Lars and the Real Girl

If I tell you that this movie is about a man whose mental breakdown takes the form of a delusion wherein he believes that a realistic sex doll is his actual living, human girlfriend, well, you can probably expect that it's a bit, well, weird. And it comes as no surprise when I tell you that there are a number of very uncomfortable moments as he takes his "girlfriend" to church, to a party, to dinner at his brother and sister-in-law's house. On the surface, it doesn't seem like the kind of movie that I would like. I mean, beyond what I've already said, the movie really stretches credulity with the way that this man's community plays along with his delusion, that one woman even maintains her crush on him (this is the other figure that I believe the "Real Girl" in the title refers to). But if the story isn't quite right, the performances really are. Ryan Gosling, who plays the delusional title character, is rapidly cementing his position in my mind as one of today's best young(-ish) actors--and considering how much I hated The Notebook, I think that's quite an accomplishment. His performance in this film was just amazing. I also always like Emily Mortimer, and Paul Schneider also handled his role quite well. Patricia Clarkson's performance wasn't exactly breathtaking but what I noticed is that she seems to have a good range as an actor--her wise, maternal character in this film is nothing like her part as the irresponsible, hippy-ish aunt on [i]Six Feet Under[/i]. I really appreciate that sort of unpretentious competence in a character actor. Lars and the Real Girl is not one you need to rush out to see--I'd say you can safely wait and rent it--but if you're looking for an offbeat film with some great acting you might consider checking it out.

Viewed: 10/27/2007 | Released: 10/24/2007 | Score: B-

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Dan in Real Life

I think I've liked just about everything I've seen Steve Carell in over the past few years and Dan in Real Life is no exception. It's not really surprising anymore to see comedians make the leap to more dramatic roles, some with more success than others. What's great about Carell is that he has a good feel for balance such that his performances never feel inappropriate, over the top, or self-indulgent. So, certainly, this movie has that going for it. Even more than Carell, though, what I really loved about this movie was the feeling of family that it evoked for me. In so many "family reunion"-type films the plot is driven by either a newcomer trying unsuccessfully to fit in (e.g. Meet the Parents or The Family Stone) or by dysfunction or in-fighting (e.g. The Royal Tenenbaums or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof). What felt so refreshing about Dan in Real Life was that the family, despite at times being annoying or intrusive, genuinely loved each other and tried to do right by each other. It really made me nostalgic for the vacations my own family took when I was a kid. Overall, the film was both funny and touching and I really enjoyed it.

Viewed: 10/25/2007 | Released: 10/25/2007 | Score: A-

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The Darjeeling Limited

I was pretty excited about this one, being a fan of Wes Anderson and not having had a new one in three years. I think that this one wasn't his best but I did like it quite a bit. In some ways this one covers a lot of the same ground as The Royal Tenenbaums--an absent parent, three damaged siblings--but even though there was still definitely the trademark Wes Anderson ridiculousness to The Darjeeling Limited, I think that this one was ultimately heavier and, perhaps, more personal. I think that all of Anderson's films have moments of real emotional depth but they're usually somewhat fleeting, which works really well by giving the films a little more substance underneath the silliness. In this one, though, there's at least one long stretch of the movie where the silliness is completely abandoned. I don't know whether that makes it a better or worse film but it certainly felt different to me. The performances were, as usual, odd and idiosyncratic but also wonderful. The one thing that made it a little uncomfortable for me was the juxtaposition of Owen Wilson's character with the current emotional trouble he's been having--at many points I found myself feeling genuinely bad for the actor rather than the character. In any case, I do recommend this one, with the one caveat that if you haven't seen any of Anderson's previous work, this may not be the best one to start with.

Viewed: 10/11/2007 | Released: 10/25/2007 | Score: A-

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An Unpleasant Email Forward

I recently received an email forward that really bothered me. Now, I'm not a big fan of email forwards in general but, for the most part, they're relatively harmless. However, rather than the normal message detailing some fictional email tracking system or inspirational (but also usually fictional) story about a cancer survivor, this one was all about spreading, in my opinion, xenophobia and bigotry. Now, before I say anything else, I need to make it clear to anyone who may know the particulars of this situation that I do not think that the sender is xenophobic or bigoted. On the contrary, he's one of the most generous and empathetic people I've ever met. Really, that made the forward all the more shocking.

