Dead Poets Society

My, how far we’ve come — or have we? Some things, like the trials of adolescence, never seem to change. The only differences are the contexts and the forms. Dead Poets Society shows us the tug of conformity from one of the most conformist of American decades, the 1950s. But wait! Doesn’t every decade or social framework demand some kind of conformity? Are bobby sox and saddle shoes really all that different from tattoos and body piercings? Belonging somewhere is so important for us social creatures. How do we decide where we do or don’t fit in? Films have been exploring such questions forever.

Set in what seems to be a New England boarding school or ‘academy’ for boys of, say, eight to eighteen years of age, Dead Poets immerses us in the world of navy blazers and whitewall haircuts, “tradition-discipline-honor-excellence” codes, raging hormones, and the struggles of young men to discover themselves and their place.

Bucking mom or dad to pursue acting instead of law or medical school — speaking truth to power, as we know it now — was virtually unheard of in 1956. (It’s hard enough to find such bravery yet today.) In the context of a boys’ prep school, with tradition and discipline enshrined, breaking out of the mold was both heretical and physically dangerous. Teachers were enforcers as much as imparters of knowledge. But, on occasion, a teacher who shelters his own spark becomes the mentor and example we crave. After that, anything can happen.

More than twenty years on, this film holds its meaning and is worth a look for affecting performances. Robin Williams plays the academy alumnus who returns to teach poetry, to challenge and inspire his youthful charges to break out of conformist constraints. A young Ethan Hawke (Training Day, Fast Food Nation, Lord of War, Gattica, Waking Life) gives a memorable performance as an adolescent virtually invisible to his parents and struggling with how brave to be at school. Robert Sean Leonard of TV’s House, looking like a young and skinny Jim Carrey without the craziness, catches the existential fire and finds his muse but struggles to counter family pressure.

This is also the film that turned an aphorism from ancient Latin — carpe diem (seize the day) — into a cultural catchphrase. And over a decade or so, it morphed into everything from three-day festivals for carp (yes, the fish) to calligraphic wall hangings.

Cast: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Norman Lloyd,
Lara Flynn Boyle, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Alexandra Powers
Director: Peter Weir
Theatrical release: 1989; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

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I Am Sam

Even with Academy Award® nominee Sean Penn in the pivotal title role, there are all kinds of ways this film could have gone south — but it didn’t. Big-blue-eyed, wispy blonde seven-year-old Dakota Fanning found a spot on everyone’s radar with this older-than-her-years performance. She more than holds her own with Hollywood A-listers Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Dianne Wiest. So do challenged actors Brad and Joe from L.A. Goal, the sheltered workshop where filmmakers did months of research before beginning to write the script.

I Am Sam is a well-realized story of love and family that transcends place and time. In fact, the main characters show us two ends of the parental and social spectrum, which are not as far apart as it might seem at first. Who’s to say that the obsessive-compulsive perfectionism of the high-powered lawyer is any more or less dysfunctional than that of the mentally challenged father who must have order in his world?

The story revolves around the parental rights of Sam, a single father with the mental age of about seven and who’s daughter Lucy has, in many ways, surpassed him. As Lucy nears her seventh birthday, nightly story-time reading expands beyond Sam’s favorite Dr. Seuss — Green Eggs and Ham (Sam, I am) — to Stellaluna. Sam struggles with the new book and wants to return to familiar territory. Although Lucy has no problem with the new story, she doesn’t want to say the word “different,” because she realizes that it describes this man she loves.

As the child struggles with her emotions about her father and her friends, a series of misadventures leads to the intervention of social services, with Lucy ultimately taken away from Sam. The film then immerses us in Sam’s journey, as he links up with a powerful “four-name” lawyer and encounters the courts and foster-care system, to bring Lucy back home. It’s an emotionally engaging and fulfilling film experience.

When the filmmakers do a good job of developing the film, one of the best things about a DVD version is all the “extra” stuff and backstory that ends up on the disk. In the documentary about Becoming Sam, writer/producer/director Jessie Nelson describes how the seed of the film came from her own experience as a new parent who was at wit’s end in caring for her sick child.

