Monday, May 07, 2007

Little Children (Movie Review)

Movie Review by Zinta Aistars

  • Actors: Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley
  • Directors: Todd Field
  • Format: Closed-captioned, Color, DVD-Video
  • Rating R
  • Studio: New Line Home Video
  • DVD Release Date: May 1, 2007
  • Run Time: 137 minutes

In spite of its three Academy Award nominations, I had not heard of this movie, came across it merely by browsing the shelves at my neighborhood video store. Since I've been seeing quite a few Kate Winslet movies of late, most of which have ranged from interesting to impressive, I rented the movie on the strength of her name. Good decision. Little Children at this point ranks, in my mind, as Winslet's best performance to date.

The various intertwining plots of this movie, narrated with wonderful lines from a Tom Perotta novel, would ordinarily have disturbed me if not inclined me to leave it on the shelf. And it was disturbing. Again and again, it made me cringe, and wince, and fidget, and roll my eyes, and sigh with exasperation. But keep watching. These are the "little children" (immature adults without control over their adolescent whims and whines) of a wealthier suburbia, including adulterous couples, cooling and troubled marriages, neglected but well adorned children, bored wives, fantasy-ridden husbands, porn-addicted executives, and the neighborhood pedophile living with Mommy, as he calls her, because who else would have him?

Opening on a gated playground scene with mothers seated on a bench, only Winslet's character, Sarah Pierce, on a separate bench, watching their children at play, a young father (Patrick Wilson) with stroller enters the grounds - and the heads of the wives turn en masse. Prom King, they call him, and the fantasies of the bored wives quickly surround the pleasant young father as he plays with his little son at a distance. Nothing more desirable than a man playing with his child... only Sarah can hardly bear the cheap chatter of the women, and more to break it up than out of interest in the Prom King, she approaches him, gets his phone number on a dare, goes in for a hug to scandalize, and then, caught up in the tease of the horrified other mothers, lands a sensual kiss on the stranger.

And onward and upward and hotter from there we go.

The trigger for Sarah to unleash an affair, however, is not the kiss (although he, the recipient, can't stop thinking about it, even as he contemplates the cold superiority of his businesswoman wife who treats him more like a child than a husband - an interesting reversal of roles), but the discovery of her husband at home heaving and panting in front of a computer screen filled with a virtual stripping woman. Sarah is filled with disgust, her respect for her husband disintegrates, and when she searches and finds a wastebasket beneath the computer filled with stiffened tissues, she realizes she has encountered an ongoing addiction. Rather than confront her husband, she represses her disgust and unhappiness, as too many women do in similar situations, and purchases instead a scarlet red bathing suit in order to feel desirable again and heads to the neighborhood pool where the Prom King hangs out every summer afternoon. What pretends to be a new friendship soon is a full-blown affair.

An interesting moment between the two takes place when Sarah asks her new lover if his wife is pretty. Oh yes, drop dead gorgeous, he tosses off his shrugging appraisal, but "beauty is highly overrated," he says, oblivious to the insult he has just paid his new lover, and as the narrator inserts - it takes a great kind of arrogance in one's own beauty to be so disparaging of another. But however tossed off, his comment reveals a deeper truth: the two are extraordinarily compatible and similar in their family torments and the beating each has sustained on their marital ego.

Throughout this development of an affair, other sideline stories and characters evolve. There is the story of a pedophile (Jackie Earle Haley) and his mother (Phyllis Somerville), his deep attachment and dependence on her, the only human being who still cares about him, even as his behavior continues, sending the neighborhood into gyrations of horror and fear. There is the story of the bully cop (Noah Emmerich), just this side of being a criminal himself, who deteriotes into a vigilante chasing the pedophile, causing far more harm than good. And there are many rich and memorable scenes, which include a gathering of elderly neighborhood women with a few younger ones for spice, discussing the novel, Gustave Flaubert's riotous "Madame Bovary." There is the neighborhood's men's football team, and the portrayal of their often clumsy male bonding and destructive competition. Another winning scene has the cheated-upon wife, played by Jennifer Connelly, who mostly blends into background for other characters, observing a conversation between her husband and neighbor Sarah. As perhaps only women can, she understands from the most casual exchange between the two that there is far more intimacy between them than a man and woman friend should share. There is no raucous fireworks revelation of the affair, simply a silent observation, and a woman's instinct. She knows. Nor does she tell him that she knows. Again, like most women, she holds her knowledge inside, to quietly observe and await his hitting his own wall.

