Hard Landings

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We tend to assign major significance to minor occurrences, especially where travel and potential accidents are concerned. “Thank goodness,” we think, “I stopped to check the mail, or I might have been involved in that crash I just passed.” We may even hesitate to change seats on a plane, or to change flights when an overbooking voucher is offered, for fear that, in the (very unlikely) event of an accident, we will have made a fatal mistake.

I thought of that tendency while watching an early scene in Sully. Three men (father and sons, as it turns out) rush to catch an alternative flight after their intended flight has been cancelled. They share high fives all around as the gate attendant relents and lets them board the plane, happy that their fishing vacation will not have to be delayed or postponed. Of course, we in the audience know that they just thwarted their guardian angels’ attempt to protect them; they’ve just boarded US Airways 1549, headed for the Hudson River and a whole new kind of fishing expedition. The dramatic foreshadowing continues as one son opts for the lone seat at the back of the plane so that his brother and father can have two seats together. Will this generous offer be his last?

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong.

It’s risky to make a movie about an event so recent and fresh in the public’s memory as the miraculous water landing of a jet plane on the Hudson River in January 2009, after a flock of geese got sucked into the engines. And the entire event took just 208 seconds, plus another 20 minutes or so to rescue the passengers and crew. We all watched the news clips and interviews. What could a director — even one as skilled as Clint Eastwood — do to stretch the event into a full-length feature more interesting than what we’ve already seen on the news?

Despite my skepticism, I was fully engaged throughout this film. Eastwood chose to focus most of it not on the crash — er, I mean, water landing, as Sully (Tom Hanks) is quick to point out — or on Sully’s heroism, but on what he endured during the aftermath.

The film opens with scenes of the low-flying plane, but something is wrong. Instead of a river, we see buildings. This isn’t right. This isn’t the way it happened. Then Sully wakes up, and we realize that our hero, this man who managed to save 155 passengers and crew without a single casualty, is having recurrent nightmares about what happened, and what might have happened. Unable to sleep, he puts on jogging clothes and runs through the streets of New York, but he can’t run away from his fears.

This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business.

Worse, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is having similar thoughts about what might have been, except that their thoughts aren’t nightmares. The NTSB actually sets out to prove, using computers and cockpit simulators, that the plane had enough thrust, altitude, and time to have returned to LaGuardia or landed at nearby Teeterboro Airport, thus sparing the plane and the trauma endured by the passengers. If they find against the captain, his career, his reputation, and his retirement pension will be gone. This conflict drives the story and engages the audience’s ire at Big Government and Big Business. We are outraged that they would sully Captain Sully’s reputation, and for a while I’m outraged at Eastwood too, for making this the focus of the film.

Eastwood knows best, of course, and the positioning of the NTSB simulators against the tense, calm, and quick-witted actions of Sully and his copilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) in the real cockpit make for a conclusion as exciting as the moment when we turned on our television screens and saw a plane sitting pretty as a duck on the Hudson, with 155 people huddling on her wings, surrounded by ferry boats. Watch for Vincent Lombardi playing himself as the ferry boat captain who was first on the scene, and stay for the credits to see the actual passengers and crew in a cathartic reunion with Sully and his wife (played by Laura Linney in the film).

Another eponymous biopic that opened this week also tells the story of a man whose reputation has been “sullied” by the government — or so we are led to believe. But we aren’t sure about Edward Snowden. Is he a hero who sacrificed essential freedoms in order to blow the whistle on government snooping and intrusion? Or is he a traitor who put patriots and foreign operatives at risk when he revealed sensitive, top-secret documents? Real people have real questions about this case, and those questions are not addressed in the film.

Both Snowden and the 2014 Oscar winning documentary Citizenfour present just one side of the issue: Edward Snowden’s side. I tend to be on that side, but as pointed out in my review of Citizenfour, Snowden controlled the famous interviews he provided to journalists Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras, and Ewan MacAskill (played in this movie by Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, and Tom Wilkinson) at the Hotel Mira in Hong Kong. They never challenged him or did any additional investigation (that we know of) to see whether U.S. operatives were harmed by his revelations. So the story is undeniably one-sided.

Snowden's patriotism feels a little odd, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.

The movie’s interviews, which provide the running narrative of the film, are almost identical to what we saw in the documentary, prompting me to question the point of making this narrative feature. However, Snowden provides a satisfying backstory we didn’t see in the documentary’s interviews, and that makes this film worth seeing.

Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems to have been a patriotic young man with a fervent desire to serve his country. (This felt a little odd to me, since he names Ayn Rand as one of his early influences, and I don’t think she would have approved of passionate service or statism of any sort.) He serves first in the military, then as a computer coder for the CIA, and then as a private contractor providing services to both the NSA and the CIA. A brilliant mathematician and analyst, he was able to crack codes and create complex computer programs designed to thwart hackers and aid government surveillance. But soon he discovers that the NSA and CIA have been spying on virtually everyone’s private phone calls and emails; they even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off. (Yes, I have a post-it taped over the camera on my laptop as I write this, and it will remain there. You start to feel sort of paranoid after watching this film.)

As depicted in the film, Ed Snowden is a quiet, soft-spoken young man without the outgoing charisma we normally associate with courage and heroism. He doesn’t have enough personality to engage potential operatives at a cocktail party, although he does come alive when he’s with his girlfriend, amateur photographer, pole dancer, and left-leaning semi-activist Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). Her glowing smile and natural charisma, and her unrestrained love for him, help us to care about him too. Their relationship also serves to convince us that his motives are pure: how could he leave this charming young girl behind, unless he truly believed in the rightness of what he was doing? On the other hand, could her left-leaning politics have influenced his actions more than his own patriotism did? She left the United States to join him in Russia. For love or politics? We don’t know, and nothing in the film suggests that she is anything but innocent.

They even have a program that can remotely activate your computer’s built-in video camera and watch you inside your office or bedroom — whether your computer is turned on or off.

