Tips For Adulthood: Five Political Films Worth Seeing

February 2, 2011

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

When I was back in the States over the holidays, I had an interesting dinner conversation with a friend of a friend. I can’t remember how it got started, but suddenly there I was, listing my favorite all-time movies.

And in constructing my list out loud, I realized how many of my favorite films have to do with politics in some way, shape or form.

So since it’s Oscar season — and that always gets me thinking about the kinds of movies I like and why — I thought I’d share with you five political movies worth seeing:

1. Reds. This may be my all-time favorite movie, period. It’s about a radical American journalist – Jack Reed – who becomes involved with the Communist revolution in Russia and tries to bring its ideals to the United States. (He’s also the author of Ten Days That Shook The World, if that rings a bell.) Why do I like this movie so much? I find the history of communism – especially in the United States – to be pretty interesting stuff. But this is also an epic film, told over generations, which intersperses a story of global political change with Reed’s rocky but ultimately, loving relationship with his wife, Louise Bryant. Oh and the cast? Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and a surprisingly toned-down and moving Jack Nicholson.

2. Julia. Another film about war, this time World War Two. This play centers on a friendship between two women – American playwright Lillian Hellman and her lifelong friend, Julia. When Julia joins the anti-Facist resistance movement in Vienna, she asks her old friend Lillian to smuggle some money to the cause while travelling through Europe. This is fundamentally a movie about the love between two friends (set against a broader backdrop of Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism and Hellman’s on-again, off-again relationship with Dashiel Hammett.) Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave star, but don’t miss the five-minute scene with Maximilian Schell. Priceless.

3. All The President’s Men. Yeah, I know. Like Godfather II (which I also love), they re-broadcast this baby far too often on TV. But what a great movie. It’s goes right to the nexus of corruption, money and power in Washington. Best of all, the whole thing has a thriller-like feel. Personally? My favorite scene is the one where the Dustin Hoffman character stays up all night drinking coffee and pumping some lady for information. Makes one proud to be a journalist.

4. Nothing Personal. If, like me, you have a quiet obsession with The Troubles in Northern Ireland, I’d highly recommend a small but powerful film that flew a bit under the radar screen called Nothing Personal. It’s a very intimate portrait of a handful of people on both sides of this conflict and how their lives – political and personal – intersect in complicated and dangerous ways. Warning: the ending will kill you.

5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. So this is a pretty harrowing film all around. It’s about illegal abortion under authoritarian rule in Romania. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I realize; definitely mine. But the reason I list it here under political films is that despite the grisly subject matter, the film is a statement – and a re-enactment, of sorts – of what it’s like to live under authoritarian rule. At a political moment when we’re all trying to figure out what’s going on in Egypt, this one is worth a watch. But be sure to fasten your seatbelt first.

What am I missing? Do weigh in in the comments section with your own favorite political films…

Image: Movie Theater by jimdeane via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five “Comfort Activities” When You’re Sick

December 15, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

I spent most of last week in bed, shaking off a flu.

I really fight against being ill. On some fundamental level, I don’t want to accept that my defenses are down and that I can’t accomplish what I normally do in a day. So I spend a lot of time feeling frustrated when I’m sick, which is, of course, not only pointless but counter-productive.

But then I read this great post over on Daily Plate of Crazy about how Big Little Wolf woke up one day feeling really lousy and decided that even though it meant tossing out her “interminable checklist,” she accepted that she was ill and had a really nice day in, reading magazines and watching chick flicks.

And that made me realize that if you re-frame it, being sick can actually be a nice excuse to relax and engage “comfort activities” that you might not allow yourself during your normal routine. And I vowed that the next time I’m ill, I’m going to approach it with a whole new outlook. Here are five things to do when you’re sick:

1. Play Board Games. I’m a huge fan of board games. And, once again this year, I have used Hanukkah as an excuse to replenish our supply. (This year’s additions include Backgammon, Risk and Battleship.) The drawback (and advantage) of board games like these is that they can take several hours to play. And so you really need to clear an entire afternoon or evening, which can be tough to manage during “normal times.” But when you’re sick, you’ve got nothing better to do. So assuming you can actually sit up, playing a board game is an excellent way to spend a sick day.

