Trio

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Three films opened this month that are very different but have certain characteristics in common: lush settings, larger-than-life characters, Technicolor dream sequences, and stories that ask us to consider the price of following dreams. Each of these films showcases the unrelenting demands of pursuing art, and is a work of art itself. A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition. Relationships often fall by the wayside. In these three films, dreams and relationships battle for the hearts of the protagonists.

The best of the three is La La Land, a modern take on the “I want to be a star” Hollywood musical; it will undoubtedly be nominated for an Oscar this year. The title offers a “la-de-da” to people who have the audacity to dream big as well as a nod to L.A., where dreams are often made — and broken. The film opens during a Category Five traffic jam on an L.A. overpass, complete with a splashy flash mob in which drivers in brightly colored costumes leave their cars, pirouette between the lanes, cartwheel across hoods, leap from highway dividers, and generally exude the joy of a drive to the beach rather than the frustration of traffic. This is Hollywood, where anything can happen. The scene is filmed in a single take, reminiscent of the demanding single-take direction of Fred Astaire as well as the opening scene of the star-studded film The Player (1992).

A dream is a harsh mistress and a jealous lover. She requires absolute fidelity and will countenance no competition.

Definitely not in a beachgoing mood during that traffic jam are aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who is late for an audition, and aspiring jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who is late for a gig. Their paths will continue to cross throughout the film as each pursues the La La dreams of La La land. Mia is a gifted actress who can’t get casting directors to pay attention during her auditions. Sebastian is a gifted pianist who is stifled by the inane playlists demanded for the weddings, birthday parties, and restaurant gigs he takes to pay the bills. After several near-misses, when they finally meet it’s a symphony of romance as they break into numerous dances that echo such iconic pieces as Kelly and Charisse breaking into dance along the Seine in An American in Paris; Kelly and Reynolds dancing in the sky in “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain; and Astaire and Rogers “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat. Emma Stone is no Ginger Rogers, but Ryan Gosling is smooth and graceful enough for both of them, and Mandy Moore wisely choreographed steps that make the scenes magical even for non-trained dancers.

The chemistry between the two is touching and believable. But dreams are jealously demanding. On their first real date, Mia and Sebastian sit side by side in a movie theater, watching Rebel without a Cause. The camera closes in on just their two hands. His thumb leans toward hers. Her thumb leans toward his. They touch. His hand opens. Her hand fills it and their fingers intertwine. The camera moves to their faces, and their heads tentatively lean toward each other as well. Then just as he moves in for a kiss, the film they are watching snags and burns, and the lights go up. The moment ends. That small scene is a metaphor for La La Land, where dreams are filled with hope and anticipation in the privacy of the dark, but too often snag and burn in the cold light of day.

While the film is obviously a well-crafted paean to legendary movie musicals, it is fresh and modern in its presentation. Sebastian’s former bandmate Keith (John Legend) says about Sebastian’s purist view of jazz: “How are you gonna be a revolutionary if you're such a traditionalist? You hold onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” Writer and director Damien Chazelle doesn’t hold onto the past for this film but gives it wings to tell his story. Ryan Gosling also makes the film work, not only because he is such a skilled actor, but also because of his dedication to making it feel real. He reportedly spent two hours a day, six days a week, for two years learning how to play these piano pieces well enough to avoid having to cut to a hand double for the intricate musical scenes. His work is stunning throughout the film, from his graceful dancing to his powerful keyboard work to his poignant gestures and facial expressions.

If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness.

The final scene of the film is breathtaking and heart wrenching and oh-so-true. I went back to see the film a second time, just to experience that scene once more. La La Land lives up to all the hype the advertising has created. It’s whimsical, gorgeous, and deep. Young Damien Chazelle (only 31 years old!), who also wrote and directed the award-winning Whiplash (2014) about the painful path of a gifted drummer, is a gifted artist himself who seems to know a lot about the price of dreams. He’s one to watch.

Rules Don’t Apply is another film that focuses on the emotional price of pursuing dreams and the different paths to achieving them. Like La La Land, it’s set in Hollywood’s heyday, and music helps to tell its story. It also offers lush sets and costumes. But it is more quirky than whimsical, and it tells a more direct story. Warren Beatty plays the eccentric and mysterious Hollywood mogul and airplane innovator Howard Hughes, but this should not be construed as a Howard Hughes biopic. Hughes is a symbol of the choices and obstacles the main characters face as they try to get their first big breaks.

Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) is an innocent ingénue in Hughes’ stable of innocent ingénues waiting for her first screen test; Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) is employed by Hughes as Marla’s driver, but his real goal is to convince Hughes to invest with him in an undeveloped piece of land in the Hollywood Hills (we recognize from the view that this piece of land would become one of the priciest and most desirable in southern California). Levar (Matthew Broderick) also had dreams of personal achievement, but he has worked for Hughes so long that the dreams have been all but forgotten. Hughes, too, has had to forgo some dreams in order to pursue others that seemed more meaningful.

Adding to Hughes’s own fastidious eccentricity is the fact that Maria and Frank both come from strong religious backgrounds with archaic attitudes about premarital sex, and these attitudes contribute charmingly to the development of the plot. Not only must all of the characters decide which dreams are worth pursuing; they must also decide which values are worth most to them in the long run.

The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club.

Beatty wrote, directed, produced, and stars in Rules Don’t Apply. Although he plays Howard Hughes to eccentric perfection, Hughes seems to be a vehicle for Beatty to explore his own pursuit of stardom and the price he paid to achieve it. If there is one rule to be derived from this film about achieving dreams and relationships, it is that rules can’t apply to those who pursue greatness. Rules are created from past experience and imposed from outside. As Sebastian discovered in La La Land, success comes from looking to the future and creating something new. Rules can be useful guides, but they beg to be broken by true artists. Still, there is a price to be paid for breaking the rules, and each of the characters in this film must decide which rules do apply, and which rules don’t.

The third film in my trilogy of dreamscapes is darker than the other two, more thriller than thrilling. Nocturnal Animals opens with a grotesque montage of extremely naked, extremely obese women dancing pseudo-seductively. The visual effect is more in keeping with a circus sideshow than a strip club. It turns out to be the opening of an art show mounted by glamorous and successful artist Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) whose shtick is painting grossly obese women. As the camera pulls back to reveal the art gallery, several of the women are lying immobile and face down, making it feel as though the women should be surrounded by yellow caution tape, not picture frames.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes. The rest of the film is one of the most engaging I have seen this season. It comprises three intertwining stories, all featuring the gifted Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist.

When Susan returns to her luxurious home, she receives an advance manuscript of a book written by her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal) and dedicated to her. Edward and Susan were married when they were both young and aspiring, she as an artist and he as a writer. She begins reading the manuscript immediately, and its plot becomes the main storyline of our film. In it, Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal) is embarking on a long road trip with his wife (Isla Fischer, who is often mistaken for Amy Adams) and daughter (Ellie Bamber). In the middle of the night and the middle of nowhere, three crazed young men run them off the road, kidnap the women, and leave Tony for dead. The rest of his book is a tense and frightening crime thriller, which dominates the movie. The flow of that story is interrupted frequently by a return to Susan reading the book. Scenes of her life with her current husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) and scenes of her earlier relationship with Edward create the other two interwining storylines, stories that often have an eerie resemblance to scenes that are unfolding in the novel.

Director Tom Ford is a fashion designer who also makes movies, and it shows. The storytelling is remarkable, but the cinematic effect is exquisite. His serene composition of women lying on a couch in matching scenes from different storylines is particularly beautiful and artistic. Nocturnal Animals is a story about love, loss, betrayal, revenge, dreams exposed, dreams achieved, and dreams destroyed. And redheads. There are so many characters in this film with long, luxurious red hair! This is a movie you will think about long after the final credits roll.

You’ll be happy to know that the film never returns to the grotesque dancing nudes.

The three stories in Nocturnal Animals intertwine in unexpected, artistic ways, and so do the three films reviewed here. Two are set in Hollywood. Two feature original jazz pieces whose lyrics highlight the theme. Two pivot unexpectedly on abortion. Two feature redheads. Two focus on the often-dogmatic demands of religion. All demonstrate the inexorable effect of choices.

To paraphrase Robert Frost, as choices are made “way leads on to way,” taking us further and further from alternative paths. Although the protagonists in all of these films freely choose paths less traveled to pursue what they value most, each film ends with a tone of regret for the road not taken. The path to glory is often a lonely one that ends with a sigh for what might have been.


