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Brad's Status (2017)
Greetings again from the darkness. Mid-life crisis has long been a popular movie topic. A list of the best would include: Fellini's 8 ½, Blake Edwards' 10, American BEAUTY, CRAZY STUPID LOVE, SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH, and THELMA & LOUISE. Some of these are outright comedies, while others are turbulent dramas. With the label 'white male privilege' being applied so broadly these days, it's impressive how writer/director Mike White (THE GOOD GIRL, SCHOOL OF ROCK, creator of TV's "Enlightened") so expertly and gracefully takes on the familiar topic.
Ben Stiller stars as Brad Sloan, a married man raising a teenage son and running a Non-Profit Organization in middle-class Sacramento. As Brad and his son Troy (Austin Abrams, PAPER TOWNS) embark on an elite northeast college visitation trip, we get the sense that Brad is only now waking up to his son's rapid approach to adulthood and remarkable talent as a student and musical prodigy. This happens congruently to Brad's mid-life realization that his own college buddies are richer and more famous than he. Self-loathing, insecurities and concern over the jealousy he feels towards his own son are the focus of Brad's inner thoughts, which we hear courtesy of his narration.
Brad's college friends who are unknowingly driving his defeatist attitude include: Jemaine Clement as Billy Wearsiter who retired in Hawaii at age 40 after selling his tech company; Mike White (the film's director) as successful movie director Nick Pascale whose house is featured in Architecture Digest; Luke Wilson as hedge fund manager Jason Hatfield who married into money; and Michael Sheen as Craig Fisher, a best -selling author and frequently seen on TV political commentator. In comparison, and by today's societal levels of achievement, Brad views himself as a failure a man whose early idealism didn't change the world, and instead prevented him from reaching the capitalistic heights of his friends.
There are a couple of elements that allow the film to work. First, Ben Stiller softens his usual snark, making him more relatable than his usual woe-is-me character. Next, the film isn't as harsh on the white man as we've come to expect. There is no feeling sorry for Brad, but there is at least compassion space for him to explore what he's feeling and take stock in his life. The difference maker is Mr. White's script. The underside of human nature is explored with a deft comedic touch and incisive societal observations.
Stiller's tightly wound Brad contrasts with Troy's easy-confidence leading to some unusual father-son scenes. When Troy questions whether his dad is having a breakdown, we understand that the existential crisis is actually fairly common. We certainly enjoy watching as Troy's Harvard friend, and fellow musician Ananya (Shazi Raja) listens patiently before slapping Brad with the dose of reality he so desperately needs. Ananya's beyond-her-years wisdom leads Brad to a moment of self-awakening during her concert of Dvorak's "Humoresque". Ms. Raja's role is given much more weight than that of Jenna Fischer as Brad's wife/Troy's mother, who inexplicably only appears about every 20 minutes as a check-in during the boys' trip.
Keeping up with the Jones is a no-win approach to life, and if a Hollywood film can help a few more people understand this, then it's a beneficial way to spend a couple of hours. The Mark Mothersbaugh score has a sharpness to it that mirrors Brad's tarnished idealism and search for self. We are reminded that normal insecurities can blow up if we focus too much on what others have, and not enough on what we do.
Greetings again from the darkness. There is a fine line between getting chewed out by your Costco supervisor one day and having the country claim you as a hero the next. Just ask Jeff Bauman. On April 15, 2013 Jeff was near the finish line for the Boston Marathon, holding a handmade sign in support of his runner-girlfriend Erin. When she was still about a mile away, the two bombs went off, killing three people and injuring hundreds. Mr. Bauman lost his legs that day.
When Jeff regained consciousness in the hospital (after two surgeries), he was able to provide the FBI a detailed physical description of one of the bombers. His information led directly to the identification of one of the scumbag brothers responsible for this atrocity. Immediately, Jeff was hailed as a hero both locally and nationally. The film does a nice job of telling Jeff's story and how his life unfolded over the next few months.
