Robert Osborne, R.I.P.

 | 

Robert Osborne (1932–2017), who died on March 6, started out as an aspiring young gay actor, whose talent was not equal to his aspiration. His acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act. Acting, after all, is only one aspect of the art. He didn’t repine; he kept involved. He became a writer about film, and eventually he became the founding and continuing host of that great American institution, Turner Classic Movies, which presents movies on cable TV, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and never edits or censors them.

Osborne’s genial, knowledgeable, and above all genuine presence made him a central figure in my life and the lives of many other people. I remember sharing happy hours watching TCM with the late Ronald Hamowy, when he was ill and had difficulty leaving his house. Ronald and I watched whatever movies Osborne presented, always appreciating the way he handled his role as host and (concise) commentator. Ronald knew more about movies than I did, and consequently knew better than I how to value Robert Osborne; but over the years I learned more about film, and a lot of it came from watching Osborne and TCM. There are few things in life that are both good and available at any time. TCM is one of those things, and Osborne was largely responsible for its continuance and success.

Osborne's acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act.

Osborne was famous for his friendships with Hollywood stars, but he was no idolator or press agent. His interviews with them dwelt on serious questions of art and craft and the challenges of life, and he had a way of gently bringing people out in conversation so that pretense vanished and personality emerged. He took human weakness for granted and went beyond it, to more interesting things.

I have no idea what Osborne’s politics were, because they were irrelevant to his work. I wish I could say as much about the unequal figures who have occupied the scene at TCM during recent years, years of the mysterious illness that seems finally to have claimed Osborne’s life. He was himself a strong personality, but he never thrust the purely-Osborne forward; he was always Osborne in pursuit of the life of film.

For this I am thankful. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” People who don’t know the history of film are missing much of the food and most of the fun. Osborne’s mission was to issue invitations to the banquet, to inspire in others his own enthusiasm for a great art form. He was not a “legend,” as dead celebrities are always proclaimed to be. No, he was a reality.




Share This


Belshazzar’s Feast: The Retrospect

 | 

On February 27, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have finally succumbed to its long, slow, self-inflicted descent into irrelevance. The fiasco of the final award provided the only talking point of the evening, and it was a disaster.

Let’s talk about the fiasco first, as though it hasn’t been talked about enough: the final award of the night, Best Picture, was to be presented by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in honor of the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde. (Really? Sixty years? Sigh.) Emma Stone had just been awarded the Oscar for Leading Actress. Warren Beatty opened the envelope, but instead of holding the result for Best Picture, it held the duplicate Leading Actress card. Evidently they provide a set of cards on both sides of the stage, in case the presenters enter from the wrong side, and Beatty had been given the unused envelope from the previous award. Confused, he didn’t know what to do, so he showed the card to Dunaway, who blurted out the name of the movie without realizing that it was the wrong award. (Who can blame them? They’re both so over the hill, I’m surprised they could read the cards at all.)

What a disaster for everyone concerned — except, perhaps, for ABC and the producers of the show. Clips of the mixup have been shown all day. Sadly for the actual winners, the story has focused entirely on Jordan Horowitz ("What a good sport he is!"), Warren Beatty ("Not my fault!"), and Jimmy Kimmel ("Not mine either!"), who all grabbed the microphone while the hapless producers of Moonlight stood behind the thunderstruck celebrants of La La Land, waiting for their opportunity to make their speeches. And repeatedly, the news clips about the fiasco end before the actual winners come on stage. What a mess.

Confused, Beatty didn’t know what to do, so he showed the card to Dunaway, who blurted out the name of the movie.

If I were more cynical, I might think that the producers borrowed a page from the free advertising the Miss Universe pageant received after Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner in 2015. Certainly the fiasco kept the drab awards show, whose Nielsen ratings have steadily declined for the past nine years, in the news all day. Let’s just look at how irrelevant, arrogant, and condescending Hollywood has become. Moonlight might be a wonderful movie (I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t been able to see it), but best picture of the year? Why would they choose a film whose global box office was a mere $22 million? Compare that to $184 million for the wonderful Hidden Figures and $340 million for La La Land! Not that box office receipts should be the major consideration in determining best picture, lest superhero movies take over the awards, but come on — at least choose a film that people outside of the Academy voters have seen!

And it isn’t just the Best Picture honor that was out of touch. Let’s look at all of the top awards. Best actor went to Casey Affleck for the taut, understated performance of a man traumatized by a family tragedy in Manchester by the Sea. The film’s pacing is so slow, and the traumatizing moment so far into the film, that I actually walked out in boredom the first time I saw it. (See my review.) Yes, Affleck’s performance is a fine study in character control, and the reveal is deeply emotional. But better than Andrew Garfield’s Herculean effort in Hacksaw Ridge? Or Ryan Gosling’s two years of preparation to play a jazz pianist in La La Land? I don’t think so.

Best Actress went to the perky, effervescent Emma Stone, who essentially played herself in La La Land, and didn’t even bother to learn how to dance convincingly — for a tribute to dance musicals! (See my review.) This award belonged to Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins. A lesser talent would have turned Jenkins into a pathetic clown, but Streep imbued the character with such convincing joie de vivre that we fully believe that she could be so beloved by her friends and her husband. (My review.) To be perfectly honest, I think the award belonged to Amy Adams, who wasn’t even nominated. As the linguistics professor who had to communicate with alien life forms through eye contact and body language alone in Arrival, she was superb. How does the Academy justify awarding Casey Affleck for his understated performance in Manchester, and not even recognizing Adams with a nomination?

Let’s just look at how irrelevant, arrogant, and condescending Hollywood has become.

And then there’s the Supporting Actress Award. Viola Davis has been getting heat for saying in her acceptance speech, “I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” Really, Viola? Those E.R. doctors who make end-of-life decisions with grieving families in the Oscar-nominated short documentary Extremis don’t consider every day what it means to live a life? Teachers in underserved school districts don’t know what it means to live a life?

I could go on, but I have another bone to pick with Ms. Davis: what was she doing in the Supporting Actress category? Rose is the only female character in Fences. (The other woman, Alberta, remains offstage throughout the play.) She is strong, confident, and self-assured. Troy (Denzel Washington) is the main character, but Rose stands beside him in their marriage, not behind him and certainly not in a subordinate role. She dominates Act 2. To present her in the Supporting Actress category is not only unfair to the genuine supporting actresses of the season, it is an affront to the character herself.

The producers of Fences aren’t the first to play this category con-game; several films have downgraded their leading actors or actresses in order to strengthen their chance of winning. The most egregious, in my opinion, was the decision to submit Javier Bardem in the Best Supporting Actor for his powerful, dominating, leading role in No Country for Old Men (2007). The ploy worked for him too, and he won his Oscar. But it came at the expense of Hal Holbrook’s tender, heart wrenching role as Ron Franz, the lonely man who befriends Chris McCandless in Into the Wild (see pp. 47–49). It was a small scene, but I’ve never forgotten it. That’s what the supporting category was designed for — an opportunity to reward actors who turn small parts into deeply memorable experiences.

Really, Viola? Those E.R. doctors who make end-of-life decisions with grieving families don’t consider every day what it means to live a life?

I have no opinion about Mahershala Ali’s Supporting Actor as Juan in Moonlight. That’s because, as I mentioned, I was never able to see it. The film was released briefly in a few select theaters in late 2016, long enough to qualify for Oscar consideration. Then it came back to a few theaters in February, after it had been nominated for Best Picture. I went to my local theater that Wednesday to see it, but it had already been knocked off the marquee by multiple screenings of 50 Shades Darker — it was Valentines week, after all. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges gave the performance of a lifetime as Sheriff Marcus Hamilton in Hell or High Water. Here’s what I wrote about him in my review:

Marcus is an old-fashioned ‘man’s man’ who can’t express his appreciation or affection in words. Instead, he peppers his Native American partner with an incessant barrage of racist jokes and stereotypes that cause the audience to cringe and laugh at the same time. But we catch a glimpse of his true emotion in a particular moment when Marcus first laughs in exultation over something he has just accomplished, then strangles that laugh into a sob, and then lifts his head with stoic calmness and moves on. It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

Damien Chazelle’s award for Best Director (La La Land) was a deserving choice, although I was rooting for Mel Gibson to win Best Director for the brilliant Hacksaw Ridge. But considering how Hollywood has ostracized him, it was truly an honor for him just to be nominated. Hacksaw’s award for sound editing was well deserved.

