The Apple of Knowledge and the Golden Rule

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Russell Hasan is an author who has contributed a good deal to Liberty. Now he makes a contribution to liberty itself, in the form of two extensive monographs: The Apple of Knowledge: Introducing the Philosophical Scientific Method and Pure Empirical Essential Reasoning, and Golden Rule Libertarianism: A Defense of Freedom in Social, Economic, and Legal Policy. Both works are available online, at the addresses that follow at the end of this review. And both are very interesting.

I’ll start with The Apple of Knowledge, which itself starts with an account of the author’s quest for wisdom. He did not find it in the lessons of professional (i.e., academic) philosophers, who venerated the counterintuitive claims of earlier professional philosophers, often echoing their conviction that objective truth could not be found. The author turned to the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, but found that “it was truly a political philosophy, and not a rigorously reasoned system of metaphysics and epistemology. Rand’s ideas seemed clever and useful, but they contained contradictions and holes and gaps.”

So, as an intellectual entrepreneur, Hasan decided to see whether he could solve crucial philosophical problems himself. That’s the spirit of liberty.

He states his agenda in this way:

The six problems that this book will solve are: 1. Induction, 2. Consciousness, 3. Knowledge, 4. The Scientific Method, 5. Objectivity, and 6. Things in Themselves.

Hasan believes that these problems can be solved by his versions of “(1) the philosophical scientific method, and (2) pure empirical essential reasoning.”

What does this mean in practice? It means a rejection of dualism and radical skepticism, a reasoned acceptance of the world as empirically discovered by the healthy consciousness. An example:

When you look at this book and say “I am looking at this book, I am reading this book, I am aware of the experience of this book,” and you wonder about what it means to be conscious and to have an experience and to see this book, the only things in the picture are two physical objects, (1) this book, which physically exists and is the thing that you are experiencing and are conscious of, and (2) your brain, which is the consciousness that experiences and is aware of the book by means of the perceptions and concepts in your brain. Similarly, when you see a red apple, the red apple itself is the red that you see, and your brain is the subject which perceives that object and is aware of that object. Nowhere in this picture is there a need to deny that consciousness exists. We need not deny that you really see a red color. We need not deny that you are aware of an apple. And there is also no need to believe in ghosts or non-physical souls as an explanation for your being aware of an apple and seeing its red color.

As this example suggests, Hasan has an admirably clear style throughout. His clarity may also suggest, erroneously, that the problems he addresses are easy to solve, or that he deems them easy to solve. They aren’t, and he doesn’t. For every statement he makes there are time-honored quibbles, evasions, and yes, real challenges. The enjoyment of reading through this fairly long book comes from following Hasan’s own path among the challenges, assessing his arguments, and finding out how many of those arguments one wants to buy.

To this process, a statement of my own ideas can add no particular enjoyment. For what it’s worth — and it isn’t directly relevant to Hasan’s essential concerns — his grasp of Christian and biblical theology could be much stronger. Here’s where the dualism that he rejects asserts itself despite his efforts; he tends to see Christian ideas (as if there were just one set of them) as dualistically opposite to his own: Christians are against the world, the flesh, and the devil, while he is heartily in favor of the first two, at least. But it’s not as simple as that. “World” and “flesh” can mean a lot of things, as a concordance search through St. Paul’s epistles will illustrate. You don’t need to believe in God to recognize the complexity of Christian thought. (And, to digress a bit further, “666” didn’t come “from ancient confusion between the Latin word ‘sextus’ which means six and the Latin word ‘sexus’ which means sex.” No, it originated in the biblical book of Revelation [13:18], and it’s a code term, probably for “Nero.”)

It makes no difference whether you’re smarter or richer than I am, because it requires the same effort — that is, none — for both of us to leave each other alone.

About the philosophical problems that Hasan treats I can say that he usually appears to make good sense — very good sense. His education in the objectivist tradition is evident; his respect for the real world — which is, after all, the world that all philosophy is trying to explain — is still more evident. Both are valuable, and essential to his project. Indeed, Apple of Knowledge can be viewed as a particularly interesting and valuable addition to the objectivist tradition of philosophy that begins with Ayn Rand.

Golden Rule Libertarianism is an exposition and defense of a variety of radical libertarian ideas — about victimless crimes, war and peace, government intervention in the economy, and so on. Few libertarians will be surprised by the results of Hasan’s inquiries in these areas — but what does “Golden Rule Libertarianism” mean?

This represents what I take to be a new approach, though one that is nascent in the libertarian concept of the great “negative right,” the right to be left alone. From this point of view, it makes no difference whether you’re smarter or richer than I am, because it requires the same effort — that is, none — for both of us to leave each other alone. The Golden Rule, most famously enunciated by Jesus but, as Hasan points out, hardly foreign to other religious and ethical teachers, yields a more “positive” approach. “Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Yet nobody wants his neighbor to do certain things — to prohibit him from speaking or publishing his views or sleeping with whomever he wants, even on the pretense of helping him. In this sense, the Golden Rule turns out to be just as “negative” as libertarians could wish. As Hasan says in one exemplification of his theory:

if you let me be free to make economic decisions, including what wage to pay and at what price to buy services from other people, then I will give you the same freedom to make your own choices instead of me making your choices for you.

There is a pragmatic dimension to this. In case you are wondering whether letting everyone be free to make his or her own decisions would leave the poor in the lurch, or, to vary the metaphor, in the clutches of an exploitative capitalism that the poor are not capable of turning to their own advantage, Hasan adds:

The best thing you can do for me is to get the government out of my way and let me be free, because capitalism helps the poor more than socialism.