Director David Gordon Green is responsible for such disparate film projects as OUR BRAND IS CRISIS, MANGLEHORN, and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. He may seem an odd choice to adapt the film from the book by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter (screenplay by John Pollono), but the story is so moving and heart-warming, and the three lead actors are so good that we immediately connect with each of them.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Jeff, Tatiana Maslany ("Orphan Black") plays Erin, and Miranda Richardson tears up the screen as Jeff's mother, Patty. Mr. Gyllenhaal is remarkable (as usual) as the working class local boy who truly believes his lucky seat and beer determine success or failure for his beloved Bruins and Red Sox. His initial portrayal is spot on for the normal guy who seems caught in the web of eternal teenage mentality so common in the male species. As he struggles with his new life challenges, he strives to do better, but simply doesn't understand why he is viewed as a hero and doesn't particularly embrace what comes with the label, at least early on. Ms. Maslany is terrific as the guilt-ridden, confused-yet-strong, on-again-off- again girlfriend to Jeff. She fights through being treated as an outsider by the family, and the daily grind of caring for a guy who needs constant help. The twice Oscar nominated Miranda Richardson is unlike we have ever seen her on screen. Despite being a Brit, Ms. Richardson captures the Boston sauciness (in more ways than one) and takes no 'stuff' from anyone. Her performance is stunning.
Of course, at its core, this is an inspirational story about how a normal guy became a hero after a tragic event. The recent Mark Wahlberg film PATRIOTS DAY focused on the aftermath and investigation, while here the attention is on the emotional story of one man and one family. We see the recreation of the flag-waving at the Boston Bruins game, and the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park. We also see the obstacles faced when rehabilitation and care- giving becomes too much to bear. Carlos Arredondo and his cowboy hat and heroics are also given much-deserved space here. His back story is heart-breaking, and a reminder that everyone has a story, and each of us can be a hero in some way. Since life isn't a movie, the realities are that Jeff and Erin have since divorced, but that in no way reduces the impact of their touching story that inspires each of us to be stronger.
the shoes make the man
Greetings again from the darkness. Despite my lack of interest in high heels, or really high fashion in general, it's always exciting to gain some insight into the creative process of an acclaimed artist such as Manolo Blahnik. Unfortunately, Michael Roberts' (fashion writer by trade) directorial debut delivers more of a tribute than any type of peek behind the curtain. Heck, let's call it what it is it's a fluff piece, plain and simple.
Mr. Blahnik has been labeled "the best shoemaker of the 20th and 21st centuries", despite his claims of being merely a humble cobbler. There are dramatizations mixed with interviews, and plenty of famous faces to fill the screen. In fact, Vogue editor Anna Wintour seems to log nearly as much screen time as Blahnik himself and shockingly, she's giggling and smiling through most of it. Mr. Blahnik does make many of his own statements, including an admission of having no interest in politics or relationships. It seems designing the shoes is what keeps him going each day. And it's this point where the filmmaker misses the real opportunity to dive deep into the creative process.
As is common in the fashion world, celebrities are usually front and center. There is an extended segment with Rhiannon, and there's a glimpse of Donald Trump near the runway. Bianca Jagger, Diana Vreeland, and Sarah Jessica Parker all have their moments. We are shown a clip of Princess Diana wearing Manolo stilettos, and of course, a scene from "Sex and the City" is included confirming the real audience for the film. Director Sofia Coppola describes her reasons for dressing the titular character of her film MARIE ANTOINETTE in Manolos, and there is an odd and slightly uncomfortable portion where Blahnik buddy Rupert Everett discusses Manolos for men, though seemingly in a contradictory manner.
There is nothing wrong with a lovefest celebration, but it is somewhat frustrating to listen to the gushing of admirers when a more insightful project is deserved, and would have been welcome.
hold on to your butts
Greetings again from the darkness. Him. Mother. Man. Woman. When those are the identifiers of the four main characters (none have a real name), one might assume that the filmmaker is lazy. However, after watching the latest from the psycho-creative force known as Darren Aronofsky, we understand that names weren't necessary, and even if they had been, he was probably too mentally exhausted from finding ways to torture those characters and confound the viewers.
