Category Archives: movies

When Human Lives Collide

“Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”

That’s how author Darin Strauss begins his confessional autobiography, Half A Life. In this magnificent book, Strauss, who was already a best-selling, award-winning author of three novels, including Chang and Eng about the famous conjoined twins, decides to tell his own story. It’s a tragic, yet redemptive tale in which Strauss finds a way to see the past in a different light and in doing so sheds much of the guilt and self-doubt that he’s been carrying around for more than two decades.

Half A Life is a profoundly personal story of an accident in which a teen-aged cyclist veers into traffic and is struck by the car Strauss was driving, causing a collision which takes the young woman’s life and leaves Strauss with nothing but questions, guilt and self-doubt. But what makes this book so evocative is the author’s ability to remember and recall the “tic-by-tic second” sequence of events that happened one fateful day long ago and followed Strauss for the next two decades. Strauss is not afraid to detail every horrifying, guilty-ridden, grieving moment and the myriad ways the accident continued to haunt him. Half A Life is a courageous recollection of a tragic accident, rendered in an intimate and fearless fashion by the man behind the wheel.

Half A Life begins where it must begin — at the scene of the collision, with a detailed description of every move, thought and emotion. Strauss recounts the tentative moment in which he emerged from the windshield-cracked car, walked over to the side of the road and peered into the “lifeless” eyes of Celine Zilke’s, her body twisted like a ragdoll on the street:

“The eyes were open, but her gaze seemed to extend only an inch or so. The openness that does not project out is the image I have of death: everything present, nothing there. She lay on the warm macadam in oblique angles-arms bent out and up, foot settled under the knee. In the skin between her eyebrows there was a small, imprinted purple horseshoe of blood.”

Strauss takes the reader along with him on a seemingly never ending string of events; the distraught visit to the police station, the author’s unsteady attendance at Celine’s funeral and Strauss’ awkward return to classes. Darin Strauss recalls the wildly insensitive and inappropriate comments made to him by classmates and family members in the wake of the accident. He remembers with vivid recall his interaction with the victims family and how he was told that he would now have to live not one, but two lives, in Celine’s absence. Throughout “Half A Life” Strauss’ inner voice resonates and with each mile marker he passes he remembers new doubts, questions and uncertainties.

As if his own shame and irresolution isn’t enough, Strauss also relates the endless litigation brought by the victim’s family, including mortifying court appearances in which he is asked questions like, “Were you drunk?,” or “With five other cars around, why did she swerve into your car?”, and perhaps the most incredulous, “How far did her body fly?”

Strauss writes:

“Through all this, there was the courthouse threat of financial devastation — a thief taking up ominous position outside every job, every apartment, rubbing his hands together. Everything could at any moment be taken away…to keep Celine with me forever.”

When the author goes to college he remembers not knowing who to trust or whether to tell new friends and lovers about the accident. Years later, Strauss writes of the absurd tension and embarrassment of attending his 10-year high school reunion, all of it a haze of embarrassed baldness and pot bellies. The author enters therapy (doesn’t help), gets married (helps tremendously), and has some kids (helps some more). In the end, Strauss finally takes an emotional journey during which he experiences an essential epiphany of self-knowledge.

“Half A Life” is a somber reflection by Darin Strauss into how we are all connected to one another, yet at the same time, still seperate and apart. It is a redemptive realization rendered in a series of almost poetic pondering and exquisite beauty. Half A Life demonstrates this great writer’s ability to finally make sense of an event which for so long made no sense.

But more than anything, Half A Life, is a heartfelt confession in which the author allows himself a healthy dose of long-deprived self-forgiveness.


Director Tom Shadyak

Meanwhile, in the fascinating new documentary, “I Am,” Director Tom Shadyak came himself to understand how all living things are intrinsically connected to one another, after he was involved in a near fatal cycling accident.

Shadyak, is best known for being behind the camera for nearly a half-dozen wildly successful, albeit lightweight slapstick comedies. Films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, and The Nutty Professor. Not necessarily highbrow material. But every thing’s different in I Am. Shadyak narrates this hopeful documentary that he says he conceived while recovering from the cycling accident that almost killed him. He says that during this period he began asking himself more serious questions like, “What’s wrong with the world” and “What can I do to make it better?”

Shadyak says he realized during his convalescence that problems like poverty, hunger, and war (to name just a few) needed to be addressed soon or else our species would be doomed. So he set out to ask experts around the world, people like Desmond Tutu, the late historian and sociologist Howard Zinn and linguist, philosopher and political theorist Noam Chomsky, as well as many other scientists, physicists and big thinkers the big question: How do we leave our quest for greed and excess behind and replace them with lives spent improving the planet Earth and its inhabitants?