There’s also fascinating background about the research, casting, character development, look and feel, and the music, which is based on Beatles songs covered by artists like Eddie Vetter, Ben Harper, Rufus Wainright, Ben Folds, The Black Crowes, The Wallflowers, Sarah MacLachlan, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn, Sheryl Crow, and others.

Cast: Sean Penn, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianne Wiest, Dakota Fanning, Richard Schiff,
Doug Hutchison, Loretta Devine, Laura Dern
Writer/Producer/Director: Jessie Nelson, with assists
Theatrical release: 2001; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Ultimate Gift

Put the dynamite young actor Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine) in just about any film and you’ll likely have a winner. But The Ultimate Gift also brims with a wealth of additional talent both in front and behind the camera. Then, too, there’s a pretty good story to work with — from Jim Stovall’s best-selling novel of the same name.

The opening titles flash forward and back to reveal information that’s crucial to the narrative, alerting us to pay attention early and throughout. Soon, we encounter Jason, a spoiled trust-fund twenty-something intent on disrupting whatever’s going on — or sullenly refusing to participate. When his grandfather dies and the entire family is called together for the reading of the will, the truth about this seemingly privileged life becomes painfully clear.

Watching this family self-destruct over the dividing of material wealth calls into question whether any of them can be redeemed. Grandpa ‘Red’ seems to think Jason can — and he’s left a unique message for the young man. But Jason’s inheritance depends on his ability to complete twelve challenges and receive twelve gifts. While what Red has in mind might not seem like gifts to someone from Jason’s background, eventually, Jason realizes their value. And the end titles do a nice job of enumerating the list.

At a time when many films are filled with horror, destruction, abuse, and harsh language, a film like The Ultimate Gift could seem like a throwback to Pollyanna thinking. But it’s not syrupy at all. Yes, it has a ‘message,’ and, yes, some of the circumstances conveniently work out for the benefit of the story line. But tell me about a film that doesn’t rely on such techniques.

The Ultimate Gift is not heavy-handed in style or tone, and it’s a real treat to see so many fine actors truly enjoying their work together. The DVD offers several short additions to the film, including a behind-the-scenes look at the “Making of…” the film and the interactions of cast and crew.

As Red says, “I lost everything three or four times. It’s the perfect place to start” searching for the ultimate gift. So what’s your dream?

Cast: Drew Fuller, Bill Cobbs, Abigail Breslin, Ali Hillis, James Garner,
Brian Dennehy, Lee Meriwether
Director: Michael O. Sajbel
Theatrical release: 2007; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Three Days of the Condor

I know Halloween comes only once a year, but let’s talk about spooks. The spy kind. CIA variety. A lot of very prescient and interesting scenarios unfold in this 1975 Robert Redford thriller.

In the footsteps of John LeCarré and George Smiley, the Condor story is a tale within a tale. Just like life, it’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys, what with all the direct but unexpected twists and turns. Add to that, the action takes place in that limbo season of “not quite winter… November.”

Of course, after the initial shock of the inciting event, Redford gets very savvy very quickly and stays one step ahead of the looming threat. (We even get a clue about the genesis of the term “cleaning crew” and who those “janitors” might be.) But finding someone our hero can trust is tricky. In a line near the end of the film, Condor says to his handler, “You guys think not getting caught in a lie is the same as telling the truth.” All these years after the film’s debut, that sounds way too close to real life.

Given that Condor was made in 1975 — just two years after the Saudi oil embargo, there are fascinating location settings and props to appreciate, especially since the film was shot in New York City and Washington, D.C. The Guggenheim Museum provides a backdrop, as do the Twin Towers, since that’s the site of the CIA’s New York headquarters. Eastern was still an independent airline, and Washington National Airport hadn’t been renamed for President Reagan. Cell phones didn’t exist. Yup. You’ll see lots of rotary-dial telephones and phone booths on street corners instead. Television sets with mechanical dials for changing the total of 13 channels. Wiretaps done by phone company blue dial-based handset, alligator clips, and junction boxes in a routing station wire room.