Libertarians understand this, and Hasan provides plenty of reasons for everyone else to understand it too. His book will be valuable to nonlibertarians, because there is something in it for every interest or problem they may have. As he says, in another exemplary passage:

The liberal concern for civil liberties, e.g. my freedom to write atheist books, and the conservative concern for freedom from regulation, e.g. my freedom to buy and sell what I want on my terms, is really two sides of the same libertarian coin, because if the government claims the right to be the boss of your beliefs then it will soon usurp the power to be the boss of your place in the economy and take total control over you, and if the government is the boss of the economy then it will inevitably take over the realm of ideas in order to suppress dissent and stifle criticism of the economic planners.

I believe that Hasan is right to pay particular attention to what he calls “the coercion argument,” which is one of the strongest ripostes to libertarian thought. It is an attempt to argue against libertarian ideas on libertarian grounds. The notion is that if I leave you alone I permit someone else to coerce you. As Hasan says,

Some version of the coercion argument underscores a great deal of anti-libertarian sentiment: poor people will be coerced into selling their organs and body parts, which justifies denying them the right to do so. Poor people are coerced into accepting dangerous, low-paying jobs such as coal mining, or are coerced into working long hours for wages that are lower than what they want. They are coerced into buying cheap high-fat fast food, or are coerced into buying cheap meat, packed at rat-infested plants, and so on. The coercion argument is a thorn in the side of laissez-faire politics, because socialists argue that poor people aren’t really free in a capitalist system where they face economic coercion.

Hasan’s insight into the legal history and ramifications of the coercion argument is enlightening:

An example of the grave seriousness of the coercion myth is legal scholar Robert Lee Hale’s famous law review article “Coercion and Distribution in a Supposedly Non-Coercive State” (1923). Hale brainwashed generations of law students with his argument that capitalist employers exert coercion upon workers, and socialism would not produce more coercion or less freedom than capitalism.

This is a powerful myth, but Hasan has little trouble refuting it. Others are yet more formidable; I would be surprised, however, if even a hostile reader could emerge from a serious consideration of Hasan’s arguments without admitting serious damage to his or her own assumptions.

For libertarian readers, the fun is in seeing what Hasan will do with various popular topics of libertarian discourse — natural rights versus utilitarianism, racial discrimination, gay marriage, an interventionist versus a non-interventionist foreign policy, privatization of education and banking, disparity of wealth, etc. Even well-informed libertarians will be surprised, and probably grateful, for many of the arguments that Hasan adduces.

Hasan is one of the few questioning occupational licensing, which exacts immense costs from society, and especially from the poor, who must pay dearly for even the simplest services.

I was such a reader — and for me, the book gained in stature because I did not always agree with it. For me, libertarianism is more a matter of experience and less a matter of moral logic than it is for Hasan; but even within the large area of our philosophical, or at least temperamental, disagreement, I found myself admiring his intrepid and intricate, yet nevertheless clear and cogent progression of thought. I suspect that anyone who shares my feeling for the great chess match of political economy will share my feeling about this book.

Not all of Hasan’s many topics can possibly be of intense interest to everyone, but that’s just another way of saying that the book is rich in topics. My heart rejoiced to see a chapter on the evils of occupational licensing — a practice that virtually no one questions but that exacts immense costs from society, and especially from the poor, who must pay dearly for even the simplest services of licensed individuals. And I was very pleased to see Hasan take on many of the most sacred cows of my fellow academics.

One is game theory. Readers who are familiar with game theory and with the part of it that involves the so-called prisoner’s dilemma know that for more than two decades these things have been the favorite pastime, or waste of time, among thousands of social scientists. (If you ask, How can there by thousands of social scientists? or, Why don’t they find something better to do?, see above, under “occupational licensing.”) The tendency of game theory is to deal with people as objects of power, not subjects of their own agency. Its effect has often been to emphasize the statist implications of human action. Hasan cuts through the haze:

The specific refutation of Game Theory and the “prisoner’s dilemma” is that the solution is not for the group to impose a group-beneficial choice onto each individual, it is for each individual to freely choose the right choice that benefits the group. If the benefits of the supposedly right, good-for-the-group decision are really so great, then each individual can be persuaded to freely choose the right, optimal, efficient choice.

My advice is to get the book, which like the other book is available at a scandalously low price, read the introductory discussion, then proceed to whatever topics interest you most. You may not agree with the arguments you find, but you will certainly be stimulated by the reading.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Apple of Knowledge: Introducing the Philosophical Scientific Method and Pure Empirical Essential Reasoning," and "Golden Rule Libertarianism: A Defense of Freedom in Social, Economic, and Legal Policy," by Russell Hasan. 2014.



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It’s Smart, It’s Exciting, It’s Fun

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The specific details of a superhero movie plot seldom really matter; all we usually need to know is that an evil superpower, sporting a foreign accent, is out to destroy the world as we know it, and it is up to the superhero not only to protect the community from destruction but also to preserve our way of life. Dozens of superheroes have been created in comic-book land, and all of them have been sharing time on the silver screen for the past decade or more, with half a dozen of their adventures released this year alone. So far audiences are flocking to theaters with the same enthusiasm that kept our grandfathers heading to the local cinema every Saturday afternoon to see the latest installment of Buck Rogers.