Shadyak quickly found, as expected, that there are no easy answers, but in I Am he takes us around the world to ponder things like, maybe there are limits to how much we need, perhaps less actually is more and perchance the whole quest for more, more, more is a giant lie. Shadyak portrays isolated, indigenous people sharing and helping each other (oh, what a concept,) as do just about every species of living things. The now enlightened Shadyak illustrates that most breeds of animals behave on a model of what is called “consensus thinking”: in other words, the majority decides. For example, if the majority of a flock of birds decide to fly in one direction, then they all fly in that direction.

Perhaps most critically I Am reveals to viewers how problems like war, hunger, and poverty are merely symptoms of a much larger endemic problem, whose solution is not competition and capatalism but cooperation. Shadyak uses his own sense of fun and humor, his curiosity, and his masterful storytelling abilities to portray the simple mystery and magic of our universe – a universe which we can either learn to work in concert with or be seperated from through extinction?

The message for all who see this remarkable film is that the answers to all of these complex questions which will define our future are within us all and it is up to us to recognize our basic connection to all living things. Shadyac shows how his own journey has transformed him into a new and better man, who has given up his expensive, wasteful and ultimately destructive lifestyle.

The films shows, in the end, that the real answer to the question is:

(For more information visit the films web site: http://www.IAMTheDoc.com.)

(Special thanks to the beautiful Janet Graham for her assistance and inspiration with this blog.)

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The Social Network – From Harvard Prank To 25 Billion Dollars

My fiancee and I were fortunate last night to see an special advance screening of the new Facebook movie, “The Social Network,” billed as the film that Facebook doesn’t want you to see. It’s a great teaser and it’s true. Based on a book by Ben Mezrich, who also wrote “Bringing Down The House” about the bad boys and girls at Harvard who figured out how to use their brains to beat the house at the casinos of Las Vegas. That book was made into the film “21.”

This film is more about the genesis and probably tougher on the kids in Crimson who started what they called “The Facebook.”
The screenplay was written by the excellent Aaron Sorkin, who takes his fast and smart dialogue he used on “The West Wing” and turned it up to warp speed. These brilliant students like co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his best friend and co-founder Eduardo Saverin don’t just think at a million miles a minute, they speak that way too. In the beginning they just wanted to be cool. Little did they know the hazards that lie in their respective futures. And little did they know they’d go from being best friends at Harvard to archenemies in the cut-throat business world.

The movie, which takes place frequently at Harvard, was actually filmed at Boston University (which is a victim of a quick verbal insult – talk about biting the hand that feeds you) and Wheelock College. The filmmakers begin with the birth of Facebook from a night in a dim dormroom where Mark uses Eduardo and a formula he’s familiar with. This computer hacking technique gives them access to photos of woman at every house on campus and the ability to create a tiny version of the current Facebook.

This “Mashbook” which allows all Harvard students to scrutinize and compare women catches the attention of a couple of big, rich men on campus who are trying to create a social dating site called “Harvard Connection,” which leads to a partnership with more partners, or more importantly INVESTORS!!!

And so we’re up and running. In a big way. Mark decides to expand the Harvard early-version of Facebook to other Ivy League campuses. But along with the great big ideas come also the dirty little lies. Mark lies to Eduardo about his association with some of his partners. Mark lies by not keeping the “investors” in the loop. Finally, after meeting the founder of multi-millionaire founder of Napster, Sean Parker, played with great flourish and deviousness by an ultra-confident Justin Timberlake. Mark finally yields to Sean’s suggestions to move to California, along with all of the other partners in this growing endeavor. In other words, the web is growing more and more tangled as Mark continues to take more and more initiative without the initiative or consent of his partners.

And that’s when the problems begin. As the company gets bigger and the zeros multiply, the lawsuits against a nationally flourishing Facebook stack up. The original “Harvard Connection” twin crew members and investors sue Mark Zuckerberg. And here’s where the actor playing Mark, Jesse Eisenberg really starts to show his range. The scenes during depositions with room after room after hilarious. It’s evident to everyone that Mark is the smartest person in the room, with or without the law degree. Eisenberg may play the part nerdy at times, but it’s soon clear he is a creative genius with an obsessive streak for greatness. Others who excel are Mark’s college buddy Eduardo Saverin, who as brilliant if not as crafty or zealous as his buddy Mark. And I would be remiss, if I didn’t give big kudos for Trent Resnor for his incredible soundtrack. It sets just the right tone for this tale. Smart, evocative words and music.

