Another Small Piece of a War

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In an earlier piece in these pages, I reviewed a book on Nazi uniforms and insignia. My point was to show how incredibly all-pervasive the Nazi propaganda machine was. If the Nazi Party took such exquisite painstaking work over simple patches, uniforms, and daggers, can you imagine how attentive it was to school curricula, cinema, books, and artwork?

The nice little film I want to review now could also be described as showing the viewer a small piece of Goebbels’ total propaganda war.

While swing music was in great demand in Germany in the early 1930s, the Party viewed it as "degenerate," officially banning it in 1935.

The film is a sadly neglected German documentary Propaganda Swing, made in 1989 by filmmaker Florian Steinbiss. It recounts the bizarre story of Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry creating a “Jazz Orchestra” as a tool to transmit propaganda to the Allied troops and citizens. Called “Charlie and his Orchestra,” the band included the most talented swing jazz musicians in Germany and occupied Europe at the time.

This was almost grotesquely rich. While swing music was in great demand in Germany in the early 1930s, the Party viewed it as “Negermusik” and “Entertetemusik” — black music and degenerate music — officially banning it in 1935. But into the late 1930s, the music remained very popular among the German public, who defied the Party orthodoxy and frequented underground jazz clubs.

So it was strongly ironic that that a group of superbly talented jazz artists found themselves working for the Reich’s Propaganda Ministry. The band formed in 1940, and was broadcast over Nazi shortwave radio. Between 1941 and the end of the war, it made music that was very popular, especially among Allied troops and citizens. It was fronted by saxophonist Lutz Templin, with drummer Fritz (“Freddie”) Brocksiepen, vocalist Karl Schwedler (the “Charlie” of the group’s name, clarinetist Kurt Abraham, and trombonist Willy Berking.

Now, why would the regime fund and promote a swing band? The answer is that the crafty (if psychopathic) Goebbels saw that such a band would be useful in two ways. The first was to show Allied troops and civilians that Nazi Germany was culturally similar to the Allies after all. In this way it was successful. After the war, a BBC survey revealed that 26.5% of the British radio audience listened to the broadcasts. It is reputed that Churchill himself listened to and enjoyed the broadcasts.

Into the late 1930s, the music remained very popular among the German public, who defied the Party orthodoxy and frequented underground jazz clubs.

The second, craftier, motive was to push the Nazi agenda in an opaque way. The songs were not the originals but parodies; the music was lovingly played, but the original lyrics were replace by anti-Allied ones, sung in English. Goebbels consistently advocated disguising propaganda as pure entertainment. If a weary GI were just listening to this outstanding swing music he would not necessarily have recognized the content of the lyrics.

The film explores this aspect of propaganda swing in some detail. For instance, as we hear the band play “You’re Driving Me Crazy” we hear Charlie sing;

Yes, Jews, you're driving me crazy, what did I do, what did I do?
My fears for you make everything hazy, clouding the skies of blue.
Ah, Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind that will hurt me, desert me when I need a Jew.
Yes, Jews, you're driving me crazy, what did I do to you?

Charlie then intones, “Here is Winston Churchill's latest tearjerker” and resumes:

Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy.
I thought I had brains, but they shattered my planes.
They've built up a front against me, it's quite amazing,
Clouding the skies with their planes.
The Jews are the friends who are near me to cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are the kind that will hurt me, desert me and laugh at me too.

Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy,
My last chance I'll pray, to get in this muddle the USA.
This new pact also is driving me crazy,
Germany, Italy, Japan, it gives me a pain.
I'm losing my nerve, I'm getting lazy
A prisoner forced to remain in England to reign.
The Jews are the friends who are near me, that still cheer me, believe me they do.
But Jews are not the kind of heroes who would fight for me,
Now they're leaving me too.
Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy, by Jove, I pray, come in USA.

The tune to Eddie Cantor’s song “Makin’ Whoopee” is introduced by Charlie, who says, “The Jews of the USA have asked Eddie Cantor to write new words for his famous hit of all time, ‘Makin’ Whoopee.’”

He then sings:

Another war, another profit,
Another Jewish business trick.
Another season, another reason
For making whoopee.

In the group’s parody of “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams” we hear:

I’m gonna save the world for Wall Street,
Gonna fight for Russia, too.
I’m fighting for democracy;
I’m fighting for the Jew.

As the film’s narrator points out, the music focused primarily on anti-Semitic messages. For example, the parody version of “Down Mexico Way” pushed the view that FDR was Jewish.

The orchestra worked five days a week, with mornings devoted to the propaganda music and afternoons to regime-approved music for domestic consumption, with evenings available for playing in underground jazz clubs.

The songs were not the originals but parodies; the music was lovingly played, but the original lyrics were replace by anti-Allied and anti-Semitic ones, sung in English.

As the film notes, many German jazz artists were Jewish or Gypsy, and in the concentration camps in which these musicians were incarcerated they were first ordered to play for the SS guards before being put to death. Ironically, as the war wore on, Charlie’s orchestra increasingly consisted of “half-Jews and Gypsies, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and communists” — groups being rapidly eradicated in the death camps. The fact that their music was considered vital to the propaganda war effort allowed them to work at least temporarily in relative comfort. Toward the end of the war, foreign players were brought in to replace the German ones who had been forced to join the army or work in factories. By late 1943, Allied bombing raids forced the band to move from Berlin to Stuttgart, where it remained until the end of the war.

After the war, Templin and most of the band were able to find work in a various venues, including in American administered jazz clubs. Schwedler apparently either became a businessman in Germany or immigrated to America. It is a testament to the quality of the band’s musicianship that after hostilities were ended, American jazz greats such as Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Gene Krupa visited with members of the band. The backbone of the band, the drummer Fritz (Freddy) Brocksieper, went on to win a German Grammy.

The film nicely explores the ways in which musical broadcasts made successful propaganda. Especially effective was the use of British POWs to tell people back home that the POWs were being well treated. The POWs’ relatives tuned in, hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Many German jazz artists were Jewish or Gypsy, and in the concentration camps in which these musicians were incarcerated they were first ordered to play for the SS guards before being put to death.

