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Every Movie Has A Meaning & A Message To Explore

Movies are a form of entertainment that tell a story through a series of images and sound that give the illusion of continuous movement. Doing so allows viewers to learn visually about the message each are trying to convey – often in a short period of time. Some movies are so powerful their meaning lingers, and many times it is in the smallest of details.

— Dr, Martha Hart.

Ever since I can remember I have loved watching movies and deciphering the hidden message and meaning behind them. Some movies inspire us, some make us sad or mad, and some are just good fun. I think my interest in the meaning of things comes from being a doctor in mental health. Human beings possess an innate desire to search for and find meaning. We crave to know purpose – it’s a big part of our humanism. I am also the founder of The Owen Hart Foundation and therefore I work with many individuals in-need so I am always trying to understand people in my quest to be as empathetic as I can to their struggles. As well I am the Vice President of the Monaco International Film Festival (seen below center along with MIFF founders Dean Bentley and Rosana Golden). In an effort to tie in all the aspects of my everyday life and given my love of movies I have wanted to create a purposeful yet casual movie blog for some time about cinema that has moved me or stuck in my mind for one reason or another. Not because I am a said expert in film – I’m not – but just because I love thinking about what the take-away message is in any situation and because I love discussing movies, and giving my Oscar picks… Once this blog is established I will try to do one post per week (time permitting) to explore the meaning of life through the movies we watch – so let’s get started!
AFA-MIFF founders Dean Bentley and Rosana Golden along with MIFF VP Dr. Martha Hart.

The Shining 40 Years On (Halloween Special)

Halloween 2020 is near!! The scariest day of the year and not just because it’s my birthday! With the entire world simultaneously living the same horrific isolation-induced COVID-19 nightmare this Halloween is truly the most terrifying ever! Therefore only the most frightening ultimate-seclusion movie will do. Hence ‘The Shining’ it is. Released May 23rd 1980 this 4o year horror thriller is arguably the scariest movie ever made. After all, nothing is more petrifying than being locked up in a remote domicile with your family! ha ha

Directed by the late great Stanley Kubrick, ‘The Shining’ is an adaptation of horror novelist Stephen King’s 1977 book of the same name. Though it is no secret that King vehemently detested Kubrick’s version of his masterpiece. That said, King might be alone in his convictions given that Kubrick is considered one of the greatest cinematic directors of all time. I personally do not like scary violent movies, but the brilliance of this psychological thriller cannot be overlooked. This film’s best quality is that compared with other horror flicks there’s limited amounts of gore, yet maximum amounts of spook. Set in the distant Colorado Rockies, the movie opens with short tempered alcoholic writer/former teacher Jack Torrance (fabulously played by the legendary Jack Nicholson) meeting with hotel executives of the antiquated colossal Overlook Resort to discuss Jack’s prospects of serving as the live-in caretaker in the winter off-season when the lodge is closed. Jack is warned of the mental health toll associated with sheer isolation as listed in the job description (due to the remoteness of the snowy mountainous location that makes road travel impossible for the better half of 5 months) as well as the hotel’s grim past (several homicides particularly in Room 237 where the previous caretaker axed his own family to death). However, with limited employment options and the desire to write a book, want-to-be scribe Jack accepts the job and thus begins the tediousness of his self-appointed exclusion with timid wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and psychic son Danny (Danny Lloyd) in tow. {Fast fact: the interior of the Overlook Hotel was created in Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire England, but the exterior is actually the Timberline Lodge in Oregon}

As the threesome embark on their faraway journey through the elevated alpine terrain, the long winding drive at the beginning of the movie punctuates just how inaccessible the Overlook Hotel is, especially during wintertime. Once there, it doesn’t take long for odd events to slowly start unfolding. Filmmaker Kubrick’s clever approach of taking his time to build the characters as they steadily descend into madness truly maximizes the level of absorption and commitment viewers invest in the story. With the baron emptiness of the hotel, it’s the disconcerting calm that echoes throughout the many stately rooms that leaves audiences saturated in trepidation. The film also brilliantly maximizes sound to create the consternation we all know is coming, but when? The not knowing is what keeps audiences on the edge of their seats. This film radiates in its ability to conjure up the most unnerving anxiety by utilizing the simplest scenes and sounds. Case in point; the long shots of little Danny barreling across the hotel’s vast open spaces on his tricycle, loudly traversing infinite hardwood floors abruptly coupled with eerie quiet as he then rides over the many throw rugs. With each turn he blindly rounds the corners not knowing what he may find down endless hallways dripping with murderous memories of violent days gone by.  

The slow but captivating pace of the movie exemplifies the utter monotony and boredom associated with confinement and how the days blur with indiscriminate time. The uninterrupted nothingness makes work of play. The irony is, all play and no work is really what makes Jack a dull boy, not the other way around. Yes, too much free time is not a good thing as an idle mind invites dark thoughts like a welcomed guest. From the onset Jack is already an abusive intolerable father/husband but the tedium transforms him into a most frightening unbearable monster. The movie also includes many random titles (4pm) which also contributes to the menacing mood of monotony. Viewers can’t help but feel the agony of Jack’s commonsense wife Wendy having to manage a progressively deranged spouse and an increasingly unhinged child. To clarify ‘shining’ in this movie refers to the ability to see past and future events (aka clairvoyant/medium), which little traumatized son Danny can do (along with The Overlook’s head chef Dick Halloran played by Scatman Crothers; incidentally born May 23rd), which causes Danny to become catatonic as the dreadfulness of the situation heightens. Since this timeless gem is well worth the watch, especially at Halloween, I will stop there in case there are some who haven’t seen this movie yet.

With the storyline stenciled out, what life lessons could a horror film built on exile-induced insanity offer up to viewers? It’s worth mentioning that people have been trying to figure out the meaning of this movie since its release! Is it just a scary show about the delusions associated with isolation or is there something deeper buried in the foundation of the script?

At face value it appears that the underlying life lesson is to resist social isolation, but in fact it is more about the danger of history repeating itself. But what history specifically? There have been many interpretations floated, particularly about Room 237 which represents the most heinous of all evils. So much so that American director Rodney Ascher made a documentary in 2012 entitled ‘Room 237’ focusing explicitly on such explanations. One of them being the cultural assimilation of Native Americans since according to the movie’s dialogue the hotel is built on a Native American burial mound. This could be (in part), however if/when filmmakers embed hidden meanings into movies they tend to be quite subdue. That said, I think this evolution of thought process is on the right track but perhaps the meaning of Room 237 encapsulates an even broader and deeper element of America’s darkest history. Slavery. So how did I come to this original conclusion? It might not be widely known but the number ‘237’ is the country code for the African nation of Cameroon, which was one of the main points of departure on the ‘Slave Coast’. In fact John Punch, America’s 1st documented African slave is thought to have come from none other than Cameroon! Think about it – the ‘n’ word is used and the only person Jack actually kills in this movie is the kind helpful servant – the ‘black’ chef. Furthermore, if you ask me the beautiful woman Jack encounters in the Room 237 represents the seductive powers of this terrible evil that cloaked the US for centuries – turning from a much-desired endeavor, into the most sinister festering rot. So if the main message is about the elite enslaving and confining people against their will, then what do we make of disturbing little Danny and the telepathic chef’s spine-chilling ability to drift between past and future events?

My guess is that this unnerving skill is attributed to how vile shadows of the past will always be repeated if not halted in their icy tracks. Director Kubrick hammers this home with flashbacks of slaughter via the creepy twins, and the admonitions via the tidal wave of blood gushing out of the ground zero elevator, not to mention the near possessed Danny’s constant verbal repetitions of ‘REDRUM, REDRUM… It’s just murder having to listen to it over and over again! All of this is done to convey the message that there will always be those ‘bright’ individuals who bear witness to threats of history reprised. Their insightfulness sees what is to come before the rest of us do. Though whether they choose to ‘shine’ light on the problem and act to stop the carnage is another story. Then again, who really knows the meaning of this movie. This is part of the appeal that lures so many to revisit this 40 year-old staple fright film like an old friend; each time experiencing something different. That said, I’m certain the message on some level is Déjà Vu.  Past vs. Future – the best way to predict future behavior is by identifying patterns of past behavior. Learn to recognize that we have been here before – so let’s never return (e.g. slavery, genocide, holocaust). This includes the banishment associated with COVID-19 as well as the affliction itself. It’s enough to turn the sanest of us mad.

