Tourist Class

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Johnny Depp, my favorite actor to rave about, and Angelina Jolie, my favorite actress to rage against, together in the same film — how could I resist The Tourist? Despite its poor critical reviews, I had to see the film for myself.

The Tourist is an old-school spy thriller in the style of Alfred Hitchcock. Two strangers meet on a train. One is the cool and beautiful spy, Elise Clinton-Ward (Jolie). The other is Frank Tupelo (Depp), a hapless math teacher vacationing in Venice. Treasury agents are on the train, hoping she will lead them to her boyfriend, the mysterious Alexander. Elise needs to find a patsy to throw them off the trail. Frank fits the bill, and the game of cat-and-mouse begins. Add an international crime boss (Steven Berkoff) intent on regaining the money Alexander has stolen from him — a crime boss who also believes that Frank is Alexander — and the big dogs enter the chase.

Film buffs will recognize obvious allusions to Hitchcock's North by Northwest, including the famous cut to the overhead shot of the train barreling through the tunnel as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint discretely make love. The film is sprinkled with allusions to several other iconic films as well, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. These allusions are subtle and fun, good for a knowing chuckle without becoming campy or distracting.

The Tourist is also blessed with a witty script, written by director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck and Christopher McQuarrie. It contains several rapid-fire verbal exchanges worthy of a Word Watch column by Liberty's own Stephen Cox. One, involving the words "ravenous" and "ravishing," is hilarious, mainly because of Frank's deadpan sincerity. His continued use of Spanish tourist phrases as he tries to communicate with Italian hoteliers and policemen is equally humorous (and realistic). The plot itself has enough turns and twists to satisfy an audience of thrill seekers, and it keeps us guessing until the end. The supporting cast is fine too, especially Paul Bettany as the Treasury Inspector Acheson and Timothy Dalton as Inspector Jones.

So why is The Tourist being panned by most critics? There is that unfortunate casting decision — the selection of Angelina Jolie as the femme fatale. Even director Donnersmarck was unhappy with her selection, and left the project for a while after she was cast. Jolie is simply too cold and hard to play the role convincingly. Yes, Eva Marie Saint was cool and distant in North by Northwest, and it worked brilliantly. But she was a more versatile actress, and she played the role of Eve Kendall with intelligence and reserve. Her costumes — mostly smart suits topped by a sophisticated beehive hairstyle — emphasized a cool restraint that hinted at a hot passion simmering beneath the surface. The result was completely believable, and the scenes between Grant and Saint fairly sizzled with repressed desire.

Jolie, however, is the unwitting poster child for the age-old question: is it possible to be too rich or too thin? The answer, it seems, is Yes. She makes unintentional comedy as she tries, with her pencil-thin legs, to sashay down the street or through a room in a flowing silk dress while swaying her hips a la Marilyn Monroe. The trouble is, she has no hips to sway. To compensate for this problem, the costume designer added long ribbons to the back of each dress, apparently so there would be something to bounce. Nevertheless, the film contains several long scenes of heads turning as Elise skims through a restaurant, casino, or hotel lobby. One wonders, at times, whether this is a spy film or a perfume commercial.

There are some problems about Depp as well. His trademark quirkiness is intact, especially when he is running from the mobsters who think they are chasing Alexander. But his character’s ragged, cheek-length hairstyle emphasizes the fact that his face has rounded out with age, making him more reminiscent of an angsty Billy Crystal than the dashing Captain Jack Sparrow or debonair John Dillinger whom Depp has played in recent years. This may be good for his character as the timid and confused mathematics teacher, but not so good for viewers who look forward to seeing Depp's dashing good looks.

Several editing goofs also mar the film. For example, at one point Elise receives a hotel key inside a note card. When she uses the key, it has a thick red tassel attached, but when she received it, there was no tassel. Are we supposed to believe that she has spent the intervening moments shopping for a tassel and attaching it? Even more glaring is a mistake that happens when she drives a boat to take Frank to the airport. (This is in Venice, remember.) She is wearing a white sweater and dark slacks when she drops him off, but she has somehow changed into a gray knit dress when she drives away. Mistakes like this are very distracting, especially in a mystery thriller, where viewers are always on the lookout for clues.

The Tourist is an okay film, but it's a disappointment because it had the potential to be a great film. It will be worth watching on a long flight or when it comes to Showtime on TV, but it's unfortunately not worth the price of popcorn and admission.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Tourist," directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. Spyglass Entertainment, 2010, 103 minutes.



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Finding a Voice

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Robert Frost defined poetry as “a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love-sickness . . . where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found the words.”

Just as a poem can express an emotion or describe a relationship through a single snapshot, sometimes a person’s character can be summed up in a single experience. For King George VI (“Bertie,” as he was called by his family) that experience occurred in his determined effort to overcome a pronounced lifelong stammer. The King’s Speech is a wonderfully witty, brilliantly acted, and emotionally satisfying film that tells of the singular moment when an unorthodox speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush) helped the king (Colin Firth) to find his voice, at a time when England — and the free world — desperately needed it.

One of the unexpected pleasures of this film is the opportunity to see the royal family in their living rooms, so to speak, when they were young and not expecting to become king or queen. A rumble of recognition is heard in the theater, for example, as viewers realize with a start that Helena Bonham Carter’s character is the young Queen Mum, already demonstrating her twinkling smile and munching on the marshmallows that would eventually lead to her familiar round torso. “That’s Queen Elizabeth!” at least one viewer gasped as the young princess, Elizabeth (Freya Wilson) is seen romping in pink pajamas with her little sister Margaret (Ramona Marquez) as they listen eagerly to a bedtime story told by their father, the man who did not expect to be king.

