“Wonder”: a film about lookism, and more about the rest of the family and school rather than the boy himself

Wonder” (like “Stronger”) is another film that addresses lookism and the challenges that someone with a visible deformity will face socially in life. I was reluctant to see it out of what I feared would be sugary moralizing.  Directed by Stephen Chbosky, and based on the 2012 children’s novel by R. J. Palacio, it presents us with a fifth grader August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) with a genetic facial deformity called mandibulofacial dysotosis, and we’re told that he has had over twenty surgeries as child. The actual physical appearance is toned down;  it is not particularly abnormal, and all you notice is a couple scars.  (I could mention neurofibromatosis, the subject of David Lynch’s 1980bw  film “The Elephant Man” about Joseph Merrick in 19th Century London, which gets around to modeled stagecraft.)

But, much to is credit, the film gradually becomes a story about the rest of the family members and others at his private prep school, rather than just about him.

But the film opens almost as if it were to be animated, with a shot of a spacesuit helmet, as we gradually see a little boy lying on his back in bed with it on, and with a bedspread that continues the space suit image.

His mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) and father Nate (Owen Wilson) have homeschooled him. We’ve been shown a flashback of the birth, with a “teenage” obstetrician (Shaun Murphy?) and the nurses carry him away in horror when the see his face, almost like he was “Rosemary’s Baby”.

But now its time for middle school, and he’s sent to a fancy prep near Lincoln Center.  So, yes, he and the family have to deal with bullying as (in the previous film yesterday) does the school. Why would kids bully him?  Because they want to be affiliated with the “best” and want to come out on top of a survival of the fittest game?  I’m reminded of the WB show “Gossip Girl” with the rogue blogger Serena turns wealthy teens into proto-Apprentice candidates (like Penn Badgley’s character Dan).  But there, these are younger, middle school kids.  There is a nasty incident of a passed note saying “Freddie Kruger”.  I recall when I was substitute teaching at a middle school in 2005 a kid passed an anti-semetic note to another and got into trouble, as did I, for not preventing something I could not possibly see.  I’m also reminded of an incident in my own Ninth Grade (p. 21 in the DADT 1 book) where I spread rumors and even taunted a student who had experienced an epileptic fit in algebra class (I called it “all those convulsions”), something that sounds like throwing up in class  Well, that happened to me in second grade and was particularly traumatic.

That theme comes up in the movie a few times.  The family dog gets it, and has to be put down, but she is old. In the meantime, a number of the older kids try out to play in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”.  Big sister Via is an understudy, and when the lead girl says she fears she will throw up on stage, Via gets to shine.  (That would be a real horror if it happened;  it never happens on Broadway.)   A little bit of the play gets performed in the movie (the play itself has been filmed several times).

At the end, the tone changes, as August gets a science fair award.  I was reminded of Jack Andraka’s award in 2013 at age 16 for an inexpensive pancreatic cancer test he had invented (as detailed in his book “Breakthrough”). Maybe the allusion is intentional.

The film has some interesting brief scenes on Coney Island (near my favorite “Seaside Courts”) and also upstate, in a lake area (Adirondacks?)  According to imdb, except for establishing shots in NYC, most of the film was shot in British Columbia.

Here’s an ABCNews story about another real life case.

Picture: an arts school near Lincoln Center, my photo, Feb. 2013.

Name:  “Wonder”
Director, writer:  Stephen Chobsky, R. J. Palacio (novel)
Released:  2017/12
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2018/1/9, afternoon, fair audience
Length:  103
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Lionsgate, Participant Media, Walden Media
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, January 9, 2018 at 10:30 PM EST)

“Legion of Brothers”: CNN airs Sundance documentary of the early days of Bush’s war in Afghanistan using the Green Berets

Legion of Brothers”, directed by Greg Barker, aired on CNN Sept. 24, focuses on the very beginning of the “War on Terror” announced by President George W. Bush after 9/11.

I remember a Sunday afternoon, around Oct. 6, 2001, when Bush announced from the White House his first major steps to the American public in a televised address. The major networks allowed an airing if a very personalized address from Osama Bin Laden to follow.  There would be another such video screed on December 13, the day of my layoff.

