Thursday, March 16, 2006


Today would have been my sister's fourteenth birthday, so I'd like to just print her obituary today. The funeral is tomorrow.

Davis, Ellen M. age 13, late of Frankfort, died March 12, 2006. beloved daughter of Bob and Katie (nee Goga), dearest sister of Jayne Davis, Audrie Davis and Aaron Davis, also survived by numerous uncles, aunts and cousins. Student at Summit Hill Junior High and a member of the Junior High Band. Funeral services Friday, 10:30 a.m. at Peace Community Church, Frankfort. Interment private. Visitation Wednesday and Thursday, 2 to 9 p.m. at Gerardi Funeral Home, Lincoln Hwy. at 95th Ave., (1blk. E of LaGrange Rd. on Rt. 30), Frankfort. Memorials are requested to the family for a charity of their choice. Info., 815-469-2144. Published in the Chicago Sun-Times on 3/14/2006.

Love you, El.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

Justly famous time-lapse photographed documentary that juxtaposes the our busy daily lives, our fascination with technology, and the still beauty of nature. Director Godfrey Reggio’s meditation on "life out of balance" is, even at eighty-three minutes, a little overlong; 60 minutes might have had a more immediate impact. As it stands, the documentary is easy to get lost in, and when Reggio does make a great point (such as juxtaposing shots of hot dogs emptying onto a conveyor belt with shots of commuters emptying out of escalators in Grand Central Station), it’s easy not to notice it at first. The score by Philip Glass is stunning, and carries some grandly beautiful images; overlong or not, Reggio showcases some images that I’d never really seen before. Overall, the impact is *** stars; there’s just too much there.

Roger Corman’s docudrama on Chicago’s Capone/Moran gang war is a little too docu and not enough drama. As a result, it drags through a lot of its scenes. Jason Robards is probably the best screen Al Capone I’ve seen yet, though; his calm, which suddenly becomes dangerous bluster, which just as suddenly becomes cold, focused intent, is almost hypnotizing whenever he’s on screen. The other best actors in the damn thing--Bruce Dern, Jack Nicholson, the always-wonderful Dick Miller--are in small, uncredited roles. George Segal, who is credited first, grows tiresome fast. **1/2 stars. See The Roaring Twenties for an idea of how good this movie could have been.

Okay, it’s my own fault for seeing this movie because Joe Eszterhas wrote it. Richard Marquand, who directed his scripts The Jagged Edge and Hearts on Fire, was supposed to direct this movie, but he died before he could. This version, turned into a vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme, has been gone over by several other writers. I have no idea if the script was any good the first time, but it could’ve been; it’s kind of a modern take on Shane, with the underrated Ted Levine making an excellently over-the-top villain. And Rosanna Arquette, whom I’ve loved since I was nine, is totally nude in it, which helped. But what was with all the references to Jean-Claude’s penis? I don’t know, I never really bought him as someone women liked. He always seems so effete to me. Of all the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies I’ve seen (this makes six), this was the least annoying. ** stars, but only because of Rosanna Arquette and Ted Levine.

Excellent adaptation of the Robert Bolt play; this film is one of the classic movies of the 1960s. Paul Scofield gives the performance of his life as Thomas More, chancellor to King Henry VIII. When More resigns his position rather than speak out against Parliament proclaiming Henry the head of the English church, a long process of public ruination follows. This is one of those films I love best, where the story hinges on excellent dialogue and intellectual argument; in this case, who has the ultimate authority on earth? Even for an atheist like myself, the issue is still politically relevant. The performances carry this movie to a transcendent level: Leo McKern, John Hurt, Susannah York, Nigel Davenport, Corin Redgrave (and a cameo from his sister Vanessa as Anne Boleyn), and Orson Welles all measure up to the high standard of Scofield’s performance. But my favorite performance in the movie is easily Robert Shaw’s as Henry VIII. Playing him as both a petulant boy and a dangerous man aware of exactly how much power he wields. Great drama; **** stars.

