What Not to Do About Bullying

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The Weinstein Brothers are champions at using controversy to garner publicity for their films. Recently they used that skill to the hilt to stir up public interest in their documentary Bully, an intimate look at the problem of bullying in public schools. First they inserted enough explicit language to earn an R rating. Then they complained vociferously to the rating board that the R would prevent the most important audience from seeing the film. The controversy was reported in the media, and reviewers like me sat up and took notice. I viewed Bully the day it opened, fully expecting it to knock Hunger Games off its throne as the most talked-about film of the season.

Katniss Everdeen need not worry; she still owns the throne. Bully is a good documentary. It might even be an important documentary. Those who have experienced any form of bullying will probably find it a very moving documentary. But I don't think anyone is going to be flocking to see it, regardless of the rating. It will probably end up in many school libraries, however, and many students will see it in their social studies classes for years to come.

The film follows the stories of five students from four states (Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Mississippi) who have experienced bullying for a variety of reasons. One is small for his age. Another suffers the physical effects of a premature birth. Yet another is a lesbian. Two have committed suicide, and are represented by interviews with their parents and in clips from home movies. The filmmakers were able to get surprisingly candid scenes of students abusing these kids on the bus, in the cafeteria, and in the hallways, as well as candid scenes of administrators, teachers, and parents — people who often make fools of themselves as they discuss the problem. I often thought to myself, "Didn't they realize they were being filmed?" I applaud the filmmakers' ability to elicit such open, unabashed realism. No one in this film was on his best behavior.

Except, perhaps, for the school administrators. They fairly glow in their obvious attempt to put their best feet forward and shine for the cameras. The principal at Alex's school stands in the hallway as the students arrive from the bus. One boy comes to her with his hand on his head and reports, "A kid slammed my head into a nail!" The principal puts on her sweetest, most understanding voice and says, "I'll bet you didn't like that, did you?" Another boy walks past, visibly upset, and she says to the camera, "He's such an unhappy child." In another scene she forces two older boys to shake hands as a way to resolve what seems to be a longstanding battle. The bully extends his hand, but when the victim of his bullying is reluctant to do so, she chastises him, saying that he is now the bully and that it's his fault. "Why don't you just get along?" she coos after the bully leaves. "He was willing to shake your hand. I think the two of you could be friends." The boy, nervous and confused, responds, "The cops told us to stay apart." This principal hasn't a clue. Not a clue.

When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

Another school administrator tries to whitewash the issue. "Is it an ongoing problem in our school?" she asks rhetorically. "No it is not," she answers herself, vigorously nodding her head as she says it. I would love to have an expert explain that body language! Another administrator offers a similarly Pollyannish response when parents complain about the abuse their son is experiencing on the bus. First she says, "Buses are notorious for abuse," and offers, "I can put him on another bus" — rather than trying to solve the problem. The mother suggests (wisely, I might add), "When I was a kid the bus driver pulled over and wouldn't take anyone home until everyone settled down." Isn't that kind of an obvious policy? But the principal simply says, "I've ridden Bus 54, and they were good as gold." Several of us in the audience laughed out loud at that idiotic response. Well, duh! You were on the bus! Of course they behaved!

The film does a fine job of revealing the problems experienced in the communities it covers, but it offers few satisfying solutions. Devon, who was bullied for four years, says in an interview, "I stood up for myself, and they leave me alone now." But when Ja'Maya tries this technique, she ends up in juvenile jail for several months. Alex simply gives into the abuse, acknowledging sadly, "At least it's attention. I don't mind it that much." His story is perhaps the saddest, because he feels so lonely in addition to being bullied. He just wants a friend. Telling school authorities and the police also accomplishes little. When a vice principal asks one of the bullied boys why he didn't speak up sooner, he responds, "Because you didn't do anything about it last year when I told you that X sat on my head."

Only one family makes what I consider the right choice: they take their daughter out of school and teach her at home. Why would any thinking, caring parent subject a child to this kind of torture day after day? When are parents going to wake up and realize that the public school system itself is broken beyond repair?

While Bully is a good movie, it is hardly a great one. My biggest complaint is that its scope is so limited. These children all lived in similar small towns in the South or Midwest, and all seemed to come from similar poor socioeconomic backgrounds. That is hardly a representative sampling. An estimated 13 million children experience bullying every year, representing every region of the country, every size of community, and every socioeconomic group. Moreover, children used to find a safe haven after school hours. But bullying has left the schoolground and now occurs increasingly at home, especially through the internet. Children simply can't get away from the painful words and public gossip. None of this is highlighted in the film. Nevertheless, I consider Bully must-see viewing for anyone who has a child attending a public school.

What made me saddest as I watched this film was not the funeral of little Ty, one of the boys who committed suicide, or even watching a boy ram Alex's head against the back of a bus seat. It wasn't hearing Alex's principal say, "Boys will be boys." It was the sight of Alex's own mother browbeating and chastising him for not telling her that he was being bullied at school, followed by his sister joking that she's embarrassed at school because none of her friends like him. He's surrounded by bullies at school, and by well-intentioned bullies at home. I just wanted to wrap my arms around that little boy and whisk him away from all of them. All of them.


Editor's Note: Review of "Bully," directed by Lee Hirsch. Weinstein Bros., 2011, 99 minutes.



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Swimming Against the Tide

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At the beginning of the First World War, Robert Frost wrote in Mending Wall (1914), “Good fences make good neighbors” — suggesting metaphorically that borders and boundaries help to prevent war and aggression. But in that same poem he acknowledged,

Something there is that doesn’t like a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Nature herself, he said, works to break down manmade walls through the simple power of water finding cracks and breaking rocks. Nature doesn’t like boundaries.

Borders are good when borders are necessary. They are preferable to war. But more than a century earlier, weary from the destruction and expense of war, Benjamin Franklin recommended wise foreign policy when he wrote: “The system of America is commerce with all and war with none.”

Business brings people together. I may not like your politics, your religion, your clothing, or your neighborhood, but if you produce something I want and I produce something you want, and if we have a justice system that protects our right to property, we will manage to get along, if only for the benefit of mutual exchange. War and aggression may provide short-term solutions to shortages, and walls may keep aggressors at bay. But commerce and free trade promote lasting relationships that increase prosperity and living standards for all. Understanding this simple fact could solve many of the current problems in the Middle East.

Commerce vs war. That's what I thought my review would emphasize when I headed out to see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, an indie flick about a British fisheries expert (Ewan McGregor) who is hired to create a salmon fishery in Yemen. What a great a new industry for an emerging nation, I thought. This is the way to be good neighbors and promote peace and prosperity — through commerce! Who needs war?

Sigh. This is what happens when I start writing my review before seeing the movie. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is not about commercial fishing at all, but about a wealthy sheik (Amr Waked) who loves salmon fishing at his massive estate in Scotland and is willing to spend £50 million or more to be able to fish in Yemen. He isn’t interested in creating jobs and industry; he just wants to fish in his own backyard. Sheesh!