PS. On the topic of isolation and ghostly resorts, I once had an overnight at a spectacular enormous historical mansion inn on route to my final destination. Part of the charm was that the lodgings had no TV or internet service in order to escape the outside world. I was really looking forward to it. That was until I arrived and found out I was the only guest! Once I resolved the fact that it was just me and the innkeeper for the night I was then informed that the innkeeper was leaving at 6pm and would not return until the morning. WHAT! With the keys handed over – I was alone for the night in this huge old spooky Victorian Manor full of numerous themed guest rooms that were all empty! Yikes! So what happened you ask? Well I don’t really buy into paranormal occurrences as I’m of the mind that most supernatural claims can be refuted or explained by science (e.g. door slamming = windows open…). That said, two odd unexplainable events happened to me at that inn. The first; I felt something tap my shoulder three times and when I quickly looked back I thought I saw someone but on second glance no one was there. The second; while in my room organizing my stuff I saw a silhouette pass by my interior glass door, but again no one was there. What made it worse was that both incidents happened in broad daylight – not at night! Oh brother. Each episode did give me chills, but I was confident there was a logical explanation, so I spent the night by myself determined not to let my imagination run wild. However, when the innkeeper returned the next morning with a smirk, and cheekily asked me if I enjoyed my stay it made me wonder. Good thing I have an open mind. Though I have never been happier to leave such an aesthetically beautiful haunt in my life. A true BOO story! Have a safe Halloween everyone.

NOTE: ‘The Shining’ is playing on many big screens this Halloween, and in Calgary it’s playing at the Canyon Meadows Theater.

The actual place I stayed – alone! Happy Halloween.

Contagion

With the U.S. presidential debates wrapped up and the nearing election largely hinging on the management/mismanagement of COVID-19, what better movie to draw attention to than Contagion! Before I dig into this movie’s very insightful forward thinking plot and profound real-life lessons, let me just say EVERYONE should watch this movie – and some more than others!

In 2011 Contagion premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, though I originally saw it on the big screen in 2012 when first released in Canada – and I liked it. But now having reviewed it again given the very dangerous epidemiological situation we are all currently facing, I sincerely felt as if I was scanning an excerpt from Nostradamus’ 1555 magnum opus Les Prophéties (942 poetic quatrains), known for ostensibly predicting future events. Similar to the writings of this 16th century French astrologer/physician and reputed seer (aka Michel de Nostredame) this decade old movie offers a prophetic forebode of dreadful modern-day real-life COVID-19 events now realized. In short, OMG if this movie didn’t hit the nail on the head in every way! Not to sound like a soothsayer but Nostradamus did predict a ‘great plague of the maritime city’ – China perhaps? Again not to sound too dramatic but watching this movie felt like viewing a condensed real-world CNN newscast. Even Dr. Sanjay Gupta (my favorite most trusted chief medical correspondent) eerily appears in this film, which made this dated story seem much spookier indeed. I cannot stress enough how remarkably frightening it was to see just how right director Steven Soderbergh got it. It’s art imitating life in its truest form. Wow!

This disaster thriller opens with pale unwell executive Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) connecting through a busy U.S. airport coughing, sweating, and nauseous upon returning from a business trip in Hong Kong. By design she plans a layover in Chicago to engage in a brief sordid and dangerous dalliance with a former lover before returning home to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) in Minneapolis. Chalking up her severe illness to mere jet lag, it doesn’t take long before viewers learn something much more sinister is going on with Beth besides concealing her lack of moral character. Akin to COVID-19, in no time the transmission of the unknown microorganism in the movie explodes globally and like a domino effect, pandemonium is unleashed. Several disturbing scenes at the onset of the movie are quite unpleasant but necessary to set the tone that deadly viruses are serious business and nothing to take lightly. As people start dropping off in epic proportions with scenes of mass burials (likened to the actual endless rows of coffins on NY’s Hart Island), enter medic Erin Mears (Kate Winslet) who through meticulous contact tracing, attempts to identify Ground Zero of the virus’ origins in an effort to halt the swell. But since this respiratory pathogen labelled MEV-1 is airborne it’s a near impossible task. As experts struggle to grasp the enormity of the problem rumors and panic inevitably go viral wreaking havoc on society in every way. Without giving too much away it’s no surprise that bad behavior reigns supreme with people trampling each other due to food/supply storages. Vigilantism takes hold as people are left to their own devices, and with all borders closed there’s nowhere to go. Chaos is everywhere in a world gone mad, with no end in sight until a lifesaving vaccine can be developed. Sound familiar?!

The movie has an impressive ensemble but it’s safe to say that despite its star studded cast the lead role in this movie goes to the MEV-1 virus! A-list actors include Laurence Fishburne as CDC head Dr. Ellis Cheever, Marion Collitard as World Health Organization Epidemiologist Dr. Leonora Orantes, Bryan Cranston as orderly Rear Admiral Lyle Haggerty,  Jennifer Ehle  as CDC virologist Dr. Ally Hextall, and Jude Law as blogger/conspiracist Alan Krumwiede who hassles scientist Dr. Ian Sussman (Elliott Gould) while downplaying the seriousness of the virus yet spreading untruths about government coverups. This movie (like our COVID-19 reality) pits science against conspiracy theories. Ridiculous! Especially given the former is evidence-based while the latter is based on nothing! With the storyline now explained, let’s flesh out the valuable take-away messages this film imparts on audiences.

In truth, the picture conveys two equally corresponding overlapping messages. First, despite how viruses start (unfettered public markets, warfare, labs…) or who spreads them (man or beast), this movie reminds us that we need to take stock of how we live our lives, what we do (animal abuse), how we disturb the balance of nature (deforestation), what animal species we bring together that normally would not mingle (wet markets), and how people contribute to or thwart outbreaks depending on simple human behavior (washing hands, staying home when sick…). It’s clear cut. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. Thus, bringing me to the second intersecting take-away message. Infectious diseases ultimately pose the greatest threat to mankind’s survival. These unseen combatants are very effective at ambushing with deadly force as they strike unexpectedly with little or no warning. It’s no secret that these hidden adversaries take over with a vengeance, leaving their targets unarmed and gasping at the gravity of the situation. But with all the knowledge we have on the subject why is it so difficult for some to embrace the danger viruses present?

Is it because we can’t see them? We can’t see the air we breathe either, or the radio-waves we use daily via technology, but we know both exist. Then again unobservable positives in life are always easier to accept psychologically. Whereas cloaked negatives are a different story. It is extremely difficult to rally people’s defense responses to wage war against unseen evils that are completely undetectable by the naked eye. Another contributing factor that plays into people’s reluctance to defensively act against viruses is that for some, ignorance is bliss. There are also those who become fatigued quickly or have difficulty gauging risk and therefore resist following standard commonsense medical advice. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly flawed leadership and miscommunication can lead to indifference and defiance. When epidemics hit, citizens look to their leaders for guidance. Much like a parent, the heads of nations and intelligence agencies take on the role of attachment figures with the primary duty of collectively guarding the homeland and taking care of its people by keeping them safe. If top advisors blatantly neglect their responsibilities – they are failures. What a shame it is when shared vigilance is needed but only perpetuated division is found. It’s true that nothing spreads faster than fear (except perhaps a virus) and unduly alarming people is not ideal, but in certain circumstances being afraid is a good thing. It can save lives. A perfect reason why listening to top health experts should be practiced.

On this point, doctors in this movie (and in real-life) make it transparently clear that when it comes to deadly viruses the only armor society has is practicing disciplined human behavior (social distancing, using hand sanitizer, self-isolating, wearing facemasks) until effective vaccines are developed. Make no mistake, obscure threats although veiled do exist and can be fatal with very high rates of lingering illness and death!  Fiction vs. Non-Fiction – in sum the parallels between this sage flick and the nightmare we are all living with COVID-19 is truly chilling. Again, it deeply stunned me just how much art mirrors life in this film and how incredibly accurate Contagion portrays the ravaging effects that merciless germs let loose on our planet without regard or consequence. Needless to say I highly recommend everyone watch this movie. The rarity alone of how shaken you will feel by seeing a decade old film that so closely reflects our current reality is well worth the watch. The resemblance is uncanny.

