‘The Good Wife’: Television Art to Life

Closing Arguments105 episodes.  4,725 minutes.  78.75 hours.

This is how much time we’ve spent with the characters created by Robert & Michelle King in CBS’ best drama, The Good Wife.  From Alicia Florrick to Will Gardner to Diane Lockhart to Cary Agos to Kalinda Sharma, these characters aren’t just apart of a story we’re caught up in; they’re real to us.  Like good friends we’ve known for a long time, we’ve spent nearly 5 years with these people and so, to lose one of them isn’t just a story game changer for the TV series and the showrunner and the writer’s room (though it certainly is all of these things) but it’s a loss for us, the viewers.  A real death.

But it’s just a TV show.  It’s not real life.  

I kept repeating these two sentences to myself after watching last Sunday’s shocker of an episode appropriately titled, “Dramatics, Your Honor.”  This is just a TV show.  Just a story.  Just one character who died.  So why am I so sad?  Why am I, literally, crying over what I’ve just seen, just witnessed, just experienced?

Because it’s not just Episode #105 but a story… a story that’s an essential part of the life I’m living.  And furthermore, it’s transformed into an art that has become life to not just me, but so many of us, all around the world.

To the millions of people on the planet who tune in from week to week to great characters in great series that they love, this is what great art is all about really.  It’s what art can achieve if the artists give of themselves fully to their craft, their work.  This is what creators Robert & Michelle King and the incredible writing staff and production designers and key grips and producers and actors and make-up artists and costume designers have achieved in their TV show, The Good Wife.  They’ve achieved that transformative climactic moment in a series story where the viewers lose themselves, completely, in the dramatic events that have shockingly unfolded.  No longer is it just a TV show, but rather, it is transformative, emotional and a viscerally felt experience of engagement.  It is simply, art… which is apart of what life has become for so many of us.  And it all starts with a few broken characters.

What's In The Box?Over the past few years, I’ve thought about the place writing for television has in our society and what it means to be storytellers in this day and age.  Time and time again, I’m overwhelmed by how sacred this job has become.  Not because it’s something I hope to do one day… no, no, no.  But because I can’t remember a week that has gone by in the past decade where someone didn’t share with me a story from television that impacted them.  A series I’m told that I just have to start watching.

“Have you seen this show?  You haven’t?  You have to see it!  It is amazing.  I love it!”

This is becoming more and more common in 2014 and is really exciting to me as a budding screenwriter.  And yet, with the hundreds and hundreds of hours of TV we watch a year, and the shows we consistently binge watch on Netflix or Hulu Plus or DISH Network DVR, how many times have we thanked the networks for the good TV they’re creating?  How many of us have taken the time to write a note, to share a few words, thanking these writers who’ve devoted their careers to creating characters like Don Draper or Alicia Florrick or The Governor or Rory Gilmore or Tyrian Lannister or Hannah Horvath or Coach Eric Taylor or Violet, Crawley, The Dowager Countess of Grantham or Francis Underwood or Walter White?  Characters that aren’t just characters to us anymore, but people.  Real, fully-formed, people.  Some, we would even consider, as friends.  Friends who’ve taught us so much about life, about yourselves, about how to cope with grief, loss, pain and suffering.  How often do we thank the creators for giving us these digital relationships?

My guess is, not often at all.

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And yet, we keep watching and watching, falling in love with the great, surprising, and moving drama that unfolds week after week on television.  But where is the gratitude?

The word ‘drama’ is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “an exciting, emotional, or unexpected series of events or set of circumstances.”  This is why I tune in every week to watch shows like The Good Wife.  This is why I want to get lost in a story, full of characters I may never be able to meet in real life but can meet in the TV side of my life.  And yet, when was the last time I let the writers know how much their writing means to me?  When was the last time I sent a quick note, a quick letter to the networks, expressing how grateful I am for these creators who’ve helped me better understand the life that is spinning and swirling chaotically around me?

Once.  For the hours of drama I’ve consumed over decades of TV viewing, I’ve only thanked them once.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”  As the credits rolled on last Sunday’s episode of The Good Wife — where a beloved character departed, forever — I was reminded of this truth.  That when I’m moved, shaken, excited, or brought to tears because of the artful words a bunch of humans I don’t know, who wrote in a room together far, far away, a TV series I love so deeply… I should be saying, ‘thank you.’  Repeatedly and often.  Because this is exactly the emotion I’m feeling.  An emotion that makes me want to re-live all 105 episodes over again, just so I can experience this dramatic turn again.  As sad as it made be.

