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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Home Run

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When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and Congress adopted the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery and involuntary servitude were officially ended in the United States. But racism and segregation were far from over. In fact, relations between blacks and whites remained so tense that during the ensuing century the US sanctioned a number of "Jim Crow" laws mandating segregation under the "separate but equal" interpretation.

Laws can mandate actions, but they cannot mandate public opinion. It took the free market, in the form of "America's favorite pastime," to start ending Jim Crow.

Baseball was America's most popular sport during most of the 20th century. Whites played it. Blacks played it. Women played it. But they didn't play it together. Early segregation was a form of protectionism. African-American players, such as Bud Fowler and Moses "Fleetwood" Walker, played on integrated teams in the 1880s, but they were so good that white players began to feel threatened that they would lose their positions and their jobs. "Whites Only" signs began to appear in locker rooms.

Soon two different leagues were formed. African American fans would often attend MLB games (sitting in the "Colored" section, of course) but with very few exceptions, whites would not attend NLB games. Consequently they seldom saw such baseball greats as Satchel Paige, Jackie Robinson, and Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays, who played in the Negro League.

They might have stayed there, too, unnoticed by the mainstream history books, if it weren't for Wesley Branch Rickey and the free market. Rickey was owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wanted to win the World Series, and that meant hiring the best players in baseball. He also wanted to fill the seats at Ebbets Field, and that meant expanding the appeal for African-American fans. Rickey decided it was time to integrate Major League Baseball, and he was just the man to do it: a thick-skinned, cigar-smoking Methodist named after John Wesley himself.

The story of how Branch Rickey integrated major league sports is told in an outstanding new film called 42, Jackie Robinson's number for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the only number that has been permanently retired by all of baseball in honor of his courage and grit. With strong actors in both supporting and leading roles and a quotable script that tells the story with honesty and unfeigned respect, it is a film that should not be missed.

Rickey (Harrison Ford) is the quintessential libertarian hero. He wants to right a wrong he committed as a coach at Wesleyan University when he "didn't do enough for a fine black pitcher." But most of all, Rickey is motivated by profit and success. He wants to sell tickets, and he wants a World Series pennant. "Dollars aren't black or white," he says to his critics; "they're green." To accomplish both the win and the ticket sales, he hires the first African-American Major League baseball player. Rickey knows it won't be easy. By wooing black audiences, he may lose the existing white fans. One of his advisors warns, "There's no law against hiring a Negro player, but there's a code. Break that code, and you'll pay for it." But Rickey believes he can persuade people to change their opinions simply by giving them a great show. And public opinion would change laws.

Choosing the right player was essential to the success of his plan. He couldn't have a hothead. In their initial meeting, Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) asks Rickey, "You want a player who doesn't have the guts to fight back?" and Rickey responds, "I want a player who has the guts not to fight back." Robinson would have to endure namecalling, physical threats, beanballs, bad calls, and more. His teammates would have to try to overcome their own prejudices, some without success.

Robinson was no pushover. Before becoming a Dodger he refused to acquiesce to Jim Crow laws. He played in UCLA's integrated team. As a member of the US military he was court-martialed for refusing to sit in the back of the bus. In the film, when he is not allowed to use a gas station's toilet while his Negro league baseball team stops for gas, he says to the attendant, "Then take that hose out of the tank and we'll get our 99 gallons of gas somewhere else." The attendant lets them use the toilet, and they buy the gas. Dollars aren't black or white; they're green.

Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he knew the power of the free market.

It isn't easy for Robinson to hold his tongue and his temper. He has to endure degradation from all sides. One of the worst offenders is Phillies’ coach Ben Chapman, who shouts racial slurs whenever Robinson comes up to bat. Chapman defends his actions by saying, "Hey, it ain't nothing. We call DiMaggio a wop. We call Hank Greenberg a kike," as though that makes it right. Rickey encourages Robinson to remain strong. "You can't meet the enemy on his own low ground," he says when the desire to fight back is almost overwhelming.

But there are moments to make one proud as well. After a cop forces Robinson off a southern baseball field for mixing with whites, saying, "That's our law here, and I'm going to enforce it," a local man approaches Robinson looking like nothing so much as a redneck racist. But he smiles shyly and says, "If a man's got the goods, he deserves a chance. I'm pulling for you. A lot of us are." Watching the tide of public opinion slowly turn produces a profound cathartic effect throughout the film.

The physical and emotional struggle Robinson endures is mitigated not only by Rickey, who stands by him like a father, but also by his wife, Rachel (Nicole Beharie), who soothes and uplifts him throughout the film.42 is as much a love story as it is a sports story.