It is also unexpectedly intimate to see the debonair playboy Prince of Wales cum King Edward VIII cum Duke of Windsor (Guy Pearce), bursting into tears and sobbing on the shoulder of his mother, Queen Mary (Claire Bloom), at the death of his father George V (Michael Gambon) — sobbing not because his father has died but because of what it will mean to his relationship with the twice (and still) married Wallis Simpson (Eve Best). He would remain king for less than a year, not even enough time for his official coronation, induced to abdicate because of the relationship with Mrs. Simpson and because of his general incompetence.

George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions.

As the film opens, Bertie, the timid younger son of a domineering father, attempts to stammer his way through a radio speech under the disapproving eye of King George V, whose Christmas radio speeches were as important to his people’s sense of good will as Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats became in America. The film suggests that George V’s raging disapproval and faultfinding may have contributed to Bertie’s stammer.

Sitting behind him and stoically willing him to succeed, his wife Elizabeth (Bonham Carter) exudes tender disappointment when he fails. She is not embarrassed by him; she hurts for him. Several royal doctors try to cure Bertie of his awkward and unregal stammer, but to no avail. In one particularly ironic scene, a doctor urges him to smoke cigarettes frequently because it will “relax” his vocal cords. (Sadly, George VI would die of lung cancer and arteriosclerosis at the age of 56.) Eventually Elizabeth finds an unconventional therapist, Lionel Logue (Rush), who changes Bertie’s life by restoring his voice, and by becoming his lifelong friend.

The film is a delightful mixture of royal protocol and unexpected earthiness. Logue refuses to treat the Duke of York any differently from the way in which he treats his other clients, even insisting that they use first names. Their banter is droll and often hilarious. When Myrtle Logue (Jennifer Ehle), who is unaware of her husband’s famous client, comes home a bit early to find the king and queen of England standing in her parlor, she asks querulously, “Will their Majesties be staying for dinner?” Elizabeth, knowing it would be inappropriate for them to stay, responds charmingly, “We would love to. Such a treat! But alas . . . a previous engagement. What a pity.” No wonder everyone loved the Queen Mum!

The King’s Speech is a tour de force for Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush, two masters of the king’s English, who spar and vie for dominance in each scene. But despite the humor there is an underlying seriousness to Bertie’s effort to overcome his impediment, especially when his struggles are set against the backdrop of his older brother’s abdication and the run-up to World War II. One of the most brilliant scenes in the film is King George VI’s 1939 Christmas speech to the British people, on the eve of the war with Germany. The speech is familiar to anyone who has studied that period of history. It has always seemed emotionally charged and solemn because of its halting delivery. Learning that this delivery was the result of a speech impediment does not lessen its gravity. Instead, it increases it, as it demonstrates the king’s strength and courage at a time when the British people would be called upon to demonstrate strength and courage of their own. Logue literally conducts the king in his delivery of the speech in the way a maestro would conduct an orchestra, virtually transforming it into a lyric, set to the solemn strains of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, which fills the theater throughout the scene.

George VI was a great example of courage, confidence, and commitment during World War II, not only in his speeches but also in his actions. When Buckingham Palace was bombed and his advisors urged him to move his family to the safety of Canada for the duration of the war, the king refused, joining Londoners in underground air raid shelters. While his people sent their children to the safety of the English countryside, the princesses Elizabeth and Margaret stayed in town.

Meanwhile, the abdicated Edward VIII and his beloved Wallis Warfield Simpson led an unhappy life. Suspected of German sympathies, they met with Hitler before the war, and he was finally sent by Churchill to govern the Bahamas, mainly to keep him out of the way. Hitler himself was quoted as saying, "I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us." One has to wonder where England might have stood during World War II — and what Europe would be like today — if Wallis Simpson hadn’t stolen Edward’s heart and caused him to give up the throne.


Editor's Note: Review of "The King’s Speech," directed by Tom Hooper. See-Saw Films/The Weinstein Co., 2010, 118 minutes.



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Dickie Eklund's Punch-Out!!

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Do we really need another rags-to-riches movie about boxing? Probably not. But filmmakers keep making them, and we keep watching them. Whether you like boxing or not, there is something cathartic about the hero's struggle itself. Like the best boxing movies, the latest one is more about the fighter than the fight, more about the family duking it out outside the ring than the boxing going on inside it. We can always use another film about family dynamics and the will to overcome obstacles, and The Fighter is one of those.

Dickie Eklund (Christian Bale) is the classic small-town hero, still basking in the glory of a quasi-victory 14 years earlier, in a bout where he knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard. Not knocked out, mind you, but knocked down. And some say that Sugar Ray actually tripped. Nevertheless, Dickie is called “The Pride of Lowell,” and as this film begins he is swaggering down the street in that Massachusetts town with an HBO film crew in tow, documenting his “comeback” as a trainer for his younger half-brother, Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg).

Micky’s manager is his mother Alice (Melissa Leo), a hard-driving, chain-smoking, no-nonsense matriarch in tight pants and high heels. Leo is over-the-top perfect in this role, from the moment she prances into the gym, clipboard in hand, and asks the film crew, “Did you get that? Do you need me to do it again?”

