From Cheesy to Classy

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Blumhouse has become one of my favorite production companies. Founded in 2009 by Jason Blum, its original formula was to produce low-budge horror films such as Paranormal Activity and the Purge series, and then release them quickly through the studio system, relying on the public’s lust for cheap thrills to create profits. These films didn’t appeal to me personally, but the formula worked: Paranormal Activity, which cost $15,000 to produce, grossed $93 million worldwide.

Blum has a knack for recognizing directorial talent and then trusting his directors to bring their vision to the screen. Before long he began attracting directors with strong storytelling and filmmaking skills, while managing to stay within the low-budget formula, making seven-figure films that gross nine- and ten-figure profits.

Who would have thought a producer of low-budget horror films would be seeing “Oscar nominated” in front of his film titles?

One of my students had the opportunity to work with him two summers ago, and her internship project (an homage to Hitchcock) was so good that I invited her to screen it at the annual Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in Las Vegas. Blum has partnered with several top-quality writer-directors, including Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), M. Night Shyamalan (Split, Glass), and Christopher B. Landon, a prolific screenwriter whose Happy Death Day series is as funny as it is scary, using wit and tension instead of gore and horror to produce a hand-grabbing thrill ride that’s perfect for date night.

Another relative newcomer, Damien Chazelle, directed the excellent Oscar-nominated drama Whiplash for Blumhouse. His next stop? Another Oscar favorite, La La Land. And Jordan Peele knocked it out of the park with Get Out, a scary movie that is also a masterpiece of literary and historical allusion. Who would have thought a producer of low-budget horror films would be seeing “Oscar nominated” in front of his film titles? Yet that’s what happened to Blum with Get Out, Whiplash, and BlacKkKlansman.

So when Blumhouse produces, I pay attention.The Invisible Man is the latest in its stable of high-class scary movies, and it’s a winner. Based on H.G. Wells’ science fiction novel and containing numerous homages to the 1933 cinematic classic starring Claude Rains, it manages to maintain Blum’s formula of low-budget, high-quality filmmaking: just $7 million to produce, despite all the high-tech special effects, yet it grossed four times that amount in its first weekend alone.

Beyond the walls, a storm is brewing over the sea to match the storm that is brewing in the bedroom.

The film is classy, atmospheric, and intense. It opens on a sleeping Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss) slowly pulling back her silky coverlet to reveal a seemingly disembodied hand resting on her waist. The effect is reminiscent of Jack Woltz pulling back the covers to reveal the horse’s head in The Godfather. The camera dollies back, revealing the man attached to the hand, as Cecilia cautiously and tremblingly detaches it from her waist — inch by inch, and holding her breath. Clearly, someone has made an offer someone else should have refused, and now she is making her escape.

The camera pulls back further to reveal a room with invisible walls (because they are floor-to-ceiling windows). Beyond the walls, a storm is brewing over the sea to match the storm that is brewing in the bedroom. The deep, sonorous sound of a tuba playing a single note in its lowest register vibrates through the scene and the camera’s point of view creates a predatory sensation as we watch Cecelia fumble with her clothes and then tiptoe frantically out of the house. Both create exquisite tension. We don’t know what has happened in that house, but we know it isn’t good.

Cecilia hides out at the home of her friend James (Aldis Hodge), but she is soon convinced that her husband (for that’s who the sleeping man was), Adrian Griffin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), has managed to make himself invisible and is trying either to kill her or to drive her mad. (Fans of H.G. Wells will recognize the significance of Adrian’s last name.) The fact that she has a prescription for Diazepam causes us to think it might all be in her head. And yet . . . watch the flame that slowly brightens under the skillet where she is cooking breakfast. Is she crazy? Or is she being gaslit?

We don’t know what has happened in that house, but we know it isn’t good.

I don’t want to give too much away, so just trust me — The Invisible Man is a scary movie in the grandest sense of the genre, full of tension, atmosphere, comic relief, and more tension. It’s as much psychological thriller as it is murder mystery, without the gore of last season’s Joker (although there is some blood), and just as engaging.

And trust me about Blumhouse too — Jason Blum has the magic touch for finding great writer-directors and guiding them to become masters of suspense. Yes, he still does the blood-and-gore stuff too, so I don’t watch everything he produces. But I’m very excited about his new Monster Movies series for Universal Studios based on such classics as The Invisible Man, Frankenstein, and Dracula. If you like to be scared but not petrified, I think you’ll enjoy them too.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Invisible Man," directed by Leigh Whannell. Blumhouse, 2020, 124 minutes.



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The Immortal Jane Austen

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The summer I first met Jane Austen I was so enamored of the world she created and the people with whom she populated it that I devoured all six books in rapid succession. I looked up greedily from Northanger Abbey with shreds of newsprint trapped in my ink-stained canines, my eyes bulging with fatigue, screaming, “More! More! I need more!” It was the 20th-century version of binge watching on Netflix.

Well, maybe I was a bit more reserved than that. But you get the picture. I love the genteel world of Jane Austen and her controlled, ironic wit as she unmasks the snobbery, greed, and elitism lurking in the upper class. I wish she had written a dozen more seasons — I mean, novels.

So it was with happy anticipation that I went to a screening of the latest version of Emma, Austen’s tale of woefully misguided matchmaking in rural England.

I looked up greedily with shreds of newsprint trapped in my ink-stained canines, my eyes bulging with fatigue, screaming, “More! More! I need more!”

The film begins with the wedding of Emma’s governess (Gemma Whelan) to Mr. Weston (Rupert Graves), a wealthy and congenial neighboring landowner. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is so proud of her part in bringing the two lovers together that she names herself the community matchmaker and sets out to manipulate who should marry whom among her circle of friends.

The ensuing plot has all the intricacies and misunderstandings of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Emma becomes Pygmalion to Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), a girl of uncertain status in this status-conscious village because of her uncertain paternity, and decides to groom her for society. Harriet has previously fallen in love with Mr. Martin (Connor Swendells), a ruggedly handsome local farmer, and Mr. Martin loves Harriet too, but Emma thinks the Reverend Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor) would be a better match for a friend in her social circle. Emma convinces Harriet of Mr. Elton’s devotion, but he prefers Emma, who has set her cap for Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who actually loves Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), who seems to love Mr. Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who has also won the fickle young Harriet’s heart . . . Of course all comes out right in the end, no thanks to sweet Emma’s meddling.

Although the story was written in 1815, its plot and characters have continued to ring true for two hundred years, and not just in high school social groups à la Tina Fey’s Mean Girls. Emma is the know-it-all central planner of the community. Everyone acquiesces to her, despite the fact that she is wrong most of the time. It reminds me of those who keep extolling the virtues of socialism, even though it has never worked before. Indeed, the successful match between Emma’s governess and Mr. Weston would most likely have happened without Emma’s influence; they simply indulge her insistence on taking the glory.

Of course all comes out right in the end, no thanks to sweet Emma’s meddling.

The cast, though relatively unknown, is well chosen. Anya Taylor-Joy could be Emma Stone’s younger sister, with her ridiculously wide eyes, imperfect teeth, and smattering of freckles across the bridge of her pert, upturned nose. Taylor-Joy plays the part with the same coy wickedness Stone brings to so many of her roles. She’s as cute as a cupcake. Mia Goth is joyfully giddy and unreserved as Harriet Smith, the young girl so astonished to have been chosen as the most popular girl’s pet project that she subverts her own happiness. Miranda Hart is exceptional as the tall, gangly, plain-faced Miss Bates, who has lost her financial standing but not her name when a cousin inherits her father’s estate (a foil, perhaps, of the Bennet women in Pride and Prejudice). Miss Bates is like a St. Bernard puppy in her zeal to be agreeable and liked. She fawns on Emma, drops names that she thinks will impress the young aristocrat, and talks incessantly as a way of covering up her sense of inadequacy. Hart manages to claim our sympathy, even as we understand why Emma wants to avoid her. And Bill Nighy is delightful in his small role as Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s hypochondriac father. Woodhouse never seems to know where he is or why he is there, except that wherever it is, he is sure to be in a draft.

