Letters to Father Jacob

In the original Finnish it was called Postia pappi Jaakobille and was intended as a made for TV movie. But, luckily, this seventy-four minute masterpiece was released as a movie. The deft cinematography draws you in and the acting of the two principals (Kaarina Hazard as Leila and Heikki Nousiainen as Father Jacob) keeps you riveted to the screen.
The basic plot surrounds the newly pardoned criminal Leila coming to work with the blind Father Jacob as an assistant. But there are layers of meaning in every amazing shot and moment of dialogue. The story is succinct but full of subtlety. The clash of faith with modernity, in particular, was skillfully played with.
I had to watch the film for a second time immediately just to satisfy myself that I had grasped everything.
Klaus Härö is the young director and wrote the screenplay using an original work by Jaana Makkonen. It’s official: I’m now a fan.
Very highly recommended to an older audience with an open mind.

Take Shelter

Jeff Nichols 2011 movie Take Shelter is different. Not what I was expecting at all and yet it kept drawing me back while my wife watched it. I kept trying to go back to my writing but I ended up watching the whole thing. There are the obvious themes of coping with mental illness and the responsibility of supporting and protecting a young family but I saw more here. Nichols deftly investigates the lines between prophecy and madness. What is the distinction? In this case they ride on whether the apocalypse happens or not.

And there is some great acting here. Especially from Michael ShannonJessica Chastain and Shea Whigham. Even the child actress, Tova Stewart, was believable.

A subtle but interesting film that will leave you thinking. If that’s your cup of tea then I recommend it highly.

Anathem

AnathemAnathem by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to encapsulate a book that is so large in scope and so enjoyable to read. Your intellect revolts at trying to peg it down by mere description and emotionally… well… I just didn’t want the thing to end. When I found, on his site, someone had actually been inspired enough to create music (http://nealstephenson.com/anathem/music….) for Anathem I was amazed but, now that I’m done, I understand.

What can I say that you can’t read elsewhere. I might warn you that Stephenson is a master world builder and so it takes effort to get out of this world and into his. But, by God, it’s worth the effort!

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Jessica’s Farm

front cover
Josh Simmons picked an interesting way to write a graphic novel, not to get it over with but to stretch it out. Over a long time.
Jessica’s Farm is 96 pages long and each page, we’re told, was drawn over the course of a month in the eight year span between January 2000 and December 2007. Josh plans to continue on until 2050 when the entire 600 page book can be published. But he has published Jessica Farm 1 now and will publish part 2 in 2016.
Jessica seems to be a child in an abusive situation but either she’s found how to stay sane within her own imaginary world with a host of friends or she’s found a way to fight back. I’m not sure if her courage is a shield or a weapon.
An interesting life project and I think, well worth a read. Even though it only takes an hour or so to get through 8 year’s worth.

The Bird Can’t Fly

The Bird Can’t Fly (2007) is, at first, a strange movie to absorb. So much is unexplained and you wonder if the steep learning curve is worth it. I’m writing this to say, emphatically, YES.
This is the first directing effort of Threes Anna (she also co-wrote it) from the Netherlands and I look forward to her next film Silent City and all future endeavours.
When you let this film in, it begins to haunt. You have to see it again almost immediately because there is so much you missed. I don’t want to explain too much of the plot since experiencing it for yourself is so crucial, so I’ll give some impressions.
First, the beautiful acting. Every member of the cast, even the children, are fabulous. Barbara Hershey superbly plays Melody who appears so serene and controlled, almost inhumanly so, at the opening of the movie but changes so dramatically by the end. Yusuf Davids (Melody’s grandson River) is riveting. When he’s on the screen (especially in his ‘Lord of the Flies’ element) you have to watch him. All the characters are unique from all the strong women which fill this movie to the skill of Tony Kgoroge (Scoop) and John Kani (Stone) who are the adult men.
Fairlands, South Africa, is the setting of most of the film. This was a diamond mining town which is being progressively buried by desert. The resort hotel, where Melody once worked, has only it’s roof and sign still exposed. The people still living there exist in huts that are drab at first but become more colourful as we learn more about the people who live in them. A truth most travellers learn.
One of the most beautiful transitions that I missed the first time (but Karen spotted right away) was the little girl’s doll. I’m not sure who the actor is (perhaps Amanda Dilma?) but what an amazing performance from such a young and beautiful girl. River demands rope of his feral band of conspiratorial children and this girl, whose seeming only possession is a doll, pulls it’s hair out and braids it. Then she replaces the hair with ostrich feathers. Doll with hair, Doll with no hair, Doll with feathers. It’s easy to miss but… wow, it’s a gorgeous symbol for the loss and then rejuvenation that we’re witness to here!
Very highly recommended. An important movie for anyone sensitive.

