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My First Blog Post

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.

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.

Da 5 Bloods (Black Lives Matter Tribute)

Spike Lee’s highly acclaimed new Netflix drama that centers on five Black American Servicemen (four of whom return to Vietnam) hits hard with impeccable timing. The release of this film suitably coincides with the recent heightened awareness of the Black Lives Matter Movement that is now gripping the globe. More importantly this movie, much like BLM, reverberates the mantra of bringing justice, healing, and freedom to black people. Though like many of Spike Lee’s masterpieces (e.g. BlacKkKlansman – 2019 Oscar Winner Best Adapted Screenplay – superb and my favorite), this complex film is multi-layered with so many emblematic nuances to unpack.

To begin, viewers should be warned! This film opens with extremely powerful and very disturbing violent historical footage (Kent State & Jackson State massacres, execution of the Viet Cong officer Nguyễn Văn Lém…), that will leave many humanitarians shaking their heads in horror at the awful things human beings do to each other. Not to divulge too many spoilers but Lee also cleverly commences and closes with vintage recordings of two prominent black Vietnam War opposers (Muhammad Ali & Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). All this initial priming really sets the tone of what’s to come and it’s not pretty.

The movie transitions from the graphic intro to four former American black soldiers Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and Eddie (Norm Lewis), reuniting in a Vietnam bar to discuss their two-tiered plan of recovering top-secret US gold bullion worth millions (an American war-effort payment intended for South Vietnam), along with the remains of their inspiring revered forward-thinking troop leader Norman (Chadwick Boseman) who died in combat in front of his squad while trying to recover this government treasure. This jungle journey takes these four aging Vietnam Vets on a treacherous soul-searching trek of greed, materialism, longing, clarity, sorrow, forgiveness, and redemption. Without giving too much away veteran Paul (a deeply troubled PTSD sufferer and recent Trump supporter who dons a MAGA cap), is joined on the trip by his loving yet oddly estranged son David (Jonathan Majors) who aims to use the excursion as a means to bond with his dad. While Vihn (Johnny Tri Nguyen) serves as the group’s trusted Vietnamese guide. All that to say, summing the plot of this movie is a cinch compared with fleshing out its main message. 

Similar to other stories of war this movie dispatches the significance of camaraderie, unity, loyalty, and above all service and love of country. However, the stark difference in this tale is two-fold. First, this film chronicles the experiences of black American servicemen in Vietnam, whose descriptions in real life were habitually under-reported, despite the large role they played in the annals. Second, this narrative takes direct aim at the conundrum faced by young black soldiers who realize that the same nation they are willing to sacrifice and die for, do not value them or their lives. This rings true in this movie loud and clear when the five main screen warriors, while in the fierce throes of battle, learn of the assignation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968). Factually speaking it is no secret that African Americans were disproportionately summoned to the most dangerous duty on the front-lines during the Vietnam War and as a result had excessively higher rates of casualties. African Americans were also much less likely to have the contacts/means to avoid being drafted or sidestepping hazardous missions like their white counterparts. An issue civil-rights leaders protested, with some gains in reform that (later) slightly reduced such disparity in conflict. Though, regardless of the progress made, it cannot be overlooked that ironically the most oppressed American comrades were sent in full force to fight a war against equally oppressed people. That said, no matter how you slice it war is awful but there are lessons to gain from it too. As writings on the Duality of War underscore; “War is the most destructive and pitiless of all human activities. And yet the experience of war has a profound and strangely compelling effect on those who fight. Combat kills, maims, and terrifies, but it can also reveal the power of brotherhood and a selfless sense of purpose. It’s an experience that changes soldiers, and those changes last a lifetime.” So true.