Nevertheless, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a wonderful little film, one that is well worth seeing. Salmon fishing is actually a metaphor for the uphill relationships presented in this funny romantic drama, which follows two couples who become unintentionally entwined. The fisheries expert, Dr. Alfred Jones, is the very prim and proper husband of Mary Jones (Rachael Stirling), a financial analyst who seems more committed to her job than to her marriage. Meanwhile, the sheik’s consultant in the project, Harriet Chetwode-Talbot (Emily Blunt), who entices Dr. Jones with a money-is-no-object offer, is in love with a soldier (Tom Mison) who has suddenly been deployed to the Middle East.

Encouraging them in the fishing project is Patricia Maxwell (Kristin Scott Thomas), the Prime Minister’s press secretary, who seizes this “goodwill” story as an opportunity to counteract some bad war-related publicity coming out of the Middle East. (Chillingly, Maxwell uses her access to high-security government search engines to scan through private emails for references to the Middle East. And they pop right up on her screen, including the "private" communication to Jones from the sheik's representative, requesting a salmon fishery in Yemen. Yikes!) Normally so drab and serious in her roles, Thomas displays an unexpected talent for humor in this film. With her delightfully droll delivery; she effortlessly steals every scene. And that is no easy theft, for a film in which every actor is so adept at displaying that bemused, self-effacing kind of British humor that always seems to say, “Oh, did I do something funny?” The film is simply charming, through and through.

One of the sheik's chief concerns when Jones and Co. are ready to transfer the salmon to Yemen is whether farm-bred fish that have never seen a river will run, or whether they will just swim passively in circles. This underscores the film’s theme: do people who have been domesticated to the point of emasculation still have the instinct to know when they have been set free? Alfred Jones proclaims, “It’s in the very core of their being to run. Even if they never have. Even if their parents never did!” He’s talking about himself, of course, although he doesn’t know it. Juxtaposed against this hopeful declaration is his wife Mary’s cutting remark, “It’s in your DNA to return to a dry, dull, pedestrian life.” Where is his true home? And how much effort will it take to find it? That's what the film asks its viewers.

Ultimately this is a film about swimming against the tide. As Dr. Jones deliberates on whether to accept the whimsical challenge of bringing salmon to a desert, we see an overhead shot of him hurrying along a crowded sidewalk within a school of gray-suited businessmen. Suddenly he turns and makes his way through the crowd in the opposite direction, to tell Harriet that he accepts the offer. He is swimming upstream (yes, to spawn!), and we know that he will be caught before the film is over.


Editor's Note: Review of "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen," directed by Halle Lasstrom. Lionsgate, 2011, 107 minutes.



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Teenage Wasteland

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Author Shirley Jackson was doing errands in her Vermont village, pushing her daughter in a baby stroller, when the germ of her alarming short story "The Lottery" (1948) came into her mind. Two hours later, it was written. Three weeks after that, it was published in The New Yorker. All that summer long she received critical letters from horrified readers. And for the past 50 years it has been anthologized and discussed as one of the most chilling and profound American short stories of the 20th century.

I mention this at the beginning of my review of The Hunger Games because there are many similarities in the two stories’ themes. Set in a seemingly ordinary rural community, "The Lottery" is about the not-so-ordinary ritual of selecting one person each year to be stoned to death as the community scapegoat. "Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon," one village elder remarks as the community gathers for the stoning ritual.

In Hunger Games, set in a dystopian future, one boy and one girl from each of 12 "districts" is selected, also by lottery, to be sent to the municipal capital to participate in a televised gladiator-like fight to the death. In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear and hope. They have been convinced by government propaganda that the Games will purge them of violence, prevent the ravages of war, and increase productivity. But really the Games are designed to make everyone complacent and obedient.

The Hunger Games, based on the popular trilogy by Suzanne Collins, opened to eager crowds who couldn't wait to see it. My local theater offered the midnight screening in a whopping 18 of its 20 screens, and avid crowds were lining up at 6 pm. Many of them were mothers with children. You might wonder: Why would any parents allow their children to read a book or watch a movie in which children must kill children? For that matter, why would anyone but a pervert want to watch 24 children fight it out in a kill-or-be-killed arena? What is The Hunger Games’ appeal?

In this case, the purpose is not to appease the god of the harvest but to control the masses through a combination of fear and hope.

Obviously, there is more to these books than the competition. In responding to initial criticism of "The Lottery," Jackson wrote, "I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village, to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives." Reading the Hunger Games trilogy, one can't help but see this same theme and message about pointless violence and general inhumanity. Collins uses violence to make a plea for nonviolence.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Everdeen), the likable 16-year-old heroine, is the virtual breadwinner for her widowed mother and 12-year-old sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Noble and resourceful, Katniss is accustomed to taking risks and making sacrifices for her family. She regularly slips out beyond the district perimeter to hunt for game (a capital offense), which she trades for other goods. She is a generous and honorable young woman who instinctively rebels against tyranny and injustice, but who would never hurt anyone intentionally. Nevertheless, when Katniss impulsively volunteers to take her sister's place when Primrose's name is called as a contestant, she understands that she will have to use her hunting skills to kill other children in order to survive the Games. 

Many who have not read Collins’ books have expressed shock and dismay that she would have children aged 12–18 engaged in her fictional battle. But despite the gruesome subject, there is nothing gratuitously violent or graphic in these books, or in the movie. They are tense and exciting, and they are made more so by the underlying hint of metaphorical truth. Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on TV? For over a decade the American government drafted 18-year-olds to fight a war far from home that had very little to do with our own security. Like the children in The Hunger Games, these teens had no voice in the matter; until 1971, they weren't allowed to vote in federal elections. Even with an "all-volunteer army," most of today's recruits are still barely out of their teens.

Similarly, in The Hunger Games wealthy families can protect their children by paying poorer families to take their spots in the drawings in exchange for money or food. As a result, Katniss' name is written on at least a dozen cards in the drawing, and her friend Gale's is written on 42. This is clearly a reminder that the children of wealthier families were able to avoid the draft during the Vietnam era by going to college, while children of poorer families could not afford that option.

Like Jackson, Collins clearly intended to demonstrate the dehumanizing effect of war. Unfortunately, the film's producers seem to have lacked the courage to make this same point on screen. Perhaps worried about the R-rating that a true adaptation would have earned, the film version softens the hunt by stereotyping the characters into two distinct types. Katniss never kills anyone except as a reflex, and always in self-defense. The people she does kill are carefully presented as nasty bullies and gang members, thereby justifying her actions, because she is ridding the world of bad guys.

Moreover, actress Jennifer Lawrence is 21, not 16, largely negating the effect of children being forced to kill children. This creation of good guys and bad guys destroys the message about the brutalizing nature of war, and blunts the powerful idea that these are children who might otherwise have played together and become friends had they not been forced into battle by their government.

Is it such a stretch to imagine a society that would send its children to die in battle while adults stay home and watch it on TV?