Editor's Note: Review of "La La Land," directed by Damien Chazelle. Black Label Media, 2016, 128 minutes; "Rules Don’t Apply," directed by Warren Beatty. Regency Enterprises, RatPac Entertainment, 2016, 127 minutes; and "Nocturnal Animals," directed by Tom Ford. Focus Features, 2016, 116 minutes.



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And the Winner Is . . .

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Who would ever have thought that a Mad Max film would earn a nomination for Best Picture from the staid and serious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? “Oh what a day — what a lovely day!” was my reaction when I heard the news (quoting a character from the film).

I wrote in my review last spring: “The characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.” Do I think it will win? Not a chance. But as I wrote in that review, “for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.”

I’ve already reviewed half of the nominees for Best Picture, including The Martian ; The Revenant; The Big Short; and Bridge of Spies, in which Tom Hanks once again heads a Best Picture cast without being nominated for Best Actor. Go figure. Here I round out the category by reviewing Spotlight, Room, andBrooklyn.

In 2002 the Boston Globe presented a story that was shocking not only in its subject but in its scope: over the course of several decades, Catholic priests had molested hundreds of children in the Boston area, and the church’s response had been to cover it up by quietly paying settlements and transferring the priests to other areas, where many of them molested other children. “Spotlight” was the name of the investigative team that uncovered the scandal, and it is the name of the film that has been nominated for Best Picture.

"Spotlight" adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and just as dry.

There’s a risk inherent in focusing on the reporters who told the story rather than on the story itself. While we admire the reporters’ diligence, tenacity, and determination to get it right, writing — even when it entails researching and interviewing — is mostly a static pursuit. The actors do their best to make their scenes dynamic and interesting, and the writers did their best to introduce some action for the reporters: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) jogs to work and attends a baseball game, William Robinson (Michael Keaton) plays golf, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) does a walk-and-chat through a park with a molestation survivor (Michael Cyril Creighton), and Matt Carol (Brian D’Arcy James) runs up the street to look at a neighboring house. But that’s about it in the action department.

To me, the movie is mostly a script for talking heads. To be sure, it is a well-written script filled with the kind of loaded, eloquent dialogue that writers tend to write, and the subject is clearly important. The actors have been praised for mimicking the real reporters so well, and indeed they gesture skillfully, squint concernedly, touch their faces absently, and adopt careful postures and stances that they have observed by studying the actual reporters. But it looks staged, more artifice than art.

Spotlight also adopts a didactic tone more appropriate to a documentary than a fictional narrative and strangely (for a film with this topic) just as dry. We learn statistics about the “recognizable psychiatric phenomenon” of abusive priests and the cult of secrecy caused by forced celibacy that isn’t really enforced. We hear important opinions about how such heinous crimes could be committed against so many children without anyone stopping it, thoughts such as “if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one,” and “lawyers turned child abuse into a cottage industry” by quietly brokering secret settlements. We also hear moments of bitter irony, as when one survivor says, “the priests preyed on us instead of praying for us,” and when Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who represented the church in covering up the crimes, says after the attacks on the World Trade Center, “Pray for the victims, pray for the injured, pray for those who survived.” The same could be said, of course, for the children who were molested. But this didacticism is hardly original; it was all in the articles we read when the stories broke.

Even worse, the men who had been molested as children — all of them — are portrayed as broken, stunted, and socially inept, not survivors at all, but victims. Sadly, I know many people who were molested as children, most of them by family members or neighbors. They have scars and sorrows, but they are neither broken nor socially inept. Most of them are strong, active, and successful. You simply would not know what they have endured. It isn’t right to portray all of these survivors in this way.

If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release.

Spotlight tells an important story, but despite the protagonists’ success, it isn’t one of those films that makes you cheer their success. Yes, the reporters broke the story and forced the church to do something about the abusive priests. Yes, the film demonstrates journalism at its best in terms of the diligent digging, insistence on accuracy, and compassion toward the survivors interviewed. Yes, it allows hundreds of victims to tell their stories. But despite all this, it is a tedious film, and all I could feel was relief when it was over.

Room addresses a similarly horrifying topic. It’s every parent’s greatest fear: a child goes off to school and doesn’t return. Simply vanishes. Hours go by, then days. Then weeks. Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? Did she run away? Then years. Life is never the same, because you can’t even grieve — you have to keep hope alive, and that means telling yourself that your child isn’t dead, that someday she will walk back through that door, and everything will be the same again. Anything less is betrayal. To “move on” would be like killing her yourself. So you wait. Or maybe you do move on. Either one is agony.