2. Watch Old Movies. I’m not sure why, exactly, but watching old movies is another great comfort activity when you’re not feeling your best. In theory, any film should do, right? But there’s something particularly soothing about old movies. My daughter’s school is performing Oliver! for the Christmas play this year so we happened to have a copy of the film lying around last weekend. And so all four of us snuggled up in our bed and watched Oliver! as a family. Lovely.

3. Drink Tea. I don’t drink much tea these days. I’m more of an espresso-brewing gal. But when I’m sick, I take a hiatus from coffee and drink only tea. And I *always* enjoy that. There’s nothing that screams relaxation quite as much as a large mug of tea. Preferably with sugar and milk. Yum.

4.Take a nap. This has got to be the classic comfort activity that I routinely deny myself during my “normal life.” Despite all the research showing that taking a 30 minute nap every afternoon is really conducive to productivity, I never, ever nap unless I’m feeling ill. But when I’m sick, I allow myself this luxury and boy, is it worth it every time.

5. Read a guilty pleasure. This will vary from person to person. I don’t read women’s magazines so that’s never going to be a comfort activity for me. But I did find my eye straying to the pile of “to be read” books by my bedside table – you know, the ones that you really want to read but always feel you *should* be reading something else? So after, like, I don’t know…8 years?, I finally picked up Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker and plunged in. Just like that. So glad I did.

OK, so you know where I’m going with this, right? If these things are all so fantastic, then why don’t I incorporate them into my regular routine?

I’m working on it, folks. Really I am.

*****

For those who are interested, here’s my latest piece in Politics Daily on the woman in Iran sentenced to death by stoning.

Image: Nightime tea pot by racineur via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Roman Polanski, Julian Assange Battle For America’s Most Hated Figure

November 30, 2010

Amid the furor surrounding the WikiLeaks scandal, you’ll be forgiven for not remembering that the European Film Awards will be given this coming Saturday, Dec. 4, in Talinn, Estonia. What may also have escaped your notice is that Roman Polanski’s new film, “The Ghost Writer,” has the highest number of nominations.
Roman Polanski — remember him? He’s that really creepy European director who raped and sodomized a 13-year-old girl 33 years ago and remains a fugitive from justice in the United States . (If you want a quick primer on the case, read this excellent summary by my Politics Daily colleague, Eleanor Clift.)
When we earlier checked in with Monsieur Polanski, he was living under house arrest in Switzerland, after he left his home in France to attend the Zurich Film Festival in September 2009. In July, the Swiss authorities decided not to ship him back to the U.S. for trial on the grounds that American authorities had failed to provide confidential testimony about Polanski’s original sentencing procedure. As a result, he was declared a “free man” and he returned to his home in Paris (albeit with an outstanding Interpol arrest warrant in 188 countries).

Needless to say, it seems unlikely that Polanski will venture forth to Talinn to collect any prizes, should he win some. (The film is nominated in seven different categories, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay.) Earlier this year, “The Ghost Writer” (titled “The Ghost” in Europe) won Polanski a Best Director Award at the Berlin Film Festival, although he was under house arrest at the time and was unable to attend.

Read the rest of this story at www.PoliticsDaily.com

*****

Speaking of Wikileaks, here’s my round up of European reactions to the scandal on Politics Daily.

Image: varios 84 by fotos de camisetas de SANTI OCHOA via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons To See The Kids Are All Right

November 10, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

OK, folks, I’ve got another movie recommendation for you.