Similarly, Haymitch, the battle mentor from District 12 (Woody Harrelson) is presented as a detached, antisocial drunk. He is a former winner in the Hunger Games and thus has been assigned to help prepare Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy from her district, for the battle. What's missing from the movie is the reason Haymitch drinks: in order for him to win the Hunger Games, 23 children had to die, many of them at his own hand. In war, no one emerges unscathed. Not even the victor.

Just before Katniss leaves for battle, her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) suggests that they sneak away into the forbidden woods to live off the land by themselves (just as Equality 7-2521 does in Ayn Rand's Anthem). “What if people stopped watching?" he adds, as another suggestion, referring to the audiences riveted to their television sets during the Games. "Wouldn't they have to stop the Games?"

Knowing that he has little chance of survival, Peeta says, "I keep wishing I could think of a way for me to show them that they don't own me. If I'm gonna die, I wanna still be me." That spirit of individuality and self-determination is bright throughout the book, and in the movie as well. The many suggestions of resistance in these books, and in the film, make them well worth reading and viewing, even though the filmmakers have pulled much of the punch from their version of the story.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Hunger Games," directed by Gary Ross. Lionsgate, 2012, 142 minutes.



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Who Axed the Lorax?

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It’s no secret that Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) leaned a little to the Left. His delightful, whimsical books often had an underlying tone that was anti-war, anti-tyrant, and anti-pollution. Or, to spin it more favorably, he wanted peace, freedom, and cleanliness.

Seuss' The Lorax (1971) made a strong case for cleaning up the environment. It tells the story of a zealous young businessman, the Once-ler, who comes across a pristine forest of “Truffula Trees” and immediately begins chopping them down to use their silky leaves to make “thneeds” (the Seussian equivalent of an all-purpose Widget). His irresponsible use of natural resources damages crops, dirties the air, and mucks up the water, causing the original inhabitants — the bear-like Barbaloots, birds, and fish — to move away in search of cleaner climes.

There is nothing subversive or socialistic about this charming little story. Libertarians, in fact, should welcome a story that privileges property rights (the critters, after all, were there first) and individual responsibility (the book ends with “unless someone like you / cares a whole awful lot, / nothing is going to get better. / It’s not.”) Basically Dr. Seuss is saying, “Play nice. If you make a mess, clean it up. If someone was there first, wait your turn. Be responsible for your actions.”

Now Disney Studios has turned this gentle story about personal responsibility into a diatribe against individuality, free markets, and the entire capitalist system, with its animated version of the tale. They call it Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, but that's a misnomer. This is Hollywood's The Lorax, through and through. And it's an insidious shadow of the original story. The only thing missing from this indoctrination piece is a Five Year Plan.

In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

The film version begins 50 years after the books ends, in the community of Thneedville, which is run by a crony capitalist named O’Hare (Rob Riggle). The new story is reminiscent of The Truman Show (1998); the residents of Thneedville live inside a bubble city, oblivious to the desolation and pollution that exist just outside their city walls and ceiling. Inside, "everything was plastic and fake and they liked it that way." Somehow, they manage to enjoy a happy middle class standard of living, despite the fact that no vegetation exists and no one seems to work or produce anything. This is probably the most puzzling part of the film: if life is so bad, why does it seem so good? Apparently, ignorance really is bliss.

O’Hare controls the town, although he doesn’t seem to be an elected official. (We can’t have a government figure as a bad guy in the new Disney universe!) Apparently O’Hare simply owns the town, as well as everyone and everything in it. In this movie, private ownership is bad. Very bad. Even if you provide a comfortable standard of living.

When a pretty young girl named Audrey (Taylor Swift) yearns to see a real tree, a lovestruck young boy named Ted (Zac Efron) determines to find one for her. That means going outside the town's bubble to the desolate place where trees used to grow. There he meets the Once-ler (Ed Helms), who tells Ted the sad story of how capitalism, greed, and materialism led to environmental destruction.

What follows should be a textbook example of how the free market works to provide jobs, goods, and higher standards of living. Fifty years earlier, the Once-ler had an idea for a versatile invention: a "Thneed" made from the renewable leaves of the Truffula tree. At first no one is interested in Once-ler's invention, but when they see one on the head of a stylish young beauty, everyone has to have one. This is Say's Law in action: supply creates its own demand. Consider the fact that no one demanded a handheld device that could store 5,000 songs until Apple invented the iPod. Then everyone had to have one. Similarly, Once-ler's Thneed creates its own demand. To keep up with production he enlists his family members and pays the Barbaloots to harvest the Truffula leaves, using marshmallows as money.

But in this bizarro world, the free market becomes a tool of destruction. The product Once-ler has invented is clearly an unnecessary accessory (in the eyes of the filmmakers), and as we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if it isn't fundamentally functional, no one should have it. The "money" Once-ler pays the critters (marshmallows) become a seductive drug that saps their will and good sense. He doesn't pay them for doing an honest day's work; he bribes them to stay out of his way. Once-ler's family members turn out to be vile, redneck imbeciles who treat everyone with contempt — including Once-ler. Impatient to reach the treetops, Once-ler speeds up the harvesting process by cutting down the trees, cutting off his supply as well.

The film completely ignores the principle of property rights. The trees and the land on which they grow belong to the critters and the Lorax. Without their permission, Once-ler has no right to take the tree silk, to build a factory on their land, or to cut down their trees. But in a film whose point is that everyone (and thus no one) owns the land, this would sidetrack the communal message.

The fact is that people take care of property that belongs to them, and they tend not to take care of property that belongs to someone else. When loggers were awarded grants to cut trees on national land, they chopped indiscriminate swathes through forest after forest. But when they were allowed to own the land, they became tree growers as well as tree cutters. In fact, most of the deforestation in the United States took place nearly 200 years ago. Since then, forest cover has increased steadily, partly because national forests are protected, but also because companies replant what they harvest.

Perhaps the most insidious scene of the movie is the lively, jivey, upbeat song, "How bad can I be?" Dressed in a money-green suit, the Once-ler sings joyfully and mischievously, "How bad can I be? I'm just doing what comes naturally / How bad can I be? I'm just following my destiny / . . . All the customers are buying . . . And the money's multiplying . . . And the PR people are lying . . . And the lawyers are denying. . . . Who cares if a few trees are dying? How bad can I be? / A portion of proceeds go to charity." The song is bouncy and catchy and chillingly fun. The message is clear: humans are naturally bad, and their badness has to be governed. Even when they do something good, such as giving to charity, they must have a devious, ulterior motive.

As we all know from studying Chairman Mao, if a product isn't fundamentally functional, no one should have it.

Ironically, the film ends on what really does come naturally: operating the invisible hand of the free market. After telling Ted his story, the now repentant Once-ler assigns him the task of taking the final Truffula seed and planting it in the center of town where all will see it and want a tree of their own. Again, if that isn't Say's Law in action, I don't know what is: supply creates its own demand.

