Sunday, July 31, 2011

Movie Sunday: Animal Kingdom

Image from here

Some of you know I have a weakness for Australian movies, and this is a good one. It's sort of Napoleon Dynamite meets The Town. Not Napoleon Dynamite because it's funny; because it's not funny at all. But our protagonist is a mostly awkward, mostly silent teenager who lives with his grandmother. And who we want to succeed, while everything we know about the world tells us that he will not.

Our story begins with our young hero greeting the paramedics. His mother has overdosed on heroin and left the story, as it were. He calls his grandmother, who he hasn't seen in years, and she brings him to live with her. At the same time we meet his four uncles, who are crooks. We know the grandmother is not like yours or mine when she kisses one of her boys square on the lips, for longer than anyone should feel comfortable kissing their mother. As is common with good Australian films, the story that follows is personal, engaging, and tight. There is very little wasted motion in this film.

There is a fair amount of violence, and not car chase and explosion kind of violence. This is unvarnished and in person, without swelling background music or pithy quips. If you're a fan of The Wire, you know the sort of thing I mean. If you don't squirm in your seat at least once during this movie, I might worry about you.

While the story is very good, the characters are better, both in the way they were envisioned and their  portrayals by the cast. Some of the interactions are mesmerizing. I wasn't surprised to learn that the story was apparently inspired by a real Australian crime family.

This is the first film from writer and director David Michôd, though I suspect we will hear more from him. It has been critically acclaimed as they say, from awards at Sundance to an Oscar nomination for Jacki Weaver for her portrayal of the grandmother. She probably should have won.

This is not exactly what I would call a date movie, but if you're in the mood for a good drama, and you don't mind losing a few characters along the way, give Animal Kingdom a try.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Terror in the Global Village

Biscuit and I have talked* on several occasions about the way that modern news media ensure we know about every middle class white child or young woman who ends up decaying in a shallow grave somewhere, or every one of the handful of shark attacks that happen every summer. This all promotes the impression that the world is a more dangerous place than it is. Or at least dangerous in a different way than it actually is. Two generations ago these stories would never have made it out of the local paper, unless the people involved were fabulously well-to-do, or famous. Most of the country is not within four or five degrees of separation from any one event.

Sadly, I think another effect of this constant flow of remote horror is that it desensitizes us. Attacks that happen a world away are sad and often shocking, but they don't really touch us where we live. The bus bombings in London, and the train bombings in -- where was that, Spain? Portugal? -- were abstract tragedies, brought to life only a little by video from the scene. People are being blown to bits every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it may as well be happening in Little Whinging.

It's different when things happen in a place -- or to people -- that we know. New Yorkers were affected by 9/11 to a degree that I don't think the rest of us can appreciate. I've met one person who has been shot, and he told me about it within ten minutes of the first time I laid eyes on him, despite the fact that it happened years before. And it made me really, really never want to get shot. If you know a place personally where something horrible happened, it tends to jump to mind every time you pass there, often for many years.

Most of you know that Biscuit and I visited Oslo a couple of months ago. It was without a doubt my favorite city** so far. We both loved the people, the architecture, and just the general vibe of the place. That doesn't make it our hometown by any stretch of the imagination, but it definitely makes it more real to me. Oslo is not that big of a city, so when I heard the explosion was in the city center, I knew it couldn't be too far from where we had stayed. It turns out to be about three blocks.

In spite of how it may look, I'm not trying to make this about me. This tragedy has not affected me in any significant way. But I can't help think of the people we met there, and I feel for them. Unlike Nancy Grace and her followers, I don't generally get outraged when screwed up people I don't know do bad things to other people I don't know. But it is sad to know that the cute little Swedish waitress who made us feel so at home on our first night, and the old lady on the train who needed help with her bag, and all the rest, have all been deeply touched. Some are undoubtedly grieving for acquaintances or loved ones lost.

