The Art of the Jungle

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Sometimes a movie should be approached from the perspective of its artistry more than its philosophy or its storyline. The new Jungle Book is one of those films.

Sure, we could examine the underlying theme represented by the “Law of the Jungle”: For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack. We could debate whether this philosophy favors the individual or the community. (I think it favors the individual, since “the Law” feels more like an invitation and a promise than a command or a threat.) We could also comment on the Law of Peace that wary animal species establish in the movie to gain safe access to water during a drought: the animals agree not to attack one another when they are at the only available watering hole. The truce is enforced simply by their own self-interest and their consideration of long-term consequences should they violate it. Isn’t that a lot like the libertarian tenet that commerce or trade is preferable to war for people who have different values and beliefs?

Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

We could also howl at the way the well-structured anapestic rhythm of Kipling’s original language has been marred by the wolves’ substituting And the Wolf that keeps it shall prosper, but the Wolf that breaks it must die for Kipling’s measured scansion: And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die — a small thing, but I shall use it in my intro to poetry courses.

But right now, let’s just focus on the beauty of this film, the quality of the acting, the massive number of people who worked in harmony to produce it, and the amazing technology that made it possible.

The film opens with Mowgli (Neel Sethi), clad in a red loincloth, dashing barefoot through the jungle over rocks, across trees, through bushes until a branch snaps and he plummets to the ground. But there aren’t any trees — or grass or rocks or bushes, or ground for that matter; the movie was filmed entirely through digital animation and live-capture action in a studio in West L.A. The VFX (Visual Effects) are simply stunning, from the realistic blades of grass and bark of the trees to the fur on the animals and the way the wind ruffles the scene. Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

Adding to the sense of realism is the fact that Mowgli has scars, bruises, scrapes, and cuts, as one would expect of a young boy who lives in the wild. (In fact, watch for the scars on his shoulders — one seems to be an R, and the other a K, in a nod to Rudyard Kipling.)

Twelve-year-old Neel Sethi was the only live actor in this film and performed entirely on a blue screen set, assisted by mechanical stand-ins and director Jon Favreau, who often stood just off screen to help focus Sethi’s eye lines. He had to imagine the animals pursuing him, the bees stinging him, the trees he was climbing, and the conversations he was having. As Mowgli, he appears in nearly every scene, so the success of this $175,000,000 production rested on his acting abilities. He is utterly believable and engaging throughout.

Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, Favreau encourages humans to be themselves.

An additional challenge with a film of this scope is scheduling the live work fast enough so the actor doesn’t age over the course of the film. That means all the animation had to be set in stone before live filming began — no retakes are possible when the other cast members require weeks or months to recreate.

The actors who voiced the animals did their work separately within a sound booth, of course, long before Sethi entered the scene. They, too, must imagine the action and react to other characters virtually. They imbue their characters with their personalities simply through the inflection of their voices, and rely on animators to add gestures and facial expressions to bring the characters to life in other ways. Bill Murray as the bear Baloo and Christopher Walken as the gigantopithecus King Louis (an orangutan in the 1967 version) are particularly impressive. Murray’s low-key, offhand, Teddy-bear delivery is funny and endearing, while Walken’s Brooklyn accent is completely different from the way Louie Prima envisioned King Louis in the 1967 version. In fact, Louis’ sinister entrance is reminiscent of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now.

This is not a musical, but it would not be The Jungle Book without some of the beloved songs from the 1967 version (which was the last animated feature on which Walt Disney himself worked; he died before it was released). Favreau introduces the familiar melodies subtly within the background score, and when they do sing, it happens naturally, the way one would sing on a sunny day. Baloo and Mowgli float down a river singing “The Bear Necessities,” but they don’t dance. Other songs from the original also show up, but not until the credits roll (Kaa’s “Trust in Me” performed by Scarlett Johannson, King Louis’ “I Wanna Be Like You” performed by Christopher Walken, and a reprise of “The Bear Necessities” by Kermit Ruffins. So don’t be in a hurry to jump up from your seat when the book closes.

The Jungle Book is a story about self-discovery, manhood, and learning whom to trust. This version also presents a fair view of humans, who can be bad, as represented by their introducing fire to the jungle (never mind that lightning had been causing forest fires long before that!) but can also be very good if allowed to develop in a natural habitat. At first Mowgli suppresses his human qualities of problem-solving and tool-building, guided by his guardian panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and his adoptive wolf-mother Raksha (Lupito Nyong’o) to “fit in with the pack.” But Baloo sees the value of Mowgli’s remarkable inventiveness, and encourages him to use it productively. Eventually Mowgli’s tool-building skills save the pack and everyone else in the jungle.

Influenced by 19th-century sensibilities about gender roles and manhood in particular, Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, director Favreau encourages humans to be themselves. By taking care of himself, Mowgli also takes care of the pack. I think that’s a pretty good law of the jungle.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Jungle Book," directed by Jon Favreau. Walt Disney Pictures, 2016, 105 minutes.



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Cat and Mouse, Red Herring, and a Whiff of Gingerbread

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I’m not a blood-and-guts kind of viewer, but I love a good horror flick, the kind that keeps the viewer constantly off balance with neat little plot twists and hair-raising anticipation of terror. Skillful pacing is essential to the horror genre; we need to be confused, soothed, startled, thrown off course, cajoled, fooled, and soothed some more until we are terrorized by the tantalizing anticipation of the monstrously unthinkable event — even if that event never occurs. Maybe especially if it never occurs.

Too many horror films rely on blood and guts to elicit screams, but a brilliant director can deliver the shivers within a PG-13 rating. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, first-time director Dan Trachtenberg does all of this brilliantly.

As the film opens, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is packing hastily, tossing belongings into a bag and grabbing necessities with a deft hand. The scene is filmed as a series of close, panicky shots that create suspense even where there is none; we learn that she has simply decided to leave her fiancé Ben (Bradley Cooper). The last thing we see in the apartment is a close up of her keys and her engagement ring, and then she drives away into the night. Misdirection. In a horror film, it gets you every time.

We need to be confused, soothed, startled, thrown off course, cajoled, fooled, and soothed some more until we are terrorized by the tantalizing anticipation of the monstrously unthinkable event.

It happens again at a dark, secluded filling station. Is someone lurking in the shadows? Is someone following her? I won’t tell. But the tension heightens merely from the anticipation that someone lurking in the shadows. Somehow (I won’t tell you that either) Michelle wakes up in a strange room with an IV needle in her arm, a bloody scrape on her forehead, a brace supporting her injured knee — and a chain attaching her leg to the wall. It’s Misery all over again, we think, only Michelle is the “writer,” and Howard (John Goodman) is the good Samaritan arriving with a plate of scrambled eggs, a fresh bandage, and a petulant, “You need to show me some appreciation!” à la Kathy Bates. Sometimes borrowed creepiness is even creepier.

Howard tells Michelle that Armageddon has occurred, but they are safely secured in his underground survival bunker. He explains that he rescued her from an accident just before the blast happened. But then, why is she chained to the wall? And why does he keep locking the door? And why won’t he let her go to the bathroom without him in the room?

Michelle isn’t the only young visitor in this strange menagerie. Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) — yes, Emmett! Could any name be spookier in a horror movie? — sports a broken arm and a scraggly beard that suggests he may have been down here for a while — or it could just be a fashion statement. We don’t know. But Emmett seems to believe Howard’s story.

But then, why is she chained to the wall? And why does he keep locking the door?

The set is closed and claustrophobic, just three people locked in a bunker playing a mutual game of cat-and-mouse as they wait out the fallout up above, while also waiting out each other’s mistrust down below. Adding to the creepiness is the cheeriness of Howard’s bunker, with its 1950s furniture in the living area, pine cabinets in the kitchen area, fake sunflowers on the table, jukebox in the corner, and board games on the shelf. The vivid colors create a bizarre fairytale effect, almost like the gingerbread house that trapped Hansel and Gretel by baiting them with food.

If you’re feeling claustrophobic from watching too many weeks of that creepy, freaky bully suffering from a perennially bad hair day, roaring epithets at his uninvited critics, then turn off the television, leave the campaign news behind, and go see John Goodman as a creepy, freaky bully suffering from a perennially bad hair day roaring epithets at his unhappy guests. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "10 Cloverfield Lane," directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Bad Robot, 2016, 103 minutes.



