Movies: Kedi, Wonder Woman, Table 19, Spiderman, Florence Foster Jenkins and Miss Sloane

So, it turns out that several flights and a few evening’s worth of entertainment add up to several movies I’ve seen recently. In no particular order (certainly not chronologically) …

Miss Sloane

Miss Sloane is one of the best movies I’ve seen for a while. It is the story of a ruthless political consultant, a power behind one of the many thrones in the empire, who is summoned to take up arms against a powerful emperor (the gun lobby). I’ll unpack it a little more below, but if you don’t want to read spoilers, just know – well worth watching.

How will her ultimate battle go? Will she win or lose? Those are all interesting questions, and ones I won’t spoil for you.

What I think is interesting is that any movie, or text, that discusses a political story, has implicit in it some theory of political economy (see for example the Potterian economy). Miss Sloane portrays a world of corrupted power and shady backroom discussions.

Within that world, Miss Sloanne is a lobbyist who is intriguing because she understands deeply the laws of power and how they work behind the scenes, and uses them to good effect in her everyday work. Because of that, she is a study in cynical exercises in manipulation. Fascinating, none the less, because she takes up a cause that even her allies tell her is doomed. Not because of some childhood incident (which would explain away her anomalous behaviour), but because of principle.

There are some moments where the movie feels slightly unrealistic. [SPOILER ALERT: I’ll be talking about key plot points from here on out]. 

In a world as cynical as the one Miss Sloane portrays, it seems unlikely that a sex worker might not have been pressured, or overpowered, into giving up the information her enemies needed. It might be unlikely, too, that her antagonists would fall quite as neatly into line as they do for her big reveal. It might be unlikely, too, for what it’s worth, for a gun-carrier to protect someone else from gun violence seems very  unlikely*.

* This paper suggests that self defence is unlikely and doesn’t reduce the risks. I couldn’t find anything on bystanders carrying and reduced risks, but let me know if there’s any data?

Table 19

I watched Table 19 over the course of two separate flights several days apart, which made it a somewhat disjointed viewing experience. But I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a fun premise: the table of people ‘Who should have known to RSVP ‘No”, bonding at a wedding as they work through their own problems.

All of them come to the table with some form of baggage; they go on a hilarious journey as they let down their guards to admit they’re all flawed. Through it they bond, and ultimately, they come out the other side just a little bit stronger. And maybe, just maybe, someone at that wedding will find true love.

I laughed out loud. If you’re in the mood for cheesy comedy, you might too.

Kedi

Kedi is the story of several cats in Istanbul. It seems like the kind of story that could only be told in Istanbul, where a large population of cats roams the streets, receiving food and care from the humans they pass amongst, and largely tolerated if not sanctioned by society at large.

The story features swooping shots over the city, and brilliantly shot knee-level camera action that seems like it must have taken months. There are a few other brilliant pieces of work as well, including the night vision shot of a cat hunting. The care of the cinematographer is evident throughout. The music is well picked. If you’re tired the slow pace can be soporific, but in a gentle rather than a frustrating way.

Florence Foster Jenkins

The titular Florence Foster Jenkins was a New York socialite in the early twentieth century. She is famous for both having had a terrible singing voice, and for none the less performing widely, and purportedly being unaware of how bad her own voice was.

The movie Florence Foster Jenkins tells the story of Ms Jenkins and her partner (in a complex relationship) St Clair Bayfield. Jenkins is utterly unaware of how bad her voice is, and because of her wealth and her financial support of the artistic community, a smaller number of people are willing to tell her. Those close to her shield her from the truth.

With a scenario like that, it’s hard to know whom to settle on as a protagonist. The movie seems to settle on St Clair Bayfield; his struggle? To encapsulate Jenkins in a bubble of misguided self-esteem, protecting her from the harshness of the real world.

It could, if you weren’t thinking about it, sound like a nice thing. But the reality is that Florence Foster Jenkins had a terrible voice, and was only prevented from being disabused because of her wealth, which seems to have been wasted on some awful concerts. Perhaps she provided some amusement. But I don’t think we should admire her lack of courage or insight in examining her own abilities.

