Thursday, February 28, 2013

BABY TALK

Our daughter recently sent us a short video of our sweet granddaughter. Given that an ocean separates us, and does not facilitate a quick stop-by to see how she is growing, videos are such a great way to get little glimpses into this new life.  This most recent shows this 2 month old baby trying with all her might to vocalize.  Her mouth works to get into a shape to form words, her eyebrows lift as she really really tries to talk.  And, of course, these dear little ooohs and ahhs come out of her mouth.

Baby talk!  Isn’t it great?

Among the milestones we parents mark are the ways in which our children learned words, and then strung them together into sentences.  Parents record the first word a child says.  Many parents even save some of the precious pronunciations a child makes.  We still joke about our daughter saying CHIK-UMP for chipmunk.  Somehow, it seemed like a suitable renaming. 

A few years ago, I entertained the thought of pursuing a doctoral degree.  We live near a campus of the Penn State University, which offers a doctoral program in adult education.  Now, while I didn’t actually enroll in classes, I started to generate ideas for a possible dissertation topic.  And I came up with one.

I have been fascinated with the way we teach children language by reading or saying nursery rhymes to them.  Many of these rhymes are silly and sometimes nonsensical.  But they do help teach language by repetition, alliteration, rhyming.  So the topic I had in mind was to evaluate the correlation between exposure to nursery rhymes and language acquisition.  Of course, I did not get to a stage of collecting data, so I don’t know if there is a statistically valid correlation.  It stands to reason that the more culturally rich a child’s environs are when she is learning to speak, the quicker her language skills will develop.

For now, my hypothesis about nursery rhymes playing a critical part in language development will have to go unresearched, but maybe I can do a mini-experiment.  You can bet that I plan to get our granddaughter some edition of Mother Goose Nursery rhymes.  And, that I will most certainly read them aloud to her every chance I get.

Can’t wait to hear more baby talk.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

WWWP?

Just this afternoon my husband asked me if I had written a blog post recently, and I replied--no.  Well, I hadn't.  I explained that I don't have many new thoughts these days--which is not to say I don't have thoughts...I have many.  But, I am aware that sometimes I cover the same ground.

All was well, and I was content not to have posted anything...and, then--then.  I went to the grocery store.  After I had done my shopping, I loaded my bags into my car, and began to return my grocery cart.  Immediately next to my car was an open parking space, and on the other side of that space was another car, with two women loading up.  They finished as I did, proceeded to get into their car and prepared to drive away.  Just before the driver pulled her door shut, I called out to her--excuse me, this grocery cart (which she had left SMACK in the middle of the parking space between us)--are you done with it?  Why, yes ma'am, she said.  I then asked--did you plan to leave it right there?  Yes, ma'am.  Well I said--I will be happy to return it with my grocery cart, SO SOMEONE ELSE CAN PARK HERE.
 
WWWP?--I thought.

Remember this rant?  WWWP? See, I keep thinking the same thoughts--and more than five years ago, I ranted, err--posted about this very subject.  And I concluded:  what's wrong with people? 

This particular time, the grocery store was all of three parking spaces away from where the thoughtless shopper had parked.  It really was no big walk.  I shook my head as I walked both carts back to the grocery store.  Amazingly, the woman was completely unfazed--and did not even thank me.

I think I must ascribe to the broken windows theory of society.  The gist of this theory is that an unrepaired broken window in building invites more broken windows.  Vandalism flourishes, trash accumulates, and--next thing you know--things fall apart, the center cannot hold.  There is something to this theory.  When you see something treated carelessly, it takes extra effort to treat it carefully.  And it is so easy to imitate the careless behavior and acquiesce to the degradation.

To my daughter's consternation when she was a little girl, I would pick up trash strewn about the floors of public bathrooms.  Trash invites more trash.  Abandoned grocery carts invite more abandoned grocery carts.  Neglect begets neglect.

A saying attributed to Gandhi is: You must be the change you wish to see in the world.  I don't know if Gandhi really said that, but the idea resonates with me.  Do I wish there weren't grocery carts left here and there in a busy parking lot.  You bet--well, then, I have to be the one to take MINE back and sometimes even someone else's.

But, I will still mutter--WWWP?

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Photo:  not mine, but from a site indicating "in the public domain."


Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Last Roundup

No, no, no—dear reader—not that last roundup, but the last of my reviews pre-Oscar.  Having previously indicated that, for varying reasons, we did not see all the nominated films, the only two remaining films we saw were ARGO and ZERO DARK THIRTY.

These two nicely pair in a rich compare/contrast approach.  Maybe you recall that when I was teaching, I wrote about giving a compare/contrast question on an exam.  The course was Introduction to Literature (one of my favorite courses to teach) and I presumed that students would have had a basic composition course and would KNOW how to write a compare/contrast essay.  Well, no—I presumed too much.  This incident clearly made a mark on me, as in a previous movie review wherein I wrote a comparison/contrast review of another two movies, I referred to that exam experience.