The first half of the film is discomforting and creepy while the second half is downright crazed and deranged. You won't find many story details in this review, as the fun is in the shock. Most of the film is through the eyes of Jennifer Lawrence, and we share her confusion and disoriented state. She is married to a famous poet played by Javier Bardem (yes, the age difference is acknowledged). While she spends her days refurbishing their stunning country home, he battles severe writer's block. Needless to say, their domestic bliss goes wrong but it's not the kind of wrong we've ever seen before.
Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (both Oscar nominees) confine us in excruciatingly tight shots resulting in further disorientation and claustrophobia through most of the film. By the time we get a single wide shot of the home's exterior, we've just about given up hope. And once Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer show up, we kick into full ROSEMARY'S BABY mode only more frenetic and hyper.
It should be noted that it's not a traditional horror film heck, it's hardly a traditional film at all. It's built on confusion, and metaphors abound. Aronofsky seems intent on causing endless post- viewing discussions and debate over what it "means". A case can be made for commentary on ego, fame, Mother Nature, deity/religion, and a sign of the times the entitled "takers" of the world. The most obvious explanation is that the price paid for creativity is quite dear, and often causes a release from reality. There is a vicious cycle occurring here and our realization happens after the crescendo of insanity that is the film's peak.
WTF moments are too many to count, and Ms. Lawrence pulls off what has to be the roughest on screen pregnancy we've seen. It's a real treat to see Michelle Pfeiffer back in form after being out of the spotlight for four years. The score from Johan Johannsson is remarkable and there are ground-breaking visual effects (easy to miss during the audacious, frenzied second half action). Aronofsky is clearly provoking us, though it's abundantly unclear to what end. His previous twisted, mind- benders include REQUIEM FOR A DREAM and BLACK SWAN
both of which seem like mainstream family fare in comparison. This is a love it or hate it project, and most will likely fall into the latter. But for those who embrace the deranged and audacious, the love will be everlasting.
The Zim (2017)
philosophy for Zimbabwe and beyond
Greetings again from the darkness. Actor Alexander Bedria wrote, directs, and stars in this short film that offers a history lesson alongside some dramatic tension. We learn that in 1980, after 15 years of Civil War, Zimbabwe finally gains its independence. By 2000, the government is seizing property (especially white-owned property) from those considered anything other than native Zimbabweans.
Daniel Silva (played by director Bedria) is a multi-generation land- owner/farmer, and he takes a stand to protect his land and loved ones when he becomes the next target of the government. William, his long time farm hand and "friend", is played by native Zimbabwean Tongayi Chirisa and remains loyal to his life-long friend and employer despite the fear (and reality) of brutal violence.
Amanda Wing plays Silva's pregnant wife, Constance Ejuma plays William's wife, Caroline Lagerfelt (memorable as the nurse in MINORITY REPORT) plays a family member, while Shawn Baker is Montanga, a terrifying government affiliate responsible for carrying out the evictions.
It's a well made and tension-filled short film that, at its core, asks the philosophical question: should those of today pay for the transgressions of those in the past? On the flip side, should they be allowed to benefit from those transgressions? Silva understandably asks, how many generations back must his family ownership go before he is considered native. It's a reasonable question with no easy answer
in fact, your answer likely depends on which side of the issue you fall.
La fille inconnue (2016)
amateur detective and guilt
Greetings again from the darkness. A nice story set-up is always welcome, and this one delivers a creative attention-grabber that draws us in pretty quickly. Brothers and long-time filmmaking collaborators Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne (TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT, THE KID WITH A BIKE) edited the film a bit after its Cannes screening, and the result is a quiet little whodunit with an interesting lead actress performance.
A doctor and her intern have a disagreement at closing time, and opt not to answer the clinic door when a young lady rings after hours. The doctor's guilty conscience leads her to become obsessed with finding out the name of the lady when she turns up murdered the next morning. It's passionate and amateur sleuthing at its most awkward, unconventional, and dangerous.
Dr Jenny Davin has recently accepted a post at the prestigious Kennedy Hospital, replacing a retiring doctor. The tragedy causes a change of mind on the job so that she may focus on the case and on continuing patient care through her clinic. The filmmakers initially wanted Marion Cotillard for the role (what filmmaker wouldn't?), but Adele Haenel (LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT) brings her own approach, and though she doesn't come across as the warmest person, it's quite apparent that she is a dedicated doctor who cares very much for her patients. Even when she tells her intern Julien (Olivier Bonnaud) that "a good doctor must control his emotions", she is ever-stoic with her delivery.