P.S. In the movie as in real-life the virus originates in China. I have been to Hong Kong a few times and enjoyed how different and fascinating it was, though I admit I didn’t always know what mystery food I was eating. Yikes! Also as depicted in the movie, let’s hope the many highly valued infectious disease specialists (like Dr. Anthony Fauci whom I greatly admire) have a vaccine available soon for this terrible virus. I have personally experienced just how unforgiving deadly microbes can be. My nephew by marriage Mathew passed-away mere days after contracting a virulent strain of group A streptococcus bacterium. Before our very eyes this wonderful healthy 13-year old heartbreakingly lost his battle to a swift moving indiscernible killer. Like the dangerous COVID-19 virus it locked in and just took over; shutting down his organs and turning his limbs black before stealing him away. Life can be so damn unfair. Be safe.

NOTE: Germaphobia and/or OCD can be inflated due to the genuine health risks associated with COVID-19. The International OCD Foundation can offer guidance at: www.iocdf.org.

My most memorial trip to Hong Kong 10 years ago with the family (daughter Athena, sister Virginia, niece Virgillia…) to cheer on Oje’s high school rugby team during their International Rugby Tournament that took us through Asia and Australia. Good times.

Interstellar

With Covid-19 raging making so many of us feel like Planet Earth is failing and turning its back on us I thought discussing a movie with a similar premise was in order. Immediately the unsettling 2014 sci-fi film Interstellar came to mind as it certainly fits the bill. This futuristic film directed by Christopher Nolan (who has 34 Oscar nods and 10 wins to his credit) paints a very dismal picture of our once plentiful abundant planet rapidly becoming increasingly uninhabitable. Yesteryear’s bright blue skies have been replaced by endless dust storms. Thus transforming Earth’s lifegiving atmosphere into a grossly contaminated cosmic disaster full of disease affecting mankind’s respiratory ability and reducing a once lush topography into an arid wasteland where next-to-nothing grows.

With all species on the brink of extinction, this time-paradox flick largely centers on widower former NASA pilot Cooper (well-played by Matthew McConaughey) and a team of researchers who are sent by brilliant NASA physicist Professor Brand (Michael Caine) across the galaxy via a wormhole to explore three top-scouted planets, to determine which one could best sustain life as man’s new home. However, despite all this film’s galactic fan-fair the underlying foundation of the story is the poignant love that exists between a father and his daughter with the number three playing prominently. So let’s flesh this out. Firstly, there are three possible life-sustaining alternate planets to investigate. Second, a three dimensional cube transformed into a tesseract (a geometric term for a four-dimensional cube; if a cube is the three-dimensional equivalent of a square, a tesseract is the four-dimensional equivalent of the cube) serves as the solution (fourth-dimension time/fifth-dimension harnessing gravity) where the three elements of the human experience (past/present/future) line-up. Lastly, there are three father-daughter tales woven into the movie. Namely Cooper (McConaughey) and young daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain/Ellen Burstyn) who he leaves to save the world. Professor Brand (Caine) and his scientist/astronaut daughter Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) who he sends into the universe uninformed of her fate in an effort to save the human race. Lastly, Donald (John Lithgow) who is Cooper’s father-in-law and who out of love and duty is helping his son-in-law to raise his dead daughter’s children before, during, and after Cooper is sent into space.

Though prior to explaining the significance associated with the number ‘3’ I what to say that I really like when symbolism is embedded in movies. It’s clever and thought-provoking as it challenges viewers to keep an open mind. A lot of filmmakers include these subtle boons as a method of creative release as many tend to be incredibility intelligent deep philosophical thinkers. With that said, numbers can represent a lot of things. But perhaps the number three is a theme in this deep-space drama as it relates to the fact that the interstellar polyatomic molecule H3+ (aka trihydrogen) is the simplest yet most abundantly produced molecule in the universe (next only to H2). But why is this an important underlying detail in the story considering H3+ isn’t even mentioned in the movie? It turns out that this unearthly molecule H3+ is credited with creating the entire universe. It consists of three protons arranged in a three-sided equilateral triangle, sharing two electrons among them. H3+ is a highly reactive giver, primed to donate a proton to anything it stumbles into causing a chain reaction that serves as a chemical facilitator in the production of larger more diverse particles. In short, H3+’s existence is volatile and short lived – it bonds, slows down, emits light, and in doing so allows other entities (dust and clouds) to form and grow, which like reproduction leads to the birth of planets and stars. It’s the ‘Mother’ of all molecules! But what’s often overlooked is that we need ‘Father Time’ in the equation, no matter how immeasurable the stint is (eon vs. millisecond) or nothing happens. In short, this movie wants us to remember that dads ‘matter’ a ton and their importance should not be ignored. Fathers have a profound knock-on effect in their daughters (and sons) lives whether they are decidedly present or absent. Thus the number three is artfully used to denote the value of H3+ (mum) but it’s not the focus of this film per se because the storyline wanted instead to center on the importance of ‘time’ (dad). Moreover, this chicken vs. egg (which came first) plot attempts to stick to the laws of science even reciting Einstein’s general theory of relativity re: time dilation (a difference of elapsed time between two events, as measured by observers that are either moving relative to each other, or differently, depending on their proximity to a gravitational mass), causing some critics to claim this film is much closer to science-fiction than science-fantasy. So in keeping with science, this picture emphasizes catalysts, consequences, and cause-and-effect scenarios throughout reminding us that each part of the equation is fundamentally vital; H3++ time = star, mum + dad = baby. But enough about quantum physics and astrochemistry. What on earth is the main meaning of this interplanetary film!?!?

The life lessons are acutely entrenched in this lengthy intricate and very complicated movie so you need to pay attention or you will get lost – just like real life! The point is there are no do-overs. Ever! Once something is done it can’t be undone. There is no time-machine, no turning back the clock. You get one chance and if you don’t choose wisely your choices can haunt you. Like an anonymous ghost that visits from time-to-time through the portholes of your mind, with the crushing weight of gravity on your chest, so dense you can’t breathe. It can remain dormant, but it never leaves, and in case you haven’t figured it out – that’s the face of regret. Choices, choices, choices – life is full of them and most people have good reasons for the choices they make. After all we have to make decisions all the time. Every day in fact. But there are always a few choices throughout our lives that are very instrumental as they have the ability to change the whole trajectory of our journey. Heavily impacting our lives and those closest to us, especially when children are involved.

Yes vs. No, Stay vs. Go… which path is the right one? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. This movie has dad Cooper fleeing planet Earth to find a solution that will save the world and his children. Yet with every passing celestial moment (translating into years on Earth) he desperately wants to return home. Witnessing his daughter transform at light speed from a young kid into a young woman causes him to question his purpose and whether he made the right choice. Realizing just how precious ‘time’ is, coupled with the dwindling odds of returning home, a profound grief and sorrow sets in. His agonizing repetitive self-talk is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Like an echoing sonnet. It’s a tune latent with heartbreaking sentiments he wants his daughter to know but expressions she never hears, though each word is reflected in his every thought and action; ‘I just wanted to get back to where you are’ yet the divide is just too enormous. The gap cannot be bridged. Unfortunately Cooper has bought into somewhat of a Faustian Bargain (a pact whereby a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values or the soul, for some worldly or material benefit, such as knowledge, power, or riches) but it doesn’t turn out how he expected. Does it ever? To quote Mitch Albom – ‘All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped.’ I’m not sure I agree with this statement but if it’s true I am certain that most parents do not mean to break their children’s heart, which gets to the core of this ‘stellar’ interstellar film’s ultimate take-away message. Intentions matter! In fact, intentions in all life’s decisions count for a lot even if the outcome goes horribly wrong. Intentions always supersede the act itself and can serve as a conduit to redemption rather than a black hole in your soul. That’s good news as most things tend to work out accordingly if decisions are made with pure intent using the best information at-hand. A sentiment this movie taps into via the subliminal Morse Code that finally presents itself and eventually resets the balance.

An Aside Note: Speaking of intentions, President Trump has tested positive for Covid-19 and it’s tempting, particularly for those who dislike him and his leadership, to feel that he’s getting what he deserves. After all he intentionally downplayed the seriousness of Covid-19 from day one. But negative energy projected onto others only ends up reflecting onto the beholder, so beware. Instead leading with good thoughts, feelings, and intentions will be much more beneficial in stopping the spread and finding the medical latch-key to lock this virus down! Much like the movie Interstellar, in time, equilibrium will return to our world – but with valuable karmic lessons of humility in tow. That’s what you get.

