Liberty, and the Dignity of Life

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Nearly 30 years ago, when I visited mainland China for the first time, I was traveling with a tightly controlled group of Americans. While our young, government-trained tour guide was telling us about China, two of the men in our group were determined to teach her about the freedom available in America. "You live in government housing," they said at one point. "But in America, we own our own homes. We have private property."

"No we don't," I contradicted. Then, seeing the look of outrage on their faces, I explained. "What would happen if you didn't pay your property taxes? The government would take your land away. So we don't really own our property. We just rent it from the government for the price of our property taxes."

I thought of that incident as I watched Still Mine, a moving little indie film based on the true story of a Canadian rancher, Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) who just wants to build a small house on his own property where his invalid wife Irene (Genevieve Bujold) can live comfortably and safely in a home without stairs. An experienced carpenter who learned the skill of building from his father, a master shipbuilder, Morrison plans and erects the house with his own hands and very little help. The scene of this spry 88-year-old man gently guiding the roof supports into place by himself with pulleys and ropes is simply beautiful, almost like watching Baryshnikov dance.

Enter the municipal building department. Morrison needs to apply for a permit. And submit a blueprint. "Why should I have to pay $400 for a permit to build a house on my own land that I pay taxes on?" he asks. When told that the county will have to inspect the house to make sure it is built to code, Morrison responds, "There are houses all over this town that were built 200 years ago, and not one of them was built to code!"

Nevertheless, he complies. He pays for a permit. He has a blueprint made. And he continues to build. When the inspector cites him for using lumber that isn't "stamped" and joists that aren't authorized, Morrison hires a lumber expert to testify that his two-year-old air-dried ash surpasses the quality of the government-sanctioned "stamped lumber." But to no avail. The building department threatens to bulldoze the cozy little house. When Morrison continues to build, he is threatened with jail. "These are not rules but standards," Morrison's attorney argues. "He has exceeded the standards." But all the bureaucrats care about are the rules and the violations. Their minds are already made up — no one is going to flaunt their rules and get away with it.

While this aspect of the film fills my libertarian soul with righteous indignation, the film is not really about building houses. It is about building relationships. The love between Craig and Irene, especially as she descends into the darkness of Alzheimer's, is palpable. A quick montage of early scenes establishes the closeness of their relationship: two aged hands touch on the back of a pew at church; two aged backs bend side by side as they weed their garden; two bodies intertwine under the quilt as they nestle together in sleep. Bujold is 71 now, but she is as beautiful today, silver haired and wrinkled, as she was in Obsession (1976 — my favorite of her films). And Cromwell, one of the finest character actors in Hollywood, fills the star's shoes with ease. It's about time he had the opportunity to carry a film. He does so with deeply controlled emotion, the stoicism in his face belying the tenderness his character feels. Like so many heroes who deal with a spouse's Alzheimer's, Craig just keeps moving forward. He is determined to maintain as much normalcy as possible for his wife, yet at times he can't help becoming annoyed by her forgetfulness. This tension between tenderness and frustration expresses the heartbreak that so many couples experience as they face this debilitating condition. Craig and Irene speak often about the past, because that is where she lives.

All the bureaucrats care about are the rules and the violations. Their minds are already made up — no one is going to flaunt their rules and get away with it.

In one scene, Craig talks about a dining room table he built many years before. "I put twelve coats of finish on that table," he recalls. Then he recalls the injuries to that table — the spilled ink, the dropped forks, the pencils pressed too hard as seven children did their homework over the years. As he speaks we see his hands gently caressing the gouges and scars on the table. He doesn't say it, but we know that he yelled at the kids when those scratches were made. Now he caresses the scars in the way he would caress the tops of the children's heads if they were still at home. "I should have used oak," he muses. "Pine holds a lot of memories." Craig wants to be as strong and stoic as an oak, but he's a softie inside and out. He has earned his scars — they are the scars that come from loving deeply. He reminds me a lot of my father.

Still Mine is a slow film, but it is a fine film, with beautiful scenery, excellent characterizations, a thoughtful story, and a wonderful cast. Never mind the big, splashy, forgettable blockbusters this summer. Find a good little theater specializing in small independent films, or watch for this one on Netflix. Your mind and your heart will be enriched.


Editor's Note: Review of "Still Mine," directed by Michael McGowan. Mulmer Feed Co. Production. [Yes, that's right. Mulmer Feed Co. Production. Are you surprised it isn't plural?] 2012, 102 minutes.



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Privacy? What Privacy?

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The Bling Ring tells the mostly true story of a group of Hollywood Hills teenagers who were convicted of burgling over $3 million in cash and personal items from celebrity homes over the course of a year.

It is as much a tale of stalking as it is of burglary. The thieves would track the whereabouts of glamorous celebs like Paris Hilton, Megan Fox, Lindsay Lohan, Rachel Bilson, and Audrina Patridge by perusing such websites as TMZ.com and the celebs’ own Facebook posts and Twitter feeds. Then they would locate the homes through Internet sites like Google Maps and celebrityaddressaerial.com. They were careful at first to take only a few things at a time, things that would probably not be missed from the overstuffed closets and drawers of the rich and famous. Mainly they wanted to wander around the mansions and pretend to live there. The fact that they were able to do this so effortlessly — letting themselves in through doors that had, incredibly, been left unlocked — made this a fascinating story when it broke in 2010.

