. While there are debates about the accuracy of Spielberg’s efforts, and there always will be in a film such as this, I didn’t find it heavy handed one way or another. I recommend it.

And the Band Played On — An interesting film about the AIDS epidemic in the 80’s, Regan’s inaction, San Francisco’s role as a hub for activism and infection, and some of the colorful scientific personalities trying to understand it all. The acting is sub-par but in terms of delivering the story the movie does a good job. It made me want to learn more about the AIDS situation both then and now (it still ravages many parts of Africa).

Ah, I already feel more hip and informed. Let the Netflix queue roll on….

Immediate, Incautious Intimacy: A Trait of the Privileged?

"It’s a peculiar trait of the privileged: immediate, incautious intimacy."

This is from the excellent movie Notes on a Scandal. When I heard it, I paused the film and jotted it down. How true! I have heard this point before. At a summer camp, say, the rich girls by sundown have talked about their first sexual experience whereas the less-well-off are still chatting about their favorite movies. Why does this dynamic exist?

The movie "Notes on a Scandal," by the way, is well worth watching. By its description you might pigeonhole it into the generic "infidelity" category — a movie about an affair, with a twist that appeals to male teens everywhere since it’s an attractive female teacher sleeping with her male student. It is far more complicated, though, and explores the theme of loneliness in stunning fashion.

As part of my quest to watch some of the best movies ever made (I watch so few movies – 4 so far in 2007 – that I want each to be awesome), I also recently rented The Shawshank Redemption. I had high expectations and the film met them. There’s a reason it’s #2 on the IMDb Top 250 list.

Movie Review: Last King of Scotland

In a shocking development, I actually went to a movie theater over the weekend. The flick? Last King of Scotland.

I watch so few movies that I have virtually no comparisons or context; the result is that every movie I watch is “pretty good”. Last King of Scotland definitely fits this bill, with the exception of Forest Whitaker’s performance which was absolutely extraordinary. If you read about Whitaker’s preparation for the role, you’ll see the correlation between upfront preparation and the end result. Apparently he didn’t lose his Swahili-accent for months after production ended.

The movie tracks General Idi Amin’s rise to power in Uganda in the late 1970s. We watch a dictator whose charm is undeniable. At the beginning, he wins the affection of a young Scottish doctor (and me!). But not for long. We learn that the good intentions he displays in public are destroyed by the mass murders he secretly orders against opponents. Indeed, the film reinforces the worst realities of many African countries over the years: tyrannical rule by unelected dictators who squander money and kill opponents; the hopeful thinking of the people that “this president could be the man who turns things around” and then the crushing reality; corruption inside and out of the government; and on and on and on.

As with any movie which is either based on real events or, as in the case of this film, “inspired by real people and events,” it’s always fun to read up on the actual events and identify where the filmmakers exaggerated. My brief research suggests that the movie is accurate enough to give a sense as to what happened, untrue side plots notwithstanding.

The most penetrating line of the movie comes near the end, when a black minister turns to the Scottish doctor who’s escaping from the country and says: “Tell the world what’s really happening here. They’ll believe you. You’re a white man.”

Movie Short: Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine is one of the best movies I’ve seen. It’s hilarious on so many levels. Treat yourself and watch it, especially if you’re living with your family (or are trying to start one). Five stars, five stars, five stars. Merry Christmas!

Movie Review: Rushmore (Or How to Dominate High School While Pulling C's)

Rushmore is about a brilliant high school school student, Max, who runs every club conceivable on campus, edits the student newspaper, and produces stellar theater productions….all while nearly failing his classes. He ends up being expelled from school amidst his efforts to hit on a teacher at his school.

A few people recommend this movie to me awhile ago and now I know why. It’s basically my story (except for the "brilliant" and "hit on a teacher" parts).

Let there be no mistake: I barely passed through high school. In perhaps the most extraordinary moment in secondary school history, I went into my final science exam sophomore year with a C-, failed the final, and still came away with a C-, the lowest possible passing grade. I was put on an academic watch list. My parents got phone calls home about my poor performance. But I passed.

In the meantime, I was amassing a tremendously rewarding stranglehold on inter-school communications. At one point in time I was concurrently editing the school paper (print), running a mythical radio station (radio), co-running the all-school-meeting current affairs announcements (in-person), and blogging (web). In the winters, with my friend Jason junior year and Howard/Andy senior year, I was captaining the varsity basketball team, which provided important credibility in the jock world, too.

