The Film You’ve Been Hearing About

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Normally I go to a movie theater with a pen in my hand and a notebook in my lap. Yes, it requires me to break away from the universe created on the screen, but it’s a small price to pay on behalf of my readers. Ten minutes into Gone Girl, however, I put both away and settled back for the ride. Don’t even bother to fasten your seat belt — you’ll want to feel every twist and turn.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives at The Bar with a board game under his arm and begins bantering with the barmaid Margo (Carrie Coon), who turns out to be his twin sister. Soon Nick’s phone rings. It’s his neighbor, and he rushes home. His cat is outside. The door is ajar. The glass coffee table is upturned and shattered. There’s a speck of blood on the range hood. And Amy, his wife — his girl — is gone.

Gone Girl is a “whodunit” in the tradition of the best classic murder mysteries but with a modern twist that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end. Not only do we not know who done it; we don’t even know the answer to “done what?” Amy (Rosamund Pike) is gone, and someone has mopped up a pile of her blood from the kitchen floor. But without a body, homicide detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) can’t make an arrest. Meanwhile, there’s a boatload of possible suspects in the vicinity, including Nick’s mentally unstable father (Leonard Kelly-Young), Amy’s overachieving parents (Rand Elliot and Lisa Banes), Amy’s spurned former boyfriends (Neil Patrick Harris and Boyd Holbrook), the neighbor down the street who claims to be Amy’s best friend (Casey Wilson), and even Nick’s oh-so-close twin, Margo.

Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

Dark, good-looking, and lantern-jawed, Ben Affleck was obviously cast for his striking resemblance to Scott Peterson, who was tried in the media (and then in court) for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, after she went missing on Christmas Eve, 2002. In both the movie and the Peterson case, a wandering pet alerted neighbors that something was amiss. In both, the husband was alone on the water when his wife went missing. In both, the parents of the missing woman supported their son-in-law (until the girlfriend showed up). And in both, the cable news networks made it their lead story every night.

In many ways this story is an indictment of the “trial by media” that has become a regular staple in the daily diet of the news. Simply put, sensationalism sells. “We all know” that JonBenét Ramsey was killed by her father. Unless it was her uptight mother. Or her creepy stepbrother. (Choose a team.) Ed Smart was a prime media suspect in the disappearance of his daughter, Elizabeth, until she was found, alive, nine months later. (To his credit, Sean Hannity came to believe Smart’s story and gave him plenty of competing air time.) Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her little girl, but “everyone knows” she did it; we reviewed the evidence night after night on cable, even before her trial began. Amanda Knox, a college student studying in Italy, was convicted of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in part because she was seen kissing her boyfriend and sitting on his lap while waiting to be interviewed by the local police. She just didn’t look distraught enough. And “we all know” what that means.

But we also know what a camera can do in the blink of a lens. Someone snaps a candid photo from across the room while you are in the middle of saying a word or while you are squinting into the sun, and you look angry or sullen or goofy. Someone stands next to you for a photo or a selfie, and you automatically smile, no matter what you are feeling inside. You see a friend across the room, and you smile as you wave hello, even if the occasion is as somber as a funeral or a trial. It’s automatic, even when you’re upset. Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. You just do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

The beauty of Gone Girl is that you just don’t know which of the snapshots to believe, or what is going to happen next. It’s a thrill ride of epic proportions, and I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying another word.

Unfasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a gloriously bumpy ride.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gone Girl," directed by David Fincher. Regency Enterprise-Pacific Standard, 2014, 149 minutes.



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From Books to Film

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Liam Neeson has made a name for himself in the last few years as the Old Geezer of action heroes in movies known for their simple plots, video-game action, and one-word titles such as Taken, Unknown,and Non-Stop. . . . Regular readers of Liberty know that I’m rather taken with the Taken films, regardless of their simplicity.

But Neeson is more than just a rugged face with a powerful punch; he’s a classically trained actor with more than a dozen major awards and two dozen major nominations, so it’s nice to see him back in a role that allows him to flex his acting muscles again. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a cool, atmospheric crime drama based on a series of novels written by Lawrence Block that feature former-cop-turned-private-investigator Matt Scudder. Scudder is also a former-drunk-turned-recovering-alcoholic.

In Walk, Scudder (Neeson) is the privatest of private eyes; he doesn’t have a license and operates outside the law. He is driven by a mixture of justice and revenge, garnished with a twist of guilt over a tragedy that occurred while he was a cop. This combination can become a dangerous cocktail. Like Mel Gibson’s character in the Lethal Weapon series, Scudder doesn’t have a strong survival instinct. In some ways, in fact, he sees death as a welcome escape — and this adds to the tension in the film. Contributing to the tension are the unexpected and jarring juxtapositions of beauty and horror that lift the quality of the filmmaking and enhance the viewers’ expectations. Especially effective is the way the AA 12-Step affirmations are used at a significant point in the film.

Initially Scudder rejects the job of tracking down the ruthless pervs who have kidnapped and then gruesomely murdered the wife of wealthy drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens). He knows Kenny just wants the pleasure of killing them slowly — and gruesomely — and he doesn’t want to be a part of that. But he is drawn into the case when he realizes that the men might be serial killers who will strike again. The film then becomes a race to find the killers and stop them.

Scudder doesn’t have a strong survival instinct. In some ways he sees death as a welcome escape.