In sum, the 89-year-old Oscars have become whiny, pedantic, self-important, and out of touch with their audience. The Golden Globes have nudged them nearly off the stage. I think it’s about time.

A concluding note:

The Oscar Shorts (Animated, Narrative, and Documentary) are the most overlooked category in film, since few people have the chance to see them. But I must comment on this year’s short narrative winner, Sing, because I think it says a lot about what’s wrong in Hollywood, and what’s wrong in America. A little girl joins her school’s choir because she loves music and loves to sing. The principal is proud of his choir, and has a policy that anyone who wants to participate is allowed to join. It’s a competitive choir, however, and the teacher wants to win. She takes the girl aside after class and tells her that she can be part of the choir, but she cannot sing out until her voice is stronger. The girl is, of course, devastated. She loves to sing. It turns out that several of the children are only miming, and when the stronger singers find out, they stand up for their friends and refuse to sing at all unless all of them are allowed to sing out. We’re supposed to applaud this show of unity, and in the theater where I saw the shorts, many in the audience did.

The Golden Globes have nudged The Oscars nearly off the stage. I think it’s about time.

But let’s think about this. Would members of the varsity basketball team have the same attitude about letting everyone play? Or do they expect players to earn their way onto the varsity team? Would the school’s choir continue to win the state awards of which they are so proud of mediocre singers are allowed to be part of the competition choir? More to the point — would the singers enjoy singing if half their group was off-key? As a choir singer myself, I can tell you that it is painful to sing next to someone who is off-key. And it’s painful to be in the audience as well. The teacher made the best of a difficult situation: required by the principal to accept all applicants, she gently told the weaker students to hold their voices back until their skills had improved.




Share This


Trio

 | 

Three films opened this month that are very different but have certain characteristics in common: lush settings, larger-than-life characters, Technicolor dream sequences, and stories that ask us to consider the price of following dreams. Each of these films showcases the unrelenting demands of pursuing art, and is a work of art itself. A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition. Relationships often fall by the wayside. In these three films, dreams and relationships battle for the hearts of the protagonists.

The best of the three is La La Land, a modern take on the “I want to be a star” Hollywood musical; it will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar this year. The title offers a “la-de-da” to people who have the audacity to dream big as well as a nod to L.A., where dreams are often made — and broken. The film opens during a Category Five traffic jam on an L.A. overpass, complete with a splashy flash mob in which drivers in brightly colored costumes leave their cars, pirouette between the lanes, cartwheel across hoods, leap from highway dividers, and generally exude the joy of a drive to the beach rather than the frustration of traffic. This is Hollywood, where anything can happen. The scene is filmed in a single take, reminiscent of the demanding single-take direction of Fred Astaire as well as the opening scene of the star-studded film The Player (1992).

A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition.

Definitely not in a beachgoing mood during that traffic jam are aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who is late for an audition, and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who is late for a gig. Their paths will continue to cross throughout the film as each pursues the La La dreams of La La land. Mia is a gifted actress who can’t get casting directors to pay attention during her auditions. Sebastian is a gifted pianist who is stifled by the inane playlists demanded for the weddings, birthday parties, and restaurant gigs he takes to pay the bills. After several near-misses, when they finally meet it’s a symphony of romance as they break into numerous dances that echo such iconic pieces as Kelly and Charisse breaking into dance along the Seine in An American in Paris; Kelly and Reynolds dancing in the sky in “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain; and Astaire and Rogers “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat. Emma Stone is no Ginger Rogers, but Ryan Gosling is smooth and graceful enough for both of them, and Mandy Moore wisely choreographed steps that make the scenes magical even for non-trained dancers.

The chemistry between the two is touching and believable. But dreams are jealously demanding. On their first real date, Mia and Sebastian sit side by side in a movie theater, watching Rebel without a Cause. The camera closes in on just their two hands. His thumb leans toward hers. Her thumb leans toward his. They touch. His hand opens. Her hand fills it and their fingers intertwine. The camera moves to their faces, and their heads tentatively lean toward each other as well. Then just as he moves in for a kiss, the film they are watching snags and burns, and the lights go up. The moment ends. That small scene is a metaphor for La La Land, where dreams are filled with hope and anticipation in the privacy of the dark, but too often snag and burn in the cold light of day.

While the film is obviously a well-crafted paean to legendary movie musicals, it is fresh and modern in its presentation. Sebastian’s former bandmate Keith (John Legend) says about Sebastian’s purist view of jazz: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Writer and director Damien Chazelle doesn’t hold onto the past for this film but gives it wings to tell his story. Ryan Gosling also makes the film work, not only because he is such a skilled actor, but also because of his dedication to making it feel real. He reportedly spent two hours a day, six days a week, for two years learning how to play these piano pieces well enough to avoid having to cut to a hand double for the intricate musical scenes. His work is stunning throughout the film, from his graceful dancing to his powerful keyboard work to his poignant gestures and facial expressions.

If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness.

The final scene of the film is breathtaking and heart wrenching and oh-so-true. I went back to see the film a second time, just to experience that scene once more. La La Land lives up to all the hype the advertising has created. It’s whimsical, gorgeous, and deep. Young Damien Chazelle (only 31 years old!), who also wrote and directed the award-winning Whiplash (2014) about the painful path of a gifted drummer, is a gifted artist himself who seems to know a lot about the price of dreams. He’s one to watch.

Rules Don’t Apply is another film that focuses on the emotional price of pursuing dreams and the different paths to achieving them. Like La La Land, it’s set in Hollywood’s heyday, and music helps to tell its story. It also offers lush sets and costumes. But it is more quirky than whimsical, and it tells a more direct story. Warren Beatty plays the eccentric and mysterious Hollywood mogul and airplane innovator Howard Hughes, but this should not be construed as a Howard Hughes biopic. Hughes is a symbol of the choices and obstacles the main characters face as they try to get their first big breaks.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is an innocent ingénue in Hughes’ stable of innocent ingénues waiting for her first screen test; Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is employed by Hughes as Marla’s driver, but his real goal is to convince Hughes to invest with him in an undeveloped piece of land in the Hollywood Hills (we recognize from the view that this piece of land would become one of the priciest and most desirable in southern California). Levar (Matthew Broderick) also had dreams of personal achievement, but he has worked for Hughes so long that the dreams have been all but forgotten. Hughes, too, has had to forgo some dreams in order to pursue others that seemed more meaningful.

Adding to Hughes’s own fastidious eccentricity is the fact that Maria and Frank both come from strong religious backgrounds with archaic attitudes about premarital sex, and these attitudes contribute charmingly to the development of the plot. Not only must all of the characters decide which dreams are worth pursuing; they must also decide which values are worth most to them in the long run.

The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club.

Beatty wrote, directed, produced, and stars in Rules Don’t Apply. Although he plays Howard Hughes to eccentric perfection, Hughes seems to be a vehicle for Beatty to explore his own pursuit of stardom and the price he paid to achieve it. If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness. Rules are created from past experience and imposed from outside. As Sebastian discovered in La La Land, success comes from looking to the future and creating something new. Rules can be useful guides, but they beg to be broken by true artists. Still, there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules, and each of the characters in this film must decide which rules do apply, and which rules don’t.

