What Matters — Choice and Opportunity

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I Am Not Your Negro is one of the most important films of 2016, but it has received scant attention, beyond being nominated for an Oscar. It expresses the African-American experience by transcending political philosophy and social theory to engage the emotion and empathy of the viewer. Using movie clips, newsreels, television interviews, and the poignant and elegant words of James Baldwin, it guides the viewer to enter the celluloid world and experience, with the protagonist, what it has meant to be black in America.

The documentary relies heavily on film artifacts from 1940–1980, yet it feels as fresh and current as if the speeches had been written last week. As much as we like to think we have made progress in race relations (and certainly we have enacted numerous laws that eliminate segregation, favor diversity, and punish racism), the individual experience for many African-Americans continues to be problematic.

With his crisp Oxfordian erudition, Baldwin explains to Dick Cavett in one series of clips and in a debate with William F. Buckley at the Cambridge Union hall in another what it was like for a black man growing up surrounded by popular culture to which he could never belong. As children he and his friends put on cowboy hats to mimic John Wayne as they shot at imaginary Indians, never realizing until much later that the enemy they were shooting “was me.” He notes bitterly, “They needed us to pick their cotton, and now they don’t need us at all. So they’re killing us off, like they killed off the Indians [in movies].”

As much as we like to think we have made progress in race relations, the individual experience for many African-Americans continues to be problematic.

Instead of presenting the black experience through a didactic, lecturing, and angry harangue, director Raoul Peck immerses us in the experience through carefully selected film clips, some showing the “Stepin Fetchit” stereotype of the grinning, scraping, terrified Negro servant; others showing the pathos of the black child trying to pass for white, as in Imitation of Life, or black characters sacrificing their own security or happiness to save a white companion, as in The Defiant Ones; or, more often, entirely obliterating the black race from typical Hollywood films that required the black viewer either to identify with the white protagonist or step entirely out of the story. (Doris Day films, with her platinum blond hair and characteristically white costumes, are noted in particular.)

I believe this documentary, and the Doris Day musical clip in particular, influenced the sudden surge of racial criticism against La La Land during the final runup to the Oscars: viewers suddenly realized that La La Land is as white as a Doris Day musical, with the few black characters marginalized as an appendage of the white jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) — or so the argument went. Ironically (and significant to Peck’s thesis) Academy members didn’t even notice this whiteness at first, as they lavished LLL with fourteen nominations. I suspect they became abashedly aware of it only after watching I Am Not Your Negro (which they were required to do in order to vote for the Best Documentary category) and atoned for their oversight by voting Moonlight as Best Picture (read my review of the Awards fiasco here).

And that’s the point: as whites, we don’t even see the problem until it is pointed out to us. And then we go overboard in the other direction, as the Academy did in selecting Moonlight at the last minute. Peck’s argument — and the argument of many black activists — is that white Americans simply take for granted that what they see on the Hollywood screen, the television screen, the Facebook screen, and the textbook page looks just like them. Because whiteness is presented as ubiquitous and universal, white Americans learned to feel entitled to that sensation. So when we hear an impassioned “Black Lives Matter!” we often respond reflexively, “All lives matter!” We completely miss the point that “all lives” has seldom included “black lives.” Not culturally, at least. And saying, “I’m not racist,” or “Many of my friends are black,” even if it’s true, misses the point as well. We may very well not be racist. Most of us probably aren’t, in fact. But when we defensively change the subject to ourselves, we unintentionally silence the voice that is straining to be heard.

Viewers suddenly realized that La La Land is as white as a Doris Day musical, with the few black characters marginalized.

Toni Morrison makes this point in her novella The Bluest Eye, in which a young black girl, Pecola Breedlove, wants desperately to look like Shirley Temple, whom she watches at the movie matinees every Saturday. Even Pecola’s own mother shoves her aside and prefers the pretty little white children whom she cares for as a domestic servant. I Am Not Your Negro demonstrates powerfully what it’s like to grow up knowing that you are inherently unlovable and the antithesis of cultural beauty or heroism.

As a young man, Baldwin moved to Paris, where he could move freely in public without the sensation of being watched, feared, and suspected. Nevertheless, he returned to the US frequently to lend his voice to the Civil Rights movement. In 1979 he was commissioned by McGraw-Hill to write a book, Remember This House, about his personal remembrances of three assassinated black leaders: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X. Baldwin never completed the book, but the 30 or 40 pages he did write are powerful and eloquent, and they form the central storyline of I Am Not Your Negro, narrated in voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson. The sections that focus on these three men, told with intimate home movies as well as official news footage, are some of the most impassioned of the film.

As a result of this documentary I came to a better understanding of the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and why the response “All Lives Matter” is irrelevant and trivializing. But I didn’t come to any sense of a solution. Half a century later, despite desegregation, affirmative action, welfare, fair housing laws, reversed cultural appropriation, a black president, and a white population fairly begging to be inclusive and non-racist, we’re still dealing with some of the same problems. Where do we go from here? Baldwin suggests that whites “invented the nigger,” by which he means created the trope of the black who is defined as rapist, violent, lazy, foolish, incapable, and immoral, and that “it can’t be fixed until whites can figure out why.” He also had harsh words for the NAACP, believing that it created class distinctions of its own by privileging light-skinned blacks over dark-skinned blacks. Is class distinction innate in the human psyche? Can it be overcome?

We may very well not be racist. But when we defensively change the subject to ourselves, we unintentionally silence the voice that is straining to be heard.

After watching the film I began to contemplate the black experience through the lens of the women’s movement. Women, too, suffered from the way they were portrayed culturally, through art. Women, too, had to watch “their kind” stand in the shadows or the sidelines of the movies while male protagonists saved the day. Like Baldwin, I can remember playing cowboys and Indians with the neighborhood children in the 1950s; I don’t remember any of us wanting to be “Miss Kitty.” Also like blacks in the movies, girls were taught through the movies (especially in the 1950s) that a woman needs to be slapped around a little bit to calm her down and make her more compliant, and that she needs to give in to a man’s passionate, if unwanted, embrace because “no” really means “yes.” We also learned that bad boys were good, and we set our eyes on marrying one of them as the ultimate goal.

What made the difference for women? It wasn’t saying, “Women’s Lives Matter.” Everyone already knew that. Women mattered in the kitchen, in the laundry room, in the nursery, in the bedroom. Men were wont to say with a patronizing chuckle, “Without women the human race couldn’t even continue, God love ’em.” But it was belittling praise. Women were also told how they mattered in lyrics like these:

Hey! Little girl
Comb your hair, fix your makeup
Soon he will open the door
Don't think because there's a ring on your finger
You needn't try anymore.

For wives should always be lovers too
Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you
I'm warning you — (Burt Bacharach, “Wives and Lovers”)

My friends and I used to sing along to those subversive lyrics with their catchy tune while teasing our bouffant hair and painting on our eye makeup, never realizing how songs like these were holding us back from the truth that “Girls can be anything.”

Is class distinction innate in the human psyche? Can it be overcome?

