I’ve Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier…

“Life’s tough,” said Milo Peck (Tom Sizemore) after failing to return a full sheet of one-of-a-kind Led Zeppelin stamps to a kid. “Sometimes you get what you want. Most likely, you don’t get what you want.”

“You stink, Mister.” It doesn’t take a little kid in a bicycle to tell Milo Peck that.

For four unlikely strangers who failed to resolve their lives after dying in an untimely bus accident in San Francisco, they all learned that most of the time, you don’t get what they want.

First there was Milo Peck in his entire leather jacket, blue jeans, and dark greased hair glory—a thief who stole stamps from a kid—to be forever labeled as a “bad guy.” Then there was Harrison Winslow (Charles Grodin)—a man who dreamed of singing in front of a crowd—if only he ever tried. Next there was Penny Washington (Alfre Woodard)—a mother of three who is left forever wondering the fate of her children after her death. Lastly, there was Julia (Kyra Sedgwick)—a woman who never got a chance to return a declaration of love to the man who loved her because she was too afraid of commitment.

Robert Downey Jr. with his band of "imaginary friends." From left to right, Harrison Winslow (Charles Grodin), Thomas Reilly (Robert Downey Jr.), Julia (Kyra Sedgwick) and Milo Peck (Tom Sizemore).

Thomas Reilly with his band of "imaginary friends." From left to right, Harrison Winslow (Charles Grodin), Thomas Reilly (Robert Downey Jr.), Julia (Kyra Sedgwick) and Milo Peck (Tom Sizemore).

With death, the four “ghosts” are drawn to a baby by the name of Thomas Reilly—following him first as “imaginary friends” and eventually watching over him as he reaches adulthood. However, when the bus driver (David Paymer) who cut short these four lives returns to collect their wandering souls, they learn that all these years that they were watching over the boy Thomas Reilly (Robert Downey Jr.), they were supposed to use him as a “vehicle” to reconcile their business on earth.

Watching his more recent films like Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, it is amusing to watch a younger Robert Downey Jr. as he assumes the personalities of these four strangers in the 1993 classic Heart and Souls. From the slick way he swaggers as Milo Peck to the unmoving confidence he assumes as the bossy mother Penny Washington, Robert Downey Jr. is very deserving of his accredited Saturn Award for best actor.

However, the whole cast of characters, directed by Rob Underwood, is enjoyable to watch in this screenplay written by Gregory Hansen, Brent Maddock, Erik Hansen and S.S. Wilson. Furthermore, the music from Marc Shaiman contributes nicely to the film’s overall appeal.

No matter what your view of the afterlife is, Heart and Souls is a feel-good film–perfect comfort food and end to a long grueling week. Watching Robert Downey Jr. and company dance and sing to The Four Season’s “Walk Like A Man” in this light-hearted comedy is just the icing on the cake!

Robert Downey Jr. and company jam to The Four Season's "Walk Like A Man" in the streets of San Francisco.

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Recycling History

William Hundert (Kevin Kline) may as well be Brutus—a stoic man of morals and virtue whom he describes as “the noblest Roman of them all.” Like Brutus believed in the good of the Roman Empire, Mr. Hundert, a beloved teacher of Classical history at St. Benedict’s School for Boys, is a stoic man who believed in the good of his students.

So when the trouble-making Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a local senator, enrolls in St. Benedict’s and challenges Mr. Hundert’s belief, the teacher begins his own conspiracy to ensure Sedgewick’s success in the school’s Mr. Julius Caesar competition.

The Emperor’s Club, directed by Michael Hoffman and written by Neil Tolkin, is more than a story of about a teacher and his efforts to change the character his students at a Harry Potter-style Hogwarts. (Mr. Hundert resembles the fair and calculated Professor Minerva McGonagall while the St. Benedict students resemble young wizards, wearing Gryffindor-esqe gold and yellow ties as well as scarlet red blazers and gray slacks.) No, as the movie plays out, one learns bits of philosophy; some things like stupidity, says Mr. Hundert, are destined to last forever.