The third film in my trilogy of dreamscapes is darker than the other two, more thriller than thrilling. Nocturnal Animals opens with a grotesque montage of extremely naked, extremely obese women dancing pseudo-seductively. The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club. It turns out to be the opening of an art show mounted by glamorous and successful artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) whose shtick is painting grossly obese women. As the camera pulls back to reveal the art gallery, several of the women are lying immobile and face down, making it feel as though the women should be surrounded by yellow caution tape, not picture frames.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes. The rest of the film is one of the most engaging I have seen this season. It comprises three intertwining stories, all featuring the gifted Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist.

When Susan returns to her luxurious home, she receives an advance manuscript of a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. Edward and Susan were married when they were both young and aspiring, she as an artist and he as a writer. She begins reading the manuscript immediately, and its plot becomes the main storyline of our film. In it, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) is embarking on a long road trip with his wife (Isla Fischer, who is often mistaken for Amy Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). In the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere, three crazed young men run them off the road, kidnap the women, and leave Tony for dead. The rest of his book is a tense and frightening crime thriller, which dominates the movie. The flow of that story is interrupted frequently by a return to Susan reading the book. Scenes of her life with her current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) and scenes of her earlier relationship with Edward create the other two interwining storylines, stories that often have an eerie resemblance to scenes that are unfolding in the novel.

Director Tom Ford is a fashion designer who also makes movies, and it shows. The storytelling is remarkable, but the cinematic effect is exquisite. His serene composition of women lying on a couch in matching scenes from different storylines is particularly beautiful and artistic. Nocturnal Animals is a story about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, dreams exposed, dreams achieved, and dreams destroyed. And redheads. There are so many characters in this film with long, luxurious red hair! This is a movie you will think about long after the final credits roll.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes.

The three stories in Nocturnal Animals intertwine in unexpected, artistic ways, and so do the three films reviewed here. Two are set in Hollywood. Two feature original jazz pieces whose lyrics highlight the theme. Two pivot unexpectedly on abortion. Two feature redheads. Two focus on the often-dogmatic demands of religion. All demonstrate the inexorable effect of choices.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, as choices are made “way leads on to way,” taking us further and further from alternative paths. Although the protagonists in all of these films freely choose paths less traveled to pursue what they value most, each film ends with a tone of regret for the road not taken. The path to glory is often a lonely one that ends with a sigh for what might have been.


Editor's Note: Review of "La La Land," directed by Damien Chazelle. Black Label Media, 2016, 128 minutes; "Rules Don’t Apply," directed by Warren Beatty. Regency Enterprises, RatPac Entertainment, 2016, 127 minutes; and "Nocturnal Animals," directed by Tom Ford. Focus Features, 2016, 116 minutes.



Share This


A New Kind of Superhero

 | 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn said via Facebook:

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

Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Ugh.

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

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

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

I couldn't agree more.

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

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

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


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



Share This


The Top Films Every Libertarian Should Know

 | 

Film has the power to change minds, often by changing hearts. Libertarian films are about choice, opportunity, and knocking down obstacles — in any setting. They demonstrate the power of persuasion over the force of authority. Libertarian films often point out the unintended consequences of government intervention, but they are just as likely to present a protagonist's personal struggle for self-expression. They show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.

At this year’s Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, at FreedomFest in Las Vegas, 18 films were screened to packed audiences. We also presented several panels on topics related to film. For one of our sessions I invited four film enthusiasts to present their recommendations of the top films that every libertarian should know. Then, as a follow-up to the panel, I asked each participant to send me his recommendations for this article. Here are their selections, from the messages they sent.

***

Gary Alexander, who has served as an Anthem Libertarian Film Festival judge since its first season, is a music and movie historian whose weekly radio show provides insightful background as well as provocative music choices. He offered his top libertarian films in chronological order, presenting an historical look at the way freedom and individualism have been presented in film. He began with 1939, the year often called “the golden age of movies.”

Gary:

Last year I watched all the major films of 1939 because it was their 75th anniversary. My pick from that year is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, director). It was #3 in box office that year, behind only Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. It reveals political corruption in an era of idealism.

1963: America, America (Elia Kazan, director). This is the American Dream personified in a young man. The protagonist, an ethnic Greek living in 19th-century Turkey, is entrusted with the family fortune to start a carpet business in Constantinople, but he dreams of emigrating to America.

1965: Shenandoah (Andrew V. McGlaglen, director) was in the top ten for box office receipts in a year dominated by The Sound of Music, Dr. Zhivago, and James Bond. Set during the Civil War but made at the height of the Vietnam conflict, it presents draft resistance in an honorable light.

1988: Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, director). Tucker was a maverick car designer who faced crony capitalism as he tried to bring his revolutionary car to market.

2011: Atlas Shrugged 1 (Paul Johansson, director). This film has to be included for its pure libertarian theme. The film’s producer, John Aglialoro [who spoke at FreedomFest on “Wall Street Goes to Hollywood: The Risks and Rewards of Making Movies”], said that he wants to do a 13-week mini-series based on "episodes" within Objectivism, Ayn Rand's works, or even Atlas Shrugged, thoughnot based in a linear storytelling narrative, per se. This might provide a better way to present the overarching themes of Rand’s works. We the Living (1942, Goffredo Alessandrini, director) would be a superior Rand film, but I want to give Atlas a belated boost.

Libertarian films show us how to make the world a better place simply by making our own lives better.

As an aside to the power of libertarian movies, I was just watching a taped Stossel show when a member of the audience asked Lawrence Reed [President of the Foundation for Economic Education and another speaker at FreedomFest] how he found the courage to spread freedom literature behind the Iron Curtain. Reed said, "It may sound corny, but it came from a movie." Stossel responded, "Yes, that sounds corny. What movie?" and Reed replied, "In 1966, when I was 14, my mother dragged me and my sister to Pittsburgh to see The Sound of Music. Then, when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, I saw that Austria was next door and I wanted to help undermine the communists as the von Trapps did to the Nazis.”

So . . . I don't feel so silly bringing up musicals on the panel, including Sound of Music.

***

Doug Casey, an entrepreneur and investment specialist known to libertarians everywhere, was one of the original judges for Anthem and always provides interesting insights for the film panels. This year he focused on genre rather than specific films.

Doug:

There are two genres that are overwhelmingly libertarian: westerns and sci-fi. That's likely because they both deal in frontiers, where the individual is responsible for a situation’s outcome. They tend, therefore, to be morality plays. And libertarianism is essentially a moral philosophy. One favorite Western is High Noon. And in sci-fi it's tough to beat V for Vendetta. Characters within films are very often libertarian as well, in particular Rhett Butler from Gone with the Wind, which is kind of a western. And Han Solo from Star Wars. It's odd, and counterintuitive, to me that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.

***

Marc Eliot is known as “Hollywood’s biographer” because he has written biographies of many of its biggest names, including Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, and John Wayne. He has served as an Anthem judge for four years and is a popular speaker at FreedomFest. His choices run the gamut of Hollywood’s best films.

Marc:

1. A Face in the Crowd (1957, Elia Kazan, director). A premier libertarian film about, among other things (many other things), the insidiousness of big government, how it has tentacles in every aspect of our culture. It examines the link between politics-free entertainers and how they affect the popularity of candidates. A supremely important film, and highly entertaining.

2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, Don Siegel, director). One of the strangest and most intense love stories of the ’50s, set in a world where everyone is supposed to be the same. The loss of individuality here is a bold metaphor for the infliction of political correctness via big government. Should be seen by all. Love is the film's solution, and its shocking ending underscores that real love is the antithesis of imposed sameness. The tacked-on opening and closing were mandated by the studio, Allied Artists, after the film tested too frightening. It still is, filled with all the fear and paranoia of the glorious ’50s, Hollywood style.

