Saturday, November 19, 2011

Ghost World (2001) Directed by Terry Zwigoff.

Last weeks news of famous comics scribe Frank Miller, spewing right-wing dogma against the Occupy movement wasn't so surprising. His seminal and groundbreaking The Dark Knight, Daredevil and Sin City graphic novels re-imagined noir for a new generation with some added, subtly fascist undertones. Unfortunately, recent works have shown a drop in standards, followed by a drop in popularity. Controversial seems a surefire way to get attention, and maybe Miller can try to hide the fact that he had anything to do with directing The Spirit by spouting off some outrageous comments. It's fair to say that Miller is responsible (along with  a handful of other writers) for breathing life back into some legendary superhero franchises some 20 odd years ago with the graphic novels boom. Around this time another kind of writer emerged within the comics culture. Daniel Clowes, creator of Ghost World, ushered in a more literary approach to comics. As opposed to dealing with the superhero variety, Clowes creates worlds that are slightly twisted and surreal. Grotesques, 1960's pop-culture and the suburban slacker malaise feature in Clowes distinctive visions.

Zwigoff, working from a Clowes script, captures the essence of the comics whilst fashioning some great performances along the way. Not only this, Ghost World works as a slightly surreal love story. Thora Birch (who I'd completely forgotten about after American Beauty) and Scarlett Johansson star as the two high school outsiders (Enid and Rebecca) who decide to move in together after graduating. In many ways, Ghost World does work as a rites of passage movie between two close friends as they make their way into the real world. But that does make the picture sound too simplistic, when what's on offer is never obvious.

Steve Buscemi playing the loser-in-love Seymour who is the subject of a practical joke from Enid and Rebecca ignites Ghost World. The endless walking the streets and checking the freaks turns (at least for Enid) into forbidden love. After the practical joke, Enid falls for Seymour, probably because there's nothing better to do. Twigoff (well know for some ace documentaries such as Crumb) strikes the right chord with Ghost World. Not only does he make you laugh, but he creates something original with the film, without cheapening Clowes initial inception. Birch is really good here (although the yet-to-be-star Johansson will probably be the reason why people find this now). Ghost World is for once a great graphic novel adaptation.

I watched  Ghost World with curiosity and dread. I wished the two young women would not be too hurt by what life had in store for them. At the same time, I was tickled by their daring and a little bit over-the-top manners, their sense of superiority in relation to their peers and their parents, their outfits full of expression and their growing difference in how they experienced life as well as what they expected from it.

I have been one of those girls. Maybe not just Enid or Rebecca, but a mixture of both. I have also been one half of a such close union of two girlfriends. Watching Ghost World reminded me of a time that was simultaneously very uncomfortable and very potent with a sense of becoming. Life was pure potential, all doors seemed open and I had complete trust in the world, even if I could make sarcastic remarks on its inevitable doom. This time was spent with great girlfriends, talking big dreams, planning to live together, borrowing each other's clothes and talking about men, the future, sex, the futility of education and a lot of important matters that completely escape my mind now.

Ghost World is not a very happy and funny movie. Yet, it is a kind of comedy and though it’s pretty realistic, there is something fairytale like in the movie. The film has a touching and serious side to it. Thankfully, it treats the two young women with respect instead of saying ’look at them they are freaks’. I’m amazed I haven’t seen this before. I would recommend this to a teenager, although am not sure how I would have responded to it at the ripe age of 16 or 17. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

ER: Season 1 (1994)

So, this week: the environment is well and truly shafted, the Eurozone is well and truly shafted, the white & black rhinos are well and truly shafted and Republican candidate Rick Perry is well and truly shafted, but he probably doesn't remember why. It's not as if any of these things have impacted on my life – yet. As the days get stupidly short in Finland it feels like the news grows equally darker and more depressing. On top of this, we've been rattling through the first season of ER. Somehow I have managed to miss ER. I've caught a few episodes over the years, but Michael Crichton's celebrated Emergency Ward series is a mystery to me, especially these early one's with George Clooney.

ER is famous for taking the hospital drama into a more realistic direction than home audiences were used to (although M*A*S*H certainly didn't spare the blood or the political/social commentary in the 1970's). ER is mostly focused on the emergency ward of a Chicago County General Hospital and with the young resident surgeons and doctors who treat patients under the most trying circumstances and in never ending shifts. Scenes are gritty and technical yet over the course of Season 1 we get to know the key characters intimately. The main cast of Anthony Edwards, George Clooney, Noah Wyle, Sherry Springfield and Eriq La Salle are all excellent. As the season moves on we get more personal with each central character and their lives away from the ER, but it's the hospital where ER excites and, at times, traumatizes.

Yes, ER can be a massive downer. It can also be sentimental and George Clooney can be the smarmiest arse. But this is minor. ER is top TV series fodder. It has been incredibly popular and holds all sorts of records. I've heard the standards of the first season were maintained throughout it's 15 (!!!) seasons. If so, it's deserved its success. I cant wait to tuck into Season 2.