In the books Scudder works closely with police detective Joe Durkin, and the movie role of Durkin was originally cast with Ruth Wilson as a female Joe. But director Scott Frank decided that Scudder’s character is more realistic as a brooding loner, so Joe Durkin was cut from the story line — after Wilson had already been filmed in many of the scenes! (That these scenes aren’t even missed is a tribute to the film’s editor.) Elaine, Scudder’s call-girl girlfriend in the novels, is conspicuously absent as well. Instead, Scudder interacts with a homeless, tech savvy, African-American teenager named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who serves to soften Scudder in the eyes of the audience while emphasizing the lack of family connection in Scudder’s life. Cutting the two once-prominent characters was a smart move for the movie, despite their integral part in the novel series.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a throwback to the heyday of gritty crime movies. I almost expected to see Popeye Doyle show up for a car chase under the elevated train. The acting is superb at every level. Dan Stevens is especially good as Kenny Kristo, the grieving and vengeful husband; his intense, icy eyes glare up under heavy brows in every scene, convincing us that he is capable of anything. Astro (who was discovered as a young rapper on The X Factor a couple of years ago) is also effective as the homeless kid with the optimistic outlook and poignant determination. And it’s always good to see Liam Neeson step out of his one-word, one-tone, one-dimensional action romps to remind us that he’s still an A-list actor.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Walk Among the Tombstones," directed by Scott Frank (2014). Cross Creek Pictures, 2014, 114 minutes.



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Three Good Books

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I have an apology to make. I have been far behind in letting you know about books I’ve enjoyed, books that I think you will enjoy as well.

To me, one of the most interesting categories of literature is a work by a friend of liberty that is not the normal work by a friend of liberty. The typical libertarian book (A) concerns itself exclusively with public policy, (B) assumes that its readers know nothing about public policy, (C) assumes that its readers are either modern liberals or modern conservatives, who need to be argued out of their ignorance, or modern libertarians, who need to be congratulated on their wisdom. I find these books very dull. I suspect that when you’ve read one of them, you’ve read them all. But I have no intention of reading them all.

What I want is a book that has a libertarian perspective and actually tells me something new. One such book is Philosophic Thoughts, by Gary Jason. You know Gary; besides being a professor of philosophy, he is also one of Liberty’s senior editors. The book presents 42 essays, some on logic, some on ethical theory, some on metaphysics, some on applications of philosophy to contemporary issues. Libertarian perspectives are especially important in the discussions of ethical theory, where we have essays on such matters as tort reform, free trade, boycotts of industry, and unionization (issues that Jason follows intently). The attentive reader will, however, notice the spirit of individualism everywhere in the book.

What you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

The essays are always provocative, and Jason knows how to keep them short and incisive, so that the reader isn’t just invited to think but is also given time to do so. Of course, you can skip around. I went for the section about logic first, because, as readers of Liberty know, I understand that topic least. I wasn’t disappointed. There is nothing dry about Jason’s approach to problems that are unfairly regarded as “abstract” or “merely theoretical.” He is always smart and challenging, but he makes sure to be accessible to non-philosophers. In these days of fanatical academic specialization, it’s satisfying to see real intellectual curiosity (42 essays!). And Jason doesn’t just display his curiosity — he is no dilettante. He contributes substantially to the understanding of every topic he considers.

Another book that I’ve enjoyed, and I don’t want other people to miss, is a work by Jacques Delacroix, who has contributed frequently to these pages. In this case, you can tell a book by its cover, because the cover of Delacroix’s book bears the title I Used to Be French. Here is the cultural biography — cultural in the broadest sense — of a man who became an American, and an American of the classic kind: ingenuous, daring, engaging, funny, and again, curious about everything in the world. Whether the author began with these characteristics, I don’t know, but he has them now; and what you see in the book is someone learning, as he moves from France to America and from mid-century to the present, that “American” is the best name for his own best qualities.

Arthurdale was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty.

It takes literary skill to project a many-sided personality; and the strange thing is that it takes even more skill to project the differences we all feel between American culture (bad or good) and French — or any other European — culture (bad or good). We feel those differences, but when we try to describe them we usually get ourselves lost in generalizations. Delacroix doesn’t. He has a taste for the pungent episode, the memorable anecdote. He also displays two of the best qualities of which a good author, American or French, can ever be possessed: an exact knowledge of formal language and an intimate and loving acquaintance with the colloquial tongue.

Sampling Delacroix’s topics, one finds authoritarianism, Catholicism, Catholic iconography, the Cold War, communism, diving, driving, the end of the Middle Ages, existentialism, food, French borrowings from English, the French navy (being in it), getting arrested, grunion, jazz, Levis, lovemaking, Muslims, the People’s Republic of Santa Cruz, political correctness, the Third World in its many forms. . . . Most (even grunion) are topics that a lesser author would inevitably get himself stuck to, but Delacroix romps through them all. If you want a loftier metaphor, you can say that they (even the grunion) are jewels strung on the book’s central story, as sketched in the summary on the back cover: “A boy grows up in the distant, half-imaginary continent of post-World War II France. Bad behavior and good luck will eventually carry him to California where he will find redemption.” And a lot of fun, for both the reader and himself.

