Dr. Seuss: Quirky is Good

04_seuss37_dI’ve written about many of my heroes on my blog but none of them are quite as special to me as Dr. Seuss. Maybe it’s because he is a proponent of reading or maybe it’s because he is a bit left-of-center. Whatever the reason, I get inspired by Dr. Seuss and inspiration is the most valuable thing when you’re setting a goal for greatness. You are doing that aren’t you? Check out his life:

When Theodor Geisel was a young child, long before he would become Dr. Seuss, he used to mark in books. He had a set of books he had made his own by putting drawings and writings in. This should have been a clear indicator to his parents that one day his books would change the world. I am sure in their wildest dreams they never would have imagined what this young boy would one day do. Letting his imagination run wild was the first thing he did to set his dream in motion. These pictures made him happy. Following what made him happy would eventually make millions happy.

When Theodore got older and graduated college, he decided he wanted to write children’s books. He spent a lot of time and energy making his first book, an ABC book. No one published it. He felt rejected. He did not write another book for four years. This is identical to the experience of another great artist I have written on, Charles Schulz. Neither gave up altogether though. Both rose to great acceptance after a major rejection. I think this is very important for us to note. Have you been rejected at something? How many years will you let pass you by before trying again. While we’re at it, can you imagine how cool it would be to have a copy of that ABC book that got rejected? Something to remember when people reject your work.

In 1936, Dr. Seuss was on a boat to Tudor. He heard the engines “talking to him” in the sounds they made. Standing there at the engine he “heard” the idea for another book attempt. This is probably one of the most quirky stories I have ever heard. That’s why I love it so much. I am like that. I hear my car creak and talk to me, I hear lots of strange sources of inspiration every day. I am also quirky. Are you? Don’t look at it as a bad thing.

The quirky book that was borne out of the engine sounds was And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. Now 50 years later it is one of Dr. Seuss’ most favorited book by children all over the world. After that is time in a blender history. Dr. Seuss has published hundreds of books since then, as you likely already know.

Theodor Geisel had a goal: he wanted to write books that were easy to read. As he worked for that goal he brought millions of people happiness and taught millions to read: including me as a young child!

Currently set for release is Horton Hears a Who. A major motion picture created from another Dr. Seuss masterpiece. When millions watch it they will be seeing a product of a quirky writer who had a vision and kept at it. The message of this book is that even the smallest person can make a difference. What a message!!! We all wish he could have given us more. He is a lesson to me to never stop giving. Read one of his books and start making your crazy dream happen!

This post was published first as this online diary entry on Damien at the Speed of Life.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer (Documentary Review)

PussyRiot_APunkPrayer_PosterThe lives of three young women and why they became punk revolutionaries is the main idea of this “Pussy Riot: a Punk Prayer” documentary. It’s a real situation and a real “group” (instead of a band) that protests the Soviet Union through punk songs and performance art. They claim to be non-violent, which is good. In some of their protest situations they have been threatened and violence has been enacted against them. Three visionaries of the group: , , occupy the film’s content and their stories are inspiring or enraging depending on your political and moral point of view. I found these three women and their art hugely inspirational. I think we forget in America what freedom is and that at some point, it needs to be sacrificed for.

Pussy-RiotThese three women feel that Russia needs to get more progressive. By that I mean, women should be allowed to have a life with or without men. They also feel there should be a clear separation between church and state. More than anything, they detest the policies of Vladimir Putin, the current leader of the Soviet Union. Many of their songs decry his regime. I liked the open and forward thinking of the women but some of their techniques, such as the naming of their group and some past indiscretions on film, in my opionion are not as universally embraceable as they could be. I’m writing a review about their documentary but I cringe a little creating the title with the word “pussy” in it. Is there another way we could name this group without fanning the flames of the conservatives? I am no revolutionary but I might recommend to Pussy Riot a slightly more marketable and palatable approach to its persona.

o-PUSSY-RIOT-570-ukraineThese women spend at least 6 months in jail (I lost track after all the updates and frankly am too lazy to look up this significant particular). When they address the court or the press, it is breathtaking. They scribble tomes while behind bars and nearly every time they read their words, they are met with unguarded applause. These is something to these revolutionaries but the movie feels at times as if much of it is staged. If not staged, the movie sometimes feels like HBO camera crews are betting on a worldwide interest in a documentary. This to me is gauche. Not everything can be captured in a documentary. pussyriot02Would Johnny Rotten want to be followed by HBO? How about Ghandi? Hmmm, maybe? Having said that, this movie reminds me of the times I fought to be outside the “system.” So many people these days, especially our youth, accept their position playing video games and being bored. We don’t have to accept the role society gives us. We can break out and be original. It could start by protesting the things we dislike in society. I wonder if many American kids would risk going to jail to try and make the government change. I hope I would as a 44 year old and let’s hope more American kids get that message from Pussy Riot.