From St. Benedict’s, one could have been just as easily transported about thirty years earlier to another all boy’s New England-style boarding school such as that illustrated by John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace. Sedgewick Bell might as well be the ever popular-daredevil Phineas, while Mr. Hundert may have been the scholarly best friend Gene Forrester looking back upon his mistakes at his beloved boarding school. The problem with this dichotomy is that the true character of Sedgewick, although handsome and charismatic, is not good, and Mr. Hundert’s actions are not fueled by jealousy, but a rather more altruistic nature.

“Who gives a shit,” lies Sedgewick’s true philosophy. In a world of winning and losing, Sedgewick Bell only cares about winning, no matter what the costs. “Honestly, who out there gives a shit about your principles and your virtues?” Sedgewick asked his teacher Mr. Hundert. “Honestly, look at you. What do you have to show for yourself? I live in the real world where people do what they need to do to get what they want. And if it’s lying and it’s cheating, then so be it.”

Professor Eliis Fowler from The Twilight Zone episode "The Changing of the Guard."

Mr. Hundert, being a Classics professor, knew better than anyone that history was bound to repeat itself. However, at heart, Mr. Hundert is a teacher, like Professor Ellis Fowler featured in The Twilight Zone episode “The Changing of the Guard”— focused on molding young minds, however incorrigible. Like Professor Fowler, Mr. Hundert hoped that he could change all his students including Sedgewick, however, it would take a reunion with his former students to teach Mr. Hundert that it is not the failures, but the successes in his career that determine a man and a teacher.

The Emperor’s Club is not a particularly new or unique story. It is a story that had been told in by Ithaca College teacher and Twlight Zone creator Rod Serling in his 1959 episode “The Changing of the Guard” (only Mr. Serling told the story in 30 minutes while The Emperor’s Club runs about an hour and 50 minutes). It is a story about a group of boys and their power play illustrated in countless books and literature.

While Sedgewick might as well be a primitive leader of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, savagely competing in a jungle for the prestigious title of St. Benedict’s School for Boys’ Mr. Julius Caesar, his followers and competition include Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg), Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta) and Martin Blythe (Paul Dano). While Sedgewick may resemble Jack falling to wickedness while appearing brave and encouraging innumerable pranks even without the help of a conch shell, Martin Blythe appears as Piggy, a studious boy who becomes the sacrificial lamb for everyone.

Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) and his group of "Lost Boys." From left to right, Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta), Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg) and Martin Blythe (Paul Dano).

In director Michael Hoffman’s story The Emperor’s Club, Martin Blythe is the only one who truly grew out of Sedgewick Bell’s Neverland—the true tragic hero. And if anything, Mr. Brutus—“the noblest teacher of them all”—owes the biggest favor to his student, Martin Blythe.

With Willie and Gatsby and Jesus and all the King’s Men, why can’t we put ‘Humpty Dumpty’ back together again?

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…

They say that even with all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, they couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together ever again. Who knew that lessons from Mother Goose would last lifetimes?

My English professor once told me there are five great stories in the world. Sitting there, watching Steven Zaillian’s film All the King’s Men based on Robert Penn Warren’s novel of the same title, I am starting to believe that is true.

For Willie Stark (Sean Penn), he may have been Humpty Dumpty, sitting on a wall to be adored as governor of the good people of 1950s Louisiana. Or perhaps newly elected Governor Willie Stark was Jay Gatsby, someone who was “great” in a corrupt world because he was the only one who held true to pure goals. Stark wanted to build roads and bridges and schools and hospitals for the “hicks” like himself. Like Gatsby, Stark came from a humble background, but whereas Gatsby made a point of blending in with the genteel wealthy society in the West Egg of New York, like another man from over 2,000-plus-years-old, Stark made a point of sticking out. And like that man of Nazareth, born in a little town of Bethlehem, Willie Stark was crucified for it.

It’s funny, because Stark said that he would nail up anyone who stood in his way in one of his many Scarlett O’Hara inspired never-go-hungry-again speeches: “Nail up Joe Harrison! Nail up McMurphy! Nail up any bastard who gets between you and the roads and bridges and the schools you need!  If they don’t deliver, give me the hammer and I’ll do it.”

