Passing The Long Winter Nights

As winter moves into its final month – at least officially – it’s a great time to take advantage of the miracles of modern technology, and to watch films at home.

Realizing this – filmmakers are known for their love of piling up dollars – a great many films are currently being released for watching on DVD, Blu-ray and through download.

In recent years this love by filmmakers for cash income has resulted in a much smaller number of films which are appropriate for discussion by an arts column. There was a time, not many years ago, when one could study the film showings for a nearby city such as Erie or Buffalo, and typically see perhaps a dozen films we would love to see. More recently, the computer analysis of the viewing audiences seem to suggest that we’d all just love to see computer-generated fantasy and violence on a planetary scale, or romantic comedies involving vomiting, loud digestive noises and things which no civilized individual ever does. Since that is utterly untrue, it has become common that we can’t find even one film we’d really want to invest in seeing.

Suddenly, there are a wealth of films we’d like to see, so we want to be quick to share with you a look at their content.

BULLY

I wish I could convince everyone who reads this column to buy, borrow or rent a copy of the film ”Bully,” and watch it with his or her family. It’s not wonderfully made, but it deals effectively with a very important element of our civilization, and a subject which has been a problem for centuries, but with which we have failed to deal reasonably, ever.

The subject, of course, is bullying by one or more school-age individuals, against fellow students. It’s a problem which we have failed to solve, because we have difficulty to accept that it even is a problem.

Director and filmmaker Lee Hirsch, who is an Emmy Award winner and successful and respected filmmaker tells his viewers that he was bullied as a student himself. When he achieved personal success, he tried to form an organization which he called ”The Bully Project,” with the hope of reducing or even eliminating the bullying of young people in our culture. To his amazement, the overwhelming response to his project was outright denial and rejection. Even his own parents told him that bullying was just part of childhood, and he ”needed to get over it.”

Hirsch determined that the only way his project could succeed was if he could use his filmmaking talents to force people to understand the horrors and the lasting effects of bullying, and to do it on a human level, rather than as a statistical analysis.

Ironically, while the film has had an 86 percent positive rating from professional critics, and an 80 percent positive rating from audience members, the negative criticism it has gotten has been that it hasn’t examined the point of view of the bullies themselves – why do they do such things, and why do they get a clear message from other students and from adults that it is acceptable, if not laudable, to do them? Other negative ratings have suggested that the film hasn’t focused on anti-bullying programs which have worked and are succeeding.

The trouble seems to be that before we can study the cures for a situation, we have to agree that we have a problem which needs curing. And, that is what the film succeeds in doing.

The film alternates among five focuses. It does interviews with the families of Tyler Long, 17, and Ty Smalley, 11. These were children who committed suicide because they could no longer live with the way they were treated. The other focuses of the film are Alex, a 14-year-old boy in Iowa, who was born prematurely, leaving him with eyesight which requires large, eye-distorting lenses in his glasses and lips which protrude from his face, like the bell of a trumpet.

Kelby is a junior in a Georgia high school. It isn’t until we have seen Kelby interact with fellow students for several scenes that we realize that she is a girl, and not a boy. Ja’Meya is an honor student and a star athlete who has fallen victim to fellow students until she finds her mother’s gun and brings it on the school bus in an attempt to force her abusers to stop.

The film shows a bus ride for Alex which seems to go on forever, while students stab him with pencils, bounce thrown objects off his head, call him names such as ”fish face,” and tell him the best thing he could do would be to die.

Kelby describes coming into a crowded classroom on the first day of school, choosing a seat and having students in every adjacent desk get up and move to different parts of the room.

Ja’Meya doesn’t shoot anyone with her gun, but she is sent away – possibly for years – to juvenile detention, while a Georgia sheriff recounts his opinion that no amount of cruelty justifies bringing the gun on the bus.

Parents generally are unaware that their children are bullied, or at least the degree to which they are bullied, because the victims tend to blame themselves for being different and to minimize the degree to which they are affected. ”They’re only messing around,” Alex tells his mother. ”Without them, what friends do I have?”

The film doesn’t have all the answers. The one answer it definitely has is that it shows how much suffering takes place for the estimated 13 million students who are bullied each year, in our country and the degree to which the adults around them act as though and tell the victims that it isn’t a big deal, and if anything, it is their own fault.

The film won top honors at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, and it racked up high ratings from both critics and audiences; yet it was booked for showing in only just over 250 theaters, in the entire nation. Although our film rating organization allows films to show disembowelings and mass killings, it originally socked ”Bully” with an R rating, which kept out exactly the young people who probably most need to see it.

It isn’t perfect, certainly, but it’s both necessary and very interesting. I hope you get to see it.

ROBOT AND FRANK

As studio-made films have moved more and more toward impersonal shoot-em-ups, the good news is that modern technology has made possible the creation of small, personal films, made with video technology and personal computers. One of these is called ”Robot and Frank.”

The basic plot of the film is a very familiar one. The central character is Frank, a man in his 70s, played by actor Frank Langella. The first few scenes show us that Frank lives alone and reasonably successfully, although his stubborn refusal to accept any help from anyone leads to his making small errors. He pours milk over his breakfast cereal, then finds the milk to be spoiled and himself with no meal. He goes for lunch to Harry’s, his favorite restaurant, only to find that the cafe has been closed for years and an eccentric gift shop has opened in its place. All this takes place in what it describes as ”the near future.”

We gradually learn that Frank has two educated and successful children. His daughter is off in a third-world country, doing good. His son is a successful lawyer, with a wife and two children, who, once per week, drives five hours each way to check up on him because he stubbornly refuses to move anywhere where he could be helped or nearer to his son’s daily life.

