Movie Review: Life’s a Breeze

LABreezeposterA small, independent Irish movie about earning one’s rewards in life opens this weekend.

Life’s a Breeze is the story of a family searching for what the matriarch (Finnoula Flanagan) insists is a lost fortune stuffed inside an old mattress. The adult kids and their kids go searching through the garbage dumps, back alleys and streets of Dublin looking for the old woman’s mattress after they toss it out in an attempt to give her a surprise home makeover. What happens – as sibling rivalry, mother’s approval, money, aging and the prosspect of dying come into play – feeds the film’s theme, a twist on the Spanish proverb about taking what you want and paying for it. This is an unusual and poignant slice of life in Ireland.

It could happen anywhere and, though the poverty of Ireland’s welfare state permeates the movie’s downtrodden characters, who are all dependent upon the government in some way, Life’s a Breeze expresses a universal idea about family. The mother sees her children, most of whom are cruel, callous and hard to like (this is what being on the dole reduces men to), for who they are as the hunt for the money-filled mattress goes on. She also sees herself, the best and the worst, for who she is. The kids and theirs are in and out of her home, as the press gets wind of the missing mattress and all of Dublin wants to cash in on the unearned, and mother begins to accept that the parasites live through the host she chose to become.

This realization is not taken lightly and Irish life is bleak, gray and depressing as seen here, with pockets of black family humor as the proverbial pot of gold glimmers from the end of a government recycling center. But it is not dim at the core. As the mother watches her struggling kids come and go, and feels herself growing older with all that this implies, she becomes aware that her own limitations, reservations and choices can be seeded to profit the youth who is her grandchild: a quiet, intelligent girl named Emma (Kelly Thornton). This willful child is the soul of the story. She sees her family, its poverty – its fundamental impoverishment and renunciation of the prospect of self-enrichment – and the enveloping darkness and she chooses to watch, observe and think about the fountainhead of the unseen wealth instead. The relationship between old and young here is preciously well developed, from the hat the grandmother makes for the girl to the fact that the girl chooses to wear it to spare her grandmother’s feelings and everything this bond means.

They choose to love based on shared values, not blood, and they learn that loving one another is not easy. The girl goes hungry and a scene of Emma eating a slice of bread is one of the most powerful cinematic moments (and too many in today’s entitlement states may be able to relate to it). Emma stands up to Nan, as the deteriorating grandmother is known, too, and is hurt by the old battleaxe. Yet the child represents the true spirit of endurance, enterprise and authentic enrichment and it’s her relationship to reality – not the grating and irritating if dimensional adults – one should watch to feel the freshness of Life’s a Breeze, which is best experienced with granny and the grandkids.

Of course, these days life is not breezy at all. This is what drives the movie’s theme that effort and, above all, the willingness to be bold and radical in thought and action, pulls you through. It comes slowly, thoughtfully, in a scene with Emma cashing in on what she’s earned while looking over a city on the verge of ruin – and choosing to never let her newly discovered treasure go.

Blurred Lines

220px-Brian_Banks_(American_football)_2013According to an article in the National Journal, the U.S. government is starting a new program, called It’s On Us, to “try to shift the burden of combating rape culture from women to men.” It’s predicated on male college students taking some sort of supposed collective responsibility for women on campus.

The article says that, in addition to the new program, the Justice Department will award $6 million in grants to 18 colleges “to develop comprehensive campus sexual-assault prevention and response programs.”

This program, besides being a potential breeding ground for rapists, is based on a false dichotomy that rape is caused by either women or men. Rape, a horrible crime which is better understood now as an act of force, not sex, is complicated as a crime by the fact that it’s hard to prove. Also, false accusations, as in the Duke la crosse, Brian Banks, Gary Dotson and Tawana Brawley cases and scads of other cases, have the potential to destroy innocent people’s lives.

Women’s advocates make the point that telling women Don’t get raped ought not to preclude telling men Don’t rape, but they should remember that women rape men, too, and that rape is, in fact, not a culture, it’s a crime. To the extent that rape is condoned or sanctioned in popular culture, and I think it is, especially in hip hop and rap subcultures (leaving aside rape in African, Asian, Arab and Islamic cultures), people concerned about rape should scrutinize themselves. They should consider whether feminism and multiculturalism – both egalitarian-based ideas that sexes and cultures are equal in every sense, which is not true – contribute to glorification of rape.

I’m not a sexual abuse expert but it strikes me as a cultural observer that using the term “rapey” (“it’s a bit ‘rapey'”), for example, minimizes rape as a crime. Politicized arguments against rape on the grounds of violating once-controversial government dictates, such as President Nixon‘s Title 9, tend to cloud the topic and confuse otherwise intelligent people, leading them to tune out rape’s warning signs, signals and predispositions. Also, regarding male rapists, people should ask: who raises the boys who become the men who rape?