Room tells the story of such a young woman. Joy (Brie Larson) has been kidnapped at the age of 17 and held hostage for seven years in a small shed, where she is abused by her captor every night and has no hope of escape. But if you are looking for (or have been avoiding) a lurid, prurient tale of sexual abuse, you won’t find it here. Instead, the story is told through the innocent eyes of Joy’s five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who, because he has never known any other world than “Room,” is content with his life and the characters who populate it: Sink, Bed, Wardrobe, Chair, Bathtub. The world he sees on the screen of a small television set is just a nice fantasy.

Like the whimsical father (Roberto Benigni) in Life is Beautiful (1997), who shields his little boy from the truth of their captivity in a concentration camp by making a game of it, Joy has determined to create the semblance of a normal life in an abnormal world by acting as though Room is the entire world. If nothing exists on the other side of the door, then there is no reason to grieve or long for release. Jack is content, and his presence makes her life endurable.

Nevertheless, when Joy thinks of a way for Jack to escape, she forces him to take it, no matter what the consequences might be for her. Jack’s terror as he tries to get away from a world that seemed normal to him creates the most harrowing scenes in the film. My heart was racing the whole time.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance.

One would expect that escape from the shed would mark the climax, but it’s really just the middle. Room is told in two solid acts, and in the second we learn that there is more than one way to be imprisoned. Joy’s parents (Joan Allen and William H. Macy) have also been held hostage by Joy’s kidnapping, unable to move forward, unable even to change the room where Joy grew up. They are trapped by their expectations, trapped by their imaginations, trapped by their blaming and their guilt. Jack becomes trapped as well, in a world so gigantic he doesn’t know how to process it. Even more poignantly, Joy has to escape the confining expectations she has nurtured about what it would be like to leave Room and go home. The film asks us to consider what makes a woman a mother, what makes a man a father, and what makes a place a home.

Brooklyn is another Best Picture nominee that asks us to consider what “home” means. Beautifully filmed in Ireland and Brooklyn, as they were in 1951, the sweeping landscapes and nostalgic cityscapes are full of soft blues and greens that highlight the blue-green eyes of the movie’s protagonist, Eilis (Saoirse Ronan). Eilis loves Ireland and her family, but like so many Irish citizens of the period, she is a bright young woman with a drab future as a part-time shopkeeper. When a family friend arranges for an invitation and a job in America, she takes it.

There she lives in a modest boardinghouse run by a motherly woman who watches over the morals of the girls who live with her, even as she pushes them into social situations where they can find a nice Irish immigrant to marry. Eilis finds Tony (Emery Cohen), a nice Italian immigrant, instead. Tony eases Eilis’ homesickness, and they fall sweetly in love. However, when Eilis returns to Ireland for a visit, the familiarity of home wraps itself comfortingly around her. Eventually she must choose between two men who love her: the comfortable Irishman (Domhnall Gleeson) and the New World Italian.

Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man.

That’s about it: just a simple love triangle, the kind you might find in a Harlequin romance. Not your usual Best Picture fare. But the production values lift it to award-winning possibilities. The cinematography is lovely, as are the costumes and set pieces. The music is evocative, and the acting is superb, especially Eilis’ controlled, reserved passion and Tony’s Brandoesque tender exuberance.

Moreover, Brooklyn is more than a romance; it’s a classic journey tale. Eilis journeys not just from Ireland to Brooklyn but from childhood to adulthood. Her choice is not so much about the man who will be her husband as it is about the style of life that goes with the man. At one point Eilis says, “I’m not sure I have a home anymore.” She learns in the end that “Home is where your life is.” And when she chooses the life, she embraces the man.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spotlight," directed by Tom McCarthy. Open Road Films, 2015, 128 minutes; "Room," directed by Lenny Abrahamson. A24, 2015, 118 minutes; and "Brooklyn," directed by John Crowley. Wildgaze Films, 2015, 111 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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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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Not Just Your Typical Zombie Film

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"From forth the fatal loins of these two foes, / A pair of star crossed lovers take their life." These words from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet suggest that humans are controlled by destiny and fate, not by choice and accountability. Romeo and Juliet meet by fate; their families are at war by fate; and their story ends tragically by fate.