These films tend to reflect the fears and values of whatever may be the current culture, which is one of the reasons for their lasting popularity. We see our worst fears in the threats posed by the enemies, and our hopes and fears in the characters of the heroes. But lately those heroes have been somewhat reluctant and unsure of their roles as heroes, and the people they have sworn to protect have been less trusting and appreciative — they complain about collateral damage and even question the heroes’ loyalty. In an era of relativism and situational ethics, a full-on hero with overwhelming power seems hard to support.

The Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions.

This month it’s Captain America’s turn to save the day. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, Captain America (alter ego: Steve Rogers) is a WWII fighter pilot who is transformed from a 5’4” wimp to a 6’2” muscle man through a scientific experiment intended to create an army of super warriors. He ends up being cryogenically frozen and is thawed out in modern times. Part of his appeal is his guileless naiveté, especially as he reacts to modern technology and mores. He uses his virtually indestructible shield to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (okay, that’s the other superhero, but their morals are virtually the same). I like Captain America’s shield — it signifies that his stance is defensive, not aggressive.

As The Winter Soldier opens, nothing is going right for the Avenger team led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Police, government agencies, and even agents of SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, the organization that oversees and deploys the superheroes) are attacking them and treating them as national enemies. The Captain and former Russian spy Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, have become Public Enemies number 1 and 2, but they don’t know why. They spend the rest of the movie trying to clear their names and save the world, without any help from the government they have sworn to uphold.

While the specific plot isn’t particularly important in these movies, motivation usually is. Why do the characters do what they do? Meaningful dialogue inserted between the action scenes reveals the values of both good guys and bad guys, and away we go, rooting for the guy who is going to save us once again.

I’m happy to report that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, lives up to its potential. As a libertarian, I can agree with most of the values it projects. First, politicians, government agencies, and the military industrial complex are the untrustworthy bad guys in this film, and for once there isn’t an evil businessperson or industrialist in sight. Additionally, the Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions. For example, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) aka Sam Wilson, tells Steve about his buddy being shot down in the war, and then says, “I had a real hard time finding a reason for being over there after that.” Captain America admits, “I want to do what’s right, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.” Like Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, he is ready to think for himself and determine his own morality. (Compare that philosophy to Peter Parker [Spider-Man] being told by his wise Uncle Ben that responsibility is more important than individual choice in Spider-Man 2, followed by Uncle Ben’s death when Peter chooses “selfishness” over responsibility.)

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State (Robert Redford — yes, Robert Redford! He said his grandchildren like the franchise, so he wanted to do the film for them) says cynically of a particular problem, “It’s nothing some earmarks can’t fix.”

The mastermind behind the assault on freedom (I won’t tell you who it is, except that it’s someone involved in government) justifies his destructive plan by saying, “To build a better world sometimes means tearing down the old one” and opining that “humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom. If you take it from them, they will resist, so they have be given a reason to give it up willingly.” Another one adds, “Humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom for security,” echoing Ben Franklin’s warning. These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course. Such tactics are as old as Machiavelli. Yet nothing could feel more current. I’m happy to see young audiences eating this up.

Captain America first appeared on film in 1944, at the height of WWII. He has never been as popular as Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. A made-for-TV movie aired in 1979, and a dismal version (with a 3.2 rating) was made in 1990. However, the latest incarnation, with Chris Evans as the wimp-turned-military powerhouse, has been highly successful, with three films released in the past four years: two self-titled films (Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and this one) as well as one ensemble outing (The Avengers, 2012).

These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course.

One of the things I like about the Avengers is that they aren’t born with innate super powers à la Superman or X-Men; for the most part their powers come from innovation, technology, and physical training. They’re gritty and real, and they bruise and bleed. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo were determined to make this movie as real as possible too, so they returned to live action stunts whenever they could instead of relying on CGI and green screen projection. Yes, they use stunt doubles when necessary, but, as Anthony Mackie (the Falcon) reported in praise of the Russos, “if they could build it [a set piece], they built it. If we [the actors] could do it [a difficult maneuver], we did it. . . . That’s why the movie looks so great.” Many of the action scenes are beautifully choreographed and often look more like dancing than fighting, especially when Captain America’s shield is ricocheting between him and a gigantic fighter plane.

Of course, the film has its share of corniness too. When you’re a hero named Captain America, you’re expected to be a rah-rah, apple-pie American, and Captain America is. He even drives a Chevy, the all-American car. So does Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who brags about his SUV with a straight face as though it’s a high-end luxury vehicle. In fact, all the SHIELD operatives drive Chevys, as do many of the ordinary commuters on the street. That’s because another concept that’s as American as apple pie is advertising. Product placement permeates the film, but most of the time it’s subtly and artfully done. Captain America wears an Under Armour t-shirt (which is pretty ironic when you think about it — under armor beneath a super-hero uniform), and the Falcon, whose superpower is a set of mechanized wings that let him fly, sports a small and subtle Nike swoosh on his after-hours attire. (Nike — the winged goddess, get it?)

Captain America is a hit, and for all the right reasons. The dialogue is intelligent, the humor is ironic, the action sequences are exciting, and the heroes are fighting for individual freedom. It even contains a theme of redemption. And for once, the bad guys aren’t businessmen. Ya gotta love it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Sony Pictures, 2014, 136 minutes.




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The Road to Potential

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How I hate the word “potential”! While acknowledging innate abilities with faint praise, it reeks of withering disappointment, talents wasted, opportunities lost.

Transcendence is a film with tremendous potential.