Lee incorporates many of these elements of war into this film while using a great deal of political and personal allegory. Even the vernacular in the movie’s title Da 5 Bloods is loaded with significance. For example, the word Da in Vietnamese means Skin. The number 5 denotes humanity, and is fraught with endless substance. To elaborate, humans have five fingers, five toes, five senses, five major body systems (digestive, circulatory, nervous, respiratory, and muscular) and five appendages (two arms, two legs, one head) with the brain in control. Mystically speaking, the number 5 is associated with positive change, balance, health, independence, and adventure; taking a journey (mental/physical/spiritual) that includes expressing gratitude for the world and people around you while needing to pay attention to what you see, hear, touch, smell and feel. Lastly, the word Bloods is a well-known acronym for “Brotherly Love Overcomes Overrides and Destruction” a.k.a. blood-brothers. Also, Lee’s flashback method with the servicemen appearing as aged (not youthful as they were when the combative events actually happened), signifies that memories stick for life (good or bad) and are seared into the brain for eternity. It’s true that no matter how many years pass people carry their recollections (pleasant and painful) forever. NOTE: Distressing traumas can be resolved by learning new coping skills to help overcome symptoms, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). On this point, as so prominently echoed in this film’s fabulous soundtrack, we don’t always know ‘What’s Going On’ (Marvin Gaye) and we don’t always have power over life’s events. But how we view our experiences belongs to us, and us alone, which reminds me of a famous quote by Viktor Frankl, “…everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.“

With so much intended meaning and symbolism embedded in this flick what is the main take-away message you ask? Some might say self-forgiveness. After all, internal wars will continue to rage until we accept ourselves, transgressions and all; only then will inner peace be attained. Others might say the moral of this story fixates on the deadly game of greed and chasing imperialist beliefs; the desire for the all mighty dollar and dirty money that can only be washed clean by using it for good (e.g. donations to blacklivesmatter.com) as highlighted at the movie’s end. Then of course there is also the blatant implications of selflessness, and racism plainly laid out and strewn throughout this film.

Any of these paradigms would be a good guess, but in my opinion the calculated lesson this movie imparts is about reverence and respect and honoring people for what matters – who they are on the inside. This movie exemplifies how American culture has historically devalued and wrongfully categorized certain citizens into ill-conceived groups of a lesser ilk. These past stains of subjugation and persecution have long been drenched into the fabric of the country and sadly still remain today. Watching the daily news is evidence enough of how said principled battles continue via the perilous quest for fairness and equilibrium through the Black Lives Matter Movement, which the OHF proudly supports. Consecration vs. Contempt – It’s difficult to comprehend the origins of discrimination, especially since our world is enhanced so much by individual differences, not diminished. As the exceptional book Man’s Search for Meaning states, you don’t have to look far to witness that “human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn” – Viktor Frankl. It’s sad that we need to remind people that none of us have control over our skin color (or our birth parents for that matter) – it’s all predetermined before we are born. Therefore, judging anyone based on this premise is absolutely futile and senseless. Anything less than showing and feeling true appreciation for all human life is beyond unacceptable. It’s just mind-boggling how such repressing tyranny is/was ever allowed or tolerated in the first place. But no more.

P.S. A few things to share with this movie in mind. First, on a recent humanitarian trip to Cambodia I stayed very close to the Vietnam border and all I could think of the entire time was – how could any country send their soldiers to war in such a place. The heat and humidity alone are brutally punishing – let alone fighting for your life in full gear! Second, I have traveled to Washington DC several times, and although I sincerely appreciate their many war memorials that rightfully honor all those who bravely fought for their country; it’s so heartbreaking to see the incredible loss of life. Especially that of Vietnam as so many US soldiers (black, white, brown…) who survived the atrocities of this war were so dishonorably disregarded. Lastly, my lifelong minister the late Reverend Risby who conducted my wedding ceremony, baptized both my children, performed my husband’s funeral, and basically played a major role in all the most important events in my life was black. He was very special to me and I saw him for exactly what he was – an amazing person who was very kind to me. I hope he saw me the same way. People are people. Period. Discrimination against blacks (or anyone) is appalling and something I will never understand. A final word. Since the Black Lives Matter Movement is currently such a relevant topic, in order to do this highly influential film and worthy cause the justice both deserve this movie-blog post is of a more extended variety than my usual posts. I apology if this write-up seems a bit too detailed in some parts but given the gravity of the current situation I felt it was required and necessary.

Photos: At the Phnom Da Temple – 52 miles from Vietnam; at the Lincoln Memorial facing the adjacent Washington Monument divided by the famous reflecting pool with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall of Names to my right (completed in 1982); and with dear Reverend Andrew Risby and witnesses Bruce and Virginia signing our marriage license.

