Posts tagged ‘movies’

Mama at the Movies: The Red Balloon

I’m way behind on my “movie minutes” posts, and will update soon, since I’ve seen lots of good (Frozen River) and bad (The Women) lately. But in the meantime, it was nice to get back to writing my column this month with a reminiscence of our trip to Paris this summer. Here’s an excerpt:

When the chance came to spend a week in Paris this summer, my mind filled with visions of Nutella crepes, red wine at sidewalk bistros, and sunset walks along the Seine.

“What Paris, Mama?” three-year-old Eli asked, bringing me back down to earth and replacing my romantic thoughts with more prosaic concerns: getting two kids through a 10-hour flight; finding vegetarian food in the land of steak frites; navigating the Metro. We needed to prepare.

You can read the rest of my column, plus Stephanie Hunt’s gorgeous column, Core Matters, a swan song from 12-Step Mama, and lots of terrific fiction and creative nonfiction, over at Literary Mama.

Mama at the Movies: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

This month’s movie is no feel-good date night escape, but it is one of most moving and intelligent films I’ve seen in ages. Here’s an excerpt from my new column:

Washing my hands in the theater bathroom after watching the new film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007), I noticed I have a lot of gray hair. Maybe I should be grateful that the dim lighting in my house has been keeping this revelation from me. Somehow without my noticing, the blonde that has always lightened the brown has gone several shades lighter. The movie made me realize another subtle way that I’ve aged: it used to be, I’d watch a movie like this, about two women in their twenties, and identify with them. Now I wonder what I’d do if I were their mom.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in Romania, 1987, and follows a pair of friends over the course of a single day. It opens in their dorm room as they’re preparing for a trip; they don’t seem happy about it, but it’s easy at first to chalk their mood up to their living conditions: the dingy and crowded room; the talk of using Palmolive for shampoo; the hunt for cigarettes in black market shops operated out of other dorm rooms, where the girls can buy half-packets of birth control pills and nail polish, too. Gabriela frets about whether to bring her notes so that she can study while they’re away; Otilia tells her brusquely that there’ll be no time. Gabriela complains of a toothache, moans that her stomach feels weird; Otilia, tense and losing patience with her friend’s fretful inactivity, snaps at her. She goes over the plan for Gabriela: the money, the possibility of bribes, the meeting place, and it gradually becomes clear that the pair isn’t going on vacation, but arranging an abortion for Gabriela.

Click on over to Literary Mama to read the rest.

Mama at the Movies; Persepolis

At school the other morning, as Eli and I were saying good bye to Ben, already settled into a drawing project, a boy walked over and pushed Ben off his chair. Ben was too surprised to talk and even I needed a moment to gather myself before speaking gently to the child, who somehow, in the clueless, bulldozing way of some kindergartners, just hadn’t seen Ben. Ben and I talked about it later, cuddled cozily on the couch, with Eli dancing around us recalling the drama: “Dat boy pushed Benno,” he recounted wide-eyed, the surprise still fresh in his voice. “No push people. Push swings.”

It’s so simple right now, as perhaps a rule-bound two year-old can convey best; and when the rules of polite society are tested by its youngest members, it’s easy enough for a parent to intercede. This week, it was just a rambunctious boy who didn’t see my kid, but I worry about the day someone does see my kid and pushes him anyway. Oh, I know, the world generally treats blonde boys very well, thank you very much, so I teach my boys to wear their privilege respectfully. And yet, Ben’s a smart boy in a culture that doesn’t really pride itself on intelligence; a vegetarian in a meat-eating society; an awkward body in a world that expects boys to run gracefully and handle balls fluidly. He’s a quirky bird, and like any parent, I want to help my child learn to be himself regardless of how the world reacts to him.

My thoughts about Ben were cast into sharp perspective when I watched the beautiful and moving new Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007). Based on Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis is a memoir of her childhood in Tehran during the Revolution, and her lonely adolescence, exiled without her family, in Vienna. The film is largely in black and white (and a thousand gorgeous shades of gray), animated simply, and in French (depending on where you live, your theater will play a subtitled version like I saw, or one with an English voice-over track), all of which, I know, screams “Art-y!” But instead of being distancing, those often off-putting elements combine to create a film that’s so funny and real, of such quiet beauty and emotional resonance, I didn’t want to move after it was over, lest I break its spell.