Willie Stark promised that he would break anyone who got between his promises to the people, the other poor “hicks” of Louisiana: “Your will is my strength, and your need is my justice, and I shall live in your right and your will. And if any man tries to stop me from fulfilling that right and that will, I’ll break him.”

No one would get between a man and his promises.

Oh, but Governor Stark, they did. They did get between you and your promises. Who are “they”? Why, Governor Stark, they are the wealthy, the upper class that did not vote you into office. They are the big corporations who wonder where you will get the money to build your roads and bridges and schools. They are the judges and the conservatives who are crying for your impeachment. And who are you, Mr. Stark, but a man with a promise? Who are you to say that state money should go to the schools and hospitals and not the big oil companies?

Who are you, Mr. Stark, but a man?

If Mr. Stark was a man as great as Gatsby himself, Jack Burden (Jude Law) is the quiet and reflective Nick Carraway of All the King’s Men, an accomplished journalist narrating the story of an unconventional governor. Like Nick Carraway, Burden comes from money, with the powerful Judge Irwin (Anthony Hopkins) who is the deciding judge to Stark’s impeachment as Burden’s surrogate father and the preceding governor’s children Anne (Kate Winslet) and Adam (Mark Ruffalo) Stanton as his childhood friends. Burden was a newspaper columnist for The Chronicle, writing about Willie Stark, the guy next door.

“As I watched him shake his big fist and listened to his words boom out across that field, I had the feeling that here was a man with a will of iron,” said Burden. “I had the feeling that Willie Stark would neither be steered away nor scared away from his purpose. I had the feeling that in Willie Stark, Kanoma County had found that rare thing: an honest man with courage.”

Burden claims that he doesn’t know how he got mixed into Stark’s life, a renowned journalist becoming Stark’s personal assistant. Sure, Stark doesn’t call everyone “old sport” or drive a yellow car, but while working for Stark, Burden finds himself opening the skeleton key into his past.

Behind the door and down the rabbit hole, Burden found his father who did more than teach him how to hold a gun and launch catapults. He found that the one and only girl he loved wasn’t as perfect as he always thought she was. He found that his best friend who couldn’t look at anything broke without fixing it was capable of breaking a lot more than imaginable.

In the end, we learn that there is no green light over the horizon and everything is as fragile as an egg sitting precariously on a pedestal. Any goals or plans or dreams can fall to pieces with a gunshot. And even with all the king’s horses and all the kings men, that hope, that dream, can never but put together again. It makes us wonder if there really is such a thing as “good.”

“Do you know what good comes out of?” asked Stark. “… Out of bad. That’s what good comes out of. Because you can’t make it out of anything else. You didn’t know that, did you?”

Bright Star Is a Shining Gem

John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) are separated by more than a wall.

They are as different as the prince and the pauper, the moon and the sun—yet this story of star-crossed lovers strikes a chord within the human psyche.

Their love should not be, yet we cannot stop watching.

While we know the story of young love across a constellation of bars, director and screenplay writer Jane Campion’s Bright Star gives us the perfect composition of alluring whispered words, haunting romantic music and intricate woven webs that make this film a true gem.

As we eavesdrop on the life of Frances ‘Fanny’ Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw), we learn of the quickened pulse of heartbeats trapped behind heavy societal walls.

For starters, Fanny Brawne is a young seamstress, living on mahogany wooden dance floors or prancing among the pastel fields of flowers with her two younger siblings, Samuel ‘Sam’ Brawne (Thomas Sangster) and Margaret ‘Toots’ Brawne (Edie Martin). Fanny, who prides herself in embroidery, is the witty, vibrant eldest daughter of a widowed Mrs. Brawne (Kerry Fox).

On the other hand, John Keats is a young low-income poet residing in the crevices a darken room, lounging for the right color of words to paint his pallet of poetry. He lives with his friend Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), an ape-like man with an equally unflattering humor, who accompanies Keats like Dr. Watson follows Sherlock Homes. Brown is Keats’ sponsor and dearest friend.

Whether it be by chance or fate, Fanny and Keats meet for poetry lessons. She easily becomes his temptress, muse and ‘bright star,’ leading him to words on the darkest of nights.