But this film follows what is rather little known, about the efforts of a group of about ten Green Berets to start the overflow of the Taliban, as a “Direct Action Team” (and phrase “Smoke ‘em”), which this film tracks for its 79 minutes. The battle scenes are quite graphic – it’s hard to believe that combat journalists could get such footage. The narrative intersperses with scenes back home, especially in Texas.  The two main soldiers are Jason Armine and Mark Nutsch.  Some men are badly ounded, as one loses an arm.

Sebastian Junger would interview Northern Alliance leader Massoud himself before the latter’s death.  Junger would later help produce “Restrepo” and “Korengal” and write the Vanity Fair “Hive” article “Into the Valley of Death”.

What would follow, of course, was Bush’s own war in Iraq, with over 7000 deaths (combined with Afghanistan), and the whole “Stop-Loss” issue (actually a 2008 film from Paramount) with what amounted to a backdoor draft.

It’s ironic that on Sept. 9, 2001, HBO premiered “Bands of Brothers”, set in World War II, both Europe and the Pacific.

Name:  “Legion of Brothers”
Director, writer:  Greg Barker
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2017/9/24
Length:  79
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  CNN Films, Gravitas, Sundance Selects
Link:  CNN

(Posted: Monday, September 25, 2017, at 9:30 PM EDT)

“Shot”: Indeed, everyone pays, as the film shows the effect of one bullet on the lives it affects side-to-side

Shot”, directed by Jeremy Kagan with his own story, concludes with a plea to support gun control – go to their website and “take action” right on your smartphone in the theater.

It may be baroque to claim it challenges the Second Amendment.

But the tagline “one bullet, everyone pays” rings true.  In the end (just as with the film “Stronger” yesterday), there are no victims, only casualties.

The concept of the film is to present an accidental shooting,  The film the parallels the lives, almost in real time, of the “victim” and the perpetrator.

As the film opens, film editor Mark Newman ( Noah Wyle), is editing a violent scene in a western, focusing on the damage done by bullets.  Then we learn he is divorcing his wife Pheobe (Sharon Leaf), in a mixed-race marriage. The separation will be relatively amical.

Then we see teenager Miguel (Jorge Lendeorg) getting gay-bashed in a park.  His cousin finds a gun and lets Miguel play with it. The gun goes off, and strikes Mark in the upper left chest, above the heart, but because the entry was from above, it descends into his intestines and hits his spine.

Mark remains conscious throughout the 911 call, ambulance and emergency room, even as fluid is drained with chest tunes.  After life threatening shock subsides, he gets talkative.  He has a pseudo-NDE in the MRI from claustrophobia.  In the meantime, the split screen shows Miguel moping around and talking to a priest.  His mother doesn’t want him to turn himself in to police, because “you’re brown”.

Five months later, Mark is getting hydrotherapy, as we hope he will walk again.  He will not. But Phoebe is still in his life, able to deal with the hardship, which seems to draw them back together.  He has health insurance from work or the union, but we don’t see him getting back to work.  He orders a Baretta by mail.

Mark was lean and sharp before the shooting.  Months later, he is getting fat and sliding as he has not been able to make progress from the wheel chair.

In the meantime, Miguel stalks him on his bike because he wants to apologize.  But there may be no forgiveness.

Name:  “Shot”
Director, writer:  Jeremy Kagan
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1, screen often split in parallel stories
When and how viewed:  AMC Hoffman Center, 2017/9/24, small audience
Length:  89
Rating:  PG-13
Companies: Paladin
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

“Stronger”: the Boston Marathon aftermath from an author who lost both legs

Stronger”, directed by David Gordon Green and based on the autobiographical book by Jeff Bauman, with Bret Witter and Josh Haner, who lost both legs to a pressure cooker bomb placed by Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the first of two) at the Boston Marathon Bombings on Monday, April 15, 2013, is the fourth major film that I have seen on this terror attack.  Bauman was waiting for his girlfriend Erin Hurley to finish the face.  After a stormy and challenging relationship pictured in the film, but leading to a child, he would marry Erin and throw out the fist pitch for the Boston Red Sox season in 2014.  Bauman’s description of Tamerlan helped narrow down the suspect list and lead to his eventually being cornered three days later, when Tamerlan died in a shootout with police. The fact that the bomb was placed so close to Bauman raises disturbing questions as to whether he or some other nearby person could have attracted Tamerlan’s sights as an individual target in the crowd.  The film doesn’t show the physical carnage of the victims until a flashback near the very end.

