Vibranium Victorious

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Certain films create a cultural footprint that transcends the films themselves. Black Panther is one of them. As a piece of entertainment, it’s just one more in a growing list of superhero movies based on the comic-book world of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The story is fairly familiar — the superhero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must save the world by preventing a new weapon from falling into the hands of an arms dealer, Klaue (Andy Serkis), who is aided by the supervillain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Along the way there are ample badass battles to satisfy the superhero fans in the audience.

What makes this film significant is that T’Challa is the first black superhero who’s more than a sidekick to the real superhero. As such, Black Panther is having an impact across the nation. Finally — a film set in a black community that isn’t about the ’hood, drugs, gangsters, sidekicks, buffoons, or slavery. It isn’t even about racism or being black. No wonder it’s breaking box office records.

Finally — a film set in a black community that isn’t about the ’hood, drugs, gangsters, sidekicks, buffoons, or slavery.

Granted, the filmmakers had to go all the way to Africa to accomplish this task. Black Panther is set in a Shangri-La-like kingdom called Wakanda, located in the center of Africa and hidden from view in the way Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is — a shimmering, reflective barrier blocks the way, but it just takes a little faith and courage to enter the utopian kingdom. Wakanda flourishes because of a secret mineral deposit called vibranium that can be used to create everything from microchips to skyscrapers to weapons. It’s also responsible for a glowing medicinal flower, infused with vibranium, that has seeped into the soil. An elixir made from this vibranium plant gives Black Panther his powers and can also heal mortal wounds.

Five tribes occupy the kingdom of Wakanda, each with a distinct language and culture represented in the film by the color and design of their costumes and accessories. One of the five tribes, Jabari, has chosen not to join the federation of tribes, but the five coexist peacefully; the other four do not force the Jabari to join or succumb to majority rule. I like that.

The Wakandan culture is an odd yet beautiful mixture of technology and tradition. The architecture of the royal city is futuristic and grand, built of vibranium, powered by vibranium, and protected by an air force of wasplike jets that are guided by vibranium-charged computers. A Wakandan princess (Letitia Wright) also makes gadgets from the stuff for the hero to use in his battles against evildoers, reminiscent of the gadgets Q provides in the James Bond films. On the other hand, the Wakandans’ clothing is made of bright, colorful fabrics, their jewelry is large and gaudy, their feet are mostly bare, and their warriors’ weapon of choice is a spear with a shield, suggesting a traditional culture of long ago.

The cotumes, props, and sets help the film successfully navigate the fine line between tradition and stereotype, providing an authenticity that counters the “oonga-boonga” of the Tarzan era.

One scene of celebration, with tribespeople chanting and bouncing, feels riskily close to wide-eyed Tarzanesque stereotyping, and the elixir used to transform the king into Black Panther comes dangerously close to witchdoctor voodoo. However, director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler, who based the costumes, props, and sets on traditional African culture, successfully navigate the fine line between tradition and stereotype, providing the film with an authenticity that counters the “oonga-boonga” of the Tarzan era.

Also adding to the authenticity is the quality of the acting. Angela Bassett as the queen mother brings a quiet dignity to her role, while Danai Gurira is fierce as Okoye, the chief of the bald female warriors who serve as the king’s guard. Academy Award winner Lupito Nyong’o brings depth to the role of T’Challa’s partner and love interest, while Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Fruitvale Station) is simply superb as the villain who exudes magnetism and swaggering leadership rather than two-dimensional evil. Martin Freeman, the token white, amiably provides the comic heroism usually reserved for a token black actor in movies like this. The actors recognized that they were part of something important in this production, and it shows.

One of the things I especially liked about Black Panther is the fact that I could watch it without feeling that nagging collective white guilt. In poems such as “Negro” and “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” Langston Hughes marginalized the impact of the American experience by turning it into a blip on the vast African timeline. Coogler does something similar with Black Panther by setting it not in America but in Africa, where he is free to create a noble and heroic backstory that transcends the need to be factual. While I’ve outgrown superhero movies, I was able to enjoy this one for its cultural import and what it says (and doesn’t say) about modern politics. In essence, Coogler has appropriated Lee and Kirby’s story and used it to create a whole new myth of African society. (Incidentally, the Marvel character predates the Black Panther organization by two months and was temporarily changed to Black Leopard to distance the superhero from the political movement.)

Martin Freeman, the token white, amiably provides the comic heroism usually reserved for a token black actor in movies like this.

So what about the politics of the movie — does it have a message? As the new king, T’Challa receives political advice from several sources. His sister Shuri (Wright) runs the technological research of Wakanda and represents the brains of the kingdom. Her answer to the problem of global poverty is to provide aid and technology. Recognizing Wakandan exceptionalism, she feels a responsibility toward the poorer nations of Africa akin to noblesse oblige. Coogler portrays her as something of a Bill Gates — creating wealth through technology, and then using that wealth to provide for the needs of others globally. Of course, we’ve seen the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s global influence, but giving aid always has a nice ring to it.

W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s best friend and the leader of the border tribe, favors isolationism as the way to maintain peace. “Let refugees in, and they bring their problems with them,” he maintains, suggesting that it’s wiser to go out and clean things up where the refugees live, so they can stay where they are. Meanwhile Okoye, representing the military, is loyal to the throne, regardless of who sits there or what the new king represents ideologically. Killmonger favors the path his name would suggest. Eventually T’Challa decides that “the wise build bridges, the foolish build barriers.” And the peaceful coexistence of the five tribes? This enlightened civility is contradicted by the way they choose a new leader. When the king dies, a representative of any tribe can challenge his heir’s sovereignty through physical combat à la David and Goliath, and the king’s guard will immediately swear loyalty to the winner. So much for thoughtful discussion and peaceful transition; might evidently does make right — especially when it leads to an exciting battle at the top of a waterfall.

Ryan Coogler describes the film's central theme as “responsibility and identity.” He said in an interview, "What do the powerful owe those in need? It separates the good guys from the villains. What value is strength unless you're using it to help someone? Wakanda pretends to be just another struggling African country, but some of its neighbors are struggling for real. If Wakandans don't stand up for themselves, who will? But if they stand only for themselves, then who are they?" What I find troubling about this noble goal is the way it has played out in practice around the world, leading to imperial expansionism, victimhood, and an unintentional restraint against poorer nations becoming self-sustaining. Entrepreneurship, the only sure system for rising out of poverty, is never mentioned, and in fact, no one seems to work in this Wakanda where vibranium and the military take care of all needs. Still, the goal of sharing one’s good fortune is noble, and I like the fact that Wakandans plan to share, not just their wealth, but their knowledge and technology with the world.

Of course, we’ve seen the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s global influence, but giving aid always has a nice ring to it.

Black Panther has the potential to empower black families and black children in a whole new way. Instead of identifying with the victims, gangsters, and sidekicks they see on the screen, now they’re identifying with a leader. One of my black friends saw the movie five times on opening weekend. He is as energized by it as if he had taken a dose of vibranium. That makes me happy because, as I said in my review of last year’s Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, “Could the solution [to black victimhood] be as simple as mothers and fathers and teachers telling black children everywhere, ‘You can do anything. You can be anything’?” If seeing a black superhero as the leader of a strong, successful, smart kingdom can give black children that kind of boost, I’m all in favor of it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Panther," directed by Ryan Coogler. Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures, 2018, 134 minutes.



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Collateral Allegory

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Hostiles is an elegant and moving western that challenges viewers to look beyond the western genre to examine something larger and more contemporary. It begins in the way many great westerns have: a wide-angle shot of blue skies and golden prairie zooms in to a homesteader’s cabin, where the inhabitant, Wes (Scott Shepherd) is working in the yard and his wife Rosalie (Rosamund Pike) is teaching a grammar lesson to their daughters. When a band of Indians swoops over the horizon, Wes rushes his family out the back door while he stays to fend off the attackers — who are soon tracking Rosalie through the woods. Her fear is palpable. We are in the trees with her, hiding under the log, terrified of being caught.

Cut to the next scene. We hear the offscreen wails of a woman and see a closeup of our hero, Captain Joe Blocker. We know he’s our hero because this is Christian Bale in an Army uniform, and we are certain that he has arrived to rescue Rosalie. But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here; his men are rounding up a family of Natives and dragging them off to the local fort. This juxtaposition of brutal attacks on two peaceful families of opposite backgrounds sets us up for a film that is going to challenge our social, cultural, and political values.

