Inkheart is a best-selling novel by Cornelia Funke about the power of reading. There is something truly meta-magical about reading a book about reading a book, with a character who brings book characters to life. And no matter how creative the visuals, it is inevitably less magical when it leaves the world of words and imagination for the world of pixels and screens.
Brendan Fraser plays Mortimer, who is not just a book doctor (restorer of old tomes) but something of a book whisperer. At least, books seem to whisper to him. And he is a “silvertongue,” which means that when he reads a book aloud he has the power to call its characters into being. But he has no control of this power. He is as likely to bring to life a wicked character as a good one. And in order to maintain balance, when he brings a character out of a book, a real-life character gets swooshed into the book. When he was reading a book called Inkheart, characters named Dustfinger (Paul Bettany) and Capricorn (Andy Serkis) came out and Mortimer’s wife Resa (Sienna Guillory) went in. Now she is stuck there until he can find the book again and try to bring her back. So, he and his daughter Maggie (Eliza Hope Bennett) are constantly on the road, searching bookstores and trying to stay away from Dustfinger, who wants to be read back into his book so he can be with his family, and Capricorn, who wants more characters read out of the book so they can help him to enjoy life in our world (he is very fond of duct tape) and create all kinds of misery and oppression (he was written as a bad guy, after all).
The story shimmers with imaginative details. A stuttering silvertongue produces incomplete real-world characters with book text on their faces. Mortimer’s aunt Elinor (Oscar-winner Helen Mirren) has a fabulous library and vastly prefers books to people. She has a sign with “Don’t Even Think of Wasting My Time!” in three languages on her front gate. And when it is time to search for the author of the book “Inkheart” (played by James Broadbent), there are some lovely and subtle variations on the theme of reality vs. fantasy. Fraser is as always an appealing leading man and the trio of British stars bring wit and conviction to their off-beat characters — so much conviction, in fact, that they throw things a little out of balance. The story itself makes an uneasy transition to screen, the very books-and-words premise of the story in effect undercutting its translation to film. The story’s silvertongue may bring books to life but the director and screenwriter are less effective.
I believe that happiness is a choice, and one that requires courage and honesty. And I believe that happiness is a moral choice. We spend so much time thinking that we would be happy if we only had this or that or if the people around us would only do this or that or that if we allow ourselves to be happy we will become vulnerable when it is taken away. But everyone must take responsibility for his or her own happiness.
Many people forget that there is a difference between happiness and pleasure. They may feel similar, but pleasure is a momentary response that comes from outside stimuli and happiness is a frame of mind that comes from an inner sense of purpose, mastery, generosity, kindness, and connection. Happy people are well aware of life’s struggles and tragedies but know that it is in no way disrespectful to the pain and loss and injustice of the world to stay connected to all that is good, kind, and loving.
These are lessons we must be taught and re-taught. Many great movies are wonderful teachers about happiness, with characters who set great examples and stories that help to remind us of what it is in our own lives that make us happy. Very often they have what I call the “Cat in the Hat” theme — a straight-laced character who is not getting much out of life is transformed through contact with a character or circumstance that triggers the questioning of assumptions and the throwing off of restrictions.
Here’s a list of a dozen happiness movies. Some of these movies are about happiness, some make us happy — and some do both.
Hairspray Tracy Turnblad (Nikki Blonsky) is like a box of sunshine in this cheery musical about the integration of a Baltimore teen dance television show. “You can’t stop my happiness, ‘cuz I like the way I am.”
Duck Soup The deliciously anarchic comedy of the Marx brothers reached its peak in this hilarious comedy about countries warring over the affections — and fortunes — of a wealthy dowager played by Margaret Dumont. “I suggest that we give him ten years in Leavenworth, or eleven years in Twelveworth.” “I’ll tell you what I’ll do: I’ll take five and ten in Woolworth.”
The Court Jester Pure joy. This musical story of a medieval rebellion is Danny Kaye’s best movie, and one of the funniest comedies ever, with a plot that is both exciting and hilarious and a heroine who is courageous and loving. “Life could not better be…”
Yellow Submarine Glorious Beatles music, spectacular animation, and a witty and endearing story of the rescue of the gentle citizens of Pepperland from the Blue Meanies make this a perfect family movie. “All you need is love.”