It’s a small-ish, Indie film by Director Lisa Cholodenko called The Kids Are All Right which has been out in the States for a while now, but only recently opened over here in the land of the free and the brave. (Whoops! That’s the U.S.! I meant, the land that spawned the land of the free and the brave…must get my history straight.)

As always, when I recommend movies or books on this site, it’s because I think that they have something profound to say about adulthood.

So, too, with this film. Here are five reasons you should rush out to see it if you haven’t done so already:

1. It’s about marriage. The film centers around two women – played with just the right mix of pluck and vulnerability by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore – who’ve been married to each other for 18 plus years. And though it’s sort of a film about gay marriage (see #4), I wouldn’t say that’s the central theme. Rather, this film is about what I’ve referred to before as middle marriage – that particular stage of life when you’ve been married for a while and the kids are no longer babies and maybe you’ve had a career change or a move or two, and you’re trying to figure out what it’s all about. And Cholodenko (who also co-wrote the script) gets that stage of life perfectly: the yearnings, the frustrations, the mis-communications, the boredom, the anxiety and, most importantly, the weary and imperfect love that underlies it. I guarantee that if you’ve been married or in a long-term committed relationship for more than five years you will watch this movie and find yourself nodding in recognition.

2. It’s about infidelity. I give nothing away by revealing that the movie’s central drama concerns what happens when the man who donated sperm to this couple many years earlier so that they could have kids re-appears and completely upends their family life. Lots of movies have treated the topic of marital infidelity, which is – as I’ve noted before – not only wide-spread, but in some ways, entirely predictable. (I always feel like I need to justify that claim, so here’s some scientific evidence about why monogamy isn’t natural.) What I liked about this film was the way that the topic was broached. The cheating didn’t stem primarily from feelings of boredom or revenge or even idle sexual attraction. It stemmed from the desire to be recognized and appreciated. Which struck me as so…honest.

3. It’s about parenting teens. Again, there are loads of movies about parenting. What sets this one apart is that it focuses very specifically on parenting teenagers which – in light of our cultural obsession with babies (thank you, Erika Jong!) – can sometimes go missing. The movie not only addresses the classic theme of “letting go” ( the couples’ eldest child is about to go off to college), but also how difficult it can be when you don’t approve of the company your kids are keeping. And Lord knows I could relate to that.

4. It’s about gay marriage. OK, I realize that I just said that this movie wasn’t primarily about gay marriage. And it isn’t. But I very much liked that rather than seeing another film exploring some aspect of a long-term heterosexual relationship, this one brought us inside a homosexual one. In a country where we are still – improbably – trying to figure out if everyone should have the right to marry whoever the heck they want, having a mainstream picture focus in on a lesbian couple with kids who look (gasp) just like every other couple with kids is culturally important.

5. It also stars Mark Ruffalo. ‘Nuff said.

*****

I was over on Politics Daily yesterday talking about the latest chapter in the harrowing Elizabeth Smart story.

Image: Minhas mães e meu pai by Universo Produção via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Signs You’re Working Too Hard

October 6, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Sometimes it’s the off-hand comment that really gets you thinking.

So there I was in the playground yesterday, about to pick my daughter up from school, when I started talking to a friend who was also waiting for her son. We were midway into a vague, “How’s it goin’?” sort of chat, when she suddenly commented, seemingly out of nowhere: “You seem so busy. Do you ever eat lunch?”

I laughed, reassuring her that I did, even while suppressing the memory of stuffing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth but two hours earlier as I galloped up a hill towards a bi-monthly appointment with my life coach (whom I see to help me…relax.)

But it gets better. As we talked some more about my work schedule, my double-school-run-afternoons and my husband’s recent business travel, she asked – in all seriousness – “Do you ever watch TV?”

She meant it in the nicest way, of course. She’s a really nice person. But, still, it cut me like a knife.