Fun, also, in another way, is a book I’ve been perversely withholding from you for three years. It’s Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning, by C.J. Maloney (also, be it noted, a contributor to Liberty). What does that title mean? Well, Arthurdale, West Virginia, was a settlement begun in 1933 by the United States government under the inspiration of Eleanor Roosevelt. It was the result of Mrs. Roosevelt’s commendable concern for the poor and of her utter inability to understand what to do about poverty. Her idea — which was shared by a multitude of college professors, pundits, quack economists, and the usual products of “good” Eastern schools — was that there was an “imbalance” between rural and urban America; that the latter was too big and the former too small; and that the government should “resettle” hordes of Americans “back on the land” (where, incidentally, most of them had never lived). Mrs. Roosevelt was especially concerned with converting out-of-work miners into “subsistence” farmers. She and her New Deal accomplices designed a turnkey community for 800 or so lucky recipients of government largesse — land, houses, furnishings, equipment, expert advice. What could go wrong?

The answer, as Maloney shows, is “virtually everything.” The planned community had no plans except bad ones. The farms didn’t support themselves, and the farmers didn’t really want to farm them. Everything cost more — lots more — than it should have. Attempts to supplement small farming by small industry repeatedly failed. When the “colonists” managed to produce a surplus of something, the government wouldn’t let them sell it. The democratic and communitarian ideals hailed by government bureaucrats — who included some of the nastiest specimens of the New Deal, such as Rexford Guy Tugwell, one of the smuggest and stupidest creatures who ever attracted national attention — were continuously negated by the power of the Planners themselves.

It’s a good story, amusing though sad; and I wish I could say it was amazing. Unfortunately, it was just one of the predictable results of those dominating impulses of big government: arrogance and wishful thinking. Maloney’s well-researched book places Arthurdale firmly in the context of 20th-century interventionism, with plenty of information about the broader movements it represented and the people involved in them. The book is lively and pointed. Like the other books mentioned here, it is both an education and an entertainment. Like those other books, it is one of a kind, and not to be missed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philosophic Thoughts: Essays on Logic and Philosophy," by Gary Jason. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. 416 pages; "I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography," by Jacques Delacroix. Santa Cruz CA: By the Author (but you can get it on Amazon), 2014. 420 pages; and "Back to the Land: Arthurdale, FDR’s New Deal, and the Costs of Economic Planning," by C. J. Maloney. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2011. 292 pages.



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Listen Up, Groupmates

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The Giver is a new film based on the popular young adult novel by Lois Lowry (1993) about a community in which choice and individuality have been eliminated in an attempt to eradicate unhappiness. The community is characterized by sameness; houses are all the same, husbands and wives are assigned to each other, and one boy child and one girl child are assigned to each family unit. Occupations are assigned for life by the community elders when children turn 12, thus eliminating the “agony” of deciding for oneself what career or avocation to pursue. Lowry has written over 30 books for young adults and has reaped numerous awards for them. She has a gift for evocative language and for creating characters and settings that draw the reader into her worlds. The Giver addresses important issues about choice and accountability, joy and despair, family and friendship, community and individuality.

To demonstrate the Otherness of herseemingly familiar, yet imaginary community, Lowry creates Orwellian terms such as “newchildren” for babies and “groupmates” for friends. Children are grouped by their birth years as Fours or Eights or Tens. When Elevens become Twelves, they are assigned their occupations at a community celebration also characterized by the “Release to Elsewhere” of the older members of the community. This hint of a glorious retirement is actually a euphemism for euthanasia. As the film opens, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is explaining in a voiceover narration what his community is like. “Differences aren’t allowed,” he tells the audience. “No popularity, no fame, no losers.”

The story is reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem(1938), in which the first-person singular pronoun has been outlawed, names have become numbers, children grow up in dormitories, and occupations are assigned for life. But The Giver immediately contradicts itself, because Jonas is riding bikes and joking happily with his two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) while other children can also be seen chatting happily in groups of twos or threes. Popularity might be frowned upon in this community, but unlike in Anthem, there doesn’t seem to be any tyrannical enforcement of the rules or atmosphere of oppression.

No history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation.

In the next scene, Jonas and Fiona are visiting Jonas’s father (Alexander Skarsgard) in the birthing center where he has been assigned as a nurturer. They compete jovially as they weigh two newborns to see which one’s baby is larger.Fiona’s weighs an ounce more than Jonas’s. Father says, “Thank goodness they aren’t identical! That makes this much easier,” as he takes the newchild who is an ounce lighter to be “released to elsewhere.” Oops! Loser. Evidently it pays to be stronger and heavier in this society of sameness. Similarly, in the assignment ceremony that follows, the elders assign Jonas and his groupmates (who are 16 in the film, not 12, as in the novel) to their occupations by reference to thetalents and differences they have exhibited, not by random selection to confirm their sameness. Fiona and Asher are delighted with their assignments as nurturer and drone pilot, respectively. Jonas is honored to discover that he will be a Receiver of Memories, the first Receiver to be discovered in many years. This is very different from the assignment ceremony of Anthem’s Equality 7-2521, who longs to be a Scholar but is assigned instead to be a street cleaner. I understand the point the film is trying to make about lack of choice, but these contradictions so early in the film are jarring and reduce the sense of drama or conflict.