But as the camera pans back, we see with revulsion that Captain Blocker is the aggressor here.

Blocker has been working most of his career on the western frontier, rounding up Indians and bringing them to Army stockades. About to retire, he is given one final assignment: by order of the president (who is concerned about public opinion), he must take a dying Cheyenne chieftain (Wes Studi) and his family back to Montana, where they will be allowed to remain. Blocker doesn’t want to do it; it goes against everything he has done throughout his career. But he’s an Army man. If his commander tells him to dig a hole just to refill it tomorrow, he’ll do as he’s told. He doesn’t have to like it.

The rest of the film is a typical trail-ride western, with the typical conflicts among the troops, attacks by the enemies (both white and red), bouts of bad weather, and pensive conversations under the stars. There’s even a discreet romance. And the acting is first rate, especially by Bale and Pike.

"Hostiles" is a parable, all right, but not of the American West.

But it’s hard to watch a “typical western” about cowboys and Indians these days; our sensibilities bristle at the way indigenous people have been treated and portrayed. Mainstream reviewers don’t seem to know what to say about this movie. One wrote, “There's a good movie here, but it's buried by too many attempts to be something it's not, most egregiously some kind of great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” Well, excuse me for disagreeing, but I think the “something it’s not” is a “great dramatic examination of our treatment of Native Americans.” And if you think that’s what it’s about, you’re going to be confused by the ambiguity of the tone and the characters.

Another reviewer wrote that it “works as a contrived but effective parable of the American West, [with] its painful legacy, and small measures of redemption.” Hostiles is a parable, all right, but not of the American West. The American West is being used here as an allegory of the Middle East. Its very name should offer the first clue; “hostiles” is the word modern soldiers use to identify the enemy. And Hostiles is a subtle parable about modern war.

Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get

We see officers obeying orders simply because “that’s my job.” We see peaceful families suffering the collateral damage of a prolonged war. We see “good Indians” and “bad Indians” representing the difference between good Muslims and jihadist Muslims. We see soldiers ravaged by PTSD and torn by the guilt of having killed. We see other soldiers struggling with the realization that in one circumstance killing is considered murder, but in another it’s considered heroic. Most of all, we see the importance of judging individuals by their character and their actions, not by their label or their group. Hostiles asks us to focus on what makes us human instead of what makes us enemies. Whether this was director Scott Cooper’s intent or not, it’s about as perfect an antiwar film as we’re going to get. Sometimes truth is that self-evident.

The body count for Hostiles comes close to that of a Quentin Tarantino movie (or Hamlet, for that matter) but without the gratuitous blood and guts of Tarantino. It’s tense and suspenseful because we care about the characters, but there’s a distance from the killing, just as there is a distance between these broken and dysfunctional characters. The pace is slow at times and the story is somewhat predictable. But what it subtly says about the personal, psychological ravages of war is important. And the final scene is so exquisitely moving and perfectly acted, it’s one of those moments in film that you never forget. Well worth the two and a half hour trail ride, just to get there.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hostiles," directed by Scott Cooper. Entertainment Studios, 2017. 134 minutes.



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Yes, But Is It True?

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You probably heard the scuttlebutt about All the Money in the World, even if you haven’t seen the movie: the film was set for a mid-December release with Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty, but six weeks before its release actor Anthony Rapp made sexual allegations against Spacey, and rather than risk their $60 million investment in the film, producers opted to cut all of Spacey’s scenes and reshoot the film with Christopher Plummer. Plummer was an excellent choice — he even looks like Getty — and the editing is virtually seamless. But after seeing the film, my reaction was that they needn’t have bothered. Getty is so despicable in this film that Spacey would have fitted right in. I was so repelled by the character’s meanheartedness that I couldn’t even stomach the thought of visiting the Getty Museum again.

But how accurate is this film?

It’s set in July 1973, when young J. Paul III (Charlie Plummer — no relation to Christopher), Getty’s 16-year-old grandson through Getty’s fourth wife, is kidnapped in Rome. The backstory shows Getty with a special affinity for this particular grandson — his namesake, in fact — and his desire to groom young Paul for the business world. (Come to think of it, that might have been extra creepy with Spacey playing the role.) This makes it all the more despicable when Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom demanded for Paul’s return. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) is determined to change his mind, and soon Getty’s security agent Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) is on her side. Much of the film focuses on the conflict between the two: Getty, who loves only his money and his art, and Gail, who is willing to give up all further ties to the Getty fortune if her former father-in-law will just pay the ransom for her son. In one particularly deplorable scene, Getty turns Gail away and then immediately meets with an art dealer who offers him a painting of the Madonna and Child by an old master. Getty pays the price demanded — almost as much as the kidnappers’ latest demands — without batting an eye, and caresses the face of the cherubic baby with more apparent love for this oil-on-wood painting than he feels for his family.

J. Paul Getty is so despicable in this film that Kevin Spacey would have fitted right in.

Meanwhile, one of Paul’s captors, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), befriends Paul and begins to protect him from the other kidnappers. He cares for him tenderly, almost like a father for a son. The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping. In the end, Getty dies clutching his painting while Paul is nurtured by Cinquanta. Gail inherits the Getty fortune, and she gets the idea of turning his California villa into an art gallery to share with all the world.

Hold on a minute. That isn’t exactly how it happened. Getty died in 1976, three years after Paul’s abduction and two years after the Getty Museum was founded — by Getty, not by Gail. And it was his son J. Paul II, not Gail, who negotiated with his father for the ransom. Moreover, Getty provided three legitimate reasons for not paying the ransom. First, he had 14 grandchildren, and he felt that paying the ransom would put all of them at risk. Second, he believed that giving in to the demands of criminals leads inevitably to increased hijacking, lawlessness, and terror. The third and most compelling reason was that, far from being the favorite, Paul had been something of a hippie and a bum, was estranged from his grandfather, and had often joked about faking a kidnapping to get money from the billionaire. Getty, ever careful with his money, initially wanted to call Paul’s bluff. Once he knew that Paul was truly kidnapped, he negotiated with the kidnappers and paid the money. Getty does present these reasons in the movie, but because Paul has been established as a favorite (and because the audience has seen that the kidnapping is real) the arguments seem callous, uncaring, and heartless.

It’s true that Getty was frugal to a fault, but he was also a risk-taker who earned his billions. He invested $50 million in his Middle East oil fields before they finally paid off. No one would have bailed him out if his oil wells hadn’t come in. And he recognized his weaknesses. He often lamented the fact that he wasn’t a good husband. He is quoted in Psychology Today as having said, “I hate to be a failure. I hate and regret the failure of my marriages. I would gladly give all my millions for just one lasting marital success."

The film becomes as much a story about what it means to be a family as it is about a kidnapping.

If you can set all this aside and watch All the Money in the World as a work of fiction, you could probably enjoy it. Gail is a strong, indefatigable heroine. Getty is a mean, despicable villain. Paul is a sweet, likable victim. Chase is a character who undergoes change. The acting is topnotch, and the story is tight and suspenseful. But as a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists in general. I’m always puzzled by how hateful Hollywood capitalists are toward capitalists in any other field.

Another biopic with a liberal sociopolitical agenda and a sketchy hold on the truth is The Post. Once again we see a film about a real person that is heavily skewed to fit Hollywood’s culturally acceptable storyline, whether it’s true or not. In this case, the story is “women were oppressed in the ’60s.” The “oppressed woman” is Katharine Graham, the powerful Pulitzer-Prize-winning publisher of the Washington Post during its most successful and influential decades.

In the mid-1960s, Daniel Ellsberg was a military analyst working on a top-secret study of classified documents about the war in Vietnam. What Ellsberg discovered was a trail of misrepresentations and outright lies about US involvement in Southeast Asia stretching as far back as the Truman administration. This 7,000-page study would become known as the Pentagon Papers. The gist of the story was that everyone knew that Vietnam was a war the US could not win, but no one wanted to be associated with defeat, so they kept offering platitudes like “our progress over the past twelve months has exceeded our expectations” when they knew we were losing ground. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

As a piece of history, it leaves me outraged, especially because so many teachers looking for a shortcut will use this as the definitive representation not only of Getty, but of capitalists.