My, how times have changed. Or have they? Maybe, the only difference is the size, portability, and ubiquity of the technology.

Take a look at 2007’s Michael Clayton….

Cast: Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, Max Von Sydow,
John Houseman, Tina Chen
Director: Sydney Pollack
Theatrical release: 1975; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Ice Age

From Scrat, the “saber-toothed squirrel” who’s determined to hang on to what is apparently the last acorn on the planet, to an assortment of prehistoric animals and humans, this animated tale of lost and found, relationships and trust, has something for everyone.

The story revolves around the semi-annual seasonal species migration from cold weather to warm that soon reveals itself to be something incredibly momentous. And yet, there’s Manfred the Mammoth (voiced by Ray Romano) heading north, not south, apparently wanting to get out of the herd mentality. In short order, Manfred picks up an outcast sloth, Sid (John Leguizamo), who’s much more wired and bouncy than his real-life cousins would be.

While the impending cold weather sends most animals to warmer climes, it makes a pride of saber-toothed tigers eager to hunt down the food they need to survive. And the tigers remember how humans have hunted and killed their kin, so they’re intent on revenge by snatching the baby of a local human tribe. The tigers are led by Soto (Goran Visnjic from TV’s ER), who sends reprobate Diego (Rescue Me‘s Denis Leary) to nab the baby.

Diego’s attempt fails, and the baby lands at the feet of Manfred and Sid, who see through the tiger’s sly pitch to return the baby to the humans who lost it. But Diego’s not one to give up easily. The rest of the film follows the trio as they establish and shift their relationships, build trust, and ultimately choose to work together to return the baby to its human family.

The animators and storytellers provide both a beautifully realized environment and quirky, engaging characters. They also use an interesting convention — all the animals speak English, and it’s the who humans can only grunt or make unintelligible noises. Hmmm….

The film and its spin-offs have become perennial favorites and not just for kids. The pop culture references and sly asides from many of the characters — as well as visual puns in the scenery and Scrat’s Wile E. Coyote-like tribulations — will put a smile on your face, no matter what age you are.

Cast of Voices: Ray Romano, Denis Leary, John Leguizamo, Goran Visnjic,
Jack Black, Cedric the Entertainer
Directors: Chris Wedge, Carlos Saldanha
Theatrical release: 2002; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Skinwalkers

Even if you’re not a fan of mystery stories, this adaptation of Tony Hillerman’s novel could change your mind. In fact, if you’re not yet familiar with Hillerman’s mystery series set in Navajo country of the American Southwest, Skinwalkers is an excellent place to start.

Long-running Hillerman characters, Detective Joe Leaphorn (played in the film by Wes Studi) and Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee (played in the film by Adam Beach), anchor each book and believably make the transition to the screen.

The plot of Skinwalkers mixes typical detective-and-police work with Navajo customs and beliefs. We watch the two main characters face their heritage, their personal demons, and the challenges of their current occupations, as well as the mystery in front of them.

Leaphorn is the “seasoned cop,” trained in and familiar with urban policing in the big cities of Phoenix, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque. Chee is the FBI Academy graduate — more comfortable with the slower pace of the tribal reservation — who’s training to be a traditional native healer or “medicine man.”

In Skinwalkers, Leaphorn and Chee must figure out who’s killing Navajo medicine men and leaving ancient symbols in blood at the murder sites — before Chee turns up as the next target.

When the film was rebroadcast recently, it included a short “Making of…” segment that can also be found at the PBS website. This series of American Mystery! Specials includes Coyote Waits and A Thief of Time, two more Hillerman stories about Leaphorn and Chee.

On the PBS website for Skinwalkers, you’ll find links to the other films, and, under the Navajoland link, discover information about the Navajo people, the Southwestern United States, and biographical information about Tony Hillerman. On the main website page for Skinwalkers, you can explore the process of turning the novel into a film, and learn more about the film’s crew, Native American director, and all-Native American cast.