Read more of my latest column over at Literary Mama!

Movie Minutes

Atonement: There was one moment in this otherwise too-dramatic-for-me film that I found moving, when the wrongly imprisoned young man, about to head to France to serve the rest of his jail term fighting in World War Two, meets with his young love and reaches a trembling hand out to touch her hand. That was it. At the end of the movie, when Vanessa Redgrave shows up to play the aged writer, the woman whose story had sent a man to jail and to war, I caught a glimpse of how interesting the novel must be. But I didn’t think the film was, very.

Winter Passing: The premise of this sounded so intriguing. An editor contacts the grown daughter of two esteemed writers, offering her $100,000 for publication rights to their love letters. The daughter, who is down and out, grieving the recent death of her mother and estranged from her father, thinks this might be an easy way to make some money, and goes home to collect the letters. Her father is a drunk and mired in writer’s block; one of his students, a woman somewhat younger than his daughter, lives with him as his cook and housekeeper (she’s thankfully not too fawning, nor does she seem to be sleeping with him — which would have been a tired old eww!), while Will Ferrell works as his handyman and security guard. If you love Will Ferrell, then maybe you could get past Ed Harris as the annoying cliche of the wild alcoholic writer, because Ferrell’s performance is compelling and nuanced. But I don’t love Will Ferrell enough. This is one of those movies that referred to, but did not tell, the story that interested me: the mom! What did she write, and what was her relationship with her daughter like, and what was her marriage like, and what did she write? What did she write?!? Oh, well.

My Kid Could Paint That: Oh, this one kept Tony and me up talking way past our bedtime! This is a documentary about Marla Olmstead, a child who paints. Because her father is a painter, and he wanted to get some work done one day, he gave her a canvas, some paints and brushes, and got to work while his daughter covered her canvas with a bright, abstract, typical preschool painting. Except, you know, on a proper canvas with quality paints, so it looked really, really good. A friend saw it and asked to hang it in his cafe, where a gallery owner saw it and asked if there were more, and before long, four year-old Marla Olmstead had a show. And then buyers. And then another show. And then some press. And then some very big sales. And then of course came the skeptics, led by 60 Minutes, to suggest that her daddy was really directing, if not in fact just doing, the paintings himself.

But the “Is she or isn’t she?” question wasn’t really the question that interested me so much. First, there’s the problem of abstract art (which we happen to be fans of in this house), and people’s strong reactions against it: It’s too easy; anyone can throw paint on a canvas and say “It’s a painting!” It doesn’t tell a story. It’s impossible to evaluate its quality (because of its refusal to represent “reality”). It thumbs its nose at the viewer as if to say, If you don’t like me, it’s because you’re not smart enough to get me. In the documentary, the strongest voice against abstract art happens to be the gallery owner representing Marla, a photo-realist painter who devotes months to a single painting and is peeved at how quickly she produces work. But not peeved enough to avoid making a buck on it.

But what made Tony and me both really sad was one tiny moment toward the end of the film, when Marla is painting and asks her dad to paint with her. And because of the skeptics, and because of all the money involved, he has to say no. The minute he kneels down to paint a picture with his little girl, the whole structure of her career collapses. But it seemed to me that their family had collapsed in some important way already, without their even noticing.

Persepolis: I thought the books were very good, though they didn’t knock me out (they’d been built up too much, I’m afraid). But at the risk of building up anticipation for the film too much, I thought it was spectacular. Here’s a rare instance when translating a book to film opens it up and deepens it; rather than the flat black & white images on the page (which are quite moving in their simplicity), the film gives you black & white and a thousand shades in between, moving subtly on screen, with incredible depth and beauty. Yes, the story’s been simplified a bit, but the film tells such a compelling story, I had to sit in the theater a while after it had emptied out and collect myself before I could leave.