Seuss' book ends here, with a gentle reminder to be responsible for your own little piece of the earth. Disney keeps going, however. O'Hare and his henchmen follow Ted on a frolicking chase through town. Why must they stop the tree planting? Because trees will produce oxygen, and oxygen will clean up the air, and clean air will destroy O'Hare's bottled air business. As always, the greedy capitalist destroys the planet for his own gain.

What has happened to a country — and a movie studio — that once praised the virtue of lemonade stands and paper routes? Hollywood — center of one of the nation’s largest capitalist businesses — has long been disdainful toward business and capitalism. But with the G-rated Dr. Seuss's The Lorax, even Hollywood has hit new lows. The Loraxis a pleasant, entertaining movie with a vile message. When I asked my 8-year-old grandson whether he liked it, he smiled brightly and nodded his head. He loves Dr. Seuss! Then he added, "But it's all propaganda!" A smart cookie, that grandson of mine. His parents have taught him well. But he's just as attracted to fluff as those critters were attracted to marshmallows.

Since this is a movie about the bottom line, here is the bottom line from this movie: money is bad. Homes, food, and entertainment are good. But where do homes, food, and entertainment come from if we don't earn money? The government, of course. And how do we get people to work and produce without money? Mandatory volunteerism, I guess. Hmmmm. Hard work. No money. Food and shelter provided. . . .Wasn't that called communism in the last century? And slavery in the century before that?

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dr. Seuss's The Lorax," directed by Chris Renaud. Disney Studios, 2012, 86 minutes.



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Superheroes for Fun and Frolic

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If you haven’t heard of Chronicle, you aren’t alone. On hearing the title, most people think it’s a re-release of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Chronicles of Riddick. But the title of this film is just Chronicle. And it’s just out. But the word “just” doesn't do justice to this chronicle of a super-unhero in the making. This is a film — one of several this season — that focuses on the art of filmmaking. It is fun and exciting, but it also deserves critical acclaim for its cinematic techniques.

As a story, Chronicle challenges one of the basic elements of the superhero genre: for some reason, we simply accept the idea that a person who has been given supernatural powers will automatically decide to use them for the common good. From Superman to Spiderman, superheroes have accepted the idea that they have an obligation to “give back” to society by giving up their personal desires and happiness.

Chronicle asks its viewers to consider what it would really be like if a hormone-driven, angst-laden, alcohol-addled teenager suddenly developed supernatural powers of levitation and kinesthetics. In this film, might does not make man righteous, and superpowers do not necessarily make superheroes.

When three high school seniors, Andrew (Dane DaHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), accidentally stumble upon what appears to be a meteor tunneled into the ground, they are exposed to something akin to radioactive power. This affects their brains, and soon they find that they can control objects outside themselves. The story is so old it is almost iconic. But these boys revel in their newfound powers and continue to frolic like teenagers. It never even occurs to them to use their powers altruistically for the betterment or protection of humankind. In fact, they never compare themselves to superheroes. Nor do they worry about any dangers or risks that might accrue to them from having been exposed to those powerful rays. They just live in the moment, laughing and playing (and fighting) as teenagers tend to do.

As the film opens, Andrew sits behind a video camera, reflected in the mirror in front of him. He carries his camera everywhere, recording his conversations and the events around him. He represents this generation’s fixation on chronicling everything they do digitally, via video cameras, Facebook, and blogs. Director Josh Trank uses a camera-lens point of view so that the camera becomes the protagonist’s eyes. It almost becomes a character, in fact — the predator in the woods or behind the closet door that is always watching.

It may seem obvious to say that the audience sees through the eyes of the protagonist; after all, that’s just Literature 101. But although we identify with the protagonist in most films, we don’t literally see what the protagonist sees. The camera is usually focused outside the protagonist, filming the character as he or she talks, walks, and interacts with others. Most of the time the eyes are actually the viewers’, not the character’s. And that feels pretty comfortable for the viewer.

In Chronicle, however, we don’t see Andrew except when he happens to be reflected in his camera’s lens by a mirror or another shiny surface, or when he decides to turn the camera onto himself, or when other inside-the-story cameras catch him on film. This deliberately draws attention to his generation’s penchant for self-recording. It echoes the narcissistic reaction of these boys to their superpowers, while giving the film a creepy, voyeuristic tension.

It's actually a little too distracting: we constantly hear Andrew’s voice off-camera; and although tension is created in the beginning, because we see only what happens while the camera is turned on, too much attention is drawn to technique. Apparently Trank realized this, because partway through the story Andrew finds a way to film the trio without holding the camera himself. Eventually Trank abandons the technique altogether by allowing the story to be “chronicled” by all the security cameras and handheld devices in the city. This seems to be less distracting for the viewer; it maintains the integrity of the concept but adds another interesting layer of meaning to the film.

In addition to offering a fresh take on the superhero genre and a fresh approach to cinematic technique, Chronicle uses some nifty special effects in showing how the boys learn how to develop and control their powers. The subplots involving Andrew’s dying mother and abusive father are also powerful in helping us to understand Andrew as more than a two-dimensional comic-book character. This is a movie that film buffs will enjoy almost as much as the teen audience it seems designed to attract.


Editor's Note: Review of "Chronicle," directed by Josh Trank. Davis Entertainment, 2011, 83 minutes.



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Not Just a 9/11 Flick

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To say that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about 9/11 is akin to saying that Moby-Dick is about a whale. Yes, the attack on the Twin Towers is an essential part of the story, but it is used as a metaphor, not as a plotline. The attack provides a setting and a backdrop for exploring the universal issues of grief and crisis, and of family relationships. This film is about fathers and sons, and about mothers, too. It is about trying to make sense out of something that is essentially senseless.

Death is always cataclysmic. It always feels like two giant towers collapsing. When one person dies, another disintegrates. That's the larger point of this film.

Many elements of the movie just don't seem to make sense — initially. The central figure, 9-year-old Oskar (Thomas Horn), simply isn't reacting properly. When he returns home from school on the morning the Towers come down, he's too flippant with the doorman, and too calm when he enters his apartment. The doorman is flippant in return. I was in New York that day. I know what it was like. And it wasn't like this — calm and normal, as though nothing had happened at all.

Before long, however, I realized that this was the other point of the film. It challenges our ideas of what "normal" means. And "proper." And "making sense." The film's series of mistakes isn't really a mistake. It is a deliberate means of conveying an idea: life doesn't make sense, but we have to try to make sense of it anyway.

To make this point, director Stephen Daldry uses a precocious young boy as his central figure. Oskar has a remarkably close relationship with his father (Tom Hanks), who encourages his young son's imagination with games of discovery and "expeditions." Oskar has "something like Asperger's syndrome," which gives him tremendous focus and memory. It also explains his odd reactions in the first half hour of the film. His condition provides not only a skewed point of view, but a metaphor.

Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

The film's title is about Oskar's reaction to sensory stimulation, not to the planes flying into the Towers. Oskar has extraordinary intelligence, but struggles to make sense of ordinary things, like sidewalk lines and answering machines. Similarly, we struggle to make sense of the crises that happen in our lives. Death is an "ordinary" thing. It happens every day. But when it happens to someone we know and love, it isn't ordinary at all. And it does not make sense.