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The Olympics and Liberty

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I’m often asked what makes a film “libertarian.” Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority? Many libertarian films do contain those features. But my favorites are those in which a protagonist achieves a goal or overcomes obstacles without turning to the government to fix things.

Two such films are in theaters now, and both are based on true stories about Olympic athletes who achieved their goals in spite of government interference, not because of government aid. Race tells the Jesse Owens story, and Eddie the Eagle tells the Michael Edwards story. Both are worth seeing.

Race is the perfect title for this film that focuses on both racing and racism. Owens was one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Historian Richard Crepeau (who spoke at FreedomFest last year) described the 1935 college track meet at Ann Arbor in which Owens, in the space of 45 minutes, set three world records and tied a fourth as “the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.” Nevertheless, Owens (Stephan James) is not welcome at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) intends to use “his” Olympics as a propaganda piece to highlight the physical superiority of the Aryan race, and he does not want any blacks or Jews to spoil his plan. He hires filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) to document the glorious event.

The film reveals the backstage negotiations between Olympic Committee representative Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and the German organizing committee at which Brundage insisted on assurances that Jews and blacks would be allowed to compete. Brundage’s insistence is somewhat hypocritical, considering the treatment Owens and other black athletes were enduring at home, but he was successful in forestalling a threatened American boycott of the Games.

What makes a film “libertarian”? Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority?

Owens faces similar pressure from the NAACP, as he is warned that he ought to boycott the Games to protest racism in Germany. Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order. This is as it should be. What good would it have done if Owens had stayed home to protest German policy? Would it have made any difference? Would anyone even have noticed? I felt the same way when President Carter made the opposite decision in 1980 and forced American athletes to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. What good did it do to destroy the dreams of hundreds of American athletes who had trained their whole lives to compete in a tournament that comes along only once every four years? Did it help anyone in Afghanistan? Did it hurt all those Russian athletes who took home more medals because the Americans weren’t there? I think not.

In the movie, Owens also faces the pressure of athletic celebrity, and Stephan James skillfully portrays the ambition and the temptations of a small-town boy chasing big-time dreams. He is anchored in his pursuits by his college coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) and his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton), who would become his wife and partner until the day he died in 1980. As with most sports films, the outcome of the contest is known from the beginning. The real story is how the hero gets there, and how he conducts himself along the way. Owens was a hero worthy of the title.

Eddie the Eagle tells the story of an Olympic hero of a different sort — one who is remembered for his tenacity rather than his innate skill. Michael Edwards (played by Taron Egerton as an adult and by brothers Tommy Costello, Jr. at 10 years old and Jack Costello at 15) simply dreams of being an Olympian; he doesn’t care what sport. His mother (Jo Hartley) nurtures that dream, giving him a special biscuit tin to hold his medals and praising his accomplishments, even if it’s just holding his breath for 58 seconds. Ironically, Eddie is motivated by a picture of Jesse Owens in a book about the Olympics. By contrast, Eddie’s father (Keith Allen) is a pragmatist, encouraging Eddie to give up his silly dreams and become a plasterer like him. His father isn’t a bad man; he just wants to protect his son from disappointment and financial waste. Fortunately for Eddie, he has the kind of optimistic personality that simply doesn’t hear criticism.

Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order.

Eddie settles on skiing as his sport and manages to qualify for the British Olympic team, but the Committee cuts him because he “isn’t Olympic material.” Read: you don’t dress well or look right and you’re rather clumsy. Undaunted, Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping. If he can compete in an international event and land on his feet, he can qualify for the Calgary Olympics. This is the same year that the Jamaican bobsled team slipped through the same loophole — a loophole that was quickly closed before the following season. Now athletes must compete internationally and place in the top 30% of finishers in order to qualify. But in 1988, if you could find a sport that few people in your country competed in, you could literally “make the team.”

With his father’s van and his mother’s savings, Eddie takes off for the training slopes in Germany. There he tackles the jumps, crashes on his landings, and tackles the jumps again. When he lands the 15-meter jump successfully, he moves on to the 40 and the 70, crashing more than he lands. Low camera angles during the jumps create the sensation of height and speed, providing a rush of adrenaline for the audience. Frequent shots of Eddie tumbling after a crash emphasize just how risky this beautiful sport is. We admire Eddie’s persistence, even as we cringe at his crashes. He believes in himself, no matter what.

Eventually he meets up with Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a chain-smoking, hard-drinking slope groomer who looks incredibly lean and buff for an alcoholic. Peary turns out to be a former ski jumper who lost his chance for Olympic glory by not taking his training seriously. This, of course, sets us up for the perfect sports metaphor movie: unskilled amateur with indomitable heart meets innately talented athlete who threw it all away, and both find redemption while training for the Games.

Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping.

It’s a great story about overcoming obstacles, sticking with a goal, and ignoring the naysayers. It demonstrates the power of a mother’s encouragement, and the possibility that even a poor, farsighted boy from a working-class neighborhood can achieve his dreams — if he doesn’t kill himself practicing for it.

All this allows us to forgive the fact that the movie mostly isn’t true. Yes, Michael Edwards did compete in the Calgary Olympics. He did set a British record for ski-jumping, despite coming in dead last in both events, simply because, as the only British jumper, his was the only British record. His exuberance and joy just for participating in the Olympics led to his being the only individual athlete referred to specifically in the closing speech that year (“some of us even soared like an eagle”). But Bronson Peary never existed, and Michael Edwards actually trained with US coaches at Lake Placid, albeit with limited funds that caused him to use ill-fitting equipment. But that wouldn’t have given us such a feel-good story.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Race," directed by Stephen Hopkins. Forecast Pictures, 2016, 134 minutes; and "Eddie the Eagle," directed by Dexter Fletcher. Pinewood Studios, 2016, 106 minutes.



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A New Kind of Superhero

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Wade Wilson, better known as "Deadpool," is a sarcastic, sometimes schizophrenic, violent, nonsensical comic book character who assassinates people for a living.

He's also one of the only characters in the history of the medium to be aware that he's inside a comic book, which means that he gets to break the fourth wall to talk about writers, artists, and pop culture and make jokes at other characters' expense in a way that can be downright hysterical.

Created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza as a spoof of rival DC Comics' "Deathstroke" (aka Slade Wilson), Deadpool was originally a minor character who occasionally got to play around in the X-Men and X-Force universe, cracking jokes and generally causing trouble for the real heroes. But he quickly became a popular comic book character in his own right. As anyone who has been to a comic book convention can attest, everybody loves Deadpool.

I'm not alone in suspecting that the film industry is going to learn the wrong lessons here.

It's easy to understand why. He has a great look. He's witty, sharp, and hysterically funny. He has a great superpower (self-healing) as well as skills that lend themselves well to high-octane action stories. And he's always getting into shootouts, swordfights, and other assorted brawls. But here's the thing: he's not actually a nice guy.

He swears like a sailor. He spends his time with hookers and other mercenaries. He makes fun of his own audience. He gets in the way of real heroes when they're trying to help people. And did I mention that he murders people for a living?

Don't get me wrong . . . he's a wildly original and entertaining character, but there's simply no way around the fact that this comic book character is not written for kids.

But what's really strange is that there was actually a small but ridiculous push from some parents for Fox to make a PG-13 version of the movie. Somebody even started a Change.org petition asking for a toned-down cut of the movie.

The trouble is, it is impossible to capture the essence of Deadpool on film in a PG or PG-13 movie, and for a long time, director Tim Miller and producer and star Ryan Reynolds struggled to get the now record-breaking movie greenlit at Fox because no one had really done an R-rated superhero movie in the Marvel blockbuster era, and studio heads worried about shutting out the lucrative young-teen and preteen audience. When they finally leaked some test footage and got the ball rolling, one of the biggest fears fans of the comics had was that Fox would try to water down the character to make a "four quadrant" picture — one that plays equally well to kids, adult males, adult females, and elderly people — “fun for the whole family!”).

In what would ultimately go on to become part of the greatest social-marketing campaign for a film in recent memory, one of the first advertisements for Deadpool was an April Fools Day prank video featuring Mario Lopez breaking the "news" that it would indeed be rated PG-13.

