Love, Actually

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Last night my daughters and I watched the movie Love, Actually. This 2003 film has fast become a Christmas classic for many viewers, with its humor and light romantic touch and its climax occurring on Christmas Eve. But the movie is about so much more than romantic love. It is about the enduring bonds of friendship and family, about loss, about bridging gaps between cultures, and about the triumph of love in the midst of life.

The first time I saw Love Actually, I’ll admit I was mostly focused on the couples, or the would-be couples, in the movie. Hugh Grant’s charming turn as a single British prime minister in love with an employee; cuckolded Colin Firth finding romance with his Portuguese maid; a little boy bereft of his mother falling in love with a classmate; wonderful Emma Thompson getting short shrift from her long-time husband, played by the late Alan Rickman. I felt the young man’s pain as he endured the love of his life marrying his own best friend, and the angst of a young woman in love from afar with a coworker but burdened with responsibility for her mentally ill brother.

What I like about the movie is that it is not all “happily ever after” for each romantic pair. And that is because other kinds of love often trump romance. For instance, when the woman and her colleague finally get together, the woman gets a call from her brother, and that familial love continually forces her to sacrifice her own happiness. Likewise, the forlorn member of the love triangle struggles to keep his feelings to himself so as not to harm the friendship he has with her husband. The young boy may be in love with a young girl, but it is the story of him and his stepdad and their growing relationship in the absence of a wife and mother that really takes center stage. And the Emma Thompson character stays with her unfaithful husband (for shame, Alan!) for the sake of their family.

At the end of the movie, to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” we see love in all its many permutations as loved ones are reunited at Heathrow Airport. Parents and children, lovers, friends – all embrace in the comfort of their love for each other. Each snapshot is strung together on the screen until there is a “wall of love.”

Love, Actually is a cute, clever, but also surprisingly realistic depiction of the ties that bind. What better way to finish out Christmas Day with the family?*

 

*The movie is rated R for nudity, subject matter, and language. So save it for when your little ones are mature enough.

 

 

Race Relations Could Use “Help”

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The other day I turned on my television and saw that the movie The Help was on. Abandoning my chores and plans for the morning, I sat down and sank into this compelling drama about race in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s.

The movie is based upon Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling novel of the same name, and it chronicles a young white female journalist’s attempt to tell the story of race relations from the perspective of the town’s black maids. Some reviewers criticized the conceit of yet another white character being the “savior” of blacks. Those critics missed the point of The Help.

During the course of interviewing the black character Aibileen, the journalist, nicknamed Skeeter, comes to see the plight of the people who serve her and the other whites in town through one black woman’s eyes. Herself a misfit in a world of strictly proscribed roles for women of any color, Skeeter is first horrified, then determined, not only to tell the story of  the black maids around her, but also to find out the truth about her beloved Constantine, the black nanny who had raised her.

As I watched the story unfold, the many indignities suffered by blacks in the film – separate bathroom facilities, seats on the back of the bus, condescension and threats from their white employers – I had the sense that in many ways we’ve come so far, but in other ways we have a long way to go. In particular, I was struck by how frightened the black characters are about reprisals from whites for standing up for themselves. The entire book Skeeter writes is done under cover of darkness and published anonymously against a backdrop of civil unrest and the murder of black activists. Today this fear plays out in African-American neighborhoods, where young black males are afraid to get on the bad side of a white police officer.

The message of The Help is that the only way to improve race relations is for blacks and whites to know each other, to see each other as fully human and filled with inalienable dignity. The friendship that develops between Skeeter and Aibileen, as well as Aibileen’s sassy friend Minny, is one born of hours sharing food, tea, and stories in Abilene’s kitchen.

Ignorance breeds fear; knowledge brings understanding. Let’s try harder to see things from the other side of the racial divide to bring hope and healing to race relations in America.

 

3D or Not 3D?

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Last night my family went to see the critically acclaimed Disney Pixar animated movie Inside Out at our local movie theater. The film was the usual clever, entertaining, emotionally resonant experience we have come to expect from the makers of Toy Story and Finding Nemo, and of course it made me cry. (See my prior blog post “Cry Baby.”)

Because most of the showings were offered in 3-D, we didn’t really have a choice but to don the annoying glasses and watch random images pop out at us. However, 3-D added absolutely nothing to the movie-going experience.

I have read that films shot in 3-D can give viewers an immersive experience, wherein they feel as if they are in the world created by the filmmakers. Inside Out was not such a film. Yet the growing popularity of 3-D movies, especially in the animated field, often gives viewers no choice but to participate.

3-D movies have been around since the Fifties. They always seemed like a gimmick to me. And I find it frustrating that films in 3-D often cost more per ticket than regular movies. In a time when the movie-going public has increasingly chosen to stay home and watch movies on their huge flat-screen TVs, it seems foolish to be charging even more per ticket to fill up the empty theater seats. At last night’s showing, our family and one other family of five were the only customers.

I say filmmakers reserve the 3-D experience for select movies that can best take advantage of the feeling that the viewer is part of the experience. I for one have no trouble immersing myself in the two-dimensional world of movie storytelling. And I can do so without those pesky glasses.

Snow Job

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I was visiting family in Minneapolis, Minnesota, this past weekend when I learned that the first major snowstorm of the season was headed for the Twin Cities. In Minneapolis, there are two seasons: snow and no snow. So this news came as a warning to Minnesotans that they should bid a fond farewell to their grass and ground cover until next spring.

The snowstorm news also felt apropos as I sat in a movie theater watching Force Majeure, a movie set in the French Alps that features a life-changing avalanche. But Force Majeure is no traditional action thriller. A winner at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Force Majeure is instead a devastating closeup of a damaged marriage.

In the movie, rather than burying people, the avalanche serves to unearth the discontents of a wealthy Swedish family trying to enjoy a holiday together. It brings up issues of gender roles, freedom and responsibility, and moral values. After the incident, the couple grapples with their shame, disappointment, and fear for the emotional safety of their children.

The term “force majeure” is a legal concept whereby the obligations of both parties to a contract are nullified by, among other things, “acts of God.” In the film, one party temporarily abnegates responsibility in the event of the avalanche.

The snow in Force Majeure is almost another character. The forbidding walls of white loom over the little ski village where the family is staying. Rather than creating a feel of wonder, the Alps possess a smothering claustrophobia that deepens the viewer’s discomfort and even dread.

I have seen reviews of Force Majeure that refer to it as a comedy. True, there are some very funny moments. But the main thrust of the film is dark and serious. I recalled the early years in my own marriage, when the bloom was off the rose and we grappled with our real limitations as partners, parents, and people.

Here in Chicago we are dodging this first big snowstorm of the impending winter. Still, in the oft-quoted line from Game of Thrones, it is all too clear that “winter is coming.”

Since the weather outside is turning frightful, I highly recommend curling up inside and watching a good movie like Force Majeure.