The purpose of a Receiver is to retain all the memories of the past, including the emotions that accompanied them. In a way the Receiver is a Christ figure, taking upon himself the pains, but also the joys, of the world. Jonas is assigned to learn his role from the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges) who will now be the Giver. He transfers his memories to Jonas telepathically, and Jonas experiences the joy, pain, and wonder of activities that happened in a life without sameness. Only the Receiver has this knowledge; no history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation. Citizens are also given daily injections to prevent emotional highs or lows or any kind of passion. (One wonders why the elders would want a Receiver to remember the history that they deem dangerous, and I think it would have made more sense if The Giver had been an outcast hiding in the woods, waiting for someone with “the gift” to help him restore freedom and choice. But that’s where we simply need to suspend our disbelief and go with the story.)

Director Phillip Noyce has strong visual instincts and uses color to good advantage. Much of The Giver is filmed in black and white to indicate the sameness in the community, with splashes of impressionistic color to indicate freedom of thought and full color for the memories the Giver shares with Jonas. A few allusions give the film added gravitas as well; for example, Jonas tells us in the beginning that they are “protected by the border” from what they perceive as the evils of the outside worlda reminiscence of Plato’s Cave. At another point Jonas gives Fiona an apple and tells her that using it in a certain way will allow her to gain knowledge and feel forbidden passion. He places it in her hand with great ceremony, rather like Eve urging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in order to experience the new knowledge and passion that she has discovered.

Through techniques such as these, The Giver tries very hard to be a great film. Its themes about the importance of choice and individuality are themselvesprofoundly important. Jeff Bridges was so impressed by the book that he purchased the movie rights shortly after it was published, expecting to film it with his father (Lloyd Bridges) as the Giver. Rumor has it that he and his family (brother Beau is also an actor) filmed a home movie version of the book in their garage several years ago. Bridges waited 20 years to make the commercial production, and parts of it are quite effective and well done. I enjoyed the novel, and wanted very much to love this film. But like so many works that are philosophically important, The Giver doesn’t translate well to film. Some books just need to remain as books.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Giver," directed by Phillip Noyce. As Is Productions, 2014, 97 minutes.



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Recreating the Unique

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“Show business is two parts. There’s the show part, and there’s the business part.”
— James Brown

In Get on Up, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrates that he is the master of both. A showman so passionate about his music that he becomes known as the Godfather of Soul, he is also a businessman savvy enough to figure out that the profits in the music business goes to the people who control the gate, not to the ones playing the music onstage. Brown figures out how to be in charge of both.

Determined to play the Apollo and produce an album that can capture the electricity of the live performance, he tells his skeptical manager Ben Bart (Dan Ackroyd), “I’ll put up the money. I’ll take the risk.” He uses the power of radio to promote his concerts and records. Payola — the practice of paying deejays to play and promote a record — is illegal, but advertising a live concert is not. “They’ll play my records, and then they’ll tell people where they can hear me play,” he explains enthusiastically to Bart in the film. And the deejays do. Live at the Apollo becomes Brown’s first breakout album.

Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

By all accounts, James Brown (1933–2006) did not have an easy life. Born during the Depression in a small South Carolina town, he was abandoned by both his parents and lived, at least for a while, in his aunt’s brothel. He spent time in prison during his youth and again as an adult. His official biography is somewhat sketchy, with different stories told by different biographers and people who knew him. Brown himself, with his little-boy perspective of the grown-up actions going on around him, probably didn’t understand what was really true. Consequently, the traditional biopic with a typical beginning (childhood), middle (the struggle to get started), and end (the ultimate successes and defeats) simply would not work for this film. Instead, director Tate Taylor presents the story almost as triggered memories. The film jumps around from scene to scene and decade to decade. It begins in 1988 with an almost psychotic Brown brandishing a rifle at room full of strangers, then quickly changes to a 1964 Brown preparing to share the stage with the Rolling Stones, and changes just as quickly to a little-boy Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott) playing tag with his mother in 1939. Then it’s back again to the ’60s and a USO show in Vietnam and then to the ’50s and back to his father brandishing a rifle at his mother. For a while it seems dizzyingly unfocused and uncontrolled.

Midway through the film, however, as the band is practicing for a performance in New Orleans, a saxophonist complains about how the drum section comes in during the song’s arrangement. Shouldn’t it start with the downbeat? he suggests. Brown asks him, “Does it sound right? Does it feel right?” The musician nods. “Well if it sounds right and it feels right, then it is right,” Brown declares. Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

To reinforce his point, Brown taps on a snare and asks, “What’s that?” “A drum,” the musician responds. “And what’s that?” Brown asks, pointing to a bass. “A guitar,” the puzzled musician replies. “No, that’s a drum, “ Brown corrects him. “And what’s that?” he asks, pointing to a saxophone, “and that,” pointing to the piano. “A drum?” the musician replies. “That’s right. It’s all drums.”

Every sound anchors the music. Every sound provides a foundational beat. You could highlight them separately — first the guitar, then the brass, then thedrums — and you might be able to hear each part more clearly, but it wouldn’t have the same power as Brown’s arrangement does. It wouldn’t sound right. It wouldn’t feel right.

First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats.

The scenes in the film are arranged with a similar foundation. They don’t necessarily make sense by themselves, and they may or may not be factually true. But they’re all story, just as the instruments are all drums. When experienced as a whole, the scenes sound right, and they feel right.

