Saturday, May 1, 2010

April Poetry Book Giveaway Winners Announced!

Using a random number generator, the following entrants have won books:

The big winner of my chapbook (What Big Teeth) and Ruth Schwartz's Edgewater is Beth.

Winners of Concrete Wolf chabooks are:

Stacy Lynn Mar won Dana Elkun's Black Box Theater as Abandoned Zoo

Linda Crosfield won Janet Norman Knox's Eastlake Cleaners: When Quality and Price Count [a Romance]

Theresa MacNaughton won Erin Malone's What Sound Does it Make?

Jessica Bates won Michelle Brooks' Such Short Supply.

Kathy Green won Alison Pelegrin's Squeezers.

I will be emailing each winner to obtain your mailing addresses.

Thank you to all for participating. Even if you haven't won a book, consider supporting a poet by buying her book or treating her to a cup of coffee :-).

Monday, March 29, 2010

Poetry Book Give Away

April is poetry month so I will be giving one lucky winner a copy of one of my favorite poetry collections, Edgwater by Ruth Schwartz, as well as a copy of my new chapbook, What Big Teeth: Red Riding Hood's Real Life.

Also a few lucky winners will receive collections from the Concrete Wolf Poetry Chapbook Series.

To enter to win, leave a comment with your email here.

Happy Poetry Month and Good Luck!

Friday, February 5, 2010

An Achingly Haunting Film -- Mona Lisa (1986)

Mona Lisa is one of the most achingly haunting films I've ever seen. I watched it for the first time in a movie theater in Boston. I was alone (I often went to films alone in my youth) and glad to be because I was crying throughout the film, but especially by the end of it.

This 1986 Neil Jordan film (two years prior to Who Framed Roger Rabbit) was my introduction to British actor Bob Hoskins who plays the lead role of George, a man just released from prison, George has just done seven years for some unknown offense, apparently taking the fall for his boss, played by effectively nastily by Michael Caine.

George is uneducated, uncouth, politically incorrect and a fashion disaster. And yet, despite his running with a criminal element, it’s apparent that he possesses a fragile innocence and a deep caring nature.

The first thing George does when he is released from prison is to try to see his daughter which you can imagine does not go well. So early on we see George is given to fits of violent outbursts. But it is violence born of frustration not malice. Not that that excuses it, bit it serves to make George such a wonderfully complex character. Hoskins’ performance in this film is so moving it’s painful, but utterly beautiful to watch.

George has a fascinating relationship with his best friend Thomas, played by Robbie Coltrane now better known as Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. Thomas dabbles in selling odd art pieces and fixing cars, but the two friends talk to each other in and about stories. It’s interesting to watch and you always have the feeling you’re not quite being let in on all that passes between them.

Hoskins asks his old boss for work and he is given the job of being a driver for elegant prostitute Simone, played exquisitely by Cathy Tyson. He begins to fall for her and helps her to find a friend who works for the same pimp she used to. He puts his life on the line for her more than once. In the process, he also tries (and fails) to help another young prostitute he meets along the way. And he begins a relationship with his daughter.

I don’t want to give the entire plot away. You’re just going to have to see this film. And I warn you it is not pretty to watch but it is cathartic. George is the most awkward and hurt part of ourselves. He is our lost innocence.

The film title comes from the Nat King Cole song George plays over and over in his car and one can see how it relates to Simone. Like the Mona Lisa, she doesn't reveal much of what is behind her pretty face.

Mona Lisa is a brutal film because it’s honest. There is no Hollywood gloss and no fairy tale endings. This film can be thought of as the ugly predecessor to Pretty Woman. Hoskins and Tyson both won awards for their roles. The story here is agonizing and the acting is superb. I am forever haunted by an exchange between George and Simone near the end of the film. Simone asks George, “Don’t you ever need someone?” A tearful George replies, “All the time.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

A book movie that deserves accolades: (1984) The Razor's Edge

I’ve been thinking about how books and movies are two different species of art. Separate and equal. And how movies from books usually disappoint people who have read the books first. That’s because the movie has to leave out so much and the characters are never as we imagine them in our heads. And sometimes the story of the book is changed for dramatic reasons and our favorite parts go missing or altered beyond recognition. I love books for the way the beautifully assembled words speak to me, connect me to something larger and deeper of the human world, and how I know myself more through reading about the lives of others. I love movies for the way the images get under my skin and speak directly to my heart, and how the actors make me understand more about humanity and myself, sometimes with little more than the look in their eyes.