At 134 minutes, Snowden is about 30 minutes too long. The scenes that show what the CIA and NSA were doing, and how, are heavy on technical jargon (although I suspect they worked hard to simplify it), and we spend a lot of time watching the characters watch screens. But the second half of the film, especially the part beginning when Snowden realizes that he has to blow the whistle in order to protect the public, is tense and exciting. The final scene, when Edward Snowden himself appears, is thrilling. I wanted to applaud him in the theater. (We are hoping to bring him to FreedomFest this year through Skype.)

Both these films present interesting character studies of unlikely heroes — men who never craved the limelight or set out to change the world but rose to greatness when presented with crises that only they could address. Sully is the better film, but Snowden is worth seeing as well.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Sully," directed by Clint Eastwood. FilmNation Entertainment, 2016, 96 minutes; and "Snowden," directed by Oliver Stone. Endgame Entertainment, 2016, 134 minutes.



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Investigation of a Citizen Above Justice

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I’m not sure why Hillary Clinton does anything she does, but I know she has a way of reminding me of old movies. Gangster movies, of course — though not the Godfather kind, in which you’re supposed to sympathize with the profound psychological and metaphysical conflicts of the leading characters. No one actually sympathizes with Hillary Clinton. I’m reminded more of the primitive gangster films, which teach you that some guys just want to be king of the world and will do anything to reach the peak, or preserve the illusion.

Those aren’t the only movies I associate with her. She often makes me think of His Girl Friday, where Earl Williams, the goofy gunman, is involved in so many ridiculous and, as Donald Trump would say, unbelievable incidents that a newspaper reporter says, “I’m pretending there ain’t any Earl Williams.”It’s a relief to pretend that there ain’t any Hillary Clinton.

Clinton violated the law, grossly, repeatedly, and ridiculously. She then told a long string of gross and ridiculous lies.

But the strongest cinematic parallel I can find to the Clinton story is a once-famous Italian movie that is called in English Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970). In it, a ranking police officer commits a crime and then gets the idea of establishing his superiority to normal people by submitting to an investigation that shows he is guilty — obviously guilty — yet does not lead to his arrest.

The parallel with Clinton is evident. In the emails episode alone, Clinton violated the law, grossly, repeatedly, and ridiculously. She then told a long string of gross and ridiculous lies, all of them conflicting preposterously with common sense, and with one another. The FBI, led by the vaunted Mr. Comey, spent thousands of hoursinvestigating her, located (without any difficulty) the incriminating facts, listened to many additional ridiculous lies, and discovered that Citizen Clinton could not be prosecuted because there was no evidence she intended to violate any of the laws she schemed to violate.

That’s basically how the Italian movie turns out. The power structure can never conceive of indicting one of its own. The bad guy wins — in two ways, one of them more important to him (and to me) than the other. He doesn’t get indicted; that’s the relatively unimportant win. The more important one is his demonstration that people like him are above the law. Members of the elite are never punished; they are immune. Their immunity is the proof of their status, the validation of their identity, and the source of their joy. That’s the vital thing. If you wonder what Mrs. Clinton does with the time she doesn’t spend on fundraising (and, of course, lying), I think I have an answer. She spends most of her time laughing at honest people who have a job.

/em




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Better than Advertised

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If you encountered the trailers for War Dogs, you would probably expect to see a typically raunchy Todd Phillips and Jonah Hill road trip, set untypically in the Middle East. But you would be wrong, and that’s a good thing. While there is indeed a wild ride from Jordan to Iraq as Mr. Hill’s character is being chased by Fallujahns wielding AK-47s, War Dogs is a surprisingly satisfying and informative film. It’s based on the true story of an unlikely pair of entrepreneurs who managed to live as fat as drug dealers in Miami by procuring supplies for the military.

David Packouz (Miles Teller) is working as a door-to-door massage therapist when middle-school chum Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) comes back into his life and invites him to help in his new business — providing materiel for the military. Partly as a reaction to the profits Dick Cheney made in the Middle East through his company Haliburton, Congress changed US policy in the ’90s so as to require multiple bids in procuring supplies. Efraim realized that big companies only wanted to bid on big contracts, and that created a niche for him. “Everyone’s fighting over the same pie and ignoring the crumbs,” he explains to David. “I live off the crumbs.”

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop.

Soon the two are in business together, living off more than crumbs in their newly purchased Miami beachfront condos and poring over contract listings to search for the buttons, belts, and bullets that other companies are likely to ignore. “It costs $17,500 to outfit one American soldier,” David, who narrates the story, tells the audience. You can make just as much money selling helmets and gloves as you can selling tanks and airplanes. Sometimes more, as Efraim and David discover. One deal is for more than $300 million. All of this is legal, and necessary. Competitive bids, after all, should keep the price down, and provide some relief to the taxpayer.

What isn’t legal is the way Efraim and David create the required resumes and business history out of thin air and Photoshop. Or how they work with shady characters around the world to fulfill the orders they’ve promised to supply. Or how they circumvent embargoes and other regulations to make sure their deliveries go through. They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

Efraim is wild, unpredictable, greedy, and self-serving — a role tailor-made for Jonah Hill. By contrast, David is a family man with a new baby and a conscience. He wants a better life for his family than what he can provide as a massage therapist, but he doesn’t want to destroy his relationship with his partner Iz (Ana de Armas) in the process. The dynamic between these two character types, one virtually amoral and the other morally connected, drives the conflict of the film and creates a satisfying storyline.

They’re like FedEx on steroids. And cocaine.

As the film came to an end on the night I saw it, and the audience stood up to leave, I was struck by the number of young men who had come in packs. I don’t think they were Iraqi veterans looking to reminisce about their latest tour of duty. They had come for a mindless, raunchy Todd Phillips comedy, à la The Hangover Part IV: Iraqi Nights or something like that — the film the trailer promised to deliver. What they got was something else — something you could also say about the characters in the film. From the conversations I overheard, they didn’t seem disappointed. War Dogs is entertaining throughout, with well-developed characters and a healthy underlying cynicism about war.

