Thursday, January 9, 2014

What Maisie Knew (2012)

 Scoring a highly respectable 88% on the Rotten Tomatoes scale, What Maisie Knew stars Julianne Moore as Susanna, a self-centered, unfiltered mother whose singing career—and parenting skills—are on the wane. Her partner Beale (Steve Coogan) fares no better in this department. Their wont is to air their dirty laundry in front of their 6-year-old daughter Maisie (Onata Aprile), a sensitive child whose silence speaks volumes. She loves her parents unconditionally, but that doesn’t mean she has to like being with them, especially when they use her as a pawn in their custody fight. Luckily, their capriciousness is Maisie’s saving; Beale hastily marries her beloved young Scottish nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham) shortly after the split. Susanna then ties the retaliatory knot with Lincoln (Alexander SkarsgĂ„rd), her handsome, lanky boyfriend. During this precarious period, Maisie is cared for by Margo, a doting Lincoln, a sympathetic waitress (for one scary night), and the doorman of her mother’s apartment building. It takes a village to raise a Maisie—New York City, in fact. The city serves as a backdrop for her various misadventures after her father flees to England and her mother goes on tour.

It is hard to assess what effect all the cursing and over-sharing have on Maisie. She’s only 6 years old, after all. Soon after Lincoln wins her daughter’s heart with his fun-loving attitude and reliable presence, however, Susanna is jealous. She uses him as a babysitter but cannot stand to witness someone else demonstrate the love she is unable to. Does she love Maisie? Yes, but at the same time she wishes to have nothing to do with her. She simply does not have it to give. Father Beale is too preoccupied with his business dealings to tend to the emotional needs of his daughter or his new wife, for that matter. You wait for some terrible incident to befall Maisie, whose daily existence is constantly threatened by the senseless machinations and manipulations of her parents. You have to wonder if Maisie’s reticence at home is a result of their pathetic, destructive tendency to treat her as a little adult.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Best Worst Movie (2009)

 Troll 2 enjoys the dubious distinction of receiving the lowest score possible on the Rotten Tomatoes website (0.0). It’s one of those “so bad it’s good” horror movies that contain more than a few unintentionally hilarious one-liners. At first, the plot seems straightforward enough. A little boy discovers that the goblins his grandfather spins yarns about really exist, but the adults don’t believe him. Then, it starts to get weird: Eventually the evil, vegetarian creatures (no trolls are actually featured in the movie) threaten to turn his entire family into plants in order to eat them. Best Worst Movie explores, in part, which elements go into making a great, bad movie like Troll 2. Although it was released only on VHS and never saw theatrical release, the film boasts numerous fans worldwide that line up to attend standing-room only screenings. All of the players in the film were unknowns, and only a couple of them are still working actors. The acting is awkward, the special effects low budget, and there is absolutely no irony—the perfect storm for a great, bad movie!
Dr. George Hardy, who is featured prominently in the documentary, played the boy’s father. He’s a dentist living in the small town of Alexander City, Alabama, where he maintains a thriving practice and is beloved by all. Back in 1989, he was living in Salt Lake City, Utah, near where the movie was cast and filmed. After 17 years of living in relative obscurity, Hardy is gleefully pulled into a whirlwind of appearances surrounding the film’s renewed popularity. How far will the world’s best worst movie take him? Will he abandon his practical profession to pursue acting? The Italian horror movie director Claudio Fragasso collaborated with screenwriter Rossella Drudi to create a “serious” film that he contends deals with significant issues such as the importance of protecting the family unit. Like Hardy, Fragasso basks in the attention he receives during the film’s U.S. revival, but he bristles when viewers fail to appreciate it for the same weighty reasons that he does. Directed by Michael Stephenson, Best Worst Movie is streaming on Netflix now.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

American Addict (2012)

The documentary started promisingly enough. Initially it focuses on famous individuals who died as a result of prescription drug abuse. The main culprits included depressants, stimulants, and narcotics. Then, however, the director parades out a series of “experts” whose work has been largely discredited by the mainstream medical establishment—and for good reason. Dr. Peter Breggin, author of Listening to Prozac and other anti-medication tomes, has the audacity to claim that young people who are suffering from so-called neurochemical imbalances simply have to read a little Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky to “find themselves.” Elsewhere he’s on the record as stating that children with ADHD are “rambunctious,” wrongly asserting that drugs proven to alleviate the symptoms of the disorder do not work. Another researcher talks about her investigation into drug-related adverse events. She attributes the fourth-leading cause of death in the U.S. to such adverse events, a claim that is patently false. Yet another physician criticizes Otsuka America Pharmaceutical for marketing Abilify to consumers, an anti-psychotic drug that psychiatrists have successfully used as an add-on to reduce anxiety in their depressed patients. She dismisses the notion that the drug may have value in this context.
I am no cheerleader for “Big Pharma,” but this film makes so many wackadoo connections between the FDA, the government, and the drug industry that it made me grateful to live in a world in which great advances in pharmacotherapy have been made for the countless people who are living with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other debilitating mental illnesses. American Addict is a confused documentary that deceives the viewer into thinking that it is going to primarily explore the burgeoning, widespread abuse of powerful prescription drugs like Oxycontin. Instead, it quickly deteriorates into an indictment of pharmacotherapy in general. At the end of the film, the producers urge patients to ask their doctors if there is an equally effective “alternative natural treatment” with which to treat their ailment. A responsible doctor will provide one if one exists, but many times it does not. The principle achievement of this film is that it succeeds in spreading misinformation, instilling fear in consumers, and illuminating how misunderstood the pharmaceutical industrial complex is.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

It's Enough to Make a Girl Go Vegan

Watching Blackfish (2013) reminded me of the scene in the first season of The Walking Dead in which Rick rides a beautiful chestnut horse into Atlanta. He has no idea that he is entering a dead zone of utter destruction and chaos. The viewer soon recognizes that he has placed a beautiful, noble animal—and himself—in peril. The horse is visibly terrified by the smell of death. Zombies attack almost immediately. They tear apart its flesh, devouring it while Rick beats a hasty retreat into a nearby tank. This is the one scene in all four seasons of the series that I dread. Of course, there are countless human victims in the show, but there’s something special about animals that touches our souls.
Killer whales have a rich, inner emotional life that neuroscientists and animal behaviorists have observed. They communicate through a complex series of sounds that together form a type of language. In the wild, they travel in families, or pods. The children of a female killer whale never leave their mother’s side, unless they are forcibly removed. In such an event, the mother mourns her missing child. Captivity disrupts their mental stability, leading to tragedies like the one that occurred at Orlando’s SeaWorld in 2010 between Tilikum, a large male orca that had a history of aggression, and one of his handlers, Dawn Brancheau. Although Tilikum’s past incidents of aggression were well documented, SeaWorld chose to officially attribute them to “trainer error” in spite of the fact that highly capable and experienced individuals were involved. Eyewitness accounts often conflicted with the official reports.
Many trainers, all former employees of SeaWorld, are interviewed extensively in this documentary. It is heartbreaking to listen to their conflicted feelings as they recount the close relationships they developed with the animals as they simultaneously acknowledge that prolonged captivity led to dangerous behavioral problems borne out of frustration. You can really feel their sincere regret.
Large marine mammals should be allowed to roam the ocean. We should stop the practice of penning them into cramped, concrete enclosures for our personal amusement. Long ago, American Indians called orcas “blackfish” and revered and feared them from a respectful distance for their awesome power and strength. Can we not return to this ideal to regain our own humanity?