Cast Away (Ultimate Isolation Movie)

Since new movies are hard to come by these days with Covid-19 still reigning supreme, I have really enjoyed re-watching some of my all-time favorites including one of the topmost isolation-based films of all time – Cast Away. This is not the first tale ever told about tropical island strandings (e.g. Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, Lord of the Flies…), but it’s one of the best in my opinion, and was a box office powerhouse almost two decades ago.

Released in December 2000 and directed by Robert Zemckis this extraordinary saga of survival earned two Oscar nods including a nomination in the best actor category for Tom Hanks who remarkably carried 75% of the entire movie single-handedly. The story is solidly built on character Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks), a FedEx employee whose cargo plane goes down somewhere over the South Pacific with him as the sole survivor of the crash. After barely getting through the harrowing experience of the plane plunging into an unforgiving ocean Chuck aimlessly drifts in what is left of an inflatable life-raft that eventually washes up on a deserted island. For years Chuck is trapped on this humid uninhabited land-mass with nothing but time to ponder what he misses most in the world – his would-be fiancé Kelly Frears played by Helen Hunt; who’s role in the film is quite small compared with Hanks but nevertheless very fundamental in many of the moral messages this film imparts on its viewers.

On this point, this parable converges on what really matters in life and how easy it is to take for granted essential basic needs (access to food, water, heat, and shelter). This movie also reminds us that life is unpredictable and doesn’t always go as planned, but sometimes it’s those forks in the road that make the journey so interesting. Sails do come in from time to time so watch for them and remember those who risk nothing get nothing. The notion is you never know what the tide will bring, so be open-minded and don’t miss opportunities. This flick also delves into our most nefarious emotions including deep despair, utter loneliness, damning frustration, and unimaginable fear, not to mention clearly emphasizing the stark difference between merely existing and actually living. Humans are highly social creatures after all, so what happens to ‘the self’ if others are missing from the equation? At first glance the main meaning of this movie might seem fairly straightforward – leave someone alone long enough and they will slowly go crazy. The mind will split in two, and they will start talking to a volleyball as if it’s a person. By the way, there is a reason why ‘Wilson’ had to be a volleyball instead of a football, soccer ball, bowling ball, bouncy ball, baseball, cricket ball, golf ball… it’s because communication between humans is a ‘serve and return’ interaction. I love symbolism in movies. Okay, a tennis ball, pickleball, or ping-pong ball could have ‘served’ this iconography purpose too but what fun would that have been. Anyway, back to the point. If none of these above-mentioned aspects of the film are the primary take-away message what is? Like a sixth- sense, it’s a familiar concept but not always that simple to comprehend, so let’s break it down.

Adversity is something we all face in life and when that experience is extremely overwhelming and excruciatingly painful, we feel so lost – like being abandoned in solitude on a forsaken island. We keep looking out for a rescuer, but no one comes because no one can reach us. We are truly alone. This is when the realization hits that the self has to save the self. It’s the only way – and it starts with listening to that little ‘Wilson’ voice we all have in our head. It’s called intuition, and if you let it guide you it will truly be the best friend you ever have. So often we focus more on our five basic senses (touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing) and we ignore the most important one – our instinct. Roy T. Bennett said it best, “You will never follow your own inner voice until you clear up the doubts in your mind.” This movie does a stellar job metaphorically bringing to the forefront what goes on in the human brain. Yes, we all constantly talk to ourselves! But it’s what these exchanges produce via our actions that counts. Attending vs. Disregarding – pay attention, collect your thoughts and feelings, communicate your issues to yourself, process your insight, do the hard internal work, be self-reliant, and you might just find manageable solutions. Of course, having others to help us work through our problems is great too when available – but the self is always the final gatekeeper.

Much like this movie, Covid-19 is still making so many of us feel deeply isolated and displaced from our lives not to mention worrying about our health and shortages of our most basic needs; a gap The Owen Hart Foundation is trying to address. But as unpleasant as the last few months have been (especially for people like Tom Hanks and his wife Rita who contracted and recovered from Covid-19) it has also awakened feelings of gratitude and appreciation for our everyday blessings including all the wonderful people in our lives. That said, now that our world is slowly starting to re-open, let’s hope we can resume our fully-functioning yet now enhanced existence soon.