The film is timely and important as a cautionary tale. Americans today routinely “check in” when they’re at the restaurant, the theater, the sporting event, or wherever else they happen to be. They post happy, smiling pictures from vacations while they are still away from home. Ostensibly they do this to say, “Hey, come join me,” or “Look at how much fun I’m having.” But they tell every person who has access to Facebook (and that’s everyone, period), “I’m not home. Now would be a good time to rob me.”

I avoided using the collective “we” because I never “check in” on Facebook, no matter how glamorous or exciting the place may be. I don’t even put my real address into my car’s GPS map; I use the nearby shopping center as the address to help me find my way home. But how many people drop their cars off at a parking garage and never think twice about leaving house keys, garage door openers, and home addresses along with the important detail, “I’ll be back in four hours”? Sheesh! We complain about the NSA and its Utah spying center, and then blithely violate our own privacy every day.

Although The Bling Ring focuses on this important topic, it is not a very good movie. The characters are thinly drawn and the actors are overdirected. They know their lines, but they wait patiently for their turn to deliver them. They don’t seem to be having genuine conversations. It’s almost like watching a middle-school play. One can almost hear Sofia Coppola in the background saying, “Okay, look like you’re excited. Now look like you’re more excited. Now look like you’re stoned.”

But perhaps Coppola simply didn’t have much to work with. Much of the dialog for the film is taken directly from interviews that were taken with the shallow, star-struck thieves and published in Nancy Jo Sales' Vanity Fair article, “The Suspects Wore Louboutins.” Marc (Israel Broussard), based on Nick Prugo, is the gay kid who just wants to fit in; Rebecca (Katie Chang), based on Rachel Lee, is the ringleader who wants to be “part of the lifestyle”; and Nicki (Emma Watson), based on Alexis Neiers, wants to be noticed by celebrities and literally walk around in their shoes. In fact, when told that the victims of their crimes knew who they were, Nicki asks excitedly, “What did Lindsay [Lohan] say?”

The real life Alexis Neiers was involved in creating a reality TV show for E! about the life of a party girl, when she got involved with the Burglary Bunch. Consequently, the reality film crew was following her around during this time, filming her at parties wearing stolen clothing. When she was arrested, according to Sales’ article, they began filming her arrest and directing the family’s reaction to it. (Let’s say it together: what an idiot!)

The irony of having a camera crew following Nicki around might have made this film more interesting and suspenseful, but Coppola chose to leave that out. Instead, Nicki’s mother, Laurie (Leslie Mann) is a self-appointed guru who raises her children on the “principle of attraction” found in that inane self-help book, The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (2006). (See my review of The Secret, “Better Living Through Fluff,” in the October 2007 Liberty.) The premise of homeschooling based on such a cockamamie book could be turned into a hilarious comedy. Laurie greets her three girls in the morning with a cheery, “Time for your Adderall!” She leads them in inane affirmations that she calls prayers and teaches them the principle of attraction from a series of poster boards demonstrating Angelina Jolie as a role model whose characteristics the girls should “attract.” Meanwhile the girls languish on the couch as virtual prisoners. One almost thinks that jail would be a relief.

During a post-arrest media interview, as Nicki and Laurie vie for attention and screen time, Nicki makes a statement she seems to think is extremely profound: “I’m a firm believer in Karma, and I think this situation was attracted into my life because it was supposed to be a huge learning lesson for me to grow and expand as a spiritual human being. I see myself being like an Angelina Jolie, but even stronger, pushing even harder for the universe and for peace and for the health of our planet. I want to lead a huge charity organization. I want to lead a country, for all I know.”

This is exactly what Alexis Neiers said on-camera in her post-arrest interview. But despite being based on real life, these scenes are simply overdone and out of place. Coppola is not skilled enough to create a meaningful juxtaposition between the family scenes and the scenes of out-of-control night-clubbing and “closet shopping.” We don’t see enough of the characters’ backgrounds, beyond what the kids choose to tell us. We see glimpses of what this film might have been in the hands of a better scriptwriter, but those glimpses emphasize the fact that the film has no real point of view, other than recreating an interesting crime spree.

If you are interested in this story, save yourself the price of admission and popcorn, and just read Nancy Jo Sales’ article.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Bling Ring," directed by Sofia Coppola. American Zoetrope, 2013, 90 minutes.



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Not Your Typical Zombie Movie

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As zombie movies go, World War Z is one of the best. “Big deal,” you might respond. “I don’t like zombie movies anyway.” Well, neither do I. But World War Z is the first blockbuster of the season that is truly worth seeing, and that’s because it isn’t really a zombie movie. It’s an exciting, suspenseful action film; a tense, intelligent sci-fi thriller; and a tender, emotional family story that just happens to be swarming with gnashing, growling, undead zombies.

In this film a rabies-like virus or toxin has suddenly developed and is being spread through saliva-to-bloodstream contact. If you are bitten by an infected person, you are immediately transformed into a rabid, howling, teeth-gnashing, pack-swarming zombie. And there is no three-week incubation with this virus; people are transformed in twelve seconds. One moment our hero is being aided by another sympathetic character; the next moment he is running for his life from the same character. This creates ever-changing rushes of emotion for the audience.