P.S. Briefly returning to the topic of father-daughter relationships. My dad, whom I lost 2 years ago, always appeared in my eyes to be such a giant of man that nobody messed with. A big powerful outdoorsman with a heavy accent (sounding like Arnold Schwarzenegger) he was a very bright, talented, successful, self-made man, with so many fantastic qualities, though being a father was not his strong point. I’m sure there are elements of his life as a parent he would like to ‘do over’ as being warm and giving were just not his style. That said, if he is stuck in a Gargantua 5th dimension somewhere trying to send me a message wishing he could change anything I would tell him, ‘Dad don’t worry about a thing – it all turned out for the best – you were loved all the same. In the end you did right by your daughter(s) and we forever did right by you. That’s all that matters.’ Bless.

Dad Jorgen with baby Martha.
Oje Hart playing a portion of the ‘stellar’ Interstellar Theme Song S.T.A.Y by memory. Just Beautiful.

Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) starts today but looks very different than in years past. It’s virtually virtual! This is certainly a big shift for one to the world’s most famous film festivals given that since its inception (1976) it has grown to attract close to half a million attendees annually. Due to COVID-19 restrictions TIFF has incorporated an online streaming component, but executive director Joana Vicente and artistic director Cameron Bailey are including elements of a physical festival with social distancing constraints in place. Much like the Venice International Film Festival recently has done.

TIFF (or rather ‘tiff’ as it is stylishly referred to), is a charitable cultural organization, whose mandate is to change people’s perspective of the world via film. A mission it tends to regularly live up to. Last year alone TIFF featured some of the most talked about influential movies of the year. Many of which I wrote about including, Joker, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Just Mercy, Knives Out, Parasite, The Lighthouse, Marriage Story, Uncut Gems, Judy, and The Personal History of David Copperfield to name a few.

Another film spotlighted at TIFF in 2019 that I haven’t yet written about but watched on my London- Calgary flight in March (the last time I flew) is the movie entitled A Hidden Life. This epic creation by famously reclusive director/screenwriter/producer Terrence Malick is such a beautifully made film with the most exquisite impeccable acting rarely seen in today’s flicks. This astonishing historical drama with stunning cinematography is based on the true story of Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter (August Diehl) who refused to fight for the Nazis during World War II resulting in imprisonment and the threat of execution, with his wife (Valerie Pachner) and family openly shunned and chastised for his courageous resistance. Like many of Malick’s films this movie unfolds slowly with a number of spiritual and philosophical undercurrents so it might not be for everyone. That said, very few films have ever mastered the art of conveying such expressions of raw emotion via body language (rather than verbal dialogue) as exceptionally well as this film has done. Bravo! Unfortunately, A Hidden Life was unjustly snubbed at Oscar time, but 76 year old Harvard graduate (Oxford Rhodes Scholar) Terrence Malick is not one to contest such decisions. Though no one can deny his ability to produce visually spectacular cinematic gems (e.g. The Tree of Life) even if the top brass continues to overlook his incredible talent. With this in mind, time will tell what masterpieces will be revealed this year at TIFF 2020 and how such films will fair at Oscar’s next go-round. BTW Malick whose educational background is philosophy, never finished his Oxford thesis on Kierkegaard’s world (meaning of our existence) perhaps this is why his prolific movies are so entrenched in mysticism; deep down he’s forever trying to finish his work!

Given that this movie blog post is intended to be more about TIFF and less about the picture A Hidden Life I will offer up just a fleeting account of the film’s takeaway message – though it is important to acknowledge as this movie projects an intense reflective transcendental life lesson. In a nutshell, let your moral compass be your guide and never compromise your personal convictions. Period. Conforming vs. Defying – the rebels of today may just be the heroes of tomorrow. Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti got it right when he stated, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Wise words to live by then, now, and always. Amen.

P.S. Toronto is a very popular hub for film-making in Canada. Us Harts even flew to T.O. to film some of Vice Media’s Dark Side of the Ring Docuseries Episode (Owen Hart’s Final Days) that aired in May. Doing so saved the large VM crew from flying to the U.K. (with tons of equipment in tow) to film Oje who’s finishing his Masters in International Human Rights Law at university in London, England. Oje and I had a lovely time while in T.O. and celebrated the wrap of the project with dinner and an in-depth discussion with VM crew members Oscar nominated American producer Evan Husney and renowned Canadian director/producer Jason Eisener – two fabulous filmmakers on the rise and ones to watch for at future film festivals worldwide including TIFF.

On the London-Calgary flight in March watching A Hidden Life and in T.O. Jan 2020 with Oje filming the Dark Side Episode.

Venice International Film Festival 2020

The Venice International Film Festival is going forward and begins today running through September 12th (Awards Day). Held on the island barrier Lido Venice, this very popular film festival is enjoying its 77th anniversary and is organized by La Biennale di Venezia and directed by Alberto Barbera. A more restrained format will be in place this year than years past due to Covid-19 restrictions. However, this should not be a problem since vibrant Venice has enjoyed a long history of mask-wearing that dates back hundreds of years. The tradition of the carnival face mask started in the 13th century when Venetians of all social classes would mingle and hold celebrations (from December 26th until the start of Lent) wearing elaborate masquerade masks to conceal their identity in order to play out their fantasies. Naughty, naughty.

With this in mind, the Venice film festival should be nothing but fun, with more than 50 countries screening their films at the festival and 18 flicks battling for top prize – the Golden Lion. The lovely Cate Blanchett will serve as jury president for the main competition, while French director Claire Denis heads up the jury for the festival’s Horizons competition. Eight of the top films are directed by women, which makes it even more meaningful that the extremely talented and relatively young Tilda Swinton (a good friend of MIFF founders Rosana Golden & Dean Bentley) will receive a lifetime achievement award, as will female filmmaker Ann Hui. All the above-mentioned highlights are sure to generate some much-needed tourism to the region as well.

Speaking of which, if you want to watch a delightful lighthearted mindless movie that shows some splendid scenes of Venice I recommend The Tourist (2010), starring Angelina Jolie and the ever-so-charming Johnny Depp whose handsome black Irish features (dark brown eyes/hair) and smooth mannerisms hook audiences every time. Oh yeah, and the plot/love story of the movie is quite sweet and captivating enough too; the beautiful backdrop of Venice also really helps make this movie worth the watch. This romantic crime thriller (also starring Paul Bettany and Timothy Dalton is a remake of the 2005 French film Anthony Zimmer) revolves around Frank (Depp), a befuddled American tourist visiting Italy to mend a broken heart when he meets a mysterious woman Elise (a British Agent) on a train to Venice. Elise (Jolie) deliberately crosses Frank’s path to use him (an elementary school math teacher) as a decoy to make Scotland Yard believe he is indeed her MIA mob banker husband Alexander Pierce (in disguise) who is wanted by police and Italian gangsters for robbery. Although this post is more about the Venice International Film Festival and less about the picture The Tourist I will provide a thumbnail version of this movie’s main take-away message set in one of the most romantic cities in the world. In short, love may not always look the way we expect it to look. Conceal vs. Reveal – peel away the mask to discover that the core counts more than the coating.

P.S. I have visited Venice a number of times (in all seasons) including my 1st anniversary, with my kids/family, during work-related trips to Italy, with friends on route to film festivals, and yes just as a fascinated tourist! Venice is one of the most stunning and unbelievable destinations you could ever visit – a must-see metropolis for the bucket list. Travel Tip – a great hotel to stay at is the Hotel Carlton on the Grand Canal located directly across from the train station (just a short walk over the bridge). It’s reasonably priced (for Venice) and you can easily catch the water bus to all tourist attractions including St. Mark’s Square, where I highly recommend stopping at Caffé Florian for a freshly pressed cappuccino and their amazing individually wrapped dark chocolate dipped coffee beans. Yum. There are also so many fabulous little Italian restaurants located just behind the square in amongst the many lovely little canals serving up the best food the place has to offer at a good price; where you can also take a gondola ride through this magnificent city of canals, bridges, love, antiquity… I can tell I’m reminiscing too much as I am missing not being able to travel, so I will stop there. But do visit this engineering marvel and see for yourself how this watery wonderland was built if the opportunity ever arises. It’s so worth the journey!