Wonder woman

Wonder woman – the story of a daughter of Zeus born in a secret all-female warrior paradise, destined to fight the god of war to save the world.

There’s been a large number of reviews of Wonder Woman – I won’t rehash most of that. I didn’t find the movie particularly enthralling as a movie, although there were some decent action scenes. I’m not well placed to comment, but from my limited perspective it didn’t strike me as a particularly well-placed blow against the patriarchy. Others may disagree.

 

Spiderman

Once upon a time there was a franchise, a set of stories about superheroes all owned by the same company. Gradually, through the magic of IP law, they were transformed into an unstoppable box-office juggernaut that suffocated anything within sight, leaving us with an endless iteration of superhero structured movies, with a plot outline so formulaic you could recite it in your sleep, and a cast so stereotyped you have trouble remembering which movie you’re watching.

If you feel like a protagonist trapped in an infinitely repeating time loop in (of course) a Marvel superhero movie, you can mark your clock by the fact that the latest (off season) Marvel movie is Spiderman. 

There is a superhero. He (sometimes she) must transform himself to save his community. He fights a villain. He is successful.

If you like all the other Marvel movies enough to be excited by the thought of seeing another, then maybe Spiderman is for you. If not, do anything else at all. Beat your head against a wall. Check for lost pens under your couch. Scrub the grime from your bathtub. Any, or all of those activities, will be better than subjecting yourself to yet another blow from the piston-like production line of Marvel movies.

Books about cancer and grief

For various reasons, I’ve been reading a few books that touch, in different ways, on cancer and grief. I’m collecting these together in the hope they may be useful for others who, like me to some extent, learn by reading about others’ experiences and reflections.

When breath becomes air is a powerful book, a reflection on life and death by a surgeon who became a patient. Well worth it.

The year of magical thinking is the account of someone left behind, someone grieving after the death of long beloved family members. It is honest, and raw, and does not settle for easy answers.

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens, is one I read a while ago, so it’s faded a little from memory. What I remember though is the courage  with which he bore down on the concrete expression of his convictions.

Hope beyond cure is a book written by David McDonald, on his experience with lung cancer. It wasn’t a book I expected to appreciate, but I was glad I’d read it.

Because of the way things are, there’ll be a few other books I’ll add to this list when I finish them.

When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi was a very talented surgeon, a brilliant scientist, an exquisite writer and by the account of those who loved him, a warm, caring person.

His book, When Breath Becomes Air, is an exceptional one. It is an account of his experience as a talented neurosurgeon at the top of his field, ready to reap the rewards of years of study, when he discovers that he has stage IV lung cancer.

It is not an easy read. It is an honestly written book though. He does not shy away from the day to day pain, or the overarching terrors. Nor does he seek false comfort in the easy answers. Instead he simply recounts his own thinking through, his own struggles as he deals with his approaching death. I found that I had to pause often reading it, particularly in the afterward written by his wife, that recounts his final days. It is not an easy read.

But the easy is not necessarily the good. This is a book worth reading.

If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

… as I sat there, I realized that the questions intersecting life, death, and meaning, questions that all people face at some point, usually arise in a medical context. In the actual situations where one encounters these questions, it becomes a necessarily philosophical and biological exercise.

You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.

Severe illness wasn’t life-altering, it was life-shattering. It felt less like an epiphany-a piercing burst of light, illuminating What Really Matters-and more like someone had just firebombed the path forward. Now I would have to work around it.

My carefully planned and hard-won future no longer existed. Death, so familiar to me in my work, was now paying a personal visit. Here we were, finally face-to-face, and yet nothing about it seemed recognizable. Standing at the crossroads where I should have been able to see and follow the footprints of the countless patients I had treated over the years, I saw instead only a blank, a harsh, vacant, gleaming white desert, as if a sandstorm had erased all trace of familiarity.

Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

I had passed from the subject to the direct object of every sentence of my life.

The curse of cancer created a strange and strained existence, challenging me to be neither blind to, nor bound by, deaths’ approach. Even when the cancer was in retreat, it cast long shadows.

There we were, doctor and patient, in a relationship that sometimes carries a magisterial air and other times, like now, was no more, and no less, than two people huddled together, as one faces the abyss. Doctors, it turns out, need hope, too.