Where women did not matter was in the workforce and in the marketplace of ideas. Here’s an example: in the 1970s and ’80s my husband and I wrote several books together, almost a book a year. He would do the research and write the outline; I would write the actual book. We published the books under his name, and they sold like hotcakes. Our biggest seller was High Finance on a Low Budget, selling over 300,000 copies in a dozen years. When it came time to write the 6th edition, he didn’t have time to update it, and I balked at being the ghostwriter again, so we published it with both our names. It was 1992, after all, and I had a financial résumé of my own by then — I was the editor of a monthly financial newsletter called “Money Letter for Women,” and I spoke frequently at investment conferences. Sadly, that 6th edition sold fewer than 4,000 copies. The next edition was published without my name, and it sold like hotcakes again. It wasn’t my husband’s fault, and it wasn’t the publisher’s fault. The market had spoken resoundingly. It would accept a woman writing a financial letter for women, but it did not want my name on the cover of that investment book.

Twenty-five years later, that wouldn’t be the case. Now women practically dominate the nightly news as political pundits and expert guests. If I were writing an investment book today, no one would ask me to use my initials instead of my name. This is what I think made the difference: a generation of parents and teachers began telling little girls, “You can do anything. You can be anything.” It was said in school, in homes, in books, in movies. And everyone began to believe it.

The market had spoken resoundingly. It would accept a woman writing a financial letter for women, but it did not want that woman's name on the cover of an investment book.

Black Lives do matter, but it’s not enough to matter. Mattering leads to victimhood and paternalism. In Africa, blacks built civilizations, led tribes, cultivated lands, created art, and fought wars to protect their turf and their way of life. In the antebellum South, blacks worked in the blazing sun while the master provided their housing, their clothes, their food, and their healthcare (meager though it was). Post-Civil War, they continued to receive food, shelter, and healthcare from the “government plantation.” James Baldwin complained about government paternalism in the Cambridge debate, declaring calmly and forcefully that the black man should be seen “not as a ward, and not as an object of charity, but as one who built America.” He added, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.”

Now, nearly 40 years later, his words seem as timely as if he had spoken them yesterday. And yet I think Baldwin would be pleased by some of the changes in media. Films like Hidden Figures do offer the message that blacks — and black women at that — can do anything. Moreover, black actors are now being cast in parts where being black doesn’t matter, and that’s a good thing. Think of Denzel Washington in Flight, for example. The role of the alcoholic pilot who successfully lands a damaged plane could just as easily have been played by Tom Cruise — or by Meryl Streep, for that matter. We have come a longer way than Peck’s documentary might suggest.

Black Lives don’t just matter. Black lives can do anything. Maya Angelou wrote about the humiliation she felt at her high school graduation when the white (of course), male (also of course) school superintendent proudly told everyone about the progress his administration was making in the school district. He told them about the new science labs at the white high school, and the wonderful new athletic fields they would be installing at the black high school. Maya was stunned. The black students mattered, yes, but they wouldn’t be scientists or mathematicians. They would be athletes. August Wilson (a black playwright) does the same thing with his black characters in Fences, when young Corey has only two options available to him, a football scholarship or the Marines, and his brother Lyons is a jazz player. By contrast, Walter Lee Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun is determined to start a business because he knows that in the absence of an education, business is his only path to success. On the night when he invests his father’s insurance money in a liquor store with two of his friends, he says to his ten-year-old son Travis, “Son, what do you want to be? Because you just choose it and you can be it. Anything at all.” That his son could have such opportunity — the infinity of choice — matters to Walter.

Hansberry knew that Travis could be anything, because that’s what her parents had told her. Her parents counterbalanced the white cultural bias she saw in the movies and on the streets with a constant parade of black poets, writers, and activists who visited their home. She knew such heroes as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin personally. And armed with that knowledge — I can be anything! — she became an educated, talented, successful playwright.

Could it be as simple as that? Or am I being naïve? As a white woman do I even have the right to suggest it? All I know for sure is that all the government programs of the past 50 years have made little progress, and the demands made by the official “Black Lives Matters” organization are focused on more government programs with more government subsidies. More paternalism from the government plantation. Could the solution be as simple as mothers and fathers and teachers telling black children everywhere, “You can do anything. You can be anything”? Maybe not. But maybe it’s worth a try.


Editor's Note: Review of "I Am Not Your Negro," directed by Raoul Peck. Magnolia Pictures, 2016, 93 minutes.



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Robert Osborne, R.I.P.

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Robert Osborne (1932–2017), who died on March 6, started out as an aspiring young gay actor, whose talent was not equal to his aspiration. His acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act. Acting, after all, is only one aspect of the art. He didn’t repine; he kept involved. He became a writer about film, and eventually he became the founding and continuing host of that great American institution, Turner Classic Movies, which presents movies on cable TV, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and never edits or censors them.

Osborne’s genial, knowledgeable, and above all genuine presence made him a central figure in my life and the lives of many other people. I remember sharing happy hours watching TCM with the late Ronald Hamowy, when he was ill and had difficulty leaving his house. Ronald and I watched whatever movies Osborne presented, always appreciating the way he handled his role as host and (concise) commentator. Ronald knew more about movies than I did, and consequently knew better than I how to value Robert Osborne; but over the years I learned more about film, and a lot of it came from watching Osborne and TCM. There are few things in life that are both good and available at any time. TCM is one of those things, and Osborne was largely responsible for its continuance and success.

Osborne's acting career fizzled. But his enthusiasm for the art of film turned out to be a hundred times greater than his desire to act.

Osborne was famous for his friendships with Hollywood stars, but he was no idolator or press agent. His interviews with them dwelt on serious questions of art and craft and the challenges of life, and he had a way of gently bringing people out in conversation so that pretense vanished and personality emerged. He took human weakness for granted and went beyond it, to more interesting things.

I have no idea what Osborne’s politics were, because they were irrelevant to his work. I wish I could say as much about the unequal figures who have occupied the scene at TCM during recent years, years of the mysterious illness that seems finally to have claimed Osborne’s life. He was himself a strong personality, but he never thrust the purely-Osborne forward; he was always Osborne in pursuit of the life of film.

For this I am thankful. As Auntie Mame said, “Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death.” People who don’t know the history of film are missing much of the food and most of the fun. Osborne’s mission was to issue invitations to the banquet, to inspire in others his own enthusiasm for a great art form. He was not a “legend,” as dead celebrities are always proclaimed to be. No, he was a reality.




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Belshazzar’s Feast: The Retrospect

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On February 27, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have finally succumbed to its long, slow, self-inflicted descent into irrelevance. The fiasco of the final award provided the only talking point of the evening, and it was a disaster.

Let’s talk about the fiasco first, as though it hasn’t been talked about enough: the final award of the night, Best Picture, was to be presented by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in honor of the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde. (Really? Sixty years? Sigh.) Emma Stone had just been awarded the Oscar for Leading Actress. Warren Beatty opened the envelope, but instead of holding the result for Best Picture, it held the duplicate Leading Actress card. Evidently they provide a set of cards on both sides of the stage, in case the presenters enter from the wrong side, and Beatty had been given the unused envelope from the previous award. Confused, he didn’t know what to do, so he showed the card to Dunaway, who blurted out the name of the movie without realizing that it was the wrong award. (Who can blame them? They’re both so over the hill, I’m surprised they could read the cards at all.)