After the war, the band’s foreign members steadfastly refused to acknowledge their involvement with it — thus raising the question of why people joined the band to begin with. The band’s drummer Brocksieper indicated one reason: being in the band kept the players safe, at least temporarily, from being drafted or sent to the camps, and provided a modest income, which they augmented by playing side gigs. Italian trumpeter Nino Impallomeni gave another reason: the members uniformly loved big band jazz, and this was the only way they could play it.

Brocksieper recounts how, after the fall of Berlin, the Americans sought him out to play for them. They subsidized the creation of a new group, providing food, something in short supply in occupied Germany. Brocksieper said that being on the receiving end of this largesse did not bother the band.

Especially effective was the use of British POWs to tell people back home that the POWs were being well treated. The POWs’ relatives tuned in, hoping to hear the voices of their loved ones.

Here is where the film gets very interesting psychologically. The band members had to have experienced great cognitive dissonance all during the war, and afterwards. The German players were playing music they loved that no other German could even listen to legally; the players from conquered countries knew they were collaborating with their conquerors; and not just during the war but afterwards they lived fairly well, while ordinary Germans suffered. Impallomeni gave one defense: we were musicians, not politicians. The film’s narrator adds that the band members said the meanings of the politically obscene propaganda lyrics were not intelligible to them — a hard claim to accept, given that the band’s singer Charlie spoke perfect English.

As one listens to some of the original musicians play beautifully, decades after the end of the war, one can understand and almost forgive their collaboration with Goebbels’ propaganda machine.

Almost.


Editor's Note: "Propaganda Swing: Dr. Goebbels’ Jazz Orchestra," directed by Florian Steinbiss. Sudwestfunk, 1991, 60 minutes. Distributed by International Historic Films, https://ihffilm.com/



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Día de los Vivos

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Looking for a new holiday film and you’ve had it with watching scripted Hollywood families bicker around the dining table? Pixar’s Coco is one of the best films of the season. Never mind that it’s animated. Grab yourself a niece or a nephew (or just rustle up the courage to go to a “kid movie” without a kid) and enjoy. This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

The story centers on 12-year-old Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) who lives with his parents, his overbearing Abuelita (Renee Victor), and his sweet doddering great-grandmother Mama Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia). Miguel is a typical Mexican boy in a not-so-typical Mexican family where music has been banned from the home and the mere sight of a guitar engenders shrieks of anger. But Miguel loves music. He has been surreptitiously learning to play the guitar by watching videos of Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), “the greatest musician of all time,” whose statue stands in the town plaza. Miguel wants to enter the town talent contest, but Abuelita forbids it. When Miguel shouts that he hates his family and wishes he weren’t part of them, it sets off a chain of events that will teach him the importance of family, tradition, and remembering the dead.

This film has it all: gorgeous animation, witty characters, wonderful music, rich cultural heritage, and a profound story about life, loss, family, and forgiveness.

Coco is set on Día de los Muertos — the Day of the Dead — when Mexicans honor their departed ancestors with a three-day fiesta of reminiscing, singing, feasting, and decorating graves. Families build small altars with photographs of their ancestors and offer incense, fruits, nuts, and candies, plus toys for relatives who died as children and tequila for the adults. Traditions include eating muertos (the bread of the dead) and sugar-candy skulls, hanging cardboard skeletons and colorful tissue paper decorations, and planting yellow marigolds. It is thought that the pungent fragrance of marigolds will attract the souls of the dead.

These Mexican traditions are presented in a surfeit of rich colors and sounds as Miguel is mystically transported across the marigold bridge between the land of the living and the land of the dead. On the other side he discovers a land not unlike his own — the same town plaza, the same town heroes, the same kinds of holiday preparations being made by families who just happen to be dead. There’s even a very funny scene with TSA agents deciding who can and can’t cross the bridge, and a skeletonized Frida Kahlo (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge. Miguel is befriended by Hector (Gael García Bernal), a delightfully comical skeleton, who helps Miguel in his search for his hero, Ernesto de la Cruz, who seems to hold the key to Miguel’s return home.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for the young children who accompanied me. In fact, it makes death somehow comforting and even joyful when one considers the family reunions that await on the other side of the bridge. “Coco,” in fact, is the diminutive form of the common name “Socorro,” which means “to succor, aid, or comfort,” and this film offers much comfort about dying. It even suggests what happens to our pets when they die.

There’s even a skeletonized Frida Kahlo, who is in charge of the art design for the big Sunrise Concert that coincides with the town fiesta on the living side of the bridge.

Moreover, many of the characters in Coco need comfort and aid. Miguel is far from home and at odds with his family on both sides of the bridge. Abuelita needs to face the true source of her pain and let go of her bitterness toward music. Her grandmother, Miguel’s departed Mama Imelda (Alana Ubach), must also overcome her bitterness toward her late husband — a bitterness that has followed her into the next life. Miguel’s new friend Hector is in danger of “fading away” because almost no one remembers him. Miguel learns to succor them all.

The marigold bridge becomes a powerful symbol of family connection, as Miguel learns to bridge the gap not only with his dead ancestors, but with his living family members as well.

It might be a little risky amid today’s rampant accusations of cultural appropriation for a company directed mostly by white males to release a movie set in Mexico focusing on intimate Mexican traditions and beliefs. The humor, accents, costumes, and traditions could have gone awry, veering into the realm of stereotype. But there is an authenticity in Coco that transcends political correctness and simply feels right. The characters are voiced almost entirely by Chicano actors, and background conversations and idiomatic phrases are presented in Spanish without subtitles, contributing to the cultural authenticity. The musical score is presented as a natural part of the story when Miguel, Ernesto, Frida and others sing and perform in public, so the story isn’t superimposed on a European or American musical genre. The vivid colors and family dynamic are simply the flavor of Mexico, without caricature or disrespect. It’s just about perfect.

All of this serves to make death seem like a transition to something familiar, so it isn’t scary at all, even for young children.

One thing that is definitely not perfect is the 21-minute animated short that accompanies most screenings of Coco. Based on the characters in Disney’s 2013 megahit, Frozen, “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure” tells the story of the orphaned Princesses Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) searching for Christmas traditions they can adopt, now that they are living together again in the castle. The characters are flat, the situations are corny, and the premise — that you can somehow create instant traditions by copying others — completely misses the point of what a tradition is. At 21 minutes it’s three times too long, and its production values are so weak that you might be tempted to go home before the feature film actually begins. I recommend a trip to the snack bar after you find your seats.