It begins with a talented cast of discriminating actors that includes Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and Paul Bettany. (OK, scratch Morgan Freeman from the list of “discriminating actors.” Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become as ubiquitous as Michael Caine.) Add a postapocalyptic setting, an army of zombified robotic post-humans, a love story that transcends death, and the time-honored “collision between mankind and technology.” Mix in some dialogue about challenging authority and questioning the meaning of life, and create a metaphor suggesting the thirst for power in the form of the World Wide Web. It seems like the perfect formula for an exciting sci-fi thriller.

Yet Transcendence barely gets off the ground. The story, about terrorists who attack the world’s computer hubs simultaneously in order to stop the Internet, should be powerfully engaging, but it lacks any building of tension or suspense. Instead it is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a computer programmer working on ways to heal the planet through nanotechnology. When terrorists attack his computer lab and infect him with deadly radiation poison, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his research partner Max (Paul Bettany) convince him to let them upload his consciousness onto a hard drive that will allow his sentient self to continue to live within the machine. It’s an interesting concept that ought to cause one to reflect on what makes us human: is it the physical body of flesh and bones that can move and act? Or is it the non-physical collection of memories, thoughts, and personality? Many people have had their heads cryogenically frozen after death, in hopes that someday their minds can be restored within a synthetic body and they can regain life. But that isn’t what this movie is about.

“Transcendence” is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

The plan works, and Will speaks from the computer screen after his death. However, Max immediately and inexplicably regrets having uploaded Will to the machine, so he joins forces with the terrorists (who also join forces with the government — it’s hard to keep all the factions and their motivations straight) to stop Will from doing what he was uploaded to do. Meanwhile, Evelyn joins forces with Will and together they build a solar power grid in an isolated Nevada desert to give Will enough juice to mingle with every scintilla of the Internet.

Yes, this makes Will omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. And that’s a definition of God, right? Will is treated like God’s evil twin, set on sucking up all the power in the universe (there’s that metaphor of the power grid.) But he doesn’t do anything evil. He doesn’t steal power from others; he creates his own from the sun — and he pays the Nevada residents a good wage to work for him. He doesn’t kill anyone, destroy anything, or even growl menacingly. In fact, he uses his power to refine his work in nanotechnology, and soon he is able to heal the blind, make the lame walk, and restore life to those who have been killed. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this is godlike too.) As they are healed, his new followers become like him — imbued with the Internet and able to communicate with Will through his spirit — that is, the Cloud.

This storyline has the potential for being eerie and scary, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers; but Will’s followers don’t do anything wrong either, and they aren’t at all zombie-like. They are just humans who once were disabled and now can see, walk, lift, run, hear, and produce. How is that different from living with a pacemaker or a titanium hip, and carrying around a smart phone that keeps one constantly connected to the Internet? Nevertheless, the government is determined to take them out, simply because they are now created in Will’s image and have the ability to communicate worldwide.

All of this has the potential for philosophical discussion, but I had to use all my creativity as a literature professor to reach the potential message I’ve described here. The message is beyond subtle — so subtle, in fact, that I think it went over the director’s own head. I’m not sure what he intended to suggest, except possibly that the collision between mankind and technology is usually good for a studio green light. I doubt that he was even aware of the potential metaphor or deeper meaning of the film he created.

Ah. There’s that word again. “Potential.” A film that had transcendent potential is instead fraught with withering disappointment, wasted talent, and lost opportunities. Insomniacs will love it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Transcendence," directed by Wally Pfister. Alcon Entertainment, 2014, 119 minutes.



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Noah Sails Where No Rock Ever Sailed Before

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Myth has been defined as “a story, often employing superhuman figures and supernatural events, that attempts to explain something about the world and that expresses some important value or belief of a culture or society” (Howard Canaan, Tales of Magic from around the World). Myths have simple plots with few specific details; their meaning can evolve over time to represent changing cultural values. This is what director Darren Aronofsky has done with his epic new film, Noah — he has created a myth like that.

Audiences who want to see the biblical story of Noah will be disappointed. Judeo-Christian believers, indeed, will be offended and outraged by the laughable inaccuracies in this movie, from the biblical point of view. (Believers will know they’re in trouble when they see the film begin with the words, “In the beginning there was nothing.”) Darren Aronofsky has rewritten a new myth, for modern times. It is no longer the story of a prophet who was chosen by God to build an ark and repopulate the earth after everyone else drowns. The conflict is no longer between God and Satan but between humans and Rock People (representing Earth — but more below). Rock People communicate with a Creator, but humans do not communicate with God. The purpose of religion is not to forge a relationship between God and people but to protect the earth and the animals. “If anything happens to one of these creatures, it will be lost forever,” Noah warns his sons, but he has no similar concern for humanity. As Noah walks among the wicked community that is about to be destroyed by the flood, he observes many gruesome acts, but the pinnacle of their depravity is presented as they cleave animal carcasses for cooking. Methuselah explains, “Men will be punished for what they have done to this world,” not for what they have done to one another. Noah is a modern myth that represents the hegemonic values of today.

Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah.

Maybe it was because I had just seen the new Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, but Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales kept coming to mind while I was watching Noah. Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah, including Eve’s attraction to the serpent, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, Elisha’s army of angels, and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. It’s the most bizarre concoction, yet I’m sure that many gullible filmgoers went home saying, “Wow! I didn’t know Noah almost killed his granddaughters!” You see, in order to understand Rocky’s Fractured Fairy Tales, you had to know that Sleeping Beauty did not eat a poisoned apple.