Alice is the ultimate stage mother: pushy, strong, manipulative, and naively confident in her ability to manage her sons’ careers. “You gonna let her talk to me like that?” she rages at Micky when his girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) stands up to the rude and domineering matriarch. “I have done everything for you!” she screeches. She is also a classic enabler. Like many mothers who know how to give affection but don’t know how to parent, Alice sees no wrong in Dickie, and her constant sympathy and approval contribute to his sense of entitlement and its disastrous consequences.

Boxing movies are never really about the fights; they’re about the fighter.

The story of fraternal conflict is as old as Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Esau and Jacob. In this case, two brothers vie for their parents’ love and attention, while trying to work out their own relationship. Dickie is clearly Alice’s favorite, but since he is virtually washed up as a boxer, Micky becomes the family’s new great hope — even his seven sleazy sisters are completely focused on the light they share from their brothers’ moments of fame. Dickie is the son mired in past glory, and Micky is the son trying to break away and rise above his toxic roots. But Micky is constantly pulled back by his love for his crazy family, and especially by his childlike love for his older brother.

As with many small-town heroes, adulthood has not been good to Dickie. He hangs out in bars and crack houses when he should be in the ring training and sparring with Micky. He shows up several hours late for training — while the HBO cameras keep rolling. He dives out the back window of his girlfriend’s house when he hears his mother coming, afraid of her disapproval. Nevertheless, throughout the first half of the film, Dickie is high on life, hopped up, and wide eyed. His backstreet swagger oozes confidence and joy.

Partway through the film, however, we realize that the documentary isn’t going to be about Dickie’s comeback as a fighter and trainer; it’s going to be HBO’s High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell (1995). Richard Farrell, who directed the HBO doc, plays a character much like himself in a cameo as a cameraman in this film. Of course, Dickie and his family don’t know the true topic of the documentary, and their moment of realization is devastating, performed with an understated emotion from each actor that is pitch-perfect. Farrell captured the tragedy of crack addiction in the real documentary, and Russell does it again with this film. (Note to self: never trust anyone with a movie camera, no matter what the person tells you is being filmed.)

Boxing movies are never really about the fights; they’re about the fighter, so this film as aptly titled. It’s not about one fighter, though, but about several — Dickie, the has-been boxer fighting to regain his former glory; Micky, the stronger brother fighting to break out of the other’s shadow; Charlene, the girlfriend fighting for respect; and Alice, the mother fighting for her family’s success. All of this takes place in a setting that has seen more rags than riches over the years, a place where boxing can be a pathway to money and status, but more often leads to broken hearts and broken bones.

The Fighter is a film about choice — about choosing to work hard, or not; choosing to be self-interested, or not; choosing the right friends, or not. Dickie’s choices land him in prison; Micky’s choices (when unencumbered by Dickie’s and Alice’s management) land him on a path to the welterweight championship. The scenes juxtaposing Micky’s training in the gym with Dickie’s sparring in the prison yard (and Alice’s chasing her husband with a frying pan) say a lot about choice and consequence in this film about fighting — it’s not just about beating someone up, but about fighting to survive.

This is also a film about love, and how to express it when the person you love is toxic; here, true love is expressed by knowing when someone is hurting, and reaching out to carry the load. This is a film about breaking away, but also about hanging on. How Dickie and Micky manage to do both makes The Fighter well worth watching, even though it might be called“justanother boxing film.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Fighter," directed by David O. Russell. Paramount Pictures, 2010, 115 minutes.



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Turn Out the Lights, the Party's Over

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With a budget of $65 million, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is touted as the most lavish musical ever mounted on Broadway. Much of the money has been invested in mechanical lifts and flying machines, high-tech costumes, and, unfortunately, medical bills. Already one performer has broken both wrists, another has broken both feet, another has fractured his ribs and injured his back, and the leading actress has suffered a concussion that took her out of the show for a while. And Spider-Man hasn't even officially opened yet. (It's still in previews, and the official opening date, when the show will be set in stone and critics are invited to write their reviews, keeps being pushed back.)

You know you're in trouble when the stage manager has to make an announcement before the first act assuring the audience that OSHA representatives are on hand backstage to make sure the stunts are in full compliance with safety requirements, and that the state Department of Labor has okayed the production, despite the numerous injuries. (The continued injury rate gives you a lot of confidence in OSHA and the Department of Labor, doesn't it?) Going to a performance of this new musical feels eerily like going to a hockey game or a stock car race — you hate to admit it, but you're almost hoping to see blood. Look at all the laughs Conan O'Brien has milked from the show's growing injury list.

Let’s be frank: accidents aside, the show was doomed from the beginning. All the stunts and technical tricks in the world can't make up for a bad script, and this one is a snoozer. It gained the potential for an interesting plot by introducing an unexpected new character, the mythological Arachne of Greek mythology, who was transformed into a spider for boasting that she was a better weaver than Athena, patron goddess of weaving. Two characters from different eras cursed with spidery traits and struggling to become human again could have produced a dynamic new story.

Going to a performance of this new musical feels eerily like going to a hockey game or a stock car race — you hate to admit it, but you're almost hoping to see blood.

But instead of focusing on this new character development and trusting the audience to know the story of how Peter Parker became Spiderman (which any possible audience is certain to know already), the show's producers decided to leave Arachne dangling (literally) for most of the show and concentrate on retelling the core story.

