Month: March 2015

Life Itself: The Experience of Memories

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I finished Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself last spring. There was only one thing I knew about Ebert prior to reading his book: he was known as one of the best film critics. The memoir was filled with early and late memories, a life so full and exciting, even though I didn’t know the man at all. However, after finishing I felt I like I truly knew Ebert and after seeing Steve James’s documentary that mimics the memoir, I feel like I know the prominent people in Ebert’s life as well like friend Gene Siskel and wife Chaz.

There are many differences between the memoir and documentary, but this is one of the things that sets the two apart. The talking head interviews that feature Ebert’s past colleagues, friends, and family are intimate and reveal a different side of him. We don’t just have Ebert telling us how he feels; instead it’s almost like a conversation. Snippets from the book are read as voice-over and in the next scene the exact person he was talking about will tell their side of the story. These interviewees also aren’t afraid to tell us what they think, they aren’t afraid to reveal the sides of Ebert that were not so charming.

However, if viewers really want a more personal look into Ebert’s life, reading the memoir is the way to go. A lot of the interior monologue throughout the novel was written while he lay in the hospital bed, unable to eat and drink, so unlike the film where we see the pain on Ebert’s face or imagine what he may be feeling, we read about it in Life Itself (although the gory details aren’t a huge part). But again, this is another thing that sets the film apart from what we may have learned through Ebert’s writing. We get to see the physical aspect of his life with cancer and all his surgeries. It’s hard to believe the man whose writing strength was so present and film criticisms were still on point was the same man unable to speak or communicate like the rest of us. It’s hard to imagine all those ideas were circulating in that mind, but could only be communicated in certain ways.

The Life Itself documentary shows us how much mental and physical strength it takes people like Ebert and his family to carry on. We see what it means to truly support and love someone through the very different relationships between Ebert and Chaz and Ebert and Siskel. Most of all, I truly recognized the lack of entertaining film criticism now that both Ebert and Siskel are gone. The documentary has clips from the Siskel & Ebert show throughout and I wanted to keep watching and hearing the arguments about the different films they had seen because there is such a lack of film discussion on television today. This winter, I have witnessed many broadcasters admit to not seeing any of the “big season films” right before they interview a star or feature a snippet from one of the Oscar nominated films. The entertainment side of the news focuses instead on who wore what at the latest award shows or what the Kardashian’s next season will look like.

If you care about film, you’ll find a way to discuss it, but when Ebert and Siskel were around it seemed the public who watched TV didn’t have a choice. Film was present, it was debated, it was alive and important no matter who you were. Film was made cool and not just the films that had explosions and special effects. It seems so simple: entertainment and education from listening to two people analyze a movie, but why now, has it disappeared? Perhaps the show’s legacy holds too high of a standard, but don’t you think Roger Ebert would want us to carry on? To not let new films pass by without discussion? And hopefully the documentary will do to others what it did to me. It opened my eyes to truths I hadn’t seen but also gave me hope through all those people who were inspired by Ebert that the film industry and critic community is not something depleting but relative and climbing.

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White Bird in a Blizzard: Layers of the Truth

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White Bird in a Blizzard is the first film I’ve seen in a long time that features a young woman’s coming of age story. These are some of my most enjoyable films to watch and the complexity of Shailene Woodley’s character, Kat Evens, is one of the most entertaining and well-rounded aspects.

I couldn’t help seeing Woodley as this innocent and naive girl, especially having seen The Fault In Our Stars not too long ago and some of her character’s crude dialogue and actions go against her typical role. But Kat Connors is a young woman who has many layers and one of those layers is a smart yet confused teenager who needs guidance and love, but not just from her boyfriend Phil and their sex craved relationship. I may have had a hard time believing Kat’s rebellious, risqué ways at first, but as scenes unfold and another woman is honed in on (Kat’s mother Eve) her actions start to make sense.

Eve Connors is a housewife gone mad. She’s an eerie kind of Betty Draper. In a series of flashbacks and voice-over, daughter Kat explains her mother’s slow breakdown: Eve was a secretary at an office and she had nothing else going for her so she married the boring, incompetent Brock Connors. During one of these voice-overs Eve’s elegant face gets closer to the lens and this sincere moment has us thinking: she really had nothing else going for her because of this occupation? But what the film suggests having the two women’s decades of life side by side is that these ideas were a reflection of the time in which Eve lived through. If a woman like Eve wasn’t already married or had a secure, successful occupation during her young adult years, she better find one or the other soon. Brock isn’t the only boring one though. Eve becomes the same way with her solid color dresses and routine. She’s left in a house with nothing else to do but simply play house. Be a mother, a wife and be happy with that. Except as we come to see, Eve refuses to settle after a while. Perhaps she saw a different future when Brock and she started a family, but life offered a much different reality.