And here’s another thing you probably wouldn’t know was in the Bible if you didn’t see this movie: God did not create humans — some crazy giant Rock People did. These Rock People look like piles of boulders until they pull themselves together, Transformer-like, and start stomping around the earth. They have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God. They create an eerie static hum whenever they’re close by, and they strike fear into the hearts of men. Except the hearts of the ones they like.

According to the Book of Aronofsky, these Rock People came from outer space as meteors of light and got stuck in the muck of primordial creation. They made humans out of the dust of the earth, and as the film opens they’re really mad at themselves for doing it because humans really suck. But you already know that, if you’ve been reading the newspapers lately.

See, it turns out that animals are “the innocents” and “man broke the world.” Eve’s real treachery wasn’t curiosity or disobedience or a desire for wisdom; it was that she brought children to the earth and allowed her descendants to wreak havoc there. Now Noah’s wife wants to do the same! But Father Noah Knows Best. He is determined to put all the animal pairs onto the ark and save only his three sons, his post-menopausal wife (Jennifer Connelly), and one barren girl (Emma Watson) so that humans cannot repopulate the earth and ruin it again. His job is simply to keep the animals safe until the flood subsides, and then quietly let humans become extinct.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that in this movie, Noah never communicates with God, or vice versa. So where does he get the idea of building the ark? From the dregs of a psychotropic tea given to him by Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah, by the way, has supernatural powers, but when he uses them to cause a wonderful and necessary miracle, Noah gets pretty ticked off and starts grabbing for daggers. Actually, there is very little to set Noah apart from the wickedness around him. He wields an ax and a bludgeon with the best of them, and he can be pretty heartless.

Despite the assertion that “in the beginning there was nothing,” there are deists in the movie. They just aren’t the prophets. The Rock People talk directly to a Creator, and so does Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the leader of the wicked nomads and a descendant of Cain, who killed his brother Abel and was forced to bear a mark on his forehead as the first murderer. Tubal-cain doesn’t actually appear in the biblical story of Noah, but Aronofsky throws him in, probably because he became a blacksmith (Genesis 4:22) and is credited by many scriptorians with inventing weapons of war. While Noah is drinking the psychedelic Kool-Aid, Tubal-cain is calling out to God, “Speak to me! I am a man, made in your image. I am like you — I give life and I take it away. Why will you not converse with me?” Meanwhile, the priesthood that has been passed from Adam to Methuselah to Noah is embodied in the skin of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden. This is no mere fracture of the tale; Aronofsky delights in making the godly evil and evil godly.

The Rock People have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God.

Sure, I get it: Hollywood doesn’t like references to God (approving ones, anyway). And yes, I know the difference between Sunday School and the Cineplex; I wasn’t expecting a sermon. But why make a movie about Noah if you are going to leave out the driving force behind the story? It’s like making Clash of the Titans without Zeus or Poseidon. Why not just make a movie about Rock Giants that duke it out with brutal nomads while one family escapes in a boat with a bunch of animals? Let those of us who know how to read leave the theater saying, “Wow, did you catch those references to Noah?” instead of “Man, did he ever get that wrong!”

What drew Aronofsky to the story of Noah in the first place? I suspect it was the same characteristics that have kept myths alive for centuries. Archetypal characters, iconic conflicts, and simple truths about human nature resonate with us. One does not have to be religious to experience the resonance of biblical stories, nor should religious people be offended that I categorize biblical stories as myth. Contrary to popular opinion, “myth” does not mean “a lie,” or “a story that is not true.” Myths express “not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth. They are the shared stories that express insights about human nature, human society, or the natural world” (Canaan). Myths are so profound that they transcend the need to be factual. In fact, they can even transcend Hollywood’s need to be cynical.

Despite my criticism of the first two hours of this film, I found the conclusion profoundly satisfying. After all the fracturing and twisting and pushing away from humanity, Aronofsky ends with a cathartic moment of transformation and hope. It probably isn’t worth the two-hour journey to get there, and it’s totally out of whack with the source material. But Aronofsky creates a lovely scene of redemption at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Noah," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 138 minutes.



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TSA Training Film

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Liberty’s readers know that I’m a fan of Liam Neeson’s middle-aged reincarnation as an action hero. His romps through thrillers with such single-word titles as Taken and Unknown, beating up bad guys half his age as he struggles to rescue his family (a common theme in his action films). This is cinematic escapism at its best.

At first this classically trained Shakespearean actor, who earned an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his powerfully moving performance as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, was embarrassed by the success of Taken. He admits that he agreed to take on the role simply for the opportunity to spend three months in Paris (and, I suppose, for the $5,000,000 fee he was reportedly paid), but he expected the film to go straight to video, he says, where no one would see it. Nevertheless, he has embraced his new role as an action hero, and enjoys resurrecting the skills he learned as a professional boxer in Dublin, many years ago, for these beat-’em-up films.

In Non-Stop Neeson again gets to growl menacing lines and land knock-out punches as he chases the bad guys, this time while flying on a jet between New York and London. But this time it was a lot harder for me to enjoy the ride.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, an air marshal who springs into action when he receives a text message from someone on the plane threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred to a numbered bank account. Who is the culprit? And how can he be stopped?

Marks doesn’t know who the bad guy is, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination.

Marks storms through the plane, grabbing anyone who looks suspicious and slinging the suspects around the plane. He stops at nothing (get it? non-stop?) in his determination to stop the killer. He snatches cell phones from breast pockets, rummages through carry-on bags, breaks one passenger’s nose and another passenger’s arm and another passenger’s neck. He shoots guns and thrusts knives and shoves food carts.