One of the more unsettling scenes of the film occurs in the week after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bart encourages Brown to cancel their concert in Boston, but Brown insists on keeping the date. The tension between the mostly black audience, right on the edge of rioting, and the mostly white police officers, right on the edge of using their billy clubs, is eerily like the situation in Ferguson this week. As audience members climb onto the stage to dance next to Brown, chaos looms and the police ready themselves for action. Brown’s calm reaction made me think of the way George Banks (James Stewart) reacts to the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life. First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. He gives them what they think they want. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats, reminding them, “Everyone wants to see the show. Come on now, let’s represent. Let’s show them.” And they do.

Chadwick Boseman is making quite a career for himself by playing inspirational black men. His portrayal of Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 was phenomenal (see my review in Liberty). He portrays Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Mack in Draft Day later this year. Boseman succeeds in such films because he pays attention to the nuances. In 42 it was the way his fingers danced as he prepared to steal a base. In Get on Up the magic is again in his hands as he captures the way Brown held his at an angle when he walked. His feet pivot and glide across the floor as he dances onstage in Brown’s signature mashed potato, and he bounces easily into Brown’s signature splits. His raspy voice and lazy diction sometimes make it difficult to understand what he’s saying, but that too was Brown’s style. I hope Boseman gets a chance to create an original character in a romantic comedy or an action film, next.

Get on Up is not as good as Ray (with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, 2004) or Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, 2005). I don’t think it quite captures the influence Brown had on the music industry over six decades, and it leaves a lot of stories unfinished. But it is a good film that is worth the price of a theater ticket.


Editor's Note: Review of "Get on Up," directed by Tate Taylor, executive-produced by Mick Jagger. Imagine Entertainment / Jagged Films, 2014, 139 minutes.



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Protecting the Universe

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Do we really need another movie about superheroes protecting the universe from power-hungry villains? Probably not. And yet here we are with another space western, and this one is pretty good.

Guardians of the Galaxy is about as formulaic as they come. The comparison with the first Star Wars is inevitable: with an earnest young protagonist (Chris Pratt) who loses his family early in the film and a sexy female protagonist (Zoe Saldana) who can hold her own in a fight. It sports a giant, loveable Wookiee-like creature (a tall tree voiced by Vin Diesel) who can only be understood by his cynical, wisecracking Han Solo-like best friend (a raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper). Guardians has also its share of eccentric intergalactic traders, thugs, and black marketeers as well as bad guys who blow up planets and want to control the galaxy.

The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well.

Nevertheless, there is something fun and endearing about Guardians of the Galaxy. The characters are reminiscent of the Star Wars franchise, but without being a parody or a carbon copy. It’s more like the Star Wars sequel we’ve been longing to see, and it’s backed by ’80s songs that will make you want to run out and buy the soundtrack. (In fact, the soundtrack album, “Awesome Mix, Vol. 1,” reached number 1 on the US Billboard chart.)

Peter Quill (Pratt) is a space-age scavenger-for-hire who was abducted by aliens on the night of his mother’s death. He works for low-level space criminals, drives a tricked-out muscle car of a spaceship, and still listens to the ’80s music mix his mother made for him just before she died. More Han Solo than Luke Skywalker, he faces danger with sassy aplomb and power-kicks aliens in time to the tunes blasting from his vintage Sony Walkman. His life is endangered when he takes possession of a mysterious orb that is wanted by numerous sinister buyers, and he ends up joining forces with Groot (the tree character), Rocket (the raccoon), Gamora (Saldana), and Drax (Dave Bautista) to prevent the orb from falling into the wrong hands.

That’s about it. The pitch is really pretty simple, and the story is nothing special. Yet it works, and works well, largely because of the chemistry of the characters Quill and Rocket and because of that perfect soundtrack. Director James Gunn explained the importance of the music to the film and the characters: "The music . . . is one of those touchstones that we have to remind us that Quill is a real person from planet Earth who's just like you and me, except that he's in this big outer space adventure."

Yep — just like you and me. Guarding the galaxy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Guardians of the Galaxy," directed by James Gunn. Columbia Pictures/Walt Disney/ Marvel Studios, 2014, 121 minutes.



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Life in the ’Hood

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I’m always a little skeptical about a film that relies too much on a gimmick. Can the film stand on its own? That’s what I want to know. I’m happy to say that Boyhood, one of the most anticipated indie films of the century (okay, the century is only 14 years old) can indeed stand on its own. The gimmick is this: instead of using multiple actors or makeup and prosthetics to portray the same character at different ages, director Richard Linklater decided to film this movie over the course of 12 years, while using the same actors. The result is a series of 12 vignettes chronicling the experiences of a sometimes-single mother (Patricia Arquette); her two children, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater); and their father (Ethan Hawke).

Linklater is one of the most innovative directors of the independent film movement. His sprawling, virtually plotless Slacker (1991) gave rise to the term that many used to define a generation. A Scanner Darkly experimented with new techniques that turned live action into animation, while Bernie experimented with combining documentary and scripted narrative. Several of his films take place in one 24-hour period (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, to name a few.) So why not experiment with the idea of taking 12 years to film a movie that covers 12 years?

Movie geeks have been waiting eagerly for the release of this film. I saw it on opening night in a gigantic downtown theater that was virtually filled to capacity. I was not disappointed.