The story is missing the usual Dardenne brothers' twist, and instead, at its core is an ill-advised detective story and a case of morality, guilt, and the drive to do the right thing. The house calls and open communication with doctors will confound some U.S. viewers, but the various vignettes during Dr. Davin's gumshoe work keep us engaged. The sub-plot with Dr. Davin reigniting intern Julien's passion for medicine also maintains the minimalist approach and restrained performances
all with a very grounded approach with mostly hand-held cameras.
Greetings again from the darkness. There are two clown schools: Funny clowns (Bozo, Ronald McDonald), and Terrifying clowns (the one in POLTERGEIST, Pennywise the Dancing Clown). Stephen King first introduced Pennywise in the 1986 novel, and the great Tim Curry brought him to life (and our nightmares) in the 1990 TV mini-series (2 episodes). So, that's 27 years since the TV version. How fitting that director Andy Muschietti (MAMA) introduces a new generation 27 years later, since that's how often the supernaturally evil clown visits Derry, Maine to frighten and feast on kids. It's a terrific update.
Horror films are similar to comedy films in that it often comes down to one's own personality quirks what makes you laugh, and what scares you. This new version covers the first half of King's novel, focusing on "The Losers Club" the seven kids who band together to fight their fears. Director Muschietti sets the story in 1989 (rather than the 50's) and the obvious comparisons are to THE GOONIES, STAND BY ME (another King story), and the recent hit "Stranger Things".
The opening sequence gets us off to a great start. You've probably seen it in the trailer. Young Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is joyfully splashing through the rain puddles following his paper boat as it disappears into the storm drain. It's there that he meets, and we get our first look at, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard, son of Stellan and brother of Alexander). Giving us an early peek at what we came to see creates time for the development of a long list of characters. Of course the mini-series and the novel didn't have the time restrictions of a feature film, so it's impressive how quickly we connect with the kids.
Georgie's older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberther, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL) is the leader of The Losers despite his propensity to stutter, and his belief that little Georgie may still be alive. Motormouth Richie (Finn Wolfhard, "Stranger Things") is the bespectacled wiseass, while Beverly (Sophia Lillis, an Amy Adams lookalike and star in the making) is the tough-on-the-outside female who deals with the rumors that accompany being a teenager. Hypochondriac Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), straight-laced son of the Rabbi Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), chubby brainiac new kid Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), and home-schooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs) round out this group of outsiders who are all frequently the target of bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), creepy parents, and of course, Pennywise.
A couple of the set pieces are outstanding. Beverly's bathroom (especially the sink), the creek for the rock fight, and the rickety old house and its corresponding clown lair all contribute to the overall level of menace. Rising star composer Benjamin Wallfisch produces a score that guides us through the thrills and spills, as well as the quieter moments. As for Pennywise, even though the dancing clown had more screen time in the mini-series, Skarsgard is memorable, although the modern day special effects (those teeth!) often diminish the humanistic feel of Curry's clown and escalate things to an other-worldly level.
Expect more of the Halloween Haunted House type of scary rather than the emotionally crippling stuff of horror films like THE EXORCIST or THE SHINING. The sudden bursts of sinister are surprisingly balanced with the humorous one-liners from the kids, and the actualization of the infamous "you'll float too" is a stunning effect. The nostalgic feel complements the best part of the story
the power of friendship and connected groups. Watching these kids face their biggest fears certainly provides a bit of a chill to the upcoming fall season
and as a bonus, it's a fun time for viewers.
Rebel in the Rye (2017)
not really a people person
Greetings again from the darkness. "Holden Caulfield is dead." So states Jerry's letter to his mentor. You likely know Jerry better as J.D. Salinger, and he wrote that while hospitalized with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after WWII. Of course, we know this proclamation is premature, as Holden Caulfield is the main character from Mr. Salinger's famous (and only) novel, "The Catcher in the Rye" a high school literature staple for decades.