3. The Best Years of our Lives (1947, William Wyler, director). The first and still the best film that looks at the way the Greatest Generation was treated after it helped save America and the world from Fascism. What was it like when the soldiers came home, and how difficult it was for them to readjust? What role did the government play, if any, in making their transition back to civilian society? The harsh way the three principal characters are treated is an eye-opener, and perhaps even more relevant today. Also, Wyler's use of deep focus allows the film to remain ambiguous in its depiction. One of the great ’40s Hollywood films.

It's odd, and counterintuitive, that Hollywood is a hotbed of statism and collectivism, while so many of its best products have libertarian themes or characters.

4. The Godfather (I and II, but not III) (1972, 1974, Francis Ford Coppola, director) is the story of a mob family that is the story of Corporate America ("It's business, Sonny, business"). One might wonder where the government is in all of this, apparently invisible because the Corleones are the government. Even in the second film, when the hearings into organized crime take place, the senators are already in the family's pocket. These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.

5. Modern Times (1936, Charlie Chaplin, director). The final appearance of The Tramp, caught in a world so mechanized that he becomes a living machine. Chaplin's vision of oppressive authority and an ever-increasing mechanical, or technological world, is well worth watching. One of the funniest and most profound films of the ’30s.

6. The Ten Commandments (1957, Cecil B. DeMille, director) deals with a higher authority even than big government, and one of the very few films to deal with Jews as victims. The film was made in the decade following the Holocaust and serves as both a memorial and a cautionary tale. Hitler was the ultimate non-libertarian, and this film reminds us that religion, faith, and righteousness will prevail over governmental enslavement. Still holds up; actually gets better with age.

7. The Searchers (1957, John Ford, director). The individual lost in a society that services the big government of the post-Civil War. Ethan (Wayne) was on the losing side of the war and as a result has lost everything. He returns home to retrieve the last of his life. Ford lets us know that Ethan's sister-in-law is probably his former lover, and that Debbie is not just his niece but, in fact, his daughter. When the house is burned down by the Comanches and they take Debbie, what follows is the ultimate chase film. Ethan tracks down Debbie to preserve his own past, or to destroy it. We don't know until the end of the film if he will kill Debbie or save her; if he will preserve the values of the union or make it, and him, slip into spiritual anarchy. A great film.

These are cautionary films; some government is needed to prevent corporations from taking over every aspect of our lives.

8. Vertigo (1957, Alfred Hitchcock, director). Not a libertarian film, but everybody should see Vertigo at least five times in life. The only film that treats lost love as something that is never truly lost. Hitchcock may have resembled Burbage but he was the 20th-century Shakespeare.Vertigo is the kind of deep, beautiful, and profound experience the Bard would have approved of. A lesson in repressed feelings, delusional love, fetishistic fatalism, and blind worship. There is simply no other film like Vertigo. I could teach an entire semester on Hitchcock and hardly scratch the surface. A Brit, he flourished in his American period, when British filmmaking came under threat of Nazi attack and much of the best talent fled to America. See it!

9. High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann, director). The granddaddy of Dirty Harry, this is a film that shows how the invisible hand of big government controls our lives. When it becomes known that the bad-guy Miller gang (led by Frank Miller, who has been pardoned from life imprisonment) are returning to town to seek their vengeance on Marshal Will Kane who arrested Miller, the judge who sentenced him packs his bags and flees, warning Kane that when tyrants who have been defeated return, they are always treated like heroes. Life is always better, for a while, when tyrants rule. Sure enough, the town fails to help Kane, because "the boys up north are watching, and they won't want to invest in a town that is still having shoot-outs in the streets." So much for friendship, loyalty, and support. When Kane throws his badge on the ground (an act that got the writer of the film, Carl Foreman, blacklisted), he turns his back on the town that left him to die. The best ride off into the sunset forever. A must-see. And a very libertarian film.

10. All The President's Men (1976, Alan J. Pakula). Film follows history; it is not avant garde. Here is the ultimate story of government gone crazy, and the power of journalism to help keep democracy intact. Not really a political film, more of a spy-type thriller. Enjoyable even if you've never heard of Watergate. Perhaps too liberal for libertarians, it nevertheless says that tyranny is vulnerable to a constitutionally protected free press.

***

Stephen Cox is editor-in-chief of Liberty and professor of literature at the University of California, San Diego. He also is a film buff who knows the classics. He approached the panel assignment thematically.

Stephen:

Let’s begin with Rosalind Russell movies. If you want an uncompromising satire of (elected!) political power, His Girl Friday (1940, Howard Hawks, director) is it. "Aw, go on, you'd hang your own mother to be reelected — and you know it" is one of my favorite lines. Auntie Mame (1958, Morton DaCosta, director) is the apotheosis of a free individual. Best of all, for libertarians, is Roughly Speaking (1945, Michael Curtiz, director). Roz is an entrepreneur whose investments, but not her individualism, always fail. She keeps coming back. "This is America!" she says.

I also like movies with challenging problems for libertarians. In Citizen Kane (1941, Orson Welles, director) Kane is simultaneously a power-hungry politician, of whom one of his friends says, “It seems we weren’t enough; he wanted all the voters to love him, too,” and an individualist who says, "There's only one person in the world to decide what I’m going to do — and that's me." Red River (1948, Howard Hawks, Arthur Rosson, directors) is a story constantly concerned with problems of property rights. It’s also fraught with theological issues, although that's off topic: the Red River is the place where blood is sacrificed so that the protagonist can continue to the land of promise; the father figure resembles the judgmental Old Testament God and the son figure resembles the heroically self-sacrificing New Testament God; etc.

Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication. I would include The Red Shoes (1948, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, directors), which is the ultimate drama of ballet, and All About Eve (1950, Peter Sullivan), which is the ultimate drama of the theater.

***

And now for me, Jo Ann:

I was fascinated by the scope of films offered by our panelists, and I was pleased to see that they reached beyond the obvious films about opposing government. Libertarian heroes are not necessarily activists working for a cause. They are individuals who follow their own paths. They do not conform to the expectations of others. When something goes wrong, they fix it themselves. When something goes right, they give credit where it is due. Libertarian stories may occur within any family, community, or industry. They do not have to be set in a dystopian future! Here are some modern films that ought to become libertarian classics:

A perfect example from 2013 is 42 (Brian Helgeland, director), the movie about how Jackie Robinson (Chad Boseman) broke the race barrier in sports. It wasn't a government edict that integrated baseball; in fact, the cops tried to keep Jackie from taking the field in some venues. No, it was a businessman, Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford), who recognized that he could sell a lot more tickets, win a lot more games, and possibly earn the World Series title, if he hired some talented African-American ballplayers. No one forced him to do it, and no one forced the other managers in the League to follow suit when they saw that they couldn't compete successfully without black ball players. It was just plain good business.

Movies that represent a world beyond political concerns — demonstrations that there are comedies and tragedies beyond the reach of politics — are also libertarian, in implication.

Another great example appears in the Oscar-nominated movie Winter's Bone (2010, Debra Granik, director). The protagonist, Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence), is a 17-year-old girl living in the backwoods of Missouri and struggling to keep her family together after her father skips out and her mother becomes incapacitated. When her little brother notices the neighbors skinning a freshly killed deer, Ree cautions him, "Don't ever ask for what ought to be given freely." That night the neighbor brings over a shoulder of meat and some potatoes and onions. On her way out, the neighbor says, "I noticed your woodbox is low. You can use our splitter if you want." As the neighbor leaves, Ree says to her little brother and sister, "Who wants stew?" When they look up eagerly she adds, "Then get over here so I can show you how to make it."

This is the story of "The Little Red Hen" in action. Ree knows the importance of teaching her siblings self-reliance. The neighbor brings meat because the Dollys don't have any. She doesn't cook it into a meal, however, because Ree is capable of doing that herself. The neighbor lends the splitter but doesn't offer to cut the wood, because Ree and her brother can do that too. The neighbor helps the Dollys of her own free will and choice, but she respects Ree's dignity and character too much to offer her more than what Ree can't do for herself. What a great example of libertarian values.