What a disaster for everyone concerned — except, perhaps, for ABC and the producers of the show. Clips of the mixup have been shown all day. Sadly for the actual winners, the story has focused entirely on Jordan Horowitz ("What a good sport he is!"), Warren Beatty ("Not my fault!"), and Jimmy Kimmel ("Not mine either!"), who all grabbed the microphone while the hapless producers of Moonlight stood behind the thunderstruck celebrants of La La Land, waiting for their opportunity to make their speeches. And repeatedly, the news clips about the fiasco end before the actual winners come on stage. What a mess.

Confused, Beatty didn’t know what to do, so he showed the card to Dunaway, who blurted out the name of the movie.

If I were more cynical, I might think that the producers borrowed a page from the free advertising the Miss Universe pageant received after Steve Harvey announced the wrong winner in 2015. Certainly the fiasco kept the drab awards show, whose Nielsen ratings have steadily declined for the past nine years, in the news all day. Let’s just look at how irrelevant, arrogant, and condescending Hollywood has become. Moonlight might be a wonderful movie (I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t been able to see it), but best picture of the year? Why would they choose a film whose global box office was a mere $22 million? Compare that to $184 million for the wonderful Hidden Figures and $340 million for La La Land! Not that box office receipts should be the major consideration in determining best picture, lest superhero movies take over the awards, but come on — at least choose a film that people outside of the Academy voters have seen!

And it isn’t just the Best Picture honor that was out of touch. Let’s look at all of the top awards. Best actor went to Casey Affleck for the taut, understated performance of a man traumatized by a family tragedy in Manchester by the Sea. The film’s pacing is so slow, and the traumatizing moment so far into the film, that I actually walked out in boredom the first time I saw it. (See my review.) Yes, Affleck’s performance is a fine study in character control, and the reveal is deeply emotional. But better than Andrew Garfield’s Herculean effort in Hacksaw Ridge? Or Ryan Gosling’s two years of preparation to play a jazz pianist in La La Land? I don’t think so.

Best Actress went to the perky, effervescent Emma Stone, who essentially played herself in La La Land, and didn’t even bother to learn how to dance convincingly — for a tribute to dance musicals! (See my review.) This award belonged to Meryl Streep for Florence Foster Jenkins. A lesser talent would have turned Jenkins into a pathetic clown, but Streep imbued the character with such convincing joie de vivre that we fully believe that she could be so beloved by her friends and her husband. (My review.) To be perfectly honest, I think the award belonged to Amy Adams, who wasn’t even nominated. As the linguistics professor who had to communicate with alien life forms through eye contact and body language alone in Arrival, she was superb. How does the Academy justify awarding Casey Affleck for his understated performance in Manchester, and not even recognizing Adams with a nomination?

Let’s just look at how irrelevant, arrogant, and condescending Hollywood has become.

And then there’s the Supporting Actress Award. Viola Davis has been getting heat for saying in her acceptance speech, “I became an artist, and thank God I did, because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” Really, Viola? Those E.R. doctors who make end-of-life decisions with grieving families in the Oscar-nominated short documentary Extremis don’t consider every day what it means to live a life? Teachers in underserved school districts don’t know what it means to live a life?

I could go on, but I have another bone to pick with Ms. Davis: what was she doing in the Supporting Actress category? Rose is the only female character in Fences. (The other woman, Alberta, remains offstage throughout the play.) She is strong, confident, and self-assured. Troy (Denzel Washington) is the main character, but Rose stands beside him in their marriage, not behind him and certainly not in a subordinate role. She dominates Act 2. To present her in the Supporting Actress category is not only unfair to the genuine supporting actresses of the season, it is an affront to the character herself.

The producers of Fences aren’t the first to play this category con-game; several films have downgraded their leading actors or actresses in order to strengthen their chance of winning. The most egregious, in my opinion, was the decision to submit Javier Bardem in the Best Supporting Actor for his powerful, dominating, leading role in No Country for Old Men (2007). The ploy worked for him too, and he won his Oscar. But it came at the expense of Hal Holbrook’s tender, heart wrenching role as Ron Franz, the lonely man who befriends Chris McCandless in Into the Wild (see pp. 47–49). It was a small scene, but I’ve never forgotten it. That’s what the supporting category was designed for — an opportunity to reward actors who turn small parts into deeply memorable experiences.

Really, Viola? Those E.R. doctors who make end-of-life decisions with grieving families don’t consider every day what it means to live a life?

I have no opinion about Mahershala Ali’s Supporting Actor as Juan in Moonlight. That’s because, as I mentioned, I was never able to see it. The film was released briefly in a few select theaters in late 2016, long enough to qualify for Oscar consideration. Then it came back to a few theaters in February, after it had been nominated for Best Picture. I went to my local theater that Wednesday to see it, but it had already been knocked off the marquee by multiple screenings of 50 Shades Darker — it was Valentines week, after all. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges gave the performance of a lifetime as Sheriff Marcus Hamilton in Hell or High Water. Here’s what I wrote about him in my review:

Marcus is an old-fashioned ‘man’s man’ who can’t express his appreciation or affection in words. Instead, he peppers his Native American partner with an incessant barrage of racist jokes and stereotypes that cause the audience to cringe and laugh at the same time. But we catch a glimpse of his true emotion in a particular moment when Marcus first laughs in exultation over something he has just accomplished, then strangles that laugh into a sob, and then lifts his head with stoic calmness and moves on. It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

Damien Chazelle’s award for Best Director (La La Land) was a deserving choice, although I was rooting for Mel Gibson to win Best Director for the brilliant Hacksaw Ridge. But considering how Hollywood has ostracized him, it was truly an honor for him just to be nominated. Hacksaw’s award for sound editing was well deserved.

In sum, the 89-year-old Oscars have become whiny, pedantic, self-important, and out of touch with their audience. The Golden Globes have nudged them nearly off the stage. I think it’s about time.

A concluding note:

The Oscar Shorts (Animated, Narrative, and Documentary) are the most overlooked category in film, since few people have the chance to see them. But I must comment on this year’s short narrative winner, Sing, because I think it says a lot about what’s wrong in Hollywood, and what’s wrong in America. A little girl joins her school’s choir because she loves music and loves to sing. The principal is proud of his choir, and has a policy that anyone who wants to participate is allowed to join. It’s a competitive choir, however, and the teacher wants to win. She takes the girl aside after class and tells her that she can be part of the choir, but she cannot sing out until her voice is stronger. The girl is, of course, devastated. She loves to sing. It turns out that several of the children are only miming, and when the stronger singers find out, they stand up for their friends and refuse to sing at all unless all of them are allowed to sing out. We’re supposed to applaud this show of unity, and in the theater where I saw the shorts, many in the audience did.

The Golden Globes have nudged The Oscars nearly off the stage. I think it’s about time.

