Mini Movie Review (DARK PHOENIX)

I enjoyed the movie DARK PHOENIX, the latest X-Men franchise installment from Marvel-Disney. Jessica Chastain made an effective, creepy alien villainess, tromping around in high heels with a vacant stare and pale smooth skin, looking like a well-dressed zombie or animated mannequin. The absence of Wolverine, without even a verbal mention of him, felt like a gaping hole at times for me. But, overall, it was a fun film of action and special effects with mutant superheroes doing what they do best: kicking ass and wrecking stuff along the way.

Movie Review (ROCKETMAN)

I and my hubby very much enjoyed the movie ROCKETMAN. Unlike BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, the sexual subject matter in this film about talented gay performer and icon Elton John is not so sanitized.

The film is crafted in such a way as to tell a touching narrative, interwoven with imaginative musical numbers, about a musically gifted gay man born into a working class English family where the father is cold and unable to show love.  This was likely in part due to the father’s being traumatized during WW II, though the movie only hints at this.  The mother presents as self-absorbed and immature.  Only the live-in grandmother provides Reginald Dwight (Elton’s actual birth name) with some nurturance and acceptance of him and his musical genius.

Actor Taron Egerton, star of the 2014 block buster KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE, earns his stripes here as a truly mature, competent actor in the title role.  As gay men, my husband and I found ourselves relating to the main character, especially in his childhood years.  The life themes of running away from who one truly is and what one actually feels are presented colorfully and insightfully in ROCKETMAN.  In Mr. John’s case, classic avoidance strategies of heavy substance abuse and being hyper-sexual are creatively explored, with the latter of the two showcased in a long, orgiastic dream-like sequence inside a big discotheque setting.  To my recollection, no full nudity is shown, but the power of the action and message was not diminished for me.  I was prepared for the one intimate sex scene between Elton and his first male long-term partner to be cut down to nothing but, say, a few heavy kisses in a darkened room.  It was pleasantly surprising to see that was not the case.  Having read some months back that a sex scene was going to be cut from the movie, I’m left wondering just how much filmed footage was deleted.  Regardless, at least skin-to-skin passion is effectively, tastefully conveyed within the action that remains in the final product.  It is likely that Elton John himself, acting as executive director, ensured this to be the case.

What moved me to tears is how the movie both artfully and psychologically conveys Elton John ultimately accepting himself, this, of course, being at the very core of his recovery from substance dependence and sexual addiction.  In a clever interweaving of the past and present, the narrative makes use of an effective psychotherapy approach I myself utilize called Internal Family Systems (IFS).  Other therapies employ similar techniques, but I credit writer Lee Hall and director Dexter Fletcher for  integrating these inner healing steps so naturally and believably in the film.  And all done with Elton John’s blessing.

The quest to find and accept one’s true self as a means of achieving full mental, emotional, and spiritual maturity or health is a timeless story, told in many ways over and over again.  ROCKETMAN does well by this ancient narrative, keeping it fresh, creative, and imaginative yet rooted in reality all at once– no small feat.  This is a fun, sometimes painful to watch, but ultimately uplifting movie.

Movie Review (ALADDIN)

The live-action, semi-musical movie ALADDIN was a lot of fun, with some songs that fell flat. However, much beautiful spectacle, settings, and visual effects were effectively delivered. Will Smith made a cute, entertaining Genie. Given that “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” is my favorite fairy tale and I’ve always really dug genies/djinns, I had to see this film. It resembles very little of the original story from 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS. Still, I’m one to enjoy a big cinematic, colorful show and that’s what this Disney production was, its overall look often harkening back to fantastical Hollywood movies from the 1920s through the 1940s. Generally, this was an example of great visual cinema with the script writing being predictable and comforting, unsophisticated. I was glad to see the requisite empowerment of the princess, even though there are plenty of feminist scholars/learned folks out there who I imagine would readily deconstruct such a presentation as lacking/still wanting. And they would be right, though I appreciate any signs of progress wherever I see them nonetheless.

I did enjoy the cross dressing gender play that Will Smith’s character briefly did in a particularly theatrical, festive scene. Male to female crossdressing is an element of ancient theater in Britain and Japan (to name just a few countries/cultures), so it was nice to see a nod to this in a Disney film. Also, a bit of genderqueer being visible– however brief– in such a big mainstream production points to a societal acknowledgement of the realness and validity of the non-binary, even though the ethos of the movie is otherwise heterosexual and gender binary. Genies, being otherworldly beings that they are, can leave such boundaries of convention while the human social order is left predictably “intact.” Will Smith’s Genie seemed sexually “fluid” at first, pleasantly ambiguous for his initial few scenes during some flirtatious moments with Aladdin, but then the writers (and probably the actor) played it safe by reeling him back in, soon providing him with a female love interest. Hmm, a powerful genie/djinn with a love interest? News to me. Heterosexuality as the ultimately correct way to be in the world is affirmed yet again. Ah, well. Yawn. Please pass the popcorn.