The film begins with our hero, Gerry (Brad Pitt) driving with his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and their two daughters (Sterling Jerins, Abigail Hargrove) on what seems to be an ordinary day. Gradually they notice anomalies: too many helicopters are in the air; traffic has come to a standstill; emergency vehicles are ramming their way through traffic; and people are running — running for their lives. Gerry and his family start running too. Anyone who lived in New York on 9/11 or has seen films of that day (and that includes everyone on the planet) can understand the terror of knowing something is up, but not knowing what it is.

Inner-city residents have already learned this truth: police don’t prevent crime, they just clean up after it. So you’d better have a gun to protect yourself.

What makes this film so good is that it doesn’t rely on the blood and gore of a standard zombie film to titillate the audience. In fact, we don’t see much of that at all — the gore remains discreetly at a distance, in the shadows. We don’t need to see it to know it’s there. In fact, the acting of the zombified humans is one of the most powerful parts of the film, because we can still see the humanness that was once theirs. Michael Jenn is especially good as the zombie who threatens Gerry inside a lab vault, not with vicious physical attacks but with an eerie quiet, his teeth barely chattering as he sniffs the air and listens for evidence of Gerry’s location.

The film subtly encourages us to focus, not on gore, but on the family relationships of the characters and to think about what we would do in a disaster, how we would react, and how those around us would react.

First, of course, is the looting. Everyone needs supplies, so how do you decide who gets food, who gets medicine, who gets to be evacuated to an aircraft carrier in the middle of the ocean and who has to go to a landlocked refugee camp? Money is meaningless, but Gerry has a rifle. That gets him the inhalers his asthmatic daughter needs. It also allows him to protect his wife from would-be attackers (the pre-zombie kind). Cops run into the fray, but they have no intention of keeping the peace — they too are just looking for supplies. Inner-city residents have already learned this truth: police don’t prevent crime, they just clean up after it. So you’d better have a gun to protect yourself.

The film also asks us to think about the nature of epidemics. Most viruses send people to bed, not out into the streets like these zombies. But people infected by the flu or the plague or smallpox can be just as deadly, infecting their care-givers, their friends, their family. One man whom Gerry meets tells him, “My wife and my son were running away. A zombie caught her and then she . . .” In twelve seconds she was a carrier, and the nearest person to her was the son she was trying to protect. I know one sweet, well-meaning family who decided not to have their children vaccinated for fear of autism. Somehow their older children got whooping cough and brought it home to their six-week-old brother, who died in less than a week. Viruses do not have to turn people into marauding zombies to make them deadly. And metaphorically, of course, the virus of a bad philosophy can infect whole communities and generations of people.

The film’s treatment of the kind of issues I’ve mentioned gives it a subtlety and an intellectuality that fast-paced thrillers seldom have. But it is a fast-paced thriller, one that is entertaining as well as insightful.

As a former investigator for the UN, Gerry has access to a helicopter that can whisk his family to the safety of the aircraft carrier. There a UN group is figuring out how to stop the virus. A crew must be sent to “ground zero,” the place where the virus was first seen, and they need Gerry to protect the virologist. But like John Russell (Paul Newman) in Hombre (1967), he feels no altruistic responsibility to risk his life to save the community, even though he possesses the best skills for success. “I can’t help you,” he tells the UN commander, Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena). “I can’t leave my family.” “Then you can’t have a bunk on this ship,” Thierry replies.

Again, we are forced to consider the question of how to distribute scarce goods when money has become meaningless. Gerry reluctantly agrees to lead the team, not to save the world, but to protect his own family. Productivity and protection become the media of exchange when paper money no longer matters. One can’t help applying this thought to the reversal of priorities in our current economic situation, in which non-producing citizens are given food, shelter, and medical care at the expense of the productive element of society.

The film’s metaphorical power becomes abundantly clear in a vivid scene in which the zombies form a Masada-like ramp by climbing on top of each either to scale the wall that has been built around Jerusalem to keep the zombies at bay. Ants will do this too, swarming en masse and even crushing those beneath them in order to gain access to food.

This representation of the baser side of animal nature, in contrast to the nobility and intelligence of humans, is rather refreshing for a Hollywood movie. The credits begin with images of birds flocking, ants swarming, and wolves baring their teeth, reminding us that the animal kingdom isn’t as benign as we lately have been led to believe. Humans are good after all! In this story, we can root for our heroes as they struggle to thwart nature’s latest mutation, instead of flagellating ourselves with guilt for being the destroyers of all things good. The virologist who volunteers to find a cure for the diseasedeclares, “Mother Nature is a serial killer. And like a serial killer, she wants to get caught.”

Luckily for us, we humans have the right kind of brains for catching her.


Editor's Note: Review of "World War Z," directed by Marc Forster. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 116 minutes.



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The Never-Ending Trek

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Wookiee vs. Trekkie: The friendly competition between Star Wars and Star Trek aficionados has raged for decades. Star Trek was more scientific and cool, emphasizing the technology of "Beam me up" rather than the intuition of "Feel the force." Even their goals were different: the cast of Star Trek was on a mission merely to observe the universe, while the cast of Star Wars was out to save it. But Star Trek's "Prime Directive" demonstrates democracy at its worst: "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." No wonder I've never been a Trekkie.