Cast: Wes Studi, Adam Beach, Sheila Tousey, Saginaw Grant, Harrison Lowe,
Jon Proudstar, Nicholas Bartolo, Alex Rice
Writer: Jamie Redford
Director: Chris Eyre
Executive Producers: Robert Redford, Rebecca Eaton, Michael Nozik
Theatrical release: November 2002 on PBS; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Good Will Hunting

‘Fairy tale’ is the easy label to give the provocative film Good Will Hunting. The fairy tale certainly came true for first-time writers/actors Matt Damon and Ben Affleck when their long-shot screenplay found Hollywood backing at what was then the Weinstein Brothers’ Miramax production company. It went on to be nominated for nine Academy Awards®, ultimately winning two Oscars® — one for Best Supporting Actor Robin Williams and one for the dynamic screenwriting duo. Buzz had it as the year’s best picture, although the Titanic juggernaut won the actual award. Talk about fairy tales….

The film itself is a coming-of-age story about the namesake character and his group of friends, who have become a de facto family to this orphaned and abused math prodigy. They’re boys from the ‘hood — Southy: the predominantly Irish, working-class, south end of Boston. Generally without prospects and resentful of the “rich kids” who attend the city’s Ivy League universities, these guys work at an assortment of manual-labor jobs by day and close down the neighborhood bars every night. Including Will, played by a twenty-something Matt Damon. But Will also reads. Voraciously. Library books stacked on the floor next to the sleeping bag that serves as a bed in the sparse room he calls home.

Will also acts out, picking fights and holding his own against the best of the local toughs, with the rap sheet to prove it. Before his last encounter with the law, however, he worked as a janitor at MIT, surreptitiously solving a complex math problem that had been posted on a hallway chalkboard for students in an advanced class. The professor who finally identified Will as the math whiz took an interest in him, arranging — instead of jail — a probationary sentence that put the troubled genius under math tutelage and also into psychological counseling with a character played by Robin Williams in one of his first dramatic roles.

More fearful of facing himself than of doing any sort of complex mathematical calculations, Will’s struggles form the core of the film. His is the hero’s journey, requiring that he find himself before he can uncover his true calling, genius or not. As with most fairy tales, we tend to forget the obstacles, internal and external, that must be overcome before the possibility of a happy ending. Good Will Hunting, written with authenticity, honesty, and depth by two amazingly talented young men, is one of the best tales around.

Just be prepared: it’s rated R for strong language, including the ubiquitous f-word and some teenage-boy sex-related dialogue. But it has a big heart, excellent characters, moving performances, and, as the Oscar reminds us, a great story well told.

Cast: Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Robin Williams, Minnie Driver,
Stellan Skarsgård, Casey Affleck
Director: Gus Van Sant
Screenwriters: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon
Theatrical release: 1997; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Way back in the Y2K era of big millennial events, an amazing film from Hong Kong appeared at the festival in Cannes, capturing both the audience and the award for best foreign film. It was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a mix of Matrix-like stylized martial arts fight choreography, historical epic, and old-fashioned love story. But it’s a lot more magical than such a description may sound. Based on a five-part novel of the same name, author Wang Du Lu does for kung fu movies what J. R. R. Tolkien does for the hero’s journey — and gives us the hero’s journey, too.

Most Chinese martial arts films that made it to Western screens came through Hong Kong, which, given its status as a British colony until 1997, shouldn’t be a surprise. But this is no Bruce Lee knock-off kick-boxing slug-fest. The heroic characters are both female and male. The story is sweeping and engaging at the same time, and the visuals are absolutely stunning.

Known in China as wuxia, martial arts — and martial arts films — carry a mixed and often negative perception in the United States. At least, that was true until The Matrix blew a hole in the back of everyone’s head. With more than its “blue pill or red pill” question — including Keanu Reeves clad in black leather and flying slo-mo through intricately choreographed fight scenes — wuxia took on a completely different feel for U.S. audiences. And it opened the way for actual Chinese film directors, such as Ang Lee (Sense and Sensibility; Life of Pi), to create films from their own history and traditions.

