Monday, 21 April 2014

A Minor Epiphany

I had a minor epiphany this weekend. Believe me when I tell you that it won't change anybody's life and it certainly won't offer a cure for cancer, but it was a personal realization all the same.

What was this conscious understanding, you might ask? was the complete and total comprehension that movies made in the last twenty years or so generally suck shit. This isn't something new nor is it groundbreaking territory for me, but a few random discussions over the Easter weekend has cemented this idea in my psyche.

Now before you get your knickers in a knot, please allow me to expound on my thesis.


Quickly and without the use of Google, name the Best Picture Oscar winners for the last five years, including the one that was just handed out in March.

If you were able to name (counting backward) 12 Years a Slave, Argo, The Artist, The King's Speech, and The Hurt Locker then you deserve a prize. I am a trivia nut with a history of demolishing the competition and with a memory like a steel-trap, but even I couldn't remember The Hurt Locker. 

Let's take it back five more years. Did Slumdog Millionaire, No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, or Million Dollar Baby come quickly to mind? No? Well you aren't alone. How about memorable performances from any of those Oscar winners? Does Hillary Swank's Oscar winning turn in Million Dollar Baby or Colin Firth's understated portrayal of George VI in The King's Speech rank up there with the greatest of all time? I would argue quite the opposite. I find it stunning that we live in a time whereby Hillary Swank is the proud possessor of two Oscars (the same number as Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, Dustin Hoffman, Elizabeth Taylor, and until very recently Meryl Streep) while actors like Peter O'Toole, Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Thelma Ritter, and Richard Burton never took home the gold. It can be debated that she was the best in the years in which she was nominated, but I would argue that the movies in any given year have been extremely mediocre for so very long that we are merely rewarding that which sucks the least.

Now it could very easily be stated that the Oscars are not and have never been a true measure of excellence in the film industry. I would tend to agree with that premise. Any award that rewards a film like Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan or worse yet, gives its top prize to How Green Was My Valley instead of to Citizen Kane certainly has some explaining to do, but The Oscars are at the very least, a barometre of the tastes and spending habits of the movie-going public. Which brings me to my next question....

What was the last summer movie that you truly enjoyed? I'm not talking about a special-effects extravaganza. I'm talking about an actual film where the dialogue is audible above the Dolby Digital sound rumblings. Oh....and it can't be a remake or a sequel. Ready....go.

Tough, isn't it. This summer we will see the likes of The Amazing Spider Man 2, (which if you are keeping score is actually the fifth Spider Man movie in 15 years) The Protector 2, The Legends of Oz: Dorothy's Return, Wolf Creek 2, (I don't remember Wolf Creek 1) another X-men, another How to Train Your Dragon, another Jump Street, another Transformers, another Planet of the Apes, another Expendables, (the first two were expendable enough) and yet another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And this is only a partial list. Do we really expect any of these forthcoming films to make any lasting impression whatsoever?

Which brings me to my question on Facebook this past weekend.

My brother and I have often entertained each other with the following question which I opened up to the masses on my Facebook page. "If you were stuck on a desert island, name three films that you would want to have with you that you could watch over and over again." They don't have to be the best films ever made, but they had to resonate with you enough that you could watch them repeatedly.

The results were fascinating. The answers came from all ages and generational divides; men, women, older and younger. Here are a few things that I learned.

1. There were only a couple of films in the dozens mentioned that were made after 1990. Even the Gen Xers and Millennials chose movies from an earlier time. I think this shows that our young people cannot and will not be bought off by the swill that Hollywood continues to spew. They are much more careful with their disposable income and would rather watch quality.

2. A classic is a classic no matter the generation. So many of my friends had The Princess Bride in their top three. It proves that quality writing and acting is timeless. (The same could be said about Hitchcock flicks.)

3. Musicals may not be the best movies ever made, but they certainly do entertain. Now given that I am a musical nut who probably surrounds herself with other musical nuts, I shouldn't be too surprised that many of my friends had at least one musical on their lists. What is interesting however is the diversity of these films.