P.S. I really like going to tropical islands at Christmas to escape, not the other way around. Fingers crossed season greetings = slipping this seclusion. Amen!

Vanishing at break-time to my favorite inhabited beachy island in the South Pacific.

Gladiator (20 Years On Gladiator 2 Sequel Underway)

With Covid-19 lingering much longer than any of us can bear thus inadvertently testing the edges of our increasingly frazzled life-force resolve; I thought writing about a movie that epitomizes a supreme sovereign warrior spirit would be refreshingly welcomed. What better pick than the epic yet macabre battle-to-the-death blockbuster Gladiator! Also, since its creators are now taking a second stab at box office gold with plans to release a sequel sometime next year, denoting the poignant life lessons behind this conquering titan of a film seemed like a noble quest. Originally released May 5th 2000 Gladiator marched away with 11 Oscar nominations, 5 wins including Best Picture and Best Male Actor Award for chiseled strongman Russell Crowe who fabulously played ironclad sword wielding Maximus Decimus Meridius a Roman General – turned slave – turned heroic gladiator – turned rescuer of Rome. The upcoming sequel simply entitled Gladiator 2, plans to pick up the plot 20+ years on focusing primarily on then would-be child Roman Emperor Lucius (played by Spencer Treat Clark) now all grown up. It will be interesting to see who they cast and if this follow-up film will be able to mêlée its way to similar victory. A likely prospect given that so many legendary storylines have been somewhat successfully revisited in recent years (e.g. Alien, Bladerunner…).  Who knows, perhaps Russell Crowe might even turn up in a momentous cameo role. We’ll know in time – ‘but not yet, not yet’. Returning to the initial installment let’s summarize the plot before evaluating the invaluable take-away message this timeless modern classic imparts on viewers.

To recap, the story opens with Russell Crowe’s righteous character loyal general Maximus bravely battling against the barbarians in Germania shoulder-to-shoulder alongside his men in service to Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by the late Richard Harris). Once victory is achieved patriot Maximus, who has been at war for several years, requests in gratitude for his service to return home to his beautiful loving wife, adoring son, and wispy shimmering wheat fields. However, ailing Emperor Aurelius has alternative plans for Maximus believing only he can end Rome’s corruption and successfully lead the Senate towards democracy therefore wishing to designate Maximus as the new head of state. However, doing so means outranking and overstepping his own cowardly incestuous depraved biological son Commodus (brilliantly played by Joaquin Phoenix), who undeservingly craves the throne, constantly drooling at the mere thought of the unfettered power it bestows. When Commodus gets wind of the plan he acts swiftly and unremorsefully snuffs out his own father. Then immediately condemns Maximus to death also ordering his family murdered. Maximus escapes his demise due to his commanding military skills but upon returning home his spirit is shattered at the sight of his slain family. In a state of exhaustion and despair he collapses yet wakes to find he has been picked up by slave-owners in Zucchabar (a Roman city that now is in Algeria). Once nursed back to health by follow slave Juba (terrifically played by Djimon Gaston Hounsou), Maximus’ long journey from commanding general, to slave, to gladiator takes shape. The excitement starts to build as a tormented Maximus beings to climb the gladiator ranks in foreign lands becoming a sensational marvel in no time with every defeat of his opponents; all done in an effort to win his freedom. Meanwhile miles away Commodus the new Roman Emperor continues to engineer the demise of the Senate in Rome while lusting after his sister Lucilla (played by Connie Nielse) a former lover of Maximus. The climax of the film comes when Commodus commissions gladiator contests in Rome to distract the masses from his exploitations; and as luck would have it Maximus’ endless wins have landed him in Rome’s famed Colosseum where he knows he must ‘win the crowd’ to be freed. As a mysterious masked good guy Maximus’ popularity continually raises amongst the Roman commoners with each victorious brawl. This in turn enrages the villainous Emperor Commodus who grows increasingly distraught that the crowd is starting to love a lowbrow gladiator more than the superior leader of Rome, including his young seven-year-old nephew Lucius. The story continues to unfold, which ultimately ends with an epic battle for the ages with the Roman Emperor Commodus pitted against an unknown, yet very admired gladiator simply referred to as Spaniard. What a spectacle indeed it turns out to be, which begs the question ‘Are you not entertained?’ For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, I will leave it there and instead now chat about the important life lessons embedded in this film.