Anyway—this year’s compare/contrast offering herewith.  Until we saw the second of these two movies—we went to see Zero Dark Thirty first and then Argo—I was thinking all the movies in the “Best Films” category were unique, stand-alone pieces.  Not so. 

Comparing the two films is easy.  They both deal with terrorism or extremism.  Zero Dark Thirty, of course, is about the hunting down and killing of Bin Laden.  Argo is about the infamous takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran at the time the Ayatollah Khomeini first came to power.  Both films are set in the Middle East.  Both feature themes of the United States against the world.  (Thankfully, no one burst into that raucous and mind-numbing chant of USA USA USA during the viewings.)  They are both based on an historical event.

A few more expansive comparisons are in order.  Both movies feature a single-minded character.  In Zero Dark Thirty it is the CIA analyst Maya brilliantly played by Jessica Chastain. In Argo, it is Ben Affleck also as a CIA operative Tony.  Both movies have a happy ending in that the goal that is set out—either to find and kill Bin Laden or to rescue some American diplomats who managed to escape the embassy but not Tehran—is achieved.  To achieve these ends, both of the main characters have to contend with skeptical authorities.  Maya at times seems to be the only one in the CIA who believes she has a connection that will lead to finding Bin Laden.  Her belief is so strong that you get the impression that her conviction alone is what made the operation “a go”.  Tony’s rescue scheme is so fantastical that he has to use his best persuasiveness to get permission to proceed.  And of course, both movies operate on high adrenalin and tense scenes.

One final way in which these two movies align is the reception they have received in the awards giving world.  Both of the directors—Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty and Ben Affleck for Argo were snubbed by the Oscars.  True, they have previously been recognized for their work: Bigelow won as Oscar as Best Director for The Hurt Locker, which also won Best Picture; and Ben Affleck won an Oscar, along with Matt Damon, for the screenplay for Dogma.  But the great shock when this year’s Oscar nominees were revealed was the absence from the Best Director list of Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck.  Since then, Ben Affleck has won several other awards for his directing of Argo, and Argo itself has been selected as best picture.  But the Oscars are always “another story.”

There are also differences between the movies (keeping in mind that a valid compare/contrast must have differences).  While we generally have known the story on which Zero Dark Thirty is based, the story behind Argo was classified for years and years.  There is one fine and wonderfully ironic line in Argo—when the news that the American Embassy workers have been freed, with credit at the time being given to the Canadians, one commentator opines “Why can’t we [Americans] do something like that.”

Another difference is the means whereby the operation at the heart of each movie is carried out.  While both stories begin with the CIA as the intelligence hub, the execution of the plans in each of the movies differs.  Once Bin Laden’s location is determined, it is the military which executes the final plan.  Officially known as The United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the group is referred to colloquially as Seal Team 6.  Where previously this group was TOP SECRET, seemingly of late some members can’t shut up. 

Such cannot be said about Tony Mendez, the hero behind the Argo story.  Of course, the movie itself has the CIA doing the planning, and the CIA executing the plan.  It seems at times that Tony is the only one who believes he can succeed.  But he is given the go ahead, and carries out a daring rescue—with a little help from him friends.  These friends include a make-up artist from Hollywood, played by John Goodman, and a composite Hollywood “producer” played by Alan Arkin.  Canadians are also Tony’s friends—several real-life Canadian embassy staff are collapsed into one character played by Victor Garber.  This remarkable story only came to light years after the events, when some of the information was declassified.  Tony Mendez himself kept the secret for years, finally revealing his role in an autobiographical work published in 1999.  Even his receiving of an award was done in secret.

Maybe the difference in who carries out the daring plans explains another contrast between the two movies.  Zero Dark Thirty is a tight, fast-paced movie which moves from early scenes of the U.S. CIA personnel torturing presumed Al Qaeda lower functionaries, to the actual military operation that is carried out with clock-work precision.  Argo has a much looser feeling.  From beginning to end, the rescue scheme is so improbable that the viewer sits gripping the edge of his/her seat, not knowing where the next twist will come from. 

Both movies were very engaging, action-filled, heart-pumping entertainment, well worth the price of a movie ticket and the hours to watch them.

Friday, February 01, 2013

COUNTDOWN--Life of Pi


Up until this point, I have been reviewing the movies in the same chronology that my husband and I used in viewing them.  With this review, I am skipping ahead to the last (and maybe final*) one we saw—LIFE OF PI.  I want to capture my thoughts as close to the viewing of the movie as possible, since LIFE OF PI is a challenging movie.

First, I loved the book.  I had seen the book in bookstores for some time, and finally decided to read it.  And I absolutely loved it.  I might have known I would, as I find every book that I have read which has won the Man Booker Prize to be singular and exceptional.  So it was with Yann Martel’s LIFE OF PI which won the prize in 2002.  But the book was one of the most thought provoking and challenging ones I had read in a long while.  In many ways, the book is a kind of fable.