My biggest criticism of this film is that Emma’s introduction to Frank Churchill is delayed too long and their chemistry when they do meet is lukewarm, while the hostile friction between Emma and Mr. Knightley feels too playful, telegraphing the happy resolution so much that it spoils the surprise. Perhaps Austen’s heroine is too busy with her matchmaking to brood about her own love interest, but it’s a directorial oversight that weakens an otherwise delicious scoop of sugary fluff.

Emma is the know-it-all central planner of the community. Everyone acquiesces to her, despite the fact that she is wrong most of the time.

The set design and costumes work in tandem to produce scenes that are delicate and lovely. In one particularly memorable scene, Emma is wearing a purple dress with gold trim; Knightley is dressed in gold jacket with purple piping; and they are standing in a mauve room with eggplant wainscoting and gold flowers on the mantel. As I describe it here, this seems cloyingly like a wedding party, but the actual effect is subtle, elegant, and tranquil.

Austen had a keen eye and an ironic pen. Her stories may have predictable destinations, but when they are presented well, the journey makes them worth the trip. Her characters always seem to remind us of someone we know, and the romantic resolutions, expected by us but unexpected by the characters, often bring a cathartic tear. The social injustices, built on artificially imposed status and expectations, feel familiar as well, and her skillfully genteel exposure of those customs is empowering. This Emma does not rise to the perfection of Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility — no one can top Thompson’s tearful gasp of pure joy at the end of that marvelous movie! — but Austen fans will not be disappointed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Emma," directed by Autumn de Wilde. Working Title Films, 2020, 124 minutes.



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Better in the Original

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Like the dog at the center of the movie, The Call of the Wild has a hard time knowing where it belongs. Based on the Jack London story about Buck, a domesticated dog kidnapped by traders and sold into service in the gold rush to the Yukon, its foundational work is a dark story of involuntary servitude and oppression. But its PG rating and its playful, animated dogs with their big brown eyes give it the tone and ambience of a Disney movie — which, despite its 20th Century Fox distribution label, it is, since the two studios recently merged. This is but one difference between book and movie, most of them injurious to the heart of the story, despite the filmmakers’ faithfulness to the storyline.

When we first meet Buck in the movie, he is a privileged but unruly pet, joyfully wreaking havoc in the home of Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford), racing through the house, knocking into furniture, and destroying the company feast. Like Helen Keller’s family in The Miracle Worker, no one seems disciplined enough to discipline him, and their nonchalant tolerance of his lumbering ways is comical. By contrast, London’s Buck is a “regal aristocrat” who “was neither house dog nor kennel dog; he had command of the whole realm . . . [and] was king . . . even over the humans.”

This is but one difference between book and movie, most of them injurious to the heart of the story.

In the movie, Buck is ordered to stay outside after ruining the family party and is then kidnapped by an opportunistic stranger and shipped to the Yukon, where sled dogs are in high demand. He changes owners several times, eventually ending up with John Thornton (Harrison Ford), who narrates the story in voiceover.

Buck’s first owner, “the man in the red sweater,” teaches him “the rule of law”: when escape proves impossible, he learns to work and obey in order to avoid a beating with the club. Next, Perrault (Omar Sy), a postal employee, purchases him to help carry the mail 500 miles between Skagway and Dawson. Perrault treats Buck well, and Thornton tells us in voiceover that “Buck grew in confidence and began to enjoy the work.” His next owner is Hal (Dan Stevens), a young dandy from the East who has traveled to the Yukon with an inexperienced partner, a fashionably dressed wife, Mercedes (Karen Gillan), and all the comforts of home, including a Victrola. He also has a map that he believes will take him to a river of gold. He is determined to get there before anyone else does.

Stevens is usually a fine actor with emotional depth, one who chooses his parts carefully and seldom disappoints. But in this movie he is the mustachioed villain from Saturday morning melodramas, complete with menacing snarls, bullying threats and catastrophic ignorance of his surroundings. It was disappointing to see such a fine actor in such a two-dimensional role. Ford, grizzled and aging, is a bit of a disappointment too, but he’s never been a particularly deep actor emotionally.

There is much to like about this movie, yet just as much that bothers me.

Eventually Buck and John Thornton find each other and they forge a strong friendship. Significantly, Thornton does not purchase Buck but rescues him from Hal and invites him to share his cabin. Thornton becomes Buck’s friend, not his master; in the book, Thornton is almost godlike in his care for Buck and Buck’s devotion to him. Thornton understands Buck and “the call of the wild” that will eventually cause them to part. As Buck chooses a mate from among the wolves (or she chooses him) Thornton tells us, “Buck [through cross-breeding] will make the wolves smarter and more confident.”

There is much to like about this movie, yet just as much that bothers me. I love the way most of the women are portrayed; they are trackers, postal workers, vendors, prospectors, household managers. and yes, a foppish Eastern wife. Women are an integral, valued part of the community, working, contributing, and pulling their weight. Perrault’s gruff and austere partner in the book, François, becomes Françoise (Cara Gee), a likeable and lighthearted woman, in the film, and it works just fine. It is such a refreshing contrast to the impression my students have of 19th-century women as mere chattel with no rights or opportunities beyond marriage and motherhood. If movies like this one begin to change that misconception, I will be happy.

The scenery, filmed mostly in British Columbia, is also gorgeous, and the aurora borealis colors the sky, as it does throughout the book. The CGI is impressive too; if it weren’t for those big, brown, overly expressive eyes, I might have thought the animals were real. The use of animation also allowed the artists to recreate the dogs the way London imagined them, with the dog Solex missing an eye, for example. Perrault, who happens to be black, and Françoise, who appears to be Native American, provide the strongest and most exciting chapter in the film. And Harrison Ford is fine as the mountain man who understands Buck’s need for belonging because he, too, has a sad backstory of loss and heartbreak.

Did it have to be a selfish and insensitive rich dandy? Couldn’t it have been the dumb, inexperienced lummox Hal actually represents?

But I have a problem with the way the film sidesteps what I see as the main theme of London’s story. The Call of the Wild is not only a study of brutal naturalism and evolutionary survival of the fittest, but also an allegory of slavery. In the book, he is sold into servitude by a treacherous gardener’s helper — someone from his own household whom he had learned to trust. The story gives Buck human emotions, and London makes the point that captivity and starvation cause Buck to abandon the moral principles he learned in society and to steal food from his teammates in order to survive — a point Viktor Frankl also makes in his concentration camp memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. The other dogs on his team are also given human names like Joe, Dave, Billy, and Curly, and human personalities as well. In sum, London deliberately personified the animals to create a fable about the dehumanizing effects of slavery, or at least of captivity.

Thornton’s opinion that Buck “grew in confidence and enjoyed the work” and the movie’s transformation of Perrault into a kindhearted owner troubles me, as it suggests that slavery was somehow “good for them.” Eventually Buck is freed and “returns to his ancestors,” the wolves, where Thornton tells us that the wolf pack will become smarter, more confident and more courageous, presumably because of the DNA they receive from Buck’s domesticated European genes. (Of course, they should be called cousins rather than ancestors, but I won’t quibble about that.) To me, the praise sounds a little too much like those who opined that Frederick Douglass was smart because his father was white. Even the suggestion that Buck (and thus the slave population) should go back to the land of his ancestors is woefully out of date. On the other hand, I think it was wise to make the villain a white man instead of the Indians who attack Thornton in London’s book. But did it have to be a selfish and insensitive rich dandy? Couldn’t it have been the dumb, inexperienced lummox Hal actually represents?