I mean: Do I ever watch TV? Am I so busy that the image I now project is that of a pop-culture-bereft, ready-meal-popping freak show who zips around North London on her collapsible bicycle desperately trying to keep up with her life? (Don’t answer that question. And by the way, does falling asleep to the Director’s Cut of Pride and Prejudice count as “watching TV”?)

So I gave it some thought. And I realized that I have been working too hard lately and trying to do too much. And I really need to relax. Here are five other tell-tale signs that you need to take a break:

1. Strangers tell you that you look rushed. It’s one thing when a friend tells you that you seem over-worked. But when even a stranger expresses concern that you’re too busy, it’s really time to take note. I was in the pharmacy the other day – where, because of the multitude of medical problems afflicting my family – the pharmacists are basically my extended family. Again, seemingly out of nowhere, the owner of the shop stepped forward and observed: “You always seem to be in a rush.” (“Why do you say that?” I wanted to reply. “Because I just knocked 42 of your contact lens solutions on the floor when I whooshed in here to grab my prescription while – literally – jogging?”) Once again, she meant it in the nicest way. This lady brings the descriptor “kindly” to a whole new level. And that made her remark all the more telling.

2. Muscle pain migrates to new corners of your body. Remember my piriformis syndrome? Thought I had that licked, didn’t you? Nope. It’s back. Only it has inexplicably migrated to the left side of my body. As soon as the pain started about six weeks ago, I recognized the symptoms instantly. And for a while, I ignored it. (Even though you should never ignore pain. You heard it here first.) But you know it’s time to cut back on what you’re doing when your body is basically screaming: “Hey! Pay Attention to Me!”

3. You feel relieved when you *have* to read your favorite magazine. I love The New Yorker. But despite my Sabbath Saturday resolve to devote more time to reading this magazine, I’ve fallen off the wagon. There are three – quite possibly, four – issues sitting in my magazine rack as we speak. One day last week, I found myself waiting for one of my kids for an hour with nothing to do but read my New Yorker. And I felt…relieved. As in: “Thank goodness this hour presented itself miraculously in my life!” Not as in: “Gee, I love the New Yorker and I think I’ll spend an hour reading it this afternoon because I want to.” What’s wrong with this picture?

4. You mistake tragedy for comedy. I love Indie films. The bleaker, the better. So when I recommended Winter’s Bone to some friends recently, I was puzzled when one of them, while passing me on the school run, shouted out: “Hey, thanks for the movie recommendation. We had a lovely evening. But it was a bit…grim, no?” To which I responded: “Grim? Really? I found it kind of uplifting.” When I recounted this exchange to my husband later that evening, he looked at me as if I were smoking crack. Like me, he also loved the movie. But “uplifting”? To paraphrase his reaction, when you mix poverty, drugs, murder and rural American sub-cultures, that’s not generally characterized as “uplifting.” Just sayin’.

5. You read Nora Ephron. I like my books much like I prefer my movies: heavy and (often) dark. (For me, the Dragon Tattoo series constitutes “light.”) So when my book club chose Nora Ephron’s Heartburn as its selection this month, I was initially disappointed. Not my cuppa, as they say. Boy, was I wrong. It’s not a great novel by any stretch. In fact, it’s not so much a novel as an extended rant by Ephron against her ex-husband for cheating on her when she was seven months pregnant. (And who can blame her?) But, man is Ephron funny. She has a terrific voice. And sometimes, we all just need to laugh.

Fortunately, I will have a chance to take a break later this month when I travel with my family – and my mother – to Berlin, one of those European cities I’ve always wanted to visit. Let’s just hope that whole terrorist threat thing has lifted by then. Speaking of grim…

*****

I was very grateful for this shout-out on the New York Times Freakonomics blog for my recent piece on health care reform in the U.K.

Image: Eat On The Run by Brave Heart via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Tips For Adulthood: Five Reasons Fish Tank Is For Grown Ups

May 26, 2010

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

Here’s a suggestion for what you ought to do over the upcoming Memorial Day (U.S.)/Bank holiday weekend (U.K.): rent a little movie that came out last year called Fish Tank.