Childproofing violent antiheroes in an attempt to please everyone is a vote of no confidence and a surefire path to box-office doom.

Once fans realized that the video was a joke and that the producers were actually going for an R rating, the conversation changed. Fears of studio meddling ruining the movie turned into excitement that just kept building until last weekend, when Deadpool nabbed the biggest opening weekend ever for an R-rated movie.

Unfortunately, I'm not alone in suspecting that the film industry is going to learn the wrong lessons here. Already Universal announced that the next Wolverine movie will be rated R, as though the lesson from Deadpool is that a racier rating will ensure higher box office revenues. Frankly I think Wolverine always should have been rated R. Like Deadpool, he is not a very nice guy, and in X-Men II he kills a half a dozen guys in Xavier's mansion, mostly in front of children, but because somehow no actual blood is seen anywhere, it earned a PG-13.

Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn said via Facebook:

After every movie smashes records people here in Hollywood love to throw out the definitive reasons why the movie was a hit. I saw it happen with Guardians. It ‘wasn't afraid to be fun’ or it ‘was colorful and funny’ etc etc etc. And next thing I know I hear of a hundred film projects being set up ‘like Guardians,’ and I start seeing dozens of trailers exactly like the Guardians trailer with a big pop song and a bunch of quips. Ugh.

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

Deadpool wasn't that. Deadpool was its own thing. THAT'S what people are reacting to. It's original, it's damn good, it was made with love by the filmmakers, and it wasn't afraid to take risks.

For the theatrical experience to survive, spectacle films need to expand their definition of what they can be. They need to be unique and true voices of the filmmakers behind them. They can't just be copying what came before them.

So, over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you'll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool. They'll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won't mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They'll treat you like you're stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn't do.

I couldn't agree more.

Studios should not go out of their way to make comic book movies darker or edgier on the theory that Deadpool was successful because it had sex, violence, and bad language. Making Superman or Spider-Man into badasses won't make those iconic characters' movies better. But likewise, childproofing violent antiheroes in an attempt to please everyone is a vote of no confidence and a surefire path to box-office doom.

Deadpool is succeeding because it is a ridiculously entertaining movie featuring a classic, well-told story, and because the filmmakers embraced all the things that made the source material great instead of cowing to pressure from parents and studio executives to water down the essence of the character. Miller and Reynolds deserve an enormous round of applause for making a film that was true to Deadpool's comic origins.

Not every film needs to be made for all audiences, and that's actually OK.


Editor's Note: Review of "Deadpool," directed by Tim Miller. Twentieth Century Fox, 2016, 108 minutes.



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The Less You Know, the Better

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My daughter Hayley wrote her senior thesis demonstrating an inverse relationship between how much a movie trailer reveals about the movie’s plot and the quality of the film; if you can predict the whole plot just from watching the trailer, it’s likely to be a dog. Conversely, the less you know about the plot from the trailer, the more likely it is to be a great movie. Test her theory for yourself, and you’ll see that you could save yourself a lot of money on predictable (and predictably bad) movies.

Better yet, test the reverse of her theory by going to see the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! this weekend. As I watched the trailers over the past month, I had no idea what the movie would be about. Roman epic? Backstage musical? Film noir? Time travel sci-fi? Hayley’s theory holds up: Hail, Caesar! is one of the wittiest and most enjoyable comedies to come along in ages.

What’s not to love about this movie? Channing Tatum tap-dancing in a sailor suit. Wayne Knight (Seinfeld’s nemesis, Newman) reclining in a toga. Scarlett Johansson struggling out of a mermaid suit. Ralph Fiennes keeping his upper lip stiff as a snippy, officious, British director. A producer named Skank. A singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) who is simply swoony with his curly hair, dimpled chin, and aw-shucks accent. Tilda Swinton portraying not one, but two, gossip columnists. Frances McDormand cameo-ing as a gruff, chain-smoking film editor. And let’s not forget George Clooney, whose kidnapping early in the film drives the plot (yes, there is one.)

The less you know about the plot from the trailer, the more likely it is to be a great movie.

Anchoring the frivolity are two meaty themes that kept my audience-mates — mostly intellectual film buffs — chortling for two hours. (Who but intellectual film buffs comes to the movies in the middle of the afternoon on opening day in a college town and laughs knowingly throughout the film?) I laughed knowingly right along with them.

The first theme has to do with the film’s inside look at the art of filmmaking in the 1950s, and despite the fact that it’s a self-deprecating comedy, we observe some serious skills displayed by the fictional directors, actors, and editors of the movies being made within the movie. It is an impressive reminder that moviemaking is a true art form, one that we often overlook as we are drawn into the magical world presented to us on screen.

The other theme involves a decision that studio exec Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) faces. As a production manager, his job is to keep every film on schedule and under budget. That means he has to wrangle thespians who drink too much, box-office stars who can’t act, extras who aren’t paid enough, starlets who get into trouble, and gossip columnists who could torpedo a movie with one disparaging article about its leading man — and that’s just what Eddie does before lunch. Meanwhile, he’s being courted by a big corporation that wants to hire him as a top executive with job security, high pay, good retirement benefits, and the promise that he can be home in time for dinner with the missus every night and baseball with the kid every weekend. Should he take the offer?

His dilemma leads to a powerful speech about the factors of production that would make the whole film worthwhile — even if it wasn’t one of the wittiest films I’ve seen in months.

Oh — and did I mention those communists from The Future?

 

Hail, Caesar!, directed by Ethan and Joel Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2016, 106 minutes.




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And the Winner Is . . .

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Who would ever have thought that a Mad Max film would earn a nomination for Best Picture from the staid and serious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? “Oh what a day — what a lovely day!” was my reaction when I heard the news (quoting a character from the film).

I wrote in my review last spring: “The characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.” Do I think it will win? Not a chance. But as I wrote in that review, “for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.”

I’ve already reviewed half of the nominees for Best Picture, including The Martian ; The Revenant; The Big Short; and Bridge of Spies, in which Tom Hanks once again heads a Best Picture cast without being nominated for Best Actor. Go figure. Here I round out the category by reviewing Spotlight, Room, andBrooklyn.

In 2002 the Boston Globe presented a story that was shocking not only in its subject but in its scope: over the course of several decades, Catholic priests had molested hundreds of children in the Boston area, and the church’s response had been to cover it up by quietly paying settlements and transferring the priests to other areas, where many of them molested other children. “Spotlight” was the name of the investigative team that uncovered the scandal, and it is the name of the film that has been nominated for Best Picture.

"Spotlight" adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and just as dry.

There’s a risk inherent in focusing on the reporters who told the story rather than on the story itself. While we admire the reporters’ diligence, tenacity, and determination to get it right, writing — even when it entails researching and interviewing — is mostly a static pursuit. The actors do their best to make their scenes dynamic and interesting, and the writers did their best to introduce some action for the reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) jogs to work and attends a baseball game, William Robinson (Michael Keaton) plays golf, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) does a walk-and-chat through a park with a molestation survivor (Michael Cyril Creighton), and Matt Carol (Brian D’Arcy James) runs up the street to look at a neighboring house. But that’s about it in the action department.

To me, the movie is mostly a script for talking heads. To be sure, it is a well-written script filled with the kind of loaded, eloquent dialogue that writers tend to write, and the subject is clearly important. The actors have been praised for mimicking the real reporters so well, and indeed they gesture skillfully, squint concernedly, touch their faces absently, and adopt careful postures and stances that they have observed by studying the actual reporters. But it looks staged, more artifice than art.

Spotlight also adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and strangely (for a film with this topic) just as dry. We learn statistics about the “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon” of abusive priests and the cult of secrecy caused by forced celibacy that isn’t really enforced. We hear important opinions about how such heinous crimes could be committed against so many children without anyone stopping it, thoughts such as “if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one,” and “lawyers turned child abuse into a cottage industry” by quietly brokering secret settlements. We also hear moments of bitter irony, as when one survivor says, “the priests preyed on us instead of praying for us,” and when Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who represented the church in covering up the crimes, says after the attacks on the World Trade Center, “Pray for the victims, pray for the injured, pray for those who survived.” The same could be said, of course, for the children who were molested. But this didacticism is hardly original; it was all in the articles we read when the stories broke.