For this, I am eternally grateful for the creators of this show and every TV show that moves me, and allows me to glimpse into characters I’ve grown to love over the years.  Grateful not just because without their words, without their imagination, without their creation of great stories and great characters, my life would be dull.  But grateful because the stories they write, to me at least, make life more worth living.

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The Top Ten Films of 2012

For me, every Top Ten Film List I write tends to center around a theme of that year (something having to do with where I’m at, what I’m learning, what I’m currently experiencing in the world).  This year it’s all about heart.  It’s those movies that made me feel something, something hopeful, transformative, transcendent.  Sure, there were more films that did that then just the ones seen here (e.g., Your Sister’s Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed, How To Survive A Plague, Keep The Lights On, AmourOslo August 31st, The Gatekeepers and Friends With Kids) but the following ten grabbed my heart best.  They got to me, from the inside out, and reminded me of why I love stories, and why I go to the movies to get lost and sometimes find enough heart up there on the screen to go on living in this crazy, messed up world.  So here’s my top ten for 2012.  Movies that made me feel something.  And why…

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10. Ai WeiWei: Never Sorry: Alison Klayman‘s explosively brave documentary about the (now) infamous Chinese iconoclast isn’t just one of the year’s best films, it’s the ‘you-must-see-this-if-you’re-alive-in-the-world-today’ movie.  Weiwei isn’t all about art, nor is he just another humanitarian.  As the doc reveals, he transcends so many categories, even acting as a hooligan in order to challenge some of the Chinese governmental authorities.  He advocates for freedom of expression, yes, but he goes much, much further.   As Klayman’s doc wonderfully reveals, Ai WeiWei is about the right to voice your perspective, your opinion, your life without being censored, and believes this freedom collides most beautifully when we all have it.  For a man who grew up in Communist China — where the ‘we’ is supposedly, everything — could there be a more restoring ideal than that? — Currently available for instant streaming on Netflix

frankenweenie-poster9. Frankenweenie:  In a year filled with some beautiful animated films, none b-lined it straight to my heart and funny bone faster than Tim Burton’s comic horror tale, Frankenweenie.  The story of boy named Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and his beloved dog Sparky, is a wondrous meditation on an adolescent’s first brush with mortality.  It’s also loads of fun — as Burton’s ghoulish, wicked sense of humor comes in all forms (e.g., a sign from the heavens comes in the form of kitty litter, at one point) — but the best part about this movie is its black-and-white, stop-motion animation heart.  For when was the last time a horror family comic tale caused you to choke up?  And for the Tim Burton cinephile-fan, you’re in for a treat with this one, as this is a return to Burton’s true form, his signature storytelling style.  Part Beetlejuice, part Edward Scissorhands, part Sleepy Hollow, and funnier than all three put together, Burton’s kooky ode to classic Universal monster pictures was the giddiest, wackiest, and most comically touching animated film of the year, by a mile.

The-Kid-with-a-Bike-poster8. The Kid With A BikeJean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne‘s stunner-of-a-film is a re-imagination of The Bicycle Thief with the childlike wonder and dreaded spirit of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.  The simple story of a foster boy who wants to be with a  father who wants nothing to do him could have been a melodramatic movie-of-the-week, but the Dardenne brothers avoid all soapy cliches and instead, find their drama in the fragile moments that exist between humans, daily.  As the boy clings for something concrete, something of substance in this world to hold onto — including the luminescent Cecile de France, as a caring hairdresser — this quiet film takes a titillating turn, transforming into a tale of grace, mercy, and forgiveness, in a world where fathers fail to be true fathers to their sons.  Simple, lyrical and fierce, don’t miss Belgium’s quietest, yet finest film in years.  – Currently available for instant streaming on Netflix

Bernie-Poster-1_zps49221b697. Bernie: In Richard Linklater‘s weird-and-witty black comic docudrama, Jack Black (in a career best performance), plays a kind, granny-empathizing Texas mortician.  He’s a regular do-gooder, a man of God, a lover of widows and orphans — you know, the kind of man the Bible refers to as inheriting the kingdom of heaven.  And then something happens — a moment of insanity (or divine clarity?) — and he’s conned himself and the entire Texas small town (oh, and the film audience, too) into believing he’s someone he’s not (or is he?).  But this didn’t happen overnight.  No sir.  This is one of those stories that gets under your skin, and actually makes you root for the guy who’s done something awfully wrong, which is partly why it’s so fascinating.  Who is guilty?  Who is the victim?  And most important, what is justice, really, when evil is stomped out by a gentle Southern force-of-a-man whom everyone loves?  One of the most fascinating true stories put to film in 2012, watch the conning marvel and strange wonder that is, Bernie, if you haven’t already.