I saw possibilities where even more stretches of the imagination could occur, but Disney always plays it safe, incorporating more diversity and options (though still limited), finally, only after enough on-the-ground people in the general culture have pushed the envelope further for a good while. For me, that company’s productions are like springboards or doorways toward or into more exquisiteness that my own and other viewers’ minds can then envision. And that’s okay. So, ALADDIN, with all its color, sparkle, and pizazz stayed within the confines of a conventional, pleasant, family film, without stretching forth into being a more expansive in vision, truly great film.

Rant: Enough With All the Flipping the Bird Memes

I find all these images/memes on social media of people flipping the bird at the camera both sad, tiresome, and aggravating. Many people have gone way too far with blindly advocating defiance for the sake of defiance, in a mindless knee jerk way, gesturing “f— you” to the world simply because they can, and glamorizing it as somehow great to do (all the while helping to maintain divisiveness, exactly what the world needs far less of right now).  And this in reaction to so much ugliness and pain going around with our fellow human beings and the rest of life on earth. It’s like the ultimate giving in to cynicism and selfishness: “Screw everyone else, I’m just going to look out for me.” And just beneath the surface of this: “I give up.” This is just what Trump/Drumpf and his followers are doing. Others are getting sucked into being like them with this kind of “f— you” mentality. Very sad, and frustrating, this pointless, toxic, non-introspecting negativity.

Now, I’m very much all for not being a blind follower, but there are so many more colorful, positive, gutsy ways to not follow rather than via a tired old, unoriginal, alienating, toxic “f— you” gesture.  Such bubble gum rebellion.  Paradoxically, that’s just another flip-side of following, re: Drumpf and his supporters with their bird flipping to so much of the world and what they don’t understand, fear, or already feel alienated from through experiencing disenfranchisement, etc. They say “f— you” one way or another to so much, emotionally shitting on the rest of us. This is something easy for any of us to fall into doing. I myself have to be mindful and step away from the temptation to do it too. But, it’s part of me being an adult with a functioning brain to first breathe and think before impulsively, unoriginally acting out, just because I can.

Let’s please not fan the flames with more of this cynical pushing away. Not reposting memes of people flipping the bird is one of countless ways to consider avoiding such feeding into this mindlessly looping, over-negativity vortex. We’re all stronger, more compassionate, and ultimately better than that– not to mention able to be more imaginative and creative, if we but just stop a moment or two and engage our brains and hearts more. Food for thought.

Memorial Day Reflections

Memorial Day is a sad day for me, as I reflect upon all the deaths from wars over the centuries. I am grateful to my grandfathers Ralph “Spike” Martin and Phil Daughtry for their hard sacrifices in World War II and before and after that as the caring, troubled men that they were. They lived long after the War, both damaged in different ways by battle.  My grandfather Phil (over on the British front) was wounded in the gut from shrapnel, I believe. He was never the same, his body riddled with health issues for the rest of his life.  My other grandfather Spike, from Georgia, U.S.A. was hardier in constitution and lucky to have not been physically injured.  He also served in the Korean War.  But, his mental trauma came through in violence-filled daydreaming and the occasional out-of-the blue loss of temper. Nevertheless, they were both good providers and loving grandfathers. I honor their memory not only today but all the time, as much as I can.

Book Review (THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin)

Reading Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING (first published in 1899) was like sitting under a full oak tree with sunlight streaming through its leaves while one savors fine chocolate truffles and languidly pets the sleek, soft fur of a sleeping panther at one’s side.  Her writing is at once intriguing and blissfully mellifluous.

Through the character of Mademoiselle Reisz, a cantankerous woman in her sixties (if I remember correctly), the story’s main message is relayed:

“The bird that would soar above the level plain of tradition and prejudice must have strong wings.  It is a sad spectacle to see the weaklings bruised, exhausted, fluttering back to earth.”

Much occurs in the narrative leading up to this foreshadowing quote and thereafter.

Edna Pontellier, aged twenty-eight and married to a respectable, social climbing Creole gentleman who works in high finance, is the story’s tragic heroine.  She is a woman stifled by the conventions of her day, filled with a longing to have an independent, more self-led life, free of social and marital-familial obligations.  Her meeting the attentive, amiable Robert Lebrun while summer vacationing at Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico, slowly awakens her repressed passions.  The story unfolds from there.