But let’s think about this. Would members of the varsity basketball team have the same attitude about letting everyone play? Or do they expect players to earn their way onto the varsity team? Would the school’s choir continue to win the state awards of which they are so proud of mediocre singers are allowed to be part of the competition choir? More to the point — would the singers enjoy singing if half their group was off-key? As a choir singer myself, I can tell you that it is painful to sing next to someone who is off-key. And it’s painful to be in the audience as well. The teacher made the best of a difficult situation: required by the principal to accept all applicants, she gently told the weaker students to hold their voices back until their skills had improved.




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Out of the Silence

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Jesuit missionaries arrived in Japan during the mid-16th century, and Christianity initially flourished, with over 100,000 converts. But as the church’s influence over the people grew, the civil government resisted, banning Jesuit missionaries in 1587 and outlawing Christianity completely in 1620 (ironically the same year when oppressed Christian pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock). Many Japanese converts abandoned the church, while others went underground and practiced their religion secretly. Many of those were tortured and killed.

Silence is set against this backdrop of silent, secret worship. When church leaders hear that a beloved priest, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), has recanted his testimony and converted to Buddhism, two of his protégés, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver) refuse to believe the rumor of his apostasy and resolve to travel to Japan in search of their mentor.

In Japan Rodrigues and Garupe discover a community of secret Christians who greet them with joy and beg them to stay. The priests hide in a mountain hut during the day and perform furtive ordinances of baptism, communion, and confession at night. The literal darkness of these scenes contributes to the spiritual darkness of the film. Despite being about sacrifices made on behalf of faith, it is utterly without light or hope.

Many Japanese converts abandoned the church, while others went underground and practiced their religion secretly. Many of those were tortured and killed.

We see people anxious to make confession and priests willing to absolve them, but we see no actual change in their moral character resulting from their Christian experience; in fact, the only consistency about one person is his continual backsliding and serial confession for the same treacherous sin. We see villagers eager to receive Father Rodrigues’ humbly crafted crosses and the beads he shares by disassembling his own rosary, but no visible improvement in their lives. We see torture and brutality, but we see no evidence of what motivates faith. We hear no homilies or scripture stories to promote conversion or stave off apostasy. We see people willing to die for their religion, but no apparent reason to live for it. Even Father Rodrigues, who has sacrificed everything for his faith, begins to question the Silence he hears from God. When Father Ferreira turns to teaching medicine and astronomy instead of Christianity, he sighs, “It’s fulfilling to finally be of use in this country.”

In short, what we don’t see in this film about religion is any real experience of religion. Despite the serenity of the gorgeous landscapes and the sincerity of the acting, there is a vast spiritual emptiness in this film that purports to be about unwavering faith. The torture feels gratuitous and the sacrifice of these souls unnecessary. No good comes from their torture and deaths. No one lives because they die. Their resistance to the ban against Christianity begins to feel more like arrogance than submission to God. When Rodrigues devoutly refuses to step on a tile image of Christ, even though his parishioners will be tortured until he does, the Japanese Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) scoffs, “The price for your glory is their suffering!”

Rodrigues’ anguish for the people is palpable, but is his stand truly noble? Christ died so that others could live. He endured immeasurable suffering at Gethsemane, and withstood mockery and humiliation from his tormentors, with patience and forgiveness. Would he really be so terribly offended if a priest stepped on his picture in order to save a community of faithful Christians? Or would he be glad that Rodrigues gave up his pride in his own spiritual strength, in order to protect them? Making a false statement with fingers crossed was designed exactly for this kind of moment. The Inquisitor doesn’t even care whether the recantation is sincere. He urges, “You don’t have to believe it. Just do it.” So do it, I thought, and let these poor Christian villagers go free.

We see torture and brutality, but we see no evidence of what motivates faith.

Rodrigues’ resistance demonstrates, ironically, a lack of faith in the mercy and love of Christ. Peter himself denied knowing Jesus in the hours before the crucifixion (an event alluded to in the movie with the crowing of a rooster at a significant moment), but Jesus did not condemn Peter for it. In fact, the false denial might have been the reason that Peter remained alive and free. Days later, Jesus met him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and called him with the words, “Feed my sheep.” Peter then served as the leader of the church until his death. Sometimes the expedient choice is the correct one, especially in the face of tyrants.

In Silence, Andrew Garfield is fully committed to his character. He imbues Father Rodrigues with pitiable angst and heartache. I have no criticism to bring against his acting skills, or those of Adam Driver (who lost 50 pounds for his role) or the others in the fine cast. I also admire the cinematography skills of Rodrigo Prieto, whose work on this film has been nominated for an Oscar. But they couldn’t rise above the misguided script.

Let’s compare the spiritual emptiness ofSilence with the noble richness of Hacksaw Ridge, another film in which Andrew Garfield portrays a Christian driven by spiritual commitment, in this case to perform herculean deeds. In Hacksaw Ridge, his character risks his life for something grand and important, something well worth the sacrifice.

Desmond Doss was the first conscientious objector to serve as a medic at the battlefront. He didn’t carry a gun, but he saved the lives of at least 50 Marines at the battle for Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa. Witnesses put the number at closer to 100; in awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor, officials set it at 75. The movie about that terrible battle is inspiring, brutalizing, and sometimes overwhelming in its alternating beauty and horror.

Sometimes the expedient choice is the correct one, especially in the face of tyrants.

Act I offers a slice of Blue Ridge Americana, filmed in bright airy daylight that contrasts with the dark, smoky scenes of Act II, during the battle. That first act opens on young Desmond (Darcy Bryce) and his brother Hal (Roman Guerriero) racing through the sunny woods and up the face of a cliff. We meet Desmond’s parents and his rural community, and we see his sweetly innocent courtship with the angelic Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer), a courtship that includes a romantic climb to the top of the mountain. We get it — despite his slight build, Desmond has spent a lifetime building endurance and strength.

Two events lead to Desmond’s decision never to take up arms. First, he nearly kills his brother with a brick in a boyhood tussle. Second, his drunken, abusive father nearly kills his mother with a gun, and Desmond nearly uses that gun to protect her from him. Shaken by the strength of his own anger, he vows never to touch a gun again. Nevertheless, he is determined to serve in the military. And with good reason — he sees how “survivor guilt” has affected his father.

Tom Doss (Hugo Weaving), Desmond’s father, is a veteran of World War I. He fought bravely and was decorated twice. But he was overcome by the guilt of returning alive, while most of his buddies returned in a box. He returned from the war safe, but not sound. His sullenness, his drinking, and his wife-beating are a direct result of his guilt and the senseless deaths of his friends. Tom argues eloquently about the futility of war, and for a libertarian viewer, his lines are some of the best in the film. Nevertheless, Desmond joins up. “I had to enlist,” he tells Dorothy on the day he proposes to her. “I can’t stay here while all of them go fight for me.”