When Oskar finds a key inside a vase in his father's closet, he is convinced that it will lead him to something profound that his father left for him. With his unusual focus and quirky intelligence he devises a plan and sets out on a journey that will take him over the boroughs of New York, searching for a message from his father. He knows it will be nearly impossible, but he says, "If things were easy to find, they wouldn't be worth finding."

Along the way Oskar meets dozens of New Yorkers. Many of them have experienced a profound loss. Their losses are not as public or as shared as the losses experienced at the Towers that day, but they are felt just as deeply. Grief, we come to realize, does not have to be public to be cataclysmic.

Early trailers focused on the scenes that include Tom Hanks, a multiple Oscar winner and box-office draw. This makes good marketing sense, even though Hanks is seldom on screen. But after the Oscars were announced last week and Max von Sydow was nominated for best supporting actor, I noticed that the trailers suddenly changed and von Sydow became their new central figure. That makes good business sense too, and even better artistic sense. Von Sydow plays a renter who lives in an apartment across from Oskar's building. Known simply as The Renter, he has experienced a trauma that prevents him from speaking, but not from communicating. Von Sydow is simply brilliant in the role. His expressions transcend the need for words.

As Oskar's mother, Sandra Bullock also demonstrates a wide range of emotions, from numbness to horror to sadness to joy. Yes, even joy, amid the loss. Her grief is almost too painful to watch as she realizes that her husband is doomed, yet she never steps into the realm of melodrama. She manages to stay authentic and vulnerable in every scene.

I wish the same could be said for Thomas Horn as Oskar. He speaks precociously enough, and his moment of cathartic crisis is believably powerful. But he does not portray Asperger’s (or the condition that is "like Asperger’s") well. He has the actions down, but something is missing. Or, more to the point, something almost imperceptible is not missing from the look on his face. It keeps the film from quite making sense . . . but that seems to be the point too, doesn't it?

I wasn't planning to see Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I really wasn't ready to see a schmaltzy, melodramatic movie about the day the Twin Towers were attacked, and that's exactly what the early trailers led me to believe Extremely Loud would be. But when it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award, I felt an obligation to review it, even if just to say, "What was the Academy thinking?"

Having seen it now, I have to admit: the Academy was right. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is another of this season's artistic gems. I don't think it deserves the Oscar, but it certainly does deserve the recognition of an Oscar nod.


Editor's Note: Review of "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," directed by Stephen Daldry. Paramount, 2011, 129 minutes.



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Sad and Confused

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In 1996 Margaret Thatcher was the keynote speaker at the Foundation for Economic Education's 50th anniversary banquet at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. It was such a big event, and Thatcher was such a gigantic speaker, that William F. Buckley, a formidable force in conservative circles, agreed to appear as a moderator rather than a speaker.

Buckley’s role was simply to introduce Lady Thatcher and handle questions during her presentation. He was told to keep things moving and not let the answers go on for more than a couple of minutes. Buckley took his job seriously, standing up after two minutes to gently let Mrs. Thatcher know it was time to stop talking and let him ask the next question.

But Lady Thatcher was having none of that. She had handled the members of Parliament for over 30 years; she could certainly handle William F. Buckley! A questioner asked about China; Lady Thatcher began speaking; and after two minutes, Buckley stood up. Thatcher continued speaking. Buckley edged toward the microphone. Body language shouted for Thatcher to yield.

She did not. The Iron Lady filibustered on China for several minutes. She talked about politics. She talked about industry. She talked about pandas! She spoke eloquently and intelligently, including specific names and details. She knew her stuff. Buckley stood beside her like an errant fool, until he finally backed away and sat down. Only then did Thatcher conclude her remarks on China and graciously ask, "Next question?"

She was a lady throughout. She never scowled, she never lost her temper, she never stopped speaking. But she had a spine of iron. The great William F. Buckley was put soundly in his place, with grace and good manners. And she gave the audience a jolly good show. I've never forgotten it.

We see none of that character and grace in The Iron Lady, now in theaters with more than a few whispers of another Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep. Streep is indeed wonderful in the role she is playing. She shuffles with the hesitant gait of a woman in her 90s. She mimics Thatcher’s voice and cadence. She carries her unnecessary handbag with the dignity of the Queen. But she projects none of the grit, power, and philosophy that made Margaret Thatcher one of the most important leaders of the 20th century. For most of the film, her Thatcher is pathetic and befuddled.

We do not go to a movie about Margaret Thatcher to see how sadly she has aged. We want to see her in her greatness, not her twilight.

The Iron Lady opens on an elderly nondescript woman shuffling through a grocery store, hesitating over whether to purchase a quart or a pint of milk. She selects the smaller container, pays the grocer her meager 49 pence, then shuffles out, bumping into other shoppers who refuse to yield for the seeming bag lady. After returning home to breakfast, she complains to her husband (Jim Broadbent) about the price of milk. This is not the prime minister who rescued England from bankruptcy; this is the grocer's daughter who seems to live now in the projects.

Worse, it turns out that Dennis Thatcher has been dead from cancer for several years. Nevertheless, he and Margaret talk to each other throughout the film. He is in her dressing room, her kitchen, her living room, her bed. She knows he is dead. She knows she is hallucinating. But she talks to him anyway. It's natural to speak to a deceased loved one and say "I miss you" out loud. Jimmy Stewart "talks" to Martha at her graveside in Shenandoah. Heath Ledger poignantly breathes the smell of Jake Gyllenhaal's shirt at the end of "Brokeback Mountain." Streep does something similar when she goes into Dennis's closet and breathes in the smells from his jacket. But she goes way beyond portraying grief. Streep’s Thatcher is bereft, bewildered, and befogged.

It is true that Mrs. Thatcher has suffered a couple of strokes in the past few years, and it may be that her mind has become befuddled. She's 87 years old. But we do not go to a movie about Margaret Thatcher to see how sadly she has aged. Or to see how well Meryl Streep can play an aged woman. We want to see evidence of Thatcher's iron will, her brilliant economic philosophy, her political wit and candor. We want to see her in her greatness, not her twilight.

As so often happens in Hollywood when filmmakers portray conservative heroes, the producers of this film are fascinated by their subject but unwilling to give her credit for her accomplishment. We see numerous scenes of IRA bombings and union riots. We hear voiceover about spending cuts, unemployment, and Britons' inability to pay their mortgages. Thatcher proclaims at one point that they will need to close inefficient mines.

All this makes the film very timely, reminding the audience of current events in America: high unemployment, falling wages, mortgages in default, out-of-control deficits, and Romney's ill-advised statement, "I love to fire people." What's missing is the mountain of good that was accomplished by Thatcher's privatization policies, under which government workers were given the opportunity to own shares in the privatized utilities for which they worked.