Back at home in her fashionable house in 1890s New Orleans, Edna becomes absorbed in portrait painting as a way to express her passion and sensuality while inwardly feeling consumed with her friend and beloved Robert.  There is some hopefulness for her future as Edna begins to sell some of her artwork along with setting up a plan to collect a small annuity inheritance from her deceased mother.  These and visiting with local friends she had met on Grand Isle sustain her, since Robert had left to try his fortune in Mexico fairly early on in the book.

Ms. Chopin’s descriptions of people, places, and feeling states often enthralled me.  Here are just a few of many exciting moments in the book:

“She felt somewhat like a woman who in a moment of passion is betrayed into an act of infidelity, and realizes the significance of the act without being wholly awakened from its glamour………He sometimes talked in a way that astonished her at first and brought the crimson into her face; in a way that pleased her at last, appealing to the animalism that stirred impatiently within her.”

And then a little further along:

“It was the first kiss of her life to which her nature had really responded. It was a flaming torch that kindled desire.”

These passages are all in reference to Edna responding to the vain attentions of Alcee Arobin, a handsome playboy whose presence is a flattering yet frustrating distraction from the main character’s unrequited love for Robert, a man who remains off-stage for most of the story.

A sumptuous dinner scene, put on by Edna as her farewell from high society before transitioning into a more simplified lifestyle, away from her husband and two children, read like a three dimensional moving painting.  I felt like I was right there, watching and listening as Edna and her guests– all dressed as if for an extravagant ball– socialized.  Eventually, the gathering culminates in a crescendo of imaginative intensity, when the youngest guest, Victor Lebrun, aged nineteen and brother of the older, ever-absent Robert, drunkenly embodies Bacchus/Dionysus:

“As if a magician’s wand had touched him, the garland of roses transformed him into a vision of Oriental beauty.  His cheeks were the color of crushed grapes, and his dusky eyes glowed with a languishing fire.”

And, then, shortly, the hypnotic effect continues:

“The effect of the wine upon Victor was, to change his accustomed volubility into silence.  He seemed to have abandoned himself to a reverie, and to be seeing pleasing visions in the amber bead.”

The spell is broken when this youth tauntingly sings a song that reminds Edna of his brother, which jars her and– by extension– the other guests back into present-day reality.

The spell was also largely broken for me the reader after this turning point scene, which was most certainly the author’s intention.  The narrative proceeds to Edna leaving her old life of physical luxury and trying to make it on her own in the world while hoping to reconnect with her beloved Robert.  Therein lies one of her main inner conflicts:  on one hand Edna wishes to be self-sufficient and free while, on the other, she feels devoid of love and incomplete without her heart’s companion by her side.

Blatant yet beautiful symbolism abounds in this story.  As a youth being introduced to literature, I would have puzzled over much of it, but I did not at this time in my life.  The first part of the narrative has the recurring presence of two young lovers and a widowed woman in black often near them, clearly foreshadowing a grim outcome for Edna and her love for Robert.  The sea itself surrounding Grand Isle is the subconscious and unconscious, sensuality and sexual desire, and the longing for and achieving a nurturing womb-like state (often briefly experienced during and after orgasm), all of which directly pertain to Edna’s psyche.  These are but a handful of the symbols presented throughout the book.  Some readers may find such abundance of this type of literary/plot device passé, uninteresting, over-the-top, and/or “overly” romantic, but I sure didn’t.

THE AWAKENING read like one long, exquisite build up of sexual and emotional tension, parallel to a symphony playing a classic piece of music crescendoing towards a grand finale of sorts.  That said, I felt somehow punched– or splashed with a bucket of frigid water– when I reached the last page.  My emotional and mental response was a complex one.  Ms. Chopin was working within a time period in which she was both ahead of and a product of.  So, while, days after finishing the novel, I continue to puzzle and even agonize a little over the ending, I also ultimately accept the author’s resolution to this overall deliciously-written joy of a book.




Book Review (THE LOVER by Marguerite Duras)

French author Marguerite Duras’ semi-autobiographical novel THE LOVER (L’AMANT) is a fascinating, sad, sometimes puzzling, short read about alienation, classism, colonialism, racism, sexism, and the human condition. Ms. Duras then shows how both lust and love serve as ephemeral ways around these socio-emotional and existential constraints.