In addition to thinking about book movies, like the last one I talked about—What Dreams May Come—staring Robin Williams, I am thinking about comedians in movies. Most of us have come to think of Robin Williams as a funny man, not as a great actor. And yet, in the right dramatic roles, he is great. It’s said that to be able to make people laugh, one must have a deep understanding of pain and tragedy. Perhaps that helps explain why Williams is as spectacular as he is in movies like What Dreams May Come, The Final Cut, and One Hour Photo. And perhaps that’s why Bill Murray, another funny man, is capable of the Oscar-worthy performance he gives us in The Razor’s Edge (1984, directed by John Byrum).

This film version of The Razor’s Edge is based on the 1944 novel by W. Somerset Maugham. There are many changes to the plot, missing characters and scenes in the film version, however it does stay true to the spirit of the book. There was another film done of this story in 1946 starring Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney which gives greater emphasis to the female characters. The 1984 version keeps the original focus of the book on it’s main character Larry Darrell.

This is one of the all-time greatest films I have ever seen. This is due largely to the excellent screenplay co-written by director Byrum and Murray (terrific dialogue), and to Murray’s brilliant performance.

From this point on, there will be substantial spoilers.

Larry Darrell is played with exquisite charm, humor and subtlety by Bill Murray. Larry is a man that has known a privileged upper class life in middle America. He and his friend Gray upon graduating from college volunteer to be ambulance drivers even before the U.S. enters WWI. Larry is devastated by what he sees during his time on the battlefield and he can no longer resume the life he once had. He begins on a quest to discover the meaning of life, first at the bottom of a martini glass, then in Paris through books, and finally at a mountain top temple in Tibet.

The film opens on an idyllic fourth of July picnic. Larry and Gary are in uniform, ready to leave for Paris the next day. Larry’s friend Sophie gives him a volume of her poems to take with him. There is a hint that the two were more than friends at one time, though now Sophie is pregnant and married to someone else. Larry tells his fiancĂ©, Isabel, she should really marry Gary who had a million dollars. Sophie responds, “I don’t want a million bucks, I just want you…and half a million.”

Next, we are in France on the battlefield where Larry and Gary meet their commander, Piedmont (played wonderfully by Bill Murray’s brother Brian Doyle-Murray) and two ivy-league truly upper class. ambulance drivers. The scenes with war casualties are horrific as you might expect. When the ivy league drivers are killed, Piedmont immediately says of them that they were liars and he hates liars, “They will not be missed.” It is obvious this is his way of dealing with, maybe even denying the loss.
This scene is followed up with a shot of Larry scrunched in a bunker lighting a lighter to look at a picture of Isabel. He appears more numb than sad thanks to Murray’s brilliant acting.

Later Piedmont himself is killed, thereby saving Larry’s life, and Larry makes a similar speech saying, “He was a slob…Starving children could fill their bellies on the food that ended up on his clothes and beard…I never understood gluttony but I hate it…He will not be missed.” The timbre of Murray’s voice, his facial expressions, make this one of the most powerful and moving scenes in the film. I have read but do not know if it is true that the speech Murray gives about Piedmont is part of the memorial he wrote for departed friend John Belushi.

From the death the movie cuts back to an idyllic scene in America with Gary lounging in the grass wearing a white dinner jacket pinned with a metal. It’s obviously back to the high society good life, but Larry is nowhere to be seen. Later we see Larry has been drinking excessively. He tells Isabel he isn’t the man she wants to marry, not “the old Mr. Sunshine.” He says he needs “to think and I don’t have much experience in that field. Isabel is very unhappy but decides to wait for Larry while he goes to Paris to think. Her Uncle Elliot tells her this is a very good move for a man about to be married and he will put Larry in touch with the right aristocratic friends.

Larry lives a very simple existence in Paris, working as a fish packer and reading books. When he’s been there too long, Isabel goes to Paris to find him. She stops by Uncle Elliot’s Paris house and is enamored with all the treasures therein. She says, I never dreamed anyone could live like this.” Larry shows up with an organ grinder and monkey, then whisks Isabel away to show her his life in Paris. Larry tells her, “I got a second chance at life and I am not going to waste it on a big house and a new car every year.” Isabel cannot agree to such a life and the engagement is broken. However Isabel goes back to Larry’s flat and spends the night, seemingly willing to try things his way. But when she wakes the next morning to a gigantic cockroach in her bed, rats in the hall and disgusting shared plumbing, she flees.