Narrator David asks us, “What do you know about war? They’ll tell you it’s about patriotism, democracy. . . . But you wanna know what it’s really about? . . . War is an economy. Anybody who tells you otherwise is either in on it or stupid.” David Packouz and Efraim Diveroli were both — they were in on it, and ultimately they were stupid. Nevertheless, he continues, “War dogs [are] bottom feeders who make money off of war without ever stepping foot on the battlefield. It was supposed to be derogatory, but we kind of liked it.“

Whether they’re bottom feeders or not, I kind of liked this film.


Editor's Note: Review of "War Dogs," directed by Todd Phillips. Green Hat Films, 2016, 114 minutes.



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There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Reverse Mortgage

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Hell or High Water is a classic film about down-on-their-luck bank robbers and the gruff-but-tenderhearted sheriff who doggedly chases them. The bank robbers are brothers Tanner (Ben Foster), an ex-con recently released from prison, and Toby (Chris Pine), a rancher trying to save the family home from foreclosure because the recently deceased mother had tied it up with a reverse mortgage. Come “hell or high water,” they are determined to pay off the debt before the bank gets the ranch.

There isn’t a bad guy in this film. The robbers are bumbling and likeable, with a noble if misguided motive. “We ain’t stealing from you, we’re stealing from the bank,” Tanner tells one bank manager as he points a gun at him. They’re smart enough to garner our admiration for their home-saving plan, dumb enough to make us laugh, and kind enough to tellers and waitresses to engage our sympathy. The bank managers and tellers are also just ordinary folks doing their jobs, and a little bit dumb as well. Their video cameras aren’t working, and they seem to have no security plan in place. If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages as the financial saviors of old age — but they don’t actually appear in the movie.

It’s a brilliant piece of acting from a brilliant and underappreciated actor.

As inept as they seem, Toby and Tanner leave no clues behind — largely because the bankers are so inept themselves. Sheriff Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) is determined to catch these thieves through cunning instead of force. He would rather figure out their next move and wait for them at the next bank than chase them down with forensics and SWAT teams. He’s an old codger of the proverbial “dying breed,” and the true thief in this film — Jeff Bridges steals the show. Bridges has long been one of my favorite actors, as skilled as Tom Hanks but without the pizazz and notoriety. He just gets the job done, quietly and without fanfare, much as his character, Marcus Hamilton, does in the script.

Underlying the bank heists and chase scenes and good-ol’-boy ribbing is a poignant story about how difficult it can be for men to express deep affection for one another. Tanner and Toby clearly love each other, yet they can’t put that love into words. Instead, they undertake a risky scheme to demonstrate their loyalty to each other. Similarly, Toby is estranged from his sons, who want nothing to do with him, yet he is willing to risk death or prison in order to give them a better life.

If anyone could be considered a villain in this film, it would be faceless bank presidents and real-life folks such as Alex Trebek and Tom Selleck, the television hucksters who promote reverse mortgages.

The relationship between the sheriff and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) is even more striking. 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.

Hell or High Water is a character-driven film with an engaging story and topnotch acting. I’ve come to expect the best from Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, who tend to abandon themselves in their acting and let the character take over with gestures and expressions that are simply and unexpectedly perfect. But Chris Pine, who is known mostly as an action figure with a pretty face (Star Trek, Jack Ryan), delivers a surprisingly nuanced performance as well. Come hell or high water, you should see this film while it’s in theaters this month.


Editor's Note: Review of "Hell or High Water," directed by David Mackenzie. Film 44 / Odd Lot Entertainment (that’s right — not a big studio; they’re all busy making superhero movies), 2016, 102 minutes.



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How to Succeed by Failing

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While Hollywood remains determined to commit financial suicide by focusing on their never-ending stream of superhero flicks (such as the recent Suicide Squad), film lovers can still find satisfying fare by looking beyond the major studios. Florence Foster Jenkins is a case in point. Produced by BBC Films, it is utterly delightful — and it delivers an important message about passion and dreams to boot.

The film is set in 1944 New York, where Madame Florence (Meryl Streep) is a popular socialite and patron of the arts, a woman who has established several music clubs to further the careers of budding composers and musicians. She also loves to produce tableaux and small operatic concerts with herself in the principal roles. The only problem is that she can’t sing. The solution, for her, is that she is blissfully unaware of how painful her voice is, and her husband St. Clair (Hugh Grant) is determined to keep it that way. He sits in on her lessons, hires only the best voice coaches and pianists, and invites “members only” to her performances while keeping the legitimate press away.

This ruse becomes more difficult when Florence books herself at Carnegie Hall, and St. Clair has to work even harder to protect her from learning the truth about how she sounds to others. (Evidently there is more than one way to get to Carnegie Hall; while most musicians have to “practice, practice, practice,” “money, money, money” can be just as effective.)

Their love is entirely believable and entirely captivating. We glimpse the richness of a relationship that endures in sickness and health, in good times and bad.

As Madame Florence prepares her new accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), for their “rigorous” training schedule, she warns him, “I practice an hour a day — sometimes two!” She hires the likes of Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh) as her voice coach, and St. Clair sits in on the lessons, smiling contentedly as she sings. We in the audience wince painfully, and Cosmé can barely control his embarrassed laughter — until he realizes that St. Clair is as serious as Florence about her singing.

Soon, however, Cosmé is drawn to Florence’s eccentric charm. So are her numerous friends. And so are we. From the flowery froufrou and feathers of the self-designed costumes on her matronly figure to the bathtub full of potato salad for her lunchtime soirées, we can’t help but love her free spirit.

Because Florence has a chronic health condition, she and St. Clair have a platonic marriage. But their love is palpable. He protects her and cares for her with a tenderness that transcends the tear-off-her-clothing kind of love portrayed in most movies. And she returns his affection with the confidence and sincerity of a woman who feels adored. Their love is entirely believable and entirely captivating. We glimpse the richness of a relationship that endures in sickness and health, in good times and bad.

