And the Winner Is — The Story!

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McFarland USA is not a great movie, but it is a great story. The pacing is slow, and at 129 minutes, the picture is justtoo long. The acting is average, and the casting, with men as old as 30 playing characters under 16, is often jarring, especially when a 30-year-old actor is romancing a 15-year-old girl. But the story, about a rag-tag cross-country team of mostly immigrant students who make it to the California state championships, grabs your heart midway through and keeps you engaged till the end.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who has lost three teaching positions in three different states because of his inability to control his temper. He ends up in McFarland, an agricultural community of immigrant farmworkers and one of the poorest communities in California, because it is virtually at the end of the road. He wants nothing more than to put in his time while finding a better position somewhere else. When a local merchant recommends that he plant a tree in his yard that will provide shade in five years, White responds, “I won’t be here that long.”

They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies.

Then he notices some students running from school to their homes or work in the fields after school, and he realizes that they have what it takes to succeed in cross country. “No one can endure pain the way you can,” he reminds the team during a pre-tournament pep talk. “No one else out there gets up at 4 a.m. to work in the fields and then goes to school and then to practice. No one else can endure heat and thirst the way you can. Don’t let them intimidate you.” Coach White knows the pain they are able to endure, because he has joined them in the fields to pick cabbage, and it was the most physically demanding work he has ever done. He admires these young men on his team who are often marginalized and face ridicule and derision when they compete at other schools.

According to interviews, the real Jim White did not move from job to job until he hit rock bottom in McFarland; he chose to teach at McFarland High School because he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and he figured a small school would be the best place to do that. It was his first and only teaching job, and he definitely succeeded in his goal of making a difference. All of his original team members went to college or the military and went back to McFarland and became leaders in the community. One did some time in prison, but returned to work in McFarland after serving his sentence. The pattern has continued with subsequent team members, many of whom have graduated from college and found employment serving communities like theirs.

That’s why I said that McFarland USA is a great story, even if it isn’t a great movie. These boys and their families work hard, produce much, and pay their own way. They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies. But they do it so their children can have a better life. Seeing the actual men striding alongside the actors who portray them during the closing credits is one of the best moments in the film.


Editor's Note: Review of "McFarland USA," directed by Niki Caro. Disney Studios, 2015, 129 minutes.



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Advance Notice

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With 150 feature films, 106 shorts, dozens of panels and live presentations, nine days, a dozen theaters, thousands of volunteers, and 72,000 attendees, Austin’s SXSW film festival, presented this year from March 13–21, has grown to one of the most important festivals of the season. Many of the best films of the year are introduced there.

It can also be the most frustrating festival of the season, with its policy of not selling advance tickets to any screenings. Attendees purchase a badge (costing several hundred dollars) for the entire festival and then line up according to the kind of badge they have chosen. Locals can purchase a wristband for $90, but their line is the last to gain entrance, just ahead of the misnomered “rush” line of stragglers hoping to find an empty seat for ten bucks after all the others have gone inside. (During the entire week I saw only two screenings where rushers were able to get in.) Badgeholders are allowed to pick up an express pass for up to two films per day, but that often means being in line by 7 a.m. and waiting for the express line to open at 9.

The Road Warrior was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular.

For some, however, that’s part of the fun at SXSW, and friendships are often made in line. I talked with one young filmmaker whose goal for the week was to meet a particular director and talk to him about a project. On the morning of the first day, there was the director he wanted to meet, sitting next to him on the floor waiting for the express line to open. They chatted for nearly two hours and shook on the deal. Who would have thought it possible?

Many films with theatrical release schedules were screening at SX, but I spent most of my time seeing documentaries and smaller films that I won’t be able to see at my local Cineplex in the next month or so. The one exception was a screening of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2),the 1981 postapocalyptic cult classic, newly remastered for the festival and introduced by director George Miller himself. What a treat to see this film on a gigantic screen in an old-school theater holding nearly a thousand enthusiastic viewers. RW was filmed chronologically in 35 mm before computer graphics — every stunt is real, and they are spectacular. It’s a great story too, demonstrating the kinds of communities that arise under anarchy. Max is a lot like Paul Newman’s character in Hombre, just trying to make his way, barter for gas, and protect what little he has. We were hoping to see a “surprise” screening of the new sequel, Fury Road, afterwards (why else would they have brought back a 34-year-old film?) and indeed, we were treated to several chunks of the new movie. But even without that, Road Warrior was easily the most fun I had at the festival.

Here are some documentaries you might want to watch for on Netflix over the next year:

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, (directed by Alex Gibney, 127 minutes).When Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011, the whole world mourned the loss of the man who brought us the personal computer and the magical triplets that reside in our pockets or under our pillows: the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad.But, according to the many people who were interviewed for this doc, Jobs was not a particularly lovable man. He could be ruthless, selfish, and unfair. He was a man of complex contrasts, “a monk with Zen-like focus but no empathy” who fancied himself to be enlightened and asked to be canonized as a monk. He was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities (unlike his counterpart at Microsoft, Bill Gates); his factories polluted rivers in China; he arranged for backdating of stock options to increase the income of key employees (including himself); and he created offshore companies in Ireland to reduce the company’s tax bill (nothing illegal about that, but the filmmaker suggests it’s unethical or improper for Apple not to pay “their fair share”).

Jobs wanted to change the world, and he did. At one point the narrator asks cynically, “Is creating a product that makes buckets of money for its shareholders enough to change the world?” I would answer emphatically, “Yes!” but not because of the money. Everything we do is different now, because of the magic box we carry in our pockets, embed in our Google Glasses, and wear on our watches. Even getting around town is easier today — it was less than ten years ago that I carried a large street map in my car and had to pull over to find my way. This week, navigating around a large and unfamiliar city, I never once got lost, because Siri told me when to turn and even how to avoid traffic. Right now I’m writing this review on my iPhone. I can look up details about the films instantly. The iPhone has indeed changed my world.

Jobs was one of the wealthiest men in America but paid only $500 a month in child support for his daughter; when he returned to Apple after being pushed out in the ’80s, he ended all philanthropic activities.

Jobs created something beautiful and useful, and he created buckets of money in the process. We love our iProducts. We caress them. We even sleep with them. We love them because they connect us to a wider world and family far away. But they also tend to isolate us from those who are near at hand. The narrator sums it up well when he acknowledges, “I love my iPhone. My hand is drawn to it in my pocket the way Frodo’s hand is drawn to the Ring.” Indeed, many folks today create “phone free zones” when they are together, in order to resist the powerful attraction of the ‘net. Jobs himself might not have been a beautiful man on the inside, but he certainly created a beautiful product.

Peace Officer (directed by Scott Christopherson and Brad Barber, 109 minutes) was the most powerful and important film I saw all week, and it rightly won the Grand Jury prize for best documentary. I am hoping to bring it to the Anthem Film Festival at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas in July. It chronicles the deadly results of militarizing our police agencies through SWAT teams and “1033” programs that provide new and used military equipment to local police forces.

The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong.

William “Dub” Lawrence is the central figure of the film. A likable, personable man, he was the police chief of Farmington, Utah, when he started Utah’s first SWAT team in 1975. (He also is the man who broke the Ted Bundy serial murder case.) He thought it would be an effective way to reduce the drug trade in his sleepy little community. In 2008 that same SWAT team killed Dub’s son-in-law over a domestic dispute that escalated into a standoff that involved over 80 police officers. Because of his connection to the police department, Dub had access to police cameras that revealed a scenario different from the one reported to the media (that the young man had taken his own life). He quit the police department and spent the next several years piecing together the actual timeline of events calmly, methodically, and with a megawatt smile that belies the pain he feels from the death of his daughter’s husband.

Peace Officer tells several stories of law enforcement turned aggressively non-peaceful and non-protective. “A peace officer should be a trusted friend,” Dub explains. “But today they no longer ‘serve and protect.’ Now they are trained as soldiers, and we are the enemy.” The police have become an occupying force in many neighborhoods, according to the film, and this leads to an adversarial relationship even when no one has done anything wrong. Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute, acknowledges in the film that this isn’t entirely the police officers’ fault. “Laws and programs have set up these conflicts and turned them into soldiers,” he suggests.