Families are the oldest and simplest of social communities, yet they can often be the most complex to navigate. They are a topic that Disney has explored in numerous animated classics, from the competitive and vengeful stepmothers in Snow White, Cinderella, and Tangled to the trauma of maternal separation in Dumbo and Bambi to the teenage rebellion in The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to the complete redefinition of family in Jungle Book and Tarzan. The ability to address serious issues within the framework of kid-friendly animated films has been Disney’s forte for nearly a century, and it’s the reason Disney films continue to attract generation after generation of viewers, especially through its new partnership with Pixar.

Coco is among the best of these films, for so many reasons. I expect that many families will pull it out to view again when a beloved great-grandmother crosses over the marigold bridge — or even when a pet passes on, no matter what their literal beliefs about the afterlife. As Howard Canaan writes in Tales of Magic from Around the World: “Myths express not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth.” And the truth is, we will be happier if we give up our grudges, embrace the beauty in our lives, remember those who came before us, and recognize the individuality in each human being. Coco makes this point magically.


Editor's Note: Review of "Coco," directed by Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina. Pixar, 2017, 109 minutes.



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Christie Redux

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In 1931, renowned mystery writer Agatha Christie was traveling on the Orient Express when a flash flood suddenly washed some of the track away. The passengers were stranded while repairs were made. This was not the first time the Orient Express had been stranded; two years earlier a blizzard had halted the train for six days. While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!” The setting for Murder on the Orient Express was established. Now she just needed a plot.

Christie wrote 66 murder mysteries and 14 short story collections, as well as a handful of romance novels and the longest continuously running play in London (The Mousetrap). Most of her mysteries are solved by the eccentric Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot or the no-nonsense matron-next-door, Miss Jane Marple. Her novels have sold an estimated two billion copies, and have been translated into a record 103 languages. She remains one of the world’s best-loved novelists.

While other passengers fumed, Christie began to muse: “What a delicious location for a murder!”

Murder on the Orient Express can work especially well for film because of its closed set (it takes place almost entirely on a train car) and its large cast of suspects. You may have seen the 1974 film version, for which Ingrid Bergman won an Oscar; you might wonder: do we really need another? Perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment. Is it worth seeing this version? Yes, indeed.

Even if you’ve already read the story or seen it on screen, you haven’t seen this one, directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also plays the detective Poirot. The enjoyment of an Agatha Christie doesn’t come so much from figuring out who done it or how it was done as from understanding what might drive someone to commit murder — and for a short time, finding ourselves in sympathy with a killer. From that standpoint, Murder on the Orient Express could as easily have been called “A Jury of One’s Peers.”

The story is simple: a group of seemingly unconnected people is traveling together from Istanbul to Paris. Each has a reason for needing to arrive on time. Each is harboring a private grief. Each grief will be uncovered by Poirot. And one of them will be killed. But who is the murderer?

You might wonder: do we really need another version of this story? But perhaps “need” is the wrong word for any entertainment.

Filmed in New Zealand and Switzerland, the movie is beautifully rendered, especially the long, wide views of snow-covered mountains and cloudy, luminescent skies. It almost feels as though the train is barreling through a Thomas Kincaid painting. Early scenes in Jerusalem, where Poirot is winding up a previous case before boarding the train, are filmed at odd angles, emphasizing Poirot’s odd way of seeing the world. Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

The cast of suspects includes such notable actors as Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom, Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Willem Defoe, and Dame Judi Dench. Gad, usually cast in silly comedic roles, is surprisingly good in his first truly dramatic turn. Even Emma Thompson, Branagh’s former wife, who has appeared in many of his films, makes a cameo appearance in this one. That’s a very young photo of her in the picture frame Poirot keeps by his bedside.

Poirot’s denouement is especially provocative, as the characters are blocked and staged in a way that emphasizes the ultimate theme of the story. I won’t say more here, but watch for it. You’ll know what I mean when you see it.

Poirot’s unconscious and unintended talent for comedy is well served by Branagh, whose Poirot is a bit more physical and more emotional than we normally see him.

Murder on the Orient Express evokes the glamour days of drawing room murders populated by characters with impeccable manners camouflaging their sharp claws. Its Alpine landscapes and exterior scenes in Jerusalem are breathtaking. Don’t wait for Netflix — this is one you’ll want to see in a theater. And see it on IMAX if you can.


Editor's Note: Review of "Murder on the Orient Express," directed by Kenneth Branagh. Twentieth Century Fox, 2017. 114 minutes.



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All About Eve

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In America, the political Left is like a once-beautiful woman who, over the years, has lost her looks in bitter and wasteful living. Nothing remains but her essence, which is evil. She was rotten to the core even when she was young, but then her beauty concealed that, bewitching and bedazzling a great many who couldn’t see past the surface. Now that her looks are gone, only the evil remains: desperately grasping to hold onto the only thing she ever really cared about, which is power.

Hillary Clinton never was a feminist in any true sense of the word. She was, and is, a servant to power. Over the years, she has lost any charm — however slight and shallow — she ever had. Most of what existed in the first place was not her own, but that of her husband. Slick Willie mastered the art of wooing to get what he wanted.

What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power.

Third-wave feminism, the name for its present, grotesque incarnation, is actually nothing more than a graphic illustration of how all too many women still don’t get it. Despite their endless prattle about “equality,” they simply can’t understand why, for such a long stretch of human history, women were stuck in second place.

The so-called feminism of today totally subordinates itself to the Left. What matters is not women’s equality, racial equality, gay equality, or the equality of any other possible variation of humankind. All that really matters is power. The Left never takes its eyes off of the prize. And it won’t share that prize with anyone.

What has kept women for so long in second place is our disloyalty to one another. In a strictly superficial sense, leftist feminism pays lip service to an understanding of that. But in its savage treatment of any woman who thinks for herself and refuses to play by its rules, it shows its true colors.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away.

We were never admonished, by our leftist betters, to vote for a candidate who demonstrated any genuine concern for our wellbeing. We were expected, as a matter of course and in a pathetic facsimile of loyalty, to vote blindly for power. And not for women’s empowerment, whatever that actually means anymore, but for the juggernaut of tyranny that is the insatiably power-hungry Left.