The latest episode of Star Trek — Star Trek: Into Darkness — is a bit of a muddle between these two fan-chises: some characters early in the film look and talk like Ewoks, a la Return of the Jedi; they meet in a jazzy bar populated by strange rubber-bodied creatures a la Star Wars: and the film begins with our heroes fleeing alien creatures on an alien world without our knowing why, a la The Empire Strikes Back. James Kirk (Chris Pine) even looks a lot like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the second two Star Wars films, after Hamill's aquiline nose became pugged from a car accident he had between films.

The technique of beginning a film at the climax of a storyline that the audience hasn’t seen is recognized as Cubby Broccoli's trademark opening for the James Bond films, and it’s used in this movie too. It succeeds in giving the audience an early adrenaline rush. Just five minutes into the film we see Spock falling into a churning volcano. (Hmmm. Spock is a Vulcan. Vulcan is the god of volcanoes and the forge . . . shouldn't he have felt right at home there?) After his dramatic rescue (no spoiler alert here, since this happens ten minutes into the film), that storyline ends, and we settle into the central conflict for this film.

In this episode a former Starfleet commander (Benedict Cumberbatch) has turned rogue (a la Darth Vader . . . there they go again!), and the crew of the Enterprise is enlisted to go after him. That's about all you need to know. There's a lot of warp speed action, dodging of asteroids, climbing around on cool CGI-generated equipment, and fist-to-fist fighting — love how these Star Trek films come full circle and use brawn over brain or technology when people are fighting; Star Wars still goes in for those laser swords.

The Star Trek films were popular in the ’80s and ’90s, but they started to wear thin, as the original actors started to wax larger, both in age and in heft. The only way to continue the franchise was to turn from sequel to prequel. That worked extremely well in Star Trek (2009). It was fun to ooh and ahh over the excellent casting selections and see the back stories of the characters who have become a part of our cultural fabric for more than four decades. And director J.J. Abrams successfully repackaged Star Trek from a cerebral exercise in philosophy to an action-packed sci-fi adventure.

It was also cool in the 2009 movie to see the young Mr. Spock (Zachary Quinto) fall in love with the young Lieutenant Uhura (Zoe Saldana). For nearly 50 years the biggest challenge for the Star Trek crew has not been fighting Klingons but trying to get Mr. Spock to feel and express emotion. Spock is a Vulcan, and Vulcans don't have feelings (odd that the god of fire would be chosen as the name for the passionless planet, isn't it?). But Spock is also half human, and in every film there is the possibility that his human heart might kick in and overpower his logic. All of that has happened in previous episodes, however, so that too is starting to wear thin. We get it: with enough provocation, Mr. Spock can cry. He can kiss. He can bicker with his girlfriend. Enflamed by a desire for revenge, he can even beat an enemy to a pulp with his bare hands. He's becoming positively touchy-feely.

Star Trek fans love this movie. Reviewers seem to like it too. I thought it was pretty good, for what it is. But my patience for the whole Star Trek franchise is starting to wear thin. Or maybe I'm just waxing old. I'd rather just see a movie that boldly goes where no man has gone before.


Editor's Note: Review of "Star Trek: Into Darkness," directed by J.J. Abrams. Paramount Pictures, 2013, 129 minutes.



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Deist Dystopia

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Yet another film about earth's dystopian future hit the theaters this week, with at least two slated for later this summer. We humans seem to need some scolding about our profligate ways, and Hollywood, that bastion of restraint, is just the town to let us have it.

In After Earth, humans have again evacuated from earth to a distant location in space after destroying the home planet by pollution, overpopulation, and nuclear war. It is now a thousand years later, and "everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans." (Although one has to wonder how this evolution occurred, considering that no humans remained behind to contribute to the natural selection process . . .)

On the new planet, Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) is a young cadet who wants to become a brave and respected ranger like his father Cypher Raige (Will Smith). But mostly Kitai just wants to be accepted by his father, who seems distant, cold, and demanding, more like a commander than a father.

When Cypher is called up for a mission, he decides to bring Kitai along. The ship is damaged in a magnetic storm and crash lands on — you guessed it — earth, where all those animal predators have evolved to kill humans. Strapped in during the crash, Kitai is unhurt, but Cypher's legs are both badly broken, and the other crew members are dead. The only hope of survival is to retrieve the emergency beacon from the wreckage of the tail, 100 kilometers away. Kitai must make the journey by himself, through unfamiliar land where predators have evolved . . . well, you get the picture.

For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving.

The predators are attracted to humans through the pheromones released by fear. No fear, no predators. Cypher encourages his son with the film's philosophical tag line: "Danger is real. Fear is a choice." It's a powerful concept, and if there is only one takeaway from the film, it's a good one. "Fear is not real," Cypher explains. "Fear is a product of our thoughts of the future. We are all telling ourselves a story. Fear exists only in the imagination. Stay focused in the present, and there is nothing to fear." I kind of like this version that I found on Facebook today: "Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be."

Unfortunately, "fear is a choice" is about the only takeaway. For a sci-fi film populated by savage beasts terrorizing a likeable young boy and an actor known for both his wisecracks and his ability to save planets, After Earth is surprisingly bland and extremely slow moving. Trapped by his broken legs, Cypher himself can't move. Instead of movement, we see his stoic reserve, his pain-induced wooziness, and his pensive flashbacks of family times at home.

