Movies With Madness (Three Reviews) (2016Apr28)

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Thursday, April 28, 2016                                        4:11 PM

Movie Review: “Nina”

I watched “Nina” on VOD yesterday—a film about Nina Simone, the legendary blues singer (incredibly played (and sung!) by Zoe Saldana) at the end of her career, facing instability, alcoholism, and illness, with the help of a male nurse, Clifton Henderson (as played by David Oyelowo) and marking a triumphant return to the United States with a live free concert in Central Park. Oddly, historical records indicate that she performed at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre in Newark upon her return to the US—and that it wasn’t ‘free’—but Nina Simone did perform in Central Park several times in her earlier career.

Other reviewers and critics take issue with lighter-skinned Ms. Saldana playing the very much darker High Priestess of Soul—but while I can understand a rejection of ‘blackface’ white performers playing black people—I think it’s going a bit far to complain of one African-American woman playing another. It makes more sense to complain that Zoe Saldana is too young and too thin—but this is a biopic, not a documentary, and her performance is often riveting, even if the historical accuracy of both her depiction and the story-line goes a bit by the boards. As with Jamie Foxx’s “Ray” (2004), “Nina” is as remarkable for the star’s vocal efforts as it is for the purported subject—though I wouldn’t have minded hearing the actual, recorded voice of the late Nina Simone sing a few bars at some point in the movie.

But you can just do what I did—go to YouTube afterwards and check out the real Nina Simone singing all the songs from the movie and more—that’s as much of a treat as the movie—and since the movie got me there, hooray for the movie. But see the movie first or you’ll never get over the very real difference in both appearance and vocals.

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Movie Review: “The Lady In The Van”   (2016Apr28)

I was eager to see “The Lady In The Van” because Maggie Smith gives good ‘crabby old lady’—and she certainly doesn’t disappoint in this movie that could have been written for her, if it wasn’t based on an actual woman. Still the film is based on the 1999 play—and takes place even earlier, in the seventies—so perhaps the film was only made to showcase Ms. Smith.

She plays a poor and confused woman who lives out of a van, which she parks in various places in the neighborhood until stricter parking regulations (and perhaps complaining residents) make it necessary for her to park in a driveway—that of the playwright, Allen Bennett, who forms a limited friendship with this loner who has reached the age when being a loner becomes problematic. The film is as much about the man as the lady—and both are seen by the Gloucester Crescent inhabitants as odd ducks. As with many stories about fragile, vulnerable people, the common run of humanity is portrayed as coarse and unsympathetic—from the whispering neighbors to the van-rocking toughs.

One striking element is the conflict between the personal care of Alan Bennett and the more ‘public’ care offered by the periodic appearance of a social worker—to be nice by nature is far different from being nice by the rulebook. It is especially telling when dealing with the mentally unstable, where a little patience and understanding can do so much more than the brusque attentions of a civil servant.

A few movies, like “The Lady In The Van”, are remarkable also in showing us Yankees how very different the British can be—it is so easy to assume that they are just ‘differently-American’, when they are really quite another thing altogether. This film, in showing both the similarities of such situations and their differences, informs us just how foreign England can be.

While Alex Jennings’ and Maggie Smith’s performances contain a lot of humorous touches, the overall plot is insurmountably bleak, so I wouldn’t watch it unless you’re in the mood for something good and serious.

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Movie Review: Infinitely Polar Bear (2015)

I just watched “Infinitely Polar Bear” (it just showed up on cable this weekend) written and directed by Maya Forbes, starring Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, and Ashley Aufderheide. I’m a long-time fan of both principles—I could go on all day about Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldana—neither one has been in a movie I didn’t like. Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide did a great job being directed by Imogene’s mom, Maya.

It was my favorite kind of movie—it was so engrossing that I immediately stopped being aware of watching a movie, got sucked completely into the story, and got that heartbroken/furious-combo feeling when it ended because I wanted it to keep going so badly. Mark Ruffalo plays a bi-polar father who makes you worry for his kids—in spite of his generally appearing to be a better father than most. But the best part of the movie is when it shows the madness of sanity against the relief of his specific bi-polar symptoms—his grandmother is crazy, his neighbors are crazy, the waiter in the restaurant is crazy—but all in ‘sane’ ways that society finds acceptable. At the same time, his madness makes him a better person in many ways—even while it cripples his ability to relate to the sanely-crazy.

It also shows that sometimes the only one hurt by insanity is the person himself—or herself—that being different is its own punishment in a world full of people busily trying to fit in. We tend to have more sympathy for a hero that resists peer-pressure than for a hero who isn’t aware of it—but in both cases, the reactions of others are the others’ problems, not the hero’s. The film shows the girls being educated by their father’s disability—rather uncomfortably, but in the end, to good purpose. I found it all very uplifting—maybe I relate a little too strongly to a crazy father.