Imagine your dream is to become a great writer, but your own father continually reminds you that "meat and cheese distribution has been good for this family." Your restlessness often works against you, and though you are hesitant to admit it, a mentor for writing and life direction is desperately needed if you are to avoid the family business. Enter Columbia professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey).
This is Danny Strong's first feature film as a director, though you would surely recognize his face from his frequent acting appearances often as a weasly character. He is also the creator of TV's "Empire" and wrote the screenplays for THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY (Parts I and II) and LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER. Strong does an admirable job in showing the commitment required to hone one's writing skills and proving "the difference in wanting to be a writer and actually being one."
Jerome David Salinger is played well by Nicholas Hoult. His scenes with Spacey's professor are the film's best, and Hoult also shoulders the responsibility of Salinger's writing frustrations, personal life challenges, military service, and finally, his decision to become the most famous and long-lasting recluse (by comparison, Howard Hughes was an amateur).
We learn that Burnett was instrumental in getting Salinger's first short story published, which finally gave Jerry the answer needed for a writer's most dreaded question, "Have you been published?" Quite a bit of time is devoted to his odd romantic relationship with Oona O'Neill (Eugene's daughter and the future, long-time wife to Charlie Chaplin). Zoey Deutch (daughter of Lea Thompson) plays Oona as an enigmatic lover attracted to Salinger's genius, but incapable of being patient for his career that might happen (and might not). She opts for the sure bet.
Salinger's military service included Utah Beach on D-Day, and nearly as remarkably, his toting the tattered manuscript 'Catcher' pages throughout his tour. He returned home in 1946, and in 1951 "The Catcher in the Rye" was published. It's been referred to as the Great American novel and a rite of passage, while also being banned and derided for its whiny Holden.
Director Strong emphasizes Salinger's turn to Zen Buddhism and his sessions with Swami Nikhilanda, as well as his evolving distrust of stalking fans and two-faced media. Support work is provided by Sarah Paulson as Salinger's salty agent, Lucy Boynton as his wife, Victor Garber as his father, and Hope Davis as his supportive mother. Just as in real life, we get nothing of Salinger's later years of solitude and isolation in New Hampshire, where he died at age 91.
The book has sold more than 65 million copies, and continues to sell well today. In a shift from the recent documentary SALINGER by Shane Salerno, and the book "J.D. Salinger: A Life Raised High" by Kenneth Slawenski, this dramatization doesn't dig too deep, but it does allow a new generation to personify the legend. Perhaps it even paints a picture of a better/nicer man than what his real life actions showed. Regardless, the older Salinger certainly seemed to embrace the cause of "write and get nothing in return".
Home Again (2017)
the buddy system
Greetings again from the darkness. Let's just get this out of the way upfront. There is a proved and established market for mindless fluff designed to allow women to laugh at the messes created by "real life" relationships, careers, and parenting. In fact, first time writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer is merely continuing the traditions set by her bloodline. She is the daughter of filmmakers Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer who shared an Oscar screen writing nomination for PRIVATE BENJAMIN (1980), and collaborated on other Romantic-Comedies such as FATHER OF THE BRIDE (I and II), and BABY BOOM (1987). Rom- Coms exist to bring some balance to the universe of Comic Book film adaptations for fan boys. It is possible to have quality filmmaking on both sides no matter how rare it seems.
Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon stars as Alice Kinney. It's her 40th birthday, and she's a chipper lady recently separated from her music industry husband (Michael Sheen) and moved with their two daughters (Lola Flanery, Eden Grace Redfield) from New York to Los Angeles. Alice is in full "starting over" mode, including kicking off a new home decorating business. During a drunken birthday celebration with her friends, Alice hooks up with a younger man. The next morning, Alice's mom (Candice Bergen) invites Harry (the young man played by Pico Anderson) and his two buddies (Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky - all 3 are budding filmmakers) to move into Alice's house. What follows is a maybe/maybe not romance between Harry and Alice, a bonding between the fellows and Alice's daughters, new business struggles for Alice, the sudden return to the scene of Alice's husband, and an endless stream of movie-making meetings for the 3 guys.