Even worse, the men who had been molested as children — all of them — are portrayed as broken, stunted, and socially inept, not survivors at all, but victims. Sadly, I know many people who were molested as children, most of them by family members or neighbors. They have scars and sorrows, but they are neither broken nor socially inept. Most of them are strong, active, and successful. You simply would not know what they have endured. It isn’t right to portray all of these survivors in this way.

If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release.

Spotlight tells an important story, but despite the protagonists’ success, it isn’t one of those films that makes you cheer their success. Yes, the reporters broke the story and forced the church to do something about the abusive priests. Yes, the film demonstrates journalism at its best in terms of the diligent digging, insistence on accuracy, and compassion toward the survivors interviewed. Yes, it allows hundreds of victims to tell their stories. But despite all this, it is a tedious film, and all I could feel was relief when it was over.

Room addresses a similarly horrifying topic. It’s every parent’s greatest fear: a child goes off to school and doesn’t return. Simply vanishes. Hours go by, then days. Then weeks. Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? Did she run away? Then years. Life is never the same, because you can’t even grieve — you have to keep hope alive, and that means telling yourself that your child isn’t dead, that someday she will walk back through that door, and everything will be the same again. Anything less is betrayal. To “move on” would be like killing her yourself. So you wait. Or maybe you do move on. Either one is agony.

Room tells the story of such a young woman. Joy (Brie Larson) has been kidnapped at the age of 17 and held hostage for seven years in a small shed, where she is abused by her captor every night and has no hope of escape. But if you are looking for (or have been avoiding) a lurid, prurient tale of sexual abuse, you won’t find it here. Instead, the story is told through the innocent eyes of Joy’s five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who, because he has never known any other world than “Room,” is content with his life and the characters who populate it: Sink, Bed, Wardrobe, Chair, Bathtub. The world he sees on the screen of a small television set is just a nice fantasy.

Like the whimsical father (Roberto Benigni) in Life is Beautiful (1997), who shields his little boy from the truth of their captivity in a concentration camp by making a game of it, Joy has determined to create the semblance of a normal life in an abnormal world by acting as though Room is the entire world. If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release. Jack is content, and his presence makes her life endurable.

Nevertheless, when Joy thinks of a way for Jack to escape, she forces him to take it, no matter what the consequences might be for her. Jack’s terror as he tries to get away from a world that seemed normal to him creates the most harrowing scenes in the film. My heart was racing the whole time.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance.

One would expect that escape from the shed would mark the climax, but it’s really just the middle. Room is told in two solid acts, and in the second we learn that there is more than one way to be imprisoned. Joy’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have also been held hostage by Joy’s kidnapping, unable to move forward, unable even to change the room where Joy grew up. They are trapped by their expectations, trapped by their imaginations, trapped by their blaming and their guilt. Jack becomes trapped as well, in a world so gigantic he doesn’t know how to process it. Even more poignantly, Joy has to escape the confining expectations she has nurtured about what it would be like to leave Room and go home. The film asks us to consider what makes a woman a mother, what makes a man a father, and what makes a place a home.

Brooklyn is another Best Picture nominee that asks us to consider what “home” means. Beautifully filmed in Ireland and Brooklyn, as they were in 1951, the sweeping landscapes and nostalgic cityscapes are full of soft blues and greens that highlight the blue-green eyes of the movie’s protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Eilis loves Ireland and her family, but like so many Irish citizens of the period, she is a bright young woman with a drab future as a part-time shopkeeper. When a family friend arranges for an invitation and a job in America, she takes it.

There she lives in a modest boardinghouse run by a motherly woman who watches over the morals of the girls who live with her, even as she pushes them into social situations where they can find a nice Irish immigrant to marry. Eilis finds Tony (Emery Cohen), a nice Italian immigrant, instead. Tony eases Eilis’ homesickness, and they fall sweetly in love. However, when Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, the familiarity of home wraps itself comfortingly around her. Eventually she must choose between two men who love her: the comfortable Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson) and the New World Italian.

Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance. Not your usual Best Picture fare. But the production values lift it to award-winning possibilities. The cinematography is lovely, as are the costumes and set pieces. The music is evocative, and the acting is superb, especially Eilis’ controlled, reserved passion and Tony’s Brandoesque tender exuberance.

Moreover, Brooklyn is more than a romance; it’s a classic journey tale. Eilis journeys not just from Ireland to Brooklyn but from childhood to adulthood. Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man. At one point Eilis says, “I’m not sure I have a home anymore.” She learns in the end that “Home is where your life is.” And when she chooses the life, she embraces the man.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spotlight," directed by Tom McCarthy. Open Road Films, 2015, 128 minutes; "Room," directed by Lenny Abrahamson. A24, 2015, 118 minutes; and "Brooklyn," directed by John Crowley. Wildgaze Films, 2015, 111 minutes.



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Alive! It’s Still Alive!

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In 1823 Hugh Glass, a fur trapper and explorer, was mauled by a bear and left for dead by the soldiers who were ordered to remain with him until he either recovered or died naturally. One of these guardians was 19-year-old Jim Bridger (yes, that Jim Bridger, who would become a significant explorer of the American West). Alone and without any weapons or supplies, Glass managed to set his own broken leg, dress his own wounds, and drag himself 200 miles to Fort Kiowa, where he vowed revenge against those who had abandoned him. His story became the stuff of wilderness lore for nearly two centuries, and provided material for numerous articles, books, and movies, including Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris in the title role.

In the hands of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and actor Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, this story outshines them all. A 19th-century romantic sensibility runs through the film, beginning with the cinematography that mimics the Hudson River School of art with its soaring landscapes overshadowing the humans; at one point Glass is a mere speck in an ocean of snow, barely visible between two towering mountains. Romanticism also appears in the film’s reverence for nature and the “noble savage,” its presentation of spiritualism and the occult, and its celebration of rugged individualism. The film is an exquisitely beautiful paean to nature. All this occurs through the artistry of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who could be experiencing a hat trick at the Oscars, after taking home the award for cinematography (Gravity, Birdman) the past two years. Ryuichi Sakamoto’s musical score, with its deep somber strings resonating with sorrow and grief, is also masterly.

Most of all, though, it’s a thrilling story with many heartstopping moments. I heard myself shouting, “Oh no oh no oh no!” as I felt myself plunging headfirst over a cliff. I also hurtled down rivers and over waterfalls, endured bloody hand-to-hand combat (including a fight with that bear), encountered stunning dream sequences, and could swear the overhead fans swirled icy air through the theater whenever Glass was nearly freezing to death.

At one point Glass is a mere speck in an ocean of snow, barely visible between two towering mountains.

Three main storylines intertwine to develop the plot. First, a group of fur trappers must make its way to safety at Fort Kiowa, after being attacked by Indians and losing most of its men. The group is led by Glass and his Indian son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) until Glass is mauled by a grizzly protecting her cubs. It’s one of the most terrifyingly realistic animal encounters I’ve ever seen on film. I don’t know how DiCaprio had the courage to make this scene, and I don’t even want to know how they did it; I just want to believe it. Second, in a reverse allusion to John Wayne’s The Searchers (1956), the Indians are searching for their leader’s daughter, who has been kidnapped by a group of white men. Finally, a group of French fur traders contributes to the problems encountered by both of the other groups.

At the center of the conflict is Glass’ personal vendetta against John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the man who has killed his son and then abandoned Glass to a premature grave. Fitzgerald is an illiterate adventurer whose backwoods accent is so thick it’s sometimes hard to understand his words. But there’s no misunderstanding his pragmatic survivalism. When Bridger (Will Poulter) reminds him to think of his life, Fitzgerald responds, “Life? I ain’t got no life. All I got is livin’.” With no hope for a life beyond trapping, he is motivated only by his animalistic need for protection, food, and shelter. But Glass does have a life, or at least he did; he had a son. His desire for revenge motivates him to keep moving when others would have given up and died. He emerges from his grave as a man emerging from the womb of the earth. Wrapped in the skin of the bear that mauled him, he becomes the bear, avenging the cub he could not protect.