4. Some of you are truly twisted. A rabbi friend of mine put Saw I and Saw 2 on his list. I am hopeful that these inclusions were part of a dark joke done at my expense, but I suspect they are true escapism for him, something that seems to be sorely lacking in modern-day films.

5. Watching Groundhog Day over and over and over again is the absolute definition of literalism.

6. Some of you have real trouble following directions. I said three films, not three series of films. (Yes Twin Son's Better Half, I'm looking at you!) Not every Harry Potter film is worthy of consideration. (Chamber of Secrets kind of sucked!) The Godfather III shouldn't even be mentioned in the same breath as the first two.

Now I am not suggesting that The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins should be ranked amongst the best films ever made, nor am I suggesting that they are everybody's cup of tea. I am saying that when asked this question, most people do not put many movies of the past two decades on their lists of all-time favourites and that should be a very loud wake-up call to the people who make these films.

There are some people out there doing quality work. Foreign language films and documentarians are exploring themes and settings that are rarely seen here in North America.  Pixar has been exceptionally brilliant, but even they need to explain the rash of mediocre sequels coming out lately. (Planes. Really??)

I get it. The film industry is a business and businesses are about maximizing profits. But I think that the art has gone missing. My simple and unscientific poll should serve as a conversation starter. Instead of plunking down 10 bucks a person for trash this year, check out some of the films that my friends recommended. I can guarantee you some fine viewing and very few wasted hours.

**If you are not my friend on Facebook and would like to know what some of these movies were, please comment and I will post a cross-section. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Ghosts of Pesachs Past

As we were setting up for tonight's seder at Sister/Cousin's home yesterday, The Little Bro and I found ourselves discussing seders past.

The sederim of my youth were anything but conventional. They were big, loud, brash, musical, and creative. (Actually...things haven't changed all that much.) We often used off-print haggadot (we still do), had several musical instruments at the table (we still do), and it wasn't unusual for a new experience or visitor to make an appearance.

My brother and I spent part of yesterday reminiscing about the time that our uncle decided to introduce kinetic energy to the seder table and how we kids couldn't help but foil his best-laid plans with our own brand of chicanery.  Or about the time that he read everybody's aura with a crystal. There was the year that he invited an odd "homeless-looking" (we never really did discovered his name or story) gentleman to join us. The chap ate like he hadn't in a month, but was so grateful and so polite that we all felt as though we had fulfilled the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger.

Then there was the time that I insisted that we place an orange on the seder plate and nearly set off WWIII. The political discussions that followed were forever banned from the seder table by my mother. There was the year after Other Father's dad passed away that we taught all of the kids how to sing Chad Gadya in Yiddish the way he always did as a surprise. We gathered them all around him and they just let it go. Other Father was so moved he could barely get through the first verse.

Our seders have grown so large that with next generations and significant others added in, we have had to find suitable locales to host us all. We have used condo party rooms and synagogue multi-purpose areas. We have developed seating charts and menu lists. We have measured space down to the last centimetre and we have detailed the event as carefully as any party planner. (A special shout-out for this stuff has to go out to my Little Bro's Yin to his Yang. She is unbelievable.) It isn't always easy and we don't all agree, (OY!!) but every year we seem to make it work.

I think that the reason that the two of us got a bit nostalgic yesterday and certainly a bit misty, was in part because of those who will not be with us this year. Some because it is the yearly trade off with other sides of family; some because of university exams; some unfortunately because of illness; and some because......

There is a great deal of complaining that goes with Pesach. It is so much work. It is so much cooking. It is so much cleaning. It is so much constipation. All of it true. But as my conversation with my brother reminded me yesterday, it is really all about the people. Those that are here and those that will always be here. They are all in my heart and soul this year and every year.

May your Pesach sederim be lovely, meaningful, fun, and filled with the stuff that makes memories.