One of the laws that has led to the most serious invasions of privacy and safety is the “no-knock warrant,” which allows SWAT teams to barge into a home in the middle of the night, rifles drawn, screaming at anyone in the house to back off. Awakened and terrified, the homeowners try to defend themselves from what appear to be home invaders, and they are often killed rather than arrested. The father of one young man who is dead because of such a raid (and who admittedly was growing marijuana in his basement) asks angrily, “What were they protecting us from? Marijuana plants?”

Several things are wrong with our law enforcement system, and Peace Officer reveals many of them. It’s an important, timely documentary that should keep the conversation going about the growing abuse of police power.

Raiders! (directed by Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen, 95 minutes). In 1982, three 11- and 12-year-old boys undertook an ambitious project: as fans of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, they would recreate the Steven Spielberg masterpiece shot-for-shot. This was before the film was available on VCR; amazingly, the boys were able to recreate the entire film from watching it in a theater and reviewing the story in a “Raider’s” comic book one of them owned. Over the next seven years, from middle school through high school, they would enlist their friends to serve as cast and crew, commandeer their parents’ houses as movie sets, and spend their summer vacations filming the project. By the time they graduated from high school, all but one scene was finished: the one in which Indie and Marion fight off a German airplane mechanic while a WWII airplane rolls around in circles with propellers running. Now, 33 years after beginning the project, they have gone back to film that missing scene.

Raiders! documents the project from start to finish, incorporating footage from 30 years ago along with the scenes of the new project. How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself. These background stories are told with unabashed glee and deadpan humor. As grownups the filmmakers faced a host of new obstacles, including funding the project, getting time off from their fulltime jobs, and dealing with days and days of rain that threatened to end the filming before it even began. Still, they were determined to finish this project. It’s an amazing story of perseverance, creativity, sacrifice, and pursuing one’s dreams. The film is funny, smart, and inspiring. I’m also hoping to bring this film to the Anthem Film Festival this summer.

How they managed not to burn down their parents’ houses or run over a cast member or two during the chase scenes was a feat in itself.

Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation (directed by Eric Zala, 107 minutes). After watching the documentary about the making of the greatest fan-film ever made, audiences were treated to the film itself. These kids were remarkably skillful in recreating Spielberg’s actual shots, including the dialogue, the costumes, the camera angles, and even the facial expressions. It’s fun to watch their ages change, as many of the scenes were filmed out of sequence. And of course, it’s hilarious to see them emerge from the underground temple nearly 30 years older in the newly finished scene, still wearing the same clothing! The Adaptation has developed a cult following since it premiered at Harry Knowles’ “Butt-Numb-a-Thon” at the Alamo Draft House in Austin several years ago; now, partnered with the documentary about its completion, it is going to grow in stature. You can get a copy by donating to their crowdfunding campaign at raidersguys.wix.com.

Finders Keepers (directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweet, 82 minutes).If you’ve ever watched the cable TV show Storage Wars, you know that the strangest things often show up in storage units. When people don’t pay the rent on their units, the facility owners are entitled to sell the contents to the highest bidders. Most of the time they end up with household furnishings and personal effects. Occasionally they might find an expensive piece of jewelry or a cache of valuable collectibles. When Shannon Whisnant bid on the storage unit rented by John Wood, he had no idea that he would find a human leg inside Wood’s smoker grill.

The two men argued for several years over who was the rightful owner of the leg (amputated when Wood was injured in an airplane crash). Whisnant wanted to put it on display and charge people $3 to look at it. ”The cholesterol was dripping right out of it!” he says with glee as he describes discovering the leg. Wood simply wanted to keep it and have it buried with him some day. They were invited to tell their bizarre story on talk shows worldwide and even ended up on an episode of Judge Mathis. But Finders Keepers is not so much about the legal battle to determine ownership of the leg as it is a study of these two backwoods North Carolinians (you know you’re in the deep South when subtitles are required for people who are speaking English). As presented by the film, both struggle with addictions, Wood the traditional kind (drugs and alcohol) and Whisnant of a less tangible kind — he craves attention and longs to be on television making people laugh. “I’m pretty smart,” he says shortly after describing the events that “perspired” regarding the leg. “I’m pretty sure you’ve figured that out by now. “ He thought the leg would be his ticket to fame and fortune.

This colorful and engaging documentary was a favorite with the SXSW audience. It’s funny without being exploitive, and bizarre without being gross. Participating in its making was life-changing for both men, but not in the ways they expected.

Brand: The Second Coming, (directed by Ondi Timoner, 125 minutes, festival headliner). Russell Brand is another character from a poor socioeconomic background who craves attention on the world stage. Best known for his deviously charming smile, his outrageous wit, and his raunchy and irreverent stand-up routines, a few years ago Brand decided to “re-brand” himself as a serious thinker with a plan to change the world through books, op-ed pieces, impassioned speeches, and a stand-up comedy tour that focuses on his four new heroes: Gandhi, Jesus, Malcolm X, and Che Guevera. (For an example of Brand’s unscripted humor, google Russell Brand/Morning Joe to see the interview in which he completely overwhelmed three veteran MSNBC TV anchors.)

Brand’s number-one goal is to end inequality. He has no idea how to do that, however, other than to say that rich people have too much and poor people have too little and that isn’t fair. He doesn’t understand how the world works, and believes the old mercantilist philosophy that “where there is profit there is deficit.” He simply doesn’t understand that the pie can be made bigger. But he has millions of followers (mostly of the “Occupy” ilk) who think he’s right. Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand’s epiphany occurred after seeing children in Africa digging through garbage dumps in search of recyclable goods to sell. To his credit, his heart was broken by the sight. But then he opines, “I live in a mansion, and these children dig around in a garbage dump. And the same system put both of us there.” Of course, he’s wrong about that. The system that put him in a mansion is based on Western values, capitalism, and free markets. Audiences chose to spend their money enjoying the entertainment that he provides, and it makes him wealthy. The system that put those children into a garbage dump is anything but market based or embracing of Western values. Moreover, selling his house and living in a tent is not going to change their plight.

Rosie O’Donnell gushed, “If I could sell everything I have and give it to his cause, I would!” to which the logical response should be, “Well, what’s stopping you?”

Brand makes a solid case for decriminalization of drugs, and if he used his celebrity to focus on that one cause, he would probably be quite successful in his goal to “change the world.” He also turned one of his building complexes into a self-sustaining rehab center, which is pretty impressive. Addiction is a topic he knows well, at least according to his own reports. “Prison isn’t working!” he proclaims, and he is right. “As long as it is illegal, they will continue to use dirty needles and back-alley doctors. . . . Drug laws penalize the people at the bottom of the scale.” He did his homework and presented a strong case at the UN meetings in Vienna. I wish he would continue to lead that charge.

Brand should stay with what he does well — unscripted, irreverent comedy — and focus on causes with which he has valid, knowledgeable experience, such as the problems of drug addiction. He is no Messiah, and his knowledge of economics is laughably shallow. But I think he is a good man at heart who sincerely wants to make a difference in the world.

Love and Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad, 119 minutes).This biopic about Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind the Beach Boys, was one of only two narrative films that I caught during the festival. I was expecting to see a feel-good story about a feel-good band from my youth, but I was sadly mistaken. It is a horrifying story that left the audience in absolute silence at the end. It is true that Wilson suffered from mental illness and was away from the music industry for several decades because of it. But this film is so unrelentingly sad that I walked away convinced that I will never be able to enjoy hearing a Beach Boys song again without thinking of the nightmares Wilson experienced while creating them.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era.

Wilson is played by both Paul Dano (1960s) and John Cusack (1990s). The decision to use two actors who don’t look at all alike instead of simply aging Dano through prosthetics seems odd, but it serves to emphasize Wilson’s schizophrenia — not only does he hear voices in his head, but we see two different people inside his skin. Young Wilson is plagued by an abusive father who seems to exacerbate his illness, while the older Wilson is abused by his tyrannical psychiatrist Gene Landy (Paul Giamatti) who eventually lost his medical license for his mistreatment of Wilson.