Moonrise-Kingdom-Poster-26. Moonrise Kingdom:  Movies are all about transporting you to other worlds.  Other character’s lives.  They’re about taking you to places you might never go otherwise.  But with a Wes Anderson movie, you always get a little extra.  Anderson always — and I mean always — creates his own movie universe whenever he makes a film.  Love him or hate him, he has a grand and beautiful perspective, a voice.  Something every director and screenwriter constantly works for.  Once again, Anderson’s novelesque world comes to life in the richly wonder-filled, Moonrise Kingdom.  In what may very well be, the purest and most heart-breaking story of the year — about a young boy, again, who is discarded by his parents — the movie is this tender, quirky, endearing (and sometimes scary) mash-up of young love and old neglect.  It’s about a boy trying to become a man in a world without any (at least, without any by the beginning), and this is what Anderson captures in Moonrise Kingdom at its core.  It’s a story about characters, about real people, playing their parts and coming together so that acceptance, generosity, and love can happen — especially for those whose fate may be far from it.

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5. Les Miserables:  Don’t judge me.  Don’t you dare.  I’m on the team with Kyle Smith from the New York Post, who proudly embraced this sentimental tear-jerker from the very beginning (Smith called it “The Best Picture of the Year”, sending hundreds of angry critics to their keyboards to complain).  Despite what everyone who writes for The New Yorker says, this is one hell of a good movie.  And as much as I can cognitively hear all its criticism, my heart doesn’t seem to give a damn.  What can I say?  The heart wants what the heart wants and my heart loved this movie, from beginning to end.  I never understood why the song, “On My Own” was the most beloved song from the Broadway musical show, but after seeing Samantha Bark‘s luminous performance, I got it.  It reminded me of T.V. Carpio singing in the ode-to-The-Beatles’ musical, Across The Universe.  What it feels like to be in love with someone so much and yet, not be loved in return.  Perhaps this is why this movie worked for some and didn’t for others.  Here, Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) strips down the movie-musical and gives us what it might have looked like if Ingmar Bergman had directed it (e.g., because of its many close-up shots of character’s faces — Bergman once said, “Film begins with the human face”).  For the lyrics, for the music, for the passion and heart these characters so often wear naked on their sleeves (and sometimes, with no sleeves), there’s been no movie musical since Moulin Rouge that moved me as much as Les Miserables.

Lincoln poster4. Lincoln: I pray someday I can write a script as palpable, deep, and richly moving  as Tony Kushner’s screenplay, Lincoln.  Some criticized it for being all talk and no action — not realizing that sometimes, the biggest kind of action takes place with the exchange of ideas and ideals — but I (obviously) disagree.  After seeing it twice — it was just as good the second time around — this might very well be one of my favorite Spielberg films.  It could’ve been a bloody hell of a mess like Saving Private Ryan – the Civil War setting certainly could’ve warranted more attention than it got in the script — but that is another movie, and thankfully, Spielberg and Kushner decided to go at it another way: the way of policy, and simply, how you implement change and democracy in a system that is thriving on the corruption it so refuses to leave behind.  Sure it plays more like a great stage play with magnificent set pieces (with an alluring camera eye there to capture it), but that’s what makes it one of the most moving (and wholly satisfying) films of 2012.

Marina3. Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present: This is a self-portrait like no other.  ln Matthew Akers‘ mesmerizing documentary, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, one begins on a journey into a strange, fascinating world.  Abramović began as a shock-installation performance artist in the 1970s and here, the viewer catches a glimpse of what that world looked like (with beautiful to disturbing portrayals of the human body caught in torment, in flux, with self-infliction put on transparent display).  It’s no wonder she’s riled up people — both crazed fan supporters and art-critic haters — for nearly four decades.  Culminating in her 2010 show, “The Artist Is Present” at MoMo in New York — which transformed her from finite human to art world Messiah — you’ll be convinced after watching at how ‘nothingness’ can transform into a transcendent ‘somethingness’ (for the artist, and the viewer).  It’s what the mystics called ‘presence,’ and it’s what Abramović does so dazzlingly well here.  If the art world was into canonizing their artists, Abramović would be first in line to be named a saint.  She gives us  time and space to simply ‘be’ in a world buzzing by in time lapses and super-fast motion, and reminds us that it is our ‘being’ (and not our ‘doing’) that makes us uniquely human.

