Wednesday, December 30, 2009

TRH Movie - Up in the Air

Time started to be on my side yesterday afternoon. We finished up all of our massive holiday celebrations, paused for a moment together to enjoy our anniversary, and then went our separate ways. I had a couple of things to do at work, and my RRHB went off to do some recording with a friend, which meant I had a free afternoon. What! How could that happen? By the time I got home last night, I hadn't just hit the proverbial wall, I had ran headlong into it with all the power of an 18-wheeler. However, before that and just after managing to jump in the pool for a bit of swimming, I treated myself to Up in the Air.

George Clooney plays Ryan Bingham, a high flying (literally) corporate consultant called in to "manage" the termination of large groups of people during restructuring or firms going out of business. Like any industry, even one based on the massive economic problems ransacking the United States, Bingham comes face to face with change. In his instance, the rolling bag, hotel-living lifestyle that goes along with being on the road 330 days of the year comes to a crashing halt the moment a young inky pup upstart presents the idea that the company needs to go "Glocal." They need to take their "global" and make it "local."

They're bringing termination in-house and doing it via Skype. Bingham's essentially grounded. But before they clip his wings, he argues that Natalie Keener (no irony in her name there, yawn [played by Anna Kendricks]), should come with him to see how impossible virtual firings truly are -- real human beings in awful situations faced with a computer screen telling them their life is effectively stopped short seems painfully inhumane to me. And having been through it myself, I tend to agree. If I had walked into the evil corpration and found myself face to face with a talking head Skyped in version of HR, I probably would have lost it even more so than I did during the actual termination interview.

Of course, conclusions are made, lives are changed -- because the purpose of the film is to find Ryan Bingham at the crossroads, but like (500) Days of Summer, (which might just be one of my favourite movies of the year) the results aren't what you'd normally expect, and that's where you find the true magic in the movie. That's the thing about indie movies. They take cliched moments, essential rom-com stuff, and turn them slightly in another direction, making them seem more real in a way that, say, The Ugly Truth, just can't.

And, there are lots of these moments in Up in the Air: the meet cute (Bingham and his love interest, fellow high flyer Alex [played to perfection by Vera Farmiga], meet in an airport bar and bond over Air Miles, bonus points and hotel room service); the wedding shinanigans (Bingham's sister's nuptuials); the not-so honest confessions of "real lives" and "real intentions" (Ryan + Alex may or may not have a happy ending); and the aforementions upstart inky pup gets some worldly experience that changes her course (if we've all seen In Good Company we know how this turns out).

But I was surprised by a lot of the film too, especially by the cameos, the name actors who drop in for moments when you least expect them, and all of the quasi-documentary-like sections of the film when Ryan and Natalie are at work busy firing people. This film couldn't have been made even five years ago. It wouldn't have had the same resonance in terms of the economic situation. It's real life that makes this movie poignant, and not the other way around, which isn't normally the way that movies work on an emotional level.

There's something unsustaining about the lives we've created. Maybe this is the message from the film. That all of the modern advances that have brought us to the brink of collapse can do as Ryan suggests, send a message to take you in another direction. That having a goal that's tangible on a human rather than a socio-economic level isn't necessarily a weakness but a sign of a different kind of strength. There's poetry in that, I think. Also, I'm thinking that it's probably never a good idea for me to go see these kinds of movies by myself. It's always good to have company to stop the philosophical stuff from just roaming around in my head until I feel a little batty.

Lastly, just like Michael Clayton, another film I absolutely loved, George Clooney proves time and time again that he can play one hell of a modern leading man. Oh, and on the way home, I managed to sit in a subway car littered with ads for Ryerson University's continuing ed programs. Shaky photo attached. Interesting coincidence, I'd say.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

#68 - The Law of Dreams

In a way, I think I've been waiting for The Law of Dreams. It's that kind of book that fills up a void: the missing space after I finished reading Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, another sweeping epic of a book that changed me when I closed the cover. These are stories that stay with you. These are the books meant to be read. These are the ones that you add to life lists.

The Law of Dreams won the GG in 2006, rightfully. It's a story about the Irish Famine, but like Let the Great World Spin, the event itself serves as a backdrop, as an impetus, for the novel's protagonist, Fergus, to step out into the world. He doesn't really have any choice. The famine has devastated his way of life -- tenant farmers on a large estate, a roaming father comes home the minute the potatoes turn up black, refuses to leave, and months later, families all across Ireland are destitute, starving, and forced out into the world to not only find a fortune, but to survive.