Hugh Grant made his career playing the young and somewhat bumbling British heartthrob with the self-effacing demeanor and dazzling boyish smile. Then, in Music and Lyrics (2007), at the age of 47 he played a washed-up singer almost as an aging parody of himself, as though he couldn’t imagine himself as a believable love interest any longer. Happily for us, he was coaxed from a self-imposed semi-retirement by the prospect of playing opposite Meryl Streep. Actors have said that they love performing with Streep; she is so fully engaged in her character that they can become more completely engaged in their own. In this case Grant seems to provide that same emotional depth for Streep, who as Florence Foster Jenkins gives what I think is her finest performance ever — and this is a woman who has been nominated for 19 Oscars and has won three of them.

Madame Florence hears the voice of an angel when she sings, and that is the subtle message of her story: embrace your passions, whether or not you have the skill or talent to succeed by the world’s standards. It made me think of the many people this month who, fueled by the passion they’ve seen in the Olympic athletes, donned track shoes or swim suits and began “training” for the Tokyo Olympics four years from now. I remember the skating moms I knew when my daughter was a competitive figure skater, and how each of us imagined our daughters would stand on that ultimate medals platform — even though we knew, deep down, that the chance was pretty slim.

I also remember performing in Oklahoma! many years ago and being so surprised when I saw the video of the show — I had danced with the heart of a Rockette, but in reality I had barely left the ground. Still, I love to dance, and I’m perfectly happy never to see what I look like. In my heart and my mind, I’m a pro. As Madame Florence confesses with a smile, “They may say that I can’t sing, but they can never say I didn’t sing.” So sing your heart out. Or run. Or do whatever it is that brings you joy. Don’t let what others think keep you from doing what you love.

Embrace your passions, whether or not you have the skill or talent to succeed by the world’s standards.

Just how bad was the voice of the real Florence Foster Jenkins? When Streep began to sing, I thought she was exaggerating the squawkiness out of fear that modern audiences, raised on pop culture, wouldn’t know a well-sung aria from a flat one. I thought that no one could really sing that badly. But as the credits were rolling at the end of the film, a recording of the real Florence’s voice was played, and I have to hand it to Meryl Streep — she nailed it. It was godawful. But the film is brilliant. Don’t miss it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Florence Foster Jenkins," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2016, 110 minutes.



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Infinity in One Hour, 48 Minutes

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Biographical films, or “bioflicks” as they are often called, constitute a challenging genre for filmmakers — for a variety of reasons.

One major challenge is the difficulty of avoiding the extremes of hagiography and exposé. The temptation of a bioflick maker — especially one who is very sympathetic to the subject of the story, or who knows his audience is — may be to understate or omit relevant but unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or exaggerate the character’s good qualities or actions. One thinks of many of the biographical films of sports stars, artists, and political leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Conversely, the filmmaker — especially one who is very hostile to his subject, or who know the audience is — may be tempted to exaggerate the unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or to understate or omit the character’s good qualities or actions. There are even cases in which the bioflick maker is sympathetic to the perceived flaws of the real character and is tempted to exaggerate or accentuate them, in an effort to convince the public that they aren’t really flaws.

For these very reasons, bioflicks are often used as propaganda. Political regimes have long recognized the power of biographical film to advance their political causes, either by adoring portrayals of certain figures (such as key leaders of the regime, or historical figures whom the regime views favorably) or hateful portrayals of others (such as key opponents of the regime or historical figures whom the regime views unfavorably). For example, the Nazi Regime used bioflicks such as Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to convince people that the Party had among its supporters many noble young people.

The young Ramanujan apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers.

Another challenge is conveying what the subject of the film actually accomplished, together with its significance. This is relatively easy if the subject is (say) an artist: the filmmaker can inter alia show pictures of the artist’s work, while portraying the difficulty he or she faced in gaining acceptance (as is nicely done in Vincente Minelli’s acclaimed biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life [1956]). Again, if the subject is a composer, it is easy to make his major compositions part of the movie’s score (a successful instance is Richard Whorf’s popular biography of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By [1946]). It can be more difficult if the subject of the film is a scientist, or worse, a mathematician. One sees these challenges, and a creative response to them, in an excellent new bioflick, currently showing in art houses.

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was born in Erode, in the state of Madras, in 1887. He was of a Brahmin family (on his maternal side), but his parents were of limited means. His father was a clerk in a dress shop; his mother was a housewife. He survived smallpox when he was two, and grew up in a modest house in Kanchipuram (near Madras). The house is now a national museum in his honor. His mother — to whom he was very close, all his life — had three other children, all of whom died as infants. Raised as a devout Hindu, he kept the faith and Brahmin customs (especially vegetarianism) as an adult.

While Ramanujan went through secondary school and attended some college, he was largely self-taught. He mastered advanced trigonometry by age 13, discovering some higher-level theorems by himself. At age 14 he was able to pass in half the permitted time the high school math exit exam, and at age 15 he learned how to solve cubic equations. Then, by himself, he figured out how to solve quartic equations. A crucial year for him was his 16th, when a friend gave him a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of 5,000 theorems by G.S. Carr. He apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers, a subject on which he published a paper some years later. He was graduated from Town Higher Secondary School that year (1904), winning the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics.

Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as an editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

Unfortunately, although he was given a scholarship to attend college, he refused to focus on any studies besides mathematics, a refusal that resulted in his failure and dismissal. He subsequently left home and enrolled in another college, but again focused only on mathematics and was unable to get his bachelor’s degree. He left college in 1906 and worked as a poor independent scholar. In 1909 he married a very young girl, Srimathi Janaki — marrying very young was an Indian custom of the time — and after a bout of testicular disease, found work as a tutor helping students prepare for their mathematics exams.