The movie follows the storyline of the book fairly faithfully, but the lighter tone and flatter characters possibly imposed by the PG rating removes the harsh, physical reality of the story. The race against a falling avalanche and the plunge down a waterfall, for example, feel more like a Disney ride than a life-threatening danger. Much is lost, also, of Buck’s conflict for supremacy with lead dog Spitz. The “ecstasy” (as London describes it) of their bloody battle, which is foreshadowed throughout his chapter with Perrault and comes to a head when both dogs are chasing a white rabbit for food, is as essential to Buck’s self-discovery of his “dominant primordial beast” as Frederick Douglass’ battle with the hated overseer Mr. Covey was to Douglass’ discovery of inherent freedom. Buck’s battle is not only against the jealous Spitz and the oppressive restraints of civilization, but against the brutal elements of nature that would starve and freeze him if it could. “Mercy,” Buck realizes, “is for southern climes.” Through London’s gripping prose, we can see, hear and feel every slash of muscle, every crunch of bone, every visceral cry of the primordial wildness coming out in Buck. Yet in the movie, Buck lets the rabbit go, and Spitz merely slinks away; the battle would be too frightening for children’s eyes.

No matter how hard they try, no filmmakers can do justice to this book. The prose is just too good, the characters and emotion and philosophy too rich and deep.

The Call of the Wild is an OK movie, but it isn’t going to make back the millions the studio had to spend in CGI, now that PETA makes it nearly impossible to use live animals in films any more. Its theme is too heavy for the children its PG rating was intended to attract, and it isn’t what I would call a family film, despite those first laugh-inducing scenes of Buck bounding joyfully through the house. But in order to win that PG rating the filmmakers had to soften certain scenes and themes, as when Hal’s headstrong willfulness seems to lead to his sled dogs’ death, and perhaps Mercedes’ death, too — or so we assume; we don’t actually see their fall through the ice. That scene could have been tense, thrilling, and heartbreaking. But because it might have been too scary for children (I suppose), it doesn’t appear. Apparently a scene involving snakes was also cut, since the credits list a snake wrangler, although no snakes appeared in the film.

I don’t entirely blame the filmmakers, however. They did the best they could, as have others who have attempted to adapt this book for film, to capture a story that is essentially told through the perspective of a dog. I would recommend this Call of the Wild for a lazy Saturday afternoon at home with the kids when there’s nothing else to do. But better still, I recommend that you pull out your old, worn copy of The Call of the Wild, or download an audio version, and experience it again. That’s what I did after watching the movie. And I came to this conclusion: no matter how hard they try, no filmmakers can do justice to this book. The prose is just too good, the characters and emotion and philosophy too rich and deep, Buck’s gradual discovery of freedom too thrilling. It’s a story to be imagined, not watched.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Call of the Wild," directed by Chris Sanders. Twentieth Century Fox, 2020, 100 minutes.



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Les Misérables, But Not That One

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Les Misérables — not to be confused with the musical of the same name — is France’s entry in the Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards. The story is set in the impoverished Parisian district of Montfermeil, where Victor Hugo lived while writing his famous novel. But it could actually be set in any location where cultures collide and tensions are high.

Issa (Issa Perica) is the vivacious and charismatic leader of a passel of young boys who roam the neighborhood looking for entertainment and often getting into trouble. Some of them are orphans, some of them have parents, and some, like Issa, are outcasts, kicked out of their homes for getting into trouble too many times. This is a community that believes in the “village” approach to raising children, and parents care about their reputations — often more than they care about their children.

Three distinct groups maintain a loose sort of authority in this neighborhood as they all try to mold the boys into men: the Islamic Brotherhood, represented by Salah (Almamy Kanouté); the streetwise mayor (Steve Tientcheu) and his cronies; and the anti-crime unit of the police, whose job is to patrol and prevent crime rather than arrest and punish. All three groups have the same goal: to keep the peace by establishing good values among the youth in the neighborhood. All have good intentions, it seems. But who should define “good values”? And how should their values be enforced? As is often the case with authoritarian groups, each believes he knows best. They get along, but uneasily.

This is a community that believes in the “village” approach to raising children, and parents care about their reputations — often more than they care about their children.

The story begins on the day when three things happen: the circus comes to town, the local soccer team enjoys an important victory, and the recently divorced Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) transfers from his police job in the suburbs to the anti-crime unit in Paris in order to be closer to his young son and his ex-wife. Ruiz immediately becomes disillusioned by what he sees on the job. They’re supposed to calm things down before violence erupts, but after ten years of working in Montfermeil his new partners, Chris (Alexis Manenti) and Gwada (Djebril Zonga), have become jaded by the mission and often “calm things down” with in-your-face shouting and physical threats that just stir things up. Perhaps because of his estrangement from his own son, Ruiz takes a liking to Issa, which annoys his partners.

The neighborhood’s fragile détente is disturbed with the arrival of a traveling circus, run by gypsies. Issa, feeling lonely and rejected by his family, steals a lion cub to keep as a pet. All three neighborhood groups –the mayor, the Islamic Brotherhood, and the anti-crime unit — want to find the cub and return it before the circus owner, (who represents the foreign invader, I think), returns violence for theft. Metaphors abound in this slow-paced film that erupts in a shocking and explosive third act — which, in my opinion, earned its Academy Award nomination, despite its weak production values.

Who should define “good values”? And how should their values be enforced? As is often the case with authoritarian groups, each believes he knows best.

It has been suggested by some that this movie represents Hugo’s story from the dogged police officer Javert’s perspective, but I don’t buy that interpretation. Javert’s fault is that he believes too completely in the law, and that he is too just to be merciful. In the book, his virtue is ultimately his vice and his downfall. No one in this movie, and certainly none of the police officers, treats the law with that much respect. When things go wrong, they do whatever it takes not to be held accountable.

Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables: “Remember my friends, there is no such thing as bad plants or bad men; there are only bad cultivators.” With his powerful third act, director Ladj Ly gives us an idea of the kind of harvest we might expect if we entrust the wrong cultivators with raising our youth. You will continue to think about these characters and how quickly everything changes for them — and why — long after the fade to black. It is a cautionary tale with implications that reach far beyond “the wretched ones” of Montfermeil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Les Misérables," directed by Ladj Ly. Srab Films, 2019, 104 minutes.



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Who’s the Parasite?

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In last year’s Roma, director Alfonso Cuarón provided an intimate portrait of a domestic servant working for a middle-class family in the Roma district of Mexico City. The film was heartbreakingly real and intensely personal. It won Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Cinematographer.

Parasite also provides a glimpse into the “upstairs-downstairs” world of a working class family and the upper middle class family they serve, and it is likely to win this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language film. It’s that good. Like Cuaron’s domestic masterpiece, it is full of truth. But unlike Cuaron’s Roma, it is distinctly not real. Very little is revealed about the story in its trailers or its Fandango description beyond its genre listings (mystery * thriller * comedy), synopsis (“Greed and class discrimination threaten the newly formed symbiotic relationship between the wealthy Park family and the destitute Kim clan”), and approval ratings (99% critics, 93% audience). And it was made in Korea. Who could resist?

Parasite causes one to think about self-interest, mutual exchange, and the nature of human relationships — despite the mayhem that inevitably ensues during the thriller's final act.

Liberty readers will recall the day I stumbled into a Korean film in a Manhattan theater, a few years back, and found myself watching a zombie flick (see my review of A Train to Busan) that turned out to be astoundingly good. I was a little worried about what I might have stumbled into this time, when virtually all the trailers preceding the movie were horror films — albeit horror films involving children and literary themes: Hansel and Gretel, The Turning, The Lodge, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Antlers, to be specific. What fine mess had I gotten myself into this time?

A good one, as it turns out. Parasite offers spectacular production design, vivid cinematography, perfectly timed acting, and a satisfying story that causes one to think about self-interest, mutual exchange, and the nature of human relationships — despite the mayhem that inevitably (because it’s a thriller) ensues during the final act.

