Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The 5-Year Engagement (2012) and Everybody's Fine (2009)

These two highly enjoyable movies mark the start and end of the family life cycle.

 THE 5-YEAR ENGAGEMENT tellingly describes the ups and downs that a young couple (Jason Segel & Emily Blunt)go through from the time they decide to get engaged. In the process of trying to strike a perfect balance and portray a picture of conjugal bliss, juggling career aspirations, and dreams, they began to lose their passion and personhood. In time, they found that the more they tried to be a couple – doing couple things as and when expected – the greater their tension for personal space. In the end, they separated just to recover the two individuals who had initially come together because they were fascinated by each other’s difference. (They met at a year-end costume party and were immediately drawn to each other: the man dressed as a fluffy frumpy pink bunny, and the woman as Princess Diana. How much more diverse can you get?)

On the other end of the spectrum, EVERYBODY’S FINE is an endearing movie about a recently widowed middle-aged man (Robert De Niro) whose four adult children conspired to hide the reality of their life struggles from him. In the process, he was alienated from the children he boasted about. But as he began to look at them as mere young children, he began to see their naivety and vulnerability, and to bring their follies as well as his fantasies to an end. In the end, his courage in facing reality with his children rallied the whole family and strengthened their bonds.

Undeniably, the underlying theme of both movies is the human tendency to sugar-coat our life and family experiences.

From the young couple on a long threshold of marriage, to the father struggling to connect with his grown children,  when we avoid unpleasant conversations, even arguments and confrontations, when we deny ourselves of expectations and aspirations by living in another person’s shadow, cracks are bound to show up in one way or another, and sooner or later.

There’s truly no better time to know who we really are than before getting hitched and after a loved one is gone – by death, divorce or desertion. After all, we are born single and will be single when we die. Singlehood is a precious time to discover self, to discover an amazing relationship with a living God, and to discover the ultimate meaning of life when you strip away considerations like if you married, who you married, the quality of your marriage, the children you have or not, etc. You begin to see life simplified when it’s just about you, and what on earth you are doing here.

Recently, a married friend asked me if it was possible for Christian couples to be lovey-dovey, affectionate throughout their marriage or if it was normal to expect decline.  Coincidently, this was brought up in a group discussion just a day before.

My simple reply to my married friend was to consider if the couple allow each other space and time to grow spiritually and emotionally. Or if they take the phrase ‘two become one’ wrongly and become so enmeshed in their identities, personalities, preferences and choices that they suppress, stunt, and stifle each other. In such a state, it’s hard for anyone to contribute to the relationship in terms of spontaneity, imagination, surprise and delight.

In Luke 17:1-3 Jesus issued a sombre warning His disciples: Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” Married couples would do well to apprehend this.

From sizzle to fizzle, when routine replaces romantic impulses, when what is expected replaces what you really feel like doing, and when familiarity replaces fascination, your relationship will become as interesting as dried prunes.

I persuaded my friend that it takes two people in love with God, who are continually renewed in His love and passion to bring passion and renewal into their marriage. Even if it is a one-sided effort, improvements will be seen as one draws on the enduring, immeasurable and indescribable love of God and lives in the freedom and power of His love. One vibrant is better than none. If it only takes a spark to get a fire going, then somebody has to light it first for all to enjoy!

Funny moments from The Five-Year Engagement include a really cute Italian song, 'Cu Cu Ru Cu Cu Paloma' sung at a wedding; father of the engaged bride-to-be who keeps bringing a different Asian girlfriend to family events; the lure and drain of a sweet young fling for the engaged groom; and the energy of a high-end restaurant kitchen. I have watched De Niro's Everybody's Fine twice and will probably watch it again before it's due for return at the video shop.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Artist

It’s hard for me to watch a movie without audible dialogue and the usual sound effects that mark everyday life. To compensate, I found myself reading the actors’ lips with great effort, ad lib what should have been spoken and wound up mentally exhausted by the end of the movie. Kind of like running ahead of the laconic intertitles that leave a lot unsaid!