As did the romantic artists and writers of the era in which this film is set, The Revenant champions rugged individuality. Iñárritu does this by contrasting pack mentality with the personal choice and actions of individuals on their own. For example, an early scene shows the fur trappers skinning hundreds of animals and leaving behind stacks of bloody carcasses to demonstrate the wanton waste and brutality of their trade. Soon after this scene we see Glass and his son Hawk stalking and killing a moose that they intend to eat, and we feel respect for their skill and their reverence for nature. Indeed, the men of all three groups are kept alive in the frigid winterland by wearing bearskin coats and hats. Later, a pack of wolves chases down a bison calf and kills it, and we feel horror for the calf. But when Glass catches a fish barehanded and bites its head off, straight out of the water, we feel how famished he is and again respect his skill. Similarly, when whites or Indians are in groups, they massacre each other’s villages viciously. But when Bridger sees a lone Indian woman in one of those massacred villages, he leaves behind a packet of food for her, and when a Pawnee Indian comes upon Glass in the wilderness, he shares his food, dresses Glass’ wounds, and gives him a ride. In short, groups are tyrannical, individuals are kind. I don’t know whether it was Iñárritu’s intent to demonstrate the tyranny of the masses vs. the nobility of the individual, but I found this aspect of the film quite satisfying.

Iñárritu gets the kind of budgetary green lights other directors can only dream of, and for good reason: he knows what to do with it. He is one of the most visionary directors in Hollywood today and will settle for nothing less than what he envisions a film to be. He has a reputation for being demanding and uncaring toward his actors and his crew; to make The Revenant they froze, they starved, and they froze some more. You can see the exhaustion and desperation in the actors’ eyes, and it’s perfect for the film. Reportedly some crew walked off the set, saying it was too dangerous and too hard. I can’t blame them. Yet those who stayed behind had the opportunity to make something remarkable. The Revenant is a film you will discuss on many levels for a very long time. It’s long, but oh my goodness, is it gorgeous!

The Revenant champions rugged individuality by contrasting pack mentality with the personal choice and actions of individuals on their own.

Another director known for his visionary style, engaging stories and brutal scenes is Quentin Tarantino, who has lately developed a tradition of releasing a new film on Christmas Day. Now, I would never choose a bloody Tarantino film to celebrate the joy of Christmas, especially one with the title The Hateful Eight. But movies are the “gifts that keep on giving,” so I waited to see his latest offering until two weeks later.

The two films have several other characteristics in common, in addition to the distinctiveness of their directors. Both are westerns that begin with expansive snowy landscapes reminiscent of the Romantic era, with characters appearing as mere specks in the frame. Both contain gorgeous musical scores that establish the mood of each scene and carry the story forward. Both tell intense stories that lead to graphic, bloody battles. Both plots are driven by the capture of a woman, and characters in each film are driven by a desire for revenge. Both even contain characters who whimsically stick out fat tongues on which to catch snowflakes, and both have characters who lose their testicles. So what sets them apart?

Let’s turn to The Hateful Eight. This is Tarantino’s eighth feature film (if you don’t count his segments in Four Rooms and Sin City, but you do count his half of Grindhouse, and you count Kill Bill as one film, even though it was released as two separate films . . .) Maybe you get the idea. Tarantino loves to create homages and echoes and allusions, and calling this one The Hateful Eight (which he arrives at by not counting the stagecoach driver, who would be the ninth character in the film) is important to him because it allows an allusion to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), the title of which was chosen because Fellini had then made eight and a half films. Tarantino seems determined to make his homage fit, even if it means cutting off his toe to cram his size 10 foot into Fellini’s size 8 ½ glass slipper.

Tarantino waits a long time before the bloodbath begins, and even when it finally does, it isn’t at all what you expect.

As you can see, the homages and allusions and traditions can become a bit too precious and overbearing, but at the same time they create a certain resonance in Tarantino’s works that his fans have come to expect and enjoy. He also likes to include props and dialogue that astute fans will recognize from other films, and he has a stable of favorite actors who have become a veritable performance troupe with him. Fans also know to watch for his cameo appearance in his films, à la Alfred Hitchcock; in this one, which contains a closed setting similar to Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944), he voices the narrator.

Tarantino is also known for his orgiastic use of blood, which is always over the top, and always more than necessary. Way more. But he is a masterful storyteller, and that makes the gore almost worth enduring. Almost. I suppose many viewers have become inured to it by now. I have not.

In this film Tarantino waits a long time before the bloodbath begins, and even when it finally does, it isn’t at all what you expect. The first half of the story is immediately engaging. A stranger stops a stagecoach in the gathering snow and asks for a ride into town. The stagecoach is occupied by a bounty hunter named “Hanging John” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prize, the outlaw Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The stranger turns out to be another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), and after some sparring and posturing the two bounty hunters are soon making their way by stagecoach to Red Rock, Wyoming, to deliver their cargo of outlaws. Major Marquis generally chooses the “dead” option in “Wanted Dead or Alive,” and he piles his three bodies atop the stagecoach where they are as stiff and oblivious as Grandma in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983). “Hanging John,” on the other hand, believes in bringing them in alive so he can watch them hang. He keeps his lucrative captive handcuffed to him until he can exchange her for the $10,000 bounty. A third stranger (Will Poulter) also appears along the snowy road and joins them in the stagecoach. Tarantino develops the suspense in these opening scenes subtly. Knowing looks are exchanged between characters, unexplained props are noticed, and skillfully written music plays on our emotions. It is eerie and highly effective.

When the stage and its passengers encounter a blizzard, they pull into Minnie’s Haberdashery, a way station where four other travelers are already ensconced and Minnie is nowhere to be seen. No one trusts anyone else, and Ruth is particularly nervous that someone is going to get away with Daisy and steal his $10,000 bounty. The men exchange stories to pass the time, and as more and more details around the Haberdashery make less and less sense, the story plays out not only as a western but as a who-done-it and a what-exactly-has-been-done. It’s part Agatha Christie’s Then There Were None, part 3:10 to Yuma, part Magnificent Seven, part Canterbury Tales, part Hitchcock’s Rope, and some Friday the 13ththrown in for good measure.

With its single setting and familiar ensemble of actors, The Hateful Eight often feels as much like a stage play as it does a movie, and the jumble of genres becomes tedious when we are trapped with the characters in the cabin. But Jennifer Jason Leigh is particularly good as Daisy, the outlaw on her way to a hanging. She doesn’t have much dialogue, but she appears in most of the scenes. Just as then-newcomer Steve McQueen drew attention to himself in the Magnificent Seven by quietly making movements in the background — fingering his hat, spinning his gun, pacing around and generally upstaging Yul Brynner — Daisy wipes her noise, pokes around in her teeth, drags her tongue over her lips, grins seductively at the men despite her filthy ugliness, and steals nearly every scene. By contrast, Kurt Russell provides an understated performance as he channels John Wayne in the cadence of his drawl.

The story plays out not only as a western but as a who-done-it and a what-exactly-has-been-done.

Ennio Morricone’s original score is probably the best part of The Hateful Eight. Morricone scored most of the Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” that made Clint Eastwood a star. Morricone’s symphonic arrangements recall a 1950s sensibility, while his music controls the emotion of the film and leads the story throughout. It is a score that stands alone and could be enjoyed even without the film. I am not surprised that he won the Golden Globe award for original score, even though Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score for The Revenant is also a powerful and essential part of that film.

In 2007 two westerns set in the 20th century, No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, competed for the top film awards. This year we have two other westerns that were aiming for a shootout at the Oscars. Both have intense, gripping stories. Both demonstrate masterly cinematic skills. Both are long. But only one is gorgeous. The other made me want to go home and wash my eyes out with soap. There are many good reasons only The Revenant was nominated for Best Picture. Sorry, QT.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Revenant," directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. New Regency Pictures, 2015, 156 minutes; and "The Hateful Eight," directed by Quentin Tarantino. Weinstein Brothers, 2015, 165 minutes.