Photos in Venice just outside the Hotel Danieli where The Tourist was filmed (hotel cafe inside is fabulous too and the decor is incredible so be sure to check it out if you ever visit Venice), with OHF Committee Members Virginia and Tammi last year on route to MIFF with St Mark’s Square in the distance,
and with Oje and Athena with the famous Venice Bridge of Sighs in the background.

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9

With the United States 2020 election nearing, the democratic and republican conventions behind us, and Donald Trump grubbing to get re-elected at any cost, what better flick to explore than the highly acclaimed compelling yet controversial documentary Fahrenheit 11/9 by Academy Award Winning American filmmaker Michael Moore. This feature is a scathing report on America’s eroding democracy and how such cracks in the USA’s egalitarian system led to the raise of Donald Trump; whom Moore portrays as an unethical narcissistic misogynistic despotic tyrant with serious autocratic and incestuous tendencies. This fascinating film (whose name was derived from the day after election day 11.08.16 when the grim reality sunk in that Donald Trump was indeed POTUS), smartly enjoyed its world premiere in friendly territory. At Canada’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) September 6th, 2018.

Michael Moore opens the film by effectively discrediting Donald Trump, and instantly hooks viewers via delving into how a Trump presidency came to fruition. Trump is depicted as a complete wag who made a name for himself in real estate, then entertainment, with deeply embedded roots of depravity and wickedness thrown in for good measure. But the film stops just short of delivering a completely devastating blow to Trump’s presidency as audiences initially expect given the documentary’s crushing lead-in (though one can only image the way Moore would have spun this doc in today’s world with the way Trump has handled the Covid-19 crisis and BLM). Instead this film is much more than just a rebuke of Donald Trump. It’s a scolding take-down of what Michael Moore believes are the ultimate failures of America that allowed for someone like Donald Trump to reach the White House in the first place. You guessed it. Michael Moore is mad as hell! No veiled emotions here. Moore is actually more than mad – he’s red hot and totally pissed off at the state his country is in. Moore doesn’t hold back on his deep-seated resentment on any front. He beats up a lot on Donald Trump, but he takes swipes at other politicians/government/corporations… as well, rounding out his disdain for those in power who wield their authority and influence with unabashed recklessness. As a result, this film branches out in several directions tackling many of America’s problems at once, not just the prop at the top. Though despite its frequent detours the film never strays too far from the main message – constantly circling back to remind us that ‘the fish rots from the head’ (aka bad leaders cause severe damage all the way down the line) – and don’t you forget it!

Moore is clearly frustrated with so many of the ills the USA is facing from racism, gun violence, polluted water in his hometown of Flint Michigan (a particularly sore spot for Moore and rightly so), to name a few. Who can blame him. The recent Black Lives Matter rallies/protests that continue to sweep the nation speak clearly of the ongoing racism the USA is trying to tackle. Similarly, a quick glance at the country’s gun violence stats paints a very grim picture of an out-of-control issue (Gun violence in the United States results in tens of thousands of deaths and injuries annually. The rate of firearm deaths per 100,000 people rose from 10.3 per 100,000 in 1999 to 12 per 100,000 in 2017, with 109 people dying per day – a number that has most certainly increased in the last 3 years). Not to mention the catastrophic Flint Michigan water crisis that began in 2014 with numerous studies showing high levels of lead contamination in the civic water supply, which any doctor will tell you has irreversible lifelong negative effects especially for children (e.g. lead exposure/poising can damage children’s brains and nervous systems, lead to slow growth and development, and result in learning, behavior, hearing, and speech problems). Yet despite the awfulness of all these pressing concerns that Moore forcefully brings to the forefront – they are all still happening. Fahrenheit 11/9 does jump around a bit from topic to topic but Moore’s passionate willingness to brazen out these serious issues helps to carry the documentary and keeps audiences enthralled until the end.

The reality is Michael Moore could have produced stand-alone documentaries on each of these troubling topics, and maybe he should at some point. But he didn’t because the overall message he’s trying to convey is that a common thread runs throughout all of America’s problems. Corruption! Each crisis is solidly built on a duplicitous foundation – often delivered via political trial balloons (divisive dogma purposely leaked to the media in order to observe audience reactions).  Right vs. Wrong – beware of the plethora of self-serving doctrine related intentions for they are like a cancerous mass that takes over unless removed. Moore ends the piece with an extremely dire warning not to fall into the conspiracy trap (perfect for simple minded thinking) with a damning visual of Nazis marching on. The take-away message is that America is at risk of losing its way and should steadfastly guard the concept of fairness as well as their dream of democracy, or rather their attempts to achieve it. A goal all democratic-minded countries should aspire to. Peter Eigen said it best, “People should be conscious that they can change a corrupt system”. Namely by not allowing the powers that be to dismantle institutional checks and balances. In short, all three branches of government (executive, legislative, judiciary) fail without the ‘fourth estate’ (independent news broadcasting) so protect freedom of the press, and resist any attempts by government to immobilize the media into a feeble ‘fourth branch’ (regime dependent news). It’s democracy’s only chance. This is exactly what Michael Moore wants citizens to remember and why all countries need journalists like Michael Moore (personal preferences aside) who are not afraid to speak truth to power.

P.S. I once stayed at Trump’s now closed Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City when I was 21 years old and saw him and then wife Ivana as they monitored their lavish investment. Although it appears Trump made a lot of money from his Atlantic City Boardwalk endeavors others suffered miserably at his hands as stated by Steven P. Perskie (New Jersey’s top casino regulator in the early 90s) who said, “He {Trump} put a number of local contractors and suppliers out of business when he didn’t pay them.” Trump’s AC hotel/casino very much resembled the décor of his glided Trump Tower in New York City – gawdy over-the-top gold and crystal. Speaking of which, while attending trainings for work in NYC the summer of 2017 both of my children visited me in the Big Apple during the month of August, at which time I took my son Oje to see Michael Moore’s Limited Engagement Broadway Show entitled The Terms of My Surrender. The show centered on Donald Trump’s presidency and his dangerous incompetence to lead America. Unbeknownst to us Oje would end up partaking in Moore’s hit Broadway Show when Moore invited Oje on stage to engage in a competition against a seasoned American Professor – old wise owl vs. young playful pup, Canadian vs American… Oje, casually dressed, donning his long hair, baseball cap and flip flops surprised the near sold out crowd (me excluded) by blowing away his competitor beating him three times over. Needless to say, Michael Moore was very impressed with Oje’s highly intellectual performance. But Moore was even more impressed with how Oje humbly conducted himself as a true gentleman and how respectful he treated his opponent and Moore himself, – ‘a tremendous Ambassador of Canada’– as Michael Moore put it. What a fantastic night and what an incredible show! Interesting that Donald Trump commented, “I must point out that the Sloppy Michael Moore Show on Broadway was a TOTAL BOMB…” Oh contraire POTUS, this show was absolutely off the charts fabulous and I should know. I was there! So much so, we would love to bring this performance to Calgary for our Owen Hart Foundation High Profile Event if Michael Moore ever decides to take it on the road. I was personally amazed by Michael Moore’s astonishingly impressive life story and dedication/love of his country. On this point, I will leave you with a frightening exchange I had with a colleague who works in Washington D.C. while we both attended a training at Berkeley University last year. I asked him his opinion about the state of America with Donald Trump as leader and he said something that shook me to my core – “It appears that Americans don’t want a democracy anymore.” I sure hope this isn’t true. At any rate November 3rd 2020 will be an interesting day to say the least. I still have all my Hillary Clinton For President buttons from 2016 and I’m still sad she didn’t win. I admit I would love to see a woman in the oval office someday. But VP would be a good start too.

Oje takes Broadway in NYC with Michael Moore at his The Terms of My Surrender hit show

Jaws

Since Shark Week starts today and with no big silver-screen solstice sensations on the horizon thanks to Covid-19 what better movie to showcase than the greatest summer flick of all time – Jaws! Released in June 1975 this smash hit (adapted from Peter Benchley’s best-selling book) redefined the meaning of ‘Summer Blockbuster’ becoming the highest-grossing picture of its time. Forty-five years on, this legendary film directed by a young Steven Spielberg still has the ability to petrify viewers, and scare weary swimmers out of the water, even avid swimming pool recreationalists like myself. In fact, few films have ever had such an enduring impact on people’s psyche as Jaws has. A born leader in film-making, Spielberg (dubbed the ‘king’ of directing) mastered the art of suspense by purposely not revealing the deep-water threat for the first 81 minutes of this 130-minute film. That’s right – for over half the movie there was no shark in sight, just the brilliantly obscured illusion of one that Spielberg manifested. Thus nervously building the apprehension to dizzying heights, which audiences loved.  

