Friday, April 27, 2007

The Queen - Movie Review

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

Helen Mirren deservedly wins the award for best actress for her lead in The Queen, produced by Stephen Frears. The resemblence to the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, is remarkable in her physical appearance, but also in Mirren's every mannerism, her gaze, her speech. Mirren manages to capture this cool and highly controlled living historical figure with the subtle nuances that indicate warm(ish) blood beneath. It would have been easy to portray Elizabeth II as stiff royalty of robotic sensibilities, but instead, Mirren manages to bring to her a sense of a woman imprisoned by her upbringing and the constraints of her position. There is just a glimmer, now and then, of feeling beneath the proper etiquette, a glimpse of humanity beneath the thick mask of tradition that allows for almost none.

The Queen is portrayed at a time when tradition is forced to crack under "modernization," a favorite term of Tony Blair's (Michael Sheen), new and somewhat awkward prime minister playing a respectful if challenging second fiddle to Her Majesty. Princess Diana has just died in a horrific car accident, and the royal family is not prepared for a nation in grief, a nation, perhaps even spreading to a global community, that has little tolerance left for British cool. There is a sense of blame that sends electric currents through the Palace, who had expected support for their restraint but found instead their centuries old status threatened. Pushed to the limits of her tightly bound comfort zone, Elizabeth II manages to maintain royal grace under fire. A scene in which the Queen is stranded in the country as her vehicle breaks down midstream, and Her Majesty sits in the grass indulging in a secret moment of tears, is exquisite. Another, as she strolls beside the gates outside the Palace to view the flowers and cards left for Diana, many of which are crassly critical of the royal family, but still manages to reconnect to her people is a tension brought beautifully to a resolution - with a glance, with the most minimal nod of acknowledgment, with the acceptance of flowers from an admiring child.

A truly incredible performance, and a refreshingly new perspective on a time when media showed us only one view, from the outside of Buckingham Palace looking in.

Friday, April 13, 2007

High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never by Barbara Kingsolver

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial, 1996
  • Price: $13.00
  • ISBN-10: 0060927569
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060927561

Kingsolver holds reign neck and neck with Annie Dillard as two of my favorite naturalist writers and essayists. Kingsolver holds her own as a novelist. In this collection of essays, rewritten and expanded versions, in many cases, from what has been previously published in various magazines, Kingsolver's skill and talent as an essayist shimmers with brilliance and sheer entertainment. Even when she is teaching us a lesson and hammering it home.

Topics have wide range, covering nature, art, values and ethics, human nature and its foibles, politics, and travels. Whether she is pondering the biological clocks of hermit crabs or espousing her views on violence and objectification of women on the silver screen, or taking the reader along on the harsh realities of a not so glamorous book tour, her language is lush and poetic, flowing and vibrant, clever and memorable. I have been quoting her words to anyone who will listen ever since reading the book, and thinking back to it as a kind of measuring stick for my personal observations of daily life.

So what moved you to begin such a boycott of violence in movies? a friend asked me over lunch today. We had been talking about popular contemporary movies, and why I had made sometimes surprising - to others - choices. And it hit me. While my inclination had been moving in that direction for some time now, it was Kingsolver's essay, "Careful What You Let In the Door," that had pushed me into a conscious awareness of how my viewing choices affected every other part of my life, daily choices I make. The results of such choices have been almost immediately apparent to me. The desensitization I had experienced towards atrocities in the news, to the daily disrespect I witness in various human interactions and my regretful tolerance of it, hardly registering as a bump in my path, was lifting. Newly aware, I have been surfacing as if from a deep and dumb sleep.

Kingsolver writes in her essays about her literary art that writers may not write with politics in mind, yet "good art is political." As is hers. Words can and should move us, good art should change us, and a good writer is a person who wields a pen more powerful than any sword.