Much can happen over the course of 12 years. People change. Sometimes they become famous. Sometimes they fall into addictions or ill health. Sometimes they die. Kids who seem cute and precocious at age five may become dull and leaden actors at age ten or 12. (I suspect the producers of Modern Family have serious “buyers’ regret” over the choice of Aubrey Anderson-Emmons as Lily — but how could they have known when she was a cute little toddler that she would grow up without an ounce of acting ability?)

Linklater could not have known, for example, that last year’s Oscar for Best Picture would go to a film called Twelve Years a Slave, making it necessary for him to change his working title, Twelve Years, to the more generic and certainly less interesting Boyhood, in order to avoid confusion. He also didn’t know that Arquette would end up starring in a hit TV show (Medium) or that his daughter Lorelei would lose interest in the project and beg him to kill off her character (I won’t tell you how that family tiff was resolved). Nor did he anticipate that it would take nearly three hours to tell the story sufficiently. Or that Ellar Coltrane would turn out to be exactly the right actor to stand at the heart of Boyhood.

Like many stories that are told through the eyes of a child (To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane, for example), Boyhood is not a kid’s flick but a grown up story that is given additional poignancy by the innocence of its young protagonist. Mom (Arquette) is a complex character who is trying to create a good life for her children. During the first half of the vignettes she is working her way through college and graduate school. But she makes terrible choices regarding men. Divorced from her children’s father, she goes through a series of abusive relationships and doesn’t seem able to rise above whatever it is that attracts her to this kind of man. The children suffer from her mistakes even as they benefit from her courage to leave a bad relationship. It’s a fascinating character study, and Arquette plays it just right.

The Texas setting is just right, too. Linklater hails from Houston, and he takes his audience on a virtual tour of the state as the family moves from place to place. Some of the locations are absolutely gorgeous.

Boyhood is much more than a filmmakers’ gimmick. The story works, the casting works, and the concept works. The film is long, but it is engaging, believable, and well worth watching. Once again, Linklater has created a winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "Boyhood," directed by Richard Linklater. IFC Productions, 2014, 165 minutes.



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The Joy of Work

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Chef is a film about the joy of cooking, but more than that; it is a film about building a business, doing something you love, working together as a family, and promoting one’s enterprise in the age of social media. It’s a small film with a surprisingly big cast that includes Scarlet Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert Downey, Jr., along with a slew of other well-known actors with whom director Jon Favreau has worked on such bigger budget blockbusters as Iron Man.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is an innovative head chef at a popular Los Angeles restaurant. He loves food, he loves cooking, and he loves the crew he has assembled in his kitchen. He is a true artist with a knife and a stove. But his focus on his work has led to a rift within his family. He is divorced from his beautiful wife Inez (Sofia Vergara), and he doesn’t know what to do on “divorced-dad weekends” with his charming 10-year-old son Percy (Emjay Anthony); he’s always in a hurry to get to the farmer’s market and plan the menu for the restaurant, and Percy is just in the way.

When Carl and his kitchen crew learn that a top food blogger (Oliver Platt) is coming to the restaurant Saturday night, Carl wants to create a variety of new dishes to showcase, but the restaurant owner (Dustin Hoffman) wants to stay with the tried-and-true menu that his regular customers know and enjoy. The blogger writes a scathing review, and Carl responds with his first-ever tweet, which he doesn’t realize is public. Their cyber war goes viral, and soon Carl is out of a job.

The red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Sadly, such obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.

All of this leads to a classic road trip movie. Carl starts a traveling food truck business and takes Percy and his best friend, sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) with him. Together they travel from Miami to Los Angeles, developing delicious sandwich menus based on local foods and ingredients they discover in regions along the way. This is what makes the movie sing. Father and son work in perfect sync as they develop flavor combinations, cook sandwiches side by side, and discover local specialties. Percy tweets pictures and details about their journey, and customers eagerly await their arrival in new cities. The film becomes a delightful tribute to the small family business and the wonders of social media. Do what you love, and do it with the people you love, and life will be good — even if you are living in a food truck.

Of course, no one could really do this. America might be the home of the brave and the land of the free, but it’s not the land of the free market. Carl wouldn’t really be able to do this on a whim in a matter of days. As Kasey Kirby and Laura Waters Hinson demonstrate in their fine documentary about the food truck business, Dog Days (this year’s Anthem Film Festival winner for Best Libertarian Ideals), the red tape that surrounds the food truck industry is almost insurmountable. Never mind that Carl is providing a product that customers crave and willingly purchase; you can’t sell food without health inspections, business licenses, and location permits, and these all take time and money to secure — lots of it. Sadly, these obstacles keep many small entrepreneurs out of business permanently.

But red tape is not the point of this film, so Favreau wisely sidesteps the issue by giving a brief nod to the permit requirement and then asking us to suspend disbelief about the time it would take to acquire these permits in every city along the road. He focuses instead on the sheer joy of working together in a family business. Like many families today, the Caspers have been pulled so far in different directions that there’s an empty space where the home once was. As the story starts, Inez is a successful event planner who must be available for her clients beyond the standard 9–5 workday. Carl’s chef duties are mostly performed in the evenings. Percy’s “job” is school. Maids and gardeners take care of the work they might have done together at home. They are related by DNA and by a family name, but their productive lives are completely separate. The things that give each of them a sense of identity — the things they produce — are unconnected. Like many couples today, their root system dies as they branch out in different directions.