Disillusioned by what he discovered, Ellsberg began systematically sneaking the report out of the offices a few folders at a time over the course of several months, right under the noses of the guards. After copying the originals and returning them to their filing cabinets, Ellsberg made the papers available to several antiwar congressmen before offering them to Neil Sheenan of the New York Times, who wrote a series of nine articles containing excerpts and commentaries. But before the second story could be published, a federal court issued a restraining order and shut the story down, citing national security violations and threatening felony indictments if the Times published another installment.

Ellsberg had made numerous sets of copies, and offered them to several publications. The restraining order applied specifically to the Times, leaving the door ajar for the Washington Post and other papers to publish. Maybe.

This is where The Post begins. The movie is not so much about what the Pentagon Papers contained or Ellsberg’s role in obtaining them as it is about the Post’s decision about whether to defy the implicit injunction and run the story. At the center of the conflict are publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), and Graham’s close advisor Fritz Beebe (Tracy Letts), who was in the middle of helping Graham take the Post public when the story broke. Not only was freedom of the press at stake, but Graham stood to lose millions of dollars if the sale of shares in the Post fell through.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American teenagers were being drafted to fight — and many to die.

Standing trial in this film are both the New York Times and the stifling cultural setting of the 1960s — especially the upper-class 1960s. Streep’s Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female. She’s tentative, indecisive, often close to tears as she faces decisions. In one scene, Beebe coaches her on what to say in a meeting with potential investors. She writes the phrases down on a notepad so she won’t forget them. She fumbles as she enters the boardroom, unsure where to put her armful of books and notes. And when the time comes to say her words, she stares at them on the notepaper, unable to give them voice. Beebe, noticing how flustered she is, steps in and makes the point for her.

As a 21st-century audience with 21st-century sensibilities about women, we aren’t comfortable with Graham’s discomfort. We want her to be bold and take charge. We don’t like seeing her walk behind three male colleagues as they virtually snub her, and having her take it without so much as a roll of her eye or a clenching of her jaw. We don’t like the fact that she seems clumsy and always out of breath. We also aren’t comfortable with the way she inherited the Post, almost as an afterthought, from her grandfather to her father to her husband and finally, when no one else was left, to her.

Kay Graham was a skilled hostess and socialite at a time when a woman’s home and children were a reflection of herself. At a social gathering of ladies, one woman asks Kay, “How do you find time for everything when you go to the office all day?” My audience groaned, but these women were serious. Similarly, at a dinner party, as soon as the conversation turns to politics, the hostess calls out cheerily, “That’s our cue to leave the table, ladies!” And they do — cheerily.

Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham is not the tough, iron lady we expect the publisher of a major national newspaper to be — male or female.

This scene reminded me of being invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a wealthy college classmate in Chevy Chase, a posh neighborhood near DC, in 1972, just a year after this film takes place. After dinner I went into the TV room with my then-boyfriend, where all the men were watching football. Soon the matron of the house called to me from the doorway, “Wouldn’t you like to join the women in the living room?” I was enjoying the men’s conversation and told her I was comfortable where I was. Undaunted, she coaxed again, suggesting that I might want to join the cousins for board games. Finally, exasperated, she sent me to the playroom with a trumped-up message about cake and ice cream for the children. I had no idea at the time that men and women were supposed to separate after dinner.

But this was Kay Graham’s life — or so the filmmakers would like us to believe. It fits the social narrative that women are victims. And there is some support for this characterization of Graham. In her memoirs, she said of her father’s decision to give the paper to her husband, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me as someone to take on an important job at the paper.” She also confesses to having lacked confidence in her own decisions and having been slighted by the men in the room during business meetings. Streep presents these weaknesses to a fault in the film.

While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically.

But Graham was a cagey, crafty woman. Notice that she didn’t say, “It never crossed my mind that I was capable of taking on an important job at the paper.” She said, “It never crossed my mind that he might have viewed me” as such. The remark says more about her father than it does about her. Similarly, if men slighted her in business meetings, she would have considered that a condemnation of them, not herself. I asked a friend of mine, a publisher who was part of the news scene in Washington during the decades when Graham ran the Post, what he thought of her. Without thinking twice, he said, “She was strong, demanding, and hard to work for.” Not for one second did he buy Meryl Streep’s characterization of Kay Graham as timid and indecisive.

The characterization of Kay Graham isn’t my only complaint about The Post. While the film is interesting historically, it isn’t very exciting or compelling dramatically. Let’s face it: this is a piece about writing. And talking. And talking about writing. There isn’t much action, and Spielberg is an action director. He does what he can to spice it up with odd camera angles, mood lighting, and naturalistic acting techniques. But it doesn’t quite work. The movie does pick up in the second half, when they’re racing against time to read the Pentagon Papers and meet the Post’s front page deadline. But again — it’s about reading. And talking about what they’re reading. This film would also be difficult to follow for someone who doesn’t already know the story. Spielberg provides precious little exposition, and if you didn’t already know who key players are from their names, you wouldn’t be able to figure it out from the context.

Nevertheless, The Post has been nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture for Spielberg and Best Actress for Streep. And if it weren’t for the fact that she so utterly misrepresents Kay Graham, I might agree. It’s a stellar piece of acting. Streep is famous for listening attentively and stepping into the conversation before her partner has completed his lines — as though she just thought of something and can’t wait to say it. But when Hanks parrots back the same style, the result seems forced and competitive. I’m crossing my fingers for Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water (see my review, “Knights in Dark Satin”) if only because I don’t want to be lectured about politics even one more time by Meryl Streep.

In creating their political parable, Spielberg and screenwriter Liz Hannah are about as subtle as the Old Spice aftershave your father used to wear. They want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House. They do this by presenting the cultural victimhood of women, the importance of whistleblowers, the so-called separation of the “fourth estate,” and the suspicious, paranoid personality of the president in the White House.

But let’s examine these so-called similarities. MeToo movement aside, women have made gigantic strides in journalism, medicine, boardrooms, academia, politics, and just about every field except perhaps moviemaking, where the casting couch is finally airing its dirty linen. Whistleblowers are back too, but they don’t need the New York Times to break their stories. Wikileaks, YouTube, cable news, and Project Veritas are just a few of the current outleats for non-mainstream voices.

The filmmakers want us compare the era of the ’60s to ours and come up with the same conclusion: throw the bum out of the White House.

And journalists are still in bed with the stories they cover. The Grahams frequently socialized with the Kennedys, the Johnsons, Robert McNamara, and other leaders in Washington. Their stories were influenced by their friendships. The Post went after Nixon with a vengeance, but looked the other way at the Kennedy men’s sexual infidelities and Bob McNamara’s part in the Vietnam War. In the movie, Ben Bradlee glances wistfully at personal photographs taken with the Kennedys and declares, “The days of smoking cigars together are over,” suggesting that journalists would now become objective and trustworthy — that today’s mainstream media are objective and trustworthy. Spielberg might like to think that’s true, but it isn’t. Journalists and Hollywood types continue to fawn over their favorite politicians, especially the Clintons and the Obamas, but also including Donald Trump (if they want to get an interview).

George Orwell selected the title of his famous dystopian novel by flopping the publication date, 1948, to create 1984, and Spielberg likes to point out the similar connection between 1971 and 2017 to emphasize his allegorical connection between Nixon and Trump. (In fact, he rushed production of The Post in order to release it in 2017.) Nixon is portrayed as the bad guy in this film, going off on a tirade against the press and banning all Washington Post reporters from ever entering the White House again. (These are Nixon’s own words, by the way, using audio from the Oval Office tapes, although we don’t know the context of the recording; was he banning them because of the Pentagon Papers or because Post reporter and future “Miss Manners” columnist Judith Martin crashed his daughter Tricia’s wedding?) President Trump’s paranoid war against the press, tweeting diatribes in the middle of the night, and threatening to close down the mainstream media, come inevitably to mind.

Ironically, Richard Nixon was the president who finally had the courage to end the draft and the war in Vietnam, and therefore he should be considered the hero in the Pentagon Papers. But Nixon’s brooding paranoia would not allow him to let Ellsberg get away with being a whistleblower. Hoping to tarnish Ellsberg’s reputation, Nixon’s lackeys broke into the offices of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, searching for records that would impugn his mental heath. That break-in led to the Watergate investigation, Nixon’s downfall, and the Post’s biggest story. Could a similar downfall be on the horizon for Trump?


Editor's Note: Reviews of "All the Money in the World," directed by Ridley Scott. Imperative Entertainment, 2017, 132 minutes; and "The Post," directed by Steven Spielberg. Amblin Entertainment, 2017, 116 minutes.