So when the topic is rape, there are blurred lines – consider Brian Banks, pictured here, the southern Californian who served time in prison for a rape he did not commit – with real, devastating consequences for victim and falsely accused and the blurring comes from the government (inside, mixed in and wannabes) who push an anti-male agenda masking what amounts to a crusade against Western civilization.

Rape is a horrific crime that should be dealt with severe punishment within the judicial system, not propagandized by the government by turning men – or women – into campus vigilantes harassing everyone with heavy-handed, government-subsidized messages imposing unearned guilt upon the innocent.

The Scotland Vote

1280px-Flag_of_Scotland_(navy_blue).svgThe polls are closed and it’s been reported that Scotland voters rejected a referendum to declare independence from the United Kingdom (U.K.) by a wide margin.

But those claiming victory for the U.K. may be missing the point. While the 55 percent to 45 percent margin is solid, the fact that this came to pass at all is another sign that the West is on the wane. The United Kingdom is, like the United States of America, not really united. In fact, the nation is disunited, as is America, which broke free from the U.K. in 1776 on the premise of individual rights. Though Scottish nationalism apparently drove the referendum to the voters, and I think there may be multiple factors driving Scotland toward independence, the momentum is on the side of those seeking to divide, not unite, the U.K. The same is true with the U.S.

Unity comes from a nation’s people identifying, accepting and sharing an idea or value to a certain degree, such as Americans uniting around the concept of abolishing slavery to preserve the union or creating a nation based on man’s inalienable rights or Germans uniting around the ideas of duty to the volk, collective or race and the morality of altruism, culminating in Nazi Germany. The fragmented welfare state U.K., which appeases its enemies, the Islamic terrorists and their state sponsors, unites around nothing (with the possible exception of Princess Diana following her death in 1997) and hasn’t since the strong leader Margaret Thatcher left office. America, too, is divided over nearly every major political issue, and increasingly over cultural issues, though there are encouraging signs of displeasure in the U.S. with the massive expansion of state control over the life of the individual.

Still, rumblings among the public do not represent united opposition to statism and this is true in Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, too, where, to varying degrees, factions of the public want more or less government control or merely more provincial or national control of government control. Indeed, in the aftermath of the divisive Scottish election, the government of the United Kingdom has coalesced around expanded power for Scotland over taxes and government spending.

Questions raised by the prospect of independence are likely to continue being asked and answered. The British Prime Minister David Cameron, in his victory speech, is already pledging more power for Scotland and also for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Arguably the only real uniting around this rejection vote is among the West’s nationalists: Quebec and Catalonia are emboldened by the surprisingly rapid advancement of Scotland’s separatist cause.

This effect, of the U.K. being less united, more disunited, is what makes the Scotland vote a cautionary moment for the U.K. and the West, which is buckling under the strain of massive debt and besieged by religious barbarians that have been appeased and coddled for most of the previous century. I fear that the outcome of the election is at best a temporary reprieve from disintegration; that this election result is seriously less than victory. As one woman who voted No to Scotland’s independence told a newspaper reporter in explaining her reasoning: “[the Scottish minister for breaking away] didn’t really have the plans in place.” Westerners should brace for the possibility that what this means is that Scots, and others throughout the West, from Spain to California, may be eager to elect those who do.

TV & DVD Review: Frasier (First Season)

Frasier1One of television’s best comedies, Frasier, premiered on this date in 1993. Boston psychiatrist Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer), featured as a subsidiary fall guy on NBC’s Cheers, spun into his own series in the same year that Cheers ended its long run. The stereotypically uptight intellectual character on Cheers is differentiated from its previous incarnation and deepened here in the first season. Frasier moves back to Seattle and settles into a modern apartment in the fictional Elliott Bay Towers. He starts a new job as a talk radio host.

Frasier’s retired policeman father Martin (John Mahoney), a Korean War veteran recovering from an injury, moves in, too. Physical therapist Daphne Moon (Jane Leeves) is hired. Psychiatrist brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce), in spite of his marriage to unseen socialite wife Maris, fixates on Daphne, who claims to be “a bit psychic”, while Frasier’s salty producer Roz Doyle (Peri Gilpin) looks daggers, quips here and there and goes on a date with a station geek named Noel. It is in the first season that Martin hosts the apartment’s first unexpected overnight guest. Ex-wife Lilith visits Seattle. Frasier Crane is nominated for his first broadcasting award.