When the family business brings them together, the Caspers feel joy again. Yes, they work hard. Yes, it’s hot and humid in the truck. Yes, young Percy gets hurt sometimes — he burns his hand on the lid of the sandwich maker, and he cuts his finger with a paring knife. But he doesn’t let it stop him. He loves working with his dad. He loves providing food for customers who line up to taste their sandwiches. He loves mimicking his dad and knowing that his own work matters.

Carl says to Percy as they embark on their adventure, “I may not do everything great in my life, but I’m good at this. I manage to touch people’s lives with what I do and I want to share this with you.” It reminded me of Whoopi Goldberg’s commencement address to the Mercy College graduates at Sing Sing this year. As she praised their accomplishments she said, “I tried to go to college but I had learning disabilities and I failed. My mother told me, ‘You might not be good at this, but you are good at something. You just need to find it.’ And I found it.” Chef celebrates the joy of finding what you’re good at; the joy that comes from doing work that is productive, creative, useful, and fulfilling; and the joy that comes from doing it with those you love.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chef," directed by Jon Favreau. Aldamisa Entertainment, 2014, 114 minutes.



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Apes Unlimited

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In 1968, at the height of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, a film emerged reflecting on the necessity for both. Although it was nominated for two Academy Awards (and won an honorary Oscar for Special Achievement in Makeup Design, which did not become an official category until 1981), the original Planet of the Apes is often dismissed as a campy sci-fi costume flick. Yet it addressed important issues about war, technology, and what it means to be human.

Most people know the plot: after being cryogenically frozen and suspended for centuries, three astronauts crashland on a planet that is remarkably compatible with human life; it has the right atmosphere, temperature, water, and food. The big difference is that on this planet the apes are civilized scientists while the humans are, like Jonathan Swift’s “yahoos” in the fourth part of Gulliver’s Travels, uncivilized brutes. No one who has seen the film can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene. The message was clear: this will be our future if we do not change our course.

POTA was followed by four sequels in rapid succession (1970, ’71, ’72, ’73, and a TV series in 1974). Now, nearly 50 years later, the message is just as timely: wars erupt as cultures clash around the globe. An African-American is in the White House, but government-promoted racism continues to flourish. Laboratory experiments change our food into something not-quite-natural, while genetically changed strains of viruses and biowarfare threaten our DNA. It’s not surprising that a new set of cautionary prequels should emerge that imagine a prelude to the 1968 POTA and offer a similarlycautionary message about war and civil rights. The newest film is not only just as timely, but even more sinister.

No one who has seen the original Planet of the Apes can forget the shocking sight of the torch of liberty projecting from the sand in the final scene.

As Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) ends, an experimental cure for Alzheimer’s disease has mutated into a deadly virus that has led to the near demise of the human race while causing the apes (on whom the drugs were experimented) to develop language and technological skills. (See my review in Liberty.) Now we have Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and it is a surprisingly satisfying addition to the franchise, despite being a bit slow in the first half.

As Dawn opens, apes now populate the woodland north of San Francisco, and they use weapons, ride horses, and plan strategies as they hunt deer (yes, these apes apparently have become carnivorous). The opening shot, looking up from the floor of the forest at dozens of apes swinging from treetop to treetop, is both eerie and beautiful. But the humans have not become extinct. A few were able to survive the “simian flu” and are now living in isolated camps in San Francisco (and possibly in other pockets around the world). Inevitably, the world of the apes and the world of the humans collide when the humans enter the forest to look for a way to repair a dam that could provide hydroelectric power to the city.

The film makes a strong case for the idea that reactions to actions, not the actions themselves, lead to war, and that appropriate reactions can avert it. Refreshingly, the film does not imply, as one might expect, that humans (especially white humans) are always bad, and animals (especially black animals) are always good. Instead, there are good and bad characters in both groups. Carver (Kirk Acevedo) is a trigger-happy human who shoots when scared. His foolish action could lead to either retaliation (war) or conciliation (patrolled borders) from the apes. Koba (Toby Kebbell) is a bitter ape who fears humans and wants war. He seems to have read Saul Alinsky’s playbook about how to use deception to influence public opinion. Under Koba’s leadership, the apes lock up the humans and their own peaceful dissenters, and steal weapons from the human arsenal. In a subtle nod to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, apes can be seen in the background painting a list of rules on the wall of their dwelling, a list that begins with “Apes do not kill apes” — after Koba usurps Caesar’s role as leader.

On the other hand, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and Malcolm (Jason Clarke) try to lead the apes and humans, respectively, toward a negotiated peace. Caesar calms his followers by reminding them, “If we go to war, we could lose all we’ve built — Home. Family. Future.” He then turns to a solution reminiscent of Robert Frost’s response to the Cold War (“good fences make good neighbors”) by delineating boundaries between the two groups. Cross this line, and we fight. Malcolm recommends similar restraint with the humans. I like this suggestion that we judge others by their actions, not by their pedigree. Of course, Koba prevails, and the second half of the film is a tense, action-packed battle between humans and apes as Caesar and Malcolm try to restore détente.