Through Kat’s portrayal of her mother are where things come together. We come to know Kat and all these layers because her actions have everything to do with her mother’s life. She is sweet to her father because she pities everything Eve had bestowed upon him. In other scenes the kind adolescent is seducing the detective whose working on her mother’s case after her disappearance. But even this relationship we come to understand. Of course Kat wants a sexually liberated lifestyle after her mother vanishes. She wants to do whatever she pleases and with whomever she pleases because her mother didn’t. And look where that got everyone?

The buildup of Kat’s emotions is also done very well. At first after her mother’s disappearance, she has no feelings, at least that’s how she acts, but as she gets older and visits her quiet hometown years later this absence starts to fill her entire being. What really happened to her mother? Did she leave because she was unhappy and perhaps severely depressed? Was she dead? There’s a lot not shown in the film, but a lot said. For example, we don’t see how the relationship between Eve and Brock was behind closed doors. Yet Eve’s dialogue provokes curiosity during flashbacks when she drunkenly ridicules her husband for controlling her when all we see is Kat’s mother acting strange towards her only daughter with jealousy and spite while Brock is quiet and kind. This leads us to wonder if Eve simply made this up or if there was more to the story than what Kat saw. After all, we see these scenes through her eyes and at times she is unintentionally unreliable. However, it’s what makes the story everything it’s supposed to be.

It’s all part of Kat’s growing process. When you’re younger you see things a certain way. When we get older tiny truths sneak through the cracks and life changes. We change. It’s what happens to Eve Connors as well. She had a life that seemed one way and over time turned out differently. It’s what viewers feel, I’d imagine, when watching the film. We think one way, but are entirely surprised by the answers that reveal themselves at the end. No one is really who they say they are, except for Kat who’s confused, young, smart, beautiful, and vulnerable no matter what happens.

Force Majeure: Ways of Looking

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Force Majeure projects an unfamiliar gaze on a typical family who goes on a typical ski holiday. Except the family’s normalness changes and the film shifts and opens a plethora of questions and ideas regarding gender expectations and modern influences on society. And this all comes from one single moment in the first ten minutes—an action that truly speaks louder than any dialogue uttered in the two hours.

This altering moment occurs when Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) instinctively reaches for his iPhone at lunch and runs away from his wife and two young children during what looks like an uncontrolled, threatening Avalanche. His actions clearly show the impact advancing technology has on our lives and this isn’t the first time it’s revealed, but is seen in much smaller moments when Tomas checks his phone during a nap, when wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) wakes up and the first thing she asks is the whereabouts of her phone, or when the children are glued to their iPads during much of their downtime. The bigger focus post Avalanche, however, is the different people Tomas and Ebba become. We no longer have a confident, protective and intelligent man. Instead, Tomas can’t confess his fear of the unknown or even admit to running away from his family when the Avalanche looked like it was coming to destroy them. Eventually Tomas sees himself as someone he despises. But the real fixation lies within Ebba and her complex thoughts about marriage and her husband in general after she stays to shield her children from harm and he runs the other way with his most valuable possessions. She becomes what Tomas was: relaxed, in charge, and confident.

Ebba doesn’t just reflect on her husband’s actions through shaming him in front of their friends by reliving the episode, but also during a very significant scene when she speaks to one of her friends about motherhood and her partnership with Tomas. Here Ebba can’t wrap her head around her friend’s open marriage, but the reasoning is told simply: there is so much more to life than being reliable for your husband or children. Your entire being does not exist just for other people, but it’s one’s happiness that matters above all. It doesn’t seem like Ebba will transform and center her values around these, but the scenes that follow allude that she is indeed contemplating the conversation. She doesn’t give Tomas the same affection afterwards. She leaves her children and Tomas for the day to ski by herself and during the terrific scene near the end when Tomas has a mental breakdown, Ebba does not console him but demands him to be quiet and to calm down. This tug of war for control and sensibility is entertaining and worth another look because we can’t guess what Ebba will do. Will she leave her husband because of this one selfish action? Will she truly forgive him and go back to having the happy companionship we caught glimpse of at the beginning?

The film’s laced with enthralling scenic moments but the ones I found most creative were those with the lens aimed towards a mirror or window. To me this gave a clear message through a foggy picture. We don’t get to experience this marriage full on but are rather looking at it from the outside. It’s just a reflection. It’s two hours where can reconsider our own relationships ( like the women in Force Majeure do) and at the same time judge the one in front of us. We laugh at them. We pity them. We are thankful we aren’t them. This is even seen through the other characters in the film like Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanni (Fanni Metelius) the other couple on the trip who are friends with Tomas and Ebba. When they hear of Tomas’s selfish actions and even mention that the two need serious therapy they are judging just like us, but then an interesting mood from this dilemma rubs off on their relationship. The judges become the judged.

It’s a messy situation—this trip to the French Alps that’s meant to bring the couples closer together. One big twisted experience that’s comedic, sad, freighting, and overall makes a much bigger commentary on gender roles. It should be noted the role the women play in the beginning of the film and the one they take on in the end. Viewers will have different opinions, but I was thrilled to see these norms played with, manipulated at times, and represented in a logical, new way.