Here Comes the Boom (Movie Review)

3.5/5 stars
There is now another “root for the underdog” fighting film to add to the movie archives. It’s also another try at a “feel good education” film. The Kevin James movie I’m referring to Here Comes the Boom was directed by Frank Coraci, known for other Happy Madison movies like Click and Zookeeper. It’s received a slough of low ratings due to its failed jokes and recycled conventions. Those are valid criticisms but it’s redeemed by its Rocky spirit and good message for teachers to inspire their students. It is decidedly not a Stand and Deliver or Lean on Me … but it does promote inspiration which makes it worth seeing.

IMDB summarizes the film as follows: A high school biology teacher looks to become a successful mixed-martial arts fighter in an effort to raise money to prevent extra-curricular activities from being axed at his cash-strapped school.

As a public school teacher I found many flaws in the way the teacher interacts with the Principal as well as his colleagues. In fact, I criticized most of the way he is portrayed early on. Nonetheless, when he started his UFC fighting, I forgot about all that and enjoyed the ride. I only wish it could have began sooner.

Listen, Kevin James is a smart actor. His King of Queens show is up there with Seinfeld in reruns and syndication. I love it. At this point his career, he wouldn’t willingly release a dud. Even though most the reviewers treat it as such, Here Comes the Boom is quality entertainment with a top notch tip for all teachers.

In the final scenes of the movie, the true purpose of education is revealed: to inspire. There are no standardized test scores reported but we feel inspiration that spreads throughout the student body. It may not portray what’s real about schools today but it reminds us of what teachers should do for their students. For the fight scenes and the inspiring message, it scored stars with me. Unfortunately, the lack of good jokes, a slow beginning, and unrealistic portrayal of a teacher caused it to lose points.
3.5/5 stars

Chariots of Fire (Movie Review)

Chariots of Fire was directed in 1981 by Hugh Hudson, known also for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. It stars Ian Charleson as Eric Liddell, a devout Christian runner, and Ben Cross as Harold Abrahams, a dedicated Jewish runner. Watching the movie now, over 30 years later, one can identify an A-list class from both major and minor characters. This movie is based on a true story. It is called a drama, history, and sport movie by imdb.com. It’s one of those movies I liked so much I bought. It’s a story of running, endurance, and conviction. The signature music of Vangelis inspired many in my generation to run and to appreciate running. I’m a proud runner probably because I saw this film at age 11.

Chariots of Fire is about two rising Olympic champions: Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams who are driven by very different impulses. Liddell is an ardent missionary who cares more about “feeling God’s pleasure” when he runs that he does about winning trophies or medals. Abrahams on the other hand is overly ambitious about winning. He is in fact primal in his drive to win at any cost. There is a lot of development toward the climax but the most important point is when the Olympics are to be held on a Sunday. Liddell refuses to run due to his beliefs. This is where we see the conviction of a truly inspiring man displayed in real time. Because this is a true story, we feel the temptation we might have to run but Liddell refuses. It is an excellent conversation piece. What drives us? How do we define success? and What will we not do in out quest for that success?

This movie is a gem and a pride among movies. While I don’t share Liddell’s polarized worldview, I still admire his conviction and resolve. This movie tells me I should define success and answer the questions above for myself. I am always defining and redefining myself. Chariots of Fire reminds me that true success has to be self-defined. You don’t have to be a runner to enjoy this film, it’s for everyone. When I first saw it I was 11 years old. When the credits rolled, I got up to walk out of the row. My mother stopped me and motioned me back into my seat. I saw the eyes of my parents and siblings watching the credits in awe as they listened to the angelic music. I would later learn the theme song and play it in the house hundreds of time. This is truly a remarkable film in my collection.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Movie Review)

Article first published as Movie Review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close on Blogcritics.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was directed by Stephen Daldry, known for The Reader, Billy Elliot, and the Hours. It has been advertised as a stunning, avant garde movie centering on how the 9-11 tragedy affects one family. It centers around Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn), a nine-year-old boy who is hell bent on discovering a remnant of his father’s past. His father is Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks), a jeweler, who dies in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The last remnant, as it were, he has left behind for his son is a cryptic key. Oskar finds in a vase in the closet after his father is dead. He is from then on driven and fixated on finding the lock that the key opens. This generates a plot of pseudo adventures meeting all sorts of people and devising all sorts of elaborate schemes along the way. What about the twin towers? That was my burning question most of the movie. Make no mistake: this film is not so much about 911. Instead it is more akin to a public service announcement for Asperger’s syndrome, or some garden variety diagnosis of a tortured genius nine year old. Oskar Schell apparently has license to scream horrible words at his mother, (Sandra Bullock) because of his unique disorder. He rolls on the floor, bangs his hands against furniture, and shows utter frustration when his “genius” ideas are thwarted. I could get into the unrealistic amounts of time he is alone to carry out his adventures but I won’t. I also won’t get into the ridiculous cussing exchanges (equally implausible) he has with the security guard (John Goodman) of his building as he comes and goes. I don’t think this movie is meant to be realistic, it’s up to something else. I am not sure I know what it is. It is definitely hard to follow. Fortunately, we can find some compassion for the boy and that held my interest for some of the film.

