Monday, February 27, 2012

Oscar Night 2012

Over two dozen friends and relations came over to watch the 84th Oscar telecast with us tonight. It's pretty late, but I had a few thoughts to share before crashing:

  • It is a wonderful privilege to know so many people who love the movies and parties, or else the Oscars would be just one more lengthy broadcast. Or, as 9 time host Billy Crystal put it, "nothing underscores our recent economic turmoil like a billion people watching millionaires giving gold trophies to one another."
  • I enjoyed The Artist and don't begrudge its win, but I still think a Best Picture should have more going for it than charm and nostalgia.
  • The Cirque du Soleil routine was breathtaking; why didn't they use that to highlight some of this year's music nominees?
  • Terence Malick's Tree of Life was far too inaccessible and challenging a movie to win Best Picture, but I wish it had won for cinematography, because It is almost painfully gorgeous and completely naturally lit.
  • Christopher Plummer's speech was probably my favorite, mixing sentimentality and cynicism in equal measure; he expresses tremendous gratitude and respect for the other nominees, the says, "I would share this with them if I had any decency...but I don't..."
  • I only had to take three shots for this year's March of the Dead, a personal best.
  • It was great to have Billy Crystal hosting again, but his 'audience mind reading' shtick seemed much funnier last time, with Michael Clarke Duncan 'thinking' "I see white people," and Dame Judi Dench's " my thong is killing me."
  • I'm looking forward to many great things from Best Actor Jean Dujardin, who brings almost as much old school Hollywood style to the party as George Clooney.
  • Meryl Streep's first win since 1982 (and 14 nominations!) was good to see, and her speech was excellent (very few people had only the laundry list of thank yous this year), but my favorite film of hers will probably always be Death Becomes Her...
  • It didn't win any of the 'big' awards, but I hope Hugo's wins get it some more box office; we can use more movies like this!
  • Congratulations to James for winning the prediction game with an immense 18 out of 24 correct!



Saturday, February 18, 2012

3 Million Rivets, A Postage Stamp, An Egg Cup

I wasn't interested in going to the Titanic artifacts exhibit at the Telus World of Science, which, in retrospect, surprises me.  Both girls were keen on it, and not just because of the James Cameron movie; Glory is actually reading a "Dear Canada"" book about the Titanic, and Fenya has read about it as well.  I submitted to the tyranny of the majority and went along, against my wishes, and I'm glad I did.

In two months' time, it will have been a century since the sinking of the unsinkable ship and the loss of 1500 lives.  In terms of tragedy, there have been two world wars, innumerable natural disasters, and the 9/11 attacks in the interim, so why does the sinking of the Titanic continue to intrigue us, a hundred years later?

I continue to be drawn in by the 'what if's' of the scenario, like the Marvel comic of the same name, seeing diverse alternatives play out infinite possibilities.  What if Captain Edward Smith had listened to the ice warnings from other ships like the Carpathia, and reduced his speed instead rushing to New York at full steam?  What if the binoculars for the crow's nest hadn't been lost and the onrushing iceberg spotted miles ahead?  What if that same iceberg had a smooth side, or had only punctured 4 watertight compartments instead of six and managed to stay afloat?

Unlike Fenya, all the books I read about the Titanic in school had to speculate about its final resting place, as the wreck was only discovered in 1985, and nothing was brought up until the early 90s. Fenya asked why it was so difficult to retrieve the artifacts and I said, "Well, imagine swimming in a pool the size of a football field.  Now turn it sideways so the far end is now the bottom, all right?  You know how your ears start to hurt at the bottom of the deep end?  Now imagine swimming to bottom of that big pool.  Got it?  Now imagine going 40 pools deep."

The exhibit was a tremendous opportunity to see actual items recovered from the Titanic, from the obscure to the mundane. Rivets, representative of the three million used in her construction.  Glassware and china from all three classes of passenger.  Luggage, clothing, postcards, even a remarkably preserved Canadian postage stamp, all brought up into the light after almost 8 decades where no sunlight reaches, and the pressure is an astonishing 6000 pounds per square inch.

In the accompanying Imax film Titanica, we accompanied the international crew of the Akademik Keldysh and her two submersibles as they travel to the wreckage.  Intellectually, I know there is some life at those depths, but seeing fish swimming and crabs scuttling in that pressure and cold is still like watching telemetry from a distant planet.  And when the captain asks how the dive chief knows the coordinates of the wreckage, heaign him say, "back before they sealed up all the charts and maps, I saw the position written upside down and I memorized it.  I plugged it into my GPS and now it's plugged in to the Keldysh, and we're heading straight there," is like hearing dialogue from a spy thriller.