Midway through, the film turns into a heavy-handed allegory. Before sending Kitai off into the lone and dreary wilderness, Cypher dresses him in a mechanized space suit equipped with a 360-degree camera and heat sensors. This gives Cypher a bird's eye view of Kitai's surroundings; Cypher can see everything in front of Kitai and behind him. Thus Cypher operates as an unseen, disembodied voice who guides Kitai from a position of omniscience. The boy must trust his father's voice and obey his commands in order to survive. At one point Kitai's receiver stops working. He can't hear his father's voice, but his father can still hear him. He thinks that his father is no longer watching him, but of course the father is there all along. The deist allegory is crystal clear, and rather satisfying if you like that sort of thing. I sort of do.

It makes even more sense when the credits roll and M. Night Shyamalan's name appears as director. Shyamalan is known for the spiritual themes that permeate his works, but also for the decline of his storytelling technique. He is best known for his stellar freshman work, The Sixth Sense, which is possibly the best ghost story ever made, and Bruce Willis' best and most serious acting job. Shyamalan was a shining star back then, but his star his dimmed to a nightlight now. In fact, the trailers for this film didn’t even include his name. Nor did it appear in the opening credits. The name that used to fill theaters is now considered box-office poison, I guess.

Allegory or not, the film remains heavily antihuman. Even after 1,000 years without people, the earth has not managed to stabilize. In fact, climate change has deepened. Temperatures drop well below freezing at night but soar into the tropical zone during the day. Oddly, broadleafed trees and warmblooded bison have no trouble thriving in these extreme temperatures.

The original screenplay for this film was not set in the future, or even in space. Father and son were driving a lonely road when their car crashed and the father's legs were broken. The young son had to hike through the forest on his own to find help and save his father's life. Will Smith decided that the film would be much more exciting if it were a sci-fi story set in space, with scary aliens and cool equipment. But I'm not so sure they made the right decision.

Father trapped in a car? Sending young son out into the woods alone? In this day and age? Now there's a scary story.

Danger is real. Fear is a choice. And even though movie danger isn't real at all, I think I would choose to be very fearful watching that scenario.


Editor's Note: "After Earth," directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Columbia Pictures, 2013, 89 minutes. (But it seems like two hours, at least.)



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Astonish Us!

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With its cool jazzy music, its glamorous Las Vegas setting, and its wisecracking camaraderie among slightly shady characters, Now You See Me is a high-spirited and stylish homage to (some might say “knock-off” of) the successful Ocean’s Eleven franchise.

The film begins as the Ocean’s movies do, with a quick introduction to the characters who will be gathered for a heist. Each is a highly-skilled street magician with moderately suspect morals; each uses magic tricks not only to entertain, but in some cases to shake down or rip off the audience. Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson) is a mentalist who blackmails his targets with information he gleans while they are hypnotized. Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) is a magician who picks his audience’s pockets. Danny Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg) uses his mystique as a magician to woo women. And Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher) is Danny’s former assistant who wants to headline her own act.

When each of these magicians receives a Tarot card with an address and a date written on the back, they team up under the direction of a mysterious, unidentified leader. Billing themselves as The Four Horsemen, they perform magic tricks that test the boundaries of what we know about magic (that it’s all illusion) and what we hope about magic (that it’s real). For example, they select an unsuspecting dupe from the audience, slap a helmet camera onto his head, and whisk him magically to a bank vault in Paris, where he deposits the obligatory (for magic tricks) playing card with his signature on it in exchange for all the money. Moments later, 3 million euros are seen swirling up out of the vault and raining down into the Las Vegas audience. It isn’t possible. It has to be an illusion. And yet — the bank vault in Paris is empty. And the dupe’s signature is on the card.

A skillful director is like a skillful magician, packing the film with charming assistants, smoke and mirrors, exploding devices, and entertaining patter that may or may not be significant to the story.

Showy tricks like this drive the film as the crew moves from venue to venue all over the country, with audiences massing for the money they expect to receive. We don’t know what the ultimate heist is, and neither do the magicians, because The Horsemen are guided by the unidentified stranger who has brought them together. They also have to stay one step ahead of the law, as FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) pursue them for the bank job, leading us to enjoy many entertaining cons, chases, and escape tricks.

Also following The Four Horsemen is Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman), who makes his living by secretly videotaping magic shows from his seat in the audience and then selling DVDs debunking the tricks. Citing a character in the film who is supposed to be the world’s highest-paid magician, Thaddeus cynically explains, “He makes $1.6 million a year performing magic. I earn $5 million a year telling people how he does it.” But Thaddeus is in it for more than the money; his resentment toward magicians runs deep, so he helps Rhodes and Dray chase the magical thieves by enabling them to anticipate the Horsemen’s next move.

This is all entertaining and interesting. The reflections it kindles may be even more interesting. Magic is an apt metaphor for moviemaking. A skillful director is like a skillful magician. He or she packs the film with charming assistants, smoke and mirrors, exploding devices, and entertaining patter that may or may not be significant to the story. With a magic show, we want to be astonished. We want to believe that anything is possible. We know that our attention is being diverted in order for a trick to be performed, but we go along with it because the sensation of being amazed is so satisfying. With movies, we also enter a world in which seeing is believing. We suspend our disbelief and accept whatever the director wants us to believe is possible. We know that our attention is being diverted, and we try to catch the trick — to figure out who the bad guy really is, or in this case who the mastermind is — but what we really want is not to figure it out until the very end. Amazement trumps knowing it all, every time. And that’s one thing we mean when we discuss the art of cinema.