To say that the Kim family is struggling financially is an understatement. As the film opens, son Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) is holding his cellphone aloft in the family’s small apartment, looking for a signal. It seems their upstairs neighbor has placed a password on her network, preventing them from using her wifi. When he finds a free signal in the bathroom, the family can go back to watching their video, which provides tips on how to fold pizza boxes faster. That’s what they’re doing to earn some cash since mom Chung-sook (Hye-jin Jang) and dad Ki-taek (Kang-ho Song) lost their jobs. There’s no self-pity in this family, and no lying about — they’re hustlers determined to make some bread so they can eat some bread. When a truck comes by spewing bug spray, Chung-sook’s immediate reaction is to close the windows, but Ki-Taek stops her. “Free fumigation!” he exults. Outside their window a homeless man pisses against the wall. They might be poor, but they aren’t without hope or humanity. They’ve had a number of failed businesses, but they haven’t given up. I like their “Little Red Hen” attitude.

This kind of optimistic fatalism, or fatalistic optimism, permeates the film and creates many opportunities for broad, physical comedy as well as sympathy for the two families.

When Ki-woo’s friend Min (Seo-joon Park) stops by to recommend him for a job tutoring wealthy teenager Da-hye Park (Ji-so Jung) in English, Ki-woo jumps at the opportunity. Never mind that he doesn’t have a college credential or even a high-school diploma; his sister Ki-jung (So-dam Park), a budding artist, is able to create one for him.

Min also brings along a “landscape stone” as a gift for the family, a river rock with beautiful graining that will bring them luck and prosperity. Ki-taek displays it proudly on a metal easel. Soon the Kim family becomes involved with the wealthy and beautiful but naïve and ineffective Park family, which also consists of mother Yeon-kyo (Yoe-jong Jo), father Dong-ik (Sun-kyun Lee), daughter Da-hye, and son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung). This mirroring of characters is no accident; director Joon-ho Bong wants us to consider their similarities as well as their differences, and the role of fate as well as the role of choice.

Whether because of the landscape stone or because of the Kims’ own hard working initiative, things start to look up for them. Until things start to look down. (Don’t worry — you’ll know when to close your eyes.) Parasite is surprising, outrageous, delightful, unexpected, hopeful, and in some ways hopeless, though not in a depressing way. At one point Ki-taek tells Ki-woo, who is trying to think of a plan that will fix a particular problem, “If you make a plan, it never works out. The best kind of plan is no plan. Then nothing can go wrong.” This kind of optimistic fatalism, or fatalistic optimism, permeates the film and creates many opportunities for broad, physical comedy as well as sympathy for the two families.

Director Bong subtly asks us to consider who is the parasite in this symbiotic neighborhood.

The word “symbiosis” comes from the Greek and means “together (sym), life (bio).” Symbiotic relationships can be commensalist (beneficial to one, harmless to the other), parasitic (beneficial to one and harmful to the other), or mutualist (beneficial to both). Cattle egrets are commensalist; they eat the insects stirred up by grazing cattle without harming or benefiting the cows. A tick is obviously parasitic to the mammal that has the misfortune of having one suck its veins. The oxpecker bird demonstrates the ideal mutualist relationship in which both the “buyer” and the “seller” gain; as it sits on the back or head of rhinos, zebras, and even crocodiles, eating ticks and other parasitic insects that would harm the larger animal, the oxpecker gets a meal, and the animal gets a good cleaning. Both benefit, and neither is harmed.

Parasites, however, do harm as they take advantage of the host, eating their fill while leaving behind infectious bacteria or damaging toxins. Director Bong subtly asks us to consider who is the parasite in this symbiotic neighborhood — the one who eats and cleans, or the one who provides the paycheck — while providing us with a film that is simultaneously a mystery, a thriller, a comedy, and pure genius.


Editor's Note: Review of "Parasite," directed by Joon Ho Bong. Barunson E&A, 2019, 132 minutes.



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Reluctant Hero

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The Oscar-nominated World War I movie 1917 combines the challenges and strengths of film, live stage, choreography, and music into one sublime work of art. The movie focuses on two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), with a single goal: they must deliver a “stand-down” order to the front lines before dawn, when1,600 British troops are preparing to attack a German encampment. British intelligence has learned that it is a massive trap, and all 1,600 are likely to die or be captured in the onslaught. Making the mission even more compelling is the fact that Blake’s brother is among the soldiers at the front line who will be slaughtered if he doesn’t arrive with the new orders in time to stop the assault. Blake and Schofield must succeed. The allusion to Elbert Hubbard’s essay “A Message to Garcia” is unavoidable: there are times when “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” are simply unacceptable responses.

The film opens on a sunny day in a flowery meadow. Soldiers are hanging their laundry and taking naps during a lull in the action. It reminded me of the tone and setting of Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Will Not Grow Old, with its pastel colorized tints and boyish faces. Schofield even looks like one of the soldiers from Jackson’s 100-year-old footage. Blake is jarred awake from this peaceful nap with an order to choose one other soldier and come to the commanding officer’s bunker. He taps the soldier resting nearest him, and that’s how randomly Schofield becomes part of this mission.

There are times when “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” are simply unacceptable responses.

While it’s Blake’s brother who needs rescuing and Blake who refuses to consider delays or abandonment of the mission, this is Schofield’s story. He is the reluctant hero, the one who has joined the army “to get some decent food,” the one selected randomly to accompany the mission, the one who wants to wait until the safety of darkness to begin the mission and then urges that they turn back early, when the going gets treacherous. Yet he is the one we see leaping over bodies, dodging bullets, and throwing himself down waterfalls in his zeal to accomplish the goal. His journey is not just from General Erinmore’s bunker to Colonel McKenzie’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) command post; it is an interior journey to discover what he’s made of when “I’ll do my best” would be tantamount to “I’m ready to fail.”

The other star of this film is never seen on camera, although he fills every frame: it’s cinematographer Roger Deakins. Writer and director Sam Mendes had an idea: to put the personal war remembrances of his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, into a single story spanning a single night in the footsteps of a single soldier with a singular mission. Cinematographer Deakins brought that idea to life within the immediacy of a single-take presentation. His camera follows our heroes relentlessly to the front line, tracking them through trenches, across battle fronts, up slick muddy hills and over rotting corpses. Deakins never loses sight of his mission, just as Schofield never loses sight of his task of bringing the message to Colonel McKenzie in time to stop the assault.

Other films have begun with long tracking shots, including The Player (1992), There Will Be Blood (2007), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), and the avant-garde Russian Ark (2002), set in the Hermitage. But this is the first one I know that required the camera person to climb steep hills and dodge charging soldiers while carrying a heavy camera and keeping a sprinting actor in the center of the camera’s lens. Thinking about the filming sometimes pulled me out of the story, yet it can’t be ignored or forgotten. Many times I gasped in awe at the immediacy of what I was seeing on screen. Deakins’ use of light and shadow to recreate Schofield’s disorientation after experiencing the concussion of an explosion is also brilliant. We aren’t really sure whether Schofield is alive or dead at that point, or if his indomitable spirit might somehow be muscling through to complete the mission.

Deakins' camera follows our heroes relentlessly to the front line, tracking them through trenches, across battle fronts, up slick muddy hills and over rotting corpses.

Music is another unseen character in this film. Thomas Newman creates several motifs to accompany our heroes on their quest, and these motifs impose their personalities in each scene. A single, sustained bass chord joins people in the tension of tight spaces; a powerful, driving percussion takes over when our heroes are in danger. The music is critical to the overpowering success of this film.

Libertarians will appreciate the few scenes containing dialogue. There they will find bitterly memorable observations:

When you deliver the message, make sure you have witnesses. Some [commanding officers] just want the fight.

Take a look at what we’ve fought over for three years. Better if we’d never come.

They don’t even want us here.

Most of all, 1917 is a powerful story honoring the indefatigable will of an accidental hero. It begins in the peaceful innocence of a flowering meadow and ends beneath the towering reality of a dead and solitary tree.


Editor's Note: Review of "1917," directed by Sam Mendes. Dreamworks, 2019, 117 minutes.



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Love and Marriage

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Marriage Story is a surprisingly good movie for being a fairly common story. It has received six well-deserved Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (Noah Baumbach), Best Actor (Adam Driver), Best Actress (Scarlett Johansson), and Best Supporting Actress (Laura Dern). And it’s available in your living room, on Netflix, after a limited theater run that garnered less than half a million in box office sales. Go figure.