Like Max in Rushmore, there were dark times. There were times when I thought to myself, "What in God’s name am I doing?" I remember doing Comcate sales phone calls in the yoga room of the YMCA (where it was quiet) and thinking, "Why the hell won’t I just lift some weights and go home and study?"

But as my friend Chris has said, "For better or worse, entrepreneurship is like heroin. It’s risky, it’s dangerous, and you may end up in the street, but it’s almost impossible to kick the habit."

Max Ficher in Rushmore, a true life entrepreneur, understands this. In one of the best lines of the movie, Max is told that notwithstanding his incredible extracurricular contributions he has to get his grades up or else he’ll be expelled. When his friend asks him what he’s going to do about it, he replies, "There’s only one thing I can do, and that is petition the administration not to kick me out."

Atta baby. While some may consider his reaction unreasonable — or unwise, as he did get kicked out in the end — it wasn’t for lack of enthusiasm. Max Ficher tried to adapt his school to himself. As the British playwright George Bernard Shaw once observed, "Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people." And progress, I should add, can still happen even if the individual fails in the attempt.

A great movie.

Movie Reviews: Office Space, Wordplay, This Boy's Life, and More

I never watch TV, but sometimes DVDs from Netflix. Here are six movies I’ve seen recently.

1. Office Space — If you work in a cubicle at work you must watch this movie. I don’t, and still found it pretty funny. It doesn’t reach the heights of Old School or Wedding Crashers, but still a funny look at the wonderful world of office humor and boring-corporation life.

2. Wordplay — I actually saw this in a theater with my Mom. It’s about crossword puzzles. Ben, the one time you choose to go to a theater you watch a documentary about crossword puzzles? Yes. I never denied that I was a geek. It’s a good, uplifting flick about people obsessed with crosswords and prominently features the NYT crosswords editor. At the Opera Plaza theater in San Francisco.

3. This Boy’s Life — The novel by Tobias Wolff is an excellent coming of age story. The movie plays up different parts, but is a great film, especially for any guys who had a rough upbringing.

4. San Francisco — This was one of the most successful pictures of the 1930s. In short: if you call yourself a San Franciscan, you’ve gotta see this film. I love the beginning — a drunken fool is being escorted out of a party and somebody asks him, “Where you from buster?” and he responds, “Los Angeles.” “That’s what I thought.” Ha – the rivalry that doesn’t exist outside of Giants-Dodgers finds its roots in old films.

5. 24 Hours on Craigslist — This was way raunchier than I thought it was going to be! It’s a fascinating cross section of Craigslist users during a 24 hour period. It’s set in San Francisco, and it just so happens every other person is a) gay, b) transsexual, or c) a practitioner of BDSM. Perhaps the most memorable scene is an immigrant from China, a teenager, who’s found Craigslist a great way to sell her erotic paintings. For example, she pained a Sistine Chapel replica added in an extra character who’s licking a penis. Hmm….Another must-see for Bay Area folk, and any fan of Craigslist.

6. Empire of the Sun — This Steven Spielberg directed film is about the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in WWII (the same time they bombed Pearl Harbor). It’s a compelling story, well acted, and taught me a lot about Japan/China during that period of time.

Movie Reviews: Born Into Brothels, Millions, Michael Collins, Losing Isaiah

Over the past few months I’ve seen….

  1. Born Into Brothels — I saw this in Monterey last weekend. I had high expectations (it’s an academy award winner for documentary). It met them. It’s a wonderful story about a British woman who goes into a red light district in Calcutta and teaches the children of prostitutes how to use cameras. The kids take pictures of their daily life, pictures which ultimately reach the west and are hung in museums around the world. This movie will particularly resonate if you’re an artist.
  2. Millions — A cutesy kind of film about some British children who come across big bags of cash. One’s the good moralist, but his older brother wants to piss it away. A good, light, uplifting flick with a nice soundtrack.
  3. Michael Collins — An excellent recreation/documentary of Michael Collins’ life, his role in the Irish independence movement, and the Irish political/military scene at the time. A must-see for anyone interested in Irish history.
  4. Losing Isaiah — White family adopts a black baby abandoned by his drug-addict, black mother. Mother improves her act, and wants her child back. They go to court. A great look at race relations in the context of family.