Editor's Note: Review of "Now You See Me," directed by Louis Leterrier. K/O Paper Products, 2013, 115 minutes.



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Iron Man 3: The Low-Down

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Literature is fraught with examples of the hero who longs to be ordinary: the prince who covets the life of the pauper, the mermaid who trades her magical tail for the legs of a human, the gods who walk the earth and mate with mortals, the bewitching bride who abandons her powers to marry a mortal. These are just a few.

Iron Man is such a hero. He is torn between a sense of duty to protect his country from the attacks of weaponized soldiers and his desire to enjoy the luxurious lifestyle his successful entrepreneurship affords him. In Iron Man 3 he spends much of his time outside the super suit, fighting the bad guys not as Iron Man but as his alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.).

I like Iron Man. He’s my favorite superhero. First, his alter ego, Tony Stark, is anything but a “mild mannered” Clark Kent. He’s spunky, witty, and unpredictable. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether he’s a visionary or a maniac. Or just manic. I also like the fact that he isn’t stoic. When he gets punched, he bruises and bleeds. In this episode he suffers panic attacks too.

Stark is a scientist, not a mutant as most of the superheroes are. He designed and built his own superhero suit to counteract a nearly deadly injury to his heart. He calls himself “a mechanic” because ultimately, like most practical scientists, he fixes things. He’s also an entrepreneur. Yes, he’s wealthy, but he earned his wealth through intelligence, capital, and hard work. I like that.

OK, he also made much of his money by creating weapons of war, so I can’t give him an A-plus as a libertarian . . . but hey, he’s just responding to the market! And it’s the Department of Defense, not War, that he helps, right? But it does bother him that his scientific experiments contributed to the technology for creating the weaponized soldiers who are now attacking America. He feels responsible.

Superheroes have become our modern mythology, representing the changing values and beliefs of a changing culture.

As this episode begins, Stark is no longer the bon vivant playboy of previous iterations; he is now in a “committed relationship” with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his long-time, longsuffering assistant. Pepper is no longer a wallflower in the background but a buff and courageous überwoman who even gets to “suit up” in the Iron Man paraphernalia a couple of times. Nevertheless, she is kidnapped, early on, by an evil anatomist (Guy Pearce) who has created a new army of weaponized soldiers. Meanwhile, the world is threatened by an Osama-like villain known as “The Mandarin” (Ben Kingsley) who is taking credit for suicide bombers exploding in public places throughout the world. Tony spends most of the film fighting these hybrid soldiers, thwarting the maniac, and rescuing his damsel. He vows: “No politics or Pentagon this time — just good old fashioned revenge.”

While chasing down clues to the bad guys in a small Tennessee town, Tony runs into a cute kid named Harley (Ty Simpkins) who helps him fix his Iron Man suit and get it recharged. The sweet, casual interplay between these two characters creates the best part of the film. Tony doesn't have any experience with kids, and as a result, he talks to Harley in the way he would to a grown-up, and Harley responds as though they were best buds. Their conversations are charming and natural.

Iron Man 3 is not as good as the original, but it is certainly better than the second episode. The story is tighter, the villains are stronger, and the character development is deeper. Stan Lee, who created Spider-Man, Iron Man, and many other superheroes of the Marvel comic book franchise, makes his usual cameo appearance, this time as the judge at a Tennessee beauty pageant. Jon Favreau, who directed the first two Iron Man movies, chose to produce and act in this one instead: he plays Tony's overzealous bodyguard, Happy. It's not great filmmaking by any means, but it’s interesting as a cultural artifact.

Superhero movies are the safest bet for Hollywood studios today. They require big budgets, but they bring home big box office receipts. No fewer than four are slated for release this summer. Fans attend midnight showings on the first day of release, and audiences applaud enthusiastically throughout the show. It's almost like attending an old tent revival meeting. This isn't terribly surprising, because superheroes have become our modern mythology, representing the changing values and beliefs of a changing culture. The various superheroes continue to cross over into each other's mythologies, with numerous references to each other within their separate movies. It is worth watching the films if only to see how their characters and values change from year to year, and to observe the cultural phenomenon they have become.


Editor's Note: Review of "Iron Man 3," directed by Shane Black. Marvel Studios, 2013, 130 minutes.



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When the Audience Laughs in the Wrong Place . . .

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In literature, a tragic hero is a protagonist who has all the characteristics of a classic hero, but also possesses a fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. He means well and often sacrifices for the good of his community. As a result, the audience tends to feel pity rather than contempt at his downfall. On its surface The Place beyond the Pines is a simple crime drama about a bank robber and the cop who seeks him, but at its heart it is a character study of heroes with fatal flaws. Unfortunately, the film itself is a tragic hero. Its elegant and heroic first two acts are marred by a third that is simply overflowing with fatal flaws.