Despite his debilitating mental illness, Wilson was able to create harmonies and musical arrangements that are considered today among the best of the era. We see him in the studio, pressuring the musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head, and while it is amazing to watch him at work, it is also devastating to see the agony he experiences while trying to get it right. This is the kind of film that could end up winning numerous awards, while earning very little at the box office. It is just too sad to endure.

I had marked dozens of other films that I wanted to see, but there wasn’t enough time and the films I wanted were often scheduled in conflict with each other. I was also distracted by multiple other features of the festival, including a four-day interactive gaming and creative technology show, live music performed at nearly every corner, and crazy good food that you can only get in Austin, and often only from a truck. It was a great experience, and I will definitely be back.




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You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man

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Focus is an entertaining con man caper with enough plot twists and charismatic characters to keep its audience pleasantly engaged and outsmarted. When the charming and handsome Nicky (Will Smith) meets the beautiful and flirtatious Jess (Margot Robbie) he introduces her into his world of the well-planned pocket heist. To quote Liam Neeson in the highly successful Taken franchise, Nicky “has a very particular set of skills,” and he wants to impart those skills to his gorgeous new protégée.

The scenes in which Nicky teaches Jess his craft are the most fascinating of the film. We watch as a team of thieves work gracefully and collaboratively to distract, steal, and conceal in one nearly seamless action. Nicky is kind of a modern day Fagin who oversees a team of confidence men (and women) as they work in sync to lift watches, wallets, credit cards, and jewelry from unsuspecting “marks.” But these thieves aren’t homeless, starving young waifs forced by circumstances into a life of crime; they are intelligent, skilled, well-dressed adults who could earn an honest living but choose instead to steal from others. Moreover, the “marks” in most confidence capers are slightly shady themselves, so the audience feels that they deserve to be bilked. As W. C. Fields famously opined, “You can’t cheat an honest man.”

In many ways a confidence man is like a magician, skillfully using misdirection, charm, and sleight of hand to trick the audience into looking the wrong way.

But in these scenes where Nicky and his team teach Jess the tricks of the trade, they are indeed cheating honest men and women — they are stealing from people who are simply withdrawing money from an ATM, paying a restaurant bill, making their way through a crowd, or apologizing for seeming to have bumped into someone. It’s hard for the audience to laugh at the poor schmucks getting fleeced on the screen when they are doing what we all do, every day. We are amazed and unsettled at the same time — and we might even reach for our wallets to make sure they haven’t been lifted while our focus was on Focus.

In many ways a confidence man is like a magician, skillfully using misdirection, charm, and sleight of hand to trick the audience into looking the wrong way. One of the reasons we are attracted to this genre is that we want to know how they do it, and that contributes to the enjoyment of this film. Good film directors are also adept at using misdirection to create an “aha” moment for the audience, and directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa have the requisite skills to set us up for a satisfying romp. Just be sure to hold onto your wallet if someone happens to tap you on the shoulder.


Editor's Note: Review of "Focus," directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Warner Brothers, 2015, 105 minutes.



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You Can’t Judge a Film by Its Title

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You might expect a film about organized crime and bearing the title A Most Violent Year to be filled with bloody, sadistic mayhem, à la Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. You would be wrong, however, as I was. Yes, there is violence in this story about a heating oil supplier who wants to run his business without paying for protection, without acknowledging mob-determined territorial monopolies, and without engaging in corruption. But it’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

The film takes its title from the fact that it’s set in New York in 1981, statistically one of the most crime-ridden years in the city’s history. Against this background Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is about to complete the biggest deal of his life, purchasing a large oil terminal that will allow him to double or even triple his business. He has already put down a million dollars — in cash — and now has 30 days in which to pay off the remainder, or he will lose his entire deposit. (This isn’t your typical real estate deal brokered by Century 21.) His banker has agreed to lend him the additional million and a half. Abel couldn’t be happier as he and his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) move into their brand new mansion, coincidentally closing that same day.

It’s a believable kind of violence, without guns blazing, cars crashing, and hands being smashed by hammers — the kind that is more likely to exist in real life when an honest businessman tries to compete with a dishonest cartel.

Well, maybe he could be just a little happier. Complicating the consummation of this deal for the oil terminal are two other deals: the Feds are suddenly investigating him for evidence of tax fraud or other crimes, and someone — he doesn’t know who — is threatening his employees by dragging drivers from his delivery trucks and roughing up his sales staff as they meet with potential clients. One of the things I like about this movie is that the employees aren’t the gangland thugs typical of this genre, and they aren’t shooting up everyone in sight. In fact, they aren’t shooting anyone if they can help it. They are ordinary young men and women — mostly white, mostly nervous — who are just trying to make a living at a relatively unskilled job, selling something as mundane as home heating fuel.

Surprisingly, that makes the film more suspenseful, not less. I actually began worrying about the men who deliver heating oil to my home in New York. Might they be involved in territorial warfare? Might they bring this violence into my backyard? The story is true in a way that is rare for Hollywood. They never use the word “Mafia,” and Abel’s name is Morales, not Morelli. The name suggests that he is able to run a business with morality and integrity, even in a city that is crumbling in moral decay.

This is the kind of film that suffers at the box office from not delivering what it seems to promise. Audiences who are drawn to thoughtful, character-driven, metaphorically rich films are likely to avoid it because of its title, while those who expect to see a typically violent and graphic gangster flick will complain that it was too bland and slow (as did many of the viewers in the theater where I saw it). And that’s a shame, because a film like this one, about an honest businessman trying to remain clean in a dirty industry, deserves a larger audience.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Most Violent Year," directed by J. C. Chardor. A24 (a production company that tops the funding list of over two dozen independent production and distribution companies), 2014, 125 minutes.



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Of Love and Violence

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Two films opened during the Valentine’s weekend with hopes of becoming the box office blockbuster of choice, but neither is a traditional date-night romance. One feeds into typical male fantasies, while the other is based on a series of books that has had women swooning for three years. Which won at the box office opening weekend? And more importantly, which is the better film? We decided to switch things up and invite a man to review Fifty Shades of Grey while our entertainment editor, a woman, reviews Kingsman.

First up is the film that met with the most pre-release outrage. Reviews of Fifty have been published with titles such as “Fifty Shades of Smut,” “Fifty Shades of Shame,” and even “Fifty Shades of Dull.” In fact, Fifty Shades of Greyhas met with so much uproar that Kingsman: The Secret Service slipped right under the radar of the morality police. The authors of these reviews have good reason to be concerned about the long-term effects of pornography, especially pornography that focuses on violence. But does Fifty Shades of Grey, edited to receive an R rating rather than NC-17, really fit the definition? We asked film historian Steven DeRosa for his review.

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Fifty Shades of Grey

How does one review the cinematic qualities of a cultural phenomenon? A good rule of thumb is to forget the phenomenon and judge the film on its own merits. In that regard, Fifty Shades of Grey succeeds on a certain level, but suffers under the restraints — no pun intended — of Sam Taylor-Johnson's direction and Kelly Marcel's screenplay. As a movie, Fifty Shades is entertaining to a degree, titillating to an extent, but falls short of the mark in terms of its aspirations. No, Fifty Shades was not aiming to be serious art, but in the spirit of its Valentines' Day weekend opening, this should have been a fun, sexy romp.

At the outset, allow me to disclose that I have not read E.L. James's novel. I should also state that I teach cinema studies at a liberal arts college and include in my curriculum the Steven Shainberg film Secretary (2002). The reason I bring this up is that the character portrayed by James Spader in that film bears the name E. Edward Grey. I am often asked by students if there is a correlation between Spader's Grey and the Grey of Fifty Shades, to which there is no easy answer. Was E.L. James inspired by Secretary?

Grey is somehow so charmed by Anastasia's naiveté, awkwardness, and lip biting that he later stalks her and shows up at the small-town hardware store where she works.