Once Fergus leaves as his house burns, he joins a rag-tag group of children who beg, steal, and even much worse until one tragic event forces him to leave this second family behind. This pattern continues for the poor boy. He travels, works for a bit, finds a subtle sense of stability until the moment when an act of unprecedented violence forces him in yet another direction. He works the rails for a time to earn enough money for passage to Canada. He barely survives the passage. He manages to set foot on Canadian soil but that doesn't mean Fergus remains headed for a happy ending. These pedestrian, modern concerns, a quest for happiness in a world where the basics of life are taken for granted, well, that's just not what's on his mind.

Behrens writes, "Sometimes your heart cracks and tells you what to do." Throughout this entire story, Fergus follows his heart, often to his detriment, all the way to Grosse Île, where one utterly heartbreaking moment changes his course yet once again. It's Homeric, this odyssey, and this young man grows up in a way that the traditional sense of a buldingsroman can't encompass. There's no artifice to this story but that's not to say Behrens use of language and form isn't beautiful, it is, but it's not hiding anything either. There's a plainness to his observations that cuts right to the essence of human nature, of suffering, and of the need to consistently make decisions under excruciatingly hard circumstances.

Epic yet understated, rough yet delicate, honest yet heart wrenching, The Law of Dreams was one of the best books I've read in a long, long time. Highly, highly recommended.

READING CHALLENGES: I'm not at all sure where I am in this year's Canadian Book Challenge. I'm going to try to figure that out by the end of the year. But this book fits the bill and I'm counting it, hoping that it'll inspire others to pick it up.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Feeling A Little More Like Myself

This weekend has flown by. We've finally got chairs for our dining room, a bookshelf for the living room, and a menu for our three days of holiday entertaining. All the shopping (for our families) is done and I've got a new pair of winter boots that don't leak. It was non-stop yesterday and that compounded with a terrible night's sleep means I'm a little groggy today as I finish up editing my latest Classic Start.

We went to see The Constantines on Friday night for their 10th anniversary show. We had a grand old time. I did a lot of yelling and shouting. And dancing. And singing along. There was a moment where I thought it would be a fantastically fun idea to dive into the mosh pit as if I were in my early 20s again. A moment of teasing and an insistence on crowd surfing happened, and I changed my mind. On the first week of January, it'll have been five years since I was let go from Alliance Atlantis, and listening to the Cons made me think of that time again. I listened non-stop to Shine a Light record the summer before they "reorganized" me out of a job. I played it loud and obnoxiously at work when I was there late, frustrated by the lack of support I received, frustrated by the bad management, leaving work tired, angry and upset most days. It was no way to live. But I'm a sensitive girl, and the whole experience left its mark. It's funny -- there's an element of karma to the fact that the woman who made all of our lives so miserable was herself out of a job a couple of years later and I've certainly moved on to a better place.

Perspective isn't really something that can be taught. It's like a simple shift in point of view in a narrative -- you know that it'll tell the story better but you're so wrapped up in the writing you can't separate yourself from it. I'm a goal setter but that doesn't necessarily make me a goal getter. I'm not big at risks. I've always been afraid to take a leap without having something holding me up. For the most part, that's my RRHB. He has the most reassuring shoulders. I can always find him in the crowd.

And so I've been contemplating what's next. This year has been so difficult, the one year anniversary of losing my mother, the appendix nightmare, the lack of a proper vacation -- it's all taken its toll. I'm finding myself rushed and irritable, frustrated by the lack of momentum in my life, but always recognizing that every inch equals a decision. Perhaps I should have entered the mosh pit -- age and tragic hip be damned. But I had just as much fun from the sidelines surrounded by friends, and remembering that even if I'm lonely most days, that doesn't mean there's anything wrong with me. I should be brave enough for it not to matter. I should know what's really important.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

#67 - Little Black Book of Stories

Have you ever noticed I generally start all of my reviews with some long, rambling introduction? Today will be no different.

I'm reading about 4 different books right now (What Should I Do With My Life, The Law of Dreams, Slowing Down to the Speed of Life; can you sense a theme there?), including the only one I've finished so far, A.S. Byatt's engaging short story collection, Little Black Book of Stories. Monday was spent in transit (doctor's app't, to and fro from work), which ensured I had a few spare moments to read (and by spare I mean an entire hour in the middle of the day waiting for the damn doctor).

We were at a birthday party this summer when the sister of a friend of mine was telling me the book that she had most enjoyed reading so far in 2009 was A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book. As I don't have a copy that book in my possession, when I found this book just sitting on my shelf, I thought, "yes, that's it for this week." Because if you can't have THE book why not at least try A book by one of the year's most celebrated writers?

Comprised of five lengthy short stories, Byatt's expansive imagination coupled with her never-ending quest to aptly describe human saddness (or longing, that might even be a better word), the book reminded me a little of Too Much Happiness. Every single character in the stories has been marred emotionally by their lives -- happiness isn't expected and nor is it gained. Life is rough, untidy, difficult and downright miserable in places. But because Byatt's an exceptional writer, the undercurrents running through each story, the little bits of lives that exude joy, are there as well. She also has some lovely fantastical elements in each -- the stories themselves tend a little toward fairy tales for adults.