Mandelbrot On The Brain

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Monday, April 22, 2013      1:13 PM

Perhaps our imaginations are Mandelbrot equations that have evolved in our brain matter to follow the line of analog rather than that of awareness—we cease to see the thing and imagine a something that is like the thing, but only in a way—in another way, it is quite different—and the biochemical equation fills in the blank. Do you know how a thing is just beyond your mind’s awareness? When you can feel it there, lurking under the scrim of conscious memory, and it isn’t that you need more time—it’s just that you have to re-orient your mind to finally grab ahold of the thing, the word, the idea, the, the,..

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“    That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:

A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,

Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle

With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.”

–        EAST COKER

(No. 2 of ‘Four Quartets’)

T.S. Eliot

I see all these fantasy-based series on Syfy and HBO—and the recent spate of fairytale-themed movies, ‘Snow White and the Huntsman”, “Jack the Giant Killer”, etc. and then just now I’m watching the made-for-TV TNT Movie of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s classic, ‘The Mists of Avalon’. And I realize that we have to embrace magical thinking.

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I’m not saying it is the truth, I’m just saying we have to embrace it—as much as we need to simulate our animal-selves’ existence (exercise and diet) to keep our bodies healthy, we also need to recognize the importance that mystery played in our earlier civilizations—with regard to our mental and emotional well-being.

Prior to the Enlightenment, there was primitivism and religious devotion—no third option. No one ‘knew’ anything, the way we think of ‘knowing’ something, today. Everything was up for grabs—a demon might chase you; a witch might enchant you; you could fall asleep for forty years and return to a home that has nearly forgotten even the memory of you; you might be imprisoned within a stone—or there might be a magic sword in there, instead. God could stop the Sun in the sky—and no one dared question it. That one little problem was actually what began our descent into businesspersons—astrologers had been observing the sky’s signposts for millennia—even the Old Testament was young compared to Astrology. Then came telescopes, and before you know it—well, now it’s out there.

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You can persecute stubborn-minded astronomers for a few centuries but, in the end, with planetary observations that stretched back to the earliest records of civilization, supported by magically-enhanced vision via the telescope, the truth was in the math for anyone to see—and then a bunch of other things, and then the Enlightenment happens. People begin to see that there is a certainty in the world that even the most terrible magician can’t refute—basically, they accepted arithmetic as more axiomatic than faith. One cannot make measurements of magic, and one cannot allow magic in mathematics.

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But even this would not have been a problem if we hadn’t reached a point where literacy and public discourse could root out the smoke and mirrors of magical belief, and shine a light on, —well, on bullshit, to put it bluntly. And in many ways, particularly in terms of human rights and democracy, the routing of magical thinking from our daily lives is a great blessing. However.

Religion is part of the old, magical-thinking-type way—and there are lots of people who would get angry at that statement for two reasons: one, their religion isn’t some hocus-pocus Las Vegas magician’s act!—and two, their religion transcends mathematics. So, we find ourselves very prettily stuck in a barrel—we can either drop the barrel to stand in the naked truth, or we can tote that barrel around while we try to lead a sensible life. I’m for dropping it, but then I’ve never been much of a stickler for form. And form is nothing to sneeze at.

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T.S. Eliot was known to be very attracted to rites and rituals—his conversion to Anglican was as much to regain some magic in his life as it was a shunning of agnosticism. He called it ‘meaning’, but I call it ‘magic’. As a lifelong atheist, I can attest to the emotional toll it takes to turn ones back on fairy tales. If I could make the slightest pretense of faith, I would work its last nerve—let me tell you—‘magic’?—much better way to go through life—illusory, vestigial, irrational?—of course. But, still, the way our minds are designed to work. Social interaction loses its coherence in a fully rationalized society—everything is a field of study but nothing is mysterious, unknown, or inconclusive. I know there are sub-atomic physics theories and cosmological theorems that will always glimmer in the distance—for that small group of people who can climb to the ridge of that mental mountain range. But for the rest of us there’s little more than electricity, clean water, medical insurance, and job security. There is no cathedral being built; there’s no crusade to fight against an exotically unfamiliar foe; there are no barren deserts for mad monks to wander in.

There is only the endless struggle against the brute animal that lives behind our eyes and the craven junky in our guts that’s willing to walk into traffic for something just out of reach and the hysterical, traumatized self-hater that’s always trying to break into our hearts.

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We need charismatic diversions, periods of wandering and wondering and being in awe. We need secrets—secrets kept from us and secrets we keep to ourselves. Any good therapist will tell you that is no way towards a healthy emotional life—that is the sort of thing that allows you to be manipulated, repressed, and overwrought. Which is true. The fact that we may need it to satisfy some other lack still remains, healthy or not, true or not, scientific or not.

Truth is truth and science is science—but that doesn’t make us happy, by itself. We need some blissful ignorance, perhaps a daily ride on a big roller-coaster—anything that will bring us to the face of eternity, even for a moment. Somewhere we can laugh in the teeth of a fiery dragon or soar on a magic carpet. Our species has spent all but the last few centuries feeling fear, hunger, lust, wonder, and curiosity—do we really think we can be okay with a desk job and a cable TV?

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