Of course, anyone would have sympathy for Oskar. He lost his father who was seemingly his best friend to the tragedy we now refer to as 9-11. Still, it doesn’t excuse his disdain for his mother and the strange fixations he leaps headlong into to find the origin of the key. Along the way, he meets a nice, quiet (mute in fact), man who rents a room from his grandmother. He is aptly called “The Renter” (Max von Sydow). He accompanies Oskar on his key expedition which is very difficult because the old man cannot speak. In a way, the renter is best suited to Oskar: he never talks back. The renter is Oskar’s long lost mute grandfather and ironically becomes the only voice of reason. In my opinion, Max von Sydow gives the most compelling performance in the movie. I must add also that there isn’t much competition.

Oskar is very taken with his own “clever” ideas and likes to tell people about them with every opportunity. His lines are annoying and they are delivered with an equally unsettling voice. There isn’t much more to the story than Oskar finding the lock for the key. The mystery’s end is not exciting and he doesn’t seem to advance much in is grieving process for his dad.

I think this movie failed to impress me because it was not about what it advertised. A movie can get away with that when it is such a powerful film you forget you were cheated by the ads. In my opinion, this movie used 9-11 as a “bait-and-switch theme to get people into the theater. There is only minimal reminiscing about the tragedy. On the other hand, the movie centers on Oskar who is not an emotionally well young man. We therefore have nothing to relate with. The boy’s actions are annoying and obtuse, he treats his mother atrociously. I can’t relate with how a kid like that sees his mother and the world. We want to relate with Oskar but the feelings never come. Then there is the theme of 9-11. We want to relate with that but it has such a small small place in the movie. I think it would have been better to either make a well developed movie about 9-11 -or- to make a movie with a decent script about Asperger’s syndrome. They didn’t do that though so what we are left with is a movie with an extremely long title and an incredibly flat plot. I was very let down by this movie and the way it promoted itself to be something it was not. If you like the actors, it is worth seeing. If you want to re-examine 9-11 or anything “real” about the grieving process, or Asbergers for that matter, stay incredibly far away from this one. While this movie may be extremely loud & incredibly close on one level, it is most decidedly not incredibly deep.

Everything Must Go (Movie Review)

Article first published as Movie Review: Everything Must Go on Blogcritics.
Everything Must Go
was directed by Dan Rush. This is his debut as a director. Will Ferrell (Nick Halsey) lends an everyman face to suburban failure and renewal in this dark comedy. Alcoholism and depression are addressed in this movie, hefty topics for an independent film but they are handled deftly and respectfully.

It begins with Nick Halsey losing his job. If you think it can’t get worse than that for a suburban married man in a mortgage, it does. When he gets home, he finds all his possessions, including clothes, strewn across the front lawn. Can’t get worse? Yes it can. Soon after he arrives home he finds he cannot get into the house as his wife has changed the locks. This is when we begin to see he is an alcoholic. He plops down on the easy chair in the yard and decides to have a yard sale. The course of events that follow involve a young kid who visits him on the lawn (Kenny Loftus played by C.J. Wallace who is the son of Notorious B.I.G. in real life). Their interplay is marvelous because it is tender and human.

Kenny doesn’t judge Nick for his misgivings. Instead, they find a common ground where they share a love of baseball and a common theme of loneliness. For me, this relationship was the most significant. There are other ones in the movie though. Samantha (Rebecca Hall), Nick ex-wife, is adamantly against him. Though we don’t know the details it can be boiled down to the well-known failings of an alcoholic in a marriage. Details show us that Nick was not just a casual alcoholic but a raving black-out type. He’s quite lucid and sensible in the movie though. The cop that drives by and has befriended Nick, Frank Garcia (Michael Peña), seems to have Nick’s best interest at heart but that remains to be seen. Needless to say, Nick’s days on the lawn must come to an end. When they do, we see a transformation. While a bit predictable, it is the journey that held my attention. What would you do if you lost everything in a day? This movie let’s that “what-if” play out to a clear conclusion.

I enjoyed this movie immensely, it was an image of our humanity. Who has never been afraid of living out in the street? At a time in history when so many people are being forced out of their homes, it can be cathartic to watch this. Will Ferrell shows us in this film that he can act. Sure, he is funny but his acting makes it easy to believe he is homeless.