This is classic Neeson action-hero schtick, and I usually love it. But I have a problem with it in Non-Stop: these passengers aren’t bad guys. Well, one of them is. But Marks doesn’t know who, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination. It doesn’t matter who might be hurt or even killed, so long as the air marshal gets his man. I actually cheered when the passengers finally mustered enough gumption to smack Marks in the head with a fire extinguisher, even though he was just “doing his duty” and “protecting” them.

Also uncomfortably along for the ride are Julianne Moore as the air marshal’s seatmate and Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant. Both are downright silly in their hand-wringing. I’m sure that if director Jaume Collet-Serra had known Nyong’o was going to be awarded an Oscar for her role in in Twelve Years a Slave and conducting a media blitz the very week his film was released, he would have given her a few more lines. Instead she is virtually hidden in the background. I rather imagine she is relieved that this film didn’t open in January, while the Academy members were still voting . . .

Even the denouement of Non-Stop is disappointing. I won’t tell you who did it, but it really doesn’t matter. The reaction is more of an “oh . . .” than an “Aha!” That’s because the story is set up like an Agatha Christie mystery in which every last suspect could plausibly be guilty. Whoops — I guess that’s exactly what the TSA wants us to think, isn’t it?

Non-Stop is a disappointment in every way. If this had been Neeson’s first foray into the action thriller genre, it would indeed have ended up going directly to video. I don’t even recommend it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Non-Stop," directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. StudioCanal, 2014, 106 minutes.



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Two Films: One Right, One Not So Right

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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.



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Oscar Shrugs

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Good filmmaking has much in common with good poetry. Filmmakers and poets both employ language and techniques, specific to their art, that allow them to give their works multiple layers of meaning within tightly condensed packages. Poets use metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, tone, symbol, euphony, and rhetorical structure to streamline their communication with their audiences; filmmakers use lighting, music, costumes, setting, and those same metaphors, rhythms, and symbols to create a similar effect.

This is especially true of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, who have been creating startlingly brilliant films since Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). Those two freshman films — one a violent crime thriller and the other a quirky, lighthearted romp (OK, its main characters are criminals too, but they have such good hearts!) — demonstrated early on the breadth of their artistic palettes. While many filmmakers have such recognizable styles that they eventually become adjectives (Hitchockian, Spielbergian, Bergmanesque, etc.), others do something new and inventive each time. The Coens are like that. While they tend to repeat some of the same artistic tools — they have favorite actors, cinematographers, and musicians — each film offers something predictable only in its unpredictability.

Music is one of their most effective artistic tools, so it should not be surprising — and yet it is — that the Coens would make a film that is simply a week in the life of a folk singer in the 1961 Greenwich Village music scene. As the film opens, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is finishing a set in a small, dark cabaret. When the theater manager tells him that a friend in a suit is waiting for him outside, he goes out back and is promptly punched in the face. We don’t know why, and we don’t find out why until much later in the film. Nevertheless, this event seems to be the beginning of a long week of unhappy events in the life of a struggling artist.

Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival.

Llewyn has no money, no gigs, and no real hope of future gigs. He’s trying to make it as a solo artist after beginning his career as half of a duo, and so far it isn’t working. He sleeps on the couches of friends and bums cigarettes and sandwiches whenever he can. He’s a likeable guy, though down on his luck, and he has a gorgeous, haunting voice. The best part of this film is simply listening to the music. As Llewyn says after finishing a song, “If it isn’t new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” The soundtrack might be based in the ’60s, but the music feels as contemporary as yesterday, with emotion that is deep and painful.

Llweyn makes a lot of unwise decisions that lead to the unfortunate circumstances he encounters, and that’s an important but subtle message in this film. Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival. When it’s winter in New York and you have no home, no overcoat, no food, and no cigarettes, you make decisions based on short-term needs rather than long-term consequences. For example, you might take the quick hundred bucks for playing a recording session rather than holding out for the lucrative royalties that are due to you as a represented musician, because you need the money right now. (By the way, that studio session in which Llewyn, who doesn’t read music, learns his part by ear and then performs it for the recording is simply magical.)

This aspect of the film reminds me of the interchange between Siddhartha and the merchant Kamaswami in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in a scene that occurs shortly after Siddhartha leaves the ascetic life of the monks to join the materialistic world of the city:

"Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish," [Siddhartha begins.]
"Yes indeed. And what is it now that you've got to give? What is it that you've learned, what are you able to do?" [Kamaswami responds.]
"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."
"That's everything?"
"I believe, that's everything!"
"And what's the use of that? For example, the fasting — what is it good for?"
"It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn't learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for."

But Llewyn doesn’t know how to fast, or how to wait, and so he takes the cash in hand now instead of waiting for the more valuable royalties that could be worth much more later. He is like Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage when he was famished from hunting in the forest.

In this film John Goodman portrays the most despicable character of his career, even worse than his shyster Klansman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (another Coen Brothers film with a sublime musical score and ethereal lighting and cinematography). His character isn’t violent, but he’s vile. Goodman can and will do anything, and good directors know it. He’s having quite a career as a character actor.