poster (1)2. Silver Linings Playbook:  If Little Miss Sunshine  and As Good As It Gets had a 2012 rom-com movie lovechild, Silver Linings Playbook would be it.  David O. Russel‘s brilliant hybrid-of-a-romantic-dysfunctional-dramedy should’ve won the Best Picture Oscar statue this year if you ask me (why is it so hard for comedies to win Best Picture?), because it is probably (save for Life of Pi) the film that will be remembered most a decade from now.  But I digress.  It is rare these days to meet a triple-threat-of-a-movie-lover’s-movie (e.g., with real drama, real comedy, and real romance) that never panders to its characters’ flaws or its audience’s assumption of what should happen.  Instead, the movie finds its own incredible, holy, and crudely funny silver lining and makes movie-magic with it, that is never dull, never boring, never not wholly entertaining.  Kudos to the Academy for recognizing one of the year’s most complex and luminescent performances (Academy Award winner for Best Actress, Jennifer Lawrence), and for nominating the rest of the entire cast (Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, and Bradley Cooper — in a role that will forever be remembered as one of his greatest), as this movie couldn’t have existed without each and every one of them.  Silver Linings Playbook is a tender, tragic, and tenacious story of people who feel out loud, live on the verge of emotional combustion and yet still manage to find time to see goodness in those around them.  To that, nothing else can be said, but “Excelsior!” 

the-perks-of-being-a-wallflower-poster1. The Perks of Being a Wallflower: If you’ve had any contact with me the past five months, this shouldn’t come as a shocker.  I said it before and I’ll say it again: The Perks of Being a Wallflower is the best and my favorite film of 2012.  The brilliant adaptation of a fantastic coming-of-age young adult novel — in the spirit of J.D. Salinger‘s novel The Catcher in the Rye, only with a little more hope — is, in short, a nostalgic gem-of-a-movie, with loads of heart.  It’s the kind high school movie all ‘looking back’ stories aspire to be, but rarely (if ever) are.  Part drama.  Party coming-of-age story.  Part romance.  Part tragedy.  The film is a visual expression of what writer David Dark calls “apocalyptic literature”, as it taps into something universal: the fragile finitude that is ultimately, deeply and divinely human. “Why can’t you save anyone?” the young Patrick (a splendid Ezra Miller) asks our wallflower hero Charlie (newcomer Logan Lerman, in a role he was born to play) in the movie.  That haunting (thematic) question is more than a question, but about the very nature of salvation, itself. Do people have the power to save others?  And if we do, what does that say about us? About them?  About God — if God exists at all?  There are no easy answers here; only personal experiences — moments, really — felt by so many lost and wandering souls, who may not always know where they’re going but are looking for meaning in life — in all its infinite wonder — no matter how light or dark this meaning may turn out to be.

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Neville’s yearly 2012 Ode-to-Cinema Award goes to…

life-of-pi-posterLife of Pi: Not much more needs to be said about David Magee’s adaptation of the best-selling novel, and Ang Lee’s Academy Award-winning directed work, Life of Pi.  It’s about what’s at the  heart of faith and belief, yes, but it’s also about what cinema can do and about achieving the seemingly impossible.  The film poster’s tagline, “Believe the Unbelievable” isn’t just a nod to the story, but a call to bold, beautiful and grand movie-making and storytelling.   Ang Lee has always been a director fascinated with the outsider, and here is no different.  There’s a sweeping magic to this film that captures you.  Even though it has a somewhat clunky beginning/ending, it’s easy to overlook that and marvel at the solid film, overall, that this movie is.  That’s why it’s the Ode-To-Cinema award for this year.  Because it’s a movie that reminds us of why we go to the movies, in the first place.  Not just to escape, but to (often) discover who we are, more truly.

Practicing Presence with Marina Abramović

This is a self-portrait like no other.  ln Matthew Akers‘ mesmerizing documentary, Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, one begins on a journey into a strange, fascinating world. Abramović began as a shock-installation performance artist in the 1970s and here, the viewer catches a glimpse of what that world looked like (with beautiful to disturbing portrayals of the human body caught in torment, in flux, with self-infliction put on transparent display).  It’s no wonder she’s riled up people — both supporters and haters — for nearly four decades.