My favourite of the five would have to be "Body Art": an aging doctor released from an unhappy marriage but not his religious convictions finds himself entangled with a young (apparently almost-homeless) artist charged with "brightening" up the ward. Universal questions like how and why is art important to a life are, of course, raised, but the unlikely relationship between the two resonates even more. The central tale, "A Stone Woman," has lovely fantastic elements, and "The Pink Ribbon" too -- even if that story is achingly sad (it too reminded me of Munro, specifically, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain").

On the whole, this collection was far more satisfying to read than Nocturnes. Because, holy cow, what a snoozer of a book that was.

READING CHALLENGES: Cleaning Out My Closet -- a book from the dark corners of my bookshelf, for once. And because this book just feels so British (along with A.S. Byatt being born in England), I'm tagging it for Around the World in 52 Books too. My only reading challenge for next year? To keep up with all of my other reading challenges. Or maybe even finish one or two.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

The Sunday Papers, TRH TV & Jersey Shore

We slept in this morning, and I've decided that today will not be a complete waste, as was yesterday. The work week was exceptionally long, with sales conference and a general sense of wariness on my part, and so we went out on Friday night with friends for much-needed release. Of course, in my semi-non-drinking state, the three pints that I had rendered me utterly useless almost all day yesterday. And so I watched Jersey Shore online after Zesty sent a funny note about it last week. Good grief. It's hard not to judge these people. And I suppose that's the point -- the strange obsession that we have with "reality" television seems to be ruining entertainment, as Vanity Fair pointed out in its December issue -- as we spend hours (as I did) following the lives of vapid, self-involved, idiotic wastes of earthly space from a fairly protected sense of being morally better than they are.

As everyone starts to follow the Copenhagen conference (the Globe had extensive coverage of global warming in this weekend's Focus section), a huge discrepancy between where pop culture seems to be headed and the real issues facing our society today. In short, I kind of feel like the environment just doesn't matter to the masses. I'm sure I'm making ridiculous generalizations, and shouldn't just use the vapid, ridiculous "characters" from Jersey Shore as my test subjects, but I was honestly disgusted by their lack of awareness, the amount of garbage they produced on screen (all those disposable cups!), and the kinds of things that caused an emotional reaction (feeling "outcasted" and fighting in bars). The men use bucketfuls of product on their hair and the girls who claim they're "all natural" (in that they aren't augmented) while piling on ridiculous amounts of make-up and wearing next to nothing.

Maybe I'm just trying to attach a sense of righteousness where it doesn't belong. The stereotypical muscle-bound meat heads and the girls who love them seem to be partying their way into a z-level fame. These kids can't aspire to much or else they wouldn't be on the show in the first place and I often wonder if these shows aren't meant to depress the viewership as much as appeal to it. How can you not feel defeated about the state of feminism when you watch young girls come up into a house of strangers, allow themselves to be filmed jumping half-naked into a jacuzzi, and pull off their underwear while the three other women in the house call them "skanks" and "whores." In the same breath, two of the four women in the house then go on to cheat on their significant others while being so drunk they can't remember what happened, one girl gets "sloppy" (which none of the men appreciate?) on the first night, and the last girl, nicknamed "Sweetheart" leads one roommate on only to make-out minutes later with another fellow from the house. Where's the dividing line between skank and whore? The determination lies solely with whomever shouts the loudest?

I shouldn't have watched it. The comedic value of it all was lost on me. Or maybe I'm just too serious these days. Feeling a little lost and neglected in terms of my own life and far too hungover yesterday to contemplate anything more intellectual. But when and how did society fall so far and how do you think these kids are going to feel about themselves when they gain some perspective? Some of them are simply old enough to know better -- a man on the cusp of his 30s who is still chasing tail and judging his success in life by how many women are entrapped by his abs should be ashamed of himself. The idea of instant gratification is taken to the nth degrees by this snippet of American life. These kids don't really want to work (their room and board is paid for by working a shift or two a couple of times a week in a t-shirt shop), their values are family-orientated in a way (they're mainly Italian-American) when it suits them, there's no discussion of safe sex, common decency seems non-existent, and sexism on both counts gets confused with sexual attraction in ways that make me feel far, far older than my years.

And the whole time I'm watched, mindful of being entirely the wrong demographic, I kept thinking: we're wasting the earth's precious resources on this sh*t. And no one seems to care. I wonder how ironic Pauly D's Cadillac tattoos will be in however many years when there's no more gas and there's nothing left to power their beloved cars. Do you think he'll even understand the irony?