First though it’s worth noting that director Ridley Scott does an amazing job bringing Gladiator to life in a very big way with well-scripted dialogue, and stunning cinematography that is visually spectacular. The original fight scenes alone are truly legendary albeit grim, which if nothing else are worth the watch. Although I detest gratuitous violence this film does a fantastic job depicting the bleak viciousness of the times and the unforgiving nature of our distant ancestors. Factually aware that throughout antiquity such unthinkable gore really occurred I appreciate the historic value of the carnage displayed in this film, mostly because the overarching message in the end is one of peace. Though achieving and maintaining peace is not the main life lesson of this movie as lovely as that would be.

Like so many battle-focused movies there are elements of loyalty, friendship, comradery, fairness, betrayal, competitiveness, rivalry… incorporated into the fabric of the narrative and this film is no different. That said, the beauty of Gladiator is that it calls attention to the bleakest undercurrents of the human psyche that if left unchecked loom and fester like rotting carcasses, stiffly leading lost souls to commit the worst of the seven deadly sins. Can you guess which one it is? Hint, hint, it’s not pride, or greed, or wrath, or lust, or gluttony, or slothfulness, although many of these elements prominently present in this movie. It’s worse. Truly the ugliest of all the seven deadly sins that in my opinion, unleashes so many other unthinkable evils is brilliantly displayed in this movie. It’s the crushing weight of ‘envy’ that Commodus feels towards Maximus that engulfs his entire being, eating him alive and propelling him to do the most heinous acts while simultaneously robbing him of any remaining admirable traits he has left. French author François de La Rochefoucauld said it best, ‘The truest mark of being born with great qualities, is being born without envy.’  

Jealousy vs. Confidence – a covetousness spirit spews out resentment, suspicion, distrust, possessiveness and so many other sinister emotions leaving its host corrupted and wary. Wanton desire to have what others have is a sickness of the mind born out of insecurities that steals precious time away from building oneself up, as the focus is directed at tearing another down. Such unhealthy behavior is often thought of as an abuse of one’s natural faculties (e.g. envy abuses one’s desire to be one’s best virtuous self). Self-doubt propagates inhumane fixations of the lowest depths. However, the guiding light to keep in mind is that whatever anyone else is or has, truly takes nothing away from you. In our modern world where voyeurism via the internet (falsely exhibiting endless disillusion of countless unflawed jubilant lives) is so prevalent it helps to remember that everything one needs is within the self to become. So if temptation to slip into a state of envy overtakes the practical senses practice self-awareness and recognize that negative feelings do not need to turn into vile actions. Most importantly, commit to memory the seven heavenly virtues (faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance, and prudence), which can serve to redirect the mind towards merits of positive redeeming characteristics we are all capable of commandeering and conquering. Amen!

P.S. I feel very lucky to have visited Italy, and specifically Rome a number of times as a tourist, for work, and even on route to MIFF. Each trip would not have been complete without a drop-in to its spectacular Colosseum (aka: Flavian Amphitheatre), Rome’s top tourist attraction! A true jewel of the Roman Empire, the Colosseum is one of the seven wonders of the world and was built in 70-80 AD. It could house 50-80 thousand spectators (averaging 65,000) and was used for gruesome gladiatorial contests, executions, mock battles, persecution of Christians… but its use as an entertainment venue ceased in medieval times. With all the grim exhibitions the Colosseum played host to over its long history, one fact of the Colosseum’s past that I really love is that the marble façade where ancient blood-thirsty spectators sat enjoying endless deadly performances was stripped off and used for the construction of St Peter’s Basilica. Looks like the devout got the last laugh in the end. Travel tip – Una Hotel is reasonable, close to the train station, and within walking distance of all attractions. Simply amazing.

Grainy footage of Oje fooling around playing from memory Gladiator’s famous musical score Now We Are Free.
In Rome at the Colosseum when Oje and Athena were younger, on a work trip snapping a pic with sword bearing Roman actors, and on route to MIFF with my ever present OHF entourage.