Wonder

WWW: Wonder (WWW, #3)WWW: Wonder by Robert J. Sawyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sawyer bills his WWW trilogy as the story of an optimistic singularity event. Where an AI achieves awareness but doesn’t go bad. Of course, it’s never so simple in a story by Canada’s dean of science fiction. Webmind has ‘his’ (he seems a him to me) growing pains especially when the powers that be in China decide to sever him again with a firewall.
I think it’s appropriate that the first e-book I have ever purchased is excellent science fiction like this. The formatting on the kobo app on my iPad had many faults but this final book of this series was such a page turner I found myself not caring.
This book is well worth the price of admission.

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Eat Pray Love

I haven’t read the book, I’ve only seen the movie, but if it is anything like this waste of DVD plastic then I don’t want to. Ever.
It was such a disappointment to see the quest of this incredibly selfish woman to ‘find’ herself. I expected something deep but Liz Gilbert (the main character played by Julia Roberts) could have saved all the cost and effort with the following simple forumula:

  1. order in a good pizza and eat it
  2. say the following mantra: “Hallelugah I’m me!”
  3. kiss the shallow person in the mirror

Or just read a good book. I can’t believe this was so popular. Who’d be taken in by this sham?
At one point she is imagining a conversation with her former husband who still loves her. She tells him ‘So Love Me’. Wow! That’s empathy for the ages alright.
Definitely not recommended.

Defendor

First-time Director, Peter Stebbings, brings us an homage to the Superhero genre done realistically with Defendor (2009). And yes the long “o” is important. I was surprised when I saw this as I was expecting a spoof and for Woody Harrelson to play it camp. Isn’t this billed as a comedy? But this is a serious film with a compelling and interesting story, more surprising still since Stebbings wrote it too. And Woody shows that he can manage and excel a difficult acting role once again. The setting is ‘some declining American inner city’ which is played amazingly by Hamilton, Ontario. If you haven’t seen it and want to watch this gem spoiler-free, and I recommend that, do not read on.

Arthur Poppington is a borderline retarded man who invents a superhero persona to avenge his mother’s death by drug pushers and Captain Industry. But we don’t really know any of that for sure at the beginning. Stebbings, through a series of flashback done very well and with sensitivity, carries the audience into Defendor’s worldview. I went through several changes in my impression of the hero, each prejudiced, on the way and exited better for it. I kept turning to Justin and Karen, who were drawn eventually into watching from the kitchen, and saying with what must have been surprise “this is a really good film”. In the end, everyone who gets to know Defendor or Arthur, is convinced he’s a hero. Even the bad guys are forced to take “the retard” seriously.
The acting is superb without being overdone. Woody is fantastic as is his co-star Kat Dennings who convincingly plays Katerina Debrofkowitz, a young junkie whore. Her rehabilitation by Arthur, who she has manipulated into a situation way beyond his depth, is a remarkable thing. Arthur’s friend Paul is also multilayered and played very well by Michael Kelly. A hard-boiled construction foreman who, I convinced myself, was Arthur’s brother turned out to have his own reasons for being true to his friend. Sandra Oh plays a court appointed psychologist very well. She is yet another character who is lifted from the role you’d expect into something unexpected. Even the nasty undercover cop gone wrong portrayed by Elias Koteas with depth.
There are parts of the story line I was unsatisfied with and I will watch it again to see if I missed something. How the second undercover cop was found out, for example. It could, I suppose, be Paul’s fault for saying too much to the reporter… there I go again. Shows what an exceptionally crafted script can do.
Peter Stebbings talks about how his fascination for street people led to this story in the special features on the DVD. Kudos go to him for really capturing inner city life and showing a bit of how people can get there.
So. To answer my question at the beginning. This film isn’t a comedy in the normal sense. Not to me, at least. It does have comedic elements, especially in the child-like (but effective) ways Defendor invents to fight crime and in the ‘superhero’ addons but this is drama. Real inner city drama. What could be more poignant than a mentally challenged individual doing our fighting for us? I very highly recommend this film. It deserves to be bought and shown to kids old enough to handle a little adult content.