Some of the best moments in the film occur simply when Robinson plays baseball. He had a loose, bouncing way of moving on the field. His arms seemed to stretch an extra foot when he dove for a ball, and he danced between the bases as he threatened to steal. His smile was magical. Relative newcomer Chadwick Boseman slips into that role with an ease as natural as the ballplayer he portrays. Waiting about a mile off base while the pitcher prepares for his windup, his fingers twinkle and dance and he bounces low in his knees, just daring the pitcher to throw him out. His relaxed smile is charming and disarming, confirming Rickey's decision that Robinson was the right man for the right time. As Mordecai said of Esther, who risked her life for the lives of the Jewish people, "Who knows but that you were born for such a time as this?" Robinson seems to have been born for his time.

Branch Rickey was born for such a time as well. He knew that laws can control actions, but they can't force people to overcome their prejudices. (Hell, it was laws and political activism that created segregation in the first place!) But he knew the power of the free market. Rickey was taking a big risk, because public opinion could just as easily have turned against him and the Dodgers. But he was certain that once he proved black players would make baseball better, other teams would have to follow. To some extent the worries of those early baseball players who rejected Bud Fowler and Moses Walker were warranted. Major league sports are dominated by minority players today. But the game is enriched because of it. And America is richer too.


Editor's Note: Review of "42," directed by Brian Helgeland. Warner Brothers, 2013, 128 minutes.



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It’s Scary, All Right

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Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight book series about teenaged vampires and werewolves living in a small Oregon town, is a pop idol to the teenaged girls who grew up taking sides between “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” as they debated whether the books’ high-school protagonist, Bella, should marry the vampire (Edward) or the werewolf (Jacob). (See my review of Breaking Dawn in Liberty, August 2008.) Talk about a step backward in the evolution of women’s opportunities!

The Host represents Meyer’s foray into legitimate science fiction, with its alien ganglia traveling from a distant planet that take over human bodies by inserting themselves surgically into the necks of unsuspecting hosts. (Wait! Wasn’t that already done in Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956 and 1978] and Invaders from Mars [1953 and 1986]?) What made those two films and their remakes so powerful is that the invaders could be interpreted as a metaphor for alien ideas and philosophies that often overtake a community.

In the end, the problem is resolved when the aliens and the humans decide to be friends.

Unfortunately, The Host does not resonate with any philosophical relevancy. The opening scene teases the audience with the hint of a satisfying idea when the narrator says, “We are at peace. There is no hunger, no poverty, and no violence. The world is perfect. But it is not ours.” In this seemingly perfect world there is no violence or dishonesty, but peace has come at a price: there is no free will. Humans are forced by their invaders to do good. This “goodness” is represented in the lack of corporations and commercialism, of course; food is packaged in nondescript containers with labels that simply identify the contents in block letters, and obtained from a large box building called “STORE.” Notice I used the word “obtained,” rather than “purchased”; in this utopian world there is no money.

How food is produced and transported with neither profit motive nor coercion and distributed with neither money nor violence could have provided an interesting story. However, once again Meyer quickly moves away from addressing any philosophical problem so that she can focus on the romantic interests of her young protagonist, in this case Melanie (Saoirse Ronan). When Melanie is injected with a space-traveling “Soul” named “Wanderer,” her sense of will is somehow strong enough to enable her to keep fighting to control “their” body. She (or they) escape to the desert, where a community of humans, including Melanie’s brother, uncle, and boyfriend, has been hiding in underground caverns to avoid being injected by aliens. Melanie is still in love with Jared (Max Irons) but doesn’t want “Wanderer” to experience kissing him. Another buff young survivor, Ian (Jake Abel), falls for “Wanda,” and Melanie doesn’t want her (or their) body kissing Ian. A lot of slapping goes on as a result.

That’s the philosophical conflict we are forced to consider. We’re back to Team Edward and Team Jacob, but with a bizarre Siamese-twin kind of twist.

In the end, the problem is resolved when the aliens and the humans decide to be friends. Wanda shows them how to coax the aliens’ ganglia out of the hosts’ necks, without hurting either one. The aliens are placed in space-travel containers and shot into outer space, where they can terrorize another planet; but that’s OK because, as Wanda reassures them, “by the time they reach another planet your grandchildren’s grandchildren will be grown up.” That’s a little like saying, “The national debt doesn’t really matter because we’ll all be long gone before our grandchildren’s grandchildren have to pay it.” And if you don’t have children, then heck! You’re home free!

One qualification: the aliens are allowed to stay in their human host bodies if the human psyche or soul or essence cannot be revived after the alien is removed. In other words, if you sufficiently overpowered your host’s body, you get to keep it. So Melanie gets Wanda out of her system, Wanda gets a new body, and Ian gets a new girlfriend. And somewhere out in the distant universe, an unsuspecting population is getting some uninvited visitors.

Just so it isn’t us.

Let’s all sing a chorus of “Kumbaya.”


Editor's Note: Review of "The Host," directed by Andrew Niccol. Chockstone Pictures, 2013, 125 minutes.



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