Decades ago, Hollywood churned out weepy melodramas known as "women's pictures." While scarcer, they are still made, and are now referred to as chick flicks. Fifty Shades fits into this category in that it expects its predominantly female audience to identify with the protagonist, Anastasia Steele, whose aim is not so to much attain the unattainable as to tame the untamable. On its most basic level, Fifty Shades succeeds in doing that, yet the film has significantfailings, caused largely by several faults of dramatic structure and partly by a lack of chemistry between the two leading characters, as portrayed by Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan.

The film opens on clumsy, doe-eyed Anastasia Steele, an English major substituting for her friend, journalism major Kate, who was to interview 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey for their school newspaper. Anastasia literally stumbles into Grey's office, and for whatever reason he feels compelled to take pity on her and help her conduct the interview. Grey is somehow so charmed by Anastasia's naiveté, awkwardness, and lip biting that he later stalks her and shows up at the small-town hardware store where she works. Here she helps him with his shopping list of serial killer supplies — two sizes of duct tape, a package of zip ties, and rope. Rather than being alarmed by this, Ana is intrigued.

The odd stalker-like behavior continues when Christian sends Ana a rare edition of Tess of the D'Urbervilles and shows up to "rescue" her one night when she drunk-dials him from a club. All of this is leading to Christian's deflowering of Ana, which comes far too soon. Some of the most romantic movies ever made succeeded simply by keeping the lovers at a distance until it was almost excruciating — think of James Stewart kissing and then losing and losing again Kim Novak in Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, or Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttoning Michelle Pfeiffer's glove to kiss her exposed wrist in Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence.

Even Secretary had the good sense to concentrate on small, intimate details of the characters. At the end of that film's first spanking scene, there is a closeup of the dominant's hand brushing against the submissive's, and she responds by interlocking her pinky with his. This attention to character detail is absent from Fifty Shades, in favor of scenes showing off Grey's toys, and not the ones in his "Red Room of Pain." The scenes involvea more conventionalhelicopter and glider, piloted by him. Grey beds Steele so early in Fifty Shades that, again, there is no tension — dramatic, sexual, or otherwise.

If Ana Steele's goal is to domesticate Christian Grey and turn him into boyfriend material — someone who will take her out to dinner and a movie, cuddle up with her on the couch, and spoon with her on a cold winter's night — he reveals to her too soon that all of this is a distinct possibility. "If you agree to be my submissive, I'll be devoted to you," says Grey. There simply is no tension built up to suggest otherwise. After all, he sleeps in the same bed with her that first night, in spite of protestations that he never does that. If Ana plays along, she'll be able to top from the bottom for the rest of her days with Grey.

Even after the relationship has already been consummated, this bizarre courtship continues with Grey presenting a contract to Ana so they can solidify terms such as safe words, sleeping arrangements, and which activities and toys she will allow Grey to subject her to or use on her. Oddly, the contract negotiation scene is both funny and sexy and one of the few memorable scenes in the movie. The sex and domination scenes do little to connect the audience with either character, so those scenes fall flat.

If Ana plays along, she'll be able to top from the bottom for the rest of her days with Grey.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in Fifty Shades is that it barely scratches the surface of its Christian Grey. At one point in the story, Grey confesses to Ana details about "the woman who gave birth to him." It is a moment in the movie that is quickly glossed over, but is supposed to begin to explain something of the character's backstory. "I had a rough start in life. That's all you need to know," hesays. And that's all we get to know. Thevulnerability caused by this void is an element not fully explored, at least not in this installment, which is obviously a setup for two sequels to come.

Was Fifty Shades of Grey going to be the movie that put BDSM in the mainstream? No. Were sales of wrist restraints and riding crops going to skyrocket overnight? Probably not. Fifty Shades of Grey misses the opportunity to be a very talked about movie for the simple reason that it is so antiseptic and watered down that it could never live up to the imaginations of readers who devoured E. L. James's books. — Steven DeRosa

* * *

Kingsman: The Secret Service

Who needs Mr. Grey when you can have Mr. Darcy? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is one of the most romantic stories ever written, and Colin Firth, who played the dashing and noble Mr. Darcy in the 1995 made-for-TV miniseries, stars as Harry Hart in this homage to James Bond.

Hart is certainly dashing in his impeccable Saville Row suits, and he’s noble too — quite often he sets his umbrella gun to “stun” instead of “AK-47” mode when he’s engaged in battle.

Firth, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of King George VI (The King’s Speech, 2010) is usually cast in more dignified roles, but he is surprisingly perfect as Harry Hart: he is elegant and edgy, unintentionally funny, and sports a newly trimmed-down physique that makes his action sequences — 80% of which he did himself — believable. (Well, as believable as 200 corpses in a single fight can be.)

Hart is one of an elite group of British spies trained in spectacular martial arts whose purpose is to save the world from dastardly masterminds who would rather see it destroyed. In this story, their nemesis is Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Hart? Valentine? Now you understand why the film opened this particular weekend.

The violence is so over the top that it’s cartoonish rather than gruesome, but still — I was looking for my “safe word.”

Kingsman contains all the ingredients of a James Bond film: the evil mastermind who has a physical deformity (Valentine speaks with a lisp); the sultry villainess who has a deadly physical specialty (Valentine’s sidekick, Gazelle [Sofia Boutella], has blades instead of feet and slices her opponents with the accuracy of a delicatessen chef); the spectacular opening scene that is actually the end to a previous episode; multiple exotic settings around the globe; cartoonish fights and chase scenes; and an evil plan that will destroy the world if the master villain isn’t stopped in time.

Writer-director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, Snatch) adds a twist to the James Bond homage by focusing this plot on the recruitment of a new crop of Kingsmen — sort of X-Men: First Class Goes to Spy School. Hart sponsors a smart but troubled teenager named Eggsy (Taron Egerton) as his protégé, and Eggsy is soon part of group of wise-ass teenagers competing against one another in deadly tasks for the honor of becoming a Kingsman.

Meanwhile, the official Kingsmen are engaged in trying to thwart Valentine’s evil plan to dominate the world, and soon the two groups (what’s left of them) join forces. I should probably give you a warning: V may be for Valentine, but it’s also for Violence. Vaughn is the director of Kick Ass, after all. He goes for edgy. The violence is so over the top that it’s cartoonish rather than gruesome, but still — I was looking for my “safe word.” In addition to sliced limbs and spurting blood, you’ll find 50 shades of grey matter exploding in this film, as well as a fireworks display you aren’t likely to forget. And that church scene? It’s all done in a single take. Now that’s impressive.

So who wins the Valentine’s Day contest? RottenTomatoes gives Kingsmen: The Secret Service a 71% critics’ rating, while Fifty Shades of Grey earned a mere 26%. Splat. But the box office tells a different story. Kingsmen earned $35 million during opening weekend, while Fifty Shades brought in more than twice that much, $81 million — and Kingsmen had an extra day, opening on Thursday instead of Friday. It will be interesting to see which film has more staying power in the theaters; I suspect that everyone who was panting to see Mr. Grey has already had enough. — Jo Ann Skousen


Editor's Note: Review of "Kingsmen: The Secret Service," directed by Matthew Vaughn. Twentieth Century Fox, 2015, 129 minutes; and "Fifty Shades of Grey," directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. Focus Features, 2015, 125 minutes (14 minutes and 17 seconds of which are sex scenes).



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Four Films

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Thomas Jefferson famously said of fiction that it is “a mass of trash” and avowed, “A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent for novels” (letter to Nathaniel Burwell, March 14, 1818). He did allow, however, that some fiction “is not without some distinction; some few modeling their narratives . . . on the incidents of real life, have been able to make them interesting and useful vehicles of a sound morality.”

The older generation has long been suspicious of popular culture. I suspect that if Jefferson were alive today, he would abhor the film industry. Indeed, much of it is a “mass of trash.” (Don’t expect an account of Fifty Shades of Grey from this reviewer.) However, I disagree with the premise that fiction is “dangerous” or a waste of time. Fiction takes us to other worlds and other cultures. It challenges us to consider other value systems and allows us to encounter vicariously other trials, triumphs, and obstacles than our own.