James Stewart did some of his best work for director Anthony Mann (they made eight movies together), and even if this film is lacking in some aspects, Stewart’s acting is still top-notch. This tells the story of Glenn Miller’s search for his signature sound, but more than that, it’s a nice story about two people in love. The core of the film is Glenn’s love for Helen (a likeable June Allyson), and their relationship plays out as an intuitive, instinctual one; it’s far more appealing than a grand romance would have been in this film. The music is well-adapted by Henry Mancini ("Moonlight Serenade" sounds exactly the way you want it to). It’s a slight film, but a nice one. *** stars.

Timothy Treadwell was the flamboyant activist who, for thirteen summers, lived among a group of grizzly bears in Alaska. He protected them from poachers, filmed them, and spoke to elementary schools for free about bear conservation. In 2003, he and his girlfriend were killed by a bear; the great Werner Herzog has made a documentary incorporating Treadwell’s footage and telling the story of his life and death in an attempt to understand just why he did what he did. And the answer is... well, there is no pat, easy answer. Treadwell loved animals, and every year with the bears made him hate the civilized world more and more. Herzog does an excellent job analyzing the film as a filmmaker; he comments on the shots, on what Treadwell must have been looking for, on what must have driven him, rather than on the work he was doing. This film raises a lot of questions about the man: was he vain? Did he want to be a bear? One interviewee goes as far as to say that Treadwell got what he deserved, which I don’t believe is true. Were the bears hostile to him? After thirteen summers, the bears seemed to regard Treadwell as a fixture of their lives, and accepted his presence (provided he kept his distance). The bear that killed Treadwell was not from the group he followed every year; this bear was from another group he was unfamiliar with. They weren’t like the foxes, who became friendly with him. But, watching the footage and seeing Treadwell creating his documentary footage, it’s hard to deny that this man had deep emotional problems. Becca felt there was a strong implication that Timothy Treadwell was a conflicted homosexual, and that he retreated into the wilderness where the natural roles of animals were strictly defined. Civilization judged him, but the natural world could not. In the world of nature, Treadwell could make a difference not because of who he was, but because of what he did. I see what she’s talking about. Certainly, something drove him into the wild. Herzog seems to feel that Treadwell’s view of nature was overly romantic; that the reality is pain and imbalance. He does not accept the kinship with the bears that Treadwell professed to feel. I’m somewhere in the middle on this, but I’m closer to Herzog’s point of view. I don’t see an ordered world, either. Treadwell sought, as Herzog says, a primordial connection to nature. But was he running from something inside? This is, however you end up feeling about Treadwell, an excellent and haunting documentary. My only complaint is that most of the people on camera (especially Treadwell’s hippy friends and a coroner who seems to be auditioning for a Lovecraft adaptation with intensity!) seem to be acting. Still, **** stars.

This Italian film, La Matriarca, is more accurately-titled The Matriarch in other English-speaking countries. Belgian sex kitten plays Catherine Spaak plays Mimi, a young woman who is abruptly widowed, only to discover that her husband has been keeping an apartment where he plays out his many sexual perversions. Mimi decides to make a study of perversion and try them out for herself. Fun without being condescending, curious while remaining innocent, this movie explores sexuality and sexual politics without being overbearing. Spaak is saucy and sexy the whole way through, carrying the film with her gorgeous eyes and Mimi’s ability to take control of any man. My favorite part of the movie was the way that Mimi took over her own sexuality and started pushing men around to use as sex objects. Now, I saw this on DVD, but apparently the DVD edits out a number of scenes, so I guess I’d have to recommend you find the VHS. In the form I saw it in, it’s a *** star movie. Radley Metzger would have directed it better, in my own opinion.