At boot camp Desmond encounters a different argument, this one favoring war. “We fight to defend our rights, and to protect our women and children,” Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) tells him, and Desmond agrees. One could argue the relative merits of leaving those women and children at home while traveling thousands of miles across the sea to defend them, but at least Howell argues for defense rather than expansion and plunder. When Desmond adamantly refuses to pick up a gun, even for target practice, Howell tries to have him sent home. Again, his reasoning is sound. “A unit is no stronger than its weakest member,” Howell says, and a member who can’t or won’t defend himself seems as weak as they come. Protecting a conscientious objector in the fray of battle could become a deadly distraction. In a situation that recalls the central conflict in A Few Good Men, Howell and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) do their best to get rid of Doss. The derision, the beatings, and even a court martial serve only to strengthen him for what lies ahead.

Tom argues eloquently about the futility of war, and for a libertarian viewer, his lines are some of the best in the film.

Knowing director Mel Gibson’s penchant for gruesome realism, I braced myself for the battle scenes. In the first few moments of the climactic battle, as the soldiers scale the ridge and move forward toward the enemy, the remains of the previous day’s battle reminded me of the set dressing at Universal Horror Nights: dismembered guts and body parts strew the ground, but they seem rubbery and painted. I relax. I can handle this. Then the actual battle explodes, and holy moly, does it become gruesome! One soldier picks up the torso of a dead man, blood dripping from where the legs used to be, and uses it as a shield while he runs forward, shooting into the oncoming lines. I learned what eyelids are made for and used them judiciously for the next half hour. But the screaming and explosions of war are inescapable (and their realism led to Oscar nominations for both sound and sound editing).

The brutality of these scenes is graphic but not gratuitous, as it prepares us to understand more fully what Desmond Doss experienced that night. Surrounded by gunfire, grenades, and flamethrowers, he scrambles through the carnage to find the wounded, administer field dressings and morphine, and drag people to safety. Even when the rest of the regiment is ordered to withdraw to safety while it regroups, Doss remains behind until at least 75 wounded men have been rescued. At one point he looks to the sky and cries out, “What do you want of me? I can’t hear you!” I thought of Father Rodrigues’ discouraged prayer in Silence. But on Hacksaw Ridge, there is no such silence. The answer screams from the field: “Help me!” Doss gets to work. Throughout the night, as he searches and hauls, and dodges the enemy whom he refuses to kill, this mantra carries him through the exhausting night: “Please, Lord, help me get one more! Help me get one more . . . one more . . . just one more.”

Seeing Hacksaw Ridge the first time, I was moved to tears by the humble courage and determination of the heroic protagonist. Seeing it the second time, I was impressed even more by the subtle ways Gibson used Act I to foreshadow Act II, especially the scenes in which Doss is running and climbing cliffs with his brother and later with Dorothy. The sunlit grandeur of his childhood climbs belies the dark forbidding face of Hacksaw Ridge. His closing scenes are equally artistic and evocative. Gibson is not well liked in Hollywood because of his drunken rant during a traffic stop a decade ago and because of his conservative political views, so I was shocked — pleasantly — when the Academy voters recognized the quality of the filmmaking and the heroism of the story and nominated Hacksaw Ridge for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. For me, in a year when the competition is tight and every single Best Picture nominee is, in my opinion, worthy of the grand prize, Hacksaw Ridge is the best film of the year.


Editor's Note: Review of "Silence," directed by Martin Scorsese. EFO Films, 2016, 161 minutes; and "Hacksaw Ridge," directed by Mel Gibson. Cross Creek Pictures, 2016, 139 minutes.



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Hidden Messages

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Many years ago I was asked to be the scorekeeper at an international synchronized skating competition. I dressed in official black, sat at the judges’ table with my pencil in hand, and proudly wrote down each team’s scores. When the day ended I asked a judge where I should take my clipboard to have my scores recorded. The judge laughed. “Just throw them away. We only record them manually in case there’s a power failure and we lose the official scores.” So. I had just been an insignificant backup scribe. Yet I had enjoyed my experience sitting at the judges’ table, and if the power had failed, my recordkeeping would have saved the day.

I thought about my backup role at that competition while watching Hidden Figures, a terrific film about the little-known women — most of them “colored” — who provided the backup computations in the early days of the space program. They didn’t design the rockets or map the trajectories, but they double-checked the math for the engineers — all of them men — who did those things. It was a respectable job that required respectable dress and respectable manners. They also needed respectable math skills. But they were the proofreaders, not the creators. Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

I know how that feels too. My first real job was proofreading for a university press. I had a natural ear for spelling and for grammar rules, and I was fast and accurate at my job. As an added benefit, I spent my days reading the galleys of fascinating books and articles. I felt a definite pride in my grammar skills, as I’m sure the NASA computers felt pride in their math skills. But what I really wanted was to become a writer, not a proofreader. I wanted to be on the other side of those galleys.

Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

Three of the computers at NASA also had higher aspirations than backup math. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer in the film) wanted to be a supervisor. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. And Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) wanted to be an astrophysicist. Hidden Figures tells the compelling story of how these three women influenced the space program in the early 1960s, while also influencing the civil rights movement regarding women and African-Americans.

You probably didn’t know that any women worked on the space program in the early days, let alone black women. Neither did I. They have been a well-kept secret, these “hidden figures” who did the figuring. The film has predictably outrageous moments as we watch Katherine running to use the “colored restroom” in the building half a mile from the one where she works, or Mary being told that she can’t attend extension classes at the all-white high school, or Dorothy being given the responsibilities of a supervisor without the title or the pay that would go with the official promotion. But what makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence. They are as delightful as they are strong, and they bring something new and fresh to the civil rights story that is usually dominated by the men who were marching, sitting-in, and orating for freedom.

Fans of Big Bang Theory will enjoy seeing Jim Parsons in “Sheldon’s” dream job as a NASA physicist. Kevin Costner is well cast as level-headed, open-minded Al Harrison, the director of the department where Katherine is sent to check the trajectory figures. It was also good to see a grown-up Kirsten Dunst on screen as the supervisor in charge of giving the women from the computing pool their daily assignments. She portrays the kind of woman who thinks she is modern, progressive, and active in advancing the colored women who work under her, until Dorothy responds with a scathing smile, “I’m sure you believe that’s true.”

What makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence.

Hollywood makes few films that a libertarian can cheer, but Hidden Figures is one of them. I suspect the makers of this film didn’t even realize the libertarian ideals hidden within their script about civil rights and racial prejudice. Here are a few gems to watch for:

Lead the Way. Often the argument against change is “This is the way we’ve always done it.” In a film whose backdrop is the race to be first in space, Mary Jackson’s eloquent argument for being allowed to attend the white high school is profound. “Someone has to be first,” she says to the judge who will either maintain the status quo or change the future. “Why not you?”

Recognize Individual Worth. As a child, young Katherine (Lidya Jewett) demonstrates math skills far beyond her years. Her teachers not only recommend a school for children who are gifted in science and mathematics, but they also take up a collection to help her get there. Compare that attitude to the one touted in the new movie Gifted, in which the grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) of a brilliant little girl (McKenna Grace) wants to send her to a special school for gifted children but her uncle and legal guardian (Chris Evans) wants to keep her in the neighborhood school where she will have a “normal” childhood. What kind of world do we live in when we champion mediocrity and vilify those who would nourish genius? Katherine Johnson was blessed to have had her genius recognized and nurtured.