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The Big Short Finds Joy

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In 2008 the United States experienced the biggest collapse in the real estate market since the Great Depression of the 1930s. While many had been talking about the expanding bubble, no one really thought it would burst. Real estate was the one sure deal, the tangible investment that everyone needed and thus would never disappear. During the upward panic to get into the market before prices skyrocketed even further, buyers were snapping up houses within a matter of days after they were listed, often engaging in bidding wars that drove the sales price higher than the asking price. “What our houses are worth now” was the gleeful topic of every cocktail party in every neighborhood, whether you were interested in selling or not. Using easy credit made easier by the “no-doc” loans that guaranteed virtually everyone a mortgage, people who had no business buying houses got into the market, and people who already owned homes risked their solvency by taking out additional home-equity loans to use for other purposes. After all, real estate was too big to fail. Prices always go up.

Until they go down. In September 2008 the bubble burst, leaving overleveraged homeowners in precarious positions — unable to sell, unable to pay, unable to forestall foreclosure, and underwater with their mortgage-to-equity figures. The Big Short attempts to explain what happened, in a film that is sassy, quirky, glib, and sometimes even right.

After all, real estate was too big to fail. Prices always go up.

In the interest of telling a good tale, the filmmakers simplify it, presenting a small portion of the story as if it were the whole story. For example, they virtually ignore the Community Reinvestment Act, which was designed to make mortgage and investment money available in “underserved” (read: poverty stricken) areas. The Act was a noble goal, but it meant that people would be granted mortgages who really couldn’t afford them, and had no cushion whatsoever to deal with repairs, upkeep, or changes in employment (read: getting fired). These were called “subprime” loans officially, but “Ninja loans” derisively (No Income, No Job, Accept Anything). It also meant that the demand for homes increased dramatically, driving prices and new construction upward in response to this new bloc of buyers. By ignoring this Act, the filmmakers suggest that all of the blame lay in the private sector of investment funds and rating services.

Instead, this film focuses on the creation of mortgage-backed securities, which is an investment vehicle that spreads the risk of foreclosure by bundling many mortgages into a single security and then selling shares of that security to a number of investors. Everyone shares in the risk and the reward. And because of that, local bankers no longer keep the mortgages they grant to individuals in the community; as soon as the signatures are dry, the mortgages are bundled away onto the secondary market. In the interest of brevity and creating a single straw man, the film blames this on the mastermind behind the mortgage-backed security, Lewis Ranieri (Rudy Eisenzopf), but this is an oversimplification of what went wrong. Many factors were involved, including Federal Reserve policy on the national level and overproduction of building permits on the local level.

Let’s face it: life is not a screenplay. But that’s how this caper is presented. A few savvy investors notice the increase in late mortgage payments and foreclosures beginning around 2004, anticipate the collapse, and figure out a way to profit from it. All these characters are based on real people. One is Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who breaks the fourth wall to narrate the film in a cool, hipster tone that draws us into the web. Others include the Silicon Valley-based eccentric Michael Burry (Christian Bale), the moralistic Mark Baum (Steve Carell), and two young founders of a trading fund called Brownfield Capital, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), who bring the also eccentric investment trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) out of retirement and into their deal. Working independently from one another, these traders are convinced they can make a killing by shorting the real estate market (hence the title, The Big Short).

In order for our heroes to succeed in making their millions on short sales, the entire market had to collapse, with millions of Americans bearing the loss.

W.C. Fields made famous the idea that “you can’t cheat an honest man,” and the investment bankers at Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, Bear Sterns, and Lehman Brothers personify that adage. They laugh conspiratorially behind the backs of these short sellers even as they take their money, so confident are they that real estate is “too big to fail.” Of course, we know that the last laugh will be on them. But the bankers will not go down without a fight. The film demonstrates the dubious shenanigans and downright manipulation they used to try to keep the market afloat and force the investors to close their short positions before they could exercise them.

If all this sounds a tad confusing, not to worry! The filmmakers explain such concepts as short selling, CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), ISDAs (International Swaps and Derivatives), and other potentially dry, technical terminology, using the unlikeliest characters. A glamour girl lounges in a bubble bath, sipping champagne and explaining mortgage-backed securities, while the soap bubbles and the fizz bubbles provide a sleazy metaphor for the market bubble that is brewing. A chef chops up unsellable three-day-old fish to make a marketable stew as he explains the fishy rating system that kept these mortgage-backed securities at AAA status even when their defaults were ballooning. A stripper undulates on her pole as she explains yet another investment concept. Music videos appear unexpectedly to demonstrate the euphoria of various characters. These unexpected moments, coupled with a soundtrack reminiscent at times of an Ocean’s Eleven sting, keeps the film hopping and lively.

But this is not a fun topic, and the short-selling sting was not directed against a Las Vegas gangster who deserved his comeuppance. In order for our heroes to succeed in making their millions on short sales, the entire market had to collapse, with millions of Americans bearing the loss. And their brilliant scheme would deliver a double wallop to the already precarious investment banks. According to the film, six million lost their homes, and eight million lost their jobs. Rickert puts it into perspective when he reminds Charlie and Jamie, “If we make money, it’s because ordinary people lose homes, jobs, and lives.” Banks held the prices of their securities up as along as they could, hoping for a turnaround, but in the process they simply made things worse. Regulators were in bed with the companies they regulated, creating a false sense of protection that contributed even more to the disaster. The result was almost as devastating to employees of the major investment firms as the day the World Trade Center was attacked. In its scale, the personal devastation was worse.

The Big Short is not the whole story. It might not even be the true story. But it is an important portion of the story, told with an outstanding cast in an entertaining and engaging way. Surprisingly, it does not trash big business, even though it shows collusion, fraud and manipulation at many levels. Mostly it shows individuals putting their own needs first, protecting their own jobs and security and using their influence to manipulate the bond ratings and the markets to their advantage. No one is overtly evil in this film. It tells a very personal story, one that each of us might be drawn into on a smaller scale if we aren’t careful.

Joy, another film about business, opened the same week as The Big Short, focusing not on the big dealers but on the underserved. Both have been nominated for Golden Globe Awards and both are populated by an ensemble of AAA actors, including Melissa Rivers, who in Joy does a sharp but poignant turn as her mother, Joan Rivers, in her role as a QVC spokesperson. Both films rely on nonlinear storytelling, flashbacks, and dream sequences to make some of their points. This is especially effective in Joy, where disconnected, disorienting scenes demonstrate how seemingly disconnected ideas come together in the imagination to form something new and valuable.

Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) is a creative, bright, hardworking young mother of two and valedictorian of her high school class who has been held back from success by the emotional and physical demands of her eccentric family, most of whom live in her house. Her agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen) spends most of her days in bed, watching soap operas; Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez), a wannabe singer, lives in her basement and can’t keep a job; her philandering father Rudy (Robert De Niro) also lives in her basement when he’s between girlfriends; and her grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), who narrates the story, is the only person who believes in her.

Joy didn’t set out to make my life better, or anyone’s life better except her own. She needed to pay her mortgage, fix her plumbing, and put food on the table.

As a child Joy had big dreams of becoming an inventor, but her parents’ divorce drove her ambitions inside, much as a cicada (a recurring metaphor in the film) spends 17 years in unproductive safety underground. When she cuts her hands badly while sopping up the mess made by a broken wine glass, she figures out how to make a “wringless mop” and decides it’s time to reemerge into the light and dangers above ground to sell her invention to others.

I own this mop. I love it. It keeps my hands clean and dry while it makes my floor clean and sparkly. I also own the Huggable Hangers that the real Joy Mangano invented. They keep my silky shirts and dresses from falling onto the floor in my closet. I’m grateful that she had the spunk and tenacity to overcome all the obstacles she encountered on her way to success, and I’m glad her hundreds of household inventions have made her filthy rich, because her inventions make my life better. But she didn’t set out to make my life better, or anyone’s life better except her own. She needed to pay her mortgage, fix her plumbing, and put food on the table. And like so many other entrepreneurs, she did that by making other people’s lives better too. This is what I love most about this film.

To do it, she needed capital. She needed to conduct a patent search, apply for a patent, design molds to produce her mop, negotiate with manufacturers to make the mop, and market the mop to mass audiences. Capital is the lifeblood of entrepreneurship. Joy finally convinces her father’s latest girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) to invest in manufacturing and marketing her invention. The rest of the film demonstrates both the elation and the devastation of entrepreneurship. Through it all, Joy never gives up — not on her invention, not on her family, and not on herself. Harry Browne fans will appreciate Joy’s advice to her young daughter: "Don't ever think that the world owes you anything, because it doesn't. The world doesn't owe you a thing.”