The production is framed by four punk teens who seem to be writing a script or filming a video (it isn't clear what they are doing) in front of the stage. They tell each other the story, and then their story comes to life as the actors perform it, almost action-for-action and word-for-word the way we have already seen it in comic books, on film, and in amusement parks. First we hear it, then we see it — yet we already know it. Talk about overkill! I was ready to pull out the industrial strength Raid before the first act was finished.

Even then . . . The show could have survived a weak storyline if director Julie Taymor had delivered what she is known for: a montage of splashy, whimsical, creative production numbers that wow the audience with unexpected visual delights. This is what she did in her film Across the Universe and Broadway's phenomenal The Lion King. In both those shows, the story is just a vehicle for delivering breathtaking musical productions — and it works. Who can forget the spectacular parade of lifelike animals or the dancing grasses and rivers in The Lion King? The sets, the costumes, the choreographies, and the thrilling music are simply magnificent, despite the silliness of some of the main characters.

Unfortunately, Taymor's vision for Spider-Man falls as short as the safety harness that was supposed to catch Spidey's stand-in during his unintentionally death-defying drop into the orchestra pit. Yes, Arachne's spider costume is pretty cool as she hangs and twists in the air while her legs and abdomen grow. But we saw something quite similar at the end of Act One in Wicked. The dance of the golden spiders as they swing from 40-foot golden curtains is lovely as well, but we've seen that in every Cirque du Soleil show of the past 20 years. The fights between Spidey and Green Goblin as they fly above the audience and land in the balconies are probably the most unexpected and technically difficult, but only about half the audience can actually see them, since the fights take place high at the back of the theater.

In short, even if the production crew of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark can get its acts together and fix the technical problems, the show will still have artistic problems that may be insurmountable. It isn't as showy as Cirque de Soleil, or as campy as Spamalot, or as interesting as Wicked. It simply isn't very good, and it certainly isn't worth risking people's lives for. My advice: turn out the lights; the party's over.


Editor's Note: "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" is currently in previews at the Foxwoods Theatre on 42nd Street.



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New Grit

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The story of True Grit is as simple as a classic western and iconic as a Greek drama — a tale of revenge and redemption, told with wit, grit, and a dash of cathartic poignancy.

Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) has killed Frank Ross in cold blood. Frank's 14-year-old daughter, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld), is determined to see Chaney hanged for murder. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is a murderer of a different sort: as a U.S. Marshall, he has a license to go after outlaws and bring them back, dead or alive. More often than not, he brings them back dead.

Mattie is looking for a marshal with "grit" to help her find her father's killer. The trigger-happy Cogburn is her choice. But the title of the film could just as easily describe Mattie herself. Smart enough to outnegotiate a horse trader, well-versed in the law, plucky enough to tame and ride a new mustang, and tenaciously persistent, she is a girl with true grit. Cogburn is at first irritated by this young whippersnapper, but as he sees her determination, irritation gives way to grudging admiration. Eventually he grows to love her with the protective ferocity of a mother bear.

As they travel together, Cogburn slowly reveals his past to her. He has two failed marriages behind him, as well as a son who, he admits, "never liked me very much." With her unflinching courage and impressive education, Mattie becomes both the son and the daughter Cogburn did not raise. Gradually she comes to represent his opportunity for redemption as a father.

Comparisons to the 1969 version of True Grit, starring John Wayne, are inevitable. After all, the Duke won his one and only Oscar for this role. Many critics have complained that Jeff Bridges' Rooster Cogburn is a grizzled old coot, barely visible behind his whiskers and eye patch. Nevertheless, Bridges sells it, supplying what I consider the original film’s missing ingredient: the growing emotional connection between the precocious yet vulnerable young girl and the old man who has buried his personal life in a whiskey bottle. The chemistry simply didn't exist between Kim Darby and John Wayne, who openly complained about his costar's lack of experience and depth.

Darby's Mattie was bent on reforming the irascible, hard-drinking, cynical Cogburn, but Steinberg's Mattie simply accepts him for who he is and takes care of him when he needs it. When she removes Rooster's tobacco and rolling paper from his fumbling hands and deftly produces a tight cigarette, she does it without condemnation or flourish; it's apparent that she has rolled cigarettes for her father many times before. The gesture symbolizes a subtle transfer of Mattie's affection and signals the beginning of Cogburn's redemption. By contrast, in Kim Darby's hands the cigarette is an unspoken accusation of his immorality.

The Coen Brothers are probably the most versatile moviemaking team in the business. They defy any attempt to place them in a genre box, unless that box is just labeled "Good." It has been said that paper is cheaper than film, and the Coens have taken that axiom to heart, beginning with a great script that leads inevitably to a great story and a great film. From the quirky Raising Arizona to the starmaking Fargo to the sleazy The Big Lebowski to the sublime O Brother, Where Art Thou? and No Country for Old Men, they’ve known how to make movies the old fashioned way: with great stories, great acting, and great cinematography. True Grit may not be their quirkiest or most original, but it is a true winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "True Grit," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Skydance, 2010, 110 minutes.



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Which Is the Real One?

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This seems to be the season of Black Swans. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable spent 17 weeks on the bestseller list and is still being discussed as an explanation for what is happening with the economy. Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake returned to New York this fall with its menacing all-male corps de ballet bringing a sizzlingly dark interpretation to this most-beloved of ballets. And now we have the much-anticipated release of the movie Black Swan. The film stars Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis as ballerinas competing for the coveted role of the Swan Queen in a company headquartered at Manhattan's Lincoln Center.