Make Yourself Indispensable. Katherine is sent to Harrison’s department as a simple proofreader, checking the math. She patiently endures the segregationist policies and does her work well. But she goes beyond that, using her skills in analytical geometry to solve trajectory problems the professionals haven’t been able to solve. Eventually her reputation for accuracy becomes so strong that John Glenn (Glen Powell) refuses to launch until Katherine has confirmed the Go-No Go calculations (a story that appears to be founded in fact). Instead of focusing on changing unfair office conditions, she focuses on doing her job well and making herself indispensable.

The law seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion.

Adapt to Changing Technology. When an IBM machine threatens to make the human computers obsolete, Dorothy heads for the library to learn Fortran. She encourages the other women in the computer pool to do the same. She realizes that the one sure way to keep a job is to stay ahead of change so the organization can’t get along without you.

Work Until the Job Is Done. As the pressure to beat the Russians to the moon increases, everyone has to step up. “You’re going to have to work harder and longer than ever before, ” Harrison tells them, “and your paychecks won’t reflect it.” Then he adds, “It starts with me.” They all feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment that transcends the word “job”; they’re part of a mission that will change the world. Compare this to the law enacted on December 1 that mandates workers earning less than $47K be paid time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. It seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion. Significantly, the boss doesn’t give orders and go home — he works long hours right alongside them.

Be Persistent and Patient. Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine never stop lobbying for the promotions and advancements they feel they deserve, but they continue to do the jobs they’ve been hired to do in the meantime. They don’t lead protests or threaten to strike. Instead, they increase their educations, adapt to changing technology, look for places where they can make a difference in the organization, and make themselves critical to the organization’s success. As a result, each of these brilliant women became, in real life, a quiet pioneer — Dorothy Vaughan became the first African-American woman supervisor at NASA, Mary Jackson became the first African-American woman aeronautical engineer, and Katherine G. Johnson was the first African-American woman to become a technical analyst for the space program. Their story is finally and finely told in a film that is entertaining, inspiring, outrage-inducing, and in the end, triumphant.

Often the argument against change is


Editor's Note: Review of " Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi. Fox 2000, 2016, 127 minutes.



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A Monster Calls, a Lion Roars Back

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Boyhood should be filled with running and playing and studying and dreaming. It should not be filled with nightmares about unspeakable loss. Nevertheless, two excellent films released this month address that theme, each of them helmed by outstanding young actors and presented with exquisite cinematography. Although you would have to be emotionally empty to avoid a tearful sniffle at the boys’ plights, both films manage to avoid maudlin or gratuitous melodrama. Each is surprisingly uplifting, despite its dark themes.

A Monster Calls, set in England but filmed largely by a Spanish crew, follows the story of young Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who attends a boys’ school where he is routinely pummeled by a passionless bully much larger than he. Conor barely notices the punches to his face, however, because life has already served him a punch in the gut — his Mum (Felicity Jones) is dying from cancer. So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches. (More about the monster in a moment.) This story could only have been told in England, where maintaining a stiff upper lip (while developing an ulcer) is taught to perfection in boarding school.

The only person he unleashes on is his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), with whom he will have to live once the unspoken ending has happened. Meanwhile, Grandma is facing the loss of her daughter with the same British stoicism, and expresses her need for control by expecting Conor to live in her house without touching anything. Conor eyes her with distrust and is vocal about not wanting to go with her. He daydreams about moving to the United States to live with his Dad (Toby Kebbell) instead.

So stoic is he that when a monster appears at his window and breaks through his wall, he barely flinches.

Conor is stoic on the outside, but on the inside he is raging. The monster, voiced by Liam Neeson, is a metaphor for the rage he feels, and also for the monstrous circumstance that is attacking him. The monster is a gigantic tree-like creation with fiery eyes and thunderous voice, yet he seems more like a mythological guide than a terror. He says to Conor, “First I will tell you three stories, and then you will tell me the fourth.” Of Conor’s own story he tells us, “it begins with a boy too old to be a kid, and too young to be a man.”

The film has a strong sense of magical realism. Cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Imitation Game, The Impossible) and set decorator Pilar Revuelta contribute to this sense through skillful lighting, camera angles, prop dressing, and special effects. The score by Fernando Velasquez and Neeson’s powerful yet comforting voice are also important to the tone of the film.

Of course, the monster’s purpose is to help Conor express his rage and prepare for his grief. British stoicism be damned — rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child. Somehow Conor and his grandmother will have to come to grips with both, and find a way to do it together.

Another film steeped in local culture and unbearable loss is Lion, about an even younger boy. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is perhaps five years old when he inadvertently boards an empty train and travels over 1,000 miles to Calcutta before he can get off. Alone, frightened, unable to speak Bengali or even identify his mother by any name but “Mum,” he ends up on the streets with other abandoned children. Worse than facing the Faganesque threat of becoming petty thieves, these children are exposed to the threat of being sold into sexual slavery.

Rules don’t apply when a child loses a parent, nor do they apply when a parent loses a child.

Saroo manages to escape that fate and eventually is adopted by a couple in Australia. But the thought of his mother and siblings grieving over his disappearance continues to haunt him until, with the blessing of his adoptive mother (Nicole Kidman), he returns to India to find his roots.

It’s a simple story made wonderful by the acting of Sunny Pawar, who beat out 2,000 other young hopefuls for the part and didn’t even speak English when he began filming (which may have contributed to the uncanny portrayal of his character’s sense of confusion and loss in Calcutta). In early scenes he makes tangible the bond he shares with his big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his Mum (Priyanka Bose), as he proudly shows that he can work and contribute to the family table. One gets the sense that the cinematographer simply followed him around the hills of west India and the streets of Calcutta with a camera and caught him doing what he naturally would do. Greig Fraser’s soaring landscapes and cluttered, colorful cities are magnificent as well.

Dev Patel, best known for his breakout role in Slumdog Millionaire, in which he had the same job — portraying the older version of a young main character — steps into Act II of Lion with similar natural skill. He demonstrates the complex emotional confusion experienced by an adoptee old enough to remember his previous life and family, profoundly appreciative of his new parents, yet not completely at home in either location. He doesn’t quite know how to interact with his adoptive brother, who also joined the family as an older child; he plays cricket and surfs, but doesn’t know how to scoop curry with naan. He becomes isolated and withdrawn, confused by a combination of grief and guilt, until he is able to return to India and complete his search.

“Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief.

The film is about more than an orphaned boy’s search for his hometown; it touches on deep issues of child trafficking, international adoption, cultural identity negation, emotional handicap, and what it means to be a family.

Lion is one of those “stranger than fiction” stories that would never have been greenlighted if it weren’t true. “Unbelievable” and “incredible” are words we throw around lightly, but this story really does seem to go beyond belief. Yet the film is based on A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierley, who also served as co-scriptwriter of the film. From interviews I’ve seen with Brierley and then from watching the film, I would say it’s as true as he can make it. The acting is true too — vulnerable and heartbreaking, light as a bird and strong as a lion.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "A Monster Calls," directed by Juan Antonia Bayona. Focus Films, Apaches Entertainment, 2016, 108 minutes; and "Lion," directed by Garth Davis. See-Saw Films, 2016, 118 minutes.