Eventually Joy creates a successful manufacturing and marketing empire that provides startup capital for other small entrepreneurs with an idea and a dream. Joy is a triumphant film about the power of persistence and innovation, desperation and conviction, and the possibility that a simple mop can change the world.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "The Big Short" directed by Adam McKay. Plan B, 2015, 130 minutes; and "Joy," directed by David O. Russell. Annapurna, 2015, 123 minutes.



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Star Wars Rewakens

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Unless you’ve been frozen in a block of carbonite for the past year, you know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars franchise, opened last weekend to the largest box office in film history, pulling in nearly $250 million in North America alone, and over half a billion dollars worldwide. Stormtroopers trooped into selected theaters on opening night for pre-screening festivities and fans dressed in costume to celebrate the return of the “real” Star Wars. (Many fans refuse to acknowledge the disappointing prequels.) Actors, director, and film pundits were interviewed on television and in print for weeks leading up to the release. Hour-long specials chronicled the history of the franchise and the making of this film. Jimmy Fallon watched, aghast, as guest Harrison Ford tore apart a collectible 1977 Han Solo doll (er, action figure) on the Tonight Show. It has been a spectacle worthy of the Roman Colosseum — or Boba Fett’s next dinner party.

So let’s start by addressing the first question reviewers are asked whenever an overhyped movie comes to town: is it any good?

Fox Business host Neil Cavuto spent an entire show last week proclaiming the film to be “stupid” and “nonsense.” To be fair, I think Cavuto was just being contrarian and having a good time in a spontaneous interchange with Bobby Jindal. Nevertheless, my advice to Cavuto is, stick with your day job and leave the night job to film lovers. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is spectacular.

Star Wars was a once upon a time, a Saturday matinee cliffhanger, an old-fashioned romance, and a cowboy western all rolled into one, dressed up in spacesuits and alien life forms.

Cavuto — and fans — had reason to be skeptical about this latest offering. The original trilogy was a masterpiece of mythic storytelling combined with groundbreaking special effects that changed the direction of action films. Who can forget the first sight of that gigantic spaceship scrolling across the screen, looming ever larger and bringing with it an ever-increasing sense of wonder and foreboding? Before we could even think, “How did they do that?” we were drawn into the story that took place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” It was a once upon a time, a Saturday matinee cliffhanger, an old-fashioned romance, and a cowboy western all rolled into one, dressed up in spacesuits and alien life forms. When the ending credits for Return of the Jedi rolled six years later, we were satisfied, but immediately hungry for more. We wanted to know: how did Chewbacca and Han meet? Why were Luke and Leia separated at birth? What happened to change the shining Jedi, Anakin Skywalker, into the Dark Knight, Darth Vader? Fans wrote their own stories, made their own movies, and longed for the official prequel.

So George Lucas complied. When he decided to create a trilogy of prequels that would “explain it all,” audiences salivated with anticipation. As the master filmmaker who could do no wrong, especially when he followed Star Wars by teaming up with Steven Spielberg for the Indiana Jones trilogy, Lucas was given carte blanche over the script and the filming. And the trilogy bombed. Instead of showing us the backstories of the characters we loved, Lucas introduced a whole new cast of characters, tinged with heavy-handed politicking and a nonsensical romance that was simply unbelievable — in the non-hyperbolic sense of the word. (See my review in Liberty.)

What was missing? In my opinion it was Marcia Lucas, who was no longer married to George and thus was no longer guiding the story from behind the scenes. Marcia edited the original Star Wars films and won an Oscar for it in 1977. By contrast, George has yet to earn a competitive Oscar. Lucas deserves all the credit for his creative vision and his skybreaking technology of Star Wars, and is responsible for the way every action film is made today. Kudos to him for all he has accomplished. But he needed someone who would nurture the characters. He found that someone in director J.J. Abrams.

Nurtured himself by Steven Spielberg, Abrams knows how to make an action film exciting. He also knows how to create an homage that can stand on its own. Super 8 (2011), in which a group of young teens saves the world while making a home movie, is probably the best example. It is made in the style of Abrams’ mentor, Steven Spielberg, and contains a plethora of “Easter egg” references to Spielberg’s trademark moments, yet it stands entirely on its own as an exciting, well-made film. (See my review.) Similarly, in The Force Awakens Abrams provides audiences with ample nods to the original trilogy, including some sets and scenes that are nearly identical. Yet the homage never becomes distracting or overbearing. We simply enjoy the sense of nostalgia as we are carried along by the story. My grandson was so enthralled that he forgot to eat his popcorn until the movie was over!

Marcia Lucas edited the original Star Wars films and won an Oscar for it in 1977. By contrast, George has yet to earn a competitive Oscar.

The story is a simple, classic quest: the rebel forces must find Luke Skywalker before the Empire, now called the First Order, can reach him. Within this overarching plotline we also find a story that focuses on friendship and family, and a theme that resonates with loyalty, redemption, and the freedom to choose one’s path. The characters care about each other, and because of that, we care about them too. There’s nothing stupid or nonsensical about that, Mr. Cavuto.

Is The Force Awakens a sequel or a remake? It takes place 30 or so years after Return of the Jedi, and Han, Luke, and Leia are senior members of the ongoing resistance. Sequel, right? Yet in many ways the story is a remake of the original: as stormtroopers attack, a droid is entrusted with an urgent message. A trio of rebels — one woman, two men — travels through the galaxy in the ”piece of junk” Millennium Falcon on a quest to save the world. Once again we are treated to wide vistas of strange, majestic landscapes through which our heroes trudge with tireless resolve on their way to new adventures. We see sets and scenes that seem familiar, and some that are identical to those that appear in previous films. Abrams even casts rebel pilots who look almost exactly like the pilots in the original film 40 years ago. Some reviewers have called this repetition “derivative,” but I consider it thematically essential. The message is subtle but clear: history repeats itself. We must be constantly on guard and ready to fight against the tyrannical forces that would enslave or destroy us. Each victory is but a respite before the next onslaught against our freedom.

Characters in film are often defined by the costumes they wear, and the costuming is outstanding. As before, officers in the First Order wear caps and epaulets reminiscent of the Third Reich, reminding us of the tyranny of empire-building. Their textures are heavy, dark, and oppressive. By contrast, members of the resistance wear natural fabrics and leathers. Rey (Daisy Ridley) wears a tunic with soft, feminine ruching held in place (and out of the way) by rustic leather straps. Her costume reminds us that she is a woman, but she is girded to fight. She carries the weight of the resistance in her careworn eyes and doesn’t have time to worry about holding her own against “male privilege.” I suspect her name (which means “king” in Spanish) will be revealed as significant in a future episode. Ridley is simply perfect in the role.

History repeats itself. We must be constantly on guard and ready to fight against the tyrannical forces that would enslave or destroy us.

Finn (John Boyega) is another character defined by his costume; when he puts on the leather jacket of the rebel Poe (Oscar Isaac), he also puts on Poe’s mission.

Unfortunately, Boyega doesn’t put on Poe’s personality. I was disappointed by his bland acting — no charisma. I also wanted Carrie Fisher to open her mouth a little bit more when she spoke, but I had the same problem with her in the original Star Wars In fact, I had to watch it a third time before I could decipher all the dialogue. But these are niggling complaints. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a triumphant return of the Jedi. I can’t want for the next installment.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams. Disney, 2015. 135 minutes.



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A Face in the Crowd Boards the Trump Express

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When you’re a libertarian living in New York and working in academia, you learn to keep your politics to yourself most of the time. But something strange is happening in New York, and indeed across the nation. Over and over again, I’m hearing dyed-in-the-wool, knee-jerk social Democrats say, “You know, I’m kind of leaning toward Trump.” It happened again this morning on my way to the airport. My Italian-American New York cab driver asked what I thought about the political race. I talked about the merits of Rand Paul’s philosophy. And he said, “I’m leaning toward Trump.”

What does this blowhard, demagogy, crony capitalist have that I’m missing? When he isn’t being blatantly and outrageously offensive, he’s demonstrating a naiveté that makes Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes scholar. His answer to every challenge is a version of, “Trust me. I know how to fix that. Everybody likes me. I like everybody.” Sheesh! What do people see in Donald Trump, besides the fact that he’s not a career politician?