POM POKO (1994)
Studio Ghibli’s Isao Takahata made one of my top favorite animated films of all time: My Neighbors the Yamadas. This film, however... well, I was disappointed in it. A community of raccoons is about to be displaced by a housing development in Tokyo, and they must develop their innate abilities to transform shape in order to fight back, assimilate, or perish. I have a couple of complaints about the movie. It’s too full, maybe. There’s so much going on, and there are shifts in tone that don’t quite flow well. The racoons are drawn as real, naturalistic raccoons, but they are also cartoony characters, and even more cartoony characters. The movie tries to hard to be cute, and when it edges towards making a real political point, it retreats into that cuteness. The ecological message beats you into submission, though; at the very end, one character even addresses the audience and asks "What about the rabbits and badgers?" I don’t know, I found that distasteful. There’s so much going on here that a constant narration is needed (provided in the English version by Maurice La Marche), and it makes the film even busier. It just isn’t paced well, either. Every time they turned into real raccoons, I kept thinking how much more of an impact the film would have had with a simpler story and more naturalistic animation: Watership Down with raccoons, and maybe without dialogue or narration. The shot of a realistic raccoon getting hit by a car has much more impact than characters directly telling us how we should feel. There’s a sense of fairy tale that just never comes off. My final complaint: the testicles. They all have testicles, and they can use their, um, pouches (which extend out by many meters when they need to) to transform... So, basically we have a movie about raccoons using their ball sacs to defeat developers and (literally) fight police. It’s a real mess. My least favorite Studio Ghibli movie. ** stars.

I’ve never been able to stomach Fellini. Turns out I still can’t. * star.

Andre Dubus is a lot better in print than he is on the screen. Just like In the Bedroom, this takes something interesting and emotionally complex and just deadens it. Jesus, do people in their thirties have anything to worry about besides infidelity and existential angst? And does the answer always have to be as simple as family? Predictable, non-complex time-waster. Laura Dern is excellent, Mark Ruffalo is the same as he always is, Peter Krause is unnoticeable, and Naomi Watts, as always, sucks. ** stars.

MRS. HARRIS (2006)
So lame I don’t even want to discuss it. * star.

Richard Pryor stars as an orange-picker who accidentally gets mixed up in the labor movement and somehow has to balance three women in this so-so comedy. I love Richard Pryor, but I don’t find a lot of the comedies he made overly funny (I’ve never seen any of his movies with Gene Wilder, which I hear are great but have never made it to; maybe I should try those next). Pryor’s good in this one, but its attempts at having a message are heavy-handed and the scenes with his family aren’t particularly funny. His reactions are hysterical, though. **1/2 stars. Pryor plays two other roles.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Don't Stop the Reading

Does everyone else read several books at once? I know it can't just be me; others out there do it, too. I find that the flexibility of the mind demands it. Sometimes, a required book can be too dry to accomodate constant attention. If reading is feeding the mind, then an occasional bit of candy needs to be thrown in.

I've just finished reading A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby. By finished, I mean stopped. 50 pages in, and I've already had enough of him. Man, the American Academy of Arts and Letters will give an award to just anyone these days, won't they? The man's only put out eight books, just four of which were novels. High Fidelity was a highly enjoyable book, but About a Boy crumbled towards the end, and How to Be Good was even worse. Good plot, yes, but no real point. A Long Way Down is already crumbling; Hornby simply has nothing interesting to say about life or death. I'll wait for the movie; I loved the movie versions of High Fidelity, About a Boy, and both versions of Fever Pitch far beyond the books themselves. Hornby is the unthinking person's Julian Barnes; completely insubstantial, but I suppose he could be mistaken for deep if a person were not much of a deep thinker.

I'm susceptible to books like these on occasion; they're easy to read and sometimes they're fun, like High Fidelity was. Becca works at a bookstore, so sometimes I get advance copies and read through them. About the worst book I've read in the past couple of years was Adored, newcomer Tilly Bagshawe's awful attempt to emulate Harold Robbins. It was trashy and overblown and overlong and, if you have as many problems trying to reconcile the fairy tale of young girls with the reality of them as I do, contentious. Still, if you do read it, picture Lindsay Lohan in the lead. Eerie, isn't it? I try to stay away from the chick lit, but I thought Megan Crane's English as a Second Language was pretty pleasant. Valerie Frankel's The Accidental Virgin, though...

Today I finished Steve Martin's novella Shopgirl, which I really loved. I've also started his The Pleasure of My Company, which I'm already enjoying more. As an author, Steve Martin is well at home. He's surprisingly intellectual (Pure Drivel, a collection of humorous pieces, is one of the few works I would describe as comic genius), and writes in a style similar to magic realism. I was only irked twice in Shopgirl, at two sentences I found clumsy (the shopgirl of the title, Mirabelle, is described as a girl with "blunt-cut nut-brown hair"--the repetition of the "ut" sound was annoying, and "blunt" and "cut" so close together made me see a totally different word; the other occured when she is described as "having recently placed several of her recent works with a local gallery"--the unconscious repetition of recent is annoying). I know, I'm overly critical. Both novellas show Martin's excellent flair for observing and understanding human behavior.