In 1910, Ramanujan showed his work to V. Ramaswamy Aiyer, founder of the Indian Mathematical Society, who recognized his genius. Aiyer then sent him to R. Ramachandra Rao, secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Rao was initially skeptical but became convinced of Ramanujan’s originality and genius and provided both financial aid and institutional support so that Ramanujan could start publishing in the society’s journal. As the editor of the journal noted, Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as the editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

In 1913, Rao and some other Indian mathematicians tried to help Ramanujan submit his work to British mathematicians. The first few who received the material were unimpressed, but G.H. Hardy was quite struck by the nine pages of results he received. He suspected that perhaps Ramanujan wasn’t the real author, but he felt that the results had to be true, because they were so intricate and plausible that nobody could have dreamt them up. Hardy showed them to his colleague and friend J. E. Littlewood, who was also amazed at Ramanujan’s genius. Hardy and others invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work. The Indian was at first reluctant, because of his Brahmin belief that he shouldn’t leave his country, and apparently also because his mother opposed it. To the disappointment of Hardy, he obtained a research scholarship at the University of Madras.

Nevertheless, in 1914 — apparently after his mother had an epiphany — Ramanujan agreed to come to Cambridge. He started his studies under the tutelage of Hardy and Littlewood, who were able to look at his first three “notebooks.” (Ramanujan’s fourth major notebook — often called the “lost notebook” — was rediscovered in 1976.) While Hardy and Littlewood discovered some of the results and theorems were either wrong or had already been discovered, they immediately put Ramanujan in the same class as Leonhard Euler or Carl Jacobi. Hardy and Ramanujan had clashing styles, personalities, and cultural backgrounds — among other things, Hardy was an atheist and a stickler for detailed proofs, while Ramanujan was a Hindu and highly intuitionistic — but they collaborated successfully during the five years Ramanujan was at Cambridge.

One of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is his personal friend.”

In 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor’s of Science “by research” (a degree subsequently renamed a Ph.D). In 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1918 to the extremely prestigious Royal Society. At 31 years of age, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society ever elected, and only the second Indian so honored. In that year also he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ramanujan became ill in England, his sickness perhaps intensified by stress and (as the film suggests) by malnutrition. He was increasingly depressed and lonely, receiving few letters from his wife. The film identifies the cause as his mother’s jealous refusal to mail his wife’s letters to him. In 1918 he attempted suicide and spent time in a nursing home. He returned to Madras in 1919, and died the next year, barely 32 years of age. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, though one doctor, examining his medical records, has opined that it was actually hepatic amoebiasis. His young widow lived to the age of 95.

The film centers on the period of his life shortly before the point, shortly before his death, at which the adult Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is gaining recognition through his work at Cambridge. As the film opens in 1913, we meet Ramanujan in the temple of the goddess Namagiri, writing an equation. (The film rightly portrays him as believing that mathematical truths are divinely crafted.) We see him desperately trying to provide for his pretty young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and his proud but rather domineering mother (Arundhati Nag). While the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Ramanujan and his work, it does skillfully present his loving but difficult marriage (he was in England, separated from his wife for nearly half his married life) as well as the strained relationship between his wife and mother.

The main part of the film, which ends with Ramanujan’s death in India, concerns his time in Britain, following with fair accuracy the real timeline of his life. We meet Hardy (Jeremy Irons) as he is given Ramanujan’s first letter and asked to comment on the handwritten pages. Irons plays Hardy as a crusty old bachelor, but also as a person who is obviously sincere in his desire to help Ramanujan. The film capably explores the relationship between the two, showing the transition from a mentorship to a friendship based on deep respect.

We watch as Hardy and Littlefield (Toby Jones) try to get the rest of the faculty — especially the racist Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) — to recognize Ramanujan’s worth. The film explores at length the antipathy that many of the British, even the faculty and students, felt toward Indians, culminating in a scene in which Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers — an episode that has a dramatic function, since racism against the immigrants from the colonies coming into England at the later part of WWI (to work in a labor market that had been decimated by the war) was exceedingly common — though this specific episode may have been invented. It also shows Ramanujan battling poor health in the face of a cold climate and lack of nutritious food. But Ramanujan’s spirit prevails, and we see him elected a Fellow of the College, a satisfying vindication of genuine genius over jealous bigotry. As one of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is [his] personal friend.”

The film takes the mathematics quite seriously. Two distinguished mathematicians — Manjul Bhargave and Ken Ono — are associate producers of the film. Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal — often called “the Nobel Prize of mathematics” — and Ono is a Guggenheim Fellow.

How can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof?

Portraying Ramanujan’s work cinematically is of course especially challenging. Even if the audience were shown mathematical formulas he devised, few would comprehend them, much less see the genius it took to come up with them. And, unlike some scientists or other scholars that have a sudden dramatic “Eureka!” moment when they encounter the central theory or discovery for which they become famous, Ramanujan produced a continuing torrent of major work, even when ill — nearly 3,900 results during his short life (really, just 14 years of mature research).

The film, however, is rather effective at conveying Ramanujan’s work directly, as in the scene in which Hardy describes to his valet what “partitions” are — the number of ways a number can be the sum of others, as “4” is the sum of “4,” “2 + 2,” “2 + 1 + 1,” and “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” — as well as the scene in which Hardy and Ramanujan are waiting for a cab, and when one pulls up, Ramanujan immediately observes that its ID number (1729) is unique in that it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. The film even more successfully conveys his genius obliquely by showing how the other great Cambridge mathematicians received it: Hardy and Littlewood immediately recognized the genius in his work, and we see how the other mathematicians (who are initially governed by their prejudices) are eventually compelled to recognize it. Still, this is not a movie for the completely innumerate.

The acting is outstanding across the board. Dev Patel — well-known to American audiences from his leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) — ably conveys Ramanujan’s earnestness, integrity, and perseverance. Toby Jones is also superb as Littlewood, and Jeremy Northam givers a good supporting performance as Bertrand Russell. The supporting actresses are also excellent — Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s young wife and Arundati Nag as his mother. But especially noteworthy is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Ramanujan’s sponsor, mentor, and friend G.H. Hardy.