This is particularly true of several of the films nominated for the major awards this year, including Best Picture and best leading and supporting actors and actresses. Most of the films nominated in these categories have already been reviewed for Liberty:

In this article I will review four more Oscar-nominated films that take us into worlds we might not have experienced for ourselves and ask us to consider how we might have reacted.

Three of these films focus on women who face profound loss, including the loss of a parent, the loss of a child, and the loss of a sense of self.

* * *

Wild is based on the memoir of Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who hiked 1,000 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, from southern California to Oregon, after the death of her mother (Laura Dern). Strayed selected her surname after her divorce, and it fits her wandering personality. She has strayed far from the normal path to happiness, and she knows it. She is trying to get back on track.

She begins her journey in the way I probably would: she purchases the best supplies and equipment, carefully folds and organizes everything she will need for the journey, and arranges it all neatly and tightly in her backpack. Then she fills her cloth containers with water and straps herself in. But she can’t stand up. She doesn’t have the strength to lift the enormous weight. Undaunted, she rolls onto her knees, her backpack resembling the shell of a turtle, and slowly pulls herself upright. When I saw that,I laughed ruefully, knowing I would probably have done the same thing.

This girl might not be prepared physically, but she is determined not to give up. She tells herself, “You can quit,” with every arduous step she takes, but that freedom of choice seems to drive her forward. No one is making her do this, and because of that she keeps going.

Along the way she has plenty of time to think and grow strong. “I’m an experimentalist,” she says; “I’m the girl who says ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’” But “yes” often comes with unintended consequences, and the wanton consequences of her often reckless and destructive choices flash onto the screen unbidden and unwanted, the way painful memories often flash unexpectedly into our consciousness. We turn away from the images on the screen, as a person turns away from difficult or painful images in the mind. “Problems don’t stay problems — they turn into something else,” Cheryl tells another hiker whom she meets on the trail. Facing these experiences and turning them into something else is the purpose of her journey.

Mothering and housework aren’t chores to get through so you can get on with “real life”; mothering is something. It’s an important part of everything.

The editing of the flashbacks within the story of her trek is highly effective throughout the film, particularly the flashbacks to memories of her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern, also nominated for an Oscar), who has recently died of cancer. Cheryl has conflicted memories of her mother. She is angry at her for choosing an abusive alcoholic as a husband and a father of her children. At the same time, she admires her mother’s courage in leaving that abusive marriage and returning to college to become a teacher. She chastises her mother for taking time away from her studies to fix dinner for her brother and his friend; “He’s 18! You don’t have to do everything for him. You have a paper to write.” Mostly she misses her mother’s radiant glow and love for life and everything in it. These memories are intertwined and nonlinear, as deeply conflicted emotions usually are. She doesn’t come to a chronological realization that she loved her mother. It’s always there, along with the anger.

Bobbi’s reaction to Cheryl’s “you don’t have to do everything” gets at the heart of this film and made me love her too. “But I want to do everything!” she exclaims, as though the thought should be apparent. And “everything” includes cooking for her family, playing with her children and telling them stories when they are young, loving them and nurturing them. Mothering and housework aren’t chores to get through so you can get on with “real life”; mothering is something. It’s an important part of everything.

In the end, through this 1,000-mile trek, Bobbi teaches Cheryl how to live without regret. “Is it possible to be sorry for something you’ve done, yet not want to change anything, because it brought you here?” Cheryl muses. Being able to answer that question with a joyful “Yes” makes a journey like hers worth every blistered, bloody step.

* * *

Jennifer Aniston was not nominated for an Oscar for her role in Cake, but many critics thought she should have been, and she was nominated by the Screen Actors Guild for their top award, so we are including her performance in this review.

First you notice the scars. They feather in soft white lines across her cheek, under her chin, into her open neckline. Next you notice the way she moves — gingerly and cautiously, with deliberate care. Her head doesn’t turn on her neck; instead, she moves her whole body from the waist to address a person standing next to her. She doesn’t look up, but tips backward to see into the person’s face. In her eyes we see not only the pain of sorrow but also the pain of physical agony.

As Cake opens, Claire (Aniston) is attending a support group for people with chronic pain. The facilitator is encouraging members to express their feelings about the recent suicide of one of their group, Nina (Anna Kendrick). Claire becomes fascinated by Nina’s choice to end her life and begins to dream and hallucinate about Nina, eventually contacting Nina’s husband, Roy (Sam Worthington). Gradually we learn what has happened to Claire, and it is indeed horrific.

There are certain agonies no one can understand except a person who has experienced them firsthand. This is one of them, so I have no vantage point from which to judge the way Aniston plays this role. I haven’t the right to judge how a person facing her particular grief reacts. I can’t say, “This is how she should play the part.”

Having said that, I still want something different from this character. I want her to be more like me, or more like I think I would be if I experienced the same thing — though how can I know, since I never have (and hope I never will) had the experience myself? It has been said that adversity does not build character, it reveals it, and in this film adversity reveals a character bereft of strength or courage. I want to say to her, “Choose life, or choose death, but don’t choose this!” If one purpose of fiction is to allow us to consider how we would react if we were in the protagonist’s shoes, I want to believe that I would be stronger and more courageous than this.

I’m reminded of the husband in Robert Frost’s “Home Burial” who tries to empathize with his wife’s inconsolable sorrow after the death of their toddler: “Let me into your grief,” he begs. “Give me my chance.” But then he adds, rather insensitively, “I do think, though, you overdo it a little . . . in the face of love.” And there you have it. People grieve differently. Some need to be utterly alone in their grief, while others crave the company and support of others. Neither is wrong, because we are entitled to grieve in our own way. But it is painfully more difficult to survive tragedy when one personality type is married to the other.

It has been said that adversity does not build character, it reveals it, and in this film adversity reveals a character bereft of strength or courage.

Similar to the wife in this poem, Aniston’s character does “overdo it a little” — yet she underdoes it at the same time. Claire is consumed by pain, both physical and emotional. She is incapable of connecting with people, even those who love her and want to help. But while Claire overdoes it, Aniston underdoes it. To a certain extent she is still Rachel Green of Friends, mooning over her on-again, off-again romance with Ross and fretting over the petty concerns of her coffee-shop life. Claire has Rachel’s perfect hair, framing her perfect oval head and her perfect rosebud lips. Miraculously the scars have avoided marring her nose, her eyes, and her mouth — and she speaks almost the way Rachel does in the episode where she trips and bites her lip (please don’t ask why I know this).

Sometimes Aniston also forgets her character’s limitations. For example, while she does move cautiously from the waist to talk to a person next to her, she is unaccountably able to lower herself to poolside for a water therapy session in one smooth, agile gesture, without reaching out to balance herself or hold her weight up gingerly from her damaged legs. These jarring moments cause me to think that the Academy got it right in overlooking Aniston for the Oscar nomination. And it isn’t a very good movie, either.

* * *

The loss of a parent, a child, or a close friend (Wild, Cake, Foxcatcher, American Sniper, The Judge, etc.) is understandably devastating. The loss of physical ability caused by illness or injury can be just as traumatic (The Theory of Everything, Cake, etc.) The loss of mental capacity through the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease is explored in Still Alice, a filmabout Columbia professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), who suffers early onset Alzheimer’s at the age of 50, at the height of her career as a teacher, writer, and lecturer in, ironically, linguistics — the study of language.

Any film about senility, Alzheimer’s, or mental decline runs the risk of becoming slow, maudlin, and depressing; witness Amour, the 2012 Oscar nominee about an octogenarian couple struggling with the wife’s mental and physical decline after she has a stroke — a movie that was, by all accounts, slow, maudlin, and depressing. (Even the film’s own IMDB page acknowledged that it leaves audiences in a “pensive, quiet, — even downcast — mood.”)