As for the story-line, the movie opens in the fictional seaside town of Amity Island (actually Martha’s Vineyard) on the heels of the July 4th celebrations, with an ominous scene of beautiful young blonde Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) unassumingly swimming by moonlight. When without warning she is viciously snatched and yanked under the water several times by the unseen evil lurking below. The petite skinny-dipper surfaces and resurfaces several times while being hungerly devoured. But her bloodcurdling screams and flailing attempts to escape go unnoticed as she finally disappears into the sodden silence. The youth’s demise sparks swift shark-based dialogue that carries throughout the film. However, since Amity Island serves as a popular vacation getaway with tourism as its main source of income, officials are reluctant to reveal that a predatory killer (aka man-eating great-white shark) may be subsisting in the coastal waters and feasting on its human inhabitants. Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is especially hesitant to face the facts despite evidence to the contrary. As a result, the disastrous problem is swept under the rug with grievous outcomes, namely continued ruthless beachfront attacks in broad daylight with countless sun-seekers looking on in mortal terror. Unable to ignore the gravity of the situation no more, police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) finally orders the trendy beaches closed.

In an effort to get a handle on the perilous danger, police chief Brody (who is deathly afraid of water himself and at serious odds with his superiors’ irresponsible denial of the deadly problem), calls on outside help for assistance. Enter contrasting shark experts – Quint (Robert Shaw) a beastly briny bounty hunter, and Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) a plucky edified oceanographer. Both do a stellar job awakening our most primal fears with graphic descriptions of a perfect merciless biological killing machine that possesses brut power, razor sharp teeth, dead eyes, and an insatiable appetite. The epic adventure truly begins when the threesome (Quint, Brody and Hooper) set out into the deep on the hunt for the mammoth murderous monster. The hallmark scene of the movie occurs during an eerie nighttime whiskey drinking sit-down in the boat’s galley. The trio discuss shark stories with Quint topping them all with his recollection as a WWII survivor of the USS Indianapolis sinking (a true-life event labelled as the worst shark attack in history) where only 317 crew members out of 1196 survived with hundreds eaten alive by circling relentless sharks who picked off helpless sailors one by one (6 per hour – one every 10 minutes) before the remaining men were rescued. Just as Quint finishes his sinister story the grueling back-and-forth battle between man and beast cascades into a crescendo that ends in the most amazing fish story ever told. No exaggeration.

Although this big-screen ocean odyssey set out to be just a frightening seafaring summer thriller, the endless trepidation coupled with impeccable character development instantly enthralled audiences. Despite its menacing plot, viewers could immediately relate to this horrifying tale. So much so it garnered well-earned Oscar recognition racking up a nomination for Best Picture and winning for Best Film Editing and Best Original Music Score as it should have. Composer John Williams’ jarring Jaws arrangement (then and now) evokes anxiety and dread like no other. Just hearing the opening few bars of this spine-chilling magnum opus (dun dun dun dun duunnn dunnn… duuuunnnn) is enough to conjure up our worst fears of eminent danger. A feat unmatched by any other themed musical composition to this day.

With the narrative and accolades now clarified what on earth is the main take-away message expounded in this fabulous film you ask? There are certainly a few life lessons imparted to viewers. First, this picture touches on how politicians act as spin doctors, negating hazards with their slow-to-react demeanor until the threat becomes so enormous it can no longer be disregarded (reminiscent of how some leaders have dealt with the Covid-19 crisis). But ignorance and/or negligence are not the key points of this movie. Instead, the film is more about confronting one’s fears and dealing with them head on. Literally! Most people are afraid of the unknown, which is natural. Fear is a valid human emotion that keeps us out of harm’s way. But fear does not have to serve as an unbreakable barrier. Just take it from the late great Nelson Mandala who stated, ‘I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.’ Amen. In the end it was the most fearful of the three men and the least educated on the topic that rose to the occasion and turned out to be the hero in this picture. Confronting vs. Avoiding – Spielberg once said that he feared Jaws would ruin his life and end his career. Instead it launched him into movie-making superstardom with endless masterpieces to his credit including Jaws, considered a highly valued and renowned Hollywood classic by the American Film Institute. Spielberg also stated one of the main reasons for making the movie was his own personal H20 fears ‘… I think it was {also} my own fear of the water.’ Everyone has their own methods of handling their fears, even the greatest filmmaker of all time who had to risk failing to succeed! And boy did he ever. So remember, ‘Fear has its use, but cowardice has none.’– Mahatma Gandhi

Fast Fact: The movie Jaws was inspired by the true-life events that occurred in 1916 in New Jersey where four people were killed in shark attacks in a 12 day span during a deadly heat wave gripping the region at the time, as well as the Polio epidemic that had many citizens flocking to the seaside in search of relief. These fatal shark attacks were the first ever recorded in the USA. A great white was suspected, with shark-hunts ensuing just as depicted in the movie. Also, just like the movie the real killer shark was exterminated when it almost sunk the boat of trackers Michael Schleisser and John Murphy whose only line of defense was a broken oar. When dissected on land human bones were found in the great white’s stomach. On this point, it is very rare that shark hunters ever catch the actual shark(s) responsible for attacks on humans. That said, in Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh (2010) huntsmen did this as well. Tracking down and eliminating two separate sharks (different breeds) with 100% certainty that both were responsible for two separate attacks on humans in the region. Life imitating art.

P.S. Incidentally, I have visited this exact location in Egypt and swam in the Red Sea (normally considered safe), even reef snorkeling with my kids just before these terrible 2010 shark attacks occurred. Yikes. I love the water, and swim almost every day but I have a great respect for the ocean and its inhabitants. Yes, I am very afraid of sharks; a reasonable fear that’s not quite at the level of galeophobia yet. After all, they are an apex predator with very few natural enemies. As such I normally follow the best advise ever – 5 words – Stay Out Of The Ocean! Problem solved! Excellent advice. But do I always listen? Apparently not! Just this past year, at my daughter’s insistence, my kids and I went Shark Diving in Hawaii at Xmas time. We boarded the vessel and my thoughts went directly to police chief Brody’s line from Jaws“You’re going to need a bigger boat.” The ride to open water was unsettling, and once at the site the sharks were huge. But I faced my fears and went into the cage, though I admit I was the last one in and the first one out. There is a real element of danger – the waves sloshed us everywhere and several times my legs and arms slipped out of the cage. We cut the excursion short as a storm was looming with winds seriously increasing. At one point I worried the breakers might top the cage and land a shark inside. Double yikes. Shark diving is not for everyone, but I went, and I was happy I did. I have an enormous appreciation of and fascination with sharks. They are powerful and beautiful and graceful. However, even more unnerving than going inside the cage occurred when we left the site. The captain let me sit at the back of the boat where I watched these same sharks we just engaged with follow our boat for miles. I was just hoping we wouldn’t spring a leak, especially given the worsening weather. But all went well, and the Harts successfully seized the day at sea. Memories I will treasure forever. BTW great whites hardly ever frequent Hawaii but they do show up from time to time so beware. You can even track them as I learned when attending Cambridge University. My IT friend Vince (former marine biologist) who helped me format my PhD had a Shark Tracker as a laptop screensaver. It was hard not to get distracted watching where the tagged sharks were swimming. So interesting! If you are curious about shark migration as I am, check out Vince’s Ocearch link. Enjoy! https://www.ocearch.org/tracker/?list 

The Harts on a Shark Diving Expedition in Hawaii December 2019. Scary but good fun!
Also thanks to my big brother Dan who took me to see Jaws on the big screen when I was finally old enough to go!
The Hart’s successful Shark Dive 2019!
In Egypt’s Sharm El Sheikh in, on, and at the Red Sea with kids and niece Virgillia! What a view Athena and I had looking out at the Red Sea. Wow!