The film begins with Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johannsson) reciting the charming reasons they love each other. Their words are heard in voiceover as we watch endearing scenes of them doing the things that are described, set to delightful, lighthearted music. Charlie says, “What I love about Nicole: She makes people feel comfortable even about embarrassing things . . . She really listens when someone is talking . . . She cuts all our hair . . . She’s always brewing a cup of tea that she never drinks . . . It’s not easy for her to put away a sock or close a cabinet or do a dish, but she tries, for me . . . She is a mother who plays, joyfully.” Nicole says, “What I love about Charlie: He’s undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions or any setbacks keep him from doing what he wants to do . . . He’s incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order . . . He cries easily in movies . . . He’s very self-sufficient . . . He rarely gets defeated, which I feel like I always do . . . He takes all of my moods steadily . . . He’s a great dresser.” As I was reviewing my notes I noticed that Charlie’s reasons for loving Nicole were all about Nicole, and Nicole’s reasons for loving Charlie were all about Nicole too.

Divorce, it seems, is a continuation of marriage. It’s part of the package.

These tender but superficial affirmations of love appear to be some kind of modern marriage vows. But they’re not. They are assignments from their “separation mediator” (Robert Smigel). “In a divorce, things can get quite contentious,” he warns them. “I like to begin with a note of positivity . . . It helps to remember that this is a person you had great feeling for — and maybe still do in many ways.” That “still do” permeates the film. “Still do” is inherent in the “I do.” Divorce, it seems, is a continuation of marriage. It’s part of the package. Marriage never really ends.

Charlie and Nicole clearly do love each other. We can see it in the intimate way Nicole continues to cut Charlie’s hair after their separation and the way she strives to protect his feelings, even as she serves him with divorce papers. We see it in the tender way Charlie looks at Nicole and in the stumbling way he tries to navigate this unexpected and unwanted end to their marriage.

So why the divorce? Nicole feels that her film career in Hollywood has been stymied by their focus on Charlie’s career as an avant-garde director in New York (even though she has starred in all his plays). She wants to reassert her individuality and her voice by accepting a role in a TV series that will take her back to California, where her family lives. Meanwhile, Charlie’s Medea is being transferred to Broadway — and Nicole has been playing Medea in previews, until now. The timing couldn’t be worse — for him, or for her. I appreciate the two-sidedness of this movie. Marriage requires commitment and compromise by both partners. So does a career. Sometimes it’s just too much.

For the attorneys, the divorce has nothing to do with Charlie and Nicole; it’s all about winning, all about money.

Charlie and Nicole want to do this separation amicably, especially for the sake of Henry (Azhy Robertson), their adorable, playful, assertive young son. But once Nicole is persuaded to hire attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), all amicability is lost. So is all civility, as the attorneys compete to portray their client’s spouse as philandering, neglectful, and alcoholic. For the attorneys, the divorce has nothing to do with Charlie and Nicole; it’s all about winning, all about money.

For Charlie and Nicole, however, it’s not about stuff; it’s about the quality and direction of their lives. Where will they live — in California, where Nicole has a film career, or in New York, where Charlie is trying to hang onto his career as a director? Both of their careers have suffered from the marriage, and now both are suffering from the strain of a bicoastal divorce. And by the time custody of Henry is settled, he’ll be grown. “We’re draining his education fund on this divorce,” Charlie reminds Nicole, as he pleads with her to eliminate the attorneys and go back to self-filing.

Anyone who has had to go to court, especially family court, will appreciate what Charlie experiences as he negotiates the intricacies and unfairness of California law. Nora is glamorously warm and sympathetic as she slips off her red-soled stilettoes to curl up beside Nicole and offer a comforting shoulder during their first meeting, and she’s even more glamorously vicious as she pulls off her jacket and tears into Charlie’s reputation in the courtroom. Dern is powerful in this role. She strides through each scene with confidence and charm and cutthroat shrewdness. So are Alan Alda and Ray Liotta, Alda as the laidback attorney Charlie first hires, one so detached that he simply shrugs when the advice he gives turns out to be completely wrong, and Liotta as the $950-an-hour shark Charlie hires when he realizes, after meeting Nora, “I’m going to need my own asshole.”

We’ve all had those moments where the words come gushing out that are partially true yet patently false, when hate and love intermingle in a passion that spews venom and lost hope and despair.

Nicole believes she has lost ten years of her career in supporting Charlie, but Charlie feels loss too. “There’s so much I could have done! I was a director — in my twenties — who was suddenly on the cover of Time Out in New York! I was on my way! And I didn’t even want to get married. There’s so much I didn’t do!” In his anguish, Charlie is appalled to hear himself screaming, “I hate you!” into Nicole’s stricken face. “There are times that I dream you will die!” He dissolves into tears at this, and Nicole leans over him and caresses his shoulder. She understands. But she can’t give in. It’s an overpowering scene, full of hatred and love and white-hot passion, and acted with a rawness born of 50 exhausting, aching, emotional takes before Baumbach was finally ready to move on. The scene is so painful and so real it hits you in the gut. We’ve all had those moments where the words come gushing out that are partially true yet patently false, when hate and love intermingle in a passion that spews venom and lost hope and despair. In Marriage Story it is one of those perfect cinematic moments. If you have ever fought with someone you love, it will tear you apart.

Is marriage bad for one’s career? Perhaps a better question would be, is a career bad for one’s marriage? In the end, which is more important? I don’t think it’s possible for a marriage to support two high-powered careers. Not successfully. Not for the long haul. Something has to give, and nowadays it’s usually the marriage. But divorce does not provide simple solutions, especially when children are involved.

But speaking of career competition: Baumbach’s partner is Greta Gerwig, an actress and director. She and her supporters have complained loudly about Hollywood’s snubbing of her in the director category for Little Women, blaming it on misogyny. But there is good reason Baumbach has been nominated for director and Gerwig has not, and it has nothing to do with her gender. To understand, we need look no further than Laura Dern’s performances in the two movies. Both directors used her as their supporting actress, but Dern’s Marmee in Little Women is a mere caricature of the strong, gentle matriarch Alcott created in her book (see my review), while Dern’s Nina Fanshaw in Baumbach’s Marriage Story commands every scene. And Dern is winning award after award this season, for her performance in Baumbach’s movie, while Gerwig’s Florence Pugh, nominated for her supporting role as Amy in Little Women, is not.

There is good reason Baumbach has been Oscar-nominated for best director and Gerwig has not, and it has nothing to do with her gender.

Moreover, the climactic scene in Little Women, where Jo proclaims “Women, they have minds and they have souls as well as just hearts. And they've got ambition and they've got talent as well as just beauty, and I'm so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I'm so sick of it! But . . . I am so lonely!” feels like a polished speech, not a personal epiphany. As for her sister Amy’s much-lauded scene with Meryl Streep, where she proclaims, “I'm not a poet, I'm just a woman. And as a woman I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don't, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married” — this is just silly. Her sister Jo is already supporting the family as a writer of fiction! Moreover, Amy’s feminist complaint falls a bit flat in light of the fact that she is at that moment choosing between two wealthy suitors. I stand by my review of Little Women, despite its critical accolades.

Marriage Story is real, and raw, and tender, and devastating. It is helped along by Randy Newman’s superbly evocative soundtrack, and it contains not one but two perfectly selected and perfectly delivered songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. It’s the finest piece of acting by Adam Driver to date — and that’s saying a lot for an actor who delivers emotionally in every piece he does (see my reviews of BlackKklansman and Silence for an example of his range). I don’t know which of the nine nominated films will win the Oscar for Best Picture this year, but Marriage Story certainly deserves to be in the running.


Editor's Note: Review of "Marriage Story," directed by Noah Baumbach. Netflix Studios, 2019, 137 minutes.



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The Just and the Unjust

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“Mob justice” isn’t justice at all.