Their love blossoms under stolen kisses and whispered words in nature’s beautiful helm. Each scene is beautifully composed, like a romantic painting. Golden beams of sunlight seep into open windows and kisses dewy uncut-grass.

Moreover, the acting is superb.  Cornish delivers heart-wrenching sobs as her hands desperately grip her mother’s ruffled blouse. Martin’s blatant one-liners are typical of a tattletale younger sibling’s and are often the source of humor. Both Martin and Sangster are the dutiful younger siblings that act as their mother’s spies, trailing Cornish as she follows Whishaw across the streets and scenery of nineteenth-century London.

While it may be true that Ben Whishaw may seems awkward at times, his pallid eyes flickering from side to side, searching across the room, and Abbie Cornish’s character may seem childish and fickle, throwing irrational tantrums—their youth, their life and their love, running through the long cattail-lined paths and capturing kisses in closed bedroom doors, fuels the film even through the dismal points.

Fanny becomes his “La Dame Belle San Merci”—one of Keats’ most well known poems about a woman that lures a knight to solitude, drawing him away from freedom. Brown warns Keats that woman are dangerous; eventually, Keats will be burned out, writing poems just so he could bring income to support Brawne’s lavish clothing and lifestyle.

As it becomes more difficult to maintain their relationship through obstacles of money, tragedy and distance, the film evokes emotion. Like the characters, we feel immensely, wishing and willing for a happy ending that cannot happen. Steadfast love becomes unwavering as the sun’s eternal fire, but while the moon is wane and fickle, even the sun sets.

“I almost wished we were butterflies and lived but three summer days,” Keats’ soft voice whispers as Brawne reads his letter. “Three such days we could fill with more delight than fifty common years can ever contain.”

But while every Midsummer Night’s Dream must end, we, like butterflies, are enraptured into the three summer days, the three short years and the life and romance of a poet and his bright star.

The Most Dangerous Game

A lighthouse shines in the distance against the velvet-black sky—against the darkened theatre of Cinemapolis at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 25, 2009. The lighthouse’s beacon beckoned ships and sea creatures alike near a darkened cove, lined with rocks and fishermen’s spears. It beckoned viewers to a closer look at the award-winning FLEFF[1]-sponsored documentary The Cove.

The cove is a perfect trap for Richard Connell’s character General Zaroff to set up “the most dangerous game”—to set up for a true man-hunting game of cat-and-mouse, hunter-and-hunted, and predator-and-prey.

The cove is also where Taiji government in Japan set up a secret dolphin slaughterhouse. “I do want to say, we tried to do the story legally,” the narrator began the documentary, driving a vehicle with a hospital mask hiding his face, while trying to avoid the police. Of course, the town of Taiji—with “We love dolphins!” posters hung around every corner—is a “little town with a really big secret.”

One might find it curious that there are certain places that one is not allowed to fish or hold cameras. These places are the coves of Taiji, where big red “X’s” mark the forbidden territory. But for some, “X” always stood for buried treasure, and a big secret was sure buried in Taiji and other places like Taiji. The governments knew this, of course, so they were employing in this cat-and-mouse game, tailgating the man with a facemask. All the man needed was a camera. With some leaked footage, the rest of the word to find out.

Flipper

Ric O'Barry with Cathy the dolphin.

Perhaps this story started with Flipper, a popular television series in the mid-1960s. With care-free catchy lyrics such as “They call him Flipper, Flipper, faster than lightning, no one can see is faster than he…” many became fascinated with dolphins—the playful creatures. “If it weren’t for Flipper, we wouldn’t even care about dolphins,” someone commented about the public’s spotlight.

And at the height of the dolphin era, no one was more popular than the dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry. He built up the dolphin industry, spending many hours in the water, living in the television sets of countless homes. However, after “Flipper,” a dolphin by the name of Cathy, consciously stopped breathing, committing suicide in the young dolphin trainer’s arms, O’Barry spent the rest of his years trying to tear down the dolphin industry.

“I never planned on being an activist,” said O’Barry. “I spent years building the dolphin industry and spent last 35 years tearing it down.”