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What Followed the Triple Axel

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In America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, you can be anything you want to be, if you just dream big enough and try hard enough. Right.

Well, not quite.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team. Ross Miner did just that on January 7, skating a nearly perfect program to a rousing medley of Queen songs that earned him a silver medal behind 18-year-old skating phenom Nathan Chen and his five quadruple jumps. No one was going to beat Chen; silver was the new gold in 2018.

To win that silver medal, Miner had to be perfect. And he was. From the exquisitely light landing of his opening quad-salchow to the high, tight rotations of his triple lutz-triple toe to the musicality of his footwork and the unusual entrances into his fast, centered spins, Miner was perfect. No panic, no worry, he was “cool, relaxed, got hip, got on his tracks” as the lyrics sang during his footwork pattern. In figure skating there’s a term called “peaking at the right moment,” and Miner did. He laid out a perfect program when he needed it most: the national championships leading into the Olympics.

In U.S. Figure Skating, you can deliver the skate of your life, earn a silver medal, and still not make the Olympic team.

Miner handily beat bronze medalist Vincent Zhou and pewter medalist Adam Rippon. At 17, Zhou has the quads but not the musicality of a seasoned skater; at 28, Rippon has the seasoned performance quality, but he choked when it counted, falling on his quad and popping two of his planned triples into singles. It was a devastating moment, one sure to haunt him for the rest of his life.

But hold on. Ross Miner didn’t make the Olympic team. He’ll be in South Korea as an alternate behind Zhou and Rippon. Unlike what happens in track and field, swimming, skiing, and just about any other sport, winning at U.S. Figure Skating Nationals doesn’t guarantee you a trip to the Olympics. In figure skating that decision is made behind closed doors by a committee that examines the skaters’ “body of work” to decide who is most likely to bring home a medal. And this season they’re betting on Rippon. Thanks for the memories, Ross. See ya later.

Selection by committee instead of competition also allows the judges to keep out the riffraff, which they weren’t able to do in 1994, when national gold medalist Tonya Harding, accused of masterminding the attack on competitor Nancy Kerrigan, sued the United States Figure Skating Association for her right to compete on the US team in Lillehammer, Norway. Under the new rules, she would not have been able to sue, because medaling would not have guaranteed her a spot.

But that wasn’t the first time the judges tried to keep Harding down. A jumping powerhouse from the time she was a child and the first woman to land a triple axel at Nationals, Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted. She wasn’t “an old timey version of what a woman is supposed to be.” There was a hard edge about her that came from growing up in hard circumstances. She had thick thighs, over-permed hair, and heavy makeup; her practice outfits were too garish, her music too brash, and her performance dresses too full of froufrou. She practiced in a shopping mall ice rink. Instead of taking her under their wing and helping her succeed, the judges brushed her aside with low scores and hoped she would go away.

Harding was never liked by the judges. She didn’t represent the sport the way the judges wanted.

Nancy Kerrigan was the opposite of Tonya Harding. She wore simple practice dresses and elegant performance dresses, pulled her sleek hair back into a bun, selected classical music for her routines, and even had her tiny front teeth capped to please the judges and develop the proper “look” for ladies’ skating. She was a skilled, elegant skater as well, with confident jumps and her trademark hand-on-knee spiral that young skaters liked to imitate. But more than anything, she had the look. The judges loved her.

Everyone knows what happened next: a goon named Shawn Eckardt hired another goon named Shane Stant to clobber Nancy Kerrigan with a collapsible baton during practice just two days before the senior ladies’ competition at Nationals in 1994. Eckardt was Harding’s bodyguard and the best friend of her ex-husband, Jeff Gillooly. Harding was blamed and her career was over. As the US gold medalist, she successfully sued to compete at Lillehammer. But at her ensuing trial she would be banned for life from any USFSA competitions, events, or activities.

Although pleas were entered and verdicts were pronounced in the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure. Eckardt was a self-important blowhard who insisted he had done espionage work for the CIA. Gillooly would have turned in his own mother to stay out of prison. Harding would have done the same to save her career and compete in the Olympics. In a situation like this there’s a tendency for the brain to rearrange its memories in a way that defends and protects its host; I doubt that Tonya Harding really knows what she knew, and when she knew it.

All of this is chronicled admirably in the new film I, Tonya. Libertarians will see an ironic connection in this title that is probably unintentional; just as no one person can make a pencil, no one person is responsible for the making of Tonya Harding. She is the product of poverty and poor education, abandonment by her father, beating by her mother, more beating by her husband, and unfair judging in a sport that was the only good thing in her life. I’m not defending her here; what happened to Kerrigan is inexcusable. But I am strangely sympathetic to her as a tragic hero who fell so far and so hard.

In the Harding-Kerrigan case, no one really knows what happened. I don’t think even the principal characters know for sure.

The film uses the mockumentary interview format made popular by Eugene Levy and Christopher Guest in such films as Best in Show and Waiting for Guffman. This fictionalized interview style is exactly the right choice for presenting a story that relies so completely on unreliable narrators who think they have a lock on the truth. The result is a film that’s as funny as it is tragic.

We see the same kind of delusional defensiveness in the mock interviews with Tonya’s mother, LaVona Harding (Allison Janney). “She skated better when she was enraged,” she explains, justifying her harsh treatment of Tonya, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her (the real LaVona denies the knife throwing, but she acknowledges and justifies the “spankings”). When Tonya’s coach suggests that a ladylike demeanor might help Tonya fit in more with the other skaters, LaVona shouts, “Tonya doesn’t fit in. She stands out!” When LaVona thinks Tonya needs a little more determination to prove herself on the ice, she pays a fan to heckle her own daughter. She is cold, cruel, and unintentionally comical, and Janney plays her to the hilt of the knife she flings into Tonya’s arm.

The other characters are equally entertaining in a “stranger-than-fiction” sort of way. It’s like watching skating’s equivalent of a 20-car pileup: you just can’t look away. And it does offer a plausible backstory that makes Harding (played at different ages by Maizie Smith, McKenna Grace, and Margot Robbie) a more sympathetic character as a battered woman, bullied by everyone around her, than the one we’ve seen in documentaries over the past 24 years.

“She skated better when she was enraged,” Harding's mom explains, justifying her harsh treatment of her daughter, which includes beating her, berating her, and even throwing a knife at her.

As a former skating mom, I remember the meanness of certain skaters, the prejudice of certain judges, the “acceptable” sabotage that often went on in dressing rooms. I taught my daughter to hold her head up, skate her best, and act as though everyone liked her. Eventually, everyone did. But a girl as socially inept as Tonya, with an ex-husband as hotheaded as Gillooly and a bodyguard as delusional as Eckart might almost be forgiven for . . . um . . . Nope. Not forgivable.

Nevertheless, the film has become something of a darling among the feminist set who are determined this year to make heroes out of victims with vaginas, even one who may have ordered a hit on another victim of the same gender. The black-dress ladies fawned over Tonya at the Golden Globes and are likely to do the same at future awards events this season. Watching the real Tonya Harding skate her landmark 1991 program as the movie credits rolled, seeing the joy on her face as she landed her triple axel and completed a clean program, I could almost agree with them. It was all so senseless. She didn’t need to beat Kerrigan to beat Kerrigan.


Editor's Note: Review of "I, Tonya," directed by Craig Gillespie. Clubhouse Pictures, 2017, 120 minutes.



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Knights in Dark Satin

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It’s awards season again, that glittery time when Hollywood elites gather to praise each other’s work, comment on each other’s clothing, and make political statements we mere mortals in suburbia couldn’t possibly understand without the help of their stunning insights.

The circuit began with the Golden Globes on January 8 and will culminate in the awarding of the Oscars on March 4. At the Globes, all the gals showed up in sexy black evening gowns to show their solidarity with women who have been mistreated, abused, harassed, or misunderstood. It made me think of junior high: “What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know, what are you going to wear?” “Muffy Sinclair is wearing plaid overalls and knee socks.” “Ooh! Me too! Me too!” Suddenly the elite of the elite were controlling what all the women would wear to the Globes. And scarcely anyone dared to be different.

I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear.

Regardless of how I feel about their particular issue, I find it curiously troubling that these powerful women stood up for the power to speak out by controlling what other women were going to wear. Any woman who had chosen to express her own voice by wearing red or blue or white, no matter what the reason, would have been castigated by the press and by her peers. Just as women knew they had to play the Weinstein game if they wanted a role in Hollywood, they knew they had to wear a black dress if they wanted to fit in. Nothing has changed in Hollywood. You either toe the party line or move into another career.