When I was an exchange-student in Michigan in 1999, my mother based her idea of what my surroundings were like on ER. Sure, I went to Chicago once with a symphony orchestra of teenagers to play a show at a Hilton hotel downtown, but other than that my life was nothing like the characters' in ER and Chicago remained a stranger to me. I came to ER later, possibly when I returned back to Finland in 2000 and my mother was still watching the series because it was so good. I remember being surprised that my mother liked a show about a hospital emergency room with doctors and nurses as the main characters and with a lot of fast paced technical talk and blood.

ER ran on Thursdays in Finland. It went on for years and so when I had moved out from my parents' to live with Nick, I continued to watch it. Or actually that's when I began to really follow it. The characters became people I really cared for – I cried every Thursday on my own while watching ER, because Mark was dying and Carter was going to Africa and patients died and the women were often so unlucky in love...The important point is: I was always home alone on Thursdays when ER was on.

During the resent months my taste in entertainment has narrowed to accommodate the pregnant brain and emotional state. Yet, I was surprised to find myself needing to watch ER again. Surely it would be too gory and heavy...people dying and being born all the time...But I wanted to start from the beginning and share ER with Nick, who was always working on Thursdays back when we still had a TV.
ER: Season 1 did not disappoint. Even when the series is nearing its 20th birthday, it doesn't seem dated. I guess that's because it deals with such fundamental issues and everyone's wearing a white, green or pink doctor's coat, which don't seem to change in look ever. One of ER's best features is that it is easy to insert oneself into the series and therefore reflect on my own life. There's always something familiar there: some experience, fear, situation or a character to empathize or identify with. Still makes me tearful and wanting more.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Mighty Heart (2007) Directed by Michael Winterbottom

The war in Iraq seems an age away now. 10 years is a long time. So much pain and loss on all sides.  It's war based on a brazen lie from supposed civilized nations. Coupled with the arrogance that we are dealing with supposedly inferior people living in different cultures we dare not understand, our trail of destruction raises all kinds of moral questions. But we can afford to ignore our own moral dilemmas as our lives are enveloped in materialistic temptations and those troubles in far off continents just seem like something happening over there. Winterbottom has repeatedly tried to draw us back into messes our governments have often shirked, giving us real events dramatized in his dry/semi-documentary style if not an actual documentary. The Shock Doctrine (2009) The Road To Guantanamo(2006) Welcome To Sarajevo(1997) and A Mighty Heart all deal with war in modern times and its various repercussions. Winterbottom has form and doesn't shirk from showing the uncomfortable.

A Mighty Heart is another movie where Winterbottom manages to work with top-draw Hollywood talent on a low budget. So, amongst Winterbottom's often difficult and challenging oeuvre you'll find the likes of Jessica Alba, Colin Firth, Steve Coogan, Kate Hudson, Milla Jovovich, Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson slumming it in often political, generally top quality, yet weird films. This time, it's Angelina Jolie, taking a trip out of her comfort zone and messing with the rough trade to show she's got the chops to be taken seriously. And she's good in A Mighty Heart. Winterbottom rein-acts the real life kidnapping and ultimate murder of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan with his usual no thrills. The focus is on how Pearl's pregnant wife Mariane (Jolie) deals with the often confusing search for her husband.

Winterbottom bravely shows possible logical reasons as to Pearl's murder by Islamic fundamentalists he was supposed to interview before he and his wife were due to leave Pakistan. Was it because of Guantanamo? Because Pearl was Jewish? Repercussions for American involvement in Iraq? Supposed Wall Street Journal coercion with the CIA? Or because the Pearls housed an Indian helper who was possibly looking to discredit Pakistan? Winterbottom considers all options to the kidnapping/murder that nowadays is simply put down to an al-Qaeda killing.  A Mighty Heart despite this, still works as drama. That Mariane Pearl, a journalist herself, emerges from A Mighty Heart as a human being with great compassion and willingness to understand difference in the most trying and horrific circumstances, is something we could all learn from. Up to his usual high standards, Winterbottom's picture is a powerful reminder and lesson in tolerance.

In 2007 there was still a sense of urgency about understanding what was really going on with the USA in Iraq, Afghanistan and the neighboring countries. I had that need too and wanted to see A Mighty Heart immediately when it came out. I did not see it, for some reason. Now, at the end of 2011 there is a deflated helplessness and resignation to all things evil – I mean that the general feeling, the media and individual people seem to be much less attuned to asking what is still going on. I'm talking about a perspective that's strictly Scandinavian, far-removed from the streets of Pakistan for example. (I imagine it impossible to not ask those questions there every day.)

In this climate watching A Mighty Heart seemed out of place. It did not feel right to view it as pure cinema, because of its depiction of real events and people. It did not seem right to view it as a superstar vehicle for Angelina Jolie either. As a movie or a series of acting performances there was nothing that impressive about the film. Yet, time had passed and the film had lost some of its political urgency, which I can imagine was shocking still in 2007.

Then again, as the end credits roll and remind you that Mariane Pearl is now living with her son in Paris, the realness of it all hits me. Despite the movie's end or the Western world's gradual disinterest in their own hateful mess, the husband and father Pearl is never coming home to his family.
This simple point should end all conflict and prove futile the logic of hatred and warfare. It seems that the Pearl family knew this and know it still, after their personal loss. It is still important to make films about what is really happening around the world – sometimes cinematic values become secondary to the need to tell the truth. Injustice will not end through ignorance.