A Serious Man (Coen Brothers 2009 Five Star Creation)

Serious times calls for a serious man! Or does it? When life turns out to be far from the moggy’s meow we have to ask if demanding careful consideration of each situation is in fact the right course of action. This mysterious movie opens with a quote from bible scholar Rashi: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”. But then attempts to rationalize life’s problems using quantum physics via the hypothetical Schrödinger’s Cat paradox. Quite a conflicting stance given the movie focuses on one man’s unprovoked mid-life crisis that resembles a modern-day parable of Job. This peculiar picture is matinee magic that couples earnest undertones with subtle humor brilliantly creating an intense captivating seriocomedy. That said, this movie is steeped in Jewish kinship and arcana so it can be a bit challenging to follow, especially early on. Though if you can get through the first five minutes of the antiquated religious fable (all in Yiddish!) then this telling tale reveals itself to be well-worth the watch. But be advised, an incongruent theme runs throughout whereby the loop in this movie never really closes, which is satisfying and dissatisfying at the same time. Thus encouraging viewers to keep an open mind – questioning rather than fixating on the answer; a filmmaking method that is right up my alley (e.g. reflective functioning). This is a Coen Brothers film – say no more! These amazing American moviemakers constantly produce Hollywood gold, having won multiple Oscars for a bevy of incredible movies including Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. They are also responsible for crafting the refreshing 1998 cult classic (albeit ridiculous) stoner movie The Big Lebowski, which I love (mentions of ‘sitting Shiva’ in A Serious Man had John Goodman’s character popping to mind – ‘I don’t roll on Shabbos!’).

Set in conservative small-town Minnesota in 1967, where the hippie ‘free love’ movement spreading across the country at the time hadn’t quite taken hold. The entire story hinges on low-key Larry Gopnik (fabulously played by Broadway Actor Michael Stuhlbarg), an unassuming passive theoretical physics professor whose constant existence suddenly spins out of control into unharnessed motion that he can neither predict nor constrain. All at once Larry’s troubles become insurmountable. Under his roof he needs to contend with his physical and mental well-being, with wife Judith (Sari Lennick) insisting on a divorce because she’s in-love with someone else. His coming-of-age pot smoking son Danny (Aaron Wolff) distracted from his upcoming bar mitzvah celebration by Jefferson Airplane song lyrics Don’t You Want Somebody… among other things. His snappy complaining teenage daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) angling to get a nose job. As well as his aging underachieving live-in older brother Arthur (Richard Kind) who is not only unhealthy but unemployed. Inside the house Larry’s problems are bad enough, though even more trouble lurks on the other side of the door (job hassles, neighbor issues…). Out of desperation Larry, who is not overly religious, seeks the sage advice of three rabbis to try to understand why his once orderly life has suddenly fallen apart and what he should do about it. In short, Larry wants more than ‘somebody to love’, he wants answers to incomprehensible questions. In his own words, he has ‘done nothing wrong’, yet somehow his now dismal life parallels the sad song that keeps running throughout the narrative; ‘When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies’ – Larry’s problem exactly since nothing is how it once seemed.

As a serious man of science Larry attempts to apply Noble Prize-winning Physicist Edwin Schrödinger’s mathematical reasoning to solve his problems (Schrödinger ‘s Cat). This pop-culture favorite is a thought-experiment based on quantum mechanics that envisages the incarceration of a cat in a box with a flask emitting radioactive poison, which, as time passes, may or may not have killed the cat. Until the box is opened this quantum system of mixed states deems the cat to be both alive and dead until verified. Thus this is the paradox as the feline cannot be both [alive and dead] at the same time. Just like the oxymoron in Larry’s life; it cannot be simultaneously in-order and out-of-order. In science-speak one miscalculation can lead to endless failure. Much like Pandora’s Box, once unlatched there’s no closing it. An enigma that hearkens back to the opening sentiment of the movie; how best to handle life’s unfortunate mishaps? Which brings us to the take-away message of this film.

But before we get to that I want to make note of the dramatic inclusion of ‘Dream Theater’ this movie employs. Larry has three vivid dreams and until he awakes viewers do not know if such occurrences are happening in his real-life or not. Of course the directors seem to include the number 3 several times (3 rabbis, 3 dreams, 3 main problems – family, work, health…), which I am sure is infused with symbolism (e.g. Father, Son, Holy Ghost…), but since I’m not completely up to speed on the Jewish faith I will leave the embedded significance of this number alone. However, I can speak to the significance of dreams. Sigmund Freud (founding father of psychoanalysis) believed dreams to be unconscious representations of unfulfilled wishes in our conscious lives (aka hidden emotions and desires); a view most in the field still adhere to. Similarly, Carl Jung (psychiatrist/psychoanalyst) saw dreams as the psyche’s mechanism to communicate important details to the self in an effort to uncover what’s really going on. That said, the jury is still out on the exact interpretation of dream imagery. For example, some dream-interpreters contend that if you dream of someone you haven’t seen in a long time it means they are thinking of you. Perhaps this is true, but until empirical evidence can back it up such meticulous explanations of detailed snooze-time fantasies are just supposition with dream-content remaining a mystery. That said, one thing most professionals agree on is that dreams like sleep appear to be essential; research in neuroscience suggests that dreams may serve two important functions. First, dream-sleep heals and helps the mind to regulate emotions and stressful elements of life. Second, dreams are credited with enhancing problem-solving skills and creativity. After all Paul McCartney has publicly stated his hit Beatles song ‘Yesterday’ (often referred to as the greatest song of the 20th century) came to him in a dream. Wow! Larry’s dreams are clearly not that abundant. So then what is the life lesson this thought-provoking flick is trying to teach us?

Well it is not about interpreting signs, or dreams, or math, or rational reasoning. No. But it is about being asleep in life and when we tend to wake-up and seek its meaning. Here’s the thing – we don’t search for reasons to explain why good things happen to us. Maybe because we feel we deserve it or because we feel entitled. In contrast, the only time individuals really go on soul-searching journeys is when things go terribly wrong. Especially when it comes to life altering events, notably health scares, career crisis, and especially relationship break-ups. This is because losing a romantic partner is so severely emotionally devastating, and it’s much worse for the person being abandoned since they have to try harder to become whole again. It’s not easy to reclaim the part of the self that one so eagerly hands over to another person in the early stages of a relationship; a particularly grueling task for those individuals who were/are really all-in. Good-fortune vs. Misfortune: Life is like the weather – we get our days in the sun along with dark clouds, and despite predictions we hope for rays and pray ominous twisters miss our house. That’s life. Ambiguous at best, which is why a positive perspective helps. Though keep in mind it’s always up to us to decide if we are awake or asleep in our lives, alive or dead. Meow. I think the Coen Brothers nailed it a decade earlier in their epic film – The Big Lebowski. Things go wrong all the time and when they do maybe instead of trying to be so grown-up and seriously adult about it all we should just say, “F**k it Dude. Let’s go bowling.”  In short, life is a series of gutters and strikes – so let’s just roll with it – in style!

P.S. Like this film’s main character Larry Gopnik; Academics, including myself, appreciate precision and certainty but it’s the unknown that intrigues us the most. That’s why research never ends. Speaking of which I have been to Minnesota several times for this reason and found the state to have very lovely qualities indeed, conventional or not.

Wearing my serious academic doctor’s hat between trips to the University of Minnesota and attending the IAC in New York City.
Visiting Stillwater Minnesota at the Rivertown Inn with an employee (left) and a regular inn patron. The Inn, which has a small-town feel hosted me on a work related trip to the University of Minnesota as a ‘thank you’ for using them in conjunction with our OHF Online Auction Super Bowl 2018 Tickets Package held in Minneapolis generously gifted to the OHF by the NFL Denver Broncos Co-owners Kerry and John Bowlen.

Cinema And Covid-19 (Movies = Health Benefits)

I’ve always known that watching movies was therapeutic and good for the soul, but it turns out doing so may also be good for your health! Comedies and romance flicks have long been proven to decrease stress hormones, improve coping skills, lower blood pressure, while briefly providing relief from life’s worries. Whereas dramas have been shown to raise emotional intelligence, and fantasy flicks seem to expand creativity, which may both promote better mental health. However, scary movies might just top them all! Who knew! Research published in The International Journal of the Biology of Stress indicates that watching scary movies may boost the immune system via increased circulation and increased production of white blood cells (key to fighting off microbes such as bacteria, parasites, fungi, and viruses) due to a heightened fight-or-flight response that fear-provoking films often illicit. 