Let’s face it: many of these seasoned women in their glitzy black dresses had to have known all about the Hollywood casting couches long before Harvey Weinstein’s shame became public. They endured it to get ahead, and then kept quiet about it when other women had to endure it. Sorority hazing at its worst. Not until it became public and, might I say, fashionable, did they join in with their #MeToo stories. Until then, they dared not risk the careers — for which they had paid dearly — by speaking out against Weinstein and his ilk. In fact, they embraced him. They played the game. Even after they were rich enough and famous enough and awarded enough that they didn’t need to. Now, to assuage their guilt and cover their shame, they’re shouting the loudest and pointing the longest fingers. And pressuring other women to play along, like it or not. It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped them get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

Two years ago the hypocrites of the Academy self-righteously awarded the Oscar for Best Picture to Spotlight (2015), a good but hardly great film about the Boston Globe’s exposé of pedophilia within the Catholic church, as though pointing a finger at someone else’s institutionalization of systemic sexual predation would atone for the guilt in their own institution. Last year, after the Academy fielded complaints of racism for not nominating enough black actors and filmmakers in 2016 films, the award for Best Picture went to Moonlight, an obscure little film about a transgender black. Again, a good film, but not great and not memorable.

It’s okay to point a finger at the men, but don’t dare include the powerful women who helped the likes of Weinstein get away with it. We’ll all hide together in our black dresses.

This week, in another bid for both relevance and absolution, the Golden Globes for Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor went, predictably, to Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a plucky woman who stands up against injustice (or seems to). After all, this is the year of the woman as victim, right?

So let’s review this film that’s bound to garner increasing acclaim as the award season drags on. Is it a good film? In terms of production values, yes. The story is quirky and unexpected, the plot taking one dark turn after another. The actors are all in, portraying their characters with the kind of free-for-all abandon that often leads to critical acclaim and award nominations. An upbeat musical score contributes to the quirky tone and provides a jarring contrast to the beatings and violence that turn up at the least expected moments. The dialog is sharp and punchy, and the small town setting is authentic and believable, even if the characters are not.

And that’s my main criticism of Three Billboards, a film that’s supposed to be about a heroic woman’s fight against Town Hall in the form of the police department. She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic. She’s vengeful and pathetic and, in many ways, wrong.

Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) is a grieving and disgruntled mother whose daughter has been gruesomely raped and murdered. Seven months later, angered that the police haven’t arrested anyone for the crime, she turns on the chief of police (Woody Harrelson) and publicizes his failure by leasing the rights to three billboards, on which she posts: “Raped While Dying”, “And Still No Arrests?”, “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” Understandably, the chief is not amused.

She simply isn’t heroic. Or believable. Or even sympathetic.

But he isn’t unsympathetic, either. The thing is, we really can’t find fault with the chief. He’s kind. He’s understanding. And he’s trying. There simply aren’t any leads in the case. Mildred wants a conviction. Any conviction will do. But the only thing worse than not convicting the perpetrator of a crime is arresting the wrong man and convicting him instead, just to make the community feel safer.

I appreciate the chief’s methodical rigor in this case. At one point he says to Mildred, “I'd do anything to catch the guy who did it, Mrs. Hayes, but when the DNA don't match no one who's ever been arrested, and when the DNA don't match any other crime nationwide, and there wasn't a single eyewitness from the time she left your house to the time we found her, well . . . right now there ain't too much more we could do.” And I abhor Mildred’s mean, spiteful, crude, ugly vengeance. She responds to Chief Willoughby’s rational concerns about civil rights and due process with “If it was me, I'd start up a database, every male baby was born, stick ’em on it, and as soon as he done something wrong, cross reference it, make 100% certain it was a correct match, then kill him.”

The story completely jumps the shark when Dixon, Chief Willoughby’s deputy (Sam Rockwell), a disgraced, racist, drunken cop, suddenly becomes the hero, in a way so bizarre and unbelievable that even if I told you how it ends, you would think I was kidding, in order to avoid revealing the true plot. So I won’t tell you. But it’s bad.

Three Billboards has an interesting premise about a vigilante citizen using public opinion to shame a police force into doing its job of bringing a criminal to justice. But it squanders the premise on vulgar, vengeful, violent characters created more for shock value instead of any enlightening or lasting message. You might want to see it just for the production values, but it would have to be an awfully rainy day or interminably long flight to induce me to see it again.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity.

The only reason Three Billboards won three Golden Globes is that it’s about a woman whose daughter was raped and who blames a man, because that’s the name of the game this awards season in Hollywood. Ironically, those short-sighted, dimwitted Hollywood voters didn’t even notice that their heroine agrees to go to dinner with a man and implies that she might “be dessert” in order to get something she wants. Sheesh. Have they learned nothing?

Well, they did learn to wear black dresses to the party when Oprah says so.

At least two other films could have satisfied the Black Dress Club by recognizing strong female protagonists who act on principle and integrity. Libertarians won’t want to miss Molly’s Game, which tells the story of Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), an Olympic-class skier who for a dozen years ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game. Her clients included celebrity athletes, Hollywood stars, Middle Eastern moguls, and underworld figures who came as much for the celebrity as for the game.

Molly is everything we want to see in an entrepreneur: she’s smart, she’s honest, she anticipates demand and creates supply, and she makes decisions based on long-term goals and expectations. She plays within the rules, provides a service that people want, and cares about her customers and her employees. She’s the model libertarian. No wonder the Black Dress Ladies ignored this film.

Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients.

The movie begins two years after Molly has closed her business, when 17 FBI agents bang on her door and arrest her at gunpoint. They know she’s clean, but they arrest her anyway because they need her to turn state’s evidence against some underworld types who had been regulars in her game. Using civil asset seizure and the power of the IRS to impoverish her, they threaten her with a decade or more in prison to pressure her into giving them evidence against her clients. Virtually penniless now and living with her mother, she nevertheless convinces attorney Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her by telling him her story, which we see in flashback and hear in voice-over narration. Based on the book Molly’s Game by the real Molly Bloom, this is a fascinating tale about an unlikely heroine dressed in Coco Chanel and Jimmy Choo’s without a single conservative (or conformative) black dress in the wardrobe closet. Libertarians won’t want to miss it.

Even more impressive in the female protagonist genre is The Shape of Water, a beauty and the beast tale with the added twist of the classic conflict between the individual and the state. Directed by the brilliant Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water has the magical quality of a painting brought to life. In this film he does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

The story is set in the 1950s, an era characterized by the Red Scare, nuclear experiments, conservative values, and the race for space. The Russians have launched a dog into orbit, fueling Americans’ fear of failure. Giant irradiated ants and spiders and creatures from the Black Lagoon terrorize communities on the silver screen. Against this backdrop, life imitates art as military scientist Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) discovers an amphibious man (Doug Jones) in a South American river and brings the creature to a secret laboratory in San Francisco where military leaders hope to learn something that can help them in the race against the Russians.

Del Toro does unusual things not only with water, but also with food, color, and relationships to bring a wonderful luster to the film.

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute cleaning woman who works the night shift at the laboratory and lives a solitary life above a movie theater — another contribution to the film’s liquid mixing of art and life. Found as a baby near a river bank, she has a strange affinity for water, even before meeting the river creature. Her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a lonely, out-of-work artist with a dozen half-eaten slices of lime green pie in his refrigerator and a pride of cats on his couch. He and Elisa watch old musicals on television and share a close but fraternal relationship.

Prodded and studied by the self-righteous and sadistic Strickland, the creature attacks him and draws blood. Yet Elisa isn’t afraid of him. Assigned to clean the creature’s space, she shares her lunch with him, expressing a shy charm reminiscent of the ingénues in the romantic musicals she enjoys with Giles. She develops a tenderness toward the creature and vows to rescue him when she learns that he is going to be studied by vivisection and then autopsy.

Sally Hawkins delivers a luminous performance as Elisa, communicating eloquently through sign language, body language, and facial expressions that make us forget she cannot speak. She manages to be both meekly shy and fiercely powerful. Richard Jenkins portrays the quiet despair of a man too old to start over who senses that he will leave no footprint on this earth. Michael Shannon has settled nicely into the sadistic villain role that seems to have become his forte. And the creature is, as artist Giles describes him, “beautiful.” This film has been described as “beauty and the beast,” but the only beast in the film is Strickland.