The Incredibles In this instant classic from Pixar, characters with superpowers that essentially super-size traditional family roles give great resonance to the story: the father strong, the mother stretched in a dozen different directions, the hyper-active son and the daughter who just wants to be invisible and create a force field to keep the world away. “You keep trying to pick a fight, but I’m still just happy you’re alive.”
Some Like it Hot The American Film Institute’s pick for the funniest movie of all time is a Roaring Twenties story about two male musicians on the run from the mob who pretend to be women so they can hide out in an all-girl band. Hilarious, exciting, musical, and romantic, it is non-stop pure entertainment. And it even has a good lesson about honesty, authenticity, and, yes, the difference between pleasure and happiness. “Well, nobody’s perfect!”
A Thousand Clowns Jason Robards stars in this film about an unconventional man who must decide what is most important to him — rejecting society’s standards or caring for his nephew. “If things aren’t funny then they’re exactly what they are; and then they’re like a long dental appointment.”
Step into Liquid This documentary about surfing is a stirring tribute to waves and sun and the people who believe that they best honor nature and the farthest potential of the human spirit by riding on the waves. The footage is exhilarating and it is touching to see the way that even competitive surfers believe that the winner is the one who has the most fun.
Amelie (some mature material) This lovely French fairy tale is the story of a shy young waitress who learns that the greatest happiness comes from helping others. “Amelie has a strange feeling of absolute harmony. It’s a perfect moment. A soft light, a scent in the air, the quiet murmur of the city. A surge of love, an urge to help mankind overcomes her.”
Sullivan’s Travels A successful Hollywood director wants to stop making his popular comedies so he can produce a serious film about economic hardship. He goes undercover as a homeless man and learns that he can do more to help those who are suffering by making them laugh than by trying to tell them about life’s miseries. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.”
Happy-Go-Lucky An irrepressibly happy schoolteacher frustrates some of those around her with her optimism but demonstrates that being cheerful can be smart, thoughtful, sensitive, and right, especially when contrasted with characters who make a different choice. “You keep on rowin’, and I’ll keep on smilin’.”
Pollyanna Hayley Mills plays the little girl who invented “The Glad Game.” Her ability to find the good in every person and every situation endears her to her troubled community and to her starchy aunt. It is true family classic and a wonderful lesson in finding happiness by knowing where to look. “When you look for the bad in mankind, expecting to find it, you surely will.
The tragic shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC last week reminds us yet again of the importance of making sure that future generations do not just learn the statistics but truly understand the near-incomprehensible devastation of genocide and the toxic tragedy of bigotry.
The documentary Paper Clips is one every family should watch. It is the story of Whitwell, Tennessee, a small coal mining community (population 1600) outside of Chatanooga. The population is almost entirely white and entirely Christian. When the local school set out to teach children about tolerance and diversity, the teachers realized that most of the children had never seen a person from another country or faith. So the school decided to teach students about the Holocaust in Germany during World War II.
As the students tried to come to grips with the Nazi genocide, they had a hard time visualizing the magnitude of the loss of six million people. They wanted to collect six million of something to represent the people who were killed.
The students did some research and learned that the paperclip was invented in Norway and that Norwegians wore paperclips on their collars to demonstrate their sympathy for the Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and other groups being persecuted by the Nazis. The students decided to collect six million paperclips and began writing letters to everyone they could think of to ask for help.
This documentary shows how the project grew from a classroom assignment to an event that transformed the entire community.
Silverdocs is now the biggest documentary film festival in the United States. It opens tomorrow in Silver Spring, Maryland, with an outstanding line-up of documentaries — old, new, long, short, funny, sad, domestic and international. Some of the highlights include a tribute to Albert Maysles (of “Salesman,” “Grey Gardens,” and “Gimme Shelter”), opening night film “More than a Game” about an Akron, Ohio basketball team featuring future superstar LeBron James, and films about a facial hair competition, the Washington D.C. “mayor for life” Marion Berry, a prison rodeo, being struck by lightning, an environmental struggle between indigenous people and multi-national oil companies in Ecuador, Vogue’s monumental September issue, and the acknowledged worst movie ever made (followed by a screening of the film itself, “Troll 2”).