Mama at the Movies: Juno

My, there’s quite a lot of ink being shed on this film! And my little column doesn’t cover all I could say about it, either, but here’s an excerpt from my contribution to the conversation:

The best thing the new movie Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007) achieves as it traces the impact of one teenager’s unplanned pregnancy is its refusal to shy away from the complexities and odd juxtapositions of life; in fact, it embraces them, insisting that we look at the messiness of relationships, the rapidly shifting peaks and valleys of emotional intelligence, so that we can begin to understand how a smart girl could have sex without birth control and how a sensitive girl could give a child up for adoption. When sixteen year-old Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) discovers she’s pregnant, she puts her head in a noose — made out of licorice ropes (she frees herself by taking a savage bite). When she contacts a clinic to arrange an abortion, she makes the call on a hamburger-shaped telephone. Her boyfriend, the father of her child, sleeps in a racecar-shaped bed. As Juno responds when her dad asks where she’s been, “Out dealing with things way beyond my maturity level.”

You can read the rest of my column here at Literary Mama. And while you’re there, check out some of our other columns and a new book review, too!


Thanks for the suggestions on the Amazon boxes! I have written Amazon customer service to suggest that they could have used one less box, and broken down the boxes (all too big to mail my PIF books, alas; I need to be giving away more and bigger books, apparently). We didn’t build a fort with these, but will save them in case one of the birthday boys this spring wants a rocket or train-building party.

And thanks even more for the words of sympathy and concern about Eli’s encounter with the new book case (this is what we get for unpacking all our books from the nice, soft, cardboard boxes). Ten of Eli’s stitches came out last week. He was stoic, saying only afterwards that “the teeny-tiny scissors hurt a teeny-tiny bit.” One of the dissolving stitches has dissolved, and one’s still hanging on, like an umbilical cord stump that won’t drop.

And, finally, as for my movie-watching binge, I wound up writing a column on Juno. Look for it at Literary Mama next week.

Movie Minutes

If you’ve glanced over to the right recently, you’ve noticed that the “watching list” has grown quickly as I’ve tried to find a subject for my next movie column. No column-fodder yet, but if you’re curious about what to spend your time and money on, here’s my two cents on some current releases and rentals:

Volver: I love Pedro Almodovar movies. I saw my first in New York City a million years ago, when I was volunteering for an avant-garde film house and we somehow scored the premiere of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! for a fundraiser. At the party after the screening, Victoria Abril danced and Liza Minelli sang “New York, New York.” It’s hard to believe now that I was once in the same room with those women. Meanwhile, Volver is classic Almodovar: an incredibly dark subject (incest, patricide) painted in candy-colors; intensely complicated relationships between a group of women (all sisters and mothers in this case); men who are mostly dolts and quickly dispensed with; allusions to Hollywood classics (here, mostly Mildred Pierce). And extra bonus: watching Penelope Cruz cook!

A Map of the World: Sigh. There’s so much to recommend this movie: a great cast (Julianne Moore and Sigourney Weaver); a compelling premise. The film explores what happens to the friendship between two women when one’s daughter dies while in the other’s care. I thought it might be too harrowing to watch, really. But instead it was annoying. The two women are painted in such broad strokes (Weaver is the bad mom because her house is a mess, she confesses that her child bugs her; she loses her temper); the director just takes the easy way out every time, going for the big emotion rather than the subtle reaction. And although it got a little less simplistic, a little more gratifyingly murky and real toward the end, by then it had lost me.

Junebug: I rented this because I loved Amy Adams so much in Enchanted, and she’s the best thing in the movie; otherwise, it sort of made me angry. A newlywed, sophisticated urban couple travels to rural North Carolina to visit his family and try to sign up a new artist for her Chicago gallery. The husband’s family (including Amy Adams as his sweet, very pregnant sister-in-law) is every stereotype of poor, white and southern, and the couple’s visit turns the family a bit upside-down. Then tragedy strikes. The couple leaves, breathing a sigh of relief at escaping the sadness and poverty, and we’re left with… what, exactly? I was just shaking my head at this one.

Juno: I enjoyed this, but it also left me confused, so I’ll probably write about it further so that I can figure myself out. Mostly, I just loved Allison Janney, who gets the Movie Stepmom of the Year award.