A couple of years ago, I got to hold a real Academy Award. Oscar was heavy, coated with gold, and bigger than he seemed in pictures. As I stood there, feeling its heft in my humble hands, all I could think was, “Holy crap, Batman! I’m holding an Oscar!

I was almost instantly reminded of the ambitious ingénue who appears at the end of the classic movie All About Eve. I don’t remember the character’s name — it could have been any of a hundred forgettable names — but she hungered to take her place in the spotlight. As she stood in Eve Harrington’s dressing room, holding the stage star’s Sarah Siddons Award, she fantasized that it was her own, and bowed to her adoring, invisible audience.

Today’s feminists stand before an audience that is, if not yet invisible, rapidly losing interest and drifting away. They cling to a prize that is not their own — and which they can never keep. It will be passed on to “sisters” who do not appreciate what they have done, want the bauble only for the hollow and fleeting satisfaction of holding it for a while, and then will reluctantly pass it on to successors who neither understand them nor appreciate any genuine good theymight have done. Leftist feminism is an endless succession of incarnations, each uglier and wearier than the one before. It may eventually lead to annihilation, but never to Nirvana.




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Trial by Fire

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It is the capricious nature of wildfire that can make it a lethal adversary. My own too-close-for-comfort brush with the beast occurred back on August 11, 1972 at a place called Harris Ridge, near the little town of Kooskia, Idaho.

It was the summer after my freshman year away at the university, and I'd found work as a chainsaw jockey thinning timber for the Idaho Department of Public Lands office in Orofino. The thinning crew — which could be pulled away from its thinning duties to fight wildfires if needed — was a young bunch: Greg had just graduated from high school; Ned, like me, had graduated from high school the previous year and had just finished his freshman year away at the university; and our two senior members, Russell and Rex, the foreman, were still in their twenties.

Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire.

Our assignment, when we had been dispatched to the Harris Ridge fire, was to climb a steep, brushy hillside, spread out, and start digging fire line to keep the fire on top from creeping down the hillside. At one point during our ascent, Ned and I ended up hugging either side of a brush-choked gully. We heard a faint cry of warning from somewhere below us, turned, and saw a huge, crackling fireball racing up the gully, right at us. I peeled away from the right side of the gully, took a quick look over my left shoulder, and saw through a wall of flame Ned's hardhat bobbing as he scrambled up and away to the left. I continued my lateral retreat, linked up with Rex, and made it back down to the bottom. Rex and I later linked back up with Ned, who had managed to get to the safety of a burned-out area on top.

But where were Greg and Russell? They had been well to the east of the rest of us, away from where the stealthy, encircling fire had ignited the tinder in the gully. They would have had plenty of time to get to higher ground as the fire burned across the hillside below them. In fact, I had even visualized them perched safely atop a bluff, taking a breather, and anxiously watching as Ned and I scrambled for our lives. Their bodies were found the next morning. According to the ensuing investigation, they had apparently found refuge atop a bluff — only to be knocked from their perch and into the inferno by a snag that had rolled down on them from the burned-out area above.

Those memories couldn't help but come to mind as I took my seat in the theater to watch Only the Brave. Based on Sean Flynn's excellent GQ article “No Exit,” the film deals with the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department's wildfire crew, headed by Eric Marsh. Knowing it was only a matter of time before Prescott itself would be menaced by wildfire, Marsh lobbies for the certification of his crew as “hotshots,” elite firefighters who can directly engage the fire, as opposed to being relegated to “mopping up” operations behind the hotshots. The film shows the crew honing its skills on a series of wildfires, one of which demands an evaluation of the skills that led to the crew’s certification. Of particular importance is a drill the firefighters have to perform in the event that things go to hell in a handbasket and their position is about to be overrun by fire: they hurriedly have to clear combustibles from a patch of ground, break out a thin protective covering that stretches from head to toe, and hunker down prone until the fire passes over them.

Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled.

The film also tracks the character arcs of certain of the 20-man crew. A couple of young men who can't stand each other end up bonding like brothers. A young man dealing with substance abuse relapse and an unplanned pregnancy becomes a responsible father and provider. A crass womanizer finds true love. Marsh — in his forties the “old man” of the crew — has to deal with marital tensions at home. Josh Brolin, who plays Marsh, and Jennifer Connelly, who plays his wife Amanda, turn in particularly strong performances. In a masterly piece of dramatization,the film captures the anxiety of the crew's loved ones as they await news of the identity of the lone survivor of the Yarnell Hill fire, the visceral grief that follows that revelation, and the effect this has on the survivor himself.

The direction and cinematography are superb, capturing the essence of what it's like to be on a wildfire crew: charred, smoking ground where a burned-out tree trunk can topple over on a man, the black-faced griminess of a mop-up detail, the skies busy with helicopters and planes carrying loads of water and retardant to be dumped on critical areas, and the speed with which a wildfire can spread. Snafus — such as air tankers dumping payloads of water on deliberately set backfires instead of on the actual burn — are also dutifully chronicled. The film ends with a touching tribute to each of the firefighters.

As someone who has been there and done that, this reviewer gives Only the Brave a big thumbs up.


Editor's Note: Review of "Only the Brave," directed by Joseph Kosinski. Di Bonaventura Pictures, 2017. 133 minutes.



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The Importance of Showing Up

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In the wake of the horrendous massacre in Las Vegas, we have heard moving stories of heroism: a husband who was shot and killed while protecting his wife; a young woman whose vertebrae were broken helping others climb over a wall to safety; a young man stripping off his clothing to cover the faces of seven dead victims and helping a dozen others to safety; a stranger slinging a wounded woman over his shoulder as they ran for cover; a woman driving her pickup to the site in order to carry the wounded to hospitals; people lined up for five hours or more to give blood.

As the wounded begin their long road to recovery, they too will exhibit heroic efforts to regain their lives. Las Vegas, Columbine, Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of massacre victims has become too long to quote. We listen misty-eyed to their stories and praise them for their courage.

Coincidentally, two films opened this week with mass shootings as their theme. One of them, Super Dark Times, speculates on the events that create a mass murderer. The other, Stronger, is the subject of this review. It tells the story of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and provided a description of one of the bombers that helped the FBI track them down.