Another unlikely libertarian hero appears in the Saudi Arabian film Wadjda (2012, Haifaa Al Mansour, director, previously reviewed in Liberty. The title character (Waad Mohammed) is a 10-year-old girl living within the orthodox community of Saudi Arabia, but she has very unorthodox desires. She does not openly defy the values and practices of her community; indeed, she wears her scarves and abaya as though they were as natural as her hair, and she nods nonchalantly when her mother tells her she is old enough to start covering her face with her ayallah when she goes outside. She attends a religious girls' school and works hard to learn her lessons about the goodness of Allah.

But Wadjda has her own values as well. She wears sneakers under her abaya, and inside those shoes her toenails are painted candy-apple blue. She listens to Western music on an ancient cassette tape player in her room, and she often wears a t-shirt emblazoned with "I am a great catch" in English (although we never know for sure whether she understands what the words mean).

Most of all, Wadjda wants to own a bike. She wants to know the freedom of riding faster than she can run, and the satisfaction of racing against her best friend Abdullah (Abdullrahman Al Gohani), who happens to be a boy. All the boys have bikes. In many ways the bike represents what girls can do, given the same tools and opportunities as boys.

Wadjda is determined to buy the shiny green bike on display at the local sundries store. She becomes an entrepreneur by making bracelets to sell to her friends. She charges acquaintances for running errands and, with a determined voice and a winning smile, convinces them to pay her extra. She forgoes current gratification when she no longer buys treats and trinkets from the corner store in order to save for her big purchase.

Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through.

Eventually she realizes that she will never save enough money by doing menial tasks, especially when the local store begins selling Chinese-made bracelets at a fraction of the former price. So she does what every good entrepreneur must do: she uses her savings as seed money to capitalize a larger business venture. Lured by the prize money of 1,000 riyals, she decides to enter the school's Koran recitation contest (sort of like a spelling bee or Geography Bowl). But since she has never been a good student of the Koran, she invests all her savings to purchase "capital goods": an expensive electronic study aid. It is a big risk, but it is the only way that she can turn her 80 riyals into the 800 riyals she needs to purchase the bike.

Wadjda presents one of the spunkiest and most charming protagonists to come along in quite a while. Instinctively, without even knowing it, she is a libertarian through and through. Wadjda is a film that will warm your heart even as it breaks it.

But to return to our panel discussion — what happened then is what always happens: all too soon we were ushered from the room by the next event, just as our audience was warming up with selections and offerings of their own. So what are your favorite libertarian films? What did we leave out?




Share This


No Regrets

 | 

Every year at about this time, Liberty’s Entertainment Editor, Jo Ann Skousen, produces a film festival in Las Vegas, in conjunction with the big gathering of libertarians and libertarian conservatives known as FreedomFest. Jo Ann is an expert at many things, but she can’t be a producer and a reporter at the same time, so I’ll poach on one of those territories and report on some things I witnessed in connection with this year’s Anthem, which happened on July 9–12.

One was Part 3, the final part, of the Atlas Shrugged movie, which will begin its public, theatrical run on September 12.

My impression was: not bad. Very good in many parts. None of the characters was cast in the way I would have done it; I would have made them look just like the people in the book. But good characters have more elasticity than that. In the tricky role of John Galt we have Kristoffer Polaha, who looks exactly like the dark, hunky, American boy you’d see in a truck commercial. Odd, but it’s possible and he makes it work. He even has a sense of humor. Laura Regan, as Dagny Taggart, is fine when she’s a bossy railroad executive; but when she’s a woman discovering Galt’s Gulch or being in love with John Galt, she’s commonplace, with the irritating whine that many commonplace women put in their voices these days.

These filmmakers don’t believe in just anything; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The screenplay is more than competent, although strong deductions must be made for the overuse of a voiceover telling you what’s been happening to the country while the main characters are having their conversations and love affairs. The device is obviously appropriate for a story of this length and complexity, but I thought I saw more visual effects in Part 1 than in this part, and there need to be more. I wish the budget had provided for them, although I’ve got to say that the torture of John Galt is much more effective in the movie than it is in the book.

What about the Speech? Story consultant David Kelley, who’s a smart guy, noted with some satisfaction that 33,000 words had been cut to 600. How? By “dropping from the speech what wasn’t foreshadowed in the movie.” In other words, by cutting what wasn’t directly relevant to the action. Fine with me.

A very interesting preview. But as interesting to me, for some of the same reasons, were the films on themes of liberty that were entered in the festival by small independent filmmakers. By “small,” I don’t mean “narrow” or “unimportant.” I mean done on small budgets. These filmmakers are important. They are volunteers in the first line of defense of small (i.e., also on small budgets) Americans like you and me.

Here’s Sean Malone, who’s come out with a film called No Vans Land, which is about how commuter vans are illegal in a lot of places. And Drew Tidwell, who has lots of distinguished movie and TV experience and who once made a movie inspired by Leonard E. Read’s famous I, Pencil (the movie’s called by the same name), which is about how everyone who uses even such a simple thing as a pencil should understand how much capitalism is involved in the multitude of processes necessary to make it. Now he’s the producer of a film called Empire State Divide, about people in southern New York who want to enrich the state by extracting natural gas from their land, but aren’t allowed to do so. And a charming couple, Dean and Nicole Greco, who made 100 Signatures, a film about the ways in which various states render it virtually impossible to run for office unless you’re nominated by one of the two major parties.

I asked the Grecos who did what on their film, and Dean replied, “We filmed it, wrote it, edited it, everything.” Fortunately, they finished it in October, because their daughter Andie (who made no comment but seemed happy to be with us) arrived in November. Nicole was once a TV newscaster, directed by Dean, but they decided to go out and make this film “to be helpful to mankind.”

That’s pretty much the story I got from the other moviemakers, too. But it was never the vague, general “I want to help” that becomes so difficult to hear when the community-servers and program-pushers use it. At Anthem the desire to help always had a local habitation and a name. “What keeps you going?” I asked Sean and Drew. Drew answered, “I believe in these projects,” and Sean answered, “I believe in the stories.” Each nodded at the other’s answer. They don’t believe in just anything, or in the vast generalizations that too many libertarians clutch to their bosoms; they are attached to specific stories of specific people who are trying to be free.

The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs.

One person I spoke with — Kels Goodman, maker of a not so fictional film called The Last Eagle Scout, which is “about how government tries to shut down the Boy Scouts” — saw it as a warning about an imminent future, “a what if?, not 1000 years in the future but the next stage of the political correctness we have now.”

Of course, government has all the resources, and it’s a ratchet effect: the more money and power it takes, the more it has to maneuver us into letting it take more. The libertarian and libertarian-conservative filmmakers have one hell of a time raising just the minimum amount of money required to cover their costs. And besides the money, there’s the rejection. It has insidious effects. As Nicole said, “it creeps up in weird ways.” You have to believe in a story a lot to keep coming back after being rejected by donors, film festivals, distributors, everyone but yourself. The people I talked to emphasized that. They didn’t like it. But they took it. And they responded by providing even more of their own energy and cleverness, and their money, if they still had any.

One person who had money was John Aglialoro, producer of Atlas Shrugged. When asked about the financing of the movie’s three parts, he said: “Part 1, $10 million, all by me. Part 2, $20 million, five by me. Part 3, $10 million, two-thirds by me.”

It’s a symbol of the libertarian movement. If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself. Might be fun, though. Nobody expressed any regrets.




Share This


Will Wins, Won’t Wins, Should Wins

 | 

Hollywood produced some stellar films this year, and the Academy’s new policy of nominating up to ten films for Best Picture allows more of them to be recognized. Oddly, they decided to nominate only nine this time, leaving out such excellent films as Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Prisoners, but I’m impressed with all the films that were selected (even Philomena, for the acting, if not for the political stance). Two thirds of the Best Picture nominees are based on true stories this year, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Twelve Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, andPhilomena. All but one of the Best Picture nominees have already been reviewed in this magazine. Below I give you my top picks in the major categories for who ought to win, as well as my expectation for who is likely to win.