That's a recap of the story, but it doesn't address the real issue. For years, we have been hearing that the good-old-boy Hollywood network needed to back more female-centric projects: movies about women, movies directed by women, movies written by women, movies produced by women. Well this one has ALL of that, and yet I can only imagine the outrage if a man had written/directed/produced this exact film. Let's discuss.
Alice is positioned as a "brave" and "strong" woman for moving her kids across the country and starting over. What allows this woman to be so courageous? Well see, she is the daughter of a deceased filmmaker who had a successful career and left her a multi-million dollar California estate conveniently, one with a guest house for the three young men to live in. And who in their right mind, and with two young daughters, would invite three total strangers to move in especially the night after - even if one of them looks to be yanked right out of an Abercrombie ad? There is also Alice's interaction with her first client (played by Lake Bell). Despite despicable treatment from the rich lady, Alice doesn't stand her ground until yet another drunken bout of liquid courage occurs. The two daughters are smart and cute, but there is an obvious shortage of daily parenting happening here the daughters seem to show up only when a dose of precociousness is required. The scenes with Alice and her estranged husband are appropriately awkward, but the communication seems hokey at least until we witness true hokeyness in the cartoonish exchanges between the (now) four gentlemen. In fact, all male characters are written as cartoons, which we might view as "getting even" with the many times female characters were poorly written; however, since the female lead here is just as unreal, that theory doesn't hold.
The paint-by-numbers approach carries through as we check all the boxes: cute kids, a pet dog, apologetic ex, hunky new suitor, no financial hardships, loads of delightful dialogue, Ms. Witherspoon flashing more facial contortions than Jim Carrey at his peak, at least two cheesy musical montages, a mad dash to the kid's play/recital/game, and even the cherry on top
a Carole King song at the end. In a year with so many wonderful female-centric films, this one is difficult to comprehend except that maybe, given who her parents are, perhaps Ms. Meyers-Shyer is actually the beneficiary of that good old boy network of which we've heard tell.
In Loco Parentis (2016)
past meets present
Greetings again from the darkness. With all the talk about statues these days, maybe it's career teachers like John and Amanda Leyden who deserve their bronzed images displayed in public so that we may all pay proper respect. The film follows the married couple during their 46th and final year as educators at Headfort School, the only remaining primary boarding school in Ireland. These two have been inspirational and influential to so many students over the years, and now they find themselves in a quandary about how to leave the only life they've known since becoming adults.
Co-writers and co-directors Neasa Ni Chianain and David Rane, along with script consultant Etienne Essery, use a loose structure in documenting the daily activities, and the blending of traditions with modernity, within the somewhat imposing walls of Headfort. We find it pleasurable to focus on passionate, dedicated teachers rather than on what's broken with today's education system.
John's hard line stance and frequent use of sarcasm ("That wasn't entirely bad") effectively masks his caring nature and desire to help students learn and improve. He teaches Latin, Math and coaches the student band that plays many familiar rock songs. He considers this just as important as any class. Amanda takes a more traditional approach in teaching Literature. She uses a well-refined mixture of encouragement and books to facilitate the lessons and motivate students to read more.
The past and present are always on display here with both the institution and this couple. School and home are blurred lines for the students as well as for John and Amanda. "If we don't come here, what'll we do all day?" This line speaks to the uncertainty and wariness that are weighing on the couple as their career end approaches.
As viewers, we must keep in mind that these are privileged children, all of whom are likely to move on to elite secondary schools. In fact, the arrival of selection letters plays a role near year end. When alone at home, we hear John and Amanda complain about students, not unlike you probably complain about your co-workers. The difference here is that this man and woman are truly dedicated to helping each student become their best self.
The film style allows the day-to-day challenges to appear as they may, and while little is learned about individual students, it's clear that John and Amanda are lost about leaving the only working life they've experienced
a devotion to helping kids develop. In fact, the Headmaster, Dermot Dix, is a former student of the Leyden's. The film's original title, In Loco Parentis, translates to "in place of parents"
we wish these pseudo-parents nothing but the best in the biggest transition of their life. They certainly have earned happiness, and maybe even a statue.