Everyone attending the exhibit is given a boarding pass showing the name and background information of one of the Titanic's passengers, and a list at the end of the exhibit shows you whether or not your particular individual was one of the lucky survivors or not.

Visitors are matched by gender, so I knew the odds were against 'my' survival; onlhy 17% of the men on the Titanic survived, since priority was given to 'women and children' first.  Fenya's school teacher returning from India likewise perished, but Audrey and Glory's passengers both survived.

We picked up the green-screen photo above to commemorate our visit to the depths and the past, and the obligatory fridge magnet which is our souvenir of choice (every home has a dedicated display space that just also happens to contain food and beer).  Fenya opted for something a bit more obscure, yet everyday: a replica White Star Lines egg cup, proudly bearing the company logo.

When it launched, the Titanic was the largest moving object ever built by human hands, and designed to carry over 1000 people across the Atlantic in as much comfort as possible, with their dolls, relish dishes, tools and books.  On a legendary vessel, their simple goal of transiting from one place to another went terribly awry, and took most of them into history instead.  How could one not be interested in that?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Regardez Hugo, Vite, Vite!

It's been observed a number of times that I spend more time anticipating movies than I do actually seeing them, and it's probably true.  All my favourite films are perpetually yet to come out, largely because I become attached to them when I first hear about who is making them, or when I see the first trailer.  But then I hear poor word of mouth, or disappointing reviews, and I start hedging my bets, and I end up seeing it much later on video, if at all.

Conversely, some of my best film experiences have come from movies I know very little about, like Martin Scorcese's Hugo which the four of us saw this afternoon.  I knew it was from a director I have tremendous respect for, but who hasn't made a PG film in 18 years.  I knew it was based on a book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, and courtesy of a workmate, I knew it dealt with a lot of early cinema.  I also know it leads the Academy Award nominations with 11 nods, so by watching this one film, I greatly enhance my enjoyment of Oscar night.

Most of the people I know who like movies will like this one, and theys hould go see it while it enjoys a resurgence due to the Oscars.  (Two weeks ago, Hugo had one showing a night at South Edmonton Common, this weekend it was 1, 4, 7, and 10!)  This is a movie you are likely to enjoy morethe less you know about it, so I will simply express my appreciation for some points within it.

Child actors - Always a mixed bag, but Hugo is very compellingly portrayed by a young lad named Asa Butterfield, who reminds me of a child-size interpretation of Cillian Murphy (the industrialist's son from Inception) only with the piercing eyes of a Fremen from Dune.  Asa does a masterful job of mixing emotions, such as the cocktail of shame, anger, fear and defiance he displays when he is caught thieving, so I am thrilled to hear he might end up playing Ender Wiggins in the movie version of Ender's Game that might actually happen.  I was also very pleasantly surprised when twenty minutes in, I recognized Hugo's friend isabelle as Chloe Grace Moretz, also known as Hit Girl from Kick-Ass.  She exhibits a similar talent that is surprising in a 14 year-old, and I look forward to seeing her in many more films.

Veteran Filmmakers - Martin Scorcese is often enough to prompt me to see a film, but he is also enough of a master to draw such quality performers as Ben Kingsley to his projects.  Scorcese's non-abuse of 3D is similar to that of James Cameron, in that he uses it to immerse you in the period and specifically, the inner workings of the clockworks of the train station in which the orphaned Hugo lives.  In fact, Cameron applauded the use of 3D as the best he'd ever seen, including his own films.  Including Christopher Lee in a small role as the owner of a bookstore is a step in the right direction as well.

Layered Story - Four of us aged 9 to 40-something all enjoyed this movie; it's a period piece framed in a thoroughly modern fashion.  It's a movie about an orphan that balances between whimsy and pathos, and a children's movie that is not shrill or cloying.  I think I will need to pick up the book by Brian Selznick, because it is a beautiful story.

Hugo is a story about the power of stories, both on the printed page and on the silver screen.  If you have an affection for or believe in the power of either of these two mediums, please check out Hugo, in a theater, and, yes, in 3D.  If nothing else, it will demystify 11 Oscar nominations for you.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Tea Party

Let there be no mistake here; of the two of us, Audrey is by far the better quality human.

