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Recent Movies: Sicario; Grandma; Tab Hunter Confidential; Short Films: God is the Bigger Elvis; Books: Quiet

November 8, 2015

Recent Movies

Sicario

In the southwestern U.S. , an FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is assigned to work for a CIA boss (Josh Brolin) and his associate (Benicio del Toro) in order to break into the leadership of a Mexican drug cartel that was responsible for a kidnapping operation in Arizona .

Among the law enforcers, “Sicario” gives us the traditional battle between those who go by the book (Blunt) vs. those who just want to get things done (Brolin and del Toro). The performances are all good especially del Toro as a human-turned-animal whose presence is a force of nature. Sadly, the story lacks enough character development that might have added more heft in the conflicts involving principle.

The true star of the film is the powerful direction by Denis Villeneuve. Every scene, even those with stillness, has an eerie edge that leaves viewers feeling like they’ve entered the dark side. There are also a few crowd/action scenes that are brilliantly executed with just the right amount of build-up tension leading to the action. While the film has the expected amount of violence, Villeneuve takes different approaches to minimize the effect such as scenes that show only the shooter but not the victims.

Villeneuve has an impressive list of films highlighted by (in my opinion) “Polytechnique” (2009). “Sicario” is his second Hollywood film, “Prisoners” (2013) being the other. Both are good films but I feel each is a build-up to his eventual Hollywood masterpiece (maybe more than one) that is yet to come. I can hardly wait for the event.

RATING: * * *

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Grandma

In an unnamed U.S. city (probably somewhere in California), the viewer spends a day in the life of Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) and her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) as they try to raise money to terminate Sage’s unwanted pregnancy.

At times, Elle describes herself as “an asshole” and proves this declaration to be true. This is evident in how she treats her younger female lover in the opening scene. Prior to this relationship, her beloved long-time partner (also a woman) of nearly forty years had died. As a writer/poet, she is fascinating as well as cantankerous. As brilliantly portrayed by Tomlin, Elle is someone we would not want to encounter in life but are willing to enjoy watching from a safe distance.

The film’s structure is like a road-movie even if it takes place within the same city, visiting various people in the lives of the two women. Most visits are to people of Elle’s past. Through her encounters with them, the viewer is like Sage in that we all learn more about Elle through these visits.

Some scenes are broad comedy (like Elle’s grand exit from a coffee shop) but Tomlin keeps it engaging. The best scene of the film is when Elle visits Karl (Sam Elliott). Elliott meets Tomlin head-on as they both reach the heights of great acting in this brilliant scene. They are well served by a fine script by director/writer Paul Weitz. Like other scenes, this one reveals just barely enough information about the past without being blunt. The writing trusts the viewers’ intelligence to put the pieces together and it pays off.

The screenplay works well in other ways such as irreverent humour. Some casual and inappropriate comments are made about the touchy subject of abortion. This would fail in most other stories but here, they seem to get away with it. There’s also humour from the woman between Elle and Sage in the family tree: a type-A personality who seems to live off caffeine. As played by Marcia Gay Harden, she’s a true (but thankfully rare) character that is very recognizable.  Her humanity also shows in later scenes.

Yet further praise can be given for how the story’s vibe seems to include a strong presence of an invisible character: Elle’s deceased partner who helped raise her daughter. The lingering grief is moving whenever the loved one is recalled.

Here’s yet another reason to praise “Grandma”: we often hear of big-budget Hollywood films that boast an “all-star cast” in which only one woman is listed among the six or seven men. In those cases, the lone female must resemble a supermodel and act like a sex object in order to justify her presence in the movie. Compare this to “Grandma”: the two leads are both female and one is a septuagenarian (and a highly energetic one at that) and most of the supporting roles are also female.  They also resemble regular people.  The presence of such characters is so welcome as it is so rare.

I know I’d still love this movie even if I wasn’t biased so here’s the bias: ever since I saw Lily Tomlin’s oddball characters on TV, I’ve believed (and still believe) that she is the greatest all-time entertainer; so much so that I’ve passed on the joy by imitating her characters for the entertainment of others. To see her at her very best in nearly every scene, “Grandma” was a gift from heaven.

RATING: * * * ½

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Acting by Lily Tomlin

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Tab Hunter Confidential

The titular Hollywood heartthrob of the 1950s is the subject of this documentary which charts his family life, career, philosophies, and the challenges with being gay during that most infamous decade of repression and conformity.

The structure of the film is mostly Hunter’s narration mixed with interviews with many who knew and worked with him. There is also a fabulous collection of footage that is cleverly displayed. This is not a surprise as the director is Jeffrey Schwarz who did such a wonderful job with “Vito” (2011).

Normally, it would be a liability to have one person’s narration as the main focus of the film. In the case of this film, such a choice turned out to be an asset. This is because of Hunter’s charm, sincerity, and modesty.

The narration of his career is thorough and intriguing. While it does include stories about his secret gay life, I was left with a yearning to know more on this topic. However, the reluctance to share more of this information is fitting with the overall story: Hunter was raised to keep his private life private. This lingering trait would also have been necessary to help him get through such a difficult time relatively unscathed.

This intriguing film can leave one with a curiosity regarding those in the same situation as Hunter including Rock Hudson and Anthony Perkins (with whom Hunter had a secret relationship). Hudson and Perkins both died of AIDS. Not only did Hunter escape this fate; he also avoided the fall into drugs and alcohol when his career waned. How, in God’s name, did he do it?

These answers are partly in the film and more were given during a skype interview which included Hunter and his longtime partner Allan Glaser who is also a co-producer of the film.