Swan Lake is Tchaikovsky's iconic folktale about Odette, an innocent young girl whom a wizard transforms into a swan. As in many fairy tales, only true love can restore the heroine to her original form. Odette falls in love with Prince Siegfried, but before he can marry her, the wizard substitutes his own daughter, Odile. Odile attends a ball given by Siegfried and tricks him into believing she is Odette, seducing him with her more passionate charm. Traditionally the parts of both women are played by the same ballerina, suggesting to some modern interpreters that the White Swan and the Black Swan are actually warring parts of a single psyche, the Angel and the Whore.

This psychological dilemma figures prominently in the new film. In its version of the story, Nina (Portman) is a member of the corps de ballet who hopes to earn a principal role in the company's upcoming performance of Swan Lake. Lily (Kunis) is a new member of the corps who also hopes to earn the role. Nina is timid and innocent, like the White Swan, while Lily is confident and daring, like the Black Swan. Nina doesn't know what to make of Lily: is she friend or foe?

Black Swan is a traditional backstage movie with a sinister twist. Instead of learning to inhabit the role of the black swan, Nina is horrified to find the swan entering her own exterior world. She must deal with her jealous, overprotective mother (Barbara Hershey) who has given up her own career in the ballet so she can have Nina. The mother is reminiscent of the queen in Snow White, who becomes so jealous of her stepdaughter's beauty that she wants her to be killed. Nina also has to contend with an evil stepsister of sorts, as Lily manages to become Nina's alternate and seems determined to sabotage her chance to star as the Swan Queen.

Actors often talk about the goal of becoming so immersed in a role that they turn "seeming into being," as Emerson wrote in his journals. Nina is technically capable of dancing the choreographies, but she lacks the passion to become the seductive Black Swan convincingly. Her sleazy director (Vincent Cassel) tries to help her by seducing her himself. Lily tries to help her by making her angry. What seems lacking in this film, however, is a Prince Siegfried character, someone for whom Nina could feel honest love and genuine passion.

Instead, the audience must endure several explicit scenes of masturbation and oral sex that is rendered more as an unemotional attack than as lovemaking. Apparently, the purpose of these scenes is to show how Nina gets in touch with her inner passion, but the scenes are gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic. They mar what is otherwise an exciting and fascinating film.

Both Swan Lake and Black Swan are stories of transformation, but the film is deliberately ambiguous about what happens. Is the transformation in this film metaphoric, metaphysical, or merely hallucinogenic? We never really know, and it doesn't really matter. Ultimately the film is about the ecstasy of a perfect performance, demonstrated on several levels both on and off the stage.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Swan," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Cross Creek Pictures/Fox Searchlight, 2010, 108 minutes.



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Clever, Not Cutesy

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Last week, producers at CBS's perennial bottom feeder, The Early Show, decided to shake things up with a clean sweep. Out went veteran anchor Harry Smith, co-anchor Maggie Rodriguez, and weatherman Dave Price. In came an astounding new idea to boost the ratings: The team of benchwarmers who used to host the Saturday version of The Early Show are now moving up to the majors. Say what?

As the New York Times pointed out in its article about this little revolution, CBS News might as well give it up. Humans are creatures of habit, and never more so than in the morning. Hit the snooze, stretch, scratch, shower, brew, and flip on the TV to hear the banter of familiar voices while getting ready for work. GMA, Today, and Fox & Friends already have a lock on the morning shows, and nothing short of something completely different from the competition — infomercials, game shows, or reruns of Mary Tyler Moore — will bring them back to CBS. Say . . .Mary Tyler Moore. Now there's an interesting idea!

Fittingly, a film about the inner workings of a morning news show hosted by geriatric veterans Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) and Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), opened the same week in which the anchors of The Early Show were given the boot. Morning Glory presents the story of Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams), the young executive producer of a morning show for the thinly disguised "IBS" network, calledDaybreak. Daybreak's ratings are so low that it is about to be cancelled. Becky has six weeks to turn the ratings around.

Despite being young, perky, prone to babble, and endearingly klutzy, Becky is totally focused on her job and has an inborn knack for successfully producing a morning news show, with its mix of entertainment and hard news. She directs the weatherman to engage in daredevil stunts and encourages the anchorwoman to let loose as well. Her only holdout is Pomeroy, a curmudgeonly Dan Rather-type who has been demoted to the morning hours against his will. He refuses to banter.

Becky's biggest problem is not the show, however. It's the lack of balance in her life. Like many newspeople, or any young professionals for that matter, she can't let go of her BlackBerry or her TV remote. Her nose is always in the air, sniffing for a story. Even when she gains the romantic interest of Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson), a hunky producer from another show on the network, the relationship is more physical than social or emotional. In a gender role reversal that seems to be growing in popularity (watch for my reviews of Love and Other Drugs and No Strings Attached later this month), it is the modern woman who wants a "Slam, bam, thank you, man" relationship. It makes me sad just to watch.

Morning Glory is cleverly written without being cutesy, and reflective without being preachy. It offers several honest moments to ponder the importance of balancing work, play, and friendship, and redefines family in an uplifting way. A definite yes for a date night movie.


Editor's Note: Review of "Morning Glory," directed by Roger Michell. Bad Robot, 2010, 107 minutes.