One day, the son opens the trunk of his expensive car and takes out a small, white robot. The son says that the robot is programmed as a health care attendant, and he is there to help Frank. Frank finds that the robot can cook delicious meals which are better for him than his usual cereal and fast food. The robot keeps the house cleaner, and it is programmed to help him to improve his way of living – yet it cannot force him to behave in a certain manner.

One of the greatest fears which aging people have is that someone will force them to do things they dislike or which they have good reasons for not doing. Once Frank realizes that the robot will advise him and make suggestions, but it will not force its will on him, be begins to relax.

As Frank’s memory begins to improve and his ability to get around and to talk with the robot improves, the audience begins to realize that Frank is not just an old codger, he’s a professional thief who has served two terms in prison. And soon Frank’s sharpened mind is testing the robot and realizing that it has no morality programmed into it, so it will help him to shoplift and to pick locks as readily as it will run the vacuum cleaner or heat up water for coffee.

One part of Frank’s routine is nearly daily visits to his small town’s public library. To his horror, the library has been taken over by a know-it-all consultant, who believes that all literature is available electronically, so what the library should do is get rid of all its books and change its mission from supporting learning and literature to being a community service organization. The new leader has filled the library with college-age volunteers who happily destroy the wisdom of centuries to make room for unwanted services. Only one traditional librarian remains, played by actress Susan Sarandon, and she is preparing for retirement.

Frank likes the librarian, and he decides he will steal a pair of very valuable books which belong to the library to give to the librarian because he thinks she should have them rather than having them sold to bring money for the new leader’s schemes. That venture goes so successfully that he decides to burglarize the home of the new director, who is clearly funneling large sums of money out of the library and has been buying two high-priced homes and huge, clunky items of expensive jewelry for his unattractive wife. The robot makes it all possible, and indeed easy, because it doesn’t know not to help him.

Eventually, we learn how grave Frank’s limitations are, and the film begins to bend reality, such as when the library’s consultant takes command of a police raid on Frank’s home. In general, though, it’s a gentle, human film. Cast members also include James Marsden as the successful son and Liv Tyler as the do-gooder daughter. The voice of the robot is performed by actor Peter Sarsgaard, beautifully blending kindness with mechanical qualities.

The film got overwhelmingly positive reviews from both professional critics and volunteer audience members. It can be examined from dozens of different points of view, including technology versus artistry, age versus youth, cultural values, the morality of property and many more.

It was released in August and was released on DVD last week. I enjoyed it a lot.

GAME OF THRONES

No doubt the most controversial of this week’s offerings is a set of five DVDs, representing a full season on the HBO premium cable television series “Game of Thrones.” The series is having a big week. The DVD of the second season has just been released, and the third season of the show is just beginning to be shown on the HBO network.

I’ve been wanting to see the series for some time, but because I am away from home during the evenings so very often, watching it on television is not practical. I recently was able to get the five-DVD set of the program’s first season, so we’ll be discussing that, assuming it is an example of the rest.

A wicked queen in the series tells the central character at one point, ”If you play the Game of Thrones, you win, or you die.” That seems a central focus of the film. The long series represents actions in a fictional kingdom called “Westeros,” in a historical period whose degree of culture and technology suggests the 15th century in Europe. The kingdom has been formed by the Targaryan family, which has conquered six smaller kingdoms which once occupied the area of Westeros. The legend has existed for centuries that the blood of dragons flows in the veins of the Targaryans, but when one king from the family turned out to be insane, he was overthrown by King Robert Barytheon, and his entire family was killed, except for fraternal twins who have escaped across the Narrow Sea to the larger continent of Essos.

Robert was aided in his conquest by his two younger brothers, and by his friend, Edden Stark, who is the ruler of the people of the Northern-most kingdom in Westeros. To cement his kingdom, Robert has married the beautiful, golden-haired Queen Cersei Lannister, whose family are the rulers of the western-most area of Westeros. They are known for their bright hair and for their enormous wealth.

The fighting and the plotting of characters to grasp for power, at the expense of one another, while protecting their own families and their own views of right and wrong make up the series’ episodes.

The entire show has nearly 300 characters with names, and countless more who only have functions such as “servant,” or ”knight” or whatever. It is based on the series of novels called ”A Song of Fire and Ice,” by American author George R.R. Martin. Martin has published five novels, which continue the narrative of Westeros, and plans to continue the story through at least two more as-yet unpublished novels. The first novel of the series was named “A Game of Thrones,” and that title has been used by the producers of the television series for the entire series. The plan, at this point, is to continue filming as long as more writing emerges from Martin’s pen.

Historians recognize elements of English history in the plots, especially around that country’s second civil war, called the War of the Roses. Each episode advances a wide variety of stories, relating to the central plot. The twin children of the original rulers, for example, have fled to Osteros – essentially the continent of Europe – where the female twin has married a nomadic ruler, based on Genghis Khan.

North of the Stark family’s stronghold is a giant wall of ice, more than 50 feet high, beyond which there are a variety of barbarian enemies, including, it seems, an army of zombies.

The series has dozens of themes, examining whether human nature can be shaped or whether we are tools of forces beyond our control. Ideas about law and punishment are perpetually examined, as are issues such as family loyalty, violence, religion, tradition, progress, and many more such ideas.

To enjoy the series, you must be accepting of both extreme violence and sexuality of many varieties. The nudity in the series is so frequent, and so frequently involves semi-clad and completely unclad young women, that “Saturday Night Live” did a skit in which the writing room of the series was claimed to house only one 13-year-old boy. Very little in the series represents things which would not happen, so it comes down to whether you can look what would happen in these circumstances in the face, or if you prefer hints or false allusions of what would happen.

It’s an exciting and well-written series which establishes a life not unlike our own history, and looks at it truthfully. If you can handle that. you’ll love it.