The foundation story appears in Greek mythology as "Pyramus and Thisbe," and is oddly set not in Greece, but in an unnamed location in the Orient. This suggests that the story has an even earlier foundation. It is also found in the Old Testament in the form of the story of Dinah, the Israelite daughter who goes for a walk in a heathen town and is taken by a local boy who wants to marry her. Shakespeare set his version of the story in Italy as Romeo and Juliet, and was so taken with the myth that he presented it again in A Midsummer Night's Dream through the clownish traveling troubadours. Prokofiev's ballet is another favorite, especially the powerful "Dance of the Knights" (Montagues and Capulets). Choreographer Jerome Robbins saw the exciting possibilities of Irish and Puerto Rican gangs duking it out through dance and convinced Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents to write West Side Story. Other musicians and artists have adapted the story as well.

Often the sole focus of R&J is the love story, with the feuding families fading so far into the background that it is hard to understand why they are fighting, but that isn't always the case. One of the most fascinating interpretations I have seen of R&J was a recent production by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival set in modern Afghanistan. In this version, Romeo is an American soldier, and Juliet is a local Muslim girl. Audiences truly "got it" in this interpretation when Juliet's mother appeared dressed in a burqa and her father smacked her so hard across the face that she fell down screaming. Still, her love for her soldier endured.

The core story of Romeo and Juliet has resonated throughout the centuries because it represents change and resistance to learned cultural values and prejudices. The star-crossed lovers from warring families epitomize independent thinking, change, tolerance, and acceptance. And it's a great love story to boot.

The latest offering is Warm Bodies, a film that opened this week. The movie focuses more on the differences between the two families, and the allusions are subtler than in most adaptations; in fact, it didn't hit me that R&J was the core story until the balcony scene, and then it all fell into place: the girl named Julie (Teresa Palmer), her dead boyfriend named Perry (Dave Franco), her new boyfriend known as "R" (Nicholas Hoult), her friend Nora (Analeigh Tipton) who wants to be a nurse. Oh — and did I mention that R is a Corpse?

The "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

This unusual adaptation is set in a dystopian future where an incurable disease has turned humans into walking corpses who feed on living humans. Truly serious cases become "boneys," who "will eat anything." Uninfected humans have built a gigantic wall around their city to protect themselves, but they need supplies from the other side. At the center of the film is a love story between Julie, who goes outside the wall with her young friends to forage for medicine, and "R," a cute and quirky young Corpse who narrates the story. He communicates through grunting and doesn't know his own name, but he begins to change because of his growing love for Julie.

The film is fun and clever despite its zombified cast, and the young lovers are fresh and sweet. (Well, she's fresh. He smells like rotten meat — in fact, he protects her from other Corpses by smearing goo on her face to cover her fresh scent. But he does it in a way that is as likely to elicit an "Awww" as an "Ewww" from the audience.)

What sets this film apart is the depth of possibilities provided by the core story — the star-crossed lovers from warring cultural groups who find a common ground of understanding and tolerance. I don't know what director Jonathan Levine and author Isaac Marion intended audiences to think, but that's the beauty of a well-formed myth or metaphor — it can be interpreted in a multitude of ways. I think this version makes an insightful statement about the conflict between working Americans and nonworking Americans.

As the film opens, R is wandering through an abandoned airport. Other Corpses wander there too. "I don't remember my name anymore," he thinks out loud. "Sometimes I look at others and try to imagine what they used to be. We're all dead inside." Like Gregor Samsa, the traveling salesman in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has become a bug, R and the others in the airport have succumbed to the rat race. Work has dehumanized them. "It must have been so much better,” he muses, “when we could communicate and feel things."

Corpses don't work or produce anymore. They just eat people. I see this as a metaphor for the welfare state, in which more and more people are being infected by entitlements. A wall of intolerance is being erected today between working people and nonworking people. There is a deadness in the eye of people who scurry from business meeting to business meeting without time for love and relationships, but the tragedy of not working or producing is even more deadening. As the infection spreads and more people become nonproducers, even the producers begin to suffer. The collapsing standard of living is not caused by the wealthy having too much, but by the 47 % producing too little. Ironically, the "idle class" is now made up of poor people, while the wealthy are working their tails off. We are being eaten alive by the entitlements given to the poor.