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127 Hours: It’s Not What You Think

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If you've been avoiding 127 Hours because you're squeamish about the subject matter, wait no longer. Yes, it does tell the story of Aron Ralston, a 28-year-old mountaineer who had to amputate his own forearm after being trapped by a huge boulder that fell on his hand in a canyon in southern Utah. But this is not a film about a man who cuts off his arm; it is a film about a man who stops at nothing to figure out a way to release himself from a life-threatening situation.

The film opens as Aron (James Franco) prepares to go bicycling in Utah’s canyon lands. As he tosses supplies into his backpack, his hand reaches for, and just misses, the Swiss Army knife stored at the back of a cupboard. Later in the day, that loss will come back to haunt him.

Riding his mountain bike at full speed toward a canyon, he hits a bump that sends him flying over the rocks, but laughingly picks himself up and gets back on the trail. Pounding techno-music at the beginning of the film mimics the throbbing adrenaline rush he seems to crave as he barrels pell-mell through existence.

But he is not a jackass adrenaline junkie. He simply has a zest for life. He is equally thrilled by the quiet spiritual rush he receives when surveying the canyon from atop a plateau (accompanied by an appropriate switch to a gentler acoustic guitar), and by the playful serendipity of meeting a couple of girls and showing them around. Entering the slot canyon that would nearly become his tomb, he caresses the smooth stone. Clearly, he feels at home. And after plummeting down the canyon wall and discovering that his hand is pinned by a huge boulder, he issues a gigantic expletive — then sets to work.

Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for "someone" (read: the government) to fix them. But the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out.

Resourceful and self reliant to the core, he doesn't just wait for someone to save him. His two greatest assets are hisindomitable will and his problem solving instincts. Quickly he opens his backpack and sets its contents on a rock, assessing his assets. How can they become tools for his release? Soon it becomes obvious that the film is more like Apollo 13 (1995) than like the claustrophobic Buried (2010) or Saw (2004).

One of Ralston’s most urgent needs is support — physical support. The boulder didn't set him neatly on the canyon floor; he is suspended a few agonizing feet above the ground and has to press his feet and body against the canyon wall in order to keep from dangling by his trapped hand. After several futile attempts, he manages to use his climbing ropes to create a hammock that allows him to rest. At night, he wraps his bungee cords around his arms and neck to create a kind of blanket from the cold. In the morning he leans his face and body into the rocks to gather warmth from the sun that briefly enters the narrow canyon and then passes on its way. Even his dexterous toes are used as assets, foreshadowing his "new normal."

Aron's decision to give up his arm is not an example of giving up in general. Instead, it is a powerful example of his resourcefulness as a problem solver. He has calculated how many hours he can exist without water; he has accepted the fact that no one is going to come for him; he realizes that the hand is already dead and useless to him, whether it is attached or detached. He doesn't give up his arm so much as he lets go of the thing that is holding him back from his goal of going home.

Two stars emerge in this dynamic film. The first is James Franco as Aron Ralston. Franco throws himself into this role the way Aron Ralston throws himself into the canyon: with total commitment. His alternating expressions of agony, fear, determination, joy at little victories, and even ironic humor create dramatic action in a tiny, static space. Despite the horrifying story, what one remembers most about the film is Franco's plucky, exuberant smile.

The other star of the show is writer-director Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire"). He's never on camera, of course, but he enters every scene with his creative camera angles and storytelling techniques. For example, he will focus in closely on Franco's gritted teeth or bloodshot eyes, and then pull out to remind us of the desolate yet beautiful scene that is his living tomb. Tilted camera angles, dreamlike flashbacks, overwashed processing (to indicate Aron's videotape of himself), and split-screen projection of multiple realities convincingly portray Aron's mental state as the hours melt into days. The film could have been a tedious, claustrophobic trudge to the finish line, where Aron makes the gruesome decision to amputate his arm. Instead, it is a thrilling, uplifting, agonizing, and even joyous retelling of a man’s heroic determination to live.

In many ways, this film is a powerful metaphor for life in the new millennium. We hurtled our way through the go-go ’90s, pumped up by a soaring stock market and roaring real estate investments, only to get pinned down by boulders that were, as Aron philosophizes, "there all along, just waiting to meet me in that canyon." Too many people waste precious time crying over their problems or waiting for "someone" (read: the government) to fix them. But as Aron Ralston's story clearly demonstrates, the key to success is to assume that no one is coming to bail you out. Instead of worrying about the Swiss Army knife you don't have, assess the tools you do have. Keep a positive spirit. Be resourceful and self-reliant. Be a problem-solver. Remember to thank the people in your life and tell them that you love them. And don't be afraid to let go of the thing that is holding you back, even if it is as precious as an arm.


Editor's Note: Review of "127 Hours," directed by Danny Boyle. Fox Searchlight, 2010, 93 minutes.



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The Other Battle for Britain

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One of the crucial decisions in American culture was to keep broadcasting mostly out of the hands of the government. That was not the decision in the United Kingdom.

Death of a Pirate is about the long struggle to modify that decision. The word “pirate” refers not to brigands but to unlicensed broadcasters; the death is about the killing, on June 21, 1966, of one of them by another. It was not a typical event but a shocking one, and it provided the Labour government in Britain with a convenient excuse to shut down the “pirate” stations. But the stations had made their point about the monopoly of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Johns, a Briton employed at the University of Chicago as a professor of history, does two big things with this book. The first is to tell the story of the BBC and the long fight against its monopoly by free-market economists, business people, music promoters, and ordinary Britons. The second is to use documents unsealed in 2001 to tell the story of the killing of Reginald Calvert by Oliver Smedley.