But this documentary isn’t about her fanatisicm as much as its about her love affair — with fellow artist Ulay and the art world — and her journey from finite human to art world Messiah.  A feminine Jesus so to speak, sacrificing her body/her time in hopes of giving viewers, gazers, and lookers on the freedom to stop — really stop — and face their true self.

In her 2010 show at MoMA that shook the country, and shocked the world of (often ignorant) art outsiders — a pathetic editorial from Fox News inserted at the film’s midpoint shows a glimpse of this — consisted of Abramović sitting in a chair, with one civilian after another invited to sit in silent across from her, gazing for an uncomfortably long time.  This went on from museum open to museum close, six days a week, for three straight months.  And through the process, viewers are brought to an array of varied emotions — from anger, to confusion, to joy, to tears, it’s as if they’ve never had to sit and do nothing for so long.  But why so much emotion?  Is it because they’re not used to silence?  Is it because they’ve never really looked at a person for this long, without speaking? Can any of us say we ever really do that (apart from those who live as monks and nuns in monasteries)?

Whatever your thoughts, one can’t deny the meditative power of this holy moment; a moment where (for the first time in history), the artist gets to gaze back at the viewer while the viewer is watching their art (here, the artist’s physical face and flesh) before their very eyes.  And what’s most fascinating about this process is how Abramović’s gaze helps the viewer see themselves — if only for a few minutes — more wholly, and clearly.  Stripped from the sounds and movement and hurried pace of our contemporary world, it’s as if the viewers are given a gift; the gift of silent, still presence.

It may seem like nothing to many, but watch this film and you’ll be convinced at how ‘nothingness’ can transform into transcendence — for the artist, and the viewer. And that lesson, friends, is one that’s been around for a millennium.  It’s what the mystics called ‘presence,’ and it’s what Abramović does so dazzlingly well here.  If the art world was into canonizing Artists, Abramović would be first in line to be named a Saint.  For she gives time and space to simply ‘be,’ reminding us that it’s our ‘being’ (and not our ‘doing’) that makes us uniquely and utterly human.  A

‘The Perks Of Being A Wallflower’: Favorite film of 2012 (thus far)

“Why can’t we save anyone?” Patrick (the mesmerizing Ezra Miller) asks Charlie (Logan Lerman, in an astonishing debut) in Stephen Chbosky‘s film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (based on the most brilliant novel of the same name, quite possibly the best coming of age story since J.D. Salinger‘s The Catcher In The Rye), and it’s a difficult question indeed. Why can’t we save others? Why can’t we reach out and grab them when we see they’re falling? Why can’t we rescue them from an abusive marriage, friendship, or terrible infatuation?  Why do people choose to love people who can only hurt them in return?  Why do they put up with it?  And finally, why is it so hard for people to hear that they deserve more, that they deserve to loved more wholly, more completely?

“We accept the love we think we deserve.”

That’s Charlie’s high school English teacher’s answer to him, and it’s one that he gives later on in the film — just at the moment when he realizes he needs to be learning this lesson himself.  But this isn’t a story about learning quaint life lessons, no sir.  It’s a big, bold, beautiful, infinitely touching and gracefully spot-on portrayal of high school life, at its most frail, its most painfully vulnerable.  It’s that rare high school film that possesses the nostalgic sense of looking back, while at the same time, trying to look forward.

This movie deserves to be seen, to be supported (in theaters) so if you haven’t already seen it, I humbly ask you to go and see it (mainly for adults, but mature college kids will probably find much in it to love, too) — and witness American independent filmmaking, at its finest, purest and most sublime.  Now who could ask for more in a night out at the movies than being able to experience that?  A

The many ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’

Benh Zeitlin‘s Beasts of the Southern Wild is a movie made up of moments.  The 2012 winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival is being hailed by critics (almost every stinking one of them) as “striking”, “poetic,” and “dazzling.”  It is that independent Festival movie darling that must bear the weight of so much praise, so much pre-buzz leading up to its release, one’s expectations can only be met or fall short.  For me, the film fell a tad short.  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some fascinating things at work here.