Director Matthew Brown does an outstanding job conveying Ramanujan’s story, with descending into melodramatic hagiography. Really, he doesn’t need to because the true story — a modest, decent, indigent, largely self-taught genius in a colonized, poor country rises to the very top ranks of mathematics, in the face of considerable hostility, becoming a hero in his native land, before dying tragically young — is the very stuff of legend.

This film explores a number of issues of philosophic interest. Regarding the philosophy of religion, the exchanges between the avowed atheist Hardy and the devoutly religious Ramanujan on whether the gods give Ramanujan immediate access to mathematical truth are illustrative of how atheists and theists see the world in significantly different ways.

Regarding epistemology, Hardy is portrayed working hard to convince Ramanujan of the need not merely to recognize that a mathematical theorem is true, but to construct a proof that it is. This is an issue among other things about epistemic style: does any science advance more from bold broad conjectures, or by exact argumentation? (The movie interestingly presents Russell as counseling Hardy to let Ramanujan “run”; i.e., to let him do math as his heart dictates, which is by intuition instead of meticulous proofs. But considering the detailed constructive logical proofs that Russell — along with his mathematician coauthor Alfred North Whitehead — created in their seminal logical treatise Principia Mathematica, one is surprised and puzzled at this.)

Regarding history, the film nicely shows the effect that World War I had on the British intelligentsia, with some, such as Russell — and here the film is undeniably historically accurate — being opposed to the war, and having meetings on campus to organize opposition, while the rest of the faculty is outraged at what was taken to be a lack of patriotism.

Regarding psychology, the film invites us to think about the nature of mathematical genius: how can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof? Here we should observe that many of Ramanujan’s conjectures on prime numbers were proven incorrect — however insightful and reasonably accurate they may have been — by Littlewood and others. I would suggest that his tutelage by Hardy was of great use in getting him to provide more proofs, and that most of his 3,900 results have been proven, including work that is being used today to understand black holes.

Finally, regarding an issue of concern in America today, The Man who Knew Infinity helps the audience understand the value of immigrants. The vicious discrimination that this estimable and amiable genius from India faced at the hands of the British makes one wonder why immigrants to our own country today are being targeted for systematic abuse. This is as counterproductive as it is immoral.

In fine, this is a bioflick of rare insight, and not to be missed.[i]

 


[i]It should be noted that in 2014 an Indian company produced a major biographical film, Ramanujan. It ran two and a half hours, was shot in multiple languages (including some pidgin languages, such as Tamenglish), and had a mixed reception. I don’t believe it was generally released in America.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Man Who Knew Infinity," directed by Matthew Brown. Pressman Film/Xeitgeist Entertainment Group/Cayenne Pepper Productions, 2016, 108 minutes.



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Just Keep Talking

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In case you think that United Statesians are the only people who are losing command of their language, and American politicians are the permanent world champions in the Oaf and Malaprop contest, consider what happened in the Canadian Parliament on May 18.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, known on the street as Li’l Obama, got upset about his colleagues’ slowness in voting on, of all things to get hot about, an assisted-suicide bill. So he stomped across the chamber toward Opposition Whip Gord Brown and some other people, including opposition member Ruth Ellen Brosseau. In the language of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is so nicey-nice that you can hardly understand it, “in video from the House, Trudeau is seen walking toward Brown in a crowd of MPs in the Commons aisle, taking his arm in an apparent effort to move Brown toward his seat. While doing so, he encountered Brosseau, who was also standing in the aisle and was seen physically reacting after the contact.” In the language of a more alert reporter, Trudeau “strode across the floor with an anger fierce in his face and eyes, towards a group of individuals. What took place was the prime minister physically grabbing people, elbowing people, hauling them down the way.” Brosseau said she had been “elbowed in the chest [i.e. breast] by the prime minister.” Others reported the PM’s deploying “the f-word” and continuing the confrontation in dialogue with the New Democratic Party Leader, who characterized him, aptly enough, as “pathetic!”

Later, amid loud cries of scorn and derision, Trudeau “apologized.” This is what he said:

I want to take the opportunity . . . to be able to express directly to [Brosseau] my apologies for my behavior and my actions, unreservedly. The fact is, in this situation, where I saw . . . I noticed that the member, the opposite member whip, was being impeded in his progress, I took it upon myself to go and assist him forward, which was I now see unadvisable as a course of actions and resulted in physical contact in this House that we can all accept was un, un, unacceptable. I apologize for that unreservedly and I look for opportunities to make amends directly to the member and to any members who feel negatively impacted by this, by this exchange and intervention because I take responsibility.

Here, in the comments of the lordly Canuck, are the same four and twenty blackbirds that American politicians are always baking into their own verbal pies:

A. The “apology” — but for what? For trying to “assist” someone. Some crime, eh?

B. The misleading description. Trudeau, it seems, took “a course of actions that resulted in physical contact.” Gosh, we all do that every day. I guess he’s no guiltier than the rest of us, eh?

This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people are paid to start talking and never stop.

C. The total disregard, or ignorance, of common idioms. English speakers never talk about “a course of actions.” It’s action, for God’s sake. Can’t you listen when other people talk? But when you’re a politician or other prominent personality, you don’t have to. So you don’t.

D. The reduction of a dramatic offense to something merely “unadvisable.” By the way, no one says unadvisable if he’s ever heard of inadvisable.

E. “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” — or at least of ignorance. You’re getting close to illiteracy when, within a very few words, you say, “We can all accept [that something] was unacceptable”; when you join accept with a clause, as in such current clichés as “you need to accept that your husband is a drunk”; and when you utter that virtually meaningless cliché “negative impact.”

F. The shifting of blame from actions to feelings, and hence from self to others — those others who “feel negatively impacted” by what you did. I am so sorry that you feel that way — now get over it.

G. The stilt stumble. Instead of saying that someone had trouble getting through the crowd, you climb on your stilts and say he was “being impeded in his progress.” My, Justin, what a big boy you are!