The first act follows Luke (Ryan Gosling), a motorcycle stunt rider who travels the carnival circuit from town to town. He is a hero only in the sense of his earthy charisma and his devil-may-care courage during his “death-defying stunts.” But when he learns that Romina (Eva Mendez), a girl in one of the towns he visits, has given birth to his baby, he is struck with a deep desire to be a good father to that child. He quits the carnival and moves into town, but he has no way of supporting a family. He meets Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), who hires him to work at his mechanic shop, but there is barely enough work to support one person, let alone two. What’s an undereducated adrenalin junkie to do? Rob banks, of course.

Like his namesake Robin Hood, Robin seems to think it’s OK to take money from a bank when “you’re only earning minimum wage.” He teaches Luke the tricks of the trade: No more than one or two jobs a year. Never use guns — they’re vulgar. “I never needed anything but a note,” he explains. “You’re gonna like doing this — it’s the biggest rush of your life.” Luke violates every rule except the last one. (About this time the person sitting behind me said to the person sitting next to him, “That’s smart. I couldn’t quit.” Hmmmm!)

The contrast between the tender father and the terrorizing bank robber is profound. We know Luke is doomed, but we empathize with his motive, largely because of Gosling’s uncanny ability to communicate deep emotion with his eyes and body language. He is one of the most gifted actors of this generation.

With a nifty and unexpected transition, Avery (Bradley Cooper) enters the film and act two begins. Avery is a rookie cop who happens to be on duty while Luke is pulling a job. That Avery is intended to be a foil for Luke is clear, because the family setups are almost identical: both households include a “wife,” a mother-in-law, and a one-year-old son. Both even have the same crystal-clear blue eyes. And both are pressured by their peers to turn toward a life of crime. In this film, cops are robbers too. As with Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers, the paths of these two characters are fated to meet.

As AJ, Emory Cohen doesn’t just go over the top; he heads halfway to the moon with overacting.

Acts one and two are tightly written, suspensefully directed, and expertly acted. Everything about them is first rate, even to the dissonant music that surfaces, at moments of character transition, to suggest that something is not right. The film is subtly nuanced and brilliantly performed. But then act three appears, and spoils the whole effect.

Fifteen years have passed, and the sons of these two men, Luke and Avery, have ended up in the same school. One pressures the other to score him some drugs — with far-reaching consequences. The story idea is good, but the acting destroys the act. As AJ, Emory Cohen doesn’t just go over the top; he heads halfway to the moon with overacting. He’s like a double dose of Marlon Brando and James Dean — brooding lips, simmering eyes, and potty mouth — and the verbal malfeasance doesn’t make sense, because his character has been raised in a life of privilege. Sure, rich kids curse a blue streak. But they don’t develop grammatically lazy street accents peppered with "he don't" and "I ain't" after being raised by parents with perfect diction. It reveals a flaw in the script as well as in the acting that Cohen is unable to demonstrate AJ's rebelliousness without modeling him on a poor kid from the Bronx. Cohen’s character is simply laughable, and that’s what the audience does during act three — it laughs. A lot. And it’s really too bad, because the story is so good, and the first two parts are outstanding.

Despite its flaws, The Place beyond the Pines is well worth seeing. It’s a movie about how good people go bad, how bad people try to be good, and how some people rise above peer pressure. And for the most part, the quality of the filmmaking is heroic.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Place beyond the Pines," directed by Derek Cianfrance. Focus Features, 2013, 140 minutes.



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A Movie Called Mud

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Set in the bayou of rural Arkansas, Mud unfolds as slowly as the river on which it is set. And that's a good thing — it's a back porch story crawling with snakes and daddy longlegs, one that ought to be savored like a mint julep as it develops toward its unexpectedly thrilling climax.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two 14-year-old boys on the cusp of manhood. They're old enough to be talking about girls, but young enough to be looking for a clubhouse. As Mud opens, the boys are pushing off in a ramshackle motorboat to explore an island where they find the perfect magical clubhouse — a cabin cruiser that has lodged high in a tree, probably during a storm that flooded the river the previous season. There they meet a mysterious drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who engages the boys as his gofers by urging them to bring him food and supplies from town and promising to pay them if they do.

Mud is waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come and join him. Juniper is the love of his life. He has loved her since he was Ellis' age. He knows she will come, and when she does, Mud can escape. Meanwhile, he becomes the leader of this strange little club of boys.

Neckbone is wary. He's suspicious of this stranger with the gun in his waistband who is waiting for a girl but is afraid to be seen in public. He wants to go home and never come back. But Ellis is more open to helping the fugitive. Ellis is looking for something, and Mud seems to represent what that "something" is. It isn't adventure, exactly, although that is certainly part of the attraction; it's something deeper.

Ellis is late returning to their houseboat, where his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), has already iced and loaded the day's catch of fish that they will sell door-to-door. At the end of the day Senior withholds half of Ellis' pay because he was late. "I work you hard because life is hard," he says, but he says it kindly. He is simply teaching Ellis a lesson: be an ant, not a grasshopper. Grasshoppers die when winter comes.

Later, when Senior discovers that Ellis and Neckbone have been filching supplies from the local junkyard, he shouts angrily at Ellis, "Don't you have any respect for a man's livelihood?" Ellis understands. Senior is a good father who teaches his son self-reliance and respect for the property of others. But it's hard on Ellis. His father isn't fun. Even his mother wants to leave the river and move into town.

