Aug 07

“The Farewell”: When Lying Is Considered Good

“Based on AN ACTUAL LIE” (announced at start of The Farewell)

“…’a good lie,’ in the doctor’s words…” Peter Debruge, Variety

“According to Chinese custom, it’s the kinder way…” Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

Director Lulu Wang‘s The Farewell is for real based on a true story about a lie—a true story she’d previously told on NPR‘s This American Life and which she’d called “In Defense of Ignorance.”

Christy Lemire, rogerebert.com, sets up this low-key (slowish) film’s premise as well as the results:

…[Wang’s] beloved grandmother was dying in China, and the family decided not to tell their matriarch to protect her and prevent her from living in fear throughout her remaining days. Instead, they planned a lavish wedding as an excuse to bring everyone together one last time…

In sharing her story with us, Wang achieves a masterful tonal balance… She’s made a film about death that’s light on its feet and never mawkish. She’s told a story about cultural clashes without ever leaning on wacky stereotypes or lazy clichés. She finds a variety of moments for her actors to shine within a large ensemble cast…

Watch the trailer below for The Farewell, starring Awkwafina as Billi. She and her parents—Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin)—make their home in New York. They travel to China to spend precious time with her grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen).

States Inkoo Kang, Slate, comparing The Farewell to a highly popular Asian-focused film of 2018: “If last year’s Crazy Rich Asians was an affirmation of Asian American identity as distinct from the cultures of the Old World, The Farewell focuses on Billi’s diaspora blues, of not feeling entirely at home in either Asia or America.”

The “weighty theme,” according to Anthony Lane, New Yorker, is “To whom do we owe our existence, especially as it draws to a close? Whose death is it, anyway?”

Selected Reviews

A.O. Scott, New York Times: “Wang turns her frustration and bewilderment into a gentle exploration of the cultural differences and generational schisms that have, over the years, opened up within Nai Nai’s extended family.

Emily Yoshida, New York Magazine/Vulture: “The little dramas and themes that emerge during the reunion of the film’s far-flung brood become, like a family, more than the sum of its individual parts, and an incredibly satisfying meal of a film.”

Brian Lowry, CNN: “By the end, which is probably the film’s weakest part, much of the audience will no doubt be internally debating where they stand on the whole ‘Tell them/don’t’ debate, as well as thinking about reaching out to an elderly relative who might be overdue for a call.”

Apr 10

“Natural Causes” by Barbara Ehrenreich

We insist on too many pointless checkups, too many pointless surgeries and too many pointless drugs. It has become a “ritual” that doctors perform for our comfort. That doctors have begun having themselves tattooed with “DNR” (Do Not Resuscitate) is a clue how extending life a few days or weeks in intensive care is of little benefit. From San Francisco Review of Books, regarding Natural Causes by Barbara Ehrenreich (2018)

Noted author Barbara Ehrenreich is back with a look at our often futile attempts to prolong life via food, exercise, health, and medical ideas and crazes and procedures. The title is Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.

“In some ways,” notes Scott McLemee, Inside Higher Ed, “it is a book-length sequel to ‘Welcome to Cancerland,’ her unforgettable essay from 2001. There, in recounting her diagnosis and treatment for breast cancer, Ehrenreich’s instincts as a muckraker kept her in a standoff with what she called ‘cancer culture’: while the medical protocol left her depleted and nauseous, the New Age-tinged demands for positive thinking felt insipid and infantilizing.”

Whether we take great care of ourselves or not, many of us fail to live long lives, and in this culture “we persist in subjecting anyone who dies at a seemingly untimely age to a kind of bio-moral autopsy,” states Ehrenreich.

Although all are potentially subject to such judgment, those with decreased financial resources—who are therefore less able to jump on health/medical bandwagons—seem to incur the most blame and shame.

Excerpted from Natural Causes (The Guardian):  

…(W)e seek an explanation…We can, or think we can, understand the causes of disease in cellular and chemical terms, so we should be able to avoid it by following the rules laid down by medical science: avoiding tobacco, exercising, undergoing routine medical screening and eating only foods currently considered healthy. Anyone who fails to do so is inviting an early death. Or, to put it another way, every death can now be understood as suicide.