If you remember the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, you remember Richard Jewell, the security guard who discovered a backpack with a pipe bomb hidden inside it under a bench in Centennial Park. First lauded as a hero, Jewell was then accused in the press of having planted the bomb himself in order to garner public attention. He was never charged, and Eric Robert Rudolph later pled guilty to the crime. But Jewell’s reputation was destroyed and his life forever changed by the overzealous reporting of journalists eager to get a jump on the story. It happened nearly 25 years ago, yet it’s as timely today as the most recent Internet shaming.

In Clint Eastwood’s excellent film about the case, Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) is not a likeable guy. Pushy, fat, and a little slow, he’s too “law-and-order,” toso much in other people’s business, for most people to want to befriend. He has gone through a series of second-rate jobs, from supply clerk to police department washout to campus security guard. Each time he goes too far in his zeal to do his job, and each time he gets fired. He still lives with his mother (Kathy Bates) in a small Tupperware-filled apartment, where a large photograph of him in his now-defunct police uniform is prominently displayed on the living room wall.

Yes, Jewell is socially awkward. That doesn’t make him guilty.

Jewell’s reputation was destroyed and his life forever changed by the overzealous reporting of journalists eager to get a jump on the story.

But he “fits the profile,” and that’s all the press needs to skewer him. Newspaper journalist Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) is just as eager as Jewell to do her job well and garner the respect of her peers. Shortly after the bombing she prays in mock appeal, “Dear God, Please let us find this guy first. And please let him be fucking interesting!” Soon she is fucking lead FBI agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) in exchange for the name of a suspect. Scruggs accuses Jewell of destroying people's lives just for the publicity, and ironically, that’s exactly what she does to Jewell. Once her story hits the wires, Jewell’s life explodes like the bomb he is suspected of setting. Wilde plays Scruggs brilliantly, from self-assured seductress using her sex to get a story to elated reporter celebrating her front-page scoop to contrite whistleblower realizing that she has blown the wrong whistle.

A great deal stands out in this fine movie, from the acting to the pacing to the injustice of the story. Particularly appalling are the dirty tricks Shaw uses to sidestep Jewell’s Miranda rights and his decision to remain silent. Hamm, known for his role as advertising executive Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men, could not be better as a pleasantly manipulative bastard of an FBI agent. The interrogation reminds me of a former student I knew at Sing Sing — let’s call him JD — who was just 16 when he was nabbed by the police on his way to school and interrogated for more than ten hours about the murder of a classmate, without his mother’s knowledge or an attorney present. Why did they suspect him of the murder? Because some classmates, eager to share what they “knew” with the police, noted that JD was “socially awkward” and had been “really broken up” at the girl’s funeral. He was “the type” to do it, just as Jewell was “the type” to set a bomb just so he could enjoy the notoriety of discovering it.

In JD’s case, the cops lied to him, confused him, terrified him. They convinced him he was “not allowed” to see his mother or an attorney until he signed a confession. Then everything will be OK, they promised, shoving the confession toward him just as Shaw shoves the Miranda waiver toward Jewell. And on the strength of that signed confession, our JD was sentenced to life in prison. Sixteen years later, using DNA evidence that proved he did not commit the crime, the Innocence Project helped JD secure a release. But his life, like Richard Jewell’s, would never be the same. No one had believed in him when he was on the inside, not even his mother. He felt utterly alone.

Shortly after the bombing she prays in mock appeal, “Dear God, Please let us find this guy first. And please let him be fucking interesting!”

One person who does believe in Jewell is his attorney, Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell). Bryant is a loose cannon who wears cargo shorts and short-sleeved shirts and doesn’t necessarily play well with others. A poster behind the desk in his office says, “I fear government more than I fear terrorism.” While his client is a superpatriot who believes in law and order, Bryant is a cautious American with a wise distrust of government. His girlfriend Nadya is a Soviet immigrant who wisecracks, “Where I come from, when the government says someone is guilty, that’s how you know they’re innocent.” Rockwell is completely comfortable in Bryant’s skin. You’ll like him.

The other person who believes completely in Jewell is his mother. In the early days after the bombing, Bobi Jewell glows with bashful pride as she watches her son being interviewed on “the TV.” Her son — a hero! Bates is known for playing strong, quirky, independent women, but the timid, unassuming Bobi Jewell is perhaps her strongest role of all. She is wearing yellow dishwashing gloves when the FBI arrive at their door. An eager smile adorns her face as she anticipates why they are here — a smile that fades into confused despair when she realizes that they have come to interrogate their suspect, not to interview her hero.

This is an important film, not only because it tells Jewell’s story, but also because it reveals the shenanigans of both law enforcement and the media as they stop at nothing — even the evidence — to get their man and their story.

I was surprised and pleased to see listed as producers of this film Leonardo diCaprio and Jonah Hill, who usually align with the radically liberal side of Hollywood rather than conservative directors such as Clint Eastwood. Perhaps some in Hollywood are finally getting it: there’s a reason many of us fear government — and the media — more than terrorism.

"Richard Jewell" reveals the shenanigans of both law enforcement and the media as they stop at nothing — even the evidence — to get their man and their story.

I couldn’t help but compare this storyline to the one playing in the theater across the hall, Bombshell, another biopic about scandal in the newsroom. In Richard Jewell, when we first meet reporter Kathy Scruggs at the Atlanta Journal Constitution she is contemplating a boob job. “Another year and we’ll all be competing for TV,” she announces to her colleagues in the newsroom. “What do you think — D cups?” She then offers to trade sex for information from FBI agent Tom Shaw, and runs the story without corroborating it.

In Bombshell the gender roles are reversed, with the man propositioning the women in exchange for jobs and promotions. It deals with the accusations of sexual harassment brought first by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and then by Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) against Fox CEO Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), charging that he had required sexual favors in exchange for promises of promotions within the company.

In the film version of this story, Kelly, who has been harassed ten years earlier, quietly seeks the corroboration of other women in order to demonstrate a pattern of misbehavior that would strengthen the case. Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), Ailes’ current victim, chastises Kelly for not reporting it ten years earlier, telling her, “This wouldn’t have happened to me if you had said something then.” This is plausible. But Kayla, too, has been keeping quiet about the liaisons. She really wants the job. Such is the nature of workplace harassment — a woman is victimized if she acquiesces, and often loses her job if she doesn’t.

When the news about Carlson’s accusation breaks, Jeanine Pirro shifts into coverup mode, shouting, “We need everyone on Team Roger!”

As shocked and appalled as Hollywood actors and insiders pretended to be when Harvey Weinstein was arrested on sexual harassment charges, the stories that launched the “MeToo” movement did not occur all of a sudden, nor did they occur entirely in secret. The “casting couch” stretches back to the earliest days of Hollywood. Agents and even stage mothers often trained their starry-eyed starlets to “do whatever the director tells you to do” and then walked out the door to pretend they didn’t know what “whatever” might entail. Similarly, when Kayla tries to tell her friend Jess (Kate McKinnon) what Ailes has done, Jess tells her, “It’s better if you don’t tell me.” She knows, but she doesn’t want to know. Like the acting agent, she closes the door, and her eyes, on her way out.

So it isn’t too surprising that the female Fox News journalists, with the exception of dowdy Greta Van Susteren (Anne Ramsey), accept the role of glamour girl that “director” Roger Ailes imposes on them, donning their short formfitting dresses, their inch-long eyelashes, and their wavy hair extensions to deliver the news. And if protecting their jobs requires protecting their boss, they’ll do that too. When the news about Carlson’s accusation breaks, Jeanine Pirro (Alanna Ubach) shifts into coverup mode, shouting, “We need everyone on Team Roger!” The ensuing scene juxtaposes newscasters fielding telephone calls from other journalists, frantically denying that they’re told what to wear on camera, with these same women pulling on body-smoothing Spanx, leg-lengthening high heels, and breast-plumping falsies. But no, “I’ve never been told I can’t wear pants,” says Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon) as she smooths her tight skirt.

The biggest problem with Bombshell is that it’s hard to tell the blondes apart.