I have mentioned previously the wonder in which I hold the continued patience, perseverance and compassion that she brings to her job as a Special Needs Teaching Assistant in a school which is located well onto the wrong side of the tracks.  The stories she brings home about unacceptable behaviours, tragic circumstances and squandered opportunities are enough to bring a tear to a glass eye.  And I should clarify that a lot of the worst behaviours belong to the supposedly responsible adults, not the children in their care who range from kindergarten to grade 6.  It's not uncommon for one of Audrey's workplace anecdotes to end up discussing how much better off a child might be in the foster care system, or having been put up for adoption as infants.  It's hard to imagine going home to an environment where the best possible after-school scenario is being completely ignored until the next morning when you can escape back to your classes.

At any rate, there sometimes seems to be more opportunities to reach out to the young males in Audrey's grade 6 class, rather than the females.  Maybe this is because the boys are more likely to end up perceived as a threat to society after they are targeted by gangs, or because more of them seem to suffer from things like Oppositional Defiant Disorder which makes simple containment a major part of their everyday routine.  Regardless, sometime last fall Audrey got an idea in her head to host a tea party for the girls in her class, and to let them keep the teacups afterwards.

Audrey has collected fancy teacups for years, and it is one of the few really girly things she does.  She has a couple of dandies from her Oma, and a couple of others she has received as gifts in the last few years.  My favourite Christmas picture is one I took seconds after she realized her sister Betty had given her a cup she'd seen in an antique store in Rocky Mountain House.

At any rate, she brought the idea to the teacher, who thought it was great.  Audrey had a couple of teacups she could spare, but she not only wanted one for every girl who participated, but one additional one, so that even the last person to choose would still have a choice.  It's this degree of empathy and planning that I never would have considered until after I watched the last person choose.

She asked her colleagues in the church choir, many of whom are ladies of a certain age, if they had any teacups they could spare, and of course, some of them did.  She then went to the HomeSense store on 137th Avenue and asked if they had any extra boxes for the teacups, so that Audrey could get them to school, but more importantly, so her girls could get them home safely. After she explained what she was doing and why, they were only too glad to help, but with Christmas approaching, they forgot to arrange them by the next time she dropped in.

The staff were so penitent about this oversight, that when Audrey next returned, they had not only collected more than enough boxes, but two of them had gone to thrift stores collecting cups, and one even received one from her own Mom's collection.

Prior to the tea party, which was held just before the Christmas break, there was a little concern as to exactly how the girls would respond.  In addition to going to a school in - let's be charitable and call it a bleak part of town, a number of them face challenges at home, or bear the scars of decisions made before they were born, like Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Some of them are new Canadians who don't even have a preconceived notion as to what a tea party is.

The girls were told they were having Girls Club at noon that day, which meant it would be a special time with no boys allowed, but they were not told what they would be doing.  Audrey had baked some butterkoek (Dutch cake) and brownies, and had the tea ready when she unveiled the cups, and explained how a tea party works, and that they would get to keep the cup they picked as their Christmas present.

Every single girl was thrilled to participate, which is tremendous when you consider that some of them don't have a lot of opportunity to do 'girly' things, and many of them had never even played at having a tea party when they were younger.  Many of them live their lives untouched by delicacy, and for some, just expressing an appreciation for such things is enough to single them out as a target once out of view of their teachers.  In this case though, every girl was genuinely appreciative of this opportunity, as simple as it seems.

At one point during the proceedings, one of the girls asked Audrey and the teacher, "Are you guys tryin' to make us into young ladies or something?"

"Trying, yes," said the teacher, but even though this made most of them laugh, it didn't stop them from continuing to drink their tea, with their pinkies extended.

When everyone was finished, Audrey labeled all the boxes, took all the cups to the kitchen and washed them so the girls could take them home clean.  some of the other teachers and staff came by to admire the cups, and to express their admiration for the idea.

Two weeks ago, one of the girls was asked by her grandmother to come for a visit.  "Can I bring my teacup?" she asked, and of course she could, and of course they had a tea party as well.

Fancy teacups are delicate, and beautiful, and hard to protect from the rough and tumble world that surrounds them, and so are young ladies.  I hope they manage to keep their cups intact for a good long time, and perhaps collect a couple more along the way, or leave this first one out where others can see it and ask about it.  I hope they remember the Grade 6 Girls Club tea party for an even longer time, and never forget that everyone is entitled to a bit of fanciness in their lives once in a while.

Most of all, I hope Audrey never stops coming up with these ideas to make the kids in her school feel special.