Las Vegas, Columbine, Boston, Iraq, Afghanistan — the list of massacre victims has become too long to quote.

We expect our recovering survivors to be stoic and heroic — especially when they appear in movies. But more often than not, survivors are just normal. They cry, bicker, swear, and complain. Crisis doesn’t automatically build character; it reveals it. And Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is anything but heroic. A kitchen worker at Costco before the attack, he can’t even remember to take the chicken out of the oven before he takes out the trash. He is driven by an unwavering belief that his beloved Red Sox can only win if he watches the game from his favorite pub with a beer in his hand. He lives in a tiny fifth-story walkup with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), an alcoholic who is even more needy than Jeff. His girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) has broken up with him three times, primarily because he can’t get it together enough simply to show up when they have a date.

But on April 15, 2013, hoping to win Erin back, Jeff does show up — at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, bearing a homemade sign to cheer Erin on. And that’s how he loses his legs above the knee.

Erin shows up too, to shield him from his family and fans and to help him through his rehabilitation — and, yes, to assuage her guilt that she is the reason has lost his legs. But Jeff is a lousy patient, refusing to appear for the therapy sessions that are essential to building the core muscles he will need if he ever expects to use his prosthetic legs. Nevertheless, a sweet and painful romance develops between them.

More often than not, survivors are just normal. They cry, bicker, swear, and complain.

Jeff’s lowlife family basks in the notoriety as reporters and promoters come calling. Oprah! The Bruins! The freakin’ Red Sox! His mother is positively drunk on booze and celebrity. Jeff’s relatives don’t understand the trauma he experiences in open spaces, where he relives the horror of that sunny afternoon, and they consider it a personal affront when he doesn’t share their enthusiasm for public appearances.

“You’re a symbol, kid!” one supporter proclaims.

“Of what?” Jeff asks.

“Of Boston strong!” is the reply.

But Jeff isn’t strong. He’s barely coping. We see his struggle in the intimate moments that we don’t often think about when we’re turning our wounded warriors into heroes — taking a shower, taking a crap, dragging himself across the floor like a baby, unable even to crawl.

Stronger is admittedly a genre film, and as such, it’s reasonably predictable. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Jeff does finally discover the strength to show up, although it comes through a plot development that is not at all predictable. What keeps this film from being maudlin, despite its subject matter and its predictability, is the topnotch acting, not only from Gyllenhaal (one of the best actors of this generation) but from the entire supporting cast. The beautiful Miranda Richardson is frumpy and low-class as Bauman’s self-centered alcoholic mother. Maslany is believably conflicted as the girlfriend from a better side of town who alternately feels pity, revulsion, and love for this tenderhearted young man. The nurses, paramedics, and doctors are so perfect in their calm, take-control speech patterns that I had to check the credits to see if they were medical professionals playing themselves.

We see Bauman's struggle in the intimate moments that we don’t often think about when we’re turning our wounded warriors into heroes.

Eventually Jeff agrees to throw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game, and he asks for a bit of advice from the catcher. “Aim high,” is the response. Those two themes of the movie — show up, and aim high — are good advice for anyone.

Two days after the Las Vegas bombings, Jeff Bauman sent a message of encouragement and hope to the survivors. He wrote:

To the victims waking up in a hospital right now wondering how life will ever be the same. . . . I know your pain. The most important advice I can give is to remember that healing your mind is just as important as healing your physical, visible injuries. It took me too many years and dark moments to realize that and it is so, so important. You will walk again. You will laugh again. You will dance again. You will live again.

Bauman has learned how to show up, indeed.


Editor's Note: Review of "Stronger," directed by David Gordon Green. Bold Films/Lionsgate, 2017, 116 minutes.



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War from the Individual Perspective

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It’s a sunny blue-sky day in a charming French provincial town, when propaganda leaflets start raining down from the sky. Three soldiers walk into the foreground until the camera rests on the handsome young face of one of them, the story’s eventual protagonist (Fionn Whitehead). He spies a hose coiled next to a house and falls to his knees, upending the coil so the standing water drips into his mouth. I can taste the stagnant warmth of the water even as I feel its wet relief on his parched throat. The day may be sunny, but it’s far from bucolic.

Shots ring out and the men begin running toward a fence, joined by other soldiers equally determined to escape the Germans. One by one they’re picked off by the bullets. Only our unnamed and unvoiced hero makes it over the fence. My heart races with empathic panic and I think of how desperately he needs that helmet he took off to drink the water. How can I be so invested so quickly in the life of a character who is virtually unknown? I realize that the tension in my heart is being controlled by the tension of the music and the pace of the action, as it will be controlled throughout this movie.

Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed?

I went to Dunkirk expecting to learn about the strategic significance of the battle that was waged there, when nearly 400,000 Allied troops were stranded near the beaches of France, waiting either for reinforcement or evacuation. Much has been written about the decision of German leaders not to press forward to annihilate the Allied troops, and British leaders’ hesitation to send a full barrage of support. It is considered the greatest defeat and the greatest triumph of the Second World War. I’ll be on the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy next month, and I thought that watching this movie would enhance my appreciation of visiting the site.

But that’s not what the movie is about.

If you didn’t already know what happened at Dunkirk, the movie might make you think it was a minor skirmish involving a handful of soldiers, a couple of fighter planes, a few queues of Brits lined up to wait (unsuccessfully) for the next transport ship, and a single fishing boat crossing the channel to rescue them all, with a few random German bombers and snipers causing unexpected havoc along the way. We’re aware of the crowds of soldiers on the beach and the boats in the water, but they don’t have the vast impact of the same scene in films such as Atonement (2007); they seem almost like set dressing. And the French soldiers who kept the Germans at bay have no place in this film. In fact, the only French soldier in Dunkirk is portrayed as something of a coward.

Instead, this film focuses on our unnamed soldier and the inexplicable randomness of survival. Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed by strafing or blown up by bombs? Why does he survive while those “fortunate enough” to board the rescue boats are lost? Director Christopher Nolan deliberately cast young unknown actors to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers at Dunkirk and the senseless serendipity of who survives and who does not.

The score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer.