That Still Alice avoids this inherent problem is due entirely to its casting of Julianne Moore in the title role. Most films of this type tell the story through the eyes and experience of the family watching the slow disintegration, but writer-director Richard Glatzer had the courage to tell this story from the point of view of the person who has the disease herself. This format invites the audience to experience along with her the gradual loss of cognitive recognition and the determination to hold on to her sense of self for as long as possible.

It’s ironic that the new American Dream eschews the accumulation of material goods in favor of accumulating memories — yet in the end, all Alice will recognize will be material things.

Glatzer uses the camera’s focus to demonstrate both the fog of Alice’s forgetfulness and the sharpness of her intellect. In one moment we are running with her through Central Park on a perfect, crisp fall day; in the next moment we are surrounded by blurred buildings and the confusion of wondering where we are. The technique is used effectively throughout the film to demonstrate how her memory comes and goes as the disease progresses. The story focuses on the early stages of Alzheimer’s, when she knows what is happening and remains engaged in the fight against it, while preparing for the inevitability. She pores over photo albums, watches home movies, writes notes to herself, plans family trips and “one last times” as she struggles to stay connected to who she once was. It is sad, yes, but also heroic and admirable. She will neither give up nor give in.

Alice’s husband and children react in different ways. Her husband (Alec Baldwin) tries to be sympathetic, but he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t want to discuss it, as though discussion means acceptance. He grows impatient and often leans away from her when they sit side by side. I don’t fault him in this. It’s tough to watch the person you love and respect for her charm and intellect turn into someone entirely different. But it’s even tougher to see the person you love and rely on pull away from you in the hour of your greatest need.

Ironically, it is Alice’s youngest daughter, Lydia (Kristen Stewart), who gives her the most support. Ironically, because before the onset, Lydia was the rebel who fought against her mother. Ironically, because Lydia is an actress whose craft relies on memorizing lines. Ironically, because Lydia gains understanding for her roles and a deepening of her talent through observing the suffering — no, through the struggling, Alice would say — of her mother. And ironically, because Kristen Stewart has never been a particularly good actress, but in this role she is at her very best.

It’s ironic, too, that the new American Dream eschews the accumulation of material goods in favor of accumulating experiences — that is, memories — yet in the end, all Alice will recognize will be material things. As she describes what it’s like to have Alzheimer’s, Alice says, “All my life I've accumulated memories — they've become, in a way, my most precious possessions. The night I met my husband, the first time I held my textbook in my hands. Having children, making friends, traveling the world. Everything I accumulated in life, everything I've worked so hard for — now all that is being ripped away.” This realization, spoken with such eloquence and dignity, rips at our hearts. Still Alice is a film that brings many tears to the audience, but it is not maudlin or depressing. It is a celebration of the indomitable spirit that leads us to keep hanging on until the last light goes out.

* * *

Selma is an Oscar nominee that also takes us to another world and challenges us to consider how we might have reacted to the values of another time and culture. The film focuses on Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and the historic 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery to demand equal voting rights for African-Americans.

As most students of American history will recall, the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution had established the right for all American males over the age of 21 to vote, but enforcement of those amendments had often been left up to the individual counties in each state; and in the South, it was almost impossible for new voters to register. Among other requirements designed as barriers to registration, first-time registrants had to pass a literacy test made of difficult civics questions; pay a poll tax; and provide a voucher from a registered voter who would “vouch” for them as residents of the county — and few white voters were willing to risk the ire of their neighbors by vouching for a black voter. White voters could circumvent these barriers through “grandfather laws” stating that if their fathers or grandfathers had voted prior to 1867, they were allowed to vote without passing the tests — and no Southern blacks could vote prior to 1866 or 1867.

Although President Johnson eventually signed the Civil Rights Bill, it was not government that came to the rescue.

The film demonstrates the unwarranted violence and outright brutality that was perpetrated against African-Americans at this time: churches blown up, citizens chased down and beaten with billy clubs, unarmed activists shot and killed by police officers. FBI agents tapped Dr. King’s phones, watched his house, and recorded his movements. Yet King also had the ear of the White House and met frequently with President Johnson. It was an era of ambiguity as government scrambled to keep up with changing public opinion.

King knew that a change this significant could not be accomplished through black activism alone. “I want to raise white consciousness, and that requires drama,he says in the film.I want to be in their papers in the morning and on their TVs at night.” President Johnson might not have liked it, but he could not ignore it.

Although President Johnson eventually signed the Civil Rights Bill, it was not government that came to the rescue. Those are police officers wielding clubs and blocking the road; FBI agents tapping phones and spying on the activists’ movements; government officials creating onerous rules to hinder voting registration. Democratically elected government is by its very nature conservative, with a strong instinct for self-survival. Government tends to maintain the status quo until enough pressure is brought from the people to enact a change. By the same token, laws cannot change public opinion or personal beliefs. Persuasion, not force, is the key to lasting and peaceful change.

Despite its significance in dramatizing a turning point in history, Selma is strangely uncompelling. It has moments of intensity when these acts of violence occur, but Oyelowo simply does not possess the charisma to portray King convincingly. His oratory is not fiery and his ability to inspire is lacking. This might be partly because of the fact that King’s own words could not be used in the film due to copyright restrictions, so director Ada DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb had to paraphrase his speeches. Moreover, the film barely skims the surface of controversy surrounding his personal life. And then there’s Oprah Winfrey, inserting herself into the center of nearly every scene where violence occurs — even in the closing credits, there she is in the center of the photograph.Winfrey is far too well known as a TV personality to be convincing as an actor any longer, and her presence breaks the fictional barrier necessary for a film to be believable.

Laws cannot change public opinion or personal beliefs. Persuasion, not force, is the key to lasting and peaceful change.

The best part of this film occurs at the very end, when footage from the actual march is included.There are Sammy Davis, Jr., Harry Belafonte, and Lena Horne. More importantly, there are hundreds of ordinary people who marched for a cause they believed was just — and a third of the marchers were white. King was right — they needed to raise white consciousness in order to effect a lasting change. The ending credits are powerful too, as we realize how many future leaders participated in the march — men such as future Alabama congressman John Lewis, future mayor of Atlanta and ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, and minister-activist Ralph Abernathy (King’s right-hand man, who has been all but exorcised from civil rights history for having had the audacity to write about King’s extramarital affair the night before his death).

Selma asks us to consider on which side of the bridge we would have stood that day, and by association, on which side of “justice for all” we stand today. It’s good, but with a better script and a better actor, it could have been great.


Editor's Note: Review of "Wild," directed by Jean-Marc Vallee. Fox Searchlight, 2014, 115 minutes; "Cake," directed by Daniel Barnz. Cinelou, 2014, 102 minutes; "Still Alice," directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Sony Pictures Classics, 2014, 101 minutes; and "Selma," directed by Ava DuVernay. Cloud Eight Productions, 2014, 128 minutes.



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Astonishing Life, Astonishing Performance

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Stephen Hawking is the most celebrated and renowned physicist of our time, not only because of his astounding theory about time, but also because of his personal struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). He has spent his career searching for that “once simple, elegant equation that would prove everything.”

If you, too, are looking for clues to Hawking’s elusive equation, The Theory of Everything isn’t the place to look. Although it does contain a few brief and basic conversations about Hawking’s research along the lines of “quantum theory governs subatomic particles; relativity governs the planets,” the film decidedly is not about physics.

Instead, it is an intensely personal film about how a family copes with the day-to-day emotional and physical trauma caused by a debilitating disease. And yet, it’s not about that either. Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years. It is a horrifying disease that gradually destroys the body from the outside in. Known variously as “motor neuron disease,” “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” and more recently “ALS,” it prevents the brain from communicating with the muscles, first in the extremities (hands and feet) and finally in the torso, face, and organs. The brain continues to think, but it can’t direct the muscles to move. It is simply devastating, and most people succumb soon after diagnosis.

But not Stephen Hawking. And I want to know why. Fifty years! I want to know something about the medical treatment and the personal regimen that have made the difference for him. Is it because he has such a strong sense of purpose and satisfaction derived from his research? Is it because he doesn’t believe in the “better place” that makes it easier for believers to “shuffle off this mortal coil”? Or is it because he can afford the reported millions it costs each year for round-the-clock healthcare and personal assistance? The film completely ignores these issues, so if you’re looking for a theory, either of astrophysics or of medical physics, you won’t find it.