Best Picture

American Hustle. For ensemble work, this film is the best. The actors revel in their parts, embracing the ’70s oeuvre both in the film and offscreen in their interviews as though it were this year’s best-themed costume party. The story, loosely based on the government’s inept sting operation called ABSCAM, is great fun. Probably too much fun, in fact; this isn’t the kind of film that wins the Oscar.

The Wolf of Wall Street is another ensemble piece with a better chance of winning, because of its portrayal of a businessman completely devoid of any scruples. Scorsese had to edit out several scenes to avoid a deadly NC-17 rating, but he still pushed the envelope further than it has ever been pushed before. It is self-indulgent in every way, from its actors to its source material to its profanity (nearly 600 F-bombs) to its length (just under three hours). Some call it amazing; others call it boring. Great art often finds critics at both extremes.

Twelve Years a Slave is the film that Academy voters will feel obligated to vote for, even if they liked other films better.

The Academy usually votes for “important” films, which gives The Dallas Buyers Club a better chance of winning than either Wolf or Hustle. The film has a great libertarian theme and remarkable acting by Matthew McConaughey as the man who provided a life-sustaining cocktail of supplements to AIDS patients during the beginning of the crisis, and by Jared Leto, who portrays a transvestite patient. Both of them are nominated for their roles.

Gravity is my top choice for best picture. This film, about a scientist-cum-astronaut who becomes lost in space and has to find her way back to earth, is one of the best survival films ever made. It is taut and gripping throughout, with a protagonist who relies on her wits and her courage to survive. It is also a technological and cinematic masterpiece, the kind of film that will be talked about in film classes for decades.

Nevertheless, I think Gravity will lose to Twelve Years a Slave, another visual masterpiece whose subject matter, slavery, is considered more powerful and more important than a science-fiction adventure. It’s a good film, but a hard film to watch and unnecessarily divisive. But it’s the film that Academy voters feel obligated to vote for, even though they liked other films better — or so I’ve heard.

Best Director

Martin Scorsese was barely out of film school at NYU when he agreed to drive up to the Catskills to help film a music gig for a friend. The gig turned out to be Woodstock, and the documentary won the Oscar for Best Documentary in1970. Scorsese brings that same unbridled decadence and passion to The Wolf of Wall Street, virtually wallowing in sex, drugs and profanity throughout the film. Returning to his documentary roots, he encouraged his actors to delve into their characters and then set them loose to create their own scenes. The result is an outrageous montage of the characters’ voracious, insatiable appetites and a metaphor for capitalist greed — always a popular target in Hollywood. If he hadn’t recently won for The Departed (2006) he would be considered a sympathetic front runner this year, simply for his body of work. But he doesn’t have a chance this year against Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón.

Alfonso Cuarón’s vision for Gravity required unparalleled patience and determination, not only in the way he directed his protagonist (Sandra Bullock) but also in the way he figured out how to bring his vision to the screen. Once he knew what was needed, he waited over a year for the technology to be created and built. Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space. It’s brilliant.

Nevertheless, the gravity of Twelve Years a Slave is likely to outweigh Gravity in both of the top categories. Steve McQueen is also a visionary director who imagines the shot before he creates it rather than giving his actors their head and letting them lead the way. But some of his camera work in TYS is exquisitely framed and executed, from his lighting to his camera angles to the timing of his shots. One particularly long shot in which a character who has been lynched struggles to stay on tiptoe in order to avoid strangulation is utterly silent and agonizingly long. It is more powerful than other scenes of brutal, bloody whipping. Cuarón ought to win, but McQueen probably will.

Best Actor

My pick for best actor wasn’t nominated this year, but I have to give him a shout-out anyway. Jake Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance as the detective in Prisoners was simply superb. He created a backstory for his character through unspoken gestures and reactions entirely of his own design, from his character’s nervous blink to his unexplained tattoo to the enigmatic look on his face at the end of the film that leaves us wondering whether he is going to rescue the man in the underground box — or not. We know that he is the prisoner of his own undescribed background, simply through his body language and what is left unsaid. But Oscar seldom rewards the nuanced performance. (I happen to think Johnny Depp’s most outstanding performance is John Dillinger in Public Enemy, but he will be most remembered for his outlandish performances as Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, and the unfortunate Tonto.)

Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space.

All five nominees this year gave outstanding performances. Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) lost all sense of themselves as they fell headlong into their roles as raunchy, despicable rascals. Matt McConaughey’s character (Dallas Buyers Club) is raunchy too, but he’s not despicable, he’s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in Nebraska, and that’s a shame, because Dern’s portrayal of a man losing his sense of reality, even though he is more grounded and determined than the “sane” people who surround him, is remarkable. Dern spent a lifetime portraying supporting roles, mostly as sinister villains, and he did it well. This was the part he has waited to play, and he does it subly and brilliantly. But Oscar doesn’t reward subtle, nuanced performances (see Gyllenhaal, above). Dern will have to be satisfied that it’s an honor just to be nominated.

Ejiofor’s character will win for Best Actor. I say his character will win, because his performance isn’t anything special, but how can you vote against a man who spent twelve years as a slave? But McConaghey just might pull this one out. He deserves it not only for DBC, but for his body of work this year, including his short but memorable chest-thumping role in the beginning of American Hustle, and his remarkable performance as the title character in the indie film Mud. McConaughey has come a long way from his Dirk Brink adventure roles and rom-com roots. Expect to see a lot of chest-thumping from anyone who wins an Oscar for AH. Nevertheless, I’m expecting a clean sweep for TYS.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett! She is my hands-down favorite for her refined befuddlement in a Chanel jacket. Say what you want about Woody Allen’s personal life; the man knows how to assemble a cast and elicit exactly the right performance from it. Blanchett should win for Best Actress, and Sally Hawkins should win Best Supporting Actress for her role as the unrefined, practical, down-to-earth sister. Yes, Sandra Bullock is astounding in her virtually solo performance in Gravity. She creates and maintains a believable tension throughout the film. To see just how difficult that is, take a look at Robert Redford’s failed attempt to pull off the same feat as a castaway in this year’s All Is Lost, or even Tom Hanks in Cast Away; Hanks had to invent a secondary character, Wilson the Volleyball, to allow the audience inside his character’s thoughts, and his isolation on the island is bookended by Acts One and Three, on land with other people. Still, I think Blanchett’s performance outdistances Bullock’s.

Meryl Streep is probably the best film actress of her lifetime, and her role as a matriarch suffering from mouth cancer in August: Osage County is a tour de force. But the film itself is flawed. The dialogue is sharp and witty and biting, as one would expect from a film that is adapted from an award-winning stage play. But its strength is also its weaknesses. Stage and film are two different genres. The former requires broad movements and loud delivery to reach the back of the theater; metaphors like “stomping the boards,” “hamming it up,” and “chewing the scenery” all arose from stage acting — and for good reasons. By contrast, film actors must rein in their performances, because they are seen on screens 80 feet wide and 40 feet tall. A glance to the left, a lifted eyebrow, a shudder or a twitch can communicate information that would be lost in live theater. Osage is a story that needs to be shouted as family members gather around the table and air a lifetime of gripes. It works on stage but not on film. Streep’s performance is top notch; she stops at nothing as the ugly, angry matriarch. But it’s just too much for the screen.

The Academy seldom rewards subtle, nuanced performances.

Dame Judi Dench, Britain’s version of Meryl Streep, also puts in a remarkably witty, funny, and sympathetic performance, as the title character searching for the baby she gave up for adoption in Philomena. But it’s what we’ve come to expect from Dench. Next to such a strong set of contenders this year, she should reserve a table next to Bruce Dern for the after party. It truly is an honor to be nominated.