Unlike Hudson and Perkins, Hunter never went so far as to marry a woman to hide his identity. He also seemed to have a spiritual nature that helped him to detach from the trappings of fame. His prime acting years were during a time when homosexual characters, when rarely portrayed in movies, had to meet a tragic death by the end as per production codes. Having lived a happily ever after life, it seems that Tab Hunter was, in the end, able to thumb his nose at that mindset. Good on him.

“Tab Hunter Confidential” could also be a fine companion piece with the superb documentary, “The Celluloid Closet” (1995).

RATING:   * * *

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Short Documentaries

God is the Bigger Elvis (2011 – USA)

The amazing and unusual life of former Hollywood actress Dolores Hart is exposed in this short film.  In 1963 at the age of 25, Hart was a star having acted with superstars like Elvis Presley and was in love and engaged to architect Don Robinson.  Despite having what most could only conceive in dreams, she gave it all up to her calling to live as a nun in a benedictine abbey in Connecticut where she has lived ever since.

I normally don’t include short films in my blog but I felt this would be appropriate as Hart was one of the interviewees who appeared in “Tab Hunter Confidential” (above) having acted with Hunter during her Hollywood career.  Her comments in that film showed kindness and  compassion.  This warmth is further explored in “God is the Bigger Elvis”.

With modesty, Hart explains the need for a deeper spiritual connection in her life as the reason for her life-changing decision.  The film explores her history of living at the abbey and interviews other nuns and how they reached the same decision.  A few nuns were idealists during the 1960s and 1970s – a time when idealism was popular.  While the society around them changed, they found the monastic life suitable to the ideals they wanted to keep.

Most amazing is the continuous connection Hart and Robinson had maintained during Hart’s life in the convent.  This is best exposed in the final scene which is deeply moving in a quiet way.  It can remind one of the sadness we feel when we have visited loved ones from far away and might not see again for a long time.  It was quite touching and it’s worth noting that Robinson died shortly after the film’s completion.

The monastic life is described as quite difficult yet many interviewees have found the experience to be more than worth the hard times.  While there are no “dropouts” interviewed, “God is the Bigger Elvis” could make one at least think about what monastic life might be like – what ever the spiritual philosophy.  See for yourself in this Youtube clip:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sfwTSZzjh8E.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

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Outstanding Books

“Quiet” by Susan Cain

“The Introvert Advantage” (by Marti Olson Laney – 2002) dealt adeptly with the differences between introvert and extrovert personalities and how introverts can find unique ways to adjust and even thrive in a world that seems to be made for extroverts. In “Quiet” (2012), Susan Cain reiterates these observations and elaborates on them while adding others.

As someone who identifies as introverted (especially after taking some of Cain’s questionnaires), it was a very enriching experience to read this book. Several times, I had to stop and pause after reading a paragraph as the information related so much to parts of my past that I had rarely understood so well.

This was most true in the earlier sections that demonstrated how an extrovert culture (“the culture of personality”) began to thrive in the U.S. in the early 1900s. (While “Quiet” deals mainly with American society, it is safe to say that the collective attitude was imported to many other countries especially Canada, where I have always lived.)

The chronology of events was very intriguing. The sales culture carried with it the belief that an outgoing personality was what everyone should have while “quiet” people should be regarded with suspicion regardless of how smart and trustworthy they might be.

From there, it takes us to how children were considered troubled and in need of “correction” if they were quiet rather than outgoing. (With such damage done to so many at such an early age, is it really surprising that there is so much collective craziness in the years that followed, including today?). This was particularly so during that most conformist period, the 1950s and the early 1960s.

And then, there are the ways of how the sales culture slipped into many other professions that weren’t even sales-related: how people were evaluated not on how smart they truly were, but how they “presented” themselves.

While Cain doesn’t mention it, this culture was rampant in that most superficial periods of recent times – the 1990s – in which everything was about marketing marketing marketing. It seemed then that if an organization was exposed for unethical practices, it would spend money on a marketing campaign to improve its “brand” rather than just clean up its act. It’s worth noting here that the culture of personality (as per “Quiet”) was preceded by the culture of character. How nice it would be to revive at least a part of the culture of character.

There are other fascinating chapters as well: research that contradicts the accepted belief that brainstorming is good (introverts often create their best ideas when left alone); how introverts like Warren Buffett profited during the economic disasters of the 2000s and how such events might have been prevented with more introverts at the higher levels of decision-making; the difficulty some Asian-Americans have within the broader American society as their traditional culture praises quiet individuals while looking down on people who say little of substance while speaking a lot; looking more closely at the modern belief that society would be better with more women in charge – perhaps, it would also improve with more introverts in charge.

This book is rich in many ways. Not only does it correct many great misperceptions; it makes it clear that the best things can happen when introverts and extroverts collaborate. There are some fine examples given:

For the most part, Rosa Parks was a quiet introvert except for occasions like the day she repeatedly said ‘no’ on a segregated bus. Her later collaboration with the renowned extrovert Martin Luther King Jr. greatly advanced the civil rights movement. Parks’ quiet dignity was inspiring as she was not expected to make such a bold and courageous move. But she needed King’s assistance in dealing with the spotlight (something that introverts don’t normally seek) as King needed her to emphasize the plight of average African-Americans.

Franklin Roosevelt was an extrovert but his wife Eleanor was introverted. Their union helped create some of the best changes in society for those born into circumstances much less well-off than themselves.

When introvert Al Gore collaborated with various extroverts, he finally gained momentum in his desire to inspire the public to reduce environmental degradation.

My only criticism of this book is that it seemed to focus mainly on those who have (or had) high-level careers (Parks being an exception). It would have been more enriching to include more examples of people from other economic brackets. But this is a small complaint. It was actually therapeutic to read this great book not only for the facts but for the unexpected personal therapy that resulted: I realized there was never anything “wrong” with me all those years. I’m just wired differently. What a great relief!

RATING:   * * * 1/2

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Dennis Bowman

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