So, when I first heard that there were plans to adapt the novel for a movie, I was skeptical.  There was so much in the novel that seemed beyond bringing to life through the visual elements of a movie.  But, I was wrong—maybe Ang Lee is the only director who could have done it, but do it he does indeed.

So, what to make of the story?  The plot—which I will eschew from summarizing in too much detail as to do so would  “spoil” the ending—revolves around a young boy named Pi Patel.  He lives with his father, mother and brother in Pondicherry, India.  When we first meet the young Pi, he is tormented by his playmates because of his name—Piscine, which is eventually shortened to Pi.  We also learn that young Pi has a deep interest in religion.  While he is raised as a Hindu, he is also drawn to Christianity and to Islam.  The level of Pi’s interest is not superficial; he is precocious in his desire to encounter God.  This interest in religion is important, as it helps explain one of the meanings of the movie.

His family owns a zoo, which eventually his father decides to sell to help capitalize a move of the family to Canada.  Some of the animals will be transported with them on the same freighter they take to sail across the Pacific.  Among these animals is a magnificent tiger named Richard Parker—not a usual tiger name, but there’s a reason for that name: a simple mix-up on the shipping label for the tiger.  The fact that the tiger has a human name is also important—at least I think it is, once you get to the ending of the book (and the movie).

Part way across the Pacific, the freighter encounters a horrific storm.  Pi has awakened just before the ship founders and sinks, which is one of the reasons why he escapes.  As the storm rages, Pi is practically pushed overboard and manages to make it into one of the lifeboats that is launched.  Perhaps because of the storm, animals are loose on the decks, and Pi is soon joined by a zebra that crashes into the lifeboat.  As the boat begins to move away from the sinking ship, Pi spots something swimming through the stormy water and realizes, to his horror, that it is Richard Parker.  Pi screams NO, and we assume the tiger does not make it.

When the storm calms, we see Pi in the lifeboat, and the injured zebra—which broke its leg in the fall—cowering at the end of the lifeboat.  Soon an orangutan is spotted, floating on a bunch of bananas, and Pi pulls her aboard.  Then, a hyena pops out from under the tarpaulin.  Just as things begin to get hectic—the hyena keeps trying to maul the injured zebra—we hear a sudden ferocious growl –Richard Parker somehow made it on to the lifeboat after all.

So begins the adventure of the perilous struggle for survival on the lifeboat.  The zebra, orangutan and hyena are dispatched, one by one, until only Pi and Richard Parker remain.  But, how to survive on a lifeboat with only basic food supplies and a Bengal tiger? 

Somehow, Pi manages.  He “tames” the tiger, provides food and water for him, and even reaches a kind of d├ętente where he can feel safe with the tiger.  As they drift across the Pacific, they encounter all the majesty and ferocity of nature.  Here, Ang Lee’s directorial strength is on full display.  The movie is one of the most visually stunning movies I have seen in a long time.  I should note we did see the movie in 3-D.  Very much the recommended way to view it.

After 227 days, Pi and Richard Parker finally wash up on the shores of Mexico.  Pi is rescued by people (as he says “members of his species”) who find him exhausted on the shore.  Richard Parker vanishes.  While Pi is in the hospital, recuperating from his ordeal, he is visited by representatives of the Japanese shipping company who owned the freighter.  They want to know why the ship sank.  So they ask Pi about his experiences.  After he relates his story, they look at each other incredulously, and then ask Pi to “tell them the truth, something they can believe.”  So he begins again, and this time recounts a different story.

Upon hearing it, they are again uncertain what to think.  So, Pi says—I have told you two stories about what happened.  Which one do you prefer?  Not which one do you believe.

Ah—there is a key, and the connection to the young Pi’s deep fascination with religion.  For me, part of the meaning of the story (and, trust me, you will come out of this movie wondering “WHAT DOES IT MEAN?”) is that humans are on a quest to experience and understand God.  There are several ways that people have done that.  Are they all true? Is only one true?  Is reality true and fantasy untrue? Or is fantasy true and reality an illusion?  Sometimes it is preferable to accept what is unbelievable than it is to accept what is believable.

As a movie, LIFE OF PI deserves its nomination for Best Picture.  Also, Ang Lee certainly deserves the best director nod.  The other Oscar nominations it garnered are for cinematography and film editing—all of which shows in the visual feast that is LIFE OF PI.
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Editorial Note: MINORITY opinion--my husband did NOT like LIFE OF PI, but he went with me because he knew I wanted to see it.
*Only two more movies to review--ZERO DARK THIRTY and ARGO.  I plan to review them together. But, what about the rest, you might ask.  Well, some we can't see--they are no longer playing in our area (Beasts of the Southern Wild)--AND some we don't want to see (Django Unchained).