For all its moments of discomfort, as so many of our hidden life stories and opened closet doors may cause, this entire story is exquisitely developed, with top level acting, nuanced dialogue, and meaning that unfolds upon even deeper meaning when the layers of masks humanity wears come off. The story concludes with a surprising twist that is also highly satisfying, yet no more "pretty" than life usually is. Not even in a wealthy corner of suburbia.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Paperback: 400 pages
# Publisher: Three Rivers Press, 2002
# Price: $14.95
# ISBN-10: 0812932188
# ISBN-13: 978-0812932188

Martha Beck - life coach and monthly columnist for O: Oprah Magazine - adores turtles. The turtle, after all, embodies much to be admired: a hard, thick shell on the outside, to protect itself from the bumps and bruises of manuevering through life; a very soft and vulnerable inside beneath the resistant carapace; lacking in speed but has a plodding persistence that wins over the hare every time; and, while protecting its head when at rest, is required to stick its neck out in order to move forward. The turtle, Beck points out, is a role model for living successful lives.

Moving ahead in life, turtle-style, is an excellent way to reach our North Stars - that point of light to guide us home like a compass in even the darkest sky. In an easy-to-absorb and enjoyable, often humorous style, Beck explains how so many of us get lost, or get stuck, and fail to achieve our most cherished dreams or any measure of happiness. We are a division of two selves requiring balance: the essential self - our core being that is guided mostly by uninhibited instinct combined with an inner voice of wisdom - with the social self - the part of us that has learned how to play nice with others, function in a diverse society, and, alas, all too often wear masks to hide our more tender and true core selves.

Beck does not advocate turning to one or other self exclusively, both essential and social selves are necessary, but rather finding the healthy balance so that we can remain on the right path toward that North Star. Too much essential self and we become irresponsible members of a civilized society. Too much social self, and we lose touch with our core, sinking into superficiality, losing sight of our dreams, and wearing our masks so long that we forget our own true faces.

Beck illustrates how our physical bodies often are first to let us know, loud and clear, if we only pay attention, that we have veered off the path. A persistent unhappiness is our first clue. Easy enough to recognize. But sometimes our grief is more internalized, less obvious, and so signs of illness, fatigue, boredom, apathy, chronic irritability, all point to a need to check our internal maps. People behaving badly are not so much mean and evil, she says, as in pain. And pain of any kind is a clear signal that we are not doing what we are supposed to be doing, that we have lost touch with our essential, core selves. It's time to listen to the voice inside again, the one belonging to the essential self, for where we have gone wrong.

In fifteen chapters, the author gives plenty of guidance and examples, many quizzes and questions to ponder, much sound advice and clear illustration. Whether the issue at hand is a relationship gone sour or a career gone dull (and one issue often goes hand in hand with another), her common sense guidelines encourage the reader to get back on track again and how to do so. Change, she acknowledges, is uncomfortable. But life IS change, and it is in fact change that keeps us young and vital and alert, much as flexing a muscle keeps it strong. The turtle never gets ahead without stretching its neck out from under that shell first. The bounty and joy of life, however, is always worth it. Dealing with change and the unknown is part of the hero's saga, or quest, in finding the North Star, and no one gets through without encountering their share of obstacles and hurdles and tests. It is the testing, in fact, that makes us into heroes and gives us the tools and know-how we need to go on.

"A willingness to make mistakes and recover from them is absolutely essential," she writes. As is doing a "terrible job" if it is on the path to learning and growth. To sustain oneself through the rough spots, her advice is to keep oneself in the positive, avoid the negative, and that includes the company one keeps (find people who support and encourage you), the kind of recreation one chooses (don't watch a violent movie and expect to feel positive about yourself or others), and how one treats others (don't just take the support, offer it in return to those who are worthy).

"Change hurts," she warns. "...for a person who's stuck in the wrong life, setting out on a North Star quest has all the combined attractions of suicide and childbirth. To complete it, you'll have to kill off the old You and give birth to a different You, someone nobody has ever seen before. Neither side of this process is painless, and they're both scary as hell. I've watched hundreds of folks make dramatic life transformations, and in every case, the person in question experienced alienation, confusion, frustration, and a thousand other forms of acute distress... the eventual payoff was tremendous - cheap at twice the price."

In the end, Beck states, we all manifest our own destinies. Whether we finally reach our personal North Star or not, it is entirely up to each and every one of us. Those of us who are eternal pessimists and live in a mire of negativity will always hone in like magnets on failure and disappointment. Those of us who maintain our North Star focus throughout the expected trials and tribulations of normal living, will claim what we were meant to have: our dreams. Turtles are created to cross the finish line.