Romance and Cigarettes: A working-class musical about lung cancer and infidelity, why not? You’d think it’s a John Waters movie, but it’s directed by John Turturro, with an amazing cast including Susan Sarandon, Mary-Louise Parker, James Gandolfini, Aida Turturro, Kate Winslet and Steve Buscemi. Rent it if only to see Mary-Louise Parker, Aida Turturro and Mandy Moore sing their cover of “I Want Candy.” It’s so much fun.

Enchanted: I would have just eaten this up when I was 7. Instead, I sat there watching it with my inevitable Mom-glasses on, a little distracted thinking about the mothers (one absent, and why; one wicked, and also, why? Well, because she’s a stepmother, that’s why. Or something.) Anyway, take your favorite little girl to this one because the brunette gets the prince, the princess is a toughie, and there’s a lot of fun singing and dancing.

Home for the Holidays: Oh my goodness, I just loved Robert Downey Jr. Watch it for him alone.

Dan in Real Life: This is very pretty and entertaining, and it’s nice to see a portrayal of a fairly competent single father. I didn’t at all care about the main couple (will they or won’t they find true love?), played by Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche; they are well-spoken and fun to watch, but the minor characters, the family members on the side, were far more interesting (though honestly, the family jazzercize was a little too much for me.). Plus, it was nice to see an adopted child in a movie and not have it be a big deal.

Margot at the Wedding: Do you sense a trend? I was in my Family Reunion Mode with this and the previous two films. I loved Noah Baumbach’s first feature, The Squid and The Whale, but this is just recycling too much of that story, without any of the humor, and with the extra added feature of a mean and critical sister. Didn’t like it at all.

Committed: Another totally likeable cast (Heather Graham, Mark Ruffalo, Luke Wilson), an interesting premise (young woman chases after the husband who leaves her), and a director I love (Lisa Kreuger also made Manny & Lo). But this one bored me. Am I too old to care about the problems of young childless couples in their 20s? Maybe so.

The Station Agent: This is another of those movies that didn’t actually tell the story I was interested in watching. It’s very well done, very talky and slow, and the characters — a dwarf, a hot dog vendor, and a woman (Patricia Clarkson) who’s suffered the death of a child– are interesting, but I wanted more Patricia Clarkson and less of the quirky oddball men. Also, there’s lots of long shots of the men watching trains which I wanted to cut and paste out of the movie somehow for my boys to watch.

How to Cook Your Life

No, I’m not offering up an instruction manual, just a plug for the quirky documentary I saw last night, about Zen priest and cook Edward Espe Brown, author of the Tassajara Bread Book and other cookbooks. It’s an odd little film, following Brown from various Zen centers in Germany and California, as he speaks to people gathered for his cooking classes and meditations on the relationship between cooking and spiritual life. We see his students, people of all ages, learning to knead bread and to chop vegetables, and trying to fold these skills into a more mindful way of being in the world. This is all lovely, with beautiful shots of the Zen center kitchens and produce. It also goes down more easily for the fact that we see Brown is not perfectly peaceful and mindful himself. He gets irritated, he gets angry; he’s still working. And who among us isn’t?

Still, the movie over-reaches occasionally when it tries to discuss broader food issues. We see the San Francisco Zen Center folks making food to distribute to the homeless and hungry, and then the filmmakers interview one homeless man about how he finds meals (primarily dumpster-diving). This all makes sense. But who’s the woman who hasn’t bought groceries in two years? She’s not homeless; she’s making a political stand about the price of food. We listen to her explain about collecting grocery store rejects, and watch as she gathers raspberries, aples and figs from neighborhood plants, but where is she? Is this some part of her Zen practice? Does she have anything to do with Brown? It’s not clear at all. But you know, when she gets a member of the film crew to pull some ripe figs down for her with the long handle of his boom, it’s one of the sweetest moments in the film, so I got over wondering what the heck she’s doing in the movie.

And the movie’s main theme is staying with me. Brown repeats these words, which he learned from his own master, Suzuki Roshi: “When you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup.” That’s not just good cooking advice, that’s the kind of thinking that should carry over to your writing, parenting, whatever you’re doing in your life.