Meanwhile, Captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) of a small fishing vessel hurries across the channel with a boatload of life vests, teamed only with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a family friend, George (Barry Koeghan). Dawson seems a sad sack of a man, but his small stature belies his strong character; he is determined to get those boys home. His character is loosely based on Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, a Titanic survivor who at Dunkirk rescued 55 soldiers in his personal yacht, the Sundowner, when he was 66. (Dawson’s boat is called the Moonstone.) Rounding out the rescue team are two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), whose job is to take down the German planes that are targeting the rescue ships, and two officers, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who are overseeing the evacuation in France.

The film is impressionistic in that each of these groups is representative of a larger whole, and the story is neither chronological nor complete. You’ll be confused by the juxtaposition of seemingly simultaneous scenes set in daylight and dark until you realize that one of the scenes is a flashback. Nolan explained that the alteration of time was necessary in order to bring the three storylines together, one taking a week (on the beach) one taking a day (on the ocean) and one taking an hour (in the air). In sum, Dunkirk provides an impression of the battle rather than a chronological history, and the sooner you realize that, the easier it is to follow the movie.

Dunkirk doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect.

Contributing significantly to the film’s success is its quiet, relentlessly rising musical motif based thematically on Elgar’s “Nimrod” and scored by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer used a pocket watch that Nolan sent to him as an instrument in the orchestration to create the underlying pulse that subconsciously controls the viewer’s heartbeat, while Elgar’s theme and Zimmer’s use of cellos at the limits of their normal pitch creates a sense of anxiety. They also incorporated a technique called the “Shepard Tone,” which is a kind of musical version of M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircase that gives the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. All of this leads to the continuous, unresolved tension. The resulting score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer. The Shepard Tone is also mirrored visually in Nolan’s juxtaposition of the three storylines (shore, sea, and air), in which one is always beginning, one is always climaxing, and a third is always ending.

Dunkirk is not a typical war movie. It doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect after the gruesome realism Spielberg introduced in the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan 23 years ago. It’s a quiet film about individual courage, cowardice, suspicion, randomness, and the unrelenting desire for home.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dunkirk," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2017, 106 minutes.



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Music Hath Charms

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“What is the soundtrack of your life?”

Shedrick “B,” an inmate presenter at the TEDx Sing Sing I helped organize a few years ago, asked that question of the audience of 100 or so civilians and inmates. He went on to explain that music has the power to transport him back to certain moments in his life: holding hands with his first girlfriend, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Christmas Eve with his family, being booked for the crime that landed him in prison. When he hears the songs he remembers, he returns to those moments, good and bad.

With the invention of the MP3 player and iPhone, music could indeed become the soundtrack of our lives. Suddenly we had instant access to thousands of songs that used to be piled in a shoebox or stored in the wrong jewel case in a closet back home. And with music-streaming platforms like Pandora, we have access to thousands more songs that we haven’t even purchased. We can listen to music when we’re walking, driving, biking, talking, waiting, even sleeping. When I go hiking, the station I select — sometimes upbeat ’60s, sometimes a mellow Coldplay, sometimes classical or Broadway or hymns — controls my mood and thus my experience. It was inevitable that a movie would take that ubiquity and turn it into a giant of a movie. That movie is Baby Driver.

Baby isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta.

Other films have toyed with the concept; Woody Allen is known for the jazz pieces he selects for his soundtracks. Music stands out in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the protagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy (also 2014), listens to an ’80s mix tape his mother made for him as he gathers the energy to save the universe. The soundtrack was the best part of Guardians, and fans couldn’t wait to hear the selections for Guardians Vol. 2. Even calling it “Volume 2,” like an album, instead of “Part 2,” like a movie, acknowledges the importance of the music as a main ingredient of the franchise’s popularity.

But music isn’t just the soundtrack of Baby Driver; it’s the driving force. Baby (Ansel Elgort) can’t function unless his earbuds are delivering exactly the right playlist of high-octane music to his brain, even when his life depends on getting the hell out of there now. Baby is the highly skilled getaway driver for the mastermind, called Doc (Kevin Spacey), behind a series of bank and post office heists. He isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta while dodging cars, cops, and bullets. The music is perfectly synchronized with the actions and gestures of the characters, even when they’re sitting around a table having a conversation. It all creates the sense that we’re watching a choreographed concert as much as a movie.

Despite his childlike name, Baby is cooler than cool. No matter how many times he loses his sunglasses (or someone takes them) he has another pair in his pocket to replace them. He carries multiple iPods loaded with music for any occasion, and he doesn’t flinch when his life is endangered. When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) heightens the fun with unexpected edits and background details. As Baby leaps through the streets to a chorus of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” the word “Yeah” is seen spray-painted on three successive trees, exactly in time to the music. In the window of the bank that’s being robbed, we see a poster advertising college loans — a kind of bank robbery itself, and a life sentence for many students who get in over their heads. When Baby is at a laundromat, the clothes cycling around in the dryer become a 45 record spinning us into the next scene. Baby uses sign language to communicate with his rheumy-eyed foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) who looks blind, not deaf.

When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

We soon learn that Baby isn’t really a bad guy at heart. He’s gentle and thoughtful with Joseph. He’s in love with a sweet young waitress (Lily James), who is just as anxious to blow this town and start a new life as he is. But he owes a debt to Doc, the cool and sadistic mastermind, and he has to do one last job to be free of the debt. If you know anything at all about film scripts, you know that the words “one last job” can be deadly.

So Baby is enlisted for one last heist, driving Doc’s newly organized team (John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elza Gonzalez); as expected, things begin to go deliciously, suspensefully wrong. Baby takes a few wrong turns and a few right ones as he tries to extricate himself from Doc’s employ while protecting the two people he loves — and always with exactly the right music and the right pair of sunglasses to motivate him for the job. In my opinion the film jumps the shark toward the end, when a glaring red haze demonizes a particular character and culminates in the virtual fires of hell, but I can forgive that over-the-top indulgence. The entire film is over the top, and that’s what’s keeping it at the top of the box office. Baby Driver is a winner from the word “Go.”




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Trust the Beauty, or Risk the Beast?

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While flipping through the channels I recently came across the 2004 remake of The Flight of the Phoenix. It led to the obvious question: why remake a perfect movie?