Larry goes to Uncle Elliot’s house to find her only to learn that she has gone back to America. Angry, Larry kicks and busts up an ottoman. When the butler comes to see what the ruckus is, Uncle Elliot says, “I appear to have been crashing about without my spectacles.” We see in that one moment the kind, compassionate soul Uncle Elliot truly is despite being a snob.

Larry ends up saving the life of a coworker in a mine. When he goes to that man’s house for a drink, he discovers a kindred spirit. The friend asks him if he’s read Upanishad. The quote that opens Maugham’s novel is from Upanishad, "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard." But the friend says Larry won’t find answers in a book. The friend has traveled to India and Larry gets the notion to do the same. Once in India, Larry meets his landlord Raaz (played marvelously by Saeed Jaffrey) who is a spiritual man. He equates washing dishes to prayer. Raaz tells Larry “if work has no intention, it’s not work at all.” Raaz takes Larry on a journey to a Tibetan temple high in the mountains. Larry stays there for a while till the holy master tells him to go to a hut higher up with his books. As Larry is in the exposed hut freezing, he realizes he will need to burn his books to keep warm. Later when Larry is leaving the temple to go back to Paris, he asks the master if it’s true that it’s easy to be a holy man on a mountain top. The master’s answer is a paraphrase of the Upanishad quote, “The path to salvation is narrow and difficult to walk as a razor’s edge.”

When Larry is in Paris, he runs into Uncle Elliot and discovers Isabel has married Gary and is living there with their two children. Larry rekindles the friendship and helps Gary using hypnosis and mindful techniques he learned while in India. Later they run into Sophie who had become a prostitute, alcoholic and drug addict. Larry helps her get sober then proposes to her. The two seem happy until Isabel learns of the impending marriage and does what she can to prevent it. It ends horribly with Sophie’s return to her old ways, followed by her murder. Larry says he is not that interested in finding her killer. In his mind, Isabel is responsible. And yet, he does not scream or act violently. In the midst of this, Uncle Elliot is dying and Isabel is grief stricken. Larry tells Isabel he realized he had “another debt to pay for the privilege of being alive…I thought Sophie was my reward for trying to live a good life. Uh-uh. There is no pay-off. Not now.”

I read that Bill Murray wanted very badly to make this film and that he agreed to make Ghostbusters as a way to help finance The Razor’s Edge. When the movie came out it was a box office flop. I cannot imagine why. This is one of the most powerful, moving and memorable films I have ever seen. Not only did Murray deserve a best actor nomination and Oscar (he received neither--that year it went to Duvall for Tender Mercies), but the film itself should be considered a classic. It’s on par with such films as Lawrence of Arabia and Casablanca. And even if you did not like either of those films, see this one. Even if you loved the book and don’t want to spoil it by seeing the movie, see this one. Murray’s performance alone makes it worth your while.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Death, The Hero's Quest, Liquid Art & True Love

What Dreams May Come is a story of a love so strong a man would give up everything to save his beloved. The hero's quest is one of our most powerful shared myths and pervasive archetypal stories. The hero must go through life-threatening trials in order to save the object of his quest and in the process discovers some invaluable truths about him/herself and the world. This film is based on the novel of the same name by acclaimed author and screenwriter Richard Matheson. Though it diverges in many ways from the book, this film is true to the spirit of the book, which professes there is no more powerful bond than that of soulmates. The movie raised the book from out of print status (for nearly 20 years) to the best-seller list. I recommend it too. But where the movie excels is in its visual effects and cinematography. Each frame of What Dreams May Come is a work of art. This is one of the most beautiful films to look at that I've ever seen. Many of the scenes would hold up as beautiully composed stills. Other scenes are based on paintings and in some the paint is still liquid. Exquisite.

From this point on, I reveal plot points, so if you prefer to see the film first, please do and come back here to see the rest of what I have to say.

Chris, played by Robin Williams, and Annie, played by Annabella Sciorra are a married couple with two children. Chris is a doctor and Annie a painter who works at a gallery. They are beset with the terrible tragedy of both their children being killed in an automobile accident. Then four years later, Chris is killed trying to help at an accident scene. In flashbacks, we learn Annie blamed herself for sending them off with the nanny, thinking if she were driving somehow she could have spared them. The guilt drove her to the point of madness and the marriage nearly ended in divorce. But their bond prevailed.