In sum, The Shape of Water celebrates art, emotion, intuition, difference, choice, and individuality. It is everything the Black Dress conformists are not. No wonder they overlooked it in favor of the vulgar, violent, vengeful Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Don’t you make the same mistake.


Editor's Note: Review of "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri," directed by Martin McDonagh. Blueprint Pictures, Fox Searchlight, 2017. 115 minutes; "Molly’s Game," directed by Aaron Sorkin. STX Entertainment, 2017. 140 minutes; and "The Shape of Water," directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Fox Searchlight, 2017. 123 minutes.



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Take Your Mitts Off Our Myths

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Bear with me here. I have some explaining to do with this review, so don’t start throwing tomatoes yet. Here it goes:

I loved watching the new Star Wars episode.

At the same time, I’m glad that fans almost unanimously hate the new story, even if they don’t completely understand their visceral reaction to it. The Last Jedi is indeed bad, but not because of its repetitive plot or unlikely character development. I rather enjoyed the humorous asides, reminiscent of the original Han Solo. Benicio del Toro as the codebreaker DJ is delectably suave and sinister. Daisy Ridley is fresh and courageous and conflicted as the female lead. And the Stephen Jay Gould-inspired moment when Rey (Daisy Ridley) snaps her fingers and sees herself as a continuum extending into her future in front of her and from her past behind her offers a sophisticated and subtle answer to the conflict between destiny and free will — if her past exists along with her future, does she have the power to change the past? Or is her future predetermined by her past?

Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar.

My beef is with what the movie tries to say about our culture. But as a professor who teaches classes on mythology, I was engaged by the classic conflict between good and evil, inspired by the continuing offer of redemption, and fascinated by the evolution of the Star Wars myth.

The number one complaint about The Last Jedi that I’ve read on fan blogs and social media is that the recent stories are all retreads of the original Star Wars plot. Well, duh! Star Wars is mythology. Of course the stories are going to be similar. Greek plays tended to tell the same stories from multiple angles, just as the Star Wars episodes all surround the central characters of Luke and Leia. This should come as no surprise. Why have there been at least 59 movies made about Jesse James, more than a dozen about the shootout at the OK Corral, and annual movies about Santa? Don’t we already know how they’re going to end? We watch these movies again and again because we want to experience vicariously how heroes (and antiheroes) face conflict, interact with supporting characters, and find redemption even in tragedy. Aristotle called it catharsis. Each version of the story gives it a slightly different spin as each generation’s definition of heroism changes, but the change is cloaked in the familiarity of the characters and their stories.

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth. We can trace the evolution of our beliefs, values, and culture simply by studying the films of succeeding decades. Just watch how women are portrayed in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and in current movies to see how American culture has changed. And has it ever changed in The Last Jedi!

Over the past century movies have been an effective creator and purveyor of modern American myth.

From the beginning, George Lucas embedded in Star Wars the characteristics of American myth. His original story relied heavily on the western genre of the lone, flawed maverick who rides into town, is transformed by friendship, and chooses to risk his life and possessions to help protect his new community from treacherous invaders. Han Solo was that maverick hero. The values of that first film were the values of America: rugged individualism, rebellion against tyranny, reliance on instinct, and reverence for freedom. We saw those same values in the many movies of the 20th century with heroes who defy orders, take risks, act instinctively, and save the day. I also love the offer of redemption that permeates the Star Wars mythology. In each episode a hero has been seduced by the dark side, but all is not lost. He can return to the light and a hero’s welcome if he simply chooses it. Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader; now his grandson, Ben Solo, has become Kylo Ren. But the potential for good is strong in this one. He, too, can be redeemed.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down. Once again we have a maverick hero, Poe (Oscar Isaac), who acts on his own, and is demoted for it by the interim leader, Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Of course we expect that his instincts will prove correct. We also have a trio of rebels (Finn, Rose and BB-8) who secretly boards the First Order’s ship to push a button that will save the Resistance ship. If the story is truly repetitive of earlier episodes, this brave and risky ploy will work. Celebrations to follow.

But not in this movie. Our would-be heroes are caught and their plan is thwarted. Because of this, Vice Admiral Holdo’s secret plan for protecting the ship and its crew is also thwarted, and many Resistance soldiers are killed. The new message is clear: authority figures have no obligation to tell underlings their plans; and those who defy authority and follow their instincts will cause misery to the entire group. So shut up and obey.

So what happens in The Last Jedi? All of our values are turned upside down.

Fans are also troubled by the fact that our hero of 40 years, Luke Skywalker, has virtually given up on the Jedi. Discouraged and faithless, he has no desire to help the Resistance and is content to live out the rest of his life on a secluded island. Director and scriptwriter Rian Johnson has destroyed our once incorruptible hero, and his religion as well. I guess the pen truly is mightier than the light saber.

Personally, I don’t like the idea of Hollywood controlling and creating the American myth. Hollywood people hardly represent my own values, beliefs, or culture, or the values and beliefs of most Americans. Apparently Star Wars fans don’t like the idea either. While they complain about esoteric details of plot and character, I think what they are instinctively resisting is the new message of the film.

Mythology resonates with us. That’s one reason such franchises as Star Wars, Star Trek, and the superhero movies endure. Cultural values can evolve over time, but when basic beliefs about free will and individualism change as outrageously as they have in The Last Jedi, we begin to feel “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices cried out in terror.” It’s time to resist the First Order of Hollywood and stop letting it control the American myth.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Last Jedi," directed by Rian Johnson. Walt Disney Pictures, 2017, 152 minutes.



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Another Small Piece of a War

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In an earlier piece in these pages, I reviewed a book on Nazi uniforms and insignia. My point was to show how incredibly all-pervasive the Nazi propaganda machine was. If the Nazi Party took such exquisite painstaking work over simple patches, uniforms, and daggers, can you imagine how attentive it was to school curricula, cinema, books, and artwork?

The nice little film I want to review now could also be described as showing the viewer a small piece of Goebbels’ total propaganda war.

While swing music was in great demand in Germany in the early 1930s, the Party viewed it as "degenerate," officially banning it in 1935.

The film is a sadly neglected German documentary Propaganda Swing, made in 1989 by filmmaker Florian Steinbiss. It recounts the bizarre story of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry creating a “Jazz Orchestra” as a tool to transmit propaganda to the Allied troops and citizens. Called “Charlie and his Orchestra,” the band included the most talented swing jazz musicians in Germany and occupied Europe at the time.

This was almost grotesquely rich. While swing music was in great demand in Germany in the early 1930s, the Party viewed it as “Negermusik” and “Entertetemusik” — black music and degenerate music — officially banning it in 1935. But into the late 1930s, the music remained very popular among the German public, who defied the Party orthodoxy and frequented underground jazz clubs.

So it was strongly ironic that that a group of superbly talented jazz artists found themselves working for the Reich’s Propaganda Ministry. The band formed in 1940, and was broadcast over Nazi shortwave radio. Between 1941 and the end of the war, it made music that was very popular, especially among Allied troops and citizens. It was fronted by saxophonist Lutz Templin, with drummer Fritz (“Freddie”) Brocksiepen, vocalist Karl Schwedler (the “Charlie” of the group’s name, clarinetist Kurt Abraham, and trombonist Willy Berking.

Now, why would the regime fund and promote a swing band? The answer is that the crafty (if psychopathic) Goebbels saw that such a band would be useful in two ways. The first was to show Allied troops and civilians that Nazi Germany was culturally similar to the Allies after all. In this way it was successful. After the war, a BBC survey revealed that 26.5% of the British radio audience listened to the broadcasts. It is reputed that Churchill himself listened to and enjoyed the broadcasts.

Into the late 1930s, the music remained very popular among the German public, who defied the Party orthodoxy and frequented underground jazz clubs.

The second, craftier, motive was to push the Nazi agenda in an opaque way. The songs were not the originals but parodies; the music was lovingly played, but the original lyrics were replace by anti-Allied ones, sung in English. Goebbels consistently advocated disguising propaganda as pure entertainment. If a weary GI were just listening to this outstanding swing music he would not necessarily have recognized the content of the lyrics.