Save a Whale, Ride a Dolphin: Smile for Free Willy

“Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it’s breaking,” began the melancholy song ‘Smile’ by Charlie Chaplin. ‘Smile’ was Michael Jackson’s favorite song. Perhaps the late King of Pop was on to something. In 1993, Jackson wrote the song ‘Will You Be There’ for the motion picture Free Willy, a movie about a boy who tries to save a whale from being killed from captivity.

The boy—Jesse—was just trying to do what Ric O’Barry has been doing since Cathy died: free Willy.

“The dolphin’s smile is nature’s greatest deception. It creates the illusion that they are always happy,” said O’Barry. “You realize after a while that they don’t really belong in captivity.”

Yet by trapping bottle-nosed dolphins in stadiums packed with people, clapping and shouting, one is killing them with a wall of sound. Dolphins have incredible sensitive hearing and sonar; they are able to see with sound. To see tourists day after day with their loud thunderous clapping and cheering as they leap through the air, the dolphins are slowly dying.

About 23,000 dolphins and porpoises die each year in coves like Taiji, however, most deceased dolphins are not show dolphins. While dolphins in Taiji do get sold to water parks to perform, most dolphins in the Taiji coves are slaughtered in the salty blood red waters. Most of the dolphin meat doesn’t even get eaten.

Dolphins have been known to help humans—such as the stray surfer who leans to close to a shark; yet humans kill dolphins.

As Charlie Chaplin sang, “Smile, though your heart is aching…”

The Biggest Public Health Problem

“If we lose access to sea creatures, it may become the biggest public health problem,” they said, especially in an island such as Japan, where fish becomes 70 percent of protein for people. Yet with the current rate of fishing, there will be no fish left.

Besides the rate of killing of fish to extinction, there is another problem lurking beneath the cold depths of the Taiji cove. Dolphin meat is laced with mercury, and over time a buildup of mercury can make one lose one’s hearing, sight and mind. It can result to the Minamata disease: a neurological condition caused by severe mercury poison, causing deformity in infants and symptoms ranging from ataxia, numbness, general muscle weakness to insanity, paralysis, coma, and death. Therefore, dolphin meat isn’t a very popular food item for Japanese citizens. Still, in a tough economy, one finds it hard to deny free food.

With an abundance of dolphin meat, they start giving away free dolphin meat in kid lunchboxes. Dolphin meat in Taiji may be found in grocery stores, mislabeled as whale meat. The best part is that the government knows what is going on, but citizens wouldn’t know the difference.

Yet the problem of food poisoning isn’t limited to Japan, and the coves in Taiji aren’t the only slaughterhouses of dolphins. As Ithaca College Journalism Professor Todd Schack said, “We live in a giant glass house and we can’t blame Japan when they can turn around and blame us.” As unlikely as it may seem, food poisoning persists even in the good U.S. of A.

A recent New York Times[2] article reported that a 22-year-old dance teacher became paralyzed after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli. Although selling tainted meat is banned, tens of thousands of people become sick by the E. Coli virus, which symptoms ranging from aches, cramps, diarrhea and seizures to a coma and paralyzation. E.coli contamination this summer led to the recall of beef from nearly 3,000 grocers in 41 states. Ground beef—or hamburger meat—is usually made from a variety of sources, and not all the processed meat is tested for E. coli.

As Ric O’Barry said, “If we can’t stop that, if we can’t fix that, forget about the bigger issues. There’s no hope.”


[1] FLEFF is an acronym for Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/04/health/04meat.html?_r=1&th&emc=th

The Floods of Katrina

Because the Bible Told Me So
“I, on my part, am about to bring the flood [waters] on the earth, to destroy everywhere all creatures in which there is the breath of life; everything on earth shall perish,” the Lord told Noah (Genesis 6: 17).

For Hurricane Katrina victims, everything on their earth did perish. “Everybody lost everything around here. Everything of value except our lives,” Kimberly told cameras.  And the government didn’t do anything to stop it.