I lived in London during the ’80s. I saw the results of privatization. Allow me one personal example. When we bought our flat in 1985, we wanted to add a second phone line. We were told we would have to wait at least two years for a number to become available. We also needed some repair work done on the existing phone line, for which we were given an appointment six months in the future. Six months! We were stuck with the antiquated instrument itself. Brits could not even purchase their own equipment; everything belonged to the government utility, and the government utility was not about to update the phone.

As so often happens in Hollywood when filmmakers portray conservative heroes, the producers of this film are fascinated by their subject but unwilling to give her credit for her accomplishment.

A couple of years later, after the phone company had been privatized, I called again to have my phone repaired. A repairman was at my flat the following morning. In a few short years the company had become profitable, efficient, and prompt. Yes, some people lost their jobs, especially from the ranks of bloated, redundant management. Cutting costs does hurt in the short run. But they were offered severance packages and early retirement opportunities. In the long run, the entire citizenry profited from lower costs and better technology. The filmmakers deliberately overlook this point, and all points like it.

Instead, we see glimpses of Thatcher's life through the eyes of a sad, confused old woman. Occasionally she reaches back into her days as the daughter of a grocer (albeit a grocer who was active in local politics), determined to "make one's life matter," and to her decade as prime minister. But these scenes are brief and unsatisfying. They focus mostly on her ineptness as a mother, her shrillness as a speaker, her bouffant makeover, and her problems with being accepted by Parliament.

I ask you: would Dennis have been criticized for choosing to go into politics instead of staying home to raise the children? Yet Margaret is vilified for her decision — and by a triumvirate of females, no less: woman screenwriter, woman director, woman producer. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) flounces off in anger when Margaret announces that she is going to stand for the leadership of the Conservative party, and apparently the audience is supposed to be sympathetic — to Carol! When the elderly Mrs. Thatcher looks through a box of mementoes, it is filled with hand-drawn cards and crayoned pictures that say "I love you Daddy." None are written to "Mummy." This hardly seems fair, especially in today's climate of opinion. If a man isn’t criticized for leaving his family while he goes to work, why should a woman be?

Thatcher brought a unique sensibility to her role as prime minister. As she wrote in at least one letter to the parents of a soldier killed in the Falklands War: "I am the only prime minister in Britain's history to have been a mother." She had long-term vision, coupled with an understanding of short-term costs. She was exactly what Britain needed. She should be remembered as a woman who devoted 50 years of her life to public service. She should not be remembered as a pathetic old lady who barely knows her own name.

The young Margaret Thatcher is played winningly by Alexandra Roach. Perhaps if Roach had been prosthetically aged and allowed to play the entire role, The Iron Lady would have been an engaging and enlightening biopic similar to the very fine film The Queen (2006), in which Helen Mirren gives an intimate and insightful portrait of Queen Elizabeth. Instead, The Iron Lady is simply a vehicle for Ms. Streep to demonstrate her considerable skill at mimicry.

This is not necessarily Streep's fault. She did not write the script. But I doubt that she bears any of the admiration for her subject that Mirren bears for hers. I'm certain that she enjoyed portraying Thatcher as the shuffling, elderly, hallucinatory woman who was written for her to play. She will probably receive her umpteenth Oscar nomination for the role.

I just hope she never has the bad fortune to meet Lady Thatcher in public. I suspect Streep would receive a gracious, well-mannered cold shoulder that would make Buckley's treatment at the FEE banquet look like a warm embrace. And it would be much better deserved than the Oscar nomination she is likely to receive.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Iron Lady," directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Weinstein Productions, 2012, 105 minutes.



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Restoring a Lost Art

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Most contemporary filmgoers do not well understand — much less appreciate — that early, unique cinematic art form known as the silent movie or silent film. The silent era in cinema lasted roughly from the mid-1890s to the early 1930s. It created thousands of films. It created the film industry, both in America and worldwide. That era is the focus of a fine little art flick called The Artist,playing now at selected locations.

Silent films were made, not because filmmakers didn’t want to incorporate sound (dialogue, music, and sound effects) into their productions, but simply because of the formidable technological challenge of coordinating (“synchronizing”) the sound to the rapidly moving frames. So while the first primitive moving pictures appeared in the late 1870s, and the first narrative film in 1888, and movies were popular throughout the industrialized world from the late 1890s on, sound took a generation more to develop.

The first attempt to create sound pictures began at the Edison Company in 1896, but really viable film-sound technology only emerged during the period from 1921 to 1929. (To be precise, there were a number of competing sound technologies during this time.) The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first movie that included sound and was a commercial success, but most movies in 1928 and 1929 were still silent. Only in the early 1930s did silent films essentially disappear. A few movies were specifically made as silent films by the artistic choice of the producers. Especially notable was the choice of Charlie Chaplin to make City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) as silent flicks.

The earnings of the top silent films show how popular they could be, despite their limitations. My figures may be a little off — I had to convert early-20th-century dollar earnings into 2011 dollars — but the top ten American silent films earned big dollars. The top grossing silent movie was The Birth of a Nation (1915)at $217 million, followed by $81 million for The Big Parade (1925), $70 million for Ben-Hur (1925), $58 million for Way Down East (1920), $54 million for The Gold Rush (1925), $49 million for The Covered Wagon (1923), $48 million for The Circus (1928), $45 million for The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), $45 million for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and $44 million for The Ten Commandments (1923).

Playing chase sequences, for example, at higher rates of speed seemed to enhance the suspense.

These are very impressive gross earnings, especially when you remember that the nation had a much smaller population back then — about 100 million in 1915 and maybe 120 million in 1928, which is only about 30% to 40% of our present population. The nation was also much poorer. The average household had dramatically less money for entertainment than today’s household. Finally, the distribution channel was much smaller, with many rural communities not having any theaters at all.

Despite the accomplishments, artistic as well as commercial, of the silent era, it is difficult for modern audiences to appreciate them. The reasons arise from the nature of the medium.

Begin with acting. Obviously, silent movies had to convey their stories by pantomime. True, the pantomime was aided by “title cards” (also called “intertitles,” key lines of dialogue or commentary about the action, printed out on screen) and typically a musical score. The score was played on piano, organ, or (in larger setttings) a pit orchestra. At the peak of their popularity, silent film theaters were the largest source of employment for instrumental musicians.

But music — while a vital tool in conveying tone and enhancing emotion — can’t supply much if any narrative detail. Indeed, to try to do so — as did some early scores, by, say, using an ascending scale to mirror a movie character's ascending a stair — is apt to create a cartoonish effect. And the title cards were inherently limited. If producers had tried to put any appreciable amount of dialog text on screen, the audience would have spent most of the evening reading.

So pantomime bore the brunt of conveying the narrative. And in many cases (early on, at least), directors encouraged actors to accentuate their gestures, facial expressions, and other body language in the hope of amplifying communication. Unfortunately, this led to a kind of acting that strikes modern viewers as “mugging,” and at best a kind of campy comedy. There was a gem of a TV comedy series that played in 1963–64 that exploited the hamminess of some of the silent films: Fractured Flickers, produced by Jay Scott and hosted by Hans Conried. The series would take classic silent films and do funny voiceovers.