After dying Chris meets "Albert" played by the marvelous Cuba Gooding Jr. Albert is his first guide who seems to be a doctor who trained Chris long ago. There will be other guides (played by Max Von Sydow and Rosalind Chao) as well and all are not who they seem. And of course, his dog is there to greet him as well. Neither Judea-Christian nor Buddhist, Matheson developed his own ideas about spirituality and the lifeforce. Chris' afterlife is based on his wife's paintings, is at first just that wet art, which later becomes real, and all, even the darker scenes are breathtaking.

Annie, is so despondent over he death of her husband, she commits suicide. Chis learns that suicides cannot go to the same realm and exist in a self-created purgatory for all eternity. He cannot abide this and embarks on a quest to save her. He finds her and tries to show her who he is. He says his being strong and not showing pain over the death of his kids "was just another place to hide" and that he "disconnected" himself "from the person he loved the most." He says good people end up in hell because they cannot forgive themselves. Isn't this one of the great tuths, how we create our own hell on earth berating ourseves.

When it seems Chris cannot bring his wife out of her state of suffering, he decides to reamin there with her. He tells her a number of things he's sorry for and he forgives her "for being so wonderful a guy would choose hell over heaven just to hang around you." When she comes out of the self-confinement to realize who Chris is, Chris has gone int his own self-imposed hell and she must get him out of it. They return to the lovely afterlife together, where the whole family is reunited for a time.

Whether or not you believe in the premise that none of us disappear after death, it is a well-acted film worth watching for its beautiful appearance alone. And don't miss a cameo by acclaimed director Wernor Herzog.

Monday, January 4, 2010

After Death Movie That's Warm & Funny

Okay, I know it seems depressing to be thinking about death at the start of the new year. But trust me, Defending Your Life is not a depressing film. Defending Your Life is a film about moving forward by taking the risks necessary to do so.

The film is written and directed by Albert Brooks, who also co-stars along with Meryl Streep. The film hoovers in the genres of sci-fi/fantasy and romantic comedy. The premise of the film is that there is a processing center people go to after death where it is determined whether they get to move forward in their development or whether they have to go back to earth to keep trying to overcome all their shortcomings. There is a life review which is very much like a trial with two counselors and two presiding judges, played by Lillian Lehman and George Wallace.

The protagonist, Daniel Miller a kind of average Joe nebbish, played by Brooks, has just died on his birthday in an accident with a bus while singing a Streisand tune. It's hard to imagine a more humiliating or wasteful death. Let this be a warning to those of us who mess with distractions while we're driving. Happily, we are spared the blood and guts of the scene when the movie cuts to judgment city bustling with newly dead arrivals being pushed along in wheelchairs. Judgment City looks a bit like Disneyland. Everything is clean and efficient. All the dead are placid, even downright cheerful. The residents who run Judgement City dress neatly in plain clothing while the dead wear caftans called tupas. But the best thing about Judgment city is that the dead can eat all they want and have no physical effect. Everything is fast and delicious too.

Brooks is very engaging as Daniel, who uses humor to deal with whatever situation life and death throw at him. He shows himself to be a kind person by listening to an older woman reminiscing about her dog. Daniel's counsel, played by Rip Torn, doesn't appear to be a tremendous help in Daniel's defense despite his big brain status using 48% of his capacity as compared to the 3-5% humans use. And his "prosecutor" played by Lee Grant, is apparently one of the toughest. As the case progresses, we are shown snippets from Daniel's life as evidence of whether he should or shouldn't move forward. The evidence the prosecutor put forward is Daniel's fear and misjudgements. Most of the life-review footage only serves to make Daniel much more sympathetic to us. His failings are our own.

There is some food for thought in the trial, but the true charm of the film is the developing relationship between Daniel and Julia. Julia, played by Steep, and Daniel meet in a comedy club where Daniel is much funnier than the comic on stage. Streep is breezy and light in the role. There's a humorous restaurant scene with her sucking up spaghetti not quite Lady and the Tramp.

This is a film to watch for smiles and enjoyment. It's hopeful in that it professes there is more than this one life, more to experience and understand. The plot demonstrates that it is never too late to grow and improve. I also love this film for the way it suggests one take a more gentle look at oneself.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Moody movies that move me: Gattaca

I never fail to well up watching Gattaca. Starring Ethan Hawke, Jude Law ad Uma Thurman, this sci-fi thriller is ostensibly about prejudice, which in the future is based not on your race or religion, but your genetic make-up thanks to great advances in genetic engineering. Science has developed to the point that one's susceptibility for diseases can be determined at birth, as well as life-expectancy.