In this particular essay, Kingsolver explores the function of violence in art (or media in general), visual or literary. Too often, she notes, my lunch partner nodding in agreement, such violence is perpetrated against women. "It turns out," writes Kingsolver about an inadvertant movie choice, "I'd rented the convincing illusion of helpless, attractive women being jeopardized, tortured, or dead, for no good reason I could think of after it was over." Pondering this, she concludes that violence in movies or video games (or various other formats) too often appears merely for its sensationalist effect, while in literature a writer has the ability to expand upon a violent scene to fully show its consequences. Because violence always has consequences. It is the absence of those consequences in our daily media diet, separate from the realm of reality, that has led to a society that hardly blinks at its constant appearance upon the screens of our minds. All of which, she argues, with time turns us into hardened and numb creatures, willing to not only view violence, but to tolerate it, potentially even to participate in it.

So an essay moves us to change our viewing habits. Art creates positive change. But Kingsolver can just as easily write an essay that makes us laugh, as in her story of joining a literary rock band, allowing herself to look the fool for our sympathetic pleasure. Or her struggles as a parent. Although in "Somebody's Baby," her message again takes on a ponderous seriousness in considering how little we care for the youngest generations, even while we claim to be baby lovers. Her call to us in this essay is to consider that it is not just the parent's job to care for the child, but it is the obligation and heart-calling to the community at large, to the entire nation, to care for and nurture our young. We are, she writes, raising Presidents-in-training, yet our attitude is "every family for itself."

What I love about Kingsolver's essays is that they are beautifully written, literary works of art. Yet each and every one carries a deeper meaning, a message, a call to arms, even those written with the relish of humor. It is art with consequence.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Blood Diamond - Movie Review

by Zinta Aistars

I've made a point of passing by any movie with meaningless violence. The kind that is all about sensationalism, or worse, a more degrading kind of titillation for those who get off on scenes of women being objectified and thrashed to a bloody pulp. All too many of those on screen today. More on that topic elsewhere.

But I sat down for this movie, as filled with heartrending violence as it is. The difference? This violence has meaning. It is historically accurate, and this history has not yet been resolved. It educates, and it opens our hearts to compassion and, one might hope, moves us to make changes. If perhaps only in our purchasing habits. No small thing.

Blood Diamond is about the diamond trade in South Africa. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Danny Archer, a one-time mercenary from Zimbabwe who now makes a killing (play on words intended) smuggling diamonds. Opposite him, although soon close beside him, is Solomon Vandy, played by Djimon Hounsou, an African fisherman caught in the trade and enslaved by rebels. Vandy finds a large pink diamond while enslaved, and Archer soon finds his way to get in on the lucky find. The two are reluctant partners, but eventually develop a bond of trust and deep caring - a bond that leads to heroism and sacrifice. The backdrop of their story is the genocide happening around them in Sierra Leone of the 1990s, a brutal world of a people turning against themselves in greed and lust for power. The massacre of innocents is horrific. The brainwashing of children to turn them into heartless miniature soldiers is heartbreaking. A father's love conquering all - restores hope.

There is an important lesson here about conflict-free diamonds, a phrase that was new to me, but important to understand. We vote with our dollars while others die.

DiCaprio's role is superbly played, but Hounsou is a stand up and roar performance. The two are deserving of every accolade.


Friday, April 06, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction - Movie Review

by Zinta Aistars

  • Directors: Marc Forster
  • Format: AC-3, Closed-captioned, Color, Dolby, Dubbed, Subtitled, Widescreen, NTSC
  • DVD Price: $28.95
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rating PG-13
  • Studio: Sony Pictures
  • DVD Release Date: February 27, 2007
  • Run Time: 113 minutes

I avoid Will Ferrell movies, always. Hate silly, stoopid humor. Love the clever stuff (and his humor isn't). But this movie promised to be less about humor, although it certainly had threads of the clever variety woven throughout, and more of a play on a very creative imagination. I heard Ferrell was making this a serious role. So okay, that passes with me. And how could I possibly resist a performance by Emma Thompson extraordinaire? She's up there in the top two of my favorite actor list, back and forth in slot one. Okay, and I was once married to an IRS man, and I've been involved with those uptight OCD types... and I am a baffled creative writer mind, too... so this became just too irresistable to pass up.