Silent movies, quiet libraries, and a solitary walk in the park without headphones have the capacity to accentuate one’s internal self-talk. The movie helps me realize that hearing people talk is so important to how I experience and enjoy life and relationships, and how frustrating and inhibiting it is when open communication is missing.

More than just an absence of sound, silence spans an impenetrable space between people. Look around and see if people don’t sit further apart when they are silent than when they are engaged in conversation.

Silent film actors have good mastery of body language, facial expressions and dramatic pacing to make up for the lack of sound. The Artist dramatizes the career trajectory of a well-loved silent film actor, George Valentin, from its peak to eventual demise. He feels inexorably that talking movies distract audience and downplay the dignity of acting. As talking movies appear and replace silent movies, George beomes a repressed icon that fades into his own world of silence. His dog, Uggy, becomes the de facto liason between silent George and the speaking world. George also has a guardian angel in the form of an up and rising silent-turned-talking movie star who is grateful for the first break he gave her earlier on.

If every man who hits rock bottom has a supportive community like George, the turnaround would be much faster. He has a faithful dog, a guardian angel, and a chauffeur cum buttler so loyal he works without salary for a year just to serve him. But he prefers to languish alone in the jaded glory of the past in an empty apartment than courageously embrace a new future in a supportive community. Pride can be an inseparable companion to a man bankrupt of hope.

Clearly, a change of circumstances hardly changes the core of a man. It’s often frustrating to help someone determined to spend his life in gloom and doom.

Fortunately, this movie ends on an upbeat note when George relents by taking a dancing role in a 'talkie' [speaking movie]. Ultimately, he learns to dance to a different tune and finds a new lease of life!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Hope Springs

People laugh at the movies for many reasons. Laughter could be a way to diffuse discomfort and normalize situations that are otherwise bizarre or disturbingly private. There are several scenes in Hope Springs that would have produced moments of awkward silence if not for seemingly misplaced sniggers, chortles and chuckles breaking out. It’s the audience’s way of saying, ‘Yes, I know what they are going through’.        

For sure, this is a middle-age themed movie about an ordinary couple in their sixties, complete with real wrinkles and unhidden flabs. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones are endearingly imperfect and believable as a couple – Kay and Arnold - with an empty nest and even emptier marriage. There isn’t a sense that they are performing because they seem so comfortable being their age without vanity or fantasy. As Kay and Arnold, they are married for over 30 years, and are as straight-laced as can be, ho hum down to the unimaginative bacon with two sunnyside ups served each morning without fail.

Their marriage has only one dominant voice, and home life is painfully silent for Kay. Subdued in an unequal relationship, she cannot love back because of the lack of power and autonomy to do so. Not surprisingly, one who slavishly meets the needs of a spouse and walks around him or her on eggshells is unlikely to be spontaneous and fun because of fear and intimidation. Without any change, a co-dependence replaces intimacy and it only gets worse over the years.

Trapped in a dismal role she hasn’t signed up for, Kay initiated intensive counselling to save either her marriage or sanity. Her sharp intuition contrasts with her husband’s blunt ignorance of the state of affairs at home, and counselling doesn't help when one party is in denial. Yet in most cases, both parties are guilty of breeding marital malaise and ignoring the symptoms for too long.

As expected, the imbalance of power between Kay and Arnold causes everything else to be lope-sided in their married life. Tell-tale signs include: sleeping apart – different times, different beds, and even different rooms; one is always the talker, the other the listener with muted response; the only time they touch each other is when they take pictures together; there are no conversations about each other’s feelings and thoughts, no mutuality of enjoyment, no surprises. If a marriage is more perfunctory than passionate, more routine than romantic, it’s time to get help.  

This movie highlights the truth that a couple – newly married or older married - can be sitting together on a couch but are oceans apart in their hearts. It’s like watching a case study. You see the subtle nuances that can bedevil a marriage, and how couples use routine to cover up unspeakable woes to beguile outsiders.