Stephen Hawking has managed to survive for half a century with a disease that kills most people in less than two years.

The Theory of Everything is a love story. It includes the giddiness of first love, the devastation of being rejected, the warm settling in of married life, the trauma of dealing with chronic illness, the addition of children, and even the conflicts of infidelity. Stephen’s wry boyish smile belies the crippling devastation of his body and lights his face with charm and desirability. The emotional connection between Stephen (Eddie Redmayne) and Jane (Felicity Jones) is so raw and so tender that it sometimes feels like an intrusion to watch. The stunning musical score by Johann Johannsson contributes to the emotion of the film and will keep you in your seat through the final credits.

In short, The Theory of Everything is more Jane’s story than Stephen’s. According to the tag line of the film, “His mind changed our world. Her love changed his.” This should not be surprising, since the screenplay is based on Jane Hawking’s memoirs, Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen (2007) and Music to Move the Stars: A Life with Stephen (1999). But it also very well may be true that her influence helped him continue his research and live, not as an invalid but as a scholar. Hawking himself has said that the film is “broadly true” and said of Eddie Tremayne’s performance, “At times, I thought he was me.”

Indeed, Eddie Redmayne is the reason this film works so well. He studied with therapists and dance instructors to learn how to isolate his muscles and contort them in just the right way so that he never becomes a caricature of Hawking but remains an embodiment of him. He expresses devastating frustration, unending optimism, witty charm, emotional pain, and tender love, all within the confines of a deteriorating body. Despite the pain, his eyes, his mind, and his smile remain bright. Both Hawking and Redmayne are remarkable.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Theory of Everything," directed by James Marsh. Working Title Films, 2014, 123 minutes.



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Brilliant and Troubling

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Unless you’ve had your head under a rock for the past month, you have heard the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Known as the deadliest sniper in American history, he served four tours of duty in Iraq, during which time he was credited with killing over 160 people (some say the actual number is twice that), was shot three times, endured multiple surgeries, and was awarded two Silver Stars, five Bronze Stars, and numerous other honors. After retiring from active duty, Kyle spent the rest of his short life working with disabled veterans to help them overcome their physical and psychological injuries.

American Sniper tells the Chris Kyle story. It has been nominated for six Academy Awards and has entered superhero territory at the box office, raking in over $100 million in its first wide-release weekend, more than the total combined earnings of the other nominees for Best Picture and likely enough to break director Clint Eastwood’s personal box office records. And with good reason: American Sniper is tight, intense, and emotionally disturbing, the way a war movie ought to be. It takes us into the fray with the soldiers, while also keeping us at home with the families who fear for their lives. In one memorable scene, Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) listens in anguish to the battle exploding around her husband when his squad is caught in a street fight and he drops his phone without disconnecting it. In that same scene, an Iraqi family friendly to the Americans is caught in a terrifying standoff with a man known as “The Butcher.” The juxtaposition of two families on opposite sides of the globe vying for one man’s protection is emotionally overwhelming. I cried.

When Bradley Cooper bought the movie rights to Chris Kyle’s memoir, he intended to serve as producer with Chris Pratt in the title role. Pratt is the right build and look, and could have been a good choice. But Cooper is brilliant. I have often commented in these reviews on the intensity and clarity of Cooper’s eyes. He can communicate the thoughts, emotions, and complexity of a character without moving a muscle or uttering a word. Those eyes serve him superbly well in this role, in which, as a sniper, he often waits motionless, searching the distance, ready to squeeze the trigger. Through his eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat. Through those eyes we see a man who, like so many soldiers, returns home safe, but not sound.

When Iraqis see this film, will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Several cinematic nuances contribute to the brilliance of the film. At one point, the camera focuses in through the lens of Kyle’s rifle’s sights, magnifying his deadly eye. I was reminded of a scene from Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” when Farquhar, a condemned Confederate saboteur, looks up from the river toward the Union soldier who is trying to shoot him: “The man in the water saw the eye of the man on the bridge gazing into his own through the sights of the rifle.” An impossible feat, of course — just as impossible as Kyle’s ability to see a sniper 2,000 yards away. And yet, he does. In another scene, we see an homage to Frank Sinatra in Von Ryan’s Express as a dust storm swirls relentlessly around the soldiers. These subtle allusions magnify the emotion and intensity of the storytelling.

So what about the controversy swirling around this film? Much of it stems from the fact that Chris Kyle’s kills did not occur randomly in the heat of battle, but with deadly calm and careful aim taken from neighborhood rooftops. Somehow it is considered honorable and acceptable to kill hundreds of enemies on the battlefield with bombs and machine guns, but pick them off one by one — and admit that you love doing it — and you become a sadistic, calculating murderer.

Kyle is portrayed as a red-white-and-blue patriot who fights, as he often says, to protect Americans. But the film is far from jingoistic. It presents a balanced picture of the aftermath of war — honorable soldiers with doubts about America’s mission, other soldiers mangled and maimed from injuries, still others suffering from PTSD; children growing up without their fathers, and wives suffering from loneliness, fear, and anxiety. It even presents the fearful experience of the enemy, with scenes of Americans bursting into homes while screaming vulgarities and waving rifles in the faces of terrified women and children — hardly an image of patriotism or moral rectitude in the free world.

Watching these events, even from the perspective of a highly decorated Navy SEAL, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the Iraqis. Who do we think we are, rolling through their towns with tanks and jeeps, smashing up their roads, blowing up their buildings, and bursting into their homes with guns drawn and trigger-fingers itchy? And when Iraqis (and other Middle Easterners) see this film, how will they feel? Will they want to send their best snipers to our rooftops to pick off our children and mothers and grandfathers?

Through Cooper's eyes we see at various times cold determination, impassioned anguish, psychological uncertainty, and bitter defeat.

Traditionally, wars have been fought on battlefields, away from home and civilians. Soldiers die and resources are used up until, finally, one side surrenders, and the conflict ends. By contrast, this is a war fought not only on the home front, but also in it. Middle East soldiers live at home with their families, and they attack in packs. Kyle observed the worst of those “pack attacks” on September 11, 2001, when 19 warriors turned four passenger jets into weapons, killing 3,000 civilians (and some military personnel) as they were starting their work day. This, he says, was his motivation for enduring the grueling training required to become a SEAL and go to war. America had been attacked. But it’s hard to justify a war that goes on and on, where soldiers continue to die and resources continue to be used up, but no one seems ready to surrender.

Historically there have been four excuses for going to war: 1) to expand one’s borders; 2) to plunder resources; 3) to change a culture and belief system perceived as immoral; and 4) to defend oneself from aggressors. Only the final two are remotely justifiable, but in this war, none of these reasons is being observed. We aren’t enriching ourselves; we aren’t changing anything; and we wouldn’t need to defend ourselves if we weren’t there. And there are only two smart ways to deal with a hornet’s nest: either smash it entirely, or leave it alone. Unless we are willing to do the former, we ought to do the latter. The most dangerous approach is to poke at it but leave it intact.

American Sniper is stirring the conversation, and that’s a good thing. It’s also a brilliantly made film, better in many ways than Saving Private Ryan, and deserves the accolades it is receiving. No matter how you feel about war, this is a film worth seeing and discussing.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Sniper," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 137 minutes.



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Wrestling with Reality

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I’m well aware of the old adage, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” so I approach films that proclaim themselves to be “based on a true story” with a healthy dose of skepticism. In the case of Foxcatcher, nominated this week for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actor, a phrase used tongue-in-cheek by last year’s American Hustle is more a propros: “A part of this actually happened.”