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Look Twice

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In Robert Hayden’s sonnet “Those Winter Sundays,” a man looks back with painful regret on his childhood relationship with his father at a time when he was too young to “know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.” The father apparently has died, and it’s too late to tell him what the son now knows. The poem begins:

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

The speaker reveals his father’s unacknowledged daily sacrifice and then admits his own coldness toward his hard-working but “austere” father. He shamefully admits “speaking indifferently to him, / who had driven out the cold / and polished [his] good shoes as well.” It is simply too painful to linger over the details, and through a poetic technique known as enjambment Hayden demonstrates the speaker’s urge to rush past the painful memory, tumbling past the natural line breaks until he deliberately slams on the brakes with the consonant-heavy “banked fires blaze” and a mid-line period. There he forces himself to open his eyes and admit it: “No one ever thanked him.” Even now, as an adult, he can’t bring himself to use the word “I.” Childlike, he finds excuse in numbers: “no one” did.

The director’s method is an artful avoidance of details. Lonergan sidles up to the tragedy, taking a full hour before he presents it to us.

Skilled filmmakers use similar tools to demonstrate the psychological trauma of a protagonist. In the critically acclaimed (but audience-panned) Manchester by the Sea, director Kenneth Lonergan demonstrates the inability of his protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), to face a horrific tragedy in his life. The director’s method is an artful avoidance of details. Lonergan sidles up to the tragedy, taking a full hour before he presents it to us and distracting us by other problems along the way: Lee is working as a janitor and living in a one-room basement apartment when the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) takes him back to his hometown of Manchester. In flashbacks we see that Lee has had wonderful experiences in Manchester with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), his three children, his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and his boisterous friends. Yet he refuses to return to Manchester to become Patrick’s guardian after Joe’s death.

In this way Lonergan treats the real tragedy almost as a side story, with the characters involved in it barely introduced in the film. Even after we see what has caused Lee to be so withdrawn from life, he doesn’t linger to discuss it. It is simply too painful. Just as Hayden rushes past his protagonist’s tragedy through enjambment, Lonergan rushes through Lee’s tragedy by revealing the story in snippets and flashbacks that flame up and then retreat again into the darkest reaches of his memory. Nevertheless, the story within the story is always present, always breaking through.

Critics have praised Manchester by the Sea in general and Affleck’s performance, which is indeed raw and real, in particular. But does it deserve 97% approval rating? Audiences find it slow-moving, drawn out, and unsatisfying. The grumbling of unfulfilled audience members surrounded me as the film ended and the lights went up. “That’s it?” I heard more than one person say.

Even after we see what has caused Lee to be so withdrawn from life, he doesn’t linger to discuss it. It is simply too painful.

I agree with them in part — it is so slow that, the first time I saw it, I actually left after 45 minutes. I decided to give it another try, a couple of weeks later. The second half, after we find out what’s eating at Lee, is emotionally and artistically powerful, with moments that are so unbearably real that we, too, want to rush through them, even though we can’t look away. The film doesn’t give us a happy ending or even “closure,” today’s buzzword for dealing with tragedy in a timely fashion. It’s not a movie for a pleasant Friday night date. But life’s problems aren’t fixed in two hours. Sometimes they can’t be fixed in a lifetime. Closure isn’t available for certain acts that can’t be undone and words that can’t be unsaid. The reality of that level of regret makes Manchester by the Sea intensely satisfying, even though it is agonizingly, stupefyingly slow.


Editor's Note: Review of "Manchester by the Sea," directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Amazon Studios, 2016, 137 minutes.



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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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The Space Aliens Have Finally Come

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Movie reviews took a back seat at Liberty while the election dominated our pages. This was the most divisive election in recent history, with three flawed candidates being nominated by the three major parties. (Yes, I consider the LP a major party at this point, even if the chance of winning is still nonexistent.) The divisiveness only worsened after the surprise election of Donald Trump, with protests that quickly escalated into riots and derisive epithets of “Racist! Homophobe! Sexist!” that escalated into accusations (sometimes false) of personal attacks. College students, whimpering and wailing, were issued blankets, tissues, and even puppies by administrators more anxious to comfort their fears than to teach them how to cope with disappointment.

Sheesh.

As I decided to write my first review for Liberty in over a month, I wondered: which current film would provide the best opportunity to address these issues? Arrival seemed like a sure bet.

Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?”

In this movie, 12 alien spacecraft enter the earth’s atmosphere and hover above locations around the globe, virtually knocking at the door and asking to be let in. But what is their purpose? Do they come in peace, or as galactic imperialists? That’s the question asked in every alien-oriented movie, and it was the key issue that drove Trump’s rise to the presidency. Do we build a wall — a yuge wall — to keep everyone out (at least until a thorough vetting has been performed), or do we open the doors and admit workers from Mexico, refugees from Syria, boat-people from southeast Asia, and anyone else who wants to come in? Most of us want to be kind, but we also want to know, “Why are they here?” Fittingly, that is the tagline of Arrival.

The opening moments of the film reinforced my intent to write a timely political review. I like the fact that the writers chose the neutral term “arrival” rather than the usual “invasion.” People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater in New York City. Our main character even references Fox News Channel while trying to calm her hysterical mother, saying, “Why are you watching that channel? How many times have I told you not to listen to those idiots?” She also admits to strategic lying in order to get her way: “The story isn’t true, but it proves my point, “ she mutters her sly justification.

But, as so often happens when I come to a movie already thinking about how I’m going to write my review, I soon let go of my preconceived plan and let the actual film envelop me. The film is slow for the alien invasion genre, more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than Independence Day. Leaders in the 12 nations where the spacecraft are hovering do bring in their military, but they do so cautiously. They have learned to be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, but they won’t slam the gates or start shooting the arrows until they’ve seen what’s inside this Trojan horse. What is the purpose of these uninvited arrivals?

Tension develops not so much from fear of attack as from an agonizing slowness that affects our perception of time; unnatural gravity that affects our perception of nature; a 60-beat, pulsating percussion that affects our perception of the aliens; and discordant, dissonant music that simply grates on our nerves.

People react to the arrival of the alien ships with stunned silence and disbelief, followed by newscasters reporting riots, looting, and school closings — reminding me of what was happening not far from my movie theater.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a respected linguist, and Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a first-rate mathematician, are called in to see whether they can communicate with the beings. An academic argument ensues over which is the core of civilization, language or math, but the film does not ask us to endure a cutesy, hormone-driven competition between the two attractive academicians. This is serious business, and they are serious partners in their mission to discover why the aliens have come and whether their intent is peaceful.

Guided by thoughts of her daughter’s birth and childhood, Louise turns to such non-verbal communications as touch, eye contact, body language, and facial expressions as she and Ian work out the “Heptoid” vocabulary. She points out the ambiguity inherent in words, and the consequent importance of understanding context in order to discover intent. “The Sanskrit word for war,” she offers as an example, “is desire for more cows.” Soldiers and bullets, she suggests, are a symptom of war, not the definition of it. I couldn’t help but think of the quote attributed to Frederic Bastiat: “When goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will.” And I again thought of our president-elect and his misguided determination to limit international trade.