Like good poetry, and good art, this is a film to be savored, pondered, and re-viewed in order to understand the richness of its meaning. Several recurring images — a cat, or cats, that show up throughout the film, for example, and the way Llewyn adjusts his coat just before he sings — create a disconcerting yet satisfying sense of ambiguity that adds to the layers of meaning. You’ll want to go with a friend, just to talk about the film afterward. Inside Llewyn Davis is about an aspiring ’60s folk singer, but it’s about so much more. It’s about choice and accountability, about survival in a harsh environment, about the conflict between commercialism and individuality. It’s about the artist in us all, and the price most of us aren’t willing to pay for greatness. It’s one of my favorite films in a season of good films.

A note about recognition: snubbing Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the stupidest mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made in a long time. Philomena?? Instead of this?? I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they just didn’t want to put in the effort it takes to peel back the layers of genuine art.


Editor's Note: Review of "Inside Llewyn Davis," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2013, 109 minutes.



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Little Film, Big Heart

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I have great admiration for the people who work closely with the elderly, either as professionals, volunteers, or simply family members or friends. It takes great patience, humor, patience, affection . . . did I mention patience?

My sister has cheerfully cared for five elderly family members: both our parents, both their spouses, and her own mother-in-law. Of the five, only our mother is still alive. We joke that while I raised children, my sister raised parents. She swears she got the easier task. I know she did not. It takes tremendous fortitude and patience to listen to the same stories and respond to the same concerns day after day.

The film Nebraska takes a close look not only at elderly people but at an elderly town and an elderly way of life. It is filmed in gray in the autumn of the year, emphasizing the graying generation in the autumn of its life. The film is slow, just as its characters are slow. But it is also funny and enlightening and oh-so-true.

Woody Grant (the wonderful Bruce Dern) has received one of those Publishers Clearing House-like sweepstakes certificates telling him that he has “won” a million dollars, and he is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska before the deadline to claim his prize, even if it means walking. From Billings, Montana. He sets out several times, only to be turned back by his sons or the sheriff, who simply cannot convince him that the certificate is a marketing ploy. When one person asks if Woody has Alzheimer’s, his son David (Will Forte) replies, “No. He just believes what people tell him.” Missing the irony, the person replies with a patronizing shrug, “That’s too bad.”

Finally David agrees to drive his father to Lincoln, partly to appease him, partly to spend some time with him, but mostly just to shut him up about the sweepstakes money. What he discovers is the father he never knew.

Along the way they stop in Hawthorne, a one-light town where Woody grew up and where most of his friends and family still live. Woody hasn’t been there in 20 years, so all of his brothers get together for Sunday dinner. The scenes with his brothers are a hoot, reminding one of the patience it requires to spend extended time with the elderly. A typical conversation among Woody and his brothers goes something like this:

Woody: You still got that Impala, Verne?
Verne (Dennis McCoig): What?
Woody: You still got that Impala?
Verne: Didn’t have an Impala. Had a Buick.
Woody: You still got that Buick?
Ray (Rance Howard) joins in: It was a ’78, wasn’t it?
Verne: ’79.
Woody: They don’t make cars like that any more. Those cars’ll run forever.
Ray: You still got that car?
Verne: Nope.
Ray: What happened to it?
Verne: Stopped runnin’.

All this time the brothers and cousins are staring slack-jawed at a rerun of The Golden Girls. It’s enough to drive someone nuts. And oh, so true. This was a generation that was taught not to talk about feelings, or politics, or anything that might be considered controversial. So they talk about the weather. And cars.

David warns his father not to tell anyone about the award money; he’s trying to protect him from ridicule. But when Woody lets it slip out, everyone is convinced that he is indeed about to become a millionaire. The more David denies it, the more the townspeople believe it. And they all feel entitled to their share. “We helped him when he was down and out,” they claim. “He owes us!” The ugliness of greed and envy is forcefully demonstrated as Woody becomes both the town hero and the town villain because of his supposed windfall. But David becomes increasingly protective of his father, and his understanding and affection grow.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the film is its treatment of the simple fact of aging. We see people who were once vital, quick, and strong now shuffling and slumped but still as dynamic on the inside as they ever were. One of my dearest friends, a gracious, talented 40-year-old living inside an 80-year-old body, once told me that it shocks her every time she looks into a mirror. “Honey, I just don’t know that woman,” she said. “I still feel 40.”

That seems to be the way the people in this film feel. Their bodies are stooped and wrinkled and their waists have expanded, but they are still active and involved in their community. (Well — except for Woody’s couch-potato brothers and nephews.) Particularly touching is Angela McEwan as Peg Nagy, a woman who had a crush on Woody before he met and married David’s mother. Peg is beautiful and charming, with a smile that starts deep in her eyes and lights up her face, even when she is holding back the sadness of losing the love of her life. Life wasn’t easy for the Depression generation, and they learned to take everything in stride.

Many of the actors inNebraska are new to the job; they were cast right in Plainview, Nebraska, where much of the movie was filmed. Director Alexander Payne said of his extras, “I pay myself few compliments, but I think [casting director] John Jackson and I cast well.”

They did indeed. This is a small film with an enormous heart and an outstanding cast. It will make you want to call your father and hug your mother. And even listen to them as they tell you yet again about that ’79 Impala that was really a Buick.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nebraska," directed by Alexander Payne. Paramount, 2013, 110 minutes.



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Based on a Part of What Actually Happened

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The film opens on a man dressed in a ’70s leisure suit primping in front of a mirror. He wears a heavy gold chain around his neck, and more than a hint of chest hair shows above his open collar. He pulls back what is left of his thinning hair and sprays adhesive on his bald pate. He carefully pats into place a wad of dark wool that looks more like a Brillo pad than hair. Then he sweeps his long thin hair forward from his crown, shapes it over the wool, and sprays it into place. Voilà! He looks like a million bucks. A million bucks with a combover.