Our 6-year-old fearless protagonist Hushpuppy (the mesmerizing Quvenzhane Wallis, who will likely score a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her work here) lives in a separate home by herself next to her father Wink (Dwight Henry), in the mythical place called “The Bathtub” (a metaphor for the city and people of New Orleans).  The film is set before and after the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, and is a vivid, often disturbing window into a world rarely seen on screen — the world of a child with no real mother, and no real father.

As much as Zeitlin would like us to believe Wink loves his daughter Hushpuppy, the narrative events unfold (symbolism trumping story almost every step of the way) in a manner that is troubling, hard-to-watch, and depressing.  We know there are a lot of whirling events going on here that are fantastical but what is true — that Hushpuppy’s father is a violent, physically and emotionally abusive child trapped in a dying man’s body —  makes the characters (often) hard to warm up to.  Don’t get me wrong, we feel for Hushpuppy and are fearful of what is to become of her, but as far as the adults in the story, there’s little reason for why they act as pathetic as they do.  It’s not a matter of just their condition, their environment, their way of living that’s different than the outside world’s, but it’s a matter of pure, basic, gut-level humanity.  At the end of the day, are these the kinds of heros Hushpuppy is supposed to grow up, learning from?

As much as I admired Hushpuppy and her three young girlfriends — the images of these four trampling around, as if this “Bathtub” land is now theirs was a thing of beauty to behold — I couldn’t help but be extremely saddened by the environment she was in.  When the film arrives near its end, and the girls stumble into a brothel filled with women — young and old, who seem just as lost as the four of them — you realize just how lost, just how without fathers and mothers these four children are.  In one of the film’s most moving scenes, Hushpuppy utters, “This is my favorite thing — to be lifted.”  In that moment, you realize how much her father has failed her, how much pain this motherless child has endured thus far (and how much more she will endure through the years).  The fact that she can endure is astounding, but the gravity of what her future journey will most likely resemble is daunting, almost hopeless.

For me, Beasts of the Southern Wild works as a thing of cinematic beauty — thanks to incredible cinematography by Ben Richardson, a not-yet-fully-realized disciple of Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – as well as a story of a child trying to make sense of catastrophic tragedy amidst the many ‘beasts’ (some real — a violent father, a lost mother, a land that has been ransacked by nature — and some imagined, the prehistoric, mythical aurochs) in her world.  But the film’s greatest accomplishment is that it’s a tender, nuanced meditation on the underclass of parent-less children who must be brought up tough, and self-reliant in order to survive.  This is at the heart of Beasts of the Southern Wild.  This is where the fable-like Bayou story works best.  It’s not only a window into the controversies and levee-conflicts the people of New Orleans (and the U.S. government) experienced, nor is it just a tale of a forgotten people who fiercely and savagely do whatever’s best for their “Bathtub” community.  No, the real wonder and magic of Zeitlin’s vision (albeit, sometimes a redundant one) is how he’s captured the fragility of raising a child in a world with (real and mythical) beasts functioning as the adults.  This is the film’s most effective, most poignant and most fascinating exploration.  And what academics and audiences will be talking most about in the years to come.  Grade: B+

The Wonder of ‘Your Sister’s Sister’

 Once in awhile, a movie comes along that can (somewhat miraculously) restore your faith in cinematic romance, comedy, and pure, character-driven dramas. I’ve seen over a dozen films the past month at the theater but none had me laughing as loud or moved me as much as Lynn Shelton’s indie-adult-charmer, Your Sister’s Sister.

In case you don’t have a clue what this movie’s about, good! I’m not going to spoil a minute of it, as it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.  Once the film begins, however, you’re whisked away and in the presence of pitch-perfect direction, Oscar-worthy performances, and a brilliant script that never hits a false note.  Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt and a scene-stealing, sure-to-be career-best performance by Mark Duplass (a Best Actor Oscar nod is beyond deserved for him here) all shine in this triangular-relationship film that is part romantic comedy, part grief-stricken drama, and part brother-brother/sister-sister reconciliation pic.  Like a terrific stage play, it reels you in deeper and deeper into its remote, outskirts-of-Seattle landscape, until something magical happens — you realize the story you’re watching is as just about your family, your relationships with your siblings, as it is about the characters up on screen.

That is no easy feat.

But writer/director Lynn Shelton pulls it off and makes it look easy.  Through total engagement and understanding of her characters — you can tell she loves them dearly — she’s crafted one of the most beautiful stories of the year that genuinely lets each character unwind, unravel, so they can simply be.  It’s that rare indie-film in the vein of Kenneth Lonergan’s lovely, You Can Count On Me that aims to surprise, to charm, to wow (and ‘wow’ does it ever).  By narrowing in on the perfectly fragile, and imperfectly frail desires embedded deep inside the heart, we’re given what I’m sure will be, one of 2012′s best films.