Sure, the original (1966) was filmed in black and white, but so was Citizen Kane. I frankly think the black and white cinematography contributed to the bleakness of the landscape and the hopelessness of the crash survivors. The remake is contrived and uninspiring, with no redeeming value beyond its color film. Why mess with perfection?

I asked myself the same question this week while watching two recent remakes of classic films that coincidentally share a theme: Beauty and the Beast and King Kong.

The updated story gave Kong a more sympathetic personality as the lovesick beast, but the script doesn’t wear well, especially the airheaded lines written for the female lead.

Do we really need another version of King Kong? Perhaps it was useful to remake the original 1933 black and white version that starred Fay Wray as the beautiful actress Ann Darrow who tames the heart of the beast. Masterpiece though it was for its time, its stop-action animation is laughably jerky for modern viewers. A makeover with modern special effects made it more accessible to the common audience, although film aficionados believe the original’s distance from verisimilitude helps to make it mythic.

The 1976 version with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange updated the script as well as the special effects, trading the film director for an oil magnate (Charles Grodin) and the Empire State Building for the World Trade Center. The updated story gave Kong a more sympathetic personality as the lovesick beast, but the script doesn’t wear well, especially the airheaded lines written for Lange’s character, the actress Dwan.

The 2005 version with Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and Jack Black as the director Carl Denham was spectacular, improving upon the technical quality of the film (and the acting) while returning to the original 1933 setting, the original storyline, and the original climax atop the Empire State Building. Watts was especially luminous in the role of the ingénue “whose beauty killed the beast,” and her tenderly flirtatious scene with Kong in Central Park, where so many romantic comedies have been filmed, was poignant and lovely.

This aspect of the film gives it a slightly libertarian tone, but for the most part it’s pretty standard prehistoric monster fare.

That should have become the definitive update of King Kong; there was no need for another. But here we are with Kong: Skull Island, and a quite different story. In each of the earlier versions, King Kong is captured, transported out of his wilderness habitat, and put on display as an entertainment spectacle, with an awe-inspiring chase scene culminating atop the world’s tallest building. By contrast, the latest version takes place entirely on Skull Island, where the hapless protagonist is not an entertainment impresario but a geologist and monster hunter who has enlisted the US Army as a protective escort. The girl (Brie Larsen) is a photographer, not an ingénue; the antagonist (Samuel L. Jackson) is a colonel, not an oil magnate; and Kong is not a lovesick tyrant but a benevolent king who has been risking his own life and safety to protect his subjects — the other creatures who inhabit the island — from a colony of evil underground lizards. Instead of trying to capture Kong and take him to civilization, these explorers and their escorts are trying to escape the island. The movie is often reminiscent of Jurassic Park with its numerous “Eww!”-inspiring deaths in the jaws of prehistoric creatures munching humans like appetizers.

While the 1976 King Kong asked us to view women as airheads and petroleum corporations as villains, Kong: Skull Island invites us to contemplate important political and social questions. What business does the US military — or scientists and anthropologists, for that matter — have going into other lands, guns a-blazing? How can we tell the good guys from the bad guys in a culture that’s foreign to us? Who should shoulder the blame when we get it wrong? How can we best transform enemies into allies? When is it right to defy authority? This aspect of the film gives it a slightly libertarian tone, but for the most part it’s pretty standard prehistoric monster fare.

Another new film based on the beauty and the beast dichotomy is, well, Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s live-action remake of its 1991 cartoon that was the first animated film to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture in the feature film division — it’s that good. The score for both films, written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is sublime. I’ve heard the title ballad, sung wistfully in the original film by Angela Lansbury, hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and the opening strains never fail to elicit a nostalgic tear. It is a perfect film.

So why remake the animated Beauty and the Beast? As it happens, this “perfect film” was a remake too. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live action film is a magical fairy tale less known to American audiences because it is French. The story is more true to Madame La Prince de Beaumont’s book, in which a father asks his three daughters what they would like him to bring them when he goes into town. The two older girls ask for jewels and dresses, but the youngest wants only a rose. This later becomes significant, because the beast, whose spell can only be broken by true love, realizes that a girl who loves nature instead of material goods could see past his ugliness and recognize the goodness inside him.

I’ve heard the title ballad, sung wistfully in the original film by Angela Lansbury, hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and the opening strains never fail to elicit a nostalgic tear.

Cocteau alludes to several fairy tales in his film: Belle is the Cinderella who must clean while her sisters play; she’s the Snow White who can see into a magic mirror; her bedroom in the Beast’s castle is a garden like Georgina’s boudoir in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Instead of animated special effects, Cocteau uses creative costuming to suggest that humans have been transformed into furnishings, and his lack of explanation adds to the magical effect. But this is a grownup fairy tale, not geared toward children. It’s sensuous and seductive. Leaving Belle’s room, the Beast drags his hand lingeringly across the exposed breast of a statue. Belle, lying on her bed, caresses the mirror on which she sees the Beast’s face. Cocteau’s direction is deliberately unrealistic and balletic, adding to the otherworldly effect. It is a beautiful, magical film, made all the more magical by the ambiguous ending — has the spell been broken and are they going to live happily ever after in his kingdom, or have they died and gone to heaven? The hissing swans in the stream where Belle finds the Beast near death suggest the latter; in mythology, swans and rivers are a symbol of “crossing over” to death.

During the past 30 years, Disney Studios successfully adapted many of the best-loved animated stories, including B&B, for the musical stage. Now they’re in the midst of adapting 20 of those animated films to live-action format. Perhaps the studio heads foresee a time when animation won’t be as appealing to children; perhaps they simply realize that releasing a new version of an old favorite is guaranteed box office gold. Indeed, the new B&B earned $357 million worldwide in its first weekend alone, and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down as mothers who were little girls a generation ago flock to the theater with their broods for a sweet spoonful of nostalgia.

So — is it really that good? Half a billion dollars worth of good? The music is just as wonderful, and a new song written for the Beast when Belle leaves him to rescue her father provides a deeper character development for him. The supporting characters who have been turned into household furnishings by the witch’s spell are richly drawn and charmingly voiced by such seasoned actors as Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Audra McDonald. But as the voices of household furnishings, they aren’t actually live action, are they? They’re simply animated in a different way. And it works wonderfully, especially when the furnishings return to their human forms and we recognize them with the same spark of joy as if they were departed relatives returning from the dead.