Will Ferrell in Anchorman 2, you might guess. And it would make sense. This is the kind of character that he revels in portraying. But no. The actor is Christian Bale — Christian Bale, for heaven’s sake! — and the film is American Hustle. This is not a mindless, zany Will Ferrell-style comedy, but a pseudo-serious film about a sting operation that involves a fake Arab sheikh, underworld mobsters, and congressmen taking bribes. You might even remember it as Abscam. But don’t expect to learn any history in this film. It isn’t Argo. As the opening credits proclaim with refreshing honesty: “A part of this actually happened.” Ha! “A part.” They don’t even try to claim that it is “based on a true story.”

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-potatoes con man running a small-potatoes Ponzi scheme based on accepting phony finder’s fees for phony loans from phony backers. This is the late 1970s, when inflation and interest rates were both in double digits, and loans were difficult to come by; I remember signing an interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage at 14.25% in late 1979 and being relieved to qualify for it. When Bale is stung by an FBI operation, he is forced to help the Bureau create a larger sting operation to catch some dirty politicians and a big underworld mobster.

Everyone is conning someone in this film: not just the con men, but the FBI, the politicians, the husbands, and the wives. As one example, Irving is totally smitten by the vivacious, beautiful, and unpredictable Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), but he is equally smitten by his sexy, kittenish wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who has an affair with the mobster’s chauffeur out of revenge for Irving’s infidelity. Meanwhile, Sydney falls for the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), who also falls for her, even though he is “sort of” engaged to be married. All of this is sleazy, but in the best sense of the word. The characters are deliciously amoral and completely unaware.

The film is a sexy, smart, kooky romp with some of the finest actors in Hollywood simply reveling in their over-the-top characters. The dialog is quick and witty, and the sting itself has satisfying twists with unexpected outcomes. Remember: only part of this actually happened. And because of that, none of it has to be true.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Hustle," directed by David O. Russell. Atlas Entertainment, 2013, 138 minutes.



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Irresistible Force, Meet Unmovable Object

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Mary Poppins (1964) was one of the happiest films to emerge from Disney Studios, combining live action with Disney’s trademark animation and music. It was Disney’s first big hit in over three years, and what a hit it was, garnering 13 Oscar nominations and five wins.

But at least two of the principal participants were less than happy to be associated with the project when it was filmed 50 years ago. Julie Andrews was reeling from the disappointment of seeing Audrey Hepburn cast in the role of Eliza Dolittle in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady — a role Andrews had originated on Broadway and again in London’s West End. Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady were in production at the same time, and Andrews wanted to be on the other set. She had wowed audiences on both sides of the pond with her glorious voice, but her horsey jaw and plain features were not considered pretty enough for the screen, although the official word was that Jack Warner was not willing to risk millions of dollars on an unknown stage actress. The role of Eliza would be immortalized onscreen not by Andrews but by the elfin Hepburn, with veteran dubber Marni Nixon providing Eliza’s singing voice. Frankly, I think it was the right decision; Hepburn was simply perfect in the role.

Andrews went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress that year as Mary Poppins, while Hepburn was not even nominated for her outstanding performance as Eliza. But it was a bitter experience for Andrews, made even more bitter by the rumors that she won on sympathy votes rather than merit. None of this disappointment is seen onscreen, of course; Andrews was as professional and stoic as Mary Poppins in keeping a stiff upper lip. The resulting film was a blockbuster success, full of charm, whimsy, and technical magic.

P.L. Travers, who wrote the series of books about the magical governess who flies in on an umbrella, was also reluctant to participate in the project. She was not a fan of charm and whimsy, and did not want to see her Mary Poppins trivialized through animation, dance, or music. Walt Disney wooed her for nearly a quarter of a century before she finally relented and agreed to let him create a film version — but she maintained script approval rights. Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of that wooing, and it is one of the best films of the year.

The film’s success is due largely to the enormous chemistry between its two stars, Emma Thompson as the firm and determined P. L. Travers, and Tom Hanks as the equally firm and determined Walt Disney. Travers is feisty, abrasive, and arrogant; Disney is charming, warm, and personable. Both are unrelenting in their points of view. The result is romantic comedy without the romance, set in giddy, colorful, nostalgic ’60s costumes and memorabilia.

Equally important to the film’s success is the background revealed through a parallel story told in flashbacks between a young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) and her beloved but weak-willed father (Colin Farrell), a mid-level banker stationed in the outback of Australia circa 1900. This is the real story behind Mary Poppins, and the reason that the family in the Travers books is called “Banks.” The scenes in Australia are powerful and poignant, while the scenes in Disney’s office are funny and enlightening. Together these intertwining narratives reveal the cathartic nature of storytelling and filmmaking. Only when Disney finally understands that the father is not the villain in the story but the hero, does Travers finally trust him to film the book.

Saving Mr. Banks is charming, funny, poignant, nostalgic, sad, and triumphant. It will “send you soaring up to the highest heights” and bring you to tears. One of my friends said after seeing the film, “I could have gone right back inside and watched it again.” Isn’t that the essence of Disney — to ride the Matterhorn, heart in your throat, and then jump off and say, “Let’s go do it again”? This is that kind of film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Saving Mr. Banks," directed by John Lee Hancock. Walt Disney Pictures, 2013, 125 supercalifragilistic minutes.



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