Amy Adams is another outstanding actress who, like Streep and Dench, can perform just about any role. I love her body of work. And she loved showing off her literal body with the plunging necklines her character wears in American Hustle (and she gleefully continued to wear in interviews promoting the film). But AH is an ensemble film in which each individual performance is less than the sum of its parts. It’s another argument for adding Best Ensemble as an Academy category.

Blanchett’s strongest competitor comes, again, from the cast of TYS. But the producers decided to list Lupita Nyong’o as a supporting actress, despite the fact that she has the longest and most important female role in the film. Blanchett is in the clear. I hope she breaks out that Chanel jacket to wear to the awards.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi is stunning as the leader of a gang of pirates who board a cargo ship and kidnap the captain for ransom. His performance is so believable that I had to keep reminding myself that he was not really a Somali pirate. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this is his cinematic debut. He’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor.

But Jared Leto is going to win, for his tough and touching portrayal of a transgender prostitute in DBC. And he deserves it. This is one year when we just need extra trophies.

Michael Fassbender as the despicable slave owner in TYS; Jonah Hill as the despicable penny-stockbroker in TWWS; and Bradley Cooper as the despicable FBI agent in AH will just have to join that table with the un-despicable Dench and Dern. None of them has a prayer of a chance.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has to be mentioned here as well. I suspect that if he had died two weeks earlier, he would have been nominated for his supporting role in The Master. This talented, versatile actor will be missed, and he will be highlighted in a tribute Sunday night.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins is my top pick for her role as the practical, forgiving, down-to-earth single mom who has every reason to feel bitterness toward her sister Jasmine, whose husband swindled them out of their life savings. She is lively and funny and wonderful in this role. But she doesn’t have a chance.

Neither has Jennifer Lawrence, despite her sleazy, slinky, shady performance as the wife of the Christian Bale’s two-bit con man in AH. She has two strikes against her: first, she won an Oscar last year for playing a similar role; and second, no one has a chance this year against Lupita Nyong’o.

Julia Roberts is the weakest of the group. Expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance.

Like Javier Bardem, who stole the 2008 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor from Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) by entering the supporting actor category instead of the leading actor category, Lupita Nyong’o belongs in the leading actress category. She is the central female character in the story. I have another criticism of her nomination, and that is, quite simply and directly, her acting. She seems very uncomfortable with the words she is asked to say. She recites her lines as though from memory, not from her heart; they don’t flow naturally from her mouth. Nevertheless, she will be lifted by the gravitas of the film, and is sure to win the Oscar.

Julia Roberts should not even have been nominated. Yes, she gets to yell and swear and pull Meryl Streep’s hair. But expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance. Hers is the weakest of the group. Jennifer Squibb as the insensitive, vulgar-mouthed wife of Bruce Dern in Nebraska is nominated largely for the novelty of hearing an old woman swear and lift up her skirts and talk about sex in public. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance either. These two actresses should studiously avoid the Dench-Dern table.

So there you have it: my picks, and my expectations. The real winner this year will probably be host Ellen Degeneres whose flippant humor and kind demeanor will set everyone at ease during what is usually a tense, exciting, and ultimately disappointing evening for most of the attendees. It is an honor to be nominated, but everyone wants to win, and 80% of the hopefuls will be going home as losers. Ellen might help them go out with a smile.

rsquo;s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in




Share This


Hoffman Dies, War on Drugs Revives

 | 

On February 2, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a movie actor, died with a needle in his arm in his home in New York City. To me, his death from a heroin overdose was regrettable, and regrettable in the same way in which deaths from the effects of overeating and overdrinking are regrettable. I felt no extra stirring of dramatic emotion.

In this, obviously, I am very unlike my fellow Americans. To the celebrities who flocked to his funeral, and the larger mobs who flocked to the websites and “news” sources mourning his death, his way of leaving this world appears to have ennobled him, given him, somehow, the rank of tragic hero. People who had never heard of him, or (like me) had heard of him and even liked his performances on screen but never considered his name as something to be remembered, suddenly found that their worlds were poorer because of Hoffman’s drug-related death. Policemen, working with a dedication rarely seen in cases of actual mayhem and murder, identified and arrested four people whom they suspected of possible responsibility for his death.

Responsibility? This is like arresting the employees of a fast-food restaurant because an obese patron died from the effects of his last Big Mac. Did anyone say “double standard”? Did anyone say “human sacrifice”? No. You heard it here first.

Granted, the Demonic Four may not be deacons of the church and pillars of the community. They may be disgusting members of the criminal class. (Or they may be wholly innocent.) But who created that criminal class? Who put the profit in illicit drugs? Who put “illicit” in drugs, and keeps it there?

Legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime.

The answer is: the same kind of people who are beating their breasts over Hoffman’s death. It is these people — and they appear to be the majority of Americans, made snazzier by the presence among them of loquacious celebrities and soi-disant humanitarians — who create the illicit profit, and the correspondingly illicit drama, of heroin, cocaine, and all the other “hard” illegal drugs. They profess themselves to be so concerned about the fate of, say, wealthy actors that in retribution they are willing to spread the plague of crime, gangs, violence, and the corruption of the profit-seeking young across the continent, despoiling whole cities in a mad attempt to realize their dream of a Drug-Free America.

For a century, America has been waging war against drugs. According to CNN, heroin is now selling at $10 a unit on the streets of Philadelphia. If this, unlike other CNN reports, is actually true, then I say good, because the lower the price, the lower the real crime rate. Real crimes are crimes of fraud and violence, the kind of crimes that you create when you practice prohibition.

The solution is obvious: legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime. Some people who don’t use drugs will then be able to use them. Maybe they’ll use them only on weekends. Maybe they’ll become addicted (like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who got that way despite the fact that hard drugs are illegal). Libertarians should not pretend that these bad effects won’t happen. But call me heartless — this is a small price to pay for the enormous heartlessness of the War on Drugs.

And the really horrible thing is that I’m not saying anything new. Everybody knows these facts. Everybody is capable of making these deductions. If you somehow manage to avoid making them, don’t tell me how much you mourn the death of people like Philip Seymour Hoffman. You have a lot more to regret than that.




Share This


Two Films: One Right, One Not So Right

 | 

The weakest of this season’s Oscar finalists is Philomena. This film about an Irish woman’s search for the baby she gave up for adoption, more than half a century earlier, has received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It is a good film, with moments that are lighthearted and funny and other moments that are deeply emotional and full of anguish. The performances by Judi Dench as Philomena; Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the down-on-his-luck journalist who helps her; and Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena are top-rate. But the film is marred by the same characteristic that is probably driving the critics and the Academy to rave about it: it revels in unfair and bitter vitriol against the Catholic Church. Hollywood loves to hate religion.

Philomena is really the story of two souls — the title character and the journalist — who have had their lives pulled asunder by external forces. When the young and unmarried Philomena becomes pregnant, her parents send her to a convent house where unwed mothers are hidden away and cared for until their babies are born and put up for adoption. To earn their keep, the girls do domestic work inside the convent, and they are allowed to see their babies every day until homes are found for them. But the outcome is known from the beginning: the girls have come to the convent to hide their pregnancies, give up their babies, and return to normal life. The nuns are simply doing what they agreed to do.

Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church.

The sad truth, however, is that no one knows until she has experienced it how hard the mothers’ role really is. How can she “return to normal life” once she has had a baby growing inside her? Whether she marries the father, raises the child by herself, gives the child to another family, or terminates the pregnancy, there is no forgetting the child and no going back to what life was like before. Parents of the pregnant girl might mean well in trying to go backward; “six months away and it will be as though it never happened,” they might think. But they don’t know. Certainly the nuns and priests don’t know; they’ve taken a vow never to become parents except indirectly, as Mother Superior or Father to the flock. Only the members of this exclusive club of special mothers can truly know what it’s like, so I won’t pretend to suggest that I know the answers. I only know that it’s hard.