Although these last few years have been wrenching and difficult – sometimes almost impossible – they have also been the most beautiful and profound of my life, requiring the daily act of holding life and death, joy and pain in balance and exploring new depths of gratitude and love.

Murdoch’s Pirates

Murdoch’s Pirates is a fascinating read. It tells a story about a company that was owned by News Corp, that may have hacked key pieces of technology produced by its competitors, in direct corporate espionage.

It’s always interesting with books like this, to wonder how close they came, or didn’t come, to a lawsuit. The fact that Murdoch’s Pirates is still available on Amazon at the time of writing makes me think that it managed to go relatively unscathed; it’s easy to imagine that if it had been worth bringing a lawsuit, it might have been shut down.

I’ll close with a quote – see if you can spot the sentence the lawyers put in:

Taken together, the controversies at NDS, News International and News America Marketing paint a pattern of failed accountability within large segments of News Corporation. That suggests part of the problem lies with directors and senior management. But fixing a sick management culture requires more than shutting down newspapers or shredding troubled business units. This is the underlying problem presented by the split of News Corporation. Good NewsCo and Bad NewsCo will be run by executives and board members whose actions or lack of action were instrumental in creating the management culture that allowed the scandals of the last decade and a half to develop.

Chase Carey, who will run the dominant entertainment arm under Murdoch, was the News executive given the task of overseeing NDS. Chief financial officer David DeVoe, former group counsel Arthur Siskind, and James and Lachlan Murdoch have all been directors of NDS. There is no suggestion that they were aware of any of the actions of the Operational Security team. Rather, the question is whether they should have been aware.

The Revenant, The Viceroy’s House

The Revenant

 A ‘revenant’ is someone who returns, in particular from the dead. It’s an apt title for Di Caprio’s star vehicle, a story of a wildsman helping a group of trappers. Things go awry, and when one of his companions convinces the others to abandon him, after murdering his son, he faces impossible odds in his quest for justice.

It’s an interesting piece, and the final scene is more satisfying than a simple fight to the death (although there is one). Not one I’d recommend particularly, but not terrible.

The Viceroy’s house

The Viceroy’s house is the story of the partition of India, and a love story between a Hindu man and a Muslim woman. It’s an important topic, and a powerful one. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite live up to its material.

The love story is … not given quite enough air time to breathe, so that it feels pro forma, rather than earned. The story of the partition of India is the more gripping one, and the movie casts Mountbatten as the noble fool, struggling to achieve a just outcome when in fact he’s been played by forces outside his ken.

Whether that’s true or not is a question I don’t know the answer to, because I don’t know the history well enough. There’s an article in The Guardian that argues the historical narrative underlying the movie is wrong; there’s probably more out there. Regardless, if you’re interested in the history of partition, I’d recommend going with a good history book, rather than this movie.

Moanna

Moanna is a beautiful film. It doesn’t seem to have quite achieved the popularity of Let it go Frozen, but it has a catchy soundtrack (by Lin-Manuel Miranda), and a story that features a heroine travelling into a dark and forbidden realm, to save her tribe.

The harder part, though, is the cultural appropriation. This isn’t something I’m qualified to speak on, but this article in The Smithsonian I think reflects a range of views, that there is both good and bad in the movie.

Mahana

Mahana is a beautiful film. It tells the story of Simeon Mahana, grandson of a domineering grandfather who holds iron sway over his family. He wants freedom, and so he challenges his grandfather – that leads, tragically and painfully, to his entire immediate family being cast out.

There is suffering, in the regions they’re cast into, but joy too. It’s there that Simeon gains the strength to challenge his grandfather; so that when a new conflict threatens to roil between the Mahanas and their rival family, Simeon is able to put it to rest.

It’s a beautiful film, and worth watching.

 

Mahana

Mahana is a powerful movie, about a Maori boy growing up in a family of shearers, under a domineering grandfather.

Sometimes it feels like the young boy wants to connect with his grandfather, at other times to overthrow him. That’s understandable; relationships are complicated. But it’s a well put together movie, that doesn’t seek to wrap things up neatly. And there’s a beautiful love story in there too, although it’s not the one you’re thinking of.