Some of what we see in Foxcatcher is true: brothers Mark and David Schultz (played in the film by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo) actually did both win gold medals for wrestling in the 1984 Olympics (in different weight divisions). David did find success as a coach and trainer post-Olympics, while Mark struggled financially (wrestlers aren’t the most marketable athletes for selling toothpaste and breakfast cereal, even when they have gold medals; as one character sniffs in the film, “Wrestling is so low”). Wealthy chemical heir John du Pont (played by Steve Carell) did fancy himself a wrestling coach and did build a state-of-the art wrestling facility on his farm called Foxcatcher. Both Schultz brothers did work as coaches and trainers for du Pont’s team, although never at the same time. From what I can discern, eyewitnesses say that the shocking ending of the film is quite accurate in terms of what happened, but not necessarily in terms of why it happened. New motives have been manufactured for this tale.

However, the middle of the film “doesn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story,” and the story is admittedly much more interesting with the two brothers working at Foxcatcher together, where they display a family dynamic — two brothers abandoned as toddlers by their father (also not true) — that resonates almost voyeuristically with viewers, especially as it is juxtaposed against the bizarre and painful filial dynamic between du Pont and his cold and haughty mother (Vanessa Redgrave) as portrayed — that is, fictionalized — in the film.

When Carell's du Pont smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill.

This story focuses on loneliness: the loneliness of gold medalist Mark Schultz as he gives talks to middle schoolers for 20 bucks a pop and eats ramen noodles for dinner because they are filling and can be purchased 10 for a dollar; the loneliness of John du Pont, who has everything money can buy — even friends and medals — but relates to his own mother from a distance; and the loneliness of a mother who cannot accept or appreciate her son and his choices. Mark is looking for a father figure, and du Pont is looking for someone to parent. They fall into these roles through a pathetic sense of desperation.

Only David seems to have a grasp on reality. Married to a smart and sassy wife (Sienna Miller) with two adorable children, he doesn’t need the money or the glory du Pont dangles in front of him. But he does need to protect his brother, and that’s what (in the film) lures him to Foxcatcher. The relationship between these two brothers is deep, intimate, and exclusive, and the two actors fall into their roles with a vulnerability seldom seen on screen between men. In an early scene they prepare for a training session in an elegant, graceful warmup dance. They nuzzle each other like animals testing each other’s strength. Neck-to-neck they press into each other’s shoulders, and then roll across to face each other from the other direction, hands on the other’s back or ribcage, becoming increasingly aggressive as they warm for the match.

Into this relationship comes John du Pont, trying to buy a team, a medal, and a sense of importance. Steve Carell, known for his bumbling comedic roles in TV’s The Office and such movies asGet Smart and Date Night, is about as unlikely a casting decision as one could imagine for the crazed, withdrawn du Pont. But director Bennett Miller could see beyond the comedic roles that have marked Carell’s career. “I think all comedians are dark,” Miller said after casting Carell, and indeed Carell plays du Pont with a reserved aggression that never breaks character. He peers down his large (prosthetic) nose with eyes that are distant and unreadable. When he smiles he reveals teeth and gums, reminiscent of a shark unhinging its jaw for a kill. The real Mark Schultz has said of the real du Pont, “Everything about him was weird, from the dyed red Ronald McDonald hair with layers of dandruff in the roots to his dark yellow teeth, caked with food.” Carell captures this benign yet dangerous person perfectly.

How could someone so disgusting, unlikeable, and antisocial secure a corner for himself as a trainer and a sponsor for USA Wrestling? If the film is to be believed (and remember, it’s “based on a true story”), you can buy just about anything in this world with money. Nonprofit organizations purport to put their cause first, but in reality, the buyer is always right — and in the nonprofit world, the buyer is the one donating the money. It’s not a happy system, but until wrestlers and artists and others who enjoy esoteric pursuits can find a way to sell their efforts directly to the consumers, it’s the only one we have.


Editor's Note: Review of "Foxcatcher," directed by Bennett Miller. Annapurna Pictures, 2014, 129 minutes.



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Sad-Eyed Waifs, Sad-Eyed Wife

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The ’60s were a time of turbulent transition not only in attitudes about war, poverty, and race relations, but also in attitudes about art. If Andy Warhol could paint a reproduction of a soup can or Jackson Pollock could dribble paint on a canvas or Mark Rothko could lavish shades of red on the walls of the Four Seasons and all of them could call it art (and charge lavish prices, I might add), what else might be considered the next great breakthrough in art?

Within this changing atmosphere an artist named Keane became famous for paintings of big-eyed waifs in somber settings. Celebrities scrambled to own the works; museums gladly accepted them; even the United Nations has a Keane in its permanent art collection. In a craze that would be repeated in the 1990s by the wildly popular “cottage art” of Thomas Kinkade, Keane’s waifs began showing up everywhere — in high class galleries, celebrities’ homes (Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, and Red Skelton are some of the actors who owned original portraits of themselves with the trademark big eyes) as well as on greeting cards, posters, and the bedroom walls of middle class America. I remember copying the big-eyed style when I was in grade school and longing to have a framed waif for my room, just as all my friends did.

But who was this artist named Keane? And what was the real reason for the big-eyed success of this relatively one-dimensional art? These two questions are addressed in the new biopic Big Eyes, which has already received several Golden Globe nominations. The film is based on Margaret Keane’s assertion, upheld in court, that she painted the waifs, while her husband Walter claimed the credit for them. This fine film examines mid-century gender roles while providing insights into issues related to plagiarism, marketing, and art appreciation.

If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one.

Margaret (Amy Adams) is portrayed as a victim of 1950s biases and cultural restrictions. When she leaves her husbands (two marriages end in divorce) she does so furtively, sneaking away instead of confronting them and facing their problems. “I’ve never acted freely,” she complains at one point. “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother,” thusechoing Nora Helmer’s epiphany at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). When she applies for a job, the potential employer asks, “Does your husband approve of your working?” Later, when she complains to Walter (Christoph Waltz) about how it makes her feel to see him being praised for the work she has created, he explains with a shrug and a smile, “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art.”

This is Walter’s justification for letting the public assume that he, not his wife, is the “Keane” whose name appears at the bottom of the canvas. If the Keanes want to make a living selling Margaret’s paintings, Walter willhave to be the frontman. The value of art, more than that ofany other commodity or product, lies in the eye of the beholder. Its price is determined not by the cost of the materials or the time and labor that go into its production (indeed, Margaret knocks out one painting in 53 minutes) but purely by supply and demand, or perceived scarcity and perceived desirability. If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one. In fact, Andy Warhol is quoted (perhaps ironically), “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Were these paintings any good? Not really. They might have seemed haunting and evocative at first glance, but they were kitschy and uninspiring, even eerie, especially as they became mass produced. The real genius behind their popularity and sales was Walter Keane and his marketing strategy. Charming, gregarious, and mendacious, he knew how to stir up interest and create media sensations. In the film he presents celebrity portraits as publicgifts, sends unsolicited paintings to museums, and even convinces the World’s Fair committee to accept a painting of the world’s children (“Tomorrow Forever”) as the official mural of the Fair without even going through a selection committee. Christoph Waltz portrays Walter with gleeful joy and unmitigated enthusiasm. He sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. Art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) is outraged by Keane’s popularity and rabid in his determination to bring down the waifs.

Plagiarism and intellectual property are central issues in this film, but so is the value of marketing. Would Margaret have made any money from her paintings without Walter’s marketing? Can Walter be accused of stealing Margaret’s work if he does it with Margaret’s full knowledge, consent and collaboration? Are they committing fraud against their customers simply because the work was done by Mrs. instead of Mr.? Have the paintings lost their value because they were painted by a woman, or might a new scandal increase their value by giving thema renewed notoriety (just as this film is likely to increase their value again)? Did Jane Eyre become a less significant work when it was discovered that Charlotte Brontë, not Currer Bell, wrote it?

Big Eyes offers a rich but disturbing look at the culture of the 1950s and 1960s — not just the formal culture of art, but the chauvinistic culture of accepted mores and gender roles. The film is a reminder of the many women who have stood silently in the shadows doing a husband’s work, or doing their own work with a masculine pseudonym, in a time when “people didn’t buy lady art” or “lady books” or “lady science.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Big Eyes," directed by Tim Burton. The Weinstein Company, 2014, 104 minutes.



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