So much for Mr. Trudeau’s “unreserved” apology — and its ilk, whose name is legion, on both sides of the border.

Modern society is verbal to a degree that often makes me feel like Norma Desmond, longing for the days of silent movies. This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people — from talk show hosts and alleged teachers to political “consultants” and “activists” — are paid to start talking and never stop. But there appears to be an inverse relationship between quantity and quality.

Take Hillary Clinton. (Please!) She does nothing but talk. That’s been her sole occupation for the past 50 years. But somehow, the more she talks, the worse she gets. The more she talks about anything, the worse she gets about whatever that is. If you haven’t seen the YouTube video, “Hillary Clinton Lying for 13 Minutes Straight,” take a look at it, especially at the parts where she denies ever having changed her mind — or her essential values, or her basic concerns, or what she fights for, or whatever phrase she wants to substitute for mind. More hilarious still are the parts that show her lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

Now consider her attempts to jimmy her husband into her campaign. She and the liberal media (at present, her only friends and audience) still believe that Bill Clinton is the most popular person in the world. On May 20, Mr. Clinton appeared in my county, speaking in a high school to what was termed “a good crowd.” At the same time, the cops were blocking off streets for a Sanders rally. Who’s popular?

More hilarious still are the parts that show Clinton lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

It must seem strange to Mrs. Clinton that every time she brings up her husband, she loses more supporters. Insanely, she keeps on trying. On May 15, desperately attempting to get the workers of Kentucky to vote for her, despite her promise to put coal miners out of their jobs, she actually called the guy her “husband” — something she had hitherto avoided at all costs. (Understandable — she got where she is because of her own accomplishments, right?) She screamed about “my husband, who I’m gonna put in charge of revitalizing the economy, cause, you know, he knows how to do it.” At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

Note the phony folksiness of “gonna” and “cause,” and the real lack of grammar embodied in “who.” In view of her syntax, and her total absence of reference — what do we know that Bill Clinton knows about doing it? — Democrats should no longer complain about these qualities in Donald Trump. She’s right down there with him. Incidentally, if Bill knows how to revitalize the economy, why isn’t he doing it? What’s standing in his way? Has Hillary never anticipated these questions?

The “13 Minutes” video shows how dumb politicians can look when they’re trying to be clever. But here’s where the Dumber Principle comes into play. That’s what R.W. Bradford called the idea — useful to politicians, salesmen, conmen, evangelists, and people who are anxious to unload the house that they paid too much for — that “there’s always somebody dumber than you are.” On May 20, after the crash of the Egyptian airplane, I saw a Democratic spokesman castigating Trump for immediately suggesting that the cause was terrorism. The Fox News interviewer was apparently too dumb to mention that Mrs. Clinton had done exactly the same thing. He was also too dumb to deal with the contention that “there’s no evidence it was terrorism.” He looked puzzled, as if there was something he was missing, or something he had forgotten . . . But he never found it.

At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

The missing concept was the distinction between evidence and proof. Of course there was no proof of terrorism, or anything else, a few hours after the plane fell from a clear sky into the sea. But there was certainly evidence. The plane, which was on its way from Paris to Cairo, two top targets of terrorism, fell from a clear sky, into the sea, and without any cry of distress.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a dumb looking for a dumber, and ordinarily finding it. President Obama used it on May 12 to debunk the FBI director’s contention that police are making fewer arrests because of the bad publicity they got from real and alleged abuses in black neighborhoods. “We have not seen any evidence of that,” the president said; it was all “anecdotes.” I’m not debating the substantive issue — I don’t know enough about it — and I don’t know whether there’s proof, one way or the other. But if you’re looking for proof, you need to start with evidence, and since when aren’t anecdotes evidence? Obama’s use of “evidence” to mean “proof” was simply a way of deferring the inspection of whatever evidence exists, until everyone forgets the matter. He did the same thing with the evidence of IRS harassment of rightwing nonprofits. But don’t let the blame stop with him. Where is the interviewer, or even commentator, who says on such occasions: “Excuse me. We’re talking about this because there is evidence. We’re trying to find out whether it’s proof or not.”

Let’s see. What else can I pick on this month? Here are two other instances of people emitting words long after they’ve run out of anything that makes sense to say.

My use of the first example demonstrates my integrity, because I’m bringing up a flaw in one of my favorite things in the world, Turner Classic Movies. TCM has given me so many hours of knowledge and pleasure that I am willing to forgive even the dumb things its announcers say about Hollywood people “accused” of communist sympathies; actual communists are unknown to TCM. But in the land of TCM, unlike a communist dictatorship, all kinds of movies are shown, and no movies are cut or censored. In our era of censorship and self-censorship, this is a shining accomplishment. So I am also willing to forgive the offense I am about to mention — although to forgive is not to forget.

So here it is: TCM keeps advertising its annual film festival as “the intersection of emotion and excitement.” This leaves me speechless, and not with admiration. An advertisement has to say something, but not that. No, not that. In a purely linguistic sense, President Obama’s failure to distinguish “evidence” from “proof” is of no importance, compared with TCM’s demand that we picture an intersection where emotion and excitement, which is a type of emotion . . . intersect. I may be too smart, or I may be too dumb, but I cannot picture that.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a "dumb" looking for a "dumber," and ordinarily finding it.

Passing quickly, and finally, to someone who is not as likable as TCM, to someone who is not likable at all, I come to “Pastor” Jordan Brown, the idiot who tried to shake down Whole Foods in Austin by falsely alleging that when he ordered a cake that said “Love Wins” the store handed him a cake that said “Love Wins — Fag.” Linguistically, this event was important only because many of the media refused to state the offensive word, making up for their self-censorship by joyously presenting a picture of the cake itself, with the word on it.