This is good news for people who already like scary summer shows. Though not to throw shade, I personally don’t really like creepy capers, but now I might have good reason to take up a few hot weather horrors. I am born on Halloween after all. One caveat to note; these positive health returns may be short-lived so using cinema to ward off Covid-19 can’t be one’s only line of defense. That said, staying home to watch petrifying pictures while continuing to social distance is a winning formula. In short, doing both together may just help. If you are interested in learning more about the positive health effects induced by viewing scary flicks (including elevated calorie burning and happier moods) an excellent article on the topic was published a few years ago in TIME Magazine (Health. Mental Health/Psychology) that discusses these interesting research findings in more depth. Click link. You Asked: Is Watching Scary Movies Good for You? | Time

Note: It is recommended that anyone with heart conditions should avoid watching scary movies. Stay healthy and safe – and keep exploring life’s meaning with me through the movies we watch.

Luv these reels and this town!

Captain America: The First Avenger

Today with America celebrating Independence Day (July 4, 1776) and given the epic fight the USA currently has on its hands battling Covid-19, I thought we could all use a hero! So what better crusader to the rescue than The First Avenger! But before we get started let me be clear, Captain America is not just a hero, or a man, he is a straight up full-fledged champion! This is why I absolutely love this movie and why Steve Rogers (aka Captain America played by Chris Evans) grew to be my favorite Avenger of all time. I will admit, I was late to the Captain America party. I was much more up-to-speed with the other Avengers series (Iron Man, Hulk, Guardians…), but once introduced to Captain America I was hooked, and for good reason. Directed by Joe Johnston this screen gem is set during wartime 1941, which is why Captain America is considered the 1st Avenger even though other series in the franchise were previously created. In short, Captain America predates his defender counterparts (e.g. Iron Man, Hulk…). With that information out of the way let’s recap the plot of this fabulous film and its deeply meaningful life lessons.

The picture centers on Brooklyn born want-to-be soldier Steve Rogers, an archetype of New York’s 1920s Charles Atlas (98-Pound Weakling originally 97-Pound Weakling), who has all the bravery in the world but no muscle to back it up. That is until scrawny Steve is accepted into an American Armed Forces Military Experimental Program that transforms him into a super-soldier, which makes him a prime candidate to lead the fight against the Nazis HYDRA Party. Without giving too much away this film is built on a strong story-line and to its credit includes a star-studded cast. Besides Chris Evans (Captain America – Steve Rogers) the movie features Tommy Lee Jones as stern strict Colonel Chester Phillips, Sebastian Stan serves as fellow solider and Steve’s best friend Bucky Barnes, Hayley Atwell is stellar in the role as Steve’s pin-up pretty love interest Agent Peggy Carter; not to mention Hugo Weaving as sinister villainous Nazi leader Johann Schmidt, and a cameo by Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury WWII superhero, as well as Dominic Cooper who plays young scientist/inventor Howard Stark, (in case you missed it he’s the future father-to-be of Iron Man Tony Stark), and of course the always spectacular Stanley Tucci as lead US Government Scientist Dr. Abraham Erskine (an exiled German) who spots Steve’s potential via his unmatched qualities. Which brings us to the discussion on the main take-away message of this film.

Unlike many of the other Marvel action-packed ensembles “Captain America: The First Avenger” does not heavily rely on special effects to win over audiences (though the CGI in this film is first-rate). Instead this movie smartly employs an inspirational foundation of rich contextual texture constructed on well-developed characters with substance, namely leading man Chris Evans as main protagonist Captain America. Depicted as an all-round good guy, Steve Rogers is unrelentingly bold, knows right from wrong, appreciates the opportunity to show what he’s made of, and never gives up despite the odds. As Winston Churchill so wisely stated, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.’ So true. Steve Rogers does just that – continues – even though he’s often pinned against the ropes. But regardless of Rogers’ newfound impressive stature and strength, his most redeeming quality throughout (prior to acquiring his brawl) is his prized possession – the innate makings of a good man. An aspect of the film that pointedly shows a beautiful body is only a shell that houses the soul and means nothing unless heartfelt quintessence dwells there. This story also epitomizes that with great power comes great responsibility, and that remaining gracious and humble when it would be very easy to become a self-centered narcissist is a testament of true character. However, the main take-away message is embedded in the representation of Captain America’s colorful shield. On the surface this emblematic armor is used as his primary defense to ward off danger. That said, the essence enveloped in needing a shield in the first place implies self-awareness of one’s own vulnerabilities. It is no surprise that the best leaders know and admit their weaknesses. They embrace their limitations and as a result are able to show compassion as well as empathy for the shortcomings of others. An admirable attribute indeed. Integrity vs. Arrogance – to be a strikingly handsome fierce man is to first be a formidable nobleman.

An aside; in my opinion the Captain America series weaves in the sweetest of all the superhero love stories. Gotta love a fella who knows what he wants and goes after it. Sure there’s heartbreak but being disappointed in love just means you aimed for something and took a shot. On this point here are some helpful Captain America romance notes for the chaps: gentlemen make and keep their dates, if you want a good woman be a good man on the inside, wait for the right partner, and if you need to take a rain-check, try not to stupidly miss out on what could be the dance of a lifetime. BTW if you’re a fan of the Big Three (The Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Endgame) you will NEED to know the backstory of Captain America to thoroughly enjoy the full impact of how fantastic the ending is in Avengers: Endgame. A bit of trivia. I’m not alone in my preference for Captain America as top dog. He is tied for 1st Place with Iron Man as the all-time favorite Avenger. Too bad Endgame was just that for… Yikes! I will stop there for those who have not seen it yet! In closing, it’s a big viewership commitment but for anyone interested in watching Marvel’s fabulous Avenger Movies in chronological viewing order here is what some fans have suggested:

  • Captain America: The First Avenger (takes place during WWII)
  • Captain Marvel (takes place in 1995)
  • Iron Man (takes place in 2010)
  • Iron Man 2 (takes place after Iron Man)
  • The Incredible Hulk (time unspecified, pre-Avengers)
  • Thor (takes place six months before Avengers)
  • The Avengers (takes place in 2012)
  • Iron Man 3 (takes place six months after The Avengers)
  • Thor: Dark World (post-Avengers, pre-Ultron)
  • Captain America: Winter Soldier (post-Avengers, pre-Ultron)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy (sometime in 2014)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (after Guardians)
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron (takes place in 2015)
  • Ant-Man (takes place in 2015)
  • Captain America: Civil War (post-Ultron, pre-Infinity War)
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming (post-Civil War, pre-Infinity War)
  • Doctor Strange (takes place in 2016)
  • Black Panther (takes place in 2017)
  • Thor: Ragnarok (post-Ultron, pre-Infinity War)
  • Avengers: Infinity War (takes place in 2017)
  • Ant-Man and The Wasp (ambiguous, but fits nicely between IW and Endgame)
  • (starts in 2017, finishes in 2022)
  • Spider-Man: Far From Home (post-Endgame)

P.S. Interestingly, Joe Johnston the director of ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ also directed ‘Jumanji’ with Robin Williams (who I happily met when he performed for the OHF in 2012), as well as Honey I Shrunk The Kids, which funny enough Owen acted in ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: TV Episode – Honey, I’m Wrestling with a Problem.’ Also, longtime former US Army Serviceman Ryan Johnston turned film producer (no relation to the director) recently sent me a fabulous picture taken of himself with Owen (who was an American & Canadian citizen – his mum was from NY) while visiting US Troops in Kuwait. A great picture to include in this post given the backdrop of the US July 4th celebrations. With this in mind, circling back to the movie; Captain America sacrifices all to save New York’s Big Apple, one of my favorite cities (I have visited NYC many times as a tourist and for work), and sadly also the first Covid-19 epicenter in the USA. All the more reason why the OHF is so happy to support NYC’s Hart Island Project and the amazing work they do to assist families of unclaimed loved ones with burial info on those lost due to Covid-19. Speaking of the pandemic, not since WWII as depicted in this film, has the world experienced such uncertainty about what is to come and the future of our planet. But much like the dark shadows of WWII all this too shall pass. Bless the United States of America today and everyday in their fight again Covid-19. Just know your Canadian neighbors to the north wish the best for you and everyone combating this hostile enemy.

Captain America’s hometown NYC, which he saves and I love – the pic is up top of The Rock (Rockefeller Center) with the Empire State Building in the distance.
With the one-and-only Robin Williams, Owen with then US Army Serviceman Ryan Johnston turned film producer, and on the set of Honey I Shrunk The Kids.