I've also been reading through some books related to animation, one of my passions: Walt Disney and Europe by Robin Allan, and The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture by Bob Levin. And graphic novels are rotated endlessly; the most recent I've read is required reading for anyone who, like me, thinks that a life without dinosaurs is worthless; Bone Sharps, Cowboys, and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope, Othniel Charles Marsh, and the Gilded Age of Paleontology by Jim Ottavini & Big Time Attic.

In more practical affairs, there's an onslaught of Early English works for my Early English Literature class (we're doing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight next week), and Jane Goodall's Through a Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe for an Anthropology course.

I love books of quotes and anecdotes, and recently read The Literary Life and Other Curiosities by Robert Hendricks; The Book of Insults, Literary and Modern by Nancy McPhee; and The Portable Curmudgeon by Jon Winokur. A lover of history, I checked out Kenneth C. Davis's Don't Know Much About History, which I'm afraid I'm going to have to add to my history library. It's a great overview of history with some hard, myth-busting facts that are always glossed over in school. I've also been captivated by Mark Davidson's indispensible Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today's American English Usage, which I may also have to buy. If books are like candy and meals, books like these are my mental floss (Carl will get that joke).

And in my beloved genre, SF and fantasy, I've only had two recent reads: The Language of the Night, a collection of essays and speeches by Ursula K. LeGuin; and The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of, by Thomas M. Disch, which I've read once before. So, more work needs to be done there.

Anyone else read anything interesting lately?

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Ellen Margaret Davis was born on 16 March 1992. Last year, just before her thirteenth birthday, it was discovered that she had a cancer called osteosarcoma, which had caused a tumor in her leg. The tumor was removed, and a piece of her bone and most of her knee was replaced with metal. But by that point, the cancer had spread into her lungs. Over the course of 2005, Ellen had numerous rounds of chemotherapy, and through two operations, one half of each lung was removed. This left her weak, but it looked as though she might pull through by Christmas.

But the cancer had continued to spread. She needed a regular supply of oxygen because each lung was at half-capacity, and this made it harder for her to take the newer, more aggressive chemotherapy she would need to destroy the rest of the cancer. She lost her hair a second time, and was being home schooled. Soon, it became hard for her to walk, even with her crutches; she was forced into a wheelchair. The chemotherapy wasn't working; it was only making her sicker. She was constantly nauseous and could barely eat without getting ill. A tumor developed in her back.

Unbenownst to me, she made the decision on Wednesday to quit her chemotherapy. Her mother was suffering. Ellen's quality of life was wretched. Our father agreed to let her live the rest of her short life in relative peace. Ellen died this morning, peacefully in her sleep, sometime between one and seven AM. Four days before her fourteenth birthday. Sadly, today was also my stepmother's--Ellen's mother's--forty-sixth birthday.

What has happened that has brought so much tragedy to my family? Five years ago, my grandmother died. My grandfather was already dead. This is on my dad's side of the family. My dad is the sixth of seven children; in the last three years, three of his siblings, including his younger brother, have died. On Friday, his oldest sister died of starvation. Now Ellen, his third of four children, my half-sister as well as my goddaughter, is dead.

I went to see her today before they took her to the funeral home. I had never touched a corpse before, and I couldn't believe how cold she was when I kissed and hugged her still, lifeless body. It wasn't until my dad carried her onto the stretcher, and helped wheel her into the van from the funeral home, that I realized--watching him break down--that I'd never really seen my father cry before.

I'm not a religious man. I prayed for Ellen, many times. I told God to kill me and let her live. I told him several times. I don't believe in him, but I thought it might help. I don't believe in heaven, either. It's awful that she's gone, and I miss her so much; but it doesn't do me any good to think that she's in heaven, either. I'm just glad her suffering is over. And I'm proud of her for her decision. Ellen fought this cancer harder than I thought a teenage girl could. She went out on her own terms.

I miss her tonight. I will for the rest of my life. But I love her, and I know she loved me.