A good movie with engaging performances by Streep, Jones and Steve Carell as the marriage counsellor. Be prepared for inappropriate laughter coming from some members of the audience who need the catharsis of laughter to face scenarios that could be painfully familiar. Just bear with them ...like I certainly did.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Joyful Noise & 50/50

Sometimes, we make unusual choices that only make sense in hindsight. For the same reason, I had no idea why I picked out Joyful Noise [released 2012] and 50/50 [2011] together: no two movies could be more dissimilar in genre and milieu.

Admittedly, I had high hopes for Joyful Noise to deliver joyful noise! Clearly, the title suggests it. Combine that with black gospel choir, and vocal supremos, Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, and it seems promising.

The movie takes on a GLEE-type feel and seems unsure if it wants to preach virtue or parade raging sexual hormones among its choir members. The underlying message appears to be tolerance for all kinds of mischief as long as the music is good. But here’s the problem: I don’t think what they purport to be worship is half as good as what I have at my church services. I will readily admit that I can’t sing for toffee...or nuts, and am more a consumer than performer of music. But I think I know a thing or two about making joyful noise to God, and that compromises or wilful disobedience is a sure off-note for worship.

Latifah gives a brilliant tell-off to her onscreen daughter when the insolent youngster tries to sneak out of their hotel room for a rendezvous with another choir member travelling with them:
“Treat my snores like it’s a Marvin Gaye love song! That’s right...because it comes from exhaustion for working hard to put food on the table and every stitch of cloth on you and your brother’s back! .... I choose not to flaunt it [my looks] because I’m a married woman and I would never disrespect my husband like you just disrespected your mother!”  

Courtney Vance as the pastor is the other thinking mature adult on the set of rather juvenile-minded characters.

Parton, flaunting plastic surgery that looks pretty agonising for a 66-year-old, was clearly unable to elicit any sort of facial expressions. Really, talking to a woman with a face so taut and plastic-like is like talking to a photograph: there is only one expression. Her anti-ageing obsession is grossly distasteful when she is the only one in the choir wearing a robe that is cinched to fit every body curve! I don’t really care much about women who don’t look or act their age.

Joyful Noise ended on a grumpy note for me! It is inaccurate in presenting Christian worship, and a sad reflection, if it’s a fact. Most of the songs are shallow feel-good love songs. I am surprised that this is a recent movie. I’m not sure that it has much appeal to actual church-going believers.

By comparison, 50/50 feels like a more recent movie, and by far, more realistic. It tells of a young man, Adam, in the dumps after a series of setbacks. The bad news begins when his doctor announces he has spinal cancer; his best friend shows him a picture of his girlfriend cavorting with another while he waits for her food delivery; having an oncology psychotherapist who is a rookie fumbling to fit him into behaviour models; and of course, an overbearing mother who feels guilty if she could not be his everything. Add to that, a love-hate relationship with his best friend whose only prescription for coping with cancer is promiscuity.

If there is something about calamity that attracts comedy, perhaps it’s got to do with being in a place so low that you can only look up.

For me, 50/50 is more uplifting than Joyful Noise because Adam instinctly knows who to dump [cheating girlfriend] and who to appreciate and hold onto [best friend, mother, therapist]. His ability to see kindness and love in its various raw forms – the smothering, the crude, and the inexperienced – helps each one to become better at it. That, coupled with a successful treatment outcome, makes this a much happier movie to watch.

Funny line: After Adam told two cancer patients that he had schwannoma neurofibrosarcoma, they looked at him and explained that the more syllables, the more serious the illness.

It’s ironical that the best part of Joyful Noise comes from a mother’s line of fire, and the most memorable part of 50/50 is a funny line. Clearly, it goes to show that it’s possible to have cheerful sounds coming out of even very iffy 50/50 circumstances. Perhaps intuitively, I knew that all along.