It makes me think of Elia Kazan’s 1957 masterpiece, A Face in the Crowd. It’s nearly 60 years old, yet it’s so timely that it could have been used as a storyboard for Trump’s triumphant rise as a political candidate — and his potential fall. Of course, Trump’s early life was quite different from that of the title character in the movie, but they are prophetically similar in the way they use the media to sway and control their audiences.

When Trump isn’t being blatantly and outrageously offensive, he’s demonstrating a naiveté that makes Sarah Palin look like a Rhodes scholar.

In the film, Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) is the host of a popular radio series called “A Face in the Crowd,” for which she interviews ordinary people and asks them about their lives — kind of a combination of the modern “man in the street” interviews and the old “This Is Your Life” series. She thinks it would be interesting to interview someone in the drunk tank at an Arkansas jail, and that’s where she meets Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a loud, obnoxious, uncouth drifter and country singer who agrees to do the interview because the sheriff has promised to let him out of jail a few days early if he will. Rhodes ad libs some off-the-cuff good humor and sings a song that becomes a running theme, “Free Man in the Morning.” Marcia, charmed by his untrained openness and the blues in his voice, promptly nicknames him “Lonesome” Rhodes. A radio-television star is born.

Lonesome has neither social graces nor emotional filters. He speaks his mind, mocks his sponsors, coddles his listeners, and rejects the idea of being “dignified” or respectful. He’s a brand new kind of star, just as Trump is a brand new kind of candidate, and the public loves his folksy, off-script style. He develops a following of avid — some might say rabid — followers, who riot in the streets when a mocked sponsor understandably fires him for his rude, outrageous comments. He is indeed a “free man in the morning,” owing nothing to anyone, and the public loves him for it.

When a new sponsor, “Vitajex,” designs an ad campaign based on scientific analysis of its energy supplement’s ingredients, Lonesome rejects the facts and ad libs his own campaign for Vitajex based on emotional appeal and unsubstantiated claims. Sales soar, and so does Lonesome’s popularity. His face ends up on the covers of every national magazine, while his name is attached to ships, roses, and even a local mountain. You can’t buy that kind of publicity — and you don’t have to, when the press is fawning all over you. (Donald Trump knows that secret, too.) Lonesome watches his ratings the way Trump watches his polls. He has no formal background in marketing, but he knows instinctively just what to do to keep his ratings moving upward.

Like Lonesome Rhodes, Trump avoids the use of data, studies, or even common sense to support his claims.

Eventually Lonesome becomes the campaign advisor to presidential candidate Worthington Fuller, a ”worthy” candidate who is smart, wise, respectable — and boring. Lonesome markets him as a product rather than a statesman. “Do you know anyone who bought a product because they respect it?” he bellows. “You gotta be loved — loved!” Lonesome makes Fuller a folksy man of the people, and Fuller promises to create a cabinet position for Lonesome: Secretary for National Morale. In short order Lonesome has moved from drunk-tank denizen to cracker-barrel entertainer to national celebrity to influential politico. “This whole county is just like my flock of sheep!” he brags. “They’re mine. I own ’em! I’m gonna be the power behind the president!”

Marcia is charmed, fascinated and repelled by Lonesome, and Neal is masterly in the way she portrays these conflicted emotions. Director Elia Kazan colors the black and white film with an artist’s palate, manipulating the shadows with skillful lighting that enhances character and mood, especially Marcia’s growing horror at the monster she has created. Griffith, too, excels as an actor; in fact, he portrayed Lonesome’s despicable, manipulative persona so believably that, according to Hollywood insider Marc Eliot, he virtually ended his own movie career. This was the era of typecasting, and audiences had trouble accepting Griffith in any other way than as the loathsome Lonesome Rhodes. But the brilliant actor went on to success in playing country bumpkins (No Time for Sergeants), a folksy southern sheriff (The Andy Griffith Show), and a folksy southern attorney (Matlock). He was immensely successful in those shows, and he became one of Hollywood’s most respected and beloved actors. Yet in A Face in the Crowd, his debut film, audiences can see the depth of his talent and consider what might have been if audiences had been able to separate the actor from the character.

The connections between Lonesome Rhodes and Donald Trump are eerily apparent. In a recent front-page article for the New York Times, reporters Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman analyzed the results of a linguistic study they commissioned that examined all of Trump’s public words uttered in speeches and interviews for an entire week (“95,000 Words, Many of Them Ominous, from Trump’s Tongue,” December 6, 2015, A1, 27). Their findings confirm my thesis. Trump isn’t folksy as Lonesome is (leave it to Hillary to fall into an artificial cornpone drawl when she campaigns in the South), but Healy and Haberman point to Trump’s “breezy stage presence” as crucial to his connection with the American public. Like Lonesome, Trump is “an energetic and charismatic speaker who can be entertaining and ingratiating . . . There is a looseness to his language that sounds almost like water-cooler banter” and is almost as meaningless. In one particularly meaningless attempt to be ingratiating, Trump is quoted as saying of his fellow candidates: “All of ’em are weak, they’re just weak. . . . I think they’re weak, generally, you want to know the truth. But I won’t say that, because I don’t want to get myself, I don’t want to have any controversies. So I refuse to say that they’re weak generally, O.K.? Some of them are fine people. But they are weak.” Yet the public is buying into it.

Lonesome doesn’t know it, but in the time it takes to go from the penthouse to the ground floor, public opinion will have turned against him.

Granted, Trump is as different from Rhodes in the content of his speech as he is in social origins. He has successfully tapped into the fears of the nation by creating an Orwellian “precarious us” vs. “dangerous them” scenario. Healy and Haberman point to his constant repetition of “divisive words, harsh words and violent imagery” to stir up hostilities and prejudices that most Americans have been afraid or ashamed to voice. He has made bigotry fashionable again. By contrast, Rhodes lulls his audiences with good ol’ boy platitudes. But Trump is very much like Rhodes in his maverick approach to marketing, and his stubborn insistence that he is right and everyone else is wrong. Again referring to the study of Trump’s stumping, he “forgoes the usual campaign trappings — policy, endorsements, commercials, donations — and instead relies on potent language to connect with, and often stoke, the fears and grievances of Americans.” Also like Rhodes, Trump avoids the use of data, studies, or even common sense to support his claims; in fact, Trump stubbornly refuses to recant statements that are outrageously and patently false, such as his claim to have seen thousands of Muslims cheering in the streets of New Jersey after the 9/11 attacks. Instead, Trump taps into the public’s growing mistrust of government and the media “to erode people’s trust in facts, numbers, [and] nuance.” Facts are the enemy now, but we have the Donald to protect us. Just trust him.

Trump and Rhodes are particularly connected in their narcissistic need for attention, power, and adoration. Lonesome Rhodes cries out plaintively, “I’m gonna make them love me!,” while for Trump it’s already a done deal: “I like everybody. Everybody likes me,” he reminds audiences matter-of-factly whenever he is challenged to provide specific details about how he will solve a problem. As my cab driver explained, “Trump surrounds himself with smart people. They’ll get things done. He doesn’t have to give details. He’s a smart guy.” How does my cabby know? Because Trump tells us so, multiple times in every speech. Trust him. He’s right.

Can Trump be stopped? Should he be stopped? I’m fascinated by the diverse support this offensive, bombastic demagogue is amassing. Even many Liberty readers have boarded the Trump Express. But where is that train headed? In one of the most ironic moments of A Face in the Crowd, Lonesome enters an elevator after what he thinks was a successful TV show attempting to sell Worthington Fuller to the public. He crows enthusiastically to the operator, “Going down. Going all the way down” on his way to a fancy dinner in another part of town. Lonesome doesn’t know it, but in the time it takes to go from the penthouse to the ground floor, public opinion will have turned against him because of something he said on the show. One can only hope that Trump makes a similar misstep that takes him down. So far, however, his intellectual and ideological blunders keep translating into higher polls. I don’t get it. But unlike my cab driver today, I’m leaning away from Trump. All the way away.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Face in the Crowd," directed by Elia Kazan. Warner Brothers, 1957. 126 minutes.



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