A British reader of my generation may appreciate this part, because he will remember the story. An American is less likely to care about all the details. The reader of Liberty will be attracted to the story of classical liberal ideas and bold entrepreneurial moves in the struggle for private commercial radio in Britain.

The BBC was created in 1927. It was a new thing, a state-owned corporation. As the national broadcaster, writes Johns, the BBC was imagined by its political creators as “autonomous from both the state and private industry.” It was to serve “the common good in a domain that it dominated, free of the inefficiencies of competition.”

The market-based relay company quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture.

Critics objected. Britain never had a British Newspaper Corporation to publish all newspapers or a British Books Corporation to publish all books. It didn’t have it, and it didn’t want it. So why have a single corporation own all broadcasting?

The answer is: because people were led to believe in it.

The BBC had a more elevated mission than any mere private broadcaster’s. Its mission was “to improve British culture through broadcasting.” It would not simply aim at the mass market but would offer “balanced programming,” a mix of such things as “string quartets, educational talks, sports commentaries and dance music.”

This was not meant as background music while the subscriber was washing dishes, weeding the garden, or fixing the plumbing. Radios were of large size then — the precursors of TV sets — and you had only one. The BCC supposed that you sat in your living room and paid attention. You were also supposed to pay cash for the privilege — a license fee equivalent today to $60 to $100 a year.

Politically, this conception of the BBC won the day. In the marketplace, it did not. Commercial stations, denied a place on British soil, set up shop in France and elsewhere and broadcast British content and British ads back to the people of Britain.

The market also offered “relay.” We would call it cable radio. This was popular in working-class districts. The customer paid a monthly fee, and the relay company provided a line and a set. It was cheaper than buying a radio set on installments, and usually the reception was better. The relay company received broadcast signals and chose which ones to pipe to people’s homes. The company could tell when its customers were switched on, and it quickly learned to switch to the Continental stations whenever the BBC offered high culture. By the mid-1930s, relay had more than 200,000 subscribers.

The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

In 1935 a parliamentary committee recommended that the relay companies be nationalized. It wasn’t done; the Conservatives were in power. After World War II, however, Labour took over and vowed to create a socialist Britain. The BBC looked to be in an invincible position.

It wasn’t.

A thing had happened at the London School of Economics. The school had been set up by socialists and dominated by critics of laissez-faire. But it had hired a few critics, and in 1930s three of them became a kind of “anti-Keynesian party.” They were Lionel Robbins, Friedrich Hayek, and Arnold Plant.

Johns devotes some attention to Hayek, his battle in the 1930s with Keynes, and his famous book, The Road to Serfdom (1944). Of the three professors, however, the key person for the radio story was Plant. His specialty was the economics of monopoly and information. He was opposed not only to having radio in the hands of a state corporation, but also to the patent and copyright laws that created monopoly power. As Johns says, “Plant quietly became Britain’s most important critic of such monopolies before the rise of the open-source software movement.”

In 1938 Plant set out to find out about Britain’s radio listeners. Researchers knocked on thousands of doors and asked people what they had switched on. He found that many were listening to Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and the other Continental stations. The BBC had a legal monopoly on British soil, but it did not have anything close to a real monopoly in the air.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. Smedley was acquitted of murder, but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

Plant’s other contribution was the training of Ronald Coase, who half a century later would win a Nobel Prize in economics. Plant set Coase to work on issues of broadcasting. The eventual result was a book, British Broadcasting: A Study in Monopoly (1950), which Johns characterizes as “the ‘Road to Serfdom’ of the modern media.”

Coase argued that there was no economic reason, and no technical reason, for the BBC to be a monopoly. Those were smokescreens. The BBC had been granted monopoly status for a cultural reason: to support the claim by political elites “to determine on behalf of the listener which broadcast material he should hear.” To Plant and Coase, the issue was control of information. Freeing that from the state, Johns says, “reflected imperatives buried deep in the heart of neoclassical economics.”

Coase’s book influenced the debate. In 1951 the Conservatives returned to power and began using his arguments to push for commercial television. By 1954, they had it, at least in a small, one-channel way. But Britain still did not allow commercial radio. In the 1960s, entrepreneurs responded with “pirate radio” — commercial radio stations operating not from foreign jurisdictions but from stateless space: the seas. They used ships and abandoned World War II antiaircraft platforms outside the British state’s three-mile limit.

It took unusual people to do this. The ideologue of the group was Oliver Smedley. He was a classical liberal who in 1955 had been one of the founders of the Institute for Economic Affairs, the UK’s preeminent free-market think tank. He thought of pirate radio as a political attack on the British state — which it was. Another was Kitty Black, a theatrical agent who, Johns writes, was “contemptuous of government intervention in the arts.” Another was Reginald Calvert, a promoter of pop musical acts. There were others.

Death of a Pirate goes into much detail about who did what. Several of the ventures were half-baked, but at their peak the “pirate” stations had a large audience. Some offered 12 hours a day of pop music at a time when the BBC was limited by law to just 28 hours of music a week — a law designed to protect the musicians’ union.