In the end, when all the cards come tumblin’ down and all the lawsuits (for now) settled, it almost seems like the days of the first “Wall Street” film, when the means didn’t matter, just the end. And greed is good. Everybody gets big-time settlements or payoffs and Mark Zuckerman remains still, the youngest billionaire in the world.

This is a film that raises many hard questions. For instance: When all is said at done and the billions are made, does loyalty matter in business? Does friendship and creative control matter?

Or is it just cash that is king in the hard, cold world?

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“The Town” – A Review

I was born and raised in the town of Weymouth. By car or public transit, it was a short trip into the city of Boston. So when I was growing up I spent a lot of time there. During my summers between semesters of college I’d come back home and hang out in the bars and neighborhoods of the city I still love. We’d drive all over Boston from Southie to Chinatown, and from Copley to Harvard Square. But one place we almost never went was the one square mile of cobblestone and brick called Charlestown. We kept our distance.

Charlestown, often ignored and left off maps of Boston and with a chip on it’s shoulder because of it, was the location of the Battle of Bunker Hill and also where “Old Ironsides,” the U.S. Navy’s battleship, Constitution, is docked. And even though it looks pretty in pictures, Charlestown was nothing but trouble. The guys our age were tough and liked to fight and the chances of going into a Charlestown bar and not coming out without a bloody or broken nose weren’t great. Plus, the people who call Charlestown their home town don’t exactly have a fondness for outsiders. Either you were a “townie” or you were not. And if you were not you’d be better off not crossing that bridge. It’s a small provincial, clannish neighborhood and the residents like it that way.

Besides being an historic part of Greater Boston, that little piece of land also has the seemly distinction of producing more bank and armored car robbers than any other place in the U.S. It’s something that folks there are actually proud of though you’d never hear anybody mention it. That’s because of Charlestown’s famous “code of silence” where nobody “evah knows ‘nuthin'”. Nevah. Evah.

Ben Affleck’s new film project, “The Town” takes you to the places where my friend Tommy and I never went; straight into the bars, street corners and triple-Decker’s where the townies live and breath. Affleck directed, produced, co-wrote and stars in this tense, taught thriller. And he absolutely nails every second of this film, as he follows one such gang of thugs, which he happens to also be a member of. Affleck, who of course hails from this neck of the woods, gets every last detail right. The hard to imitate Boston accents, the look of the city at sunrise and in the evening, and especially the bad attitudes. But most importantly, Affleck’s “The Town” captures the terrible trap of crime and dead-end lives that most these young people find themselves caught up in.

I’ve seen plenty of films about Boston, including the admirable, “The Departed,” which netted an Oscar for master filmmaker Martin Scorsese. But I’ve never seen the places and the people so perfectly depicted and mimicked. Every frame of this film, from the opening bank heist to the film’s climax, where the foursome try to knock over the cash room at the “cathedral of Boston”, Fenway Park, is pitch perfect and packed with white knuckle tension. And it’s Affleck’s eye for the details that transcends this film from just another okay cops-and-robbers saga to a brilliant movie about the tragedy of lost lives.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that Affleck has such a great cast to paint his canvass with. Jeremy Renner, who we last saw in the Academy-award winning, “The Hurt Locker,” once again shows his incredible range both in the robbery scenes and when he’s faced with a partner in Affleck who wants out.

Another real standout performance comes from Affleck’s character’s incarcerated father, played with even-tempered steel eyed guilt and regret by the astonishing actor Chris Cooper. Even newcomer Claire Keesey shows a dangerous vulnerability as the bank manager taken hostage and later stalked by the thugs who think she might be their undoing. When Keesey’s character, a preppy newcomer to Charlestown’s condos Rebecca Hall is followed and subsequently unknowingly falls in love with Affleck’s, Doug MacRay, the plot thickens and the trap closes tighter.

On the other side of the law, Affleck gets a stellar performance from Jon Hamm, fresh from the set of “Mad Men,” who plays an FBI agent determined to bring this crew down. In one remarkable scene, Hamm’s FBI agent on a mission goes mano y mano with Affleck in an interrogation room, but fails to intimidate his bird of prey.

Affleck uses an unusual amount of extreme close-ups which bring you even deeper into the drama and seem to implicate you as an accomplice. And whether the location is a park bench in Harvard Square or the inside of a Charlestown skating rink, Affleck seems right at home.

All things considered, “The Town” is nothing short of a masterpiece. The film’s quite, haunting score moves it along like a train chugging along through the night. In the end the there are no easy answers. Instead the viewer is left to find his or her own sad conclusions.