The original POTA introduced a then-groundbreaking prosthetic technique that allowed actors playing apes to move their cheeks and lips and show emotion on their faces. It was so innovative that designer John Chambers won the Oscar for his achievement. Now the apes are made to move and talk in a completely different way. That’s Andy Serkis, king of the motion-capture creatures (Smeagol-Gollum, King Kong, the previous Caesar) playing Caesar the Ape, but he isn’t wearing a hairy body suit or a prosthetic mask; he’s wearing a tight-fitting body suit with computerized balls attached to record his movements. Those are his expressive eyes we see on the screen, but his ape’s body is drawn through computer-generated “motion capture” techniques using the patterns created by the electrodes attached to his body. The ape is then drawn over the movements, complete with fur, scars, and expressions.

Man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth.

Consider that there might be dozens of apes or other CG animals in each scene, that each ape has to be drawn individually on each frame, that there are 24 frames per second in this 130-minute film, that for much of the film the apes are communicating in an intricate form of sign language, and that it all looks so real that you forget it’s animation, and you begin to appreciate what a work of art this film is.

Film uses a language of its own to create metaphors. In this one, a fiery backdrop during a battle scene reminds us visually that “war is hell.” Similarly, as the film ends a man fades into the shadows while apes run toward the sunlight, signaling the rise of the apes and the end of humankind’s reign on the earth. In this version, the apes use sign language when communicating with one another; I expect that in the next, the humans will have devolved to the yahoos that Taylor (Charlton Heston) found when he “crashlanded to earth” nearly 50 years ago. If that film is anything like this one, it will be well worth watching.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes," directed by Matt Reeves. 20th Century Fox, 2014, 130 minutes.



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Point Counterpoint

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Dinesh D’Souza is a debater beyond compare. I have watched him debate at least a dozen times, and he is simply brilliant in the way he sets up his opponent, recognizes the opponent’s position, and then systematically takes it apart and refutes it. Once when he was debating Christopher Hitchens on the value of religion, Hitchens called D’Souza’s bluff by not making his own case, thereby giving D’Souza nothing to tear apart. Undaunted, D’Souza first told the audience what Hitchens should have said about the bad things that have happened in the name of religion, and then went ahead with his own side of the debate, never missing a beat and managing to stay within his time limit to boot.

I thought about those debating skills while watching D’Souza’s new movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her. The film begins with an imagined reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle in which Washington dies and America never comes into existence. What might the world look like without the American philosophy? He then switches into devil’s advocate, listing five significant areas in which Americans should feel deep shame:

  1. Theft of lands from Native Americans, and genocide against them
  2. Theft of the American Southwest from Mexico
  3. Theft of life and labor from African-Americans
  4. Theft of resources from around the world through war and expansionism
  5. Theft of profits from consumers through capitalism (“You didn’t create that business — someone else built those roads, educated those employees, etc.”)

Watching this part of the film, especially as the first three points were elaborated, I nodded my head in agreement and disgust. These were terrible events that blot our nation’s history. How would D’Souza debate his way out of this one, I wondered?

D’Souza then steps back to give context and historical background to these situations. He does not denigrate or trivialize the suffering of the people involved, but he widens the story to give a broader perspective. By the time he is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history. In fact, our pride is restored for the good that we have accomplished, despite our slowness sometimes in getting there. Quoting both Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, he calls the equal rights vouchsafed in the Declaration of Independence a “promissory note” that took decades — nay, two centuries — to pay off, and indeed is still a promissory note in some instances.

By the time D’Souza is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history.

I was especially pleased that D’Souza included a segment on Madam C.J. Walker, the first black American woman to become a millionaire. Walker made her million manufacturing and selling cosmetics and pomades for African-Americans. She started as a cotton picker, worked her way up to cook, and saved her money to start her business. She is a true entrepreneurial hero who is often overlooked in the history books, I think, because she doesn’t fit the cult of victimhood ascribed to blacks and women, and because she made it on her own through entrepreneurship, not through political activism. I only know about her because her mansion is a mile from my house. (It survived the Roosevelt wealth tax devastation by serving as a tax-exempt old folks home for several decades, but is now a private residence again.) Now, thanks to D’Souza’s movie, others will know about this American entrepreneurial hero.

I would have been happy if the film had ended there, but then D’Souza turns to his opponents in this debate, such people as Boston University professor Howard Zinn, whose 1980 book A People’s History of the United States 1492–Present has influenced many political activists; and Saul Alinsky, whoseRules for Radicals heavily influenced such politicians and “community organizers” as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Like a good debater, D’Souza defuses the ammunition his detractors might use against him, the business about his recent run-in with the law, by addressing it head-on instead of giving his opponents an opportunity to whisper about it or suggest that he is hiding something. He admits that what he did was wrong (he reimbursed two friends who donated to another friend’s campaign in order to circumvent campaign contribution limits established by law — a law, by the way, that many people consider a violation of First Amendment right to free speech.) D’Souza frames his admission within the context of selective prosecution (some would call it political persecution) in retaliation for his previous film, 2016: Obama’s America.

America: Imagine a World without Her opened this week to coincide with the Fourth of July. It is an impressive piece of filmmaking, not only for its well-structured arguments but for its production qualities. Producer Gerald Molen, who won an Oscar as producer of Schindler’s List, is the man behind the magic. The film is also a featured selection at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival as part of FreedomFest at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas next week (information about FilmLovers Passes is at anthemfilmfestival.com).


Editor's Note: Review of "America: Imagine a World Without Her," directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan. Lionsgate, 2014, 103 minutes.



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