The film explores this aspect of propaganda swing in some detail. For instance, as we hear the band play “You’re Driving Me Crazy” we hear Charlie sing;

Yes, Jews, you're driving me crazy, what did I do, what did I do?
My fears for you make everything hazy, clouding the skies of blue.
Ah, Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind that will hurt me, desert me when I need a Jew.
Yes, Jews, you're driving me crazy, what did I do to you?

Charlie then intones, “Here is Winston Churchill's latest tearjerker” and resumes:

Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy.
I thought I had brains, but they shattered my planes.
They've built up a front against me, it's quite amazing,
Clouding the skies with their planes.
The Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind that will hurt me, desert me and laugh at me too.

Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy,
My last chance I'll pray, to get in this muddle the USA.
This new pact also is driving me crazy,
Germany, Italy, Japan, it gives me a pain.
I'm losing my nerve, I'm getting lazy
A prisoner forced to remain in England to reign.
The Jews are the friends who are near me, that still cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are not the kind of heroes who would fight for me,
Now they're leaving me too.
Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy, by Jove, I pray, come in USA.

The tune to Eddie Cantor’s song “Makin’ Whoopee” is introduced by Charlie, who says, “The Jews of the USA have asked Eddie Cantor to write new words for his famous hit of all time, ‘Makin’ Whoopee.’”

He then sings:

Another war, another profit,
Another Jewish business trick.
Another season, another reason
For making whoopee.

In the group’s parody of “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” we hear:

I’m gonna save the world for Wall Street,
Gonna fight for Russia, too.
I’m fighting for democracy;
I’m fighting for the Jew.

As the film’s narrator points out, the music focused primarily on anti-Semitic messages. For example, the parody version of “Down Mexico Way” pushed the view that FDR was Jewish.

The orchestra worked five days a week, with mornings devoted to the propaganda music and afternoons to regime-approved music for domestic consumption, with evenings available for playing in underground jazz clubs.

The songs were not the originals but parodies; the music was lovingly played, but the original lyrics were replace by anti-Allied and anti-Semitic ones, sung in English.

As the film notes, many German jazz artists were Jewish or Gypsy, and in the concentration camps in which these musicians were incarcerated they were first ordered to play for the SS guards before being put to death. Ironically, as the war wore on, Charlie’s orchestra increasingly consisted of “half-Jews and Gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and communists” — groups being rapidly eradicated in the death camps. The fact that their music was considered vital to the propaganda war effort allowed them to work at least temporarily in relative comfort. Toward the end of the war, foreign players were brought in to replace the German ones who had been forced to join the army or work in factories. By late 1943, Allied bombing raids forced the band to move from Berlin to Stuttgart, where it remained until the end of the war.

After the war, Templin and most of the band were able to find work in a various venues, including in American administered jazz clubs. Schwedler apparently either became a businessman in Germany or immigrated to America. It is a testament to the quality of the band’s musicianship that after hostilities were ended, American jazz greats such as Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Gene Krupa visited with members of the band. The backbone of the band, the drummer Fritz (Freddy) Brocksieper, went on to win a German Grammy.

The film nicely explores the ways in which musical broadcasts made successful propaganda. Especially effective was the use of British POWs to tell people back home that the POWs were being well treated. The POWs’ relatives tuned in, hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Many German jazz artists were Jewish or Gypsy, and in the concentration camps in which these musicians were incarcerated they were first ordered to play for the SS guards before being put to death.

After the war, the band’s foreign members steadfastly refused to acknowledge their involvement with it — thus raising the question of why people joined the band to begin with. The band’s drummer Brocksieper indicated one reason: being in the band kept the players safe, at least temporarily, from being drafted or sent to the camps, and provided a modest income, which they augmented by playing side gigs. Italian trumpeter Nino Impallomeni gave another reason: the members uniformly loved big band jazz, and this was the only way they could play it.

Brocksieper recounts how, after the fall of Berlin, the Americans sought him out to play for them. They subsidized the creation of a new group, providing food, something in short supply in occupied Germany. Brocksieper said that being on the receiving end of this largesse did not bother the band.

Especially effective was the use of British POWs to tell people back home that the POWs were being well treated. The POWs’ relatives tuned in, hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Here is where the film gets very interesting psychologically. The band members had to have experienced great cognitive dissonance all during the war, and afterwards. The German players were playing music they loved that no other German could even listen to legally; the players from conquered countries knew they were collaborating with their conquerors; and not just during the war but afterwards they lived fairly well, while ordinary Germans suffered. Impallomeni gave one defense: we were musicians, not politicians. The film’s narrator adds that the band members said the meanings of the politically obscene propaganda lyrics were not intelligible to them — a hard claim to accept, given that the band’s singer Charlie spoke perfect English.

As one listens to some of the original musicians play beautifully, decades after the end of the war, one can understand and almost forgive their collaboration with Goebbels’ propaganda machine.

Almost.


Editor's Note: "Propaganda Swing: Dr. Goebbels’ Jazz Orchestra," directed by Florian Steinbiss. Sudwestfunk, 1991, 60 minutes. Distributed by International Historic Films, https://ihffilm.com/



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Día de los Vivos

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Looking for a new holiday film and you’ve had it with watching scripted Hollywood families bicker around the dining table? Pixar’s Coco is one of the best films of the season. Never mind that it’s animated. Grab yourself a niece or a nephew (or just rustle up the courage to go to a “kid movie” without a kid) and enjoy. This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

The story centers on 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who lives with his parents, his overbearing Abuelita (Renee Victor), and his sweet doddering great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Miguel is a typical Mexican boy in a not-so-typical Mexican family where music has been banned from the home and the mere sight of a guitar engenders shrieks of anger. But Miguel loves music. He has been surreptitiously learning to play the guitar by watching videos of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the greatest musician of all time,” whose statue stands in the town plaza. Miguel wants to enter the town talent contest, but Abuelita forbids it. When Miguel shouts that he hates his family and wishes he weren’t part of them, it sets off a chain of events that will teach him the importance of family, tradition, and remembering the dead.

This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

Coco is set on Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors with a three-day fiesta of reminiscing, singing, feasting, and decorating graves. Families build small altars with photographs of their ancestors and offer incense, fruits, nuts, and candies, plus toys for relatives who died as children and tequila for the adults. Traditions include eating muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar-candy skulls, hanging cardboard skeletons and colorful tissue paper decorations, and planting yellow marigolds. It is thought that the pungent fragrance of marigolds will attract the souls of the dead.

These Mexican traditions are presented in a surfeit of rich colors and sounds as Miguel is mystically transported across the marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On the other side he discovers a land not unlike his own — the same town plaza, the same town heroes, the same kinds of holiday preparations being made by families who just happen to be dead. There’s even a very funny scene with TSA agents deciding who can and can’t cross the bridge, and a skeletonized Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge. Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a delightfully comical skeleton, who helps Miguel in his search for his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who seems to hold the key to Miguel’s return home.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for the young children who accompanied me. In fact, it makes death somehow comforting and even joyful when one considers the family reunions that await on the other side of the bridge. “Coco,” in fact, is the diminutive form of the common name “Socorro,” which means “to succor, aid, or comfort,” and this film offers much comfort about dying. It even suggests what happens to our pets when they die.

There’s even a skeletonized Frida Kahlo, who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge.

Moreover, many of the characters in Coco need comfort and aid. Miguel is far from home and at odds with his family on both sides of the bridge. Abuelita needs to face the true source of her pain and let go of her bitterness toward music. Her grandmother, Miguel’s departed Mama Imelda (Alana Ubach), must also overcome her bitterness toward her late husband — a bitterness that has followed her into the next life. Miguel’s new friend Hector is in danger of “fading away” because almost no one remembers him. Miguel learns to succor them all.

The marigold bridge becomes a powerful symbol of family connection, as Miguel learns to bridge the gap not only with his dead ancestors, but with his living family members as well.

It might be a little risky amid today’s rampant accusations of cultural appropriation for a company directed mostly by white males to release a movie set in Mexico focusing on intimate Mexican traditions and beliefs. The humor, accents, costumes, and traditions could have gone awry, veering into the realm of stereotype. But there is an authenticity in Coco that transcends political correctness and simply feels right. The characters are voiced almost entirely by Chicano actors, and background conversations and idiomatic phrases are presented in Spanish without subtitles, contributing to the cultural authenticity. The musical score is presented as a natural part of the story when Miguel, Ernesto, Frida and others sing and perform in public, so the story isn’t superimposed on a European or American musical genre. The vivid colors and family dynamic are simply the flavor of Mexico, without caricature or disrespect. It’s just about perfect.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for young children.