But it is fair to observe that the movie-going public in the silent era increasingly preferred more naturalistic acting, and major actors such as Greta Garbo, Lillian Gish, Sessue Hayakawa, and Mary Pickford accommodated their work to a more restrained style. Still, silent film acting does take some time to get used to.

Another problem is that during the silent era, film shooting and projection speeds were not standardized. Projection speed became so only early in the sound era. Silent films were shot at speeds (“frame rates”) ranging from 12 to 26 frames per second (fps), depending on the country or even studio of origin. Complicating things even further is the practice of some directors who consciously intended their films to be projected at variable speeds and gave instructions to projectionists accordingly. (They did this because playing chase sequences, for example, at higher rates of speed seemed to enhance the suspense.) Also, projecting cellulose nitrate film (the standard medium of the silent era) too slowly dramatically increased the risk of fire.

As a consequence, when early TV showed silent movies, they were often played at incorrect speeds. Add to this the fact that the films were by then often severely deteriorated, and the unintended consequence was to make audiences simply dismiss as inferior an artistic medium that was in fact quite powerful.

Film directors, critics, and historians long have tried to combat that sorry consequence. Many university film departments worldwide have worked to preserve and restore silent films, and the Turner Classic Movie channel shows some of the best of them.

Moreover, directors throughout the sound era have occasionally produced homages to the silent era. Need I mention the great film Sunset Boulevard, in which actual silent era movie star Gloria Swanson plays fictional movie star Norma Desmond, a woman unable to come to grips with her eclipse by talking pictures? Or perhaps the greatest of musicals, Singin’ in the Rain, which was based on the transition of cinema from the silent to the sound era?

It is in light of all these factors that we should consider the film under review. The Artist is a joint French-American production, and it is a well-written comedy-drama. It is mainly silent, though sound enters toward the end. It is therefore reminiscent of some 1940s films — such as The Moon and Sixpence and The Picture of Dorian Gray — that were shot in black and white, but shifted to color to accentuate an effect; and the 1939 classic, The Wizard of Oz, in which the scenes that take place in presumably dull, real-life rural Kansas are done in black and white, while the scenes that happen in the magical, imaginary world of Oz are shot in color.

Some silent film stars were disdainful of the talkies’ new technology, thinking it inherently less aesthetically powerful than the old.

The protagonist of The Artist is George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), a popular “leading man” in silent films. We see clips of his (fictional) movies, in which he comes across as a combination of Rudolf Valentino (hence his name) and a Douglas Fairbanks type of screen action hero. While he is meeting the press after the screening of his new movie, a very beautiful young admirer, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) literally bumps into him. She is photographed with him and winds up on the front page of Variety with the headline, “Who’s That Girl?”

A short time later, George runs into Peppy on the lot as she stands in line for an audition to be part of a chorus line in a musical. He pushes the studio head Al Zimmer (John Goodman) to give her a minor part in his new film.

This sets up the story's central dynamic. Peppy’s career rapidly rises, but two years later, when talkies take over the industry, George's plummets. He can’t make the transition — for reasons initially unclear — and takes to drink, hitting bottom when he sets fire to his own home.

He is rescued in the short term by his exceptional dog, and in the long term by Peppy’s exceptional love. She not only saves him — she works to save his career.

Now, it is historically true that some silent film stars wouldn’t or couldn’t make the transition to sound flicks. There were a variety of reasons. Some actors (especially those who directed their own films) were disdainful of the new technology, thinking it inherently less aesthetically powerful than the old. Some had pronounced foreign accents, which audiences didn’t expect, at a time — like our own — when anti-immigrant feelings were running high among the general public. Others, especially actors without extensive stage experience, had diction and grammar problems. And some had weak or — in the case of a few male action leads — effeminate voices.

When George finally does speak at the end of the film, we get a clue as to why he had problems making the transition. I won't spoil the film by telling you what it is.

How is the acting in this film about actors? It's outstanding, with strong performances by Dujardin as George and Bejo as Peppy. Bejo is particularly appealing. To me, she is very reminiscent of the marvelous French actress and dancer Leslie Caron, and that's saying a lot.

Absolutely delightful in support — doing silent acting as if it were their first careers — are veteran American actors John Goodman as studio head Zimmer, and James Cromwell as Clifton, George’s faithful chauffeur and valet. And I simply must mention Uggie, who plays Dog, George’s dog. I can’t recall a better performance by a, yes, again, dog in any recent film.

Michel Hazanavicius has done a marvelous job of directing, eliciting robust but still restrained performances from actors none of whom — including the canine! — had ever done a silent film. He also wrote the script, aiming to fulfill a long-standing desire to create a contemporary silent film. (He is also married to the beautiful Bejo.) It's a risky and exciting enterprise, and Hazanavicius succeeded. He clearly spent a good deal of time studying silent film, and profiting from his studies. He performs with panache the difficult task of writing melodrama with comedic touches — and using few title cards.

The film has already won Dujardin a Best Actor award at Cannes, Hazanavicius a nomination for a Palme d’Or, and Uggie a Palm Dog award. The New York Film Critics Circle just awarded Hazanavicius the Best Director award, and gave the film the Best Picture.award. I have no doubt that many more awards are in store.

I recommend seeing this picture with young people if possible. I brought my daughter and her two friends, all young women in their twenties. None had ever seen a silent film before. All of them were entranced by this film, and had no trouble following the action or keeping their interest.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Artist," directed by Michel Hazanavicius. La Petite Reine-La Classe Americaine, 2011, 100 minutes.



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Adventures and Explanations

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December is the month when a slew of movies are released, from family films hoping to warm a few hearts, to independent films hoping for Oscar recognition, to franchise installments hoping to be "the Christmas blockbuster" this year. Ironically, December is also the month when we have the least amount of time for moviegoing. But not to worry! They will still be around in January. Here are two you may want to see.

Both are action thrillers that fit the last category above — new installments in the highly successful Sherlock Holmes and Mission Impossible franchises. Both feature handsome megastars (Robert Downey, Jr. and Tom Cruise), likable supporting characters, sardonic wit, and ample fight scenes with breathtaking risks. And both of this season’s offerings feature arms-dealing villains set on starting a war in order to make a buck.

One works brilliantly. The other falls a little flat.

To understand why one works and one doesn't, a little literary history is in order. When Edgar Allan Poe invented the deductive armchair detective, Auguste Dupin, in 1842, he wisely created a slightly dense sidekick to go along with him and narrate the story. Poe’s unnamed narrator needed to have everything explained to him. Obviously, this narrator represented the unseen audience. We readers were the ones who really needed the explanation, and Dupin kindly and patiently complied, providing a logical account of the proceedings to the narrator, who then provided it to us.

Forty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle patterned his soon-to-be-famous Sherlock Holmes on Poe's Dupin, right down to the deerstalker hat and the Meerschaum pipe. His narrator had a name, Dr. Watson, and Watson became our interpreter within the stories. Rex Stout followed the same pattern, providing Archie Goodwin as the narrator of the great detective Nero Wolfe’s affairs. And so the tradition continued.