Another interesting social commentary in this film is the way young people are treated. They are the draftees. While the older folks remain safely behind the wall, the youths are given a pep talk about honor and patriotism by Julie's father (John Malkovich) and then sent out to face the dangers of the Corpses and Boneys. Their mission is to bring back supplies for the grownups inside. Julie and Nora look sexy and buff as they cock their rifles to defend themselves. (And that's a little creepy, given all the crazy shootings that have been experienced in America lately.) When the older folks do go outside, they travel inside tanks and jeeps. They are the cavalry; the kids are the infantry. I guess that's where the word "infantry" comes from. How despicable is war.

What changes R? Partly it's the chemistry of love: his attraction to Julie reboots his heart. But it's more than that. Caught in the world outside the wall and surrounded by Corpses and Boneys who want to eat her, Julie needs protection. She needs food. She needs warmth, shelter, clothing, and entertainment. And R has to provide all these things for her. In the process of producing and providing, he becomes human again. I love that idea, whether Jonathan Levine intended it or not.

What changes the other Corpses? Hope. As they see R change through the power of love (or the power of producing), they gain hope that they might change too. They begin to sleep and to dream again, which is something Corpses aren't able to do. Their dreams cause them to wake up and act for themselves. They begin to come alive.

But they Boneys don't like it. They are like the politicians and welfare bureaucrats who want to keep the poor in their place, receiving their spiritually deadening entitlements but never learning to live or to feel joy. As R laments, "The Boneys are too far gone to change."

The Corpses are not "too far gone," however. They just need to wake up. We are surrounded by welfare Corpses today, and the infection is spreading to epidemic proportions. Some have become Boneys, but others can be cured. They can be changed through the power of pride and production and love. If they will join the Townies to fight against the Boneys, they can dream again. And wake up again. And live again.

#39;s the beauty of a well-formed myth or metaphor


Editor's Note: Review of "Warm Bodies," directed by Jonathan Levine. Summit Entertainment, 2013, 97 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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War and Peace

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I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: good movies begin with good stories. By that criterion, Incendies is not just a good movie, it is a great movie. Set within a backdrop of bitter hatred and torturous war, it is nevertheless a brilliant film about love for family and finding a personal peace.

The story begins with the classic Romeo and Juliet conflict: Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), a young Christian Arab woman, is in love with a young Palestinian man, and her family disapproves. What happens next — retribution, abandonment, shunning, and revenge — sets the stage for an alternate story line, 35 years in the future, after the woman has died. In her will she asks her young adult children, Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette), fraternal twins, to find the brother they did not knew existed and the father they thought was dead. This will require them to leave their home in Canada and return to the land of their ancestors in the Middle East.

As Jeanne heads to Lebanon to begin the search for her father in her mother’s hometown, the film flashes back to the young Nawal and her lover, Wahad. The film continues to switch between the two stories as the brother and sister follow the cold dark trail of the mother they only thought they knew. These alternating points of view allow the audience to know Nawal’s story more intimately and completely than the young siblings do, enhancing our compassion for the protagonist and our growing sense of horror as the two slowly discover the truth.

As war breaks out, young Nawal tries to escape the fighting while searching orphanages for the son her grandmother forced her to give up. Along the way she observes the bitterness and retaliation of both religion-based factions. Two scenes stand out as representative of the senselessness and atrocity of this kind of conflict. In the first, Nawal quickly removes the cross from around her neck and rearranges her scarf to cover her, so she can avoid the wrath of Muslims. In the next scene, she quickly doffs the scarf and pulls out her cross to show rebel guerillas that she is a Christian. But she is still the same person, inside and out; only the label has changed. Changing the label saves her life — but the death and destruction she observes destroy her soul.

Incendies is a thrilling mystery about a family’s quest to reunite itself. But it also has a powerful symbolic message, revealing the bitterness that comes from assigning divisive political and religious labels. What does it mean to be a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew? Beneath the labels, all in the Middle East claim the same ancestry. Arabs (Christian or Muslim) may hate Jews because Ishmael is their ancestor; Jews may hate Arabs because Isaac is their ancestor. But trace their roots back just one more generation, and all honor Abraham as their father. All are cousins under the labels. All are of the same lineage and family.

Incendies is the most engrossing film I have seen since last year's The Secret in their Eyes (also a foreign film). Yes, you will have to read the subtitles at the bottom of the screen — unless you speak French, Arabic, and another dialect I didn’t recognize. But it will be well worth the effort. Don’t miss this outstanding film if it comes to your town.


Editor's Note: Review of "Incendies," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Sony Pictures Classics, 2010, 130 minutes.



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