Not disappointed. Not one bit. Stranger Than Fiction was just too much fun. From grand opening line to grand twisted if not overly surprising finish, loved every screen shot, every line of literary dialogue. Or monologue (Thompson's voice narrates the life of her character, predicting his imminent death, all of which he hears as a voice coming out of nowhere). Emma Thompson (as blocked award-winning writer Karen Effiel) makes a terrific eccentric novelist, Ferrell (as Harold Crick, her main character) won points with me as a more serious, wacky, neurotic auditor, perhaps only the romantic side story got a sapped out wince out of me at moments. And Dustin Hoffman is always a treat. Even Queen Latifah and Helen Hunt add some sparkling moments.

Go ahead. Enjoy. Almost as good as a well-written book. Not quite. But almost.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Flags of Our Fathers - Movie Review

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Directors: Clint Eastwood
  • Format: Color, Dolby, Widescreen, NTSC
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rating R
  • Studio: Dreamworks Video
  • DVD Release Date: February 6, 2007
  • Run Time: 132 minutes
With every intention of yet reading the book (books are almost always better than movies, I've found) to delve deeper into this piece of international history, I viewed this one of two movies, directed by Clint Eastwood, dealing with the horrific battle at Iwo Jima in February, 1945, a bloody part of World War II. The companion movie to Flags of Our Fathers, also title of the book, is Letters From Iwo Jima, which by now I have also seen.

Few if any Americans have not at some point seen the famous, if not infamous, photo of American soldiers propping up the American flag as symbol of victory on the island of Iwo Jima. Many of us have seen, too, the immense memorial in Washington D.C., modeled from that photo. But few know the story behind the photograph. Few knew it at the time it first hit the media in 1945. What this movie illustrates as its foremost message is how the media machine operates, and how the sheep mentality of the masses almost instantly becomes a part of that machine, how politicians cheerily hop on board, and what ensues is a stomach-turning account of how war is conducted and financed - with little to no honor or integrity in its marketing. Most governments are only too ready to throw human lives into the churning wheels of the war machine. Only those closely tied to these individual lives, and the veterans themselves, truly understand the nightmare of war - even while perhaps none of us can comprehend it.

Eastwood's movie shows us that story behind the photograph, and the three men who are pushed into the fundraising limelight to raise good will and money for the war effort. No one cares to know the truth: that these men are no more heroes, indeed, they feel less like heroes, than the many, many soldiers who died around them in the battle. Each struggles with his exploitation in his own way; all are changed forever by it.

The photograph of the flag raising was a moment caught in time that even the photographer did not realize would carry such impact when published back home in the papers. Six men had raised the flag up on Mount Suribachi, three of them later died in battle. The three remaining are subjected to the exploitation of the government and the public, hungry to believe that we are in the right, that war somehow makes sense. What results is a tragedy that in some respects nauseates more than the war. A bullet is a clean hit. To exploit a man and his horrific war experience to perpetuate a lie is in some ways, one might think, even more destructive - at very least, inhumane treatment of a war veteran. And there is nothing clean about this kind of war wound.

After seeing the movie, learning the story behind the story, I will never look at that photograph or the monument of Iwo Jima the same way. It does no honor to those who sacrificed and suffered. It glorifies war, when war can never be glorious. It is a mockery of true heroism, and a shameful reminder of how little we care for those who risk all. We build monuments while letting veterans rot away in vet hospitals; we cheer at parades while vets wander homeless in our streets, suffering still from post traumatic stress syndrome. We raise money for weaponry, but cut back on benefits for those who fought on the front lines. Eastwood has delivered a powerful message to us. We should learn from it. But have we?