The quest to prolong life usually becomes particularly amped up as we age. Results vary but are iffy. Publishers Weekly:

She comes down hard on what she describes as ‘medicalized life’: the unending series of doctor’s visits, fads in wellness, and preventative-care screenings that can dominate the life of an aging person. Ehrenreich’s core philosophy holds that aging people have the right to determine their quality of life and may choose to forgo painful and generally ineffective treatments. She presents evidence that such tests as annual physicals and Pap smears have little effect in prolonging life; investigates wellness trends, including mindfulness meditation; and questions the doctrine of a harmonious ‘mindbody’ and its supposed natural tendency to prolong life. Contra the latter, she demonstrates persuasively that the body itself can play a role in nurturing cancer and advancing aging.

Kirkus Reviews: In summary, “[Ehrenreich] urges that we recognize that death is natural, that we enjoy our lives while we can, and that we disabuse ourselves of any self-serving notions of post-mortem permanence or even influence.”

In her mid-70’s Ehrenreich states about herself, “I eat well, meaning I choose foods that taste good and that will stave off hunger for as long as possible, like protein, fiber and fats. I exercise — not because it will make me live longer but because it feels good when I do. As for medical care: I will seek help for an urgent problem, but I am no longer interested in looking for problems that remain undetectable to me.”

Jul 25

“Wish I Was Here” By Zach Braff: Reviewing the Reviews

Scan the movie reviews for Wish I Was Here, Zach Braff‘s new partially crowd-funded film, and you’ll find plenty of wordplay regarding both the title—“Wish I wasn’t here, in fact”—and the star’s crowd-funding controversy—“You’ll be wanting your Kickstarter money back.”

And although consumers are often rating it higher, the reviews from top critics are largely bad and snarky. A sampling:

Scott Foundas, Variety: “After exploring twentysomething Millennial malaise in his 2004 hit ‘Garden State,’ Zach Braff shifts his attention to mid-thirties, post-marital anomie in ‘Wish I Was Here,’ a cloying compendium of follow-your-dreams platitudes, new-agey spirituality and mawkish, father-son deathbed bonding that strains so hard to recapture ‘Garden State’s’ calculating but effective blend of whimsy and pathos that it nearly gives itself a hernia.”

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “Sophomore slumps don’t come any more irritating than ‘Wish I Was Here,’ the painfully sincere, emotionally fraudulent new comedy-drama from actor-writer-director Zach Braff.”

Rex Reed, New York Observer: “Pretentious (it thinks it’s a comedy but descends into depression faster than you can fill a Prozac prescription) and self-indulgent (whole scenes are thrown in for no reason except to stretch a five-minute sitcom pitch into nearly two hours of phony, contrived tedium), it’s a mess begging for coherence.”

THE MAIN CHARACTERS AND PLOT

Braff’s character Aidan is married to Sarah (Kate Hudson). Aidan’s father is played by Mandy Patinkin.

Boyd van Hoeij, Hollywood Reporter, sets up the story:

Aidan Bloom (Braff) is a struggling actor in L.A. whose last job, from a while back, was the ‘before guy’ in a dandruff commercial. His wife, Sarah (Hudson) works in an office putting data into spreadsheets and essentially providing for their two kids, tomboyish teen Grace (Joey King) and her younger brother, Tucker (Pierce Gagnon), as well as her husband, who keeps doing the audition rounds.

The fragile status quo of the family comes apart when the paterfamilias, Gabe (Patinkin), announces he can’t pay for his grandkids’ Jewish school tuition anymore because his cancer’s come back and he needs the money for an experimental treatment. This triggers both practical problems — the kids need an education and Aidan refuses to send them to public school — as well as more spiritual ones, especially after it becomes clear that Gabe’s got little time left.

THE TRAILER:

MAIN THEMES

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “‘Wish I Was Here’ shows what happens when people are forced to slow down, assess their lives, and ask the big questions; face the big moments, death, and disappointment. We are stronger than we realize.”