I approached this film with a little personal moral trepidation, which I’ll come back to.  But I can recall similar comments by other moviegoers before “128 Hours” came out, about the hiker who had to amputate his own arm to free himself.

Bauman is played by the versatile and peripatetic Jake Gyllenhaal.  I have no idea how they managed to set up the scenes with the stumps for his thighs, and the eventual prosthetics.  (An apt comparison could come from the 1993 film “Boxing Helena”.) The film is shot in full anamorphic wide screen, when a standard aspect might have contributed to making the closeups even more brutal to watch (Hitchcock’s theory).   Gyllenhaal’s chest is shaved for scenes like the bathtub tantrums, but that might have happened from all the hospital gear.  Gyllenhaal is unusually willing to loan his body to special effects, as I have noted here before. Erin is played by Tatiana Maslaney.

Bauman starts out the film as a working class “prole” working for Cosco. The company is later shown as fully behind supporting his health insurance needs and keeping his job, Wikipedia lists Bauman now as an “author” as if there will be more books.  The early scenes show some stereotyped working class bar banter (including some mention of gay people and lesbianism).

The film also shows Bauman’s road to recovery as difficult and sometimes ugly.  The film, admirably, avoids overplaying the idea of Bauman as a national hero to be pimped as a symbol of national resilience, the Red Sox notwithstanding. There is a scene near the end in a miniature Fenway Park, before the final home opener climax for “Boston Strong” with the Green Monster covered with an American flag.  I guess it was removed for the actual game.  I’ll add that I’ve had one serious injury my own life, an acetabular hip fracture from a convenience store fall in Minneapolis in 1998.  I was back to work in three weeks. But I had a week in rehab, and I saw a man with a leg prosthesis (the loss was to bone cancer, I think) take his first steps on parallel bars in the gym rehab room, literally overlooking the Mississippi River.

Now I come to the more personal part.  I’ve never seen victimhood as particularly honorable, and recovery from a violent or perpetrated by another, perhaps a politically motivated enemy (terrorist), starts with the “victim”.  But the film stays with that viewpoint.  I’ve been particularly sensitive sometimes about being expected to sell the idea of disability as somehow pretty.  I have internally resisted the idea of continuing an intimate relationship with someone who become disfigured by a violent incident or illness – yet I know intellectually that family resilience depends on this openness (in the film, Erin is indeed open to sex and pregnancy, and Jeff’s attitude is transformed by prospective fatherhood).  I can remember back in graduate school, before facing my own conscription, saying myself and hearing other students say they would not come back from a war maimed and disfigured, as if thet had a real choice.  (The 2008 film “Fighting for Life” about war injuries from Iraq gets into this.) Right now, at age 74, it seems as thought that sort of event is pretty unlikely. I thought about the EKG I had a few days ago in a doctor’s office, when he put the pad on my leg, bald with age to the extent that wearing shorts seems indecent.  Body shame has always been potentially important to me. But shame-retention can become a very personal target for terrorists.

I suppose this kind of film will come out of the Pulse attack in Orlando.  And I could imagine working on making it.   Would I ever do something like a special Olympics?  I’ve never wanted to make something like that my own cause.

But there are many examples of people making athletic accomplishments after amputation, such as Andrew Montgomery in Las Vegas as in this CNN story.  Another example is Oscar Pistorius in South Africa, an accomplished runner but convicted In a tragic shooting.

Wiki of area of first bombing.

Wiki of Jeff Bauman and Jake Gyllenhaal (with gams).

Name:  “Stronger”
Director, writer:  David Gordon Green, Jeff Bauman
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/9/23, small audience
Length:  118
Rating:  R
Companies:  Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, Bold, Mandeville
Link:  official 

(Posted: Saturday, September 23, 2017, at 10 PM EDT)