The film turns the nuns and the church into the villains of the story, and it’s true (or seems to be true) that they were harsh in how they enforced their rules. But it should be remembered that no one in the church reached out and kidnapped these young unwed mothers; their parents sent them to the convents, and social custom embraced the plan. In a climate in which unwed mothers were treated as outcasts and their children were treated as bastards, these premature grandparents did what they thought was best for their daughters, the babies, and the childless couples who wanted them. And yes, for themselves. But Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church, through several disparaging remarks made by Sixsmith toward the Church, and even more through the cruel, heartless way the nuns treat the mothers of the babies, and by the deliberate withholding of information by the convent’s head nun. I’m not Catholic, but I am offended by the anti-Catholic sentiment that permeates the film.

Martin Sixsmith has experienced a frustration of his own: as the film opens, he is a former journalist who has been sacked from his position with the Labour Party over an offense that he did not commit. He is outraged by the unfairness and tries to have his job restored, just as Philomena tries to reclaim her son, but to no avail. After reporting international news for so long, he feels demeaned by accepting this fluffy human-interest story for a magazine. But accept it he does, and the two set off for America to trace the snippets of information available to them about the child’s adoptive parents.

They are an unlikely pair, Martin with his international political interests and Philomena with her game shows and romance novels. She nearly drives him nuts with her never-ending summaries of the latest love story she is reading and her penchant for talking to strangers. These lighthearted scenes provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie, and balance the scenes of unbearable anguish portrayed by Young Philomena and the more controlled, but just as real, anguish felt by her older self. This is a lifelong pain that never goes away.

The film is certainly worth seeing, on its artistic and its social merits. But better than Inside Llewyn Davis? Or even Saving Mr. Banks? (Neither of them was nominated for Best Picture.) Not on your life. Philomena was nominated purely for its political correctness in hating on the Catholic church. And that’s just not a good enough reason in a season of such outstanding films.

No external considerations were necessary to produce admiration for the next film that I want to consider — another nominee for Best Picture: her.

her is a cautionary tale about the love affair with electronic devices and the disconnect it is causing in normal relationships, from simple inattention to internet dating and cybersex. Even the name, “her,” suggests objectification; the title is not She, and it is not even capitalized. “her” is just the objective case of what once was a woman.In this story of a near-future utopia, the voices that talk to us from our phones and GPS units and have names like “Siri” have developed emotions and personalities that aren’t almost human; in many ways they’re better than human. But this is not Westworld (1973) run amok, with sentient robots destroying their creators in order to take over the planet. No, “her” is a soft-spoken voice that comes in the night, whispering sweet nothings and taking over the creators’ emotions.

But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation.

Theodore Twolmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is an emotionally crippled introvert who writes “heartfelt personal letters” for other people. It’s sort of like being a cross between a Hallmark poet and Cyrano de Bergerac. Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he has known since childhood, and is very lonely. His days are filled with writing love letters, but he lacks any love in his own life. He turns to what amounts to porn calls in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t satisfy him. He spends his evenings playing holographic video games and becomes so immersed in the adventure that when he’s out on a blind date, he talks about the video character as though he were a friend. And the date gets it. Without thinking it’s weird or nerdy. Just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, the people on the screen have become family.

This scene in which Theodore talks about his video friend reminded me of the time, years ago, when my son completed the final level of the first “Zelda” game. He had been working at it for a few weeks, and I thought he would feel exhilarated. Instead, he was morose and despondent. “You can start the game again,” I told him, thinking that would help him shake the blues. He responded with great sadness, “But she won’t remember me!” That was my first understanding of just how deeply someone can become involved in a cyber relationship, even one that doesn’t have a real person at the other end of the email.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the witty, husky voice inside Theodore’s electronic devices. When Theodore purchases a new operating system to manage his electronic information and Outlook files, he is surprised to find how humanlike the artificial intelligence interface is. Because this software has complete access to all his files, “she” knows him inside out and can evolve into a personality that responds to his emotional as well as organizational needs. And he responds viscerally to this being who knows him so deeply. It is what he has been aching for.

The film’s delicate tone makes it both very special and very disturbing. The sets and costumes contribute a great deal to that tone. The colors are mostly soft oranges and greens, the fabrics natural and touchable. The clothing is only slightly futuristic — the shirts have a different kind of collar, for example, and they are tucked into pants that ride high above the waist, instead of riding low on the hips as they do today. Furniture is sleek and mildly mid-century, with wall hangings and table decorations made of wood or stone. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet so natural and comfortable that I expect to see it “in reality” next year. The overall effect is rather dreamy and inviting, not unlike Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Soon Theodore is spending all of his time talking with Samantha. He takes her on “dates” by putting his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing forward, and they have flirtatious conversations together. At a party he leaves the group of human friends to go into an empty side room and chat with Samantha. At night he feels especially close to her. He lies in bed in the dark, watching for his phone to light up with a message from her. There is something so magical and enticing about speaking to her in the dark. He tells others that Samantha is his girlfriend. He becomes goofy with happiness, giddy with the swivet of romance. It leads to a sick isolation from the real people in his life — an isolation many real people create for themselves as they engage in cyber relationships.

Of course, the nighttime conversations eventually lead to cybersex. Despite the giddiness of the growing “relationship,” he still feels morose and disconntected.

He tells her, “Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” After a pause he adds, “But you feel real to me, Samantha.”

And then it starts. “I wish I could touch you,” he says. “How would you touch me?” she asks, genuinely curious, since she does not have a body or any experience with touch. “First I would . . .” and he tells her where he would touch her. And touch her.

His imagined touching is gentler and more romantic than his experience with phone porn earlier in the film, before he has “met” (that is, purchased) Samantha. It suggests that their deep intellectual conversations have led to a deeper, more meaningful sexual connection as well.

“Mmmmmm,” she responds. “That’s nice.” And he expresses more places he would touch her if he could.

And then . . . the fireworks. For both of them.

It seems utterly romantic. They’ve been talking for weeks. It feels like real communication. They seem to be connecting on a deep, intimate, personal level. There’s a reason sex is called “intercourse.” But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation. Or in this case, single masturbation, because Samantha exists only in his computer. She’s not real, and what they seem to have is not real, either. He loves the rush he feels when he is talking to her, but it keeps him from having any real relationships with real people. And that, of course, is the danger of cyber “relationships.” They are emotionally stimulating, but socially crippling.

“How do you share your life with someone?” Samantha asks when Theodore tries to tell her about his relationship with Catherine and his grief at their breakup.

“Through influence,” he suggests, thinking about how he and Catherine would talk to each other about their writing and their careers. “Try this, try that,” he explains about their creative influence on one another. “You grow and change together,” he continues, trying to understand the sharing of a life as he explains it to Samantha — who is, of course, his own creation. “But the danger is growing apart.”

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity.

He believes that he cannot grow apart from Samantha, because they are so completely in sync and in love. “You’re mine,” he says simply. But there are no guarantees in cyber relationships; there is only what you believe you have created. And that, too, is a danger. It is far too easy in cyber relationships to invent personas that aren’t quite real, to create dialogs that are fresh and funny and exciting, but in the end are just scripts in an evolving melodrama.

Are human relationships any better? “Falling in love is socially acceptable insanity,” Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) opines at one point. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity. Perhaps there isn’t any logic or sense or sanity about human relationships. They’re hard to develop and even harder to maintain, especially in this day when everyone’s head seems to be dipped toward an electronic device. “Falling in friendship” can be just as inexplicable. We seem drawn toward communicating with cyber friends, checking our email and updating our tweets, even while a real, live friend is right there beside us. It’s a serious and growing problem, this love affair with electronics, a problem that is beautifully, disturbingly displayed in this creative and powerful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philomena," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2013, 98 minutes; and "her," directed by Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



Share This


The Big One

 | 

Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.