Crouching Tiger was an early entry in the field. It has since been joined by Hero (2002), starring Jet Li (likely providing many Westerners with a new perspective on calligraphy), and 2004’s House of Flying Daggers. Interestingly, the common element in all three films is the actress Zhang Ziyi, whose flawless skin and fierce athleticism make her a stunning presence on screen. Less well known in the United States are Hong Kong action film star Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh, who may be recognized from the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

Crouching Tiger‘s incredible aerial choreography is done by the same martial arts master who gave us an acrobatic Reeves in The Matrix. It’s even beyond Cirque du Soliel. But these films also contain stories that make them worth watching.

The story in Flying Daggers, although filled with twists and turns and things-not-as-they-appear-to-be, is not as satisfying as either Crouching Tiger or Hero. But then, that’s just my opinion.

If you’ve never marveled at the intricate aerial ballet-with-swords of a wuxia film, check out the DVD for Crouching Tiger or put it in your Netflix queue. You’ll learn a little about ancient Chinese culture (these are all period pieces), you’ll see vibrant scenery and vivid images, and you’ll watch seemingly impossible stunts. What a rush!

Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi
Director: Ang Lee
Martial Arts Choreographer: Yuen Wo Ping
Theatrical release: 2000; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

Iron Man

Besides its summer blockbuster status as a great popcorn flick, the first Iron Man film turned out to have an interesting premise and an excellent cast, starting with Robert Downey, Jr. After having been a Hollywood bad boy, Downey, Jr. has mostly cleaned up his act and seems intent on making movies worth seeing, even if some of them are based on comic books. But then, lots of movies, computer programs, video games, and real parts of the world are based on comic books these days, aren’t they?! And more and more of us act as if future-shock is business-as-usual.

Part of the interesting premise of Iron Man is that the smart-aleck billionaire arms dealer gets a dose of his own medicine when a deal with terrorists goes south and he’s held hostage. After his co-captor saves his life, our hero decides to use the skills he acquired in creating his weapons to forge his way out of captivity. And then he goes about saving the world closer to home.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a comic book or summer movie if there weren’t a lot of special effects, explosions, and fight-outs/shoot-outs. It’s all pretty good stuff, too, except for the last fight sequence between our guy and the big bad monster villain, which is longer than it needs to be. But then, if you want to see every nut, bolt, gear, and piece of hot metal trashed, there you have it.

Beyond its appeal to teenage guys and ComicCon groupies, you’ll find more story and better story than expected in Iron Man, along with a very fun ride.

Then, check out Hancock for a different kind of superhero story and one with a major twist that gives it a lot of heart.

Cast: Robert Downey, Jr., Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges
Director: Jon Favreau
Theatrical release: 2008; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos

The Elegant Universe

Subtitled “Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory,” The Elegant Universe is physicist Brian Greene’s very accessible 3-part travelogue through inner and outer space. While it may not have the FBI-crimestopper storyline of the TV series NUMB3RS, this NOVA exploration from PBS uses incredible animation and clear writing to help explain the scientific search for a “theory of everything.”

In The Elegant Universe, Greene starts with basic concepts and illuminates them in such a clear way that we are welcomed into what are very complex subjects — physics, quantum mechanics — and can follow along without difficulty. Firmly grounding us in an understanding of the basic concepts of physics (gravity, electromagnetism, relativity), Greene moves easily into explanations of quantum mechanics and particle physics, leading us toward a new idea about the fundamental building blocks of nature. Tiny strands of energy — strings — with different modes of vibration that may underpin everything in the universe.

String theory attempts to combine Albert Einstein’s ideas on general relativity (the laws of the large) and quantum mechanics (the laws of the small) to break through a barrier that has frustrated scientists for more than half a century. Like many things for which we have no answers (yet), string theory isn’t finished. But it presents an interesting opportunity for study, and The Elegant Universe shows us why that matters.

Host: Brian Greene
NOVA series from PBS/WGBH Boston
Broadcast: 2003; available on DVD

Copyright ©2014 Jill J. Jensen | Clarity from Chaos