Vincent, the protagonist, played by Hawke, being a child born of love rather than engineering, suffers myopia and a heart condition that should prove fatal at age 30. His parents, rattled by the news of Vincent's failings, decide to engineer their next child, Anton, the boy good enough to be named for his father. A sibling rivalry develops between Vincent and Anton who is superior in every physical way. The rivalry peaks in dangerous swimming contests to see who can swim out the farthest without tiring. I don't want to spoil your experience of the movie, so I'll just say one contest is a turning point for Vincent, and he leaves home to go underground as an unregistered citizen, or invalid.

Vincent dreams of being an astronaut, something I strongly identify with. I had the same dream as a child too, but my father whom I completely adored, told me women couldn't be astronauts and I believed him. My father was born in 1916, lived through the first great depression, and was too hard at work to realize the women's movement was happening. Vincent's dad told him the only way he'd see the inside of a spaceship was if he was cleaning it. With Vincent's genetic make-up, being relegated to the lower class was his future. "Genetics as destiny" as we hear in the film.

As an unregistered, Vincent works his way through underclass jobs until he lands a janitorial job at Gattaca, the space facility. His boss, Caesar, played by Ernest Borgnine, tells Vincent not to clean the glass so well he can see himself on the other side where the Valids, the best of the genetic best, work. But Vincent is determined and finds a way to do it. This is where Jude Law, as Jerome Morrow, comes in. Jerome is a paralyzed former swimming star with excellent genetics who is willing to sell his DNA code in order to keep living the good life. I won't get into the details of how this bargain works, but in the film it's fascinating to watch. There is always the chance of Vincent being found out.

The thrill part of the thriller comes in when a murder occurs at Gattaca. I don't want to spoil any of this so I will be vague here. The police investigation of the murder raies the possibility of Vincent being found into high gear, out just as Vincent is about to go on his first space mission.

So what is there to love here? What moves me? So much.

The film is at least 50% its original score composed by Michael Nyman, which is moody and brilliant all the way through. The music is more text than subtext. I can't imagine this film without it. Try closing your eyes and listening to the score. Then try turning off the sound and watching the film. You'll see what I mean. The music is integral.

And then there is the wonderfully appropriate look of the film, a kind of dusky amber glow lights nearly every scene. Some have compared Gattaca to film noir for its moodiness and lack of bright lighting, and perhaps for the Uma Thurman femme fatalish character who is Vincent's love interest at the space center. And there is criminal activity so to speak, Vincent's assuming another's genetic identity. So perhaps it is a film noir set in the future.

What is truly moving is the character of Vincent himself, who is determined to realize his dream of being an astronaut in the face of ridiculous odds. He won't let anything stand in his way, not his family members, nor the corrupt biased system that governs society. Also, the restrained relationship that develops between Jerome and Vincent is powerful to watch.

There is a Dickens quality to the story as well, with so many parallels in the plot. I won't point them all out because they will be fun to look for yourself. But here are a few. The father tells Vincent the only way he'll get close to being an astronaut is being a janitor and that is exactly how Vincent does it. There are interesting contrasts and similarities in the relationship between Vincent and Anton to the relationship between Vincent and Jerome. Jerome and Anton, have a lot in common in fact.

Director Andrew Nichol may be better known for The Truman Show, another film that takes a critical look at society, but Gattaca is every bit as worthy of recognition. Also, worthy of note, performances by Gore Vidal, Loren Dean, Alan Arkin, Xander Berkeley, Blair Underwood, Tony Shaloub, and Ernest Borgnine.

As the year draws to a close, I tend to think about losses, things left undone, all that didn't go well--my failures. I get a little caught up in "the darkness on the edge of town" to quote Springsteen. But I try not to dwell there. I try to move forward, to head out toward the realm of the possible. I do this by remembering everything I have to be grateful for, loved ones (even those gone), health, a roof over my head in a place I want to be, the luxury of self-expression and so much more. And films like Gattaca remind me too, never lose hope, never give up, the only failure is to not try.

The power of the human spirit is the message of Gattaca, delivered through wonderful story telling, unique cinematography, great acting, and a remarkable score.