Ellis is more drawn to the reckless Mud, a man who is driven by love, even though he knows that Mud's life is dangerous. Ellis is looking for something to believe in. He is looking for true love.

There is plenty of love in this story — the requited kind and the unrequited kind, the married kind and the unmarried kind, the fatherly kind and the brotherly kind. And the kind that gets you killed. But Ellis can't see it, because he's just a little too young for the nuances. His parents love each other, but they are talking about divorce. Neckbone doesn't remember his parents and lives with his uncle, who has a different girl every other night. Ellis likes a girl at school, and even fights for her honor, the way Mud would do. So he doesn't understand why she can't be faithful to him. He wants to believe in fidelity.

Ellis is looking for love, but he is also looking for himself — the self he will be when he grows up. In many respects, Mud is a foil for Ellis's father. Should he follow in Senior's footsteps, or should he break out on his own, which in reality would just be following in Mud's footsteps?

This is a film about choices, about looking forward and looking back. Mud is also looking for love. Like Neckbone, he grew up without parents, and Juniper seems to represent love and loyalty to him. Like Ellis, he is looking for himself, and he sees a lot of himself in these two boys.

All of this unfolds subtly and naturally — I don't want to give the impression that it's gooey or romantic. This is a man's kind of love story. There is plenty of suspense, shooting, and fighting as out-of-town bounty hunters come looking for Mud and figure out that the boys know where he is. All the story lines come together in a dramatic climax. And the film contains one of the most astounding race sequences I have ever seen, comparable in passion and tension to the end of the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010). Simply an exquisite piece of filmmaking.

Matthew McConaughey is the quintessential good ol’ boy. He loves the South and treats it as if it were another character in his films. But the real star of this film is 16-year-old Tye Sheridan as 14-year-old Ellis. He is an actor to watch during the next decade. He has the sly charm and good looks of a young Tom Cruise, with the emotional depth and versatility of Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom began acting in their early teens. Sheridan is completely at ease in this role that appears deceptively simple. He makes the film wondrous.


Editor's Note: Review of "Mud," directed by Jeff Nichols. Everest Entertainment, 2013, 130 minutes.



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Sci-Fi for Thinkers

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What will we do when earth is no longer habitable, either because of environmental pollution or because of an annihilating war? Several films this season imagine a dystopian future in which humans have to leave the earth to survive: Oblivion, with Tom Cruise; After Earth, with Will Smith; and Elysium, with Matt Damon and Jodie Foster. All have seemed promising. The first to be released is Oblivion, and it is satisfying in all the ways you want a film to satisfy — the acting is good, the special effects are thrilling, and the story is meaty enough to maintain the interest of philosophical viewers.

The film opens in a bleak, silt-covered New York where earthquakes and tsunamis caused by the destruction of the moon have made the landscape completely unrecognizable. Occasional bits of rubble tell us this was once the public library or the Empire State Building or Giants Stadium. I imagine that an ancient Roman returning to the Forum today would experience the same sense of loss, seeing the great temples and marketplace reduced to a few broken columns. The voice of our hero Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) explains, "We won the war, but we lost the planet" (while defending it against alien invaders). The anti-war message is pretty clear: there are no victors in a nuclear war.

I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

A skillfully written exposition quickly brings us into the story. Humans have moved to a moon of Saturn, but a few "techs," such as Harper, have remained behind to oversee the creation of energy cells from seawater that will be transported to the new community, and to patrol the area for scavenging aliens called, appropriately, "Scavs." Jack is the ground tech, and his wife Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) watches the computer screens from their sky-high tower home to warn him of potential danger. "Security and maintenance," Harper admits wryly. "We're the mop-up crew." A modern-day Crusoe and Friday or Adam and Eve, they are the only people on this part of earth.

Several exciting skirmishes with the scavs give Cruise fans the thrills they expect in an action movie. He even ends up with the scar across the bridge of his nose that is becoming as much a trademark as his footrace through most of his movies. Adding to the assignment are wild chases through the canyons of broken buildings while being pursued by rogue drones. But I couldn't help noticing the similarities to Luke Skywalker's battle at the end of the first Star Wars movie, back in 1977. That set the benchmark for special effects, and we haven't seen fundamental changes, even after 35 years.

What sets this film apart is its subtle references to history, literature, and philosophy, especially to the image of the cave in Plato's Republic. Jack is careful to stay inside the perimeter of safety, away from the radiation-tainted grids identified by their computer screens. Victoria watches carefully, warning him if he strays too close to the boundary. Who holds the truth? How do we know? Plato asked that question millennia ago, and the question remains.

What is really on the other side of the perimeter? Victoria turns out to be the "Adam" in this reverse Eden, so obedient that she won't even accept a flower that Jack brings her from outside the tower, because it is forbidden. Jack is the "Eve," always pushing the limits to satisfy his curiosity. He cannot coax her to join him. Victoria's kind of blind compliance is essential for tyranny to succeed.

The opportunity to contemplate the conflicts between man and machine, nature and science, and free will and obedience makes this a thinking person's action movie. It is sci-fi of the best caliber. But as the movie ended and the credits rolled, I overheard the person behind me say cynically, "That was a one-timer." I guess we can't all be thinkers.


Editor's Note: Review of "Oblivion," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Universal Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



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