The email describes an incident between a Michigan State University professor and a Muslim student group at that same school. Apparently, the student group had protested some political cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist. In response, the professor in question sent the following email to the student group:


As a professor of Mechanical Engineering here at MSU I intend to protest your protest. I am offended not by cartoons, but by more mundane things like beheadings of civilians, cowardly attacks on public buildings, suicide murders, murders of Catholic priests (the latest in Turkey ), burnings of Christian churches, the continued persecution of Coptic Christians in Egypt, the imposition of Sharia law on non-Muslims, the rapes of Scandinavian girls and women (called "whores" in your culture), the murder of film directors in Holland, and the rioting and looting in Paris France .


This is what offends me, a soft-spoken person and academic, and many, many of my colleagues. I counsel you dissatisfied, aggressive, brutal, and uncivilized slave-trading Moslems to be very aware of this as you proceed with your infantile "protests."

If you do not like the values of the West - see the 1st Amendment - you are free to leave. I hope for God's sake that most of you choose that option.

Please return to your ancestral homelands and build them up yourselves instead of troubling Americans.


The originators of the email then go on to complain about the predictably outraged response by the student group and ends, as is usual for forwards, by requesting that you pass it on:


Send this to your friends, and ask them to do the same. Tell them to keep passing it around until the whole country gets it. We are in a war. This political correctness is getting old and killing us.


Now, at first glance you might be tempted to agree with some of the things this professor is saying. Most people do, after all, think rape, murder, and terrorism are awful things, and rightly so. And I'm sure that there are a lot of people out there who are tired of what may seem like endless frivolous protesting. But this is exactly why this sort of thinking is so pernicious and problematic.

Let's take a closer look at the situation being presented. First of all, let's notice that the group in question is a student group at an American university. Now, chances are that a fair number of this student group are not American citizens. But I would find it extremely surprising if I were to find out that there is not also a large portion of the group that are citizens. So, right off the bat, telling them to stop "troubling Americans" is at the very least narrow-minded. What does it take to be considered an American these days? Does practicing a different religion now mean that you're not an American? Or having a different ethnic background? What about being foreign-born or having foreign-born parents? Sounds like bad news for all the Jews, Buddhists, and Hindus out there. Heck, it's bad news for just about everyone--how many of us have no other "ancestral homeland," whether it's in the Middle East or Asia or Africa or Europe?

What about the issue that started the whole thing off in the first place, the offense taken at the cartoon. Well, there's certainly an argument that can be made that it was an overreaction. After all, political cartoons are supposed to be inflammatory and controversial, and maybe we should all be a little more thick-skinned about these things. But what if the situation were reversed? What if it weren't Muhammad but, say, Jesus that were being defamed? Maybe it wouldn't bother you, and in that case, more power to you. But, let's be honest, most people probably would be offended. Back in 1999 people were up in arms about a portrait of the Virgin Mary made out of elephant feces. If that was out of bounds, why isn't something like this? I'm all for the idea of people letting stuff like this go but only if it goes both ways.

Now let's take this line: "I counsel you dissatisfied, aggressive, brutal, and uncivilized slave-trading Moslems to be very aware of this as you proceed with your infantile 'protests.'" Here I might be slipping into the unreasonable realm of "political correctness," but if I'm wrong for thinking it's unacceptable to paint whole religions or races with the same brush, I'm fine with that. I mean, consider what your reaction would be if he said something like, "you greedy, money-grubbing Jews" or "you ignorant, dirty, violent, criminal blacks." Would that be OK? There are over 900 million Muslims in the world, more 3 million in the United States alone, it is clearly not possible to call them all terrorists and slave traders. More to the point, how many of the individuals in that student group--again, I remind you, a student group at an American university--have ever planted an explosive, raped a woman, or bought a slave? If we can really hold these students accountable for things that other members of their religion have done then nobody is safe--horrible injustices and atrocities have been committed in the name of every religion. (In the name of secular ideals, too, lest anyone think I'm just picking on religion.) By this professor's logic, I guess that makes us all rapists, slavers, and murderers.

Finally, there's this line: "This political correctness is getting old and killing us." Is it really the political correctness that's killing us, or is it the fact that we can't seem to get along with people and ideas that are different? Obviously, my opinion is the latter. I understand that political correctness may seem stupid or aggravating to many people, that it's a lot of work to retrain yourself to treat people the way they want to be treated instead of the way you're used to treating them. I understand that it's tiring and sometimes annoying to have to always put yourself in the other guy's shoes. But, really, isn't it worth it? Sure, maybe it's a bother to have to watch what you say and do, but don't you want people to look out for your feelings, too? Tolerance, ideally, is a two-way street--what's good for me is good for you, too.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that people shouldn't be allowed to say what's on their minds. Just because I happen to think that this professor is small-minded doesn't mean that I think he shouldn't be allowed to express his opinions. But if more people spent some effort trying to understand each other instead of pounding their fists on the First Amendment, I think the world would be a much better place.