Bombshell is interesting in a prurient, voyeuristic way, but hardly as compelling or well made as Eastwood’s Richard Jewell. For one thing, the story is more recent and familiar; I didn’t feel that I learned anything new about the case. For another, the acting in Bombshell is more two-dimensional and cookie-cutter: Theron’s Megyn Kelly is hard and steely; Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson is feminine and perky; Robbie’s Kayla is wide-eyed and frightened. There isn’t much depth or range to their characters.

The biggest problem with Bombshell, though, is that it’s hard to tell the blondes apart. They all have the same hairstyles, the same makeup styles, the same body styles, and the same stiletto heels. Carlson addresses this sameness indirectly when she says bitterly, “You know why they dress soldiers alike? To remind them that they’re replaceable.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Richard Jewell," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 131 minutes; and "Bombshell," directed by Jay Roach. Denver & Delilah Productions, 2019, 109 minutes.



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A Mess of a Movie

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Could there be a happier Christmas movie than Little Women, with its story of generosity, kindness, familial love, and individuality? And yet — do we really need another version of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece? It has been committed to film at least seven times, including versions starring Katharine Hepburn; June Allyson and Peter Lawford; Christian Bale and a slew of A-list women; and a sadly modernized mishmash just last year that grossed barely a million dollars. Nevertheless, here we are again, with yet another LW, this one purporting to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist (as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago).

There is much for a libertarian to love about Alcott’s Little Women, including (some might say “despite”) its theme of voluntary sacrifice and charitable service. I happen to appreciate that Marmee teaches her girls to care for the poor from their own meager goods rather than expecting a government agency to do it (or worse, suggesting that the poor “got what they deserved”). Moreover, the wealthy landowner Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) is kind and generous toward the March clan, rewarding their generosity toward others with generosity of his own. He may be rich, but he is not evil.

This Little Women purports to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist, as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago.

In addition, Marmee (Laura Dern) demonstrates prudence, resourcefulness, and self-reliance as the head of the household while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army during the Civil War.

A side note: director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig couldn’t resist a few digs at modern white privilege, so she inserts an exchange between two schoolchildren about the war. It goes like this:

School girl 1: “Father says we should let them keep their labor. It’s none of our business.”

School girl 2: “Everyone benefits from their economic system. Why should only the South be punished?”

In another exchange, borrowing liberally from Michelle Obama, Gerwig has Marmee say to a black woman caring for wounded soldiers alongside her: “I spent my whole life ashamed of my country.”

Black woman: “You should still be ashamed.”Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Me: Ugh! Such anachronisms. No one talked like this back then, least of all schoolchildren or black women chastising white women.

But back to the reasons a libertarian should like this story: Marmee teaches her girls at home, another aspect of the story that should appeal to libertarians. She allows them the freedom to develop their own interests and talents — no public schools deprive them of their time or assign them inane homework that saps their creativity. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is an accomplished musician, Amy (Florence Pugh) a budding artist, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) a skilled writer, and Meg (Emma Watson) an aspiring actress who loves to wear pretty dresses, and attend pretty parties. She also wants to get married and have babies, and in my opinion that’s perfectly all right (though not in this film, where marriage equals misery). Aunt March (Meryl Streep) tells Jo, “No one makes their own way in this world, especially a woman — unless you marry well.” Yet Marmee and Jo are making their way quite nicely. Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

There is also much to love about this movie, despite its storytelling flaws, especially its light and airy musical score by Alexandre Desplat, its sumptuous outdoor settings, its period costumes, and its artistic cinematography. Gerwig often places her actors as though for a painting or a portrait, almost like a Mary Cassatt or Jack Vettriano painting. At times it can seem a bit schmaltzy, as when she frames a proposal scene with overhanging trees that resemble a Valentine heart. But I rather appreciate the effect, which echoes Alcott’s sometimes-schmaltzy Victorian language, whether that was Gerwig’s intent or not.

But is this a satisfying interpretation of Alcott’s work? Notwithstanding its rave reviews, I think not.

Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response.

Most unsatisfactory is the disjointed telling of the story, with its self-inflicted spoilers, clunky flashbacks, and complicated scene changes. The film begins at the end, with Amy in Europe as Aunt March’s companion — so the audience will not experience the unexpected heartbreak when Jo learns that Amy has been chosen to take her place on the wonderful journey. Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is also in Europe, where Amy calls him a “vain, lazy, drunken sot.” And he is indeed a falling-down drunk at that point in this movie. This is the feminist version of LW, after all; I guess we can’t have our first impression of our leading man as the kind, generous, noble friend he has been to the March girls throughout their childhoods.

I happened to bring a visitor from Argentina to see the film with me. He had heard of the novel but had never read it or seen a film adaptation. He confessed that he could not follow the story — he knew there were flashbacks, but it was hard to tell which scenes were in which era, because Gerwig did not bother to provide visual markers — the hairstyles, settings and clothing were virtually the same in both the future and the past. Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response. We learn of Beth’s illness before we even know that she is a sister. We learn that Jo has rejected Laurie’s proposal before we have ever seen them together. We see Amy’s treachery in burning Jo’s manuscript before we see the tender love Jo has for her youngest sister, etc. Gerwig then quickly cuts to the past, where she provides brief glimpses of the relationships leading up to those moments.

My Argentinian friend was utterly lost. All he saw was a bunch of women bickering with one another. He didn’t even realize they were supposed to be teenagers because the actresses were all in their mid-20s. The only reason it worked for me at all is that I could tap into my remembered emotions from having read the book. Many young girls were in the audience with their mothers, presumably experiencing the story for the first time. I felt sorry for them. All they got out of it is that marriage is bad.

Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.

Gerwig’s direction is clunky too. She chose to cast older actresses for the four sisters; then, to portray them in the flashbacks, she resorted to whiny petulance and temper tantrums to make them seem young. This does not work, especially for 12-year-old Amy, who is portrayed by the voluptuous Florence Pugh. Meanwhile, Timothee Chalamat as Laurie has a very boyish face and physique, and his head is so much smaller than Saoirse Ronan’s that they look almost freakish together.

The kind and noble Marmee is laughably portrayed as well. To demonstrate the joy and fun of the March household, Gerwig directed Dern to laugh uncontrollably much of the time, even at the simplest moments. (Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.) Dern’s giggles create a caricature that feels more like a 1930s Mammy than the strong and gentle Marmee, which is unfortunate, because Dern is capable of so much more with so much less — a comforting touch, a beaming countenance, a disapproving glance could have been much more effective, as seen in her portrayal of the teacher in October Sky. She is allowed to display her full range only once — at the death of her beloved Beth. In most scenes she is a giggling goon.

Gerwig even failed with Meryl Streep, whose wooden performance as Aunt March made me long for the acerbic wit of Maggie Smith as the deliciously officious dowager in Downton Abbey. She delivers her lines with all the enthusiasm of a driver delivering a pizza. And if, as she and Jo claim, women had no rights to property in 19th-century America unless they acquired it themselves as single women, how is it that Aunt March inherited the family estate rather than her brother, the father of those little women? Now there’s a backstory I would love to explore!

My biggest disappointment is with Jo’s character. Not with Ronan’s portrayal — she’s fine. More than fine. But Gerwig, like Alcott, only skirted what I think is Jo’s true nature. Alcott hinted at Jo’s sexual orientation; Jo has a masculine name, while her love interest, Laurie, has a girl’s name. Jo usually plays the pirate and other masculine roles in the girls’ attic theatricals. And of course, Jo becomes the family breadwinner. I have long thought that Alcott planted these clues to hint that Jo is gay, in an era when hints were as far as a writer could go.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts.

Gerwig almost gets there. In the movie, Laurie joins “a club for girls” when he is admitted to the March girls’ thespian society. Jo and Laurie often wear the same clothes, though not at the same time. When Jo rejects his proposal, she tells him, “I can’t love you as you want me to. I don’t know why. I can’t. I’ve tried it and I’ve failed.” And when Meg decides to marry, Jo pleads with her, “Don’t do it! Stay with me! You will be bored of him in two years — and we will be interesting forever!” She adds, “I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” Yes, I thought. This time they will have the courage to get it right. Jo will come out of the closet at last.