AIDAN

Ty Burr, Boston Globe: “The real problem is that the hero is a self-absorbed child who, when his wife expresses dissatisfaction with her hellish job, whines ‘I thought you supported my dream.’ The entire male side of Aidan’s family makes a terrible impression, actually, from that judgmental father to brother Noah (Josh Gad), a misanthropic creep who lives in a trailer and who we’re apparently meant to find adorable.”

SARAH

Sheila O’Malley, rogerebert.com: “…works for the L.A. Water Department, and endures sexual harassment from her cubicle-mate, but she is the bread-winner in the family, and can’t quit. Their lives have been set up to support Aidan’s dream, a dream that is slowly dying, but Aidan can’t let go of it. And Sarah is losing patience with the entire situation.”

G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle: “…(T)he depth she [Hudson] displays here, both dramatically and comedically, is key to the success of ‘Wish I Was Here’.”

GABE

Bilge Ebiri, Vulture: “Patinkin is terrific as the dying patriarch whose judgmental jabs at his son come with such regularity that they’ve become mere background noise, a quiet drone of disappointment.”

May 07

“The End of Eve”: Ariel Gore’s Memoir About Caregiving Her “Crazy” Mom

The website of prolific author Ariel Gore notes that her new book, The End of Evehas been called “Terms of Endearment meets Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”

Part of the publisher’s description of Gore and The End of Eve:

At age 39, Ariel Gore has everything she’s always wanted: a successful writing career, a long-term partnership, a beautiful if tiny home, a daughter in college and a son in preschool. But life’s happy endings don’t always last. If it’s not one thing, after all, it’s your mother. Her name is Eve. Her epic temper tantrums have already gotten her banned from three cab companies in Portland. And she’s here to announce that she’s dying. ‘Pitifully, Ariel,’ she sighs. ‘You’re all I have.’ Ariel doesn’t want to take care of her crazy dying mother, but she knows she will. It’s the right thing to do, isn’t it? And, anyway, how long could it go on? ‘Don’t worry,’ Eve says. ‘If I’m ever a burden, I’ll just blow my brains out.’

Why Did Gore Choose toTake Care of Her “Crazy Dying” Mom?

As told to July Westhale, Lambda Literary:

I became my mom’s caregiver because she was widowed and only had two kids and my sister refused to have anything to do with it. So it fell to me to take it on or to abandon her, which was certainly an option. I think usually if there is a queer kid in the family it falls to the queer kid to do the caregiving. In the same way that if there are no queers but there’s a female—it would fall to the female before it fell to the male children very generally speaking.

Kirkus Reviews: “Convinced that she needed to do as the Tibetan yogis she admired did and ‘go to the places that scared [her],’ she became Eve’s caregiver.”

Eve Under Gore’s Care

Kirkus Reviews: “…(H)er mother took over the house her daughter had bought and began renovating it. While the author and her family scrambled to make a life ‘out of stardust and panic,’ Eve flirted outrageously with an Anaïs Nin scholar–turned-contractor, watched Hollywood noir movies and reminded everyone that she was dying.”

What Happens to Gore’s Life?

For one, she gets kicked out of her own house after standing up to her mom. For another, her 10-year relationship goes kaput.

Susie Bright, author: “This is the story of the world’s most startlingly insane, beautiful mother who was supposed to die in one year— but nearly killed her entire family and staff before she was through.”

Kirkus Reviews: “…(T)he life Gore had ‘always imagined she [wanted]’ soon fell apart. Desperate to understand her own role in making ‘all this violence seem necessary and inevitable,’ Gore fled to a house outside of Santa Fe where she began redefining the meaning of love.”

She meets someone new. Readers will only know this new love interest as “The Chef.”

What Kind of Caretaker is Gore?

Wayne Scott, Oregon Live: “Without defensiveness, Gore maintains her compassion and loyalty. In spite of her mother’s abandonments and manipulations, up to the last days of her life, Gore remains steadfast, trying to set up hospice, bringing food, and worrying.”