If you’re an adult and appreciate great stories with great characters that don’t just skim the surface of human emotions, then please, find this film and go see it.  You’ll be glad you did.

As the movie ended, I was reminded of how a story so specific, so real, so true can feel so big within a space that feels so small.  No doubt, the landscape is beautiful and the film (shot in only 12 days) is working on a super-tight, super-low budget, but so what.  After watching $200 million dollar budget film after $200 million dollar budget film, I welcome a small movie that makes us feel something real, something true in a mere 90 minutes. Grade: A

‘The Artist’: The Best Film of 2011

Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist is by far, the most (all-around) beautiful movie of 2011.  It may very well be my favorite, too, as this charmer has more laughs, more drama, and more heartfelt moments than a dozen films I’ve seen in the “Oscar”-potential flood of December releases.  How much do I love this movie?  Allow me to put the-constant-smile-I-had-while-watching-it, into words.

Starting in 1927, in the heydays of silent cinema, the film is the story of an actor at the height of his career who is on the verge of going down the silver screen pole of success.   It’s a story that’s been told many times and in many ways before (All About Eve, Ed Wood, and even the documentary, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, captured a similar narrative spirit to what’s glowing here).  In The Artist, though, it feels as if we’re seeing and feeling the story anew again.  There’s a raw purity to it, unparalleled in most indie-and-big-budget-Hollywood cinema releases, today.

At its very basic, universal-and-humane level, it’s about how ‘somebody’ becomes a ‘nobody’ (a fear embedded deep inside anyone who’s ever aged and grown old, which is all of us).  Will we matter when we’re gone?  What is our life?  Who are we after our name gets taken down from the glowing bulb-bright-marquee lights?  This is what this movie asks its audience.  But it’s not only asking this.  No.  It’s also a journey through motion picture history (the spirit of it, not the facts), and how the very idea of a talking picture changed the medium, and how the audience sees it.  In a beautiful, meta-cinema-sort-of-way, The Artist is about the audience and attempts to see how they see.  From within the four movie theater walls, there is this paradoxical distance created between the subjects on screen and subjects in the seat and yet, there’s magic in this.  A sacred (spiritual) rush of space, so to speak, separating and connecting the images cast out above the audience’s heads and through light projected onto the screen, with the sites and sounds reflected back to us.  This great mystery, and the difficult history of it, is what The Artist is so spectacularly about.  It reminds us why and what is so entertaining (and exhilarating) about actors and scenes that don’t speak, but rather, act and move on screen, extending emotions so far out into movie-theater-land, we feel elated, saddened, moved, all within the span of 100 minutes.  In a sense, it’s a film Ingmar Bergman would’ve loved because it takes its actors’ faces so very seriously.  In their small glances (and not the words they speak), we see the story unfold before our eyes (and what a wonder of a story, it is)!

The movie is a silent movie, yes, but don’t let that deter you from seeing it, as there’s not one boring frame in this wonderful piece of cinema (I saw The Artist in the same week as Twilight – Breaking Dawn: Part 1, and what a snooze fest that movie was compared to this one–I wish I could turn Edward, Jacob and Bella’s next film into a silent one.  Maybe by stripping away the facade of useless dialogue, we’d get back to what originally grabbed us about these characters).

But I digress…

In a way, The Artist is a cinematic answer to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and Singin’ In The Rain (1952)It’s part love story, part comedy, part movie-within-a-movieBut in another way, it’s really as good (if not better) than both these films.  Harnessed by 2011 Cannes Best Actor winner Jean Dujardin’s rich (almost completely silent) performance, and the luminous, magnetic Bérénice Bejo, The Artist is just the kind of film we need more of now; a reminder of why we love movies, why movies exist, and what about them makes them the stuff of (movie lover’s) dreams.

The Artist is that rare ‘moving picture’ that actually moves, and feels, and laughs at itself (and with us), until it lands in that oh-so-special place just minutes before the end credits roll.  And what space is that, you might ask?  Ha!  As if I’m going to ruin the single most thrilling, entertaining and beautiful moment in cinema this year.  See it for yourself and marvel in it, as I (and so many others with me in the theater), also did.   Grade: A