And unlike the getaways that help Charlestown’s artful dodgers live to rob another day, they’ll be no getaway after viewing this movie. It’s a complex film that will stay in your consciousness for a very long time.

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“The Motorcycle Diaries” – Not Just Another Road Movie

For the last six years I’ve heard nothing but raves about the on-the-road, buddy film, political manifesto “The Motorcycles Diaries,” but for some reason or other I never got around to watching it. Until the other night, and I am here to add to that chorus and raves and recommend it as one of the great films of the past 25 years.

The truth is, after viewing it, I can’t get this film out of my head; from the gorgeous images that showcase the intense beauty of South America, the passionate camaraderie and love between a 23 year old Che Guevara and his hilarious, sidekick, best friend Alberto Granado, to the gradual political and social transformation of Ernesto “Che” Guevara as he encounters the poor, indigenous people who populate his home in the southern hemisphere. I recommend it not because the cinematography is gorgeous (it is) or because the actors are tremendous (they are) or because it’s a really fun road trip that will make you want to hit the road yourself (it will). I recommend it because like all great art, it will change you, or at least the way you see this part of the world.

“The Motorcycle Diaries” is set in 1952 and is based on the actual diaries kept by Che Guevara, who was then a medical student one semester away from graduating when he decided to go on a long journey up and down that long continent of South America with his friend, biochemist Alberto Granada. Before they go, the two amigos trace out an outline of their journey which they plan to mount atop Alberto’s outdated Norton 500 motorcycle, nicknamed by Alberto “The Mighty One.”

The two men, their bodies, sacks and packs of food and other provisions, are perched like a tremendous behemoth upon this tiny motor bike. And even though their eventual destination is a leper colony in Peru, where they hope to help the sick and dying, these are two young men looking to discover new places and the fun and adventure that is sure to greet them along their intended 8,000 kilometer (5,000 mile route).

They hop aboard “The Mighty One” and head out from Buenos Aires, Argentina across the flatland and up into the Andes and through its snow covered mountains, down the coast of Chile and across the Atacama Desert, where eventually “The Mighty One” breaks down and is sold as scrap. You want to give God a laugh, it is said, tell him your plans.

The tone of the film shifts slowly from one of rambunctious hilarity to something different with serious sociopolitical implications. In their travels, Che and Alberto encounter a group of traveling migrants on the road to Venezuela, and Che (or “Fuser”, as Alberto has earlier nicknamed him) begins to get to know the peasants and downtrodden people of South America. Listening to their stories at night alongside a campfire and under moonlit skies, we see the slow metamorphosis that is happening within Che, as he hears these sad stories of lives lived under the terrible hardship of poverty. One couple tells of how their lives were uprooted and ruined because of their communist beliefs, as many of the others nod in political solidarity.

Finally, when Che and Alberto visit a copper mine, Guevara’s frustration and anger come to a boiling point as he sees with his own eyes the terrible treatment of the men who are merely trying to seek out enough money to feed their families. All this time, Che feverishly documents in a diary consisting of numerous notebooks exactly what he is witnessing and does not want to forget.

For most of the film, Alberto serves as somewhat of a foil, a source of comic relief versus the more serious and gentlemanly young Che. Alberto wants to sing, dance, drink wine and make love. Che seems more interested in learning as much as he can about a world he never knew existed. But both men are moved tremendously and muse both politically and philosophically when they reach the most breathtaking stop on their already transformative journey, the Peruvian ruins of Machu Picchu.

As Che and Alberto both observe with disgust the contrast between this centuries old ruin of Machu Picchu with the the ugly, polluted city of Lima to the south, they find themselves wondering aloud how such beauty and majesty can be so devastatingly destroyed into the waste and greed and avarice they see far below them.

Che speaks of dreams of revolution against rampant capitalism, but is warned by the more practical Alberto who answers, “A revolution without guns? It will never work.” Prophetic words indeed. In the end, the two weary travelers reach their final destination, the leper colony where Che cares for those in dire need of medical attention, refusing the custom of wearing medical gloves, and instead bravely, nobly choosing instead to meet the lepers with his bare hands.

As the film comes to a close, Ernesto “Che” Guevara makes a birthday toast, his first real political statement, in which he confirms how he has been so radically changed and hints at what those changes will mean for his future. In an attempt to put words into action of one day bridging the widening gap between the “haves” of the world and “have-nots,” Che plunges into the dangerous Amazon river and swims from the safe side where the caretakers live and eat over to the sick side, where the lepers are dying. He emerges from the water, a man newly baptized by the water and ready to begin a new, more radical life.

This is a film which will have a powerful effect on you. It will change you in many ways, not the least of which might be the way you think of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a true man of the people.

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