Fortunately for me, this is all happening a world away, and I will soon tire of the unending coverage of who this man was, why he did what he did, and all of the ridiculousness and conjecture. Within a few weeks it will be no more than a modification of the story of our trip. "We were in Oslo just a few weeks before that attack..."  I will quickly forget the way I feel today.

Norwegians won't be as fortunate. You can't go through this sort of thing in a city of that size without it leaving a mark. Ask the residents of Oklahoma City.

Oslo city center. I never really wanted to leave this greenspace, which runs for about five blocks. The Parliament building is visible through the trees.

* Or ranted. You say tom-ah-toe; I say people are stupid and I can't believe we have survived this long as a species.

** Displacing Vancouver, which held the title for over thirty years.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Out of Time

I guess it's natural for each of us to be comfortable in our own time. The world we grew up in is our baseline, and every year brings changes that make everything feel a tiny bit less natural. I think this is the main reason old people are cranky all the time. That, and the sore everything. Middle age has brought  not only an acceptance of mortality, but an appreciation of it as well.

There are usually a handful of changes that we treasure, though frankly I'm having a hard time coming up with any at the moment. It seems every advance during my life has been a double-edged sword, trading diversion, minor convenience, or economic efficiency for a more complicated life and erosion of our environment. I make my living from technology, and I'm not sure how we watched television before there was Google, but there are days I would gladly trade the whole thing for forty acres and a mule.

On the other hand, many of us long for some aspects of life that may have passed away before we were born*. Jimmy Buffett apparently wanted to be a pirate, and not the Somali kind. Mine is a world with space for solitude. The thought of walking for weeks without meeting another person carries great appeal for me at times.

There is a park in Northwest Arkansas that has been my favorite place in the world since I was a child. Part of what I liked about it then was that it was quite inaccessible and not very well known, so there were few visitors. The trails were long, mostly deserted, and so quiet you could hear gentle breezes blowing down the valley. It was a place where you instinctively spoke quietly.

There is an interstate within a few miles of it now, and it is covered with tourists during the summer, but last time I was there during winter it was still pretty deserted. I spend a few days there as often as I can, which usually ends up being only about once a decade. I walk, and climb, and sit, and walk some more. I don't exactly feel like I'm alone in the world, but I usually do get a chance to remember what it's like to be a human being.

Maybe this fall will be time for another visit. I've been looking for an excuse to buy a new pair of hiking boots, and I could certainly use the quiet. Did I mention there is no cell coverage, no television, and only one phone in the entire park?

*How else do you explain Renaissance fairs? And NASCAR?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Movie Sunday: Making your own

So I haven't had a lot of time for movie-watching lately. I taught a five day stop-motion animation camp for high school students last week, and most of the previous month was spent getting ready. For instance, I had to learn the first thing about stop motion animation.

We had fun, and the kids even learned a little. A couple of them really got into it, and the rest at least participated to some degree. Here are their final projects. Enjoy.

Group 1 consisted of three hyper-motivated boys who spent just about every minute of the camp working on this epic saga. I think they also learned the meaning of "scope creep."

Group 2 eventually* consisted of two boys with -- let's call it different work styles. Their spare but action-packed prison film was the only one that used all custom-built characters and sets.

Group 3 was the largest, with the oldest kids and (by the end) all four female members of the class. They gave everyone nicknames, and generally kept the camp from turning into a complete nerdfest. Their musical masterpiece pretty much speaks for itself.

I made a few little pieces myself, as well as sculpting a puppet head. Perhaps one day I will get a chance to post them. On the other hand, the camp reminded me of how long these things take, and how much time kids seem to be able to make for themselves. 

In addition to camp preparations, we've been busy watching BBC comedies. We watched all 28 episodes of Coupling over the long 4th of July weekend. It's sort of like Friends, but with more sex. We also watched Still Bill the other day, an excellent documentary on Bill Withers. If you like his music, or you like the idea of a regular person making it big and keeping their soul, I highly recommend it. I've been singing "A'int no Sunshine" under my breath for almost a week now.

* The group originally included a girl, but the boys learned the hard lesson that if you ignore women long enough they will go away.