A Different Path

Documentary-maker Monteith McCollum chose quite A Different Path when he made this film this year. I found the slower pace refreshing and could appreciate McCollum’s point, that our car-centered lives are moving too fast. It wasn’t that long ago when 50 kilometres an hour was fast and now we all forced to slow down to that speed on City streets. Almost everything is geared to serve car-culture with little room for alternative ways of getting around. Consider this example: in Seattle, which is well known to be ecologically active, there are 40 engineers on the city payroll who work on roads. There is just 1 for sidewalks, bike paths and other alternative forms of transportation. The streets have been made ‘safe’ for cars but not for anyone else. Seniors who don’t drive or who simply want to go for a walk or bike somewhere have been marginalized in their own cities.
In the case of Richard Dyksterhuis in Seattle, who lives on Linden Avenue North, he was feeling that his community has become a transportation corridor with parking lots for home and others for malls and a sea of cars in between. He had to fight to get sidewalks put in so he could walk to buy milk from a store he can see from his home.
In Toronto Michael Lewis Johnson has become an organizer to try to make at least some of the streets safe for people. He is a bicyclist. One unforgettable scene features Michael with some friends biking down the centre of a snowy and slushy street. He steers with one hand and plays Summertime and Silent Night on a trumpet with the other. Beautiful, ironic and funny. Johnson’s sense of humour is highlighted for he feels that the angrier you get about the problems the funnier you have to be to solve them. He dresses up as the ‘Klownen Fuhrer’ and haunts Kensington Market proclaiming how important it is for cars to take over our civilization. He is a hilarious devil’s advocate. And he has to be since , as he puts it, his activism is akin to truing to kill a fire breathing dragon with a thorn from your mother’s garden. He has bravely organized car-free days for busy streets in Toronto and, contrary to what you might imagine, the merchants want him to do it again. Shutting down the streets to car was actually a boon to business.
In Portugal we meet Miguel Camios, an engineer who hates his commute. He can see his work from his home across the water but it takes a great deal of time just to get across the bridge. After hearing about a man in New York who tried kayaking to work he decides to try it and now he gets exercise and still gets to work faster then he did before.
A lively discussion led by local activist Mike Nagy followed the film.
This film hit close to home for me as I commute by bike to work year round. I’ve had to develop a thick skin over the 10 plus years but even so I still feel marginalized trying to share the road with cars, vans and especially buses and transport trucks. At best bicyclers are tolerated but there are those ‘at worse’ times when I’ve been threatened by belligerent road hogs.  Still I have definitely seen an increase in the number of bikers on the road.  That, along with some of the grudging efforts by my local municipality to provide bike lanes and paths, is encouraging.

I Bought a Rainforest

Jacob Andrén and Helena Nygren created an interesting documentary this year based on a simple question. Jacob’s class had raised money back in the 80’s to save a part of the rainforest and he wanted to know what was happening with their plot in Costa Rica over 20 years later. A good question that many of us have asked. We donate money for far flung projects and who knows what happens with it. Jacob did his best to find out.
But first I will disclose my own feelings about buying those acres. At my most cynical I could say this is the developed world using its money to try to preserve forest in the developing world because we’ve learned, through our own experience, that cutting down entire forests is wrong. We now know that this practise has real and serious environmental consequences but, I feel, we are trying to atone for our past foresticidal sins. This may be true but it hasn’t stopped me from buying plots of my own.
OK. Back to Jacob. A lot of these types of development projects are run by volunteers and so the paper trail can easily become cold after decades but Jacob didn’t give up. He traveled to Central America and pursued whatever contacts he could. Telling you if he was successful or not would be giving away the ending and I don’t want to do that. The point of the film was to show some of the realistic issues behind this issue. We are introduced to environmental heroes out there fighting their own government and poachers to preserve forest.
It would be easy to become cynical and discouraged but Jacob doesn’t. This isn’t a documentary that shies from the facts but it manages to keep its spirits up, like Jacob, and have an uplifting and hopeful end.  I would recommend it very much for anyone.
Bill Barrett, a local activist and cofounder of the Plant An Old Growth Forest project here in Guelph spoke after the film and lead an informed discussion about the issues. His hope was that the grassroots organizations that began these campaigns long ago would be reborn because, he’s convinced, they do a great deal of good.  After seeing this film I would agree.