The British government didn’t act, Johns says, partly because the stations were popular and partly because “nobody wanted to take charge.” Labour, which won the election of 1964, was not sympathetic to commercial broadcasting. Labour’s idea was to use state radio to create a “university of the air” to uplift British workers. Prime Minister Harold Wilson even appointed a bureaucrat — Jennie Lee, the wife of Aneurin Bevan, creator of the National Health Service — to accomplish this. Meanwhile, the British public was listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, often on transistor sets and car radios tuned to unlicensed stations.

Then came the killing. Calvert’s company had appropriated an abandoned antiaircraft fort — “sinister-looking boxes perched on steel legs” — eight miles offshore. Calvert had a used radio transmitter of Smedley’s that he had not paid for. Smedley wanted it back. He couldn’t get help from the police — the tower was outside the British state — so he hired a crew to take it. They stormed the platform and knocked Calvert’s radio station off the air. This led to Calvert bursting into Smedley’s house and Smedley's killing him with a shotgun.

Suddenly the so-called pirates were acting like real pirates. This had a political effect similar to the one in America when Timothy McVeigh killed government workers in Oklahoma City: it generated a revulsion against people with an anti-state point of view. Smedley was acquitted of murder (self-defence), but the British state took the opportunity and shut the “pirates” down.

The broadcasters had, however, made their point. Labour responded by creating the BBC’s first pop station. In the next Conservative government, under Edward Heath, the British state licensed commercial radio.

It’s a fascinating case in how to break the hold of a state monopoly.


Editor's Note: Review of "Death of a Pirate: British Radio and the Making of the Information Age," by Adrian Johns. Norton, 2010, 305 pages.



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Sorry, I'll Take the Plane

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If a freight train leaves Brewster at 9:25 traveling east at 70 miles an hour, and another train leaves Stanton at 9:45 traveling west at 50 miles an hour on the same track, how long will it take before a 98-minute movie becomes suspenseful?

Unfortunately for the viewers, about an hour.

Unstoppable, a movie about a driverless runaway train barreling toward another train full of schoolchildren, ought to be fraught with tension. Add to the out-of-control train several freight cars full of toxic, combustible chemicals that could contaminate whole towns along the way, and the adrenaline should start gushing.

Oddly, however, the tension never mounts. This film has its moments, but that's part of the problem: they are only moments. If a train traveling 70 miles an hour in one direction passes a train slipping onto a side rail going the other way, just in the nick of time, how long does the moment last? A few seconds. In this movie, trains always manage to pull onto the side rails just in time, leaving the audience with all the excitement of playing a game of Snakes on a cell phone. And since the filmmakers give us almost no backstory about the people whose lives are in danger, we feel no cathartic worry or relief until the last half hour of the film, when we finally learn a few things about Frank (Denzel Washington), the 28-year veteran driving a rescue train, and Will (Chris Pine), the rookie on his first assignment as a conductor. Ultimately this is a film about a rookie becoming a man, and that's a pretty good theme. But it takes too long to get there.

The filmmakers want us to regard their work as a metaphor for the BP disaster, blaming the crisis on corporate greed, but it doesn't quite work. The film's initial crisis is caused by driver error, not cost-cutting: when a bloated, bumbling engineer (Ethan Suplee) jumps off a slowly moving train to switch the rails, it gathers speed and gets away from him.

The crisis seems to become more corporate-driven when the VP of Operations (Kevin Dunn) rejects the local yardmaster's suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. "We aren't going to destroy an entire trainload of cars," he barks, obviously worried more about the bottom line than about avoiding human injuries.

Adding to the sense of corporate greed and insensitivity, the company's owner (Andy Umberger) is reached on the golf course, where he gives instructions and goes back to his game. Oh, these dirty, greedy capitalists! Selfish to the core! It's clearly a reference to BP President Tony Hayward's decision last summer to attend the annual sailing regatta around the Isle of Wight while millions of gallons of crude were gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.

But isn't it wise and prudent for a company to examine all its options before derailing an expensive asset and possibly releasing toxic elements into the environment, even if that environment is outside the city limits? Doesn't every company have to balance the costs of safety and employee benefits against consumer prices and profits? If costs outweigh profits, the company will simply cease to function. Moreover, one has to wonder why the seasoned VP of Operations would trust the judgment of a young, nubile, strangely glamorous yardmaster Connie (30-year-old Rosario Dawson), whose employee caused the problem in the first place.

The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems — the switching of the rails to change a train's course, the dead man's automatic braking system (unavailable in this case because the same bumbling engineer hasn't taken time to connect the air brakes), the use of external locomotives to slow a runaway train, and even frontage roads that allow access to moving trains. All of this makes the film interesting, if not fascinating.

Denzel Washington worked with director Tony Scott last year on a taut, suspenseful runaway train movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009), so they should know how to build suspense: Make us care about the characters. That 2009 film is more about the cat-and-mouse interplay between Washington's character and John Travolta's crazed antagonist than it is about the train, and it works. By contrast, this film feels almost like a made-for-TV documentary reenactment, and it doesn't work.

Watch for Unstoppable in your local television listings. It will be there soon. But it isn't worth the price of a theater ticket when so many better fil

#39;s suggestion to deliberately derail the train before it reaches more populated areas. The most interesting part of this film deals with the inner workings of train safety systems


Editor's Note: Review of "Unstoppable," directed by Tony Scott. Twentieth Century Fox, 2010, 98 minutes.



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