Watching Nick and Kenny together is touching. With all the bad going on in Nick’s life, he takes the time to get to know Kenny. I know from personal experience as a teacher kids require patience. The other relationships are a little flat and I thought could have been developed more. Still, this movie was valuable in the way it portrayed Nick’s relationship with Kenny. There is a lot to take away from that and it makes Everything Must Go highly entertaining.

The Beaver (Movie Review)

Article first published as Movie Review: The Beaver on Blogcritics.
The Beaver is directed by Jodie Foster who is well known as an actor and now fairly well-known as a director for Little Man Tate and Home for the Holidays. This is her most gritty production to date, taking on the issue of mental illness. Jodie Foster also plays an important role in the movie, that of Meredith Black, the main character’s wife. The Beaver stars Mel Gibson as the protagonist Walter Black. There are also key roles played by Anton Yelchin (Star Trek’s “Chekov”) as Porter Black, the main character’s son and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone and the upcoming Hunger Games) as Norah, the friend of Porter Black. Seldom does a movie bring such an important yet taboo subject into the light with such clarity. Mental illness now has an illustration to show us our humanity and better understand the mentally ill people around us.

This is a story of a family man and executive well into his 50’s who appears to be depressed. In reaction to his depression, he buys a crate of alcohol seemingly to drink himself into oblivion. In the parking lot dumpster, he notices a haggard old hand puppet in the shape of a beaver. He is drawn to its charm and takes it home with him. Through much of the movie he communicates only through the puppet and puts his wife and those around them through a frustrating series of challenges. The executive tells his wife he’s been back to the psychiatrist and the use of a beaver hand puppet is a form of therapy. When the “therapy” seems unending, there begins the movie’s conflict. Walter is sick, and his wife knows it. Unfortunately, his sickness is generating great ideas at work that earn him a spot on the Today Show with Lauer, among another places. Mentally ill people often make creative contributions to our world, that’s what this movie appears to be telling us.

There is a father/son dynamic going on here as well. Walter and his son Porter are at odds. Walter has been guilty of the same thing most middle aged executives are: being absent in the home. Porter accepts payment to write people’s essays in High School and has a very dysfunctional crush on Norah that winds both of them up in jail for the night for vandalism. One can’t help but wonder if Walter’s condition contributed to his son’s issues. There is a climax and a slowing and at the end a horrific self mutilation leaves Walter “better.”

I really like this movie because it shows that mental illness is not just an embarrassment we should hide in our family trees. I am deeply interested in people which is probably why I like movies so much. The extent to which they portray the human condition is usually the extent to which I like them. If you know someone who has a mental illness or if you yourself struggle with on, this movie is a must see. This is not Braveheart and it’s not Nell. Instead, it is something in the middle and it addresses mental illness quite accurately, in my opinion.  Only through understanding the unknown can we embrace it and make peace with it in our world, Mental illness is largely an unknown in our society. It is good to see Mel Gibson stepping away from the action hero role to shine light on something many families and individuals deal with.

Meet the Robinsons

5/5 stars
Meet the RobinsonsDisney’s Meet the Robinsons doesn’t start out like a Disney wonder, but it ends that way. If you can make it through the first 3/4 of the movie, you’ll be greatly rewarded (incidentally, I found that “Bridge to Terabithia” was the same way . . . is Disney using a formula here?) The story is spotty at the beginning and not much really makes sense. It reminded me of “Alice in Wonderland” at first the way it shifted from one (as Windows Vista ads would say) “wow” to another but without any real plot development. But just when you think it’s a random remake of Fantasia, a very sweet and human story about dreams and invention comes into focus.

This is a great movie for kids, but also for grown-ups (hmmm I find myself saying that a lot lately). The graphics, of course, are stellarly cool. Watching the spaceship alone is a marvel worth the 10 dollar admission. But there is much to marvel at in this movie. It is so complicated in art and story that it is one I’ll be buying on DVD so my kids can watch it over and over. As they get older they will come to understand it’s message about belongingness and believing in your own dreams. There are a lot of surprises in this one, and they all serve to make you more brave about being human with yourself and others. What does being “human” mean? Hmmm. That’s another blog altogether, but trust me, you’ll get it when you see it.

The movie closes with a quotation from Walt and it is like a perfect espresso after a delightful meal. This is one cartoon that won’t fall by the wayside with “Barnyard” or “Over the Hedge.” While those movies are good, they aren’t great like “Meet the Robinsons.” Did I mention I liked it?

Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
-Walt Disney

Postscript 11-23-2010: Re-watching “Meet the Robinsons” with my kids today I noticed the villain when discussing henchman says “not a good Minion.” Interesting that the henchman in two huge blockbusters recently: Despicable Me and Megamind both have a henchman named “Minion.” Coincidence?