Watson has an unhealthy, unnatural thinness about her that always makes me want to give her a cookie or two.

However, Belle (Emma Watson) is a disappointment in many ways. Known for her role as Hermione in the eight Harry Potter movies, Watson is believable as an asexual bookworm but not as the buxom beauty who could capture the interest of the town’s lecherous and superficial Gaston (Luke Evans). Watson has an unhealthy, unnatural thinness about her that always makes me want to give her a cookie or two. Anorexia simply isn’t a good look for the most beautiful girl in town. By contrast, Brie Larsen, who plays the beast’s love interest in Kong: Skull Island, has a natural, healthy, unaffected beauty that would have been perfect for Belle — the girl whose very name means “beautiful.” Surely in all of Hollywood, with a film budget of $160 million, the casting director could have found a more believable actress to carry this film. Or maybe anorexia is a good look in Hollywood these days?

Watson’s singing voice is weak, and her speaking voice is cloyingly irritating with its contrived and officious accent. (I suspect she needed elocution lessons when she was cast to play Hermione, and was too young to make it feel natural.) For the Harry Potter movies the haughty, artificial accent works — Hermione is a schoolgirl trying to be noticed in a boys’ world, and her bookish intelligence successfully counterbalances her waiflike stature. By contrast, Belle’s most significant character trait is her independence — her refusal to bend to society’s expectations. The artificial accent belies that determination to be true to herself.

To return to my original question: this may not be a “tale as old as time,” but it is a tale as old as film — the story about whether to trust the beauty of a classic film or risk the beast of a remake. Had I never seen the originals, I would probably have loved both these films. Kong is an exciting adventure with well-drawn characters, and the music of B&B soars, despite the weakness of Belle. Perhaps each generation needs its own version of the classics, updated to reflect the social concerns of the day: the feminism of the ’70s, the corporate greed of the ’90s, the military overreach of today. Cocteau’sB&B, made at the end of WWII, alludes to the bestiality of war and the humanizing effect of a woman’s influence: the Beast’s hands smoke when he kills his prey, but the narrator assures us, “A young maiden has the power to tame the beast in a man.”

Cocteau opens his Beauty and the Beast with the statement, “Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us.” Moviemakers wield that same kind of mythic power. Perhaps that’s why I prefer the classics among films: they speak to a mythology and social discourse that were current in my youth, and continue to resonate for me today.


Editor's Note: Review of "Kong: Skull Island," directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Legendary Entertainment, Warner Brothers, 2017, 118 minutes; and "Beauty and the Beast," directed by Bill Condon. Disney Studios, 2017, 129 minutes.



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Up from Stereotypes

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What’s the best genre to demonstrate the horrors of slavery? A horror film, of course! I’m not a big fan of horror movies; I avoid slasher films at all costs. But once in a while one comes along that transcends the usual cheap thrills of the genre. Get Out is one of them. A psychological thriller that makes a powerful social commentary, it will be remembered — and studied — for years to come.

Get Out, the debut film of writer-director Jordan Peele, is sly, eerie, suspenseful, funny, well-acted, and only gruesome in short spurts (pun intended) toward the end. Best of all, it transcends the formula of the genre by providing an underlying social message with subtle allusions and literary artistry. You will continue to think about the film’s nuanced references as you discuss the movie with other viewers. And you will want to talk about it, I’m sure! As just one example, watch for the significance of a black man picking cotton.

A psychological thriller that makes a powerful social commentary, "Get Out" will be remembered — and studied — for years to come.

The story begins late at night, as a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) walks down a tree-lined street in an upper-class neighborhood. The background music is reminiscent of the soundtrack for Deliverance, but with a distinct gospel flair that, combined with the moss-covered trees, creates a hint of voodoo and heightens our sense that something bad is about to happen to the man. When a classy white Beemer pulls over to check him out, a look of anxiety comes over his face, and I was reminded of James Baldwin describing in an essay the “thunk, thunk, thunk” of the car door locks whenever a black walks down an unfamiliar street. (See my review of the James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.) I also thought of Trayvon Martin’s death as he walked through a predominately white neighborhood where he didn’t seem to “belong.” The young man is indeed snatched, and we don’t learn his fate until much later in the film.

Meanwhile, the scene changes to a daylight apartment where Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are preparing to spend the weekend with Rose’s parents Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) at their woodsy estate. Chris is concerned because Rose has not yet told her parents that Chris is black, but she reassures him that they aren’t racist by saying, “My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!” Sure enough, that’s one of the first things Dean says to Chris when they meet.

Guests at a lawn party that weekend make similar remarks that appear to be prompted by Chris’s race. One guest tells him, “Tiger Woods is my favorite golfer.” Another asks Chris what sport he plays. A middle-aged woman fondles his bicep as she speculates suggestively on Rose’s good fortune in the bedroom. Everyone is kind and welcoming, yet they blurt out comments that focus on Chris’s race rather than asking about his job or his interests. I winced, thinking of times when I, too, have looked for common ground by making a comment based on race or country of origin. Chris is a photographer, by the way. Not very stereotypical! This is one small scene, but it becomes important later on — and not in the way that the audience expects.

Chris is concerned because Rose has not yet told her parents that Chris is black, but she reassures him that they aren’t racist by saying, “My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!”

Nothing is quite as it appears, of course. The creepily smiling black servants seem to have come straight from jobs in Stepford, and the neighbors appear as strange in their ordinariness as the demonic neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby. The cast of characters includes such iconic tropes as a mad scientist, a hypnotic psychologist, and a blind man with the gift of inner sight. The soundtrack is also powerful, controlling the audience’s emotions as all good horror soundtracks do. You’ll have a rousing good time figuring out whom to trust, whom to fear, and what’s going on in the basement of this stylish psychological thriller.

Produced with a budget of just $4.5 million, Get Out brought in over $80 million in its first two weeks. It makes me happy to see a first-time writer and director enjoy such well-deserved success. Get out this weekend and see Get Out!


Editor's Note: Review of "Get Out," directed by Jordan Peele. Blumhouse Productions, 2017, 104 minutes.



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