Movie Minutes

Violeta’s comment on my Gone Baby Gone post reminds me that it’s time for a movie round-up:

Into the Wild: This movie is haunting me. The actors are wonderful and the script is first-rate. The cinematography is gorgeous (Sean Penn’s taken some heat for loving the scenery too much, but for me, the depiction of the landscape served as another way to understand the main character and also, frankly, as a bit of an antidote to the narrative). But this is not an easy movie for a mother to watch; it’s harder, even, than Gone Baby Gone. I sat in the theater wondering how I could guarantee that one of my children won’t someday break my heart, and coming up with no good answer.

Michael Clayton: This is a totally compelling mystery thriller. The details of the plot escape me now–a big bad pharmaceutical company and the law firm in its pocket–but they hardly matter. It’s a character-driven film about various forms of addiction (to drugs, to gambling, to power); bad choices; and fatherhood.

Across the Universe: Director Julie Taymor created this musical based on the Beatles songbook. She’s a genius. This is the most visually inventive film I’ve seen all year; it’s gorgeous and surprising. The actors are terrific, the song choices make you think, the story is timely, and yes, that is Bono making an appearance as a school bus evangelist.

Mad Hot Ballroom: A documentary about a dance program in the New York City public schools. I love that the school district has set aside time and money to teach their middle schoolers ballroom dancing; it seems like a brilliant way to address the terrible awkwardness of early adolescence and help kids through it. There’s a huge cast of characters here, from the various teachers to the kids, and I didn’t feel like we really got to know many of them very well until the end, when we’re told (but not shown well enough) how dancing helped the kids. But my biggest gripe about this very sweet, very inspiring movie is that while we see a lot of dancing, we see it from the waist up, without nearly enough long shots or views of these dancers’ feet!

Becoming Jane: A costume drama about Jane Austen — what’s not to like? It’s all very pretty and way too modern and mostly implausible, but set all that aside: it’s a pleasant place to spend a couple hours.

Movie Minutes

It’s been a while since I did a movie round-up, and I’ve seen a bunch lately. Here are my picks and pans:

No Reservations: Catherine Zeta Jones hadn’t finished speaking her first line before my friend and I exchanged eye-rolling looks. It didn’t improve, though of course Aaron Eckhart is always nice to look at, and I’m a sucker for a beautiful kitchen. Still, skip this and watch the original, Mostly Martha.

P.S. : I can’t figure out why this movie is called P.S. Again, a great cast (Laura Linney, Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, Topher Grace and Paul Rudd) in an inane story about a woman (Linney) who thinks her dead high school boyfriend has been reincarnated in an applicant (Grace) to the MFA program she directs. Her ex-husband (Byrne) is a skirt-chasing professor and her brother (Rudd) is a recovering addict; her best friend (Harden) wants the reincarnated dead boyfriend for herself. What are these smart actors doing in this ridiculous story?!

Once: This is the perfect date movie. It’s quiet, talky, lovely. The relationships are realistic and complicated, the songs are great, and the story doesn’t get all neatly wrapped up at the end.

Hairspray: Read my column on this one; it’s a totally fun way to spend a couple hours.

Ratatouille: I’m not sure who the audience for this movie is, exactly, but I’m afraid I was a little bored. The animation is amazing, and the kitchen scenes are kind of fun to watch but (heresy, I know) I kept finding myself checking my watch.

Ocean’s Thirteen: I love a good caper, and in this installment the filmmakers made the wise decision to replace the Julia Roberts love interest with Ellen Barkin. This is completely entertaining.

Paris, Je T’aime: I didn‘t, much.

Knocked Up: Made me glad I’m not in my twenties anymore. I didn’t really entirely buy the relationship between the one-night-stand couple, but the married couple (the wonderful Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann) have some real moments between them.

Away From Her: This is gorgeous, and real, and sad. Though if I look as good when I’m 70 as Julie Christie does now, then I’ll be very happy.

And this brings me up to Waitress, which was also the subject of a column.

Next on my list: Becoming Jane, Manufactured Landscapes, No End In Sight, The Simpsons Movie, and This Is England.