“We’re actually prepared for the worse by hoping for the best,” former President George W. Bush told cameras. No evacuation was prepared and Bush dismissed calls to bring in troops to help New Orleans victims. However, that optimistic nature didn’t save the 1,836 lives lost to Hurricane Katrina.

As Kimberly Roberts said: “You have people who couldn’t leave like me. But I believe in the Lord Jesus.” So did Noah. And both Kimberly and Noah, and all the animals that marched in two by two, made it out of their “flood” alive.

Kimberly and Scott Roberts

Government’s Gonna Trouble the Water

The screening of Trouble the Waters, an award-winning documentary produced by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, was well received at 7 p.m. on September 15th, 2009 in that Emerson Suites of Ithaca College. It is an epic story of faith and survival as Trouble the Water takes us directly into the lives of an African American couple: Kimberly Rivers Roberts and Scott Michael Roberts. “We were there the night New Orleans went underwater,” the Roberts described.

Like Noah, the Roberts made an ark—theirs was a little green rowboat by the name of Duachita, with the words “wet dream” graffiti-ed on her hull. (Katrina sure was a “wet” dream, however, for Katrina victims, they might never get a chance to wake up.) Like Noah, the Roberts saved a community—they drove 30 people out of New Orleans by a pick-up truck. (Kimberly described the worse thing as seeing people in the streets, streaming out of the Red Cross shelter, and knowing that there wasn’t anything she could do to help them. There were just so many people who lost their homes, their jobs, and their lifestyles.)

As with Exoduses, this one failed in a major way. “They left her behind. They left my mom behind,” Kimberly accused the government. Before the Hurricane hit, Kimberly was told that all the patients of the hospital were to be evacuated. Weeks later, Kimberly Roberts found out that the evacuation never took place.  Like in Genesis 19 when the Lord took Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt, Kimberly’s mother was left behind.

Moreover, as Kimberly, Scott and her 12 kids were confined to an attic with no food or clean water, the 911 Operator chillingly replayed, “The police are not rescuing at this time.”

Even as Roberts made her plea: “I’m gonna drown! I have children!”

The operator repeated her noncommittal response: “The police are not rescuing at this time.”

“What am I going to do? I have children.

Meanwhile, the blades of the helicopters roared above.

Serving One’s Country

Photo taken by Karen Larkin.

Imagine your home country, the land in which you defended with your life.  Imagine coming home from days, months, or years at war, and the satisfaction you feel for doing one’s part for one’s country. For the soldier coming home to New Orleans from Iraq, however, they had no “home” to go to. Their “home” was in ruins, and even as they were off in Iraq, defending their country from the savages of war, no one defended their homes, jobs, or livelihood.

“The government let us down. What good is it to even serve us?” many wondered.

“I don’t want to fight for a government that doesn’t give a damn for you,” someone told cameras.

If you don’t have money and you don’t have status, you don’t have a government.”

As Producer Tia Lessin said: “The levees breaking were foul play. [The government] knew for years that the levees in New Orleans were vulnerable.” It was a crime to not evacuate the city, and it is a crime where no one is accounted for. And while, $350 million is spent in tax dollars to fight the War on Terror, what money is being spent to rebuild the homes, jobs, or livelihoods of the citizens of New Orleans? Meanwhile, the commercial and tourist attractions of New Orleans are restored just in time for Mardi Gras.

The Never-Ending Nightmare

“This must be a dream,” Kimberly’s younger brother Wink said when he emerged from prison to find his grandmother dead and his home ruined. However, Wink and his family never work up from their nightmare.

“Katrina is still going on. She’s still trying to do damage,” someone describes.

“New Orleans felt completely left behind,” producer Tia Lessin told the audience at Emerson Suites. “They felt that the rest of the country moved on and they haven’t.”

In the beginning, there have been great floods – floods that lasted 40 days and 40 nights. For Katrina victims however, the effects of their “great flood” may last a lifetime. After Katrina, most white have returned to their homes, however, most of the black community still have no homes to go to. As rent increases in new homes rebuilt in the New Orleans area, the homeless population also increases. And lastly, the levees still remain vulnerable.

Sidebar: For more information, visit http://troublethewaterfilm.com !