It’s often billed as the U.K.’s answer to Precious. Which is to say that both films treat the subject of poverty, sexuality, dysfunctional families and abuse within an urban setting. But the American film has more of an uplifting, Oprah-esque touch while the British film is raw and bleak. (A bit like the difference between the American and British versions of the television show, The Office.)

I haven’t seen Precious yet, so I can’t speak to the comparison. But I can say that as someone who likes her films sunny side down, Fish Tank really spoke to me and has stayed with me long after I finished watching it.

And I think – like Up In The Air, but for entirely different reasons – it’s also a film about adulthood. Here’s why:

1. It’s about toughness and vulnerability. Once you set eyes on the film’s protagonist – Mia- a scrappy 15-year-old whose life is upended when her mother’s new boyfriend moves in, you won’t take your eyes off of her. Part of this is the fresh, compelling performance by the young actress, Katie Jarvis. But what makes Mia so appealing is that she is in equal measure both tough (she punches a few faces along the way) and vulnerable. (Beneath the toughness we see how painful she finds her social isolation, her verbally abusive mother, and her sexual longing for someone out of her reach.) And that’s what growing up is all about, isn’t it? Learning how to live with disappointment and fear, but also how to protect ourselves from getting hurt.

2. You fall in love with the wrong people. Love Stinks, as the immortal J. Geils Band once told us. And it’s true. At some point in your life – and possible more than once – you inevitably fall in love with the wrong person. They’re too old. They’re too young. They’re married. They’re gay. They’re straight. They live in Timbuktu. It doesn’t matter why. It just can’t work out.  And when Mia looks at her lover who can’t remain her lover for all sorts of reasons, your heart will sink along with hers in recognition of this fundamental truth.

3. Alcohol heals and damages.  When you’re young, it’s liberating to finally sneak that first sip of alcohol. And let’s face it, as you get older, it’s fun to get drunk once in a while. And sometimes – when you’ve been dumped or fired or just had a really bad day – a drink can really help. But when Mia’s 9 or 10 year-old sister starts sipping from a beer can – and you’ve already seen what drinking has done to Mia and especially her mother – you recoil from the image. And you just want to rip the beer can out of her hand. It’s such a fine line, drinking. It’s fun and yet  it can so easily get the best of us. But it takes awhile to figure that out. Ditto sex. But I won’t spoil the movie.

4. Social Class matters. As I wrote in an earlier post about why The Elegance of the Hedgehog is for grown ups – social class is one of those concepts that you can only appreciate once you’re grown up. The idea that where you start often determines where you end up. The idea that if you have no role models they are difficult to invent. The fact that societies don’t often know what to do with the so-called “underclass” – even when it lives right down the road. All of these themes are explored in this film.

5. Having a passion helps. If there’s an uplifting note in this movie, it is Mia’s love of dance. Even though she usually dances alone – in an abandoned council flat (public housing apartment) while drinking beer – dancing brings her joy and may well be her emancipation if she can just figure out what to do with it. It is even one way she manages to connect with her mother. I’ve written before about how important it is to start with what you like and what you’re good at if you want to make a meaningful change in your life. You don’t have to be Baryshnikov. You just need to be passionate about something. Anything. And start there.


Image: Tiny Dancer by Tiziano Caviglia via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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New Oscar Voting Rules: Will They Favor Grown Up Films?

March 4, 2010

For Oscar lovers like me, the usual nail-biting anticipation that accompanies the Annual Academy Awards is all the greater this year. Not only are there more films up in the category of Best Picture, but the rules by which that movie is selected have also changed. And so, the big question on everyone’s mind is: who benefits?

Today, I’m over on PoliticsDaily.com talking about these new rules and what they might mean for the future of “grown up” (read: Indie) films. Have a look.

Image: I’d Like To Thank The Academy by IceNineJon via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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