And yet, for all the preening about the oppression of marriage — despite Amy arguing with Laurie, “Don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is! . . . If I marry, my money would belong to my husband and my children would be his property,” and Aunt March sighing, “Until [Amy] marries someone obscenely wealthy it is up to me to keep the family afloat” — the conflict and climax of the movie resides in Jo discovering that she loves Laurie after all. “Women have minds and they have souls as well as hearts and they have ambition,” she admits, “but I’m so lonely!” And so she writes Laurie the love letter telling him she wants to accept his proposal of marriage. (Of course, we’ve known since the first scene of the movie that Laurie and Amy are already loving it up over in Europe, so we don’t experience Jo’s devastation when she learns the truth.)

Gerwig gives in to marketing pressure, and ends her film with a traditional love story, just as Jo gives in to the same marketing pressure from her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), to marry off the protagonist of her novel, and Alcott succumbed to the same pressure to provide a husband for her alter ego, Jo. Alcott’s Mr. Bhaer is old enough to be Jo’s father. It’s a marriage of convenience, rather than romance, that was not unusual for women who wanted to hide their sexual orientation within a socially acceptable marriage. Gerwig betrayed Alcott, however, by making Jo gigglingly schoolgirlish as she runs after her Friedrich Bhaer, played by the devilishly handsome — and young! — Louis Garrel, to proclaim her love, while her sisters giggle joyfully in the carriage.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts. She adds little that we don’t already know about women’s economic rights and capabilities; she utterly rejects marriage as a viable choice for rational and talented women; she then marries off her lesbian protagonist to the sexiest man in the movie. Good grief.

There was a smattering of applause at the screening I attended, probably led by die-hard ’70s-era feminists who cheer anything made for, by, and about women. But do the young girls in your life a favor: give them a copy of the book, and keep them away from this movie.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. Columbia Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.




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Highs and Lows

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You probably remember the days when Christmas packages had to be mailed by December 10 if you wanted them to arrive for Christmas. Then private industry entered the delivery market and changed everything. This past month I watched in awe as deliveries from UPS, FedEx, Amazon Trucking, and yes, even the US Postal Service brought packages to my door within two days of my ordering them. I received half a dozen packages on Christmas Eve alone, including one that had been redirected from an incorrect address the day before.

This nearly didn’t happen. In the early days of FedEx, founder Fred Smith faced a serious cashflow problem. The company was millions of dollars in startup debt. Pilots were purchasing fuel with their personal credit cards. Employees were agreeing not to cash their paychecks, knowing they would bounce anyway. Desperate to stave off bankruptcy, Smith took the company’s last $5,000 to the Las Vegas blackjack tables. He returned in less than a week with $27,000 and used that money to secure additional funding. How could he take such a risk with the last of the company’s cash? He figured he would probably lose it all in bankruptcy court, so the real risk was in not doing anything.

Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything.

Uncut Gems shows a different side of gambling — not the glitzy glamour of roulette wheels and craps tables and exciting payoffs but the dirty, violent, addictive side that entices with the promise not of wealth but of the euphoric adrenaline rush during the heady anticipation of winning. For Howie Ratner (Adam Sandler) the desire is all consuming. He has to have that high.

The film’s frenetic, unrelenting pace mirrors Howie’s frenetic, unrelenting mania. The camera follows him from room to room and scene to scene without so much as a pause to orient the audience. Howie is constantly orchestrating a story. He owes everybody, renegotiates with everybody, constantly lies, constantly expects the next big gambling hit to fix everything. The problem is, he doesn’t really want to fix everything, and he isn’t really after the money. Howie gets off on the risk and anticipation, the fear of losing it all and the release of fear when the game comes his way. Gambling is his cocaine. Winning is his euphoria. We don’t see any drug use in Uncut Gems, yet the movie is a story of freewheeling addiction — addiction to adrenaline.

Howie runs a jewelry store with an off-the-books, secondhand business in the back. As the movie opens he is working a deal to sell a 4,000-carat uncut black opal from Ethiopia through a Manhattan auction house. He expects to garner a million dollars on the deal. But he also has a short-term commitment with a loan shark that needs to be fixed today. (In fact, he has several such commitments.) So he uses the opal to solve several problems at once. He persuades Kevin Garnett (yes, the basketball star, playing himself) that the opal can give him good luck. Then, taking Garnett’s NBA ring as collateral in exchange for letting Garnett keep the opal overnight, Howie pawns the ring for cash; sends a photo of the cash to a loan shark, implying he is on his way to pay the loan; shakes off the heavies of another loan shark by giving them a fake Rolex; heads to his bookie, where he uses the money from Garnett’s ring to bet on Garnett and the Celtics, and finally gives way to the gambler’s euphoria as he watches the game — in which Garnett is in top form, because of his new talisman. All in a day’s work.

If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it.

But Howie doesn’t have time for the big hustle. Every plan has to be made on the fly. He’s entirely short-term oriented, because every moment could be his last. We feel his rising panic as he deals with big-time loan sharks and big-time enforcers who could kill or maim him at any moment. (Howie’s poorly capped teeth suggest an enforcer has taught him a lesson in the past, although how he lost his original teeth is never mentioned.) Like every compulsive gambler, he believes his plan will work and the next big win is as good as in his hands. Then he’ll pay everyone off and everything will be fine.

Like many gambling addicts, Howie is a family man. He was once the kind of guy who takes out the recycling on Wednesday night, recites the prayers at Passover, and attends his kid’s school play. And he still does all that. But he’s always distracted by his latest bet and yesterday’s collectors. If he just so happens to end up in the trunk of his car, stripped naked and calling his wife (Idina Menzel) to push the trunk-open button from the auditorium door during his daughter’s play, so be it. She doesn’t even ask him what happened.

Howie is desperate but not hopeless, and therein lies the key to his character. Hope drives him. In that sense he is the eternal optimist. He’ll do anything, pawn anything, and promise anything to get out of the current jam and into the euphoria of a big score. The more cons he has going and the greater the risk, the higher he gets. Desperation is foreplay for him, and watching a game on which he has a big bet is orgasmic. It isn’t even about the money. When he wins big, he needs sex. But not with his wife. He needs Julia (Julia Fox), the beautiful mistress living in his downtown apartment. No wonder both are called scoring.

After Daniel Day-Lewis saw the film, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!

The camera work and musical score reflect Howie’s relentless determination. Usually dark and fast-paced, the music changes to a dreamy, jazzy arrangement whenever Howie is winning, to reflect his momentary euphoria. The lighting also brightens just a bit in those moments — not enough to be cheesy, but enough that you start to notice it after a while. The Safdie Brothers’ direction is controlled and masterful, even as Howie’s story is frenetically spinning out of control. This frenzy also spills into the audience, as the nearly two and a half hour film feels like 90 minutes. Kevin Garnett, too, is a revelation, delivering a believable performance that comes from deep within his soul, not sitting statically in front of his eyes, as happens with most sports figures who are called on to play themselves. His acting coach should have a separate listing in the credits.

Uncut Gems is a filmmaker’s film, and Sandler has come a long way from his silly Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison days. This isn’t his first foray away from comedy; he delivered excellent dramatic performances in Punch Drunk Love (2002) and Spanglish (2004). But Uncut Gems is his most impressive — gritty, manic, and unrelenting as it follows the life of a crazed gambler who just can’t get enough. After Daniel Day-Lewis saw it, he called Sandler to congratulate him on his tour-de-force performance. Daniel Day-Lewis!! I wouldn’t call it entertaining, and I’m not sure that you, dear reader, would enjoy it. But when funnyman Adam Sandler wins the Oscar for Best Actor, at least you’ll know why.


Editor's Note: Review of "Uncut Gems," directed by Benny and Josh Safdie. Elara Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.



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