For a film about language and communication, there is surprisingly little dialogue. Instead, the actors are asked to communicate their thoughts and emotions to the audience in the way their characters are communicating with the aliens — through body language, movement, and facial expressions. Director Denis Villeneuve couldn’t have asked for a better actress for this task than the brilliantly talented Amy Adams. She approaches the aliens with the same wonder and engagement as she expresses in her interactions with the daughter of her thoughts. We know how she feels about language, and about these aliens, because we know what it’s like to interact with a baby or a child. Language becomes a tool and an emotion. Linguistics become exciting and engaging. And the denouement of the film is wondrous because of all this.

This is a film that surprises you with unexpected stillness, unexpected wonder, unexpected fulfillment. It asks us to embrace life, even when it includes inevitable trauma or sorrow. In the end, I discovered, it is the right film for right now. But not for the reasons I expected. Go see it before you hear any more about it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arrival," directed by Denis Villeneuve. 21 Laps Entertainment / FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 115 minutes.



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The Sickening Seven

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The current remake of The Magnificent Seven with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in the roles developed in 1960 by Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen seemed promising. But this new film is anything but magnificent, especially as it opened while riots fueled by police shootings raged in cities across this country. The Seven demonstrate some of the same “shut up or I’ll shoot” sensibilities that we’ve been seeing on the news, and that makes it difficult to identify these Seven as heroes.

Several plot points have been updated to correlate with contemporary issues, to the detriment of the film. In the 1960 film, Mexican villagers seek relief from a bandit named Calvera (Eli Wallach) who has been plundering their community for food and supplies; in the modern version, the Mexican villagers have become Euro-American farmers, and the bandito Calvera is now robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), played to the hilt as a melodramatic, two-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain. Instead of demanding food and water (which modern audiences might consider reasonable), he is set on forcing the farmers to sell him their land for a mere $20 a parcel, because gold’s been discovered in them thar hills.

The Seven demonstrate some of the same “shut up or I’ll shoot” sensibilities that we’ve been seeing on the news, and that makes it difficult to identify these Seven as heroes.

I sort of liked this nod toward the evils of eminent domain, but instead of simply securing a government mandate to make the farmers sell him their land, (which is what the robber barons did in order to build their railroads) Bogue shoots a few townsfolk and burns down the church to make his point. I half expected him to tie a young maiden to a railroad track. Another problem is that we never see any evidence of farms anywhere, despite numerous long shots of the area around the town. Moreover, gold is usually found in mountainous areas, not in fertile plains. But oh well. That’s Hollywood.

In the 1960 film the Mexican villagers cross the border into Texas to buy guns and ammunition with which to protect themselves, but a gunslinger, Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) convinces them that it would be cheaper and safer to hire professional protection. I’ve always liked this libertarian solution to their problem. The villagers don’t have much money, but they are willing to give all that they have, every penny, to a good cause, echoing the New Testament story of the widow’s mite. Moved by their determination and personal sacrifice, Chris agrees to gather a group of gunslingers to help them, even though he knows that he and his men are likely to die in the process. (I think there’s something significant in the anti-hero’s name being Chris.)

I needed some heart in this movie — and not the kind that Sam Chisolm and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) share from the body of a freshly gutted deer.

In the new film, Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) is touched by the same gesture, and as he agrees to help the villagers he says, “It isn’t a lot of money, but I’ve never had anyone offer me everything they have.” But that’s where the similarities between the two films end. Instead of a gunslinger, Chisolm is a warrant officer (one step above a bounty hunter, and a government representative), whom we first meet when he enters a saloon looking for a fugitive. No one else in the saloon knows he’s a warrant officer, so they all put their hands on their guns, worried by what is about to happen. Soon everyone in the saloon has either skedaddled or died except Sam and John Faraday (Chris Pratt), who had been playing poker when the mayhem started. I know we’re supposed to be impressed by Chisolm’s cool, calm, skillful dispatching of everyone who had the drop on him, but I’m outraged instead. The bartender might indeed have had a warrant out for his arrest, but the others were simply reacting to a stranger threatening their friend with a gun. And isn’t the bartender entitled to a trial before his execution? Surely there was a simpler, less deadly way to serve the warrant. Chisholm should at least have identified himself for the benefit of the rest of the crowd.

And then there’s Faraday. Everyone else has left the poker table, so he checks their cards, scoops up all the money, and sidles out of the saloon, where two brothers he has evidently swindled in a previous card game surprise him, take his guns, and shove him toward the entrance of a mine shaft. Soon one of them is dead and the other one is missing an ear, and Faraday’s flippant excuse is, “He shouldn’t have touched my guns.” Really? That’s why he killed the man? I know there was a Code of the West regarding horses, hats, and guns, but it also forbade cheating at cards, right? That makes Faraday at least as guilty of violating the Code as the brothers, so Faraday gets no sympathy, or approval, from me.

Next we meet Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), who make their money by competing in a kind of human cockfight. Here more people end up dead, just for the fun of it. But it’s OK, I guess, because these victims have stupidly entered the ring of their own volition. After that there’s Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), who makes his screen entrance by flinging an axe into someone’s chest. Please! Give me Steve McQueen stealing scenes by fiddling with his hat and Charles Bronson stealing the hearts of three little boys in the town so that our hearts are broken in the end.

Bogue shoots a few townsfolk and burns down the church to make his point. I half expected him to tie a young maiden to a railroad track.

I needed some heart in this movie — and not the kind that Sam Chisolm and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) share from the body of a freshly gutted deer. One thing I can say: the film has diversity covered, with a black, an Asian, a Native American, a Mexican, a Southerner, two whites, and a woman, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, as the town resident who hires the so-called good guys to avenge the death of her husband).

Mayhem continues as the Seven enter the town they’ve been hired to liberate. Bang, bang, pow, pow, twang, twang — and everyone who was standing outside is now dead, with some pretty fancy shootin’ there, pardner. But how do the vigilantes know who’s a bad guy? They’ve never been to this town before, and no one is wearing a uniform. This kind of shoot-now, assume-you’re-right attitude just didn’t sit well with me when my heart was grieving for the many people whose lives have been senselessly cut short by nervous, trigger-happy policemen and the rioters who think it gives them the right to loot and kill other innocents in response. The timing of the release of this film could not have been worse.

And if you set aside the timing, it still isn’t a very good film. It’s all about shooting, exploding, and killing, with very little character development. In the 1960 version, director John Sturges took the time to develop relationships among the gunslingers and the families in the village they have chosen to help. As a result, we sense that these men are laying down their lives for their friends. In this film, by contrast, Sam and Emma are driven by revenge, and many others are driven by a wanton enjoyment of murder and casual disregard for life. That cause isn’t noble enough for me. I came home and watched the 1960 version on Amazon Prime, just to wipe away the stench.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Magnificent Seven," directed by Antoine Fuqua. MGM, 2016, 132 minutes.



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