That Frasier listens to and seeks to help people seeking good health underscores the show’s unspoken secondary theme that to feel good is to think, actively think, about life and pursue happiness with effort. According to the DVD’s features, Mr. Grammer insisted that his character’s line of work be taken seriously and not treated as a joke. This approach sets Frasier apart from its contemporaries, such as NBC’s Seinfeld, the “show about nothing”. Frasier is the show about everything; everything meaningful, everything wonderful, in all its hilarity, agony and elation.

The first season unveils everything that defines Frasier: the swank apartment, its Space Needle view, the patio overlooking the city, the piano where he plays music, his dad Martin’s ugly old chair, Cafe Nervosa, KACL, the first RV trip, his father’s poker game, Bulldog the brash sports host, Gil the effeminate food host, Noel the nerd, Bebe the wild-eyed agent, glasses of sherry and a quirky dog named Eddie. Frasier, who struggles with (and consciously accepts) the reality of middle age, obsesses in one episode on dying and crashes a Jewish death ritual, where his neurosis is outdone in droll, dark humor. He makes connections, he learns, he makes progress.

In fact, longtime fans looking back at this first season will appreciate how carefully conceived the stories are and how lead characters contemplate, grow and improve. The psychic from Manchester, crabby ex-cop, pretentious younger brother, sharp-tongued tart and hapless title character, a Charlie Brown like figure who is fundamentally searching for happiness, are each in plain sight during season one, which begins with jazzy opening credits and ends with Kelsey Grammer singing about egg on his face.

One of the best series subplots, the repressed relationship between Niles and Daphne, begins here with the season’s best episode (“A Midwinter Night’s Dream”) which involves a storm, a predisposition to act on infidelity and a Glockenspiel clock. This episode is an example of Frasier‘s masterful writing, staging and acting. As the first episode to feature the mansion where Niles resides with his heiress wife, the organic setup of forbidden romantic conflict, which begins at Cafe Nervosa when Daphne flirts with an artist who works there, adds tension and builds to a humorous climax and thoughtful conclusion. In it, one sees each character choose to renew and thus act upon his values – Niles on his vows, Daphne on her desire, Roz on her kindness, Martin on fatherhood and Frasier on his loyalty. The play is slow, taking time to earn audience trust. The payoff is both illumination on each of the five characters and the domains they inhabit – home, work, cafe – and a tantalizing piece of warm, benevolent humor ending on the promise of more to come.

Frasier’s flaw is a tendency to ham amid contrivances. Sometimes, however, life seems contrived. In this sense, Frasier’s first season sets the standard for the series theme – painfully concretized with the murder of its co-creator David Angell by Islamic hijackers on 9/11 – that life is neither easy nor automatic and that one’s paramount purpose is to achieve happiness here on earth. This idea is evident in the beginning of the 11-year comedy series (especially for those who remember the choice Frasier makes in the series’ finale) with Frasier, in the premiere season’s final episode, sitting solo in Cafe Nervosa after finally and truthfully answering his brother’s question “are you happy?” (“My Coffee with Niles”), a sincere, unmolested and bittersweet moment which foreshadows the end of Frasier’s run.

Viewers learn more about the show through DVD features, too. But the best part of Frasier’s first season is seeing a man who strives – consistently, valiantly, and one might say heroically – to act in his self-interest. Frasier (1993-2004) is a first-rate comedy in the first year. The show ages well, with an even greater reward for those who know where Frasier ends up.

New Course

BurbankAdultSchoolThis month, as I finish studies in Leonard Peikoff’s writing course, in addition to my media and productivity workshops, I’m teaching a new course on social media for general adult education in the San Fernando Valley.

The 9-week course, “All About Social Media”, expands on my series of summer workshops for Career Camp at College of the Canyons which were essentialized and expanded into free classes sponsored by Mood Fabrics. The new course at Burbank Adult School (pictured), “All About Social Media”, offers a lesson in communicating for a general audience through social media with an emphasis on productiveness and on the premise that selfishness is a virtue. Among remaining free workshops in Mood’s series are classes on writing, sales and event planning. The all-new course and workshops are also available in private telephone sessions or conferences in Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego (contact me if you’re interested).

This fall, I’m also helping L.A.’s business organization, the Valley Economic Alliance, promote trade in the San Fernando Valley region and I am working with Grammy-winning Melissa Manchester to tell the story of her forthcoming new album, which is due in 2015. Besides new reviews, such as an album review of this summer’s breakout pop singer, Sam Smith, my report and review of the excellent new PBS series The Roosevelts by Ken Burns and a review of TV’s first season of Frasier (1993-2004), I’m writing stories and working on an exclusive interview with TV legend Phil Donahue (a short version is this month’s cover story for a Chicagoland magazine).