Director Guy Ritchie's new interpretation of Holmes lifts him out of Basil Rathbone's meditative moods and puts him back in the field of action, where he started. Doyle's Holmes was a pugilist, sword fighter, magician, martial artist, drug addict, and master of disguise. Downey plays him with unbalanced spunk and daring. (See my review in Liberty, March 2010).

But alas! Ritchie has broken with tradition in an unfortunate way. He has decided in this new installment, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, to make Watson (Jude Law) more an unwilling partner than a narrator. Gone are the patient, patronizing explanations to the dunderheaded Watson of the Rathbone films. Watson now fights side by side with Holmes. As a result, the audience has trouble following the plot, which involves Holmes with a widening array of bad guys and gals. Suspense is suspended, because we can't understand the significance of the various discoveries or characters. A Game of Shadows is an apt subtitle. The story is murky and illegible.

The film sports many exciting fight scenes, but we never quite know why various people are chasing Holmes and Watson. As in the previous episode, Ritchie employs an effective technique of showing Holmes's deductive reasoning by using a dark filter for scenes that take place in Holmes's mind. But fight scenes and funny disguises are not enough to carry a film. I was sadly disappointed by this much-anticipated release.

By contrast, the writers of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol learned their lessons well from Messrs. Poe and Doyle. They employ not one but two likable dunderheads (Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner), both of whom are analysts reluctantly pulled into performing as operatives in the field. Throughout the mission, Ethan (Tom Cruise) must explain to them who the next bad guy is and why they have to go after him. This keeps the audience in the know, and we are ready to continue into the next hair-raising stunt.

And they are hair-raising indeed. Ethan escapes prison, breaking arms and noses along the way. He climbs the outside of a structure over 100 stories high. He catapults into buildings and jumps from level to level in a parking garage. He outruns a dust storm. He never quits.

Then there are the trademark maneuvers we have come to expect in a Mission Impossible film: Jumping onto flying vehicles. Hanging spread-eagled inside a government building. Going rogue because the government has disavowed Ethan yet again. And, of course, Tom Cruise running like the wind through crowded streets, as he has done in nearly every film since The Firm in 1993. Add to this a wittier script than we got in previous MI episodes, and we have a close-to-perfect action thriller.

If you have time on your hands this season, you should see both these films. They’re both fun, despite the bad things I said about one of them. But if you're going to see only one, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is certainly the one to choose.


Editor's Note: Review of "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," directed by Guy Ritchie. Warner Brothers, 2011, 129 minutes; and "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," directed by Brad Bird. Paramount, 2011, 133 minutes.



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"We're Letting Mom Go"

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Like the very fine film Contagion, which I reviewed earlier this year, The Descendants focuses on a man who must deal with the death of his wife. And, as in Contagion, this man discovers, after the fact, that his wife had been having an affair. The concept gives one pause: if you left the office this afternoon and didn’t make it back home, what secrets would your loved ones discover while trying to put back together the pieces of their lives? Would their memory of you be forever shadowed by some discovery that you were no longer alive to explain?

Although I would never condone an extramarital relationship, I felt sad for both of these cheating characters (especially when I read the book version of The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings).  We all wear different labels for different occasions. Yes, Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie) must wear the label “Adulterer,” but she also wears the label “Mother.” And “Friend.” And “Adventurer.” And “Artist.” And “Wife.” And, apparently, “Neglected Wife.” Is it fair that “Adulterer” is the only one by which she will be remembered?

Matt King (George Clooney) seems to recognize this. He admits in voiceover narration that “before the accident we hadn’t spoken in three days. In a way, we hadn’t spoken in months.” Similarly, he acknowledges that he hasn’t spent time alone with his daughters Scottie (Amanda Miller) and Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) in at least seven years. He’s a busy attorney as well as the executor of a family trust that belongs to the descendants of King Kamehameha of Hawaii. In the latter role he has the responsibility of deciding what to do with a huge parcel of undeveloped land on Kauai before the trust is dissolved in seven years. While his wife lies in a coma, he is trying to decide which of several development offers to accept. This family trust provides a backdrop and metaphor for the family drama unfolding in the foreground.

When Matt discovers — from teenaged Alexandra, no less — that Elizabeth had been cheating on him, he decides to track down her paramour. Not to punch him, mind you, although that thought brings a smile to Matt’s face. Somehow he is able to feel enough love and compassion, and perhaps even guilt, to give his wife and her lover the opportunity to say goodbye. The journey to find the lover becomes, in a sense, a journey for Matt to find himself and, in the process, to change his own label to “Father.”

As he surveys the land that is owned jointly by his cousins, Matt muses, “We didn’t do anything to own this land — it was just entrusted to us.” In a way, this is true of families as well. We fall in love, we get married, and children show up. We don’t do anything to prove that we are ready for them. We don’t have to get a training manual to raise them (yet). But they are entrusted to us nevertheless. Matt goes on to note about the land trust, “We were expected to protect this land. I have seven years left to figure out how to keep it.” His family is like that, too. He is already a father genetically; he has about seven years left to become a father in fact.

Set in Hawaii, The Descendants provides a rustic glimpse of the close-knit, laid-back life of the native Hawaiians who aren’t really all that “native” — many of them are blonde and blue-eyed. One can almost smell the frangipani in the background and feel the warm sidewalks under their bare feet. The art on the walls of the various homes is also uniquely Hawaiian, creating a visual luau of colors and designs. It is a lovely film in every respect.

As is usually the case, however, the novel on which the film is based has more depth than the screenplay. Film adaptations always have to take shortcuts to fit the story inside the movie’s limited time structure, and character development often suffers in the process. While The Descendants is a good film, I missed the nuances that come out in the book, where we see more of Elizabeth, her background, her motivation, and the joy and tragedy of her life than we do in the film.

Several years ago, some new acquaintances told me their “how we met” story. John had been married to Mary’s sister Kathleen, and when Kathleen contracted cancer, Mary came to help nurse her and take care of their children. On the way home from Kathleen’s funeral, one of the children volunteered from the backseat, “Aunt Mary, can you be our new mommy?” And that is what happened. John and Mary thought this was a wonderfully happy and romantic story. From their perspective it is. But my heart went out to Kathleen. On the way home from the funeral? They couldn’t mourn her and let her be the mommy for just a little while longer?

I thought of that story as I watched Matt become a father to his daughters. After the doctor tells Matt that there isn't any hope for Elizabeth's recovery, Matt says to ten-year-old Scottie, "We're letting Mom go tomorrow." He says it matter-of-factly, almost as he might say, "We're letting the maid go" or, "We're letting the gardener go." The Neglected Wife became the Adulterer, and "Mother" is erased from her resume. I was happy for Matt and his daughters to have rekindled their bond. But my heart ached for Elizabeth. It made me want to go home and throw away all my secrets.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Descendants," directed by Alexander Payne. Fox Searchlight - ad hominem enterprises, 2011, 115 minutes.



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