One thing that is definitely not perfect is the 21-minute animated short that accompanies most screenings of Coco. Based on the characters in Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” tells the story of the orphaned Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) searching for Christmas traditions they can adopt, now that they are living together again in the castle. The characters are flat, the situations are corny, and the premise — that you can somehow create instant traditions by copying others — completely misses the point of what a tradition is. At 21 minutes it’s three times too long, and its production values are so weak that you might be tempted to go home before the feature film actually begins. I recommend a trip to the snack bar after you find your seats.

Families are the oldest and simplest of social communities, yet they can often be the most complex to navigate. They are a topic that Disney has explored in numerous animated classics, from the competitive and vengeful stepmothers in Snow White, Cinderella, and Tangled to the trauma of maternal separation in Dumbo and Bambi to the teenage rebellion in The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to the complete redefinition of family in Jungle Book and Tarzan. The ability to address serious issues within the framework of kid-friendly animated films has been Disney’s forte for nearly a century, and it’s the reason Disney films continue to attract generation after generation of viewers, especially through its new partnership with Pixar.

Coco is among the best of these films, for so many reasons. I expect that many families will pull it out to view again when a beloved great-grandmother crosses over the marigold bridge — or even when a pet passes on, no matter what their literal beliefs about the afterlife. As Howard Canaan writes in Tales of Magic from Around the World: “Myths express not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth.” And the truth is, we will be happier if we give up our grudges, embrace the beauty in our lives, remember those who came before us, and recognize the individuality in each human being. Coco makes this point magically.


Editor's Note: Review of "Coco," directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Pixar, 2017, 109 minutes.



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Christie Redux

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In 1931, renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie was traveling on the Orient Express when a flash flood suddenly washed some of the track away. The passengers were stranded while repairs were made. This was not the first time the Orient Express had been stranded; two years earlier a blizzard had halted the train for six days. While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!” The setting for Murder on the Orient Express was established. Now she just needed a plot.

Christie wrote 66 murder mysteries and 14 short story collections, as well as a handful of romance novels and the longest continuously running play in London (The Mousetrap). Most of her mysteries are solved by the eccentric Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot or the no-nonsense matron-next-door, Miss Jane Marple. Her novels have sold an estimated two billion copies, and have been translated into a record 103 languages. She remains one of the world’s best-loved novelists.

While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!”

Murder on the Orient Express can work especially well for film because of its closed set (it takes place almost entirely on a train car) and its large cast of suspects. You may have seen the 1974 film version, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar; you might wonder: do we really need another? Perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment. Is it worth seeing this version? Yes, indeed.

Even if you’ve already read the story or seen it on screen, you haven’t seen this one, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the detective Poirot. The enjoyment of an Agatha Christie doesn’t come so much from figuring out who done it or how it was done as from understanding what might drive someone to commit murder — and for a short time, finding ourselves in sympathy with a killer. From that standpoint, Murder on the Orient Express could as easily have been called “A Jury of One’s Peers.”

The story is simple: a group of seemingly unconnected people is traveling together from Istanbul to Paris. Each has a reason for needing to arrive on time. Each is harboring a private grief. Each grief will be uncovered by Poirot. And one of them will be killed. But who is the murderer?

You might wonder: do we really need another version of this story? But perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment.

Filmed in New Zealand and Switzerland, the movie is beautifully rendered, especially the long, wide views of snow-covered mountains and cloudy, luminescent skies. It almost feels as though the train is barreling through a Thomas Kincaid painting. Early scenes in Jerusalem, where Poirot is winding up a previous case before boarding the train, are filmed at odd angles, emphasizing Poirot’s odd way of seeing the world. Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

The cast of suspects includes such notable actors as Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Willem Defoe, and Dame Judi Dench. Gad, usually cast in silly comedic roles, is surprisingly good in his first truly dramatic turn. Even Emma Thompson, Branagh’s former wife, who has appeared in many of his films, makes a cameo appearance in this one. That’s a very young photo of her in the picture frame Poirot keeps by his bedside.

Poirot’s denouement is especially provocative, as the characters are blocked and staged in a way that emphasizes the ultimate theme of the story. I won’t say more here, but watch for it. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

Murder on the Orient Express evokes the glamour days of drawing room murders populated by characters with impeccable manners camouflaging their sharp claws. Its Alpine landscapes and exterior scenes in Jerusalem are breathtaking. Don’t wait for Netflix — this is one you’ll want to see in a theater. And see it on IMAX if you can.


Editor's Note: Review of "Murder on the Orient Express," directed by Kenneth Branagh. Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. 114 minutes.



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Trial by Fire

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It is the capricious nature of wildfire that can make it a lethal adversary. My own too-close-for-comfort brush with the beast occurred back on August 11, 1972 at a place called Harris Ridge, near the little town of Kooskia, Idaho.

It was the summer after my freshman year away at the university, and I'd found work as a chainsaw jockey thinning timber for the Idaho Department of Public Lands office in Orofino. The thinning crew — which could be pulled away from its thinning duties to fight wildfires if needed — was a young bunch: Greg had just graduated from high school; Ned, like me, had graduated from high school the previous year and had just finished his freshman year away at the university; and our two senior members, Russell and Rex, the foreman, were still in their twenties.

Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire.

Our assignment, when we had been dispatched to the Harris Ridge fire, was to climb a steep, brushy hillside, spread out, and start digging fire line to keep the fire on top from creeping down the hillside. At one point during our ascent, Ned and I ended up hugging either side of a brush-choked gully. We heard a faint cry of warning from somewhere below us, turned, and saw a huge, crackling fireball racing up the gully, right at us. I peeled away from the right side of the gully, took a quick look over my left shoulder, and saw through a wall of flame Ned's hardhat bobbing as he scrambled up and away to the left. I continued my lateral retreat, linked up with Rex, and made it back down to the bottom. Rex and I later linked back up with Ned, who had managed to get to the safety of a burned-out area on top.

But where were Greg and Russell? They had been well to the east of the rest of us, away from where the stealthy, encircling fire had ignited the tinder in the gully. They would have had plenty of time to get to higher ground as the fire burned across the hillside below them. In fact, I had even visualized them perched safely atop a bluff, taking a breather, and anxiously watching as Ned and I scrambled for our lives. Their bodies were found the next morning. According to the ensuing investigation, they had apparently found refuge atop a bluff — only to be knocked from their perch and into the inferno by a snag that had rolled down on them from the burned-out area above.

Those memories couldn't help but come to mind as I took my seat in the theater to watch Only the Brave. Based on Sean Flynn's excellent GQ article “No Exit,” the film deals with the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department's wildfire crew, headed by Eric Marsh. Knowing it was only a matter of time before Prescott itself would be menaced by wildfire, Marsh lobbies for the certification of his crew as “hotshots,” elite firefighters who can directly engage the fire, as opposed to being relegated to “mopping up” operations behind the hotshots. The film shows the crew honing its skills on a series of wildfires, one of which demands an evaluation of the skills that led to the crew’s certification. Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire: they hurriedly have to clear combustibles from a patch of ground, break out a thin protective covering that stretches from head to toe, and hunker down prone until the fire passes over them.

Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled.

The film also tracks the character arcs of certain of the 20-man crew. A couple of young men who can't stand each other end up bonding like brothers. A young man dealing with substance abuse relapse and an unplanned pregnancy becomes a responsible father and provider. A crass womanizer finds true love. Marsh — in his forties the “old man” of the crew — has to deal with marital tensions at home. Josh Brolin, who plays Marsh, and Jennifer Connelly, who plays his wife Amanda, turn in particularly strong performances. In a masterly piece of dramatization,the film captures the anxiety of the crew's loved ones as they await news of the identity of the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill fire, the visceral grief that follows that revelation, and the effect this has on the survivor himself.

The direction and cinematography are superb, capturing the essence of what it's like to be on a wildfire crew: charred, smoking ground where a burned-out tree trunk can topple over on a man, the black-faced griminess of a mop-up detail, the skies busy with helicopters and planes carrying loads of water and retardant to be dumped on critical areas, and the speed with which a wildfire can spread. Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled. The film ends with a touching tribute to each of the firefighters.

As someone who has been there and done that, this reviewer gives Only the Brave a big thumbs up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Only the Brave," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Di Bonaventura Pictures, 2017. 133 minutes.



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