I had to set my rigid thinking part of me aside while reading this book.  Specifically, I am more comfortable with a clearly non-stop linear narrative, as many of us are.  The author digresses at times, going off on tangents that do not always have an explicit link to the main story, which is about a French teenaged female (the periodic narrator) living in Indochina in the 1930s.  She embarks on a passionate, doomed affair with a wealthy Chinese man, her senior by twelve years.  I mention “periodic” narrator here because the point of view switches between first and third person.  I soon realized that Ms. Duras was basically thinking aloud on the page and reflecting, whereby thoughts naturally jump around a bit before eventually returning to a certain main subject of focus.  Clever and realistic.  The human brain is more than linear, and certainly so when impacted by childhood trauma.  The book’s impoverished young woman lives through the loss of her father and having a narcissistic, abusive older brother and a moody, depressed mother, all traumatic life disruptors to varying degrees.  The main character resides largely in her mind and through her writing, exploring different perspectives partly out of habit, as survivors can often do, and partly out of a longing to integrate her challenging, rift-filled life, find meaning in it all.

The determination of the main character’s intent to rebel via experiencing repeated fulfillment of her sexual desire with a socially forbidden lover (older and non-white) is compelling and erotically charged.  It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel so purely from a woman’s perspective that relays such believable immediacy of sexual longing.  And while her lover is able to match this urgency with his own, it is her libido that is the central energy or– ahem– thrust of the story.  The male lead is portrayed as sensitive, nervous, and love-struck, which I found refreshing and intriguing, whereby he is rendered just as vulnerable as she is if not more so.  On an emotional, psychic level, the gender roles of male and female are somewhat mixed up between them, unclear, which is wonderfully human.  On the surface, it seems that the man is the pursuer, per old convention, but she pursues him just as strongly, for experience and pleasure gratification, cutting off her emotions (many would say so “typically male”), per this being a protective pattern/defense for herself existing long before he came onto the scene.

The racism in THE LOVER saddened and angered me.  The book was published in 1984 and the author still was blatantly, unreflectingly racist, per, for example, her occasional reference throughout the story to “coolies,” the natives to Indochina (Vietnam).  Her guilt and despair over how her mother and brothers treat her Chinese lover, and the way she goes along with their awful behavior in their presence with him, is understandable.  On one side, the young woman uses her lover and allows her family to do so as well.  On the other, he also uses her sexually but with her full direct consent.  She requests that he treat her “like you treat all your women.”  This he does up to a point, but not completely, because he actually loves her.  It is unclear that she reciprocates this love.  Hence, like the land of Vietnam, colonized and exploited by the French, the Chinese man, also an exploiter of many Vietnamese, is in turn exploited, used.  There is a chain of hierarchy in which the young woman is close to the top, with her older brother, a white male, placed above her.  Then follows the rich, non-white lover, just below the narrator, and the colonized natives at the bottom.  The book is written by a colonizer, even if the main character’s own economic situation was fairly grim.  She operated from privilege, matching her lover’s access to money with her being white and not in love, or so she convinces herself of the latter during the affair.

Ms. Duras’ frequent references to death, including occasional thoughts of dying and committing violence on people she loves, were sometimes disturbing, at other times puzzling.  Given the lack of emotional connection between she and her mother, her father’s death from some illness during her childhood, and her raging, destructive older brother, it is no wonder she was occupied with death.  She suffered from depression brought on by both genetics, given her mother, who may have had an undiagnosed bipolar disorder, and painful circumstances.  The narrator writes in dramatic, absolutist statements, referring to herself as “dead” after the death of her younger brother, who she did clearly love.  The meaning behind such statements (among other ponderous passages in the book, such as musings about immortality) was not always clear to me.  Perhaps this is what Ms. Duras intended, since life often involves discerning meaning where it is not always apparent.

I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly discuss the writer’s description of the story’s surroundings.  The contrasts of city and countryside are stark and beautiful, such as how she describes light and shadow in each of these environments, or the uniqueness of the nights versus the sameness of the often brightly-lit days.  She sets a mood through her descriptions very effectively, which includes an overall sense of claustrophobia and isolation that come with the oppressive tropical heat coupled with her inability to leave her mother and brothers and their toxic ways of relating.  All that plus the repressive social norms she had to contend with as a young woman attending private, Western European-run schools during the first half of the twentieth century.  It is no wonder the main character is so fraught and seeks constant distraction and release the way she does.

I am glad I checked THE LOVER out of the library and read it, a modern classic for sure.  The one flaw I saw in it is a certain lack of awareness in the author’s writing of her own unresolved racism.  Somehow, it is doubtful if it dissipated much more by 1996, the year Marguerite Duras died.  For those readers with more of a literary education and background, I imagine other flaws about the writing come forth that I did not notice in this little gem of a book.

And, now, staying with little novels about precocious young women from another time and place, I have started on Kate Chopin’s THE AWAKENING.