But the bone I want to pick with the “pastor” has to do, not with the cake, but with one of the inspirational statements he tweeted to advertise his “church,” which if it existed was in the self-help, love-yourself business. The statement, sent out on April 14, just before the affair of the icing, was: “You cannot become what you will not confront.” If anything can be less than nonsense, that’s it. But it isn’t a peculiarly Jordan Brown statement. It’s the kind of idiocy exuded from every organ of the self-help monster that continues growing, 30 years after it ran out of the clear, simple, and actually helpful advice with which it began. Its brain is dead, but its words go on.

I like to remember what the actual pastor of an actual gay church once told me, in defense of other people’s right to say nasty things about gays: “Freedom of speech means being able to talk long enough to prove you’re a fool.”




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The Art of the Jungle

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Sometimes a movie should be approached from the perspective of its artistry more than its philosophy or its storyline. The new Jungle Book is one of those films.

Sure, we could examine the underlying theme represented by the “Law of the Jungle”: For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack. We could debate whether this philosophy favors the individual or the community. (I think it favors the individual, since “the Law” feels more like an invitation and a promise than a command or a threat.) We could also comment on the Law of Peace that wary animal species establish in the movie to gain safe access to water during a drought: the animals agree not to attack one another when they are at the only available watering hole. The truce is enforced simply by their own self-interest and their consideration of long-term consequences should they violate it. Isn’t that a lot like the libertarian tenet that commerce or trade is preferable to war for people who have different values and beliefs?

Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

We could also howl at the way the well-structured anapestic rhythm of Kipling’s original language has been marred by the wolves’ substituting And the Wolf that keeps it shall prosper, but the Wolf that breaks it must die for Kipling’s measured scansion: And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the Wolf that shall break it must die — a small thing, but I shall use it in my intro to poetry courses.

But right now, let’s just focus on the beauty of this film, the quality of the acting, the massive number of people who worked in harmony to produce it, and the amazing technology that made it possible.

The film opens with Mowgli (Neel Sethi), clad in a red loincloth, dashing barefoot through the jungle over rocks, across trees, through bushes until a branch snaps and he plummets to the ground. But there aren’t any trees — or grass or rocks or bushes, or ground for that matter; the movie was filmed entirely through digital animation and live-capture action in a studio in West L.A. The VFX (Visual Effects) are simply stunning, from the realistic blades of grass and bark of the trees to the fur on the animals and the way the wind ruffles the scene. Even more stunning is the way the animals move — not as animals imitating people, but with the darting gestures or lumbering heft of animals who happen to speak.

Adding to the sense of realism is the fact that Mowgli has scars, bruises, scrapes, and cuts, as one would expect of a young boy who lives in the wild. (In fact, watch for the scars on his shoulders — one seems to be an R, and the other a K, in a nod to Rudyard Kipling.)

Twelve-year-old Neel Sethi was the only live actor in this film and performed entirely on a blue screen set, assisted by mechanical stand-ins and director Jon Favreau, who often stood just off screen to help focus Sethi’s eye lines. He had to imagine the animals pursuing him, the bees stinging him, the trees he was climbing, and the conversations he was having. As Mowgli, he appears in nearly every scene, so the success of this $175,000,000 production rested on his acting abilities. He is utterly believable and engaging throughout.

Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, Favreau encourages humans to be themselves.

An additional challenge with a film of this scope is scheduling the live work fast enough so the actor doesn’t age over the course of the film. That means all the animation had to be set in stone before live filming began — no retakes are possible when the other cast members require weeks or months to recreate.

The actors who voiced the animals did their work separately within a sound booth, of course, long before Sethi entered the scene. They, too, must imagine the action and react to other characters virtually. They imbue their characters with their personalities simply through the inflection of their voices, and rely on animators to add gestures and facial expressions to bring the characters to life in other ways. Bill Murray as the bear Baloo and Christopher Walken as the gigantopithecus King Louis (an orangutan in the 1967 version) are particularly impressive. Murray’s low-key, offhand, Teddy-bear delivery is funny and endearing, while Walken’s Brooklyn accent is completely different from the way Louie Prima envisioned King Louis in the 1967 version. In fact, Louis’ sinister entrance is reminiscent of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) in Apocalypse Now.

This is not a musical, but it would not be The Jungle Book without some of the beloved songs from the 1967 version (which was the last animated feature on which Walt Disney himself worked; he died before it was released). Favreau introduces the familiar melodies subtly within the background score, and when they do sing, it happens naturally, the way one would sing on a sunny day. Baloo and Mowgli float down a river singing “The Bear Necessities,” but they don’t dance. Other songs from the original also show up, but not until the credits roll (Kaa’s “Trust in Me” performed by Scarlett Johannson, King Louis’ “I Wanna Be Like You” performed by Christopher Walken, and a reprise of “The Bear Necessities” by Kermit Ruffins. So don’t be in a hurry to jump up from your seat when the book closes.

The Jungle Book is a story about self-discovery, manhood, and learning whom to trust. This version also presents a fair view of humans, who can be bad, as represented by their introducing fire to the jungle (never mind that lightning had been causing forest fires long before that!) but can also be very good if allowed to develop in a natural habitat. At first Mowgli suppresses his human qualities of problem-solving and tool-building, guided by his guardian panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and his adoptive wolf-mother Raksha (Lupito Nyong’o) to “fit in with the pack.” But Baloo sees the value of Mowgli’s remarkable inventiveness, and encourages him to use it productively. Eventually Mowgli’s tool-building skills save the pack and everyone else in the jungle.

Influenced by 19th-century sensibilities about gender roles and manhood in particular, Kipling wrote many poems encouraging boys to behave like men. In this film, director Favreau encourages humans to be themselves. By taking care of himself, Mowgli also takes care of the pack. I think that’s a pretty good law of the jungle.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Jungle Book," directed by Jon Favreau. Walt Disney Pictures, 2016, 105 minutes.



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Cat and Mouse, Red Herring, and a Whiff of Gingerbread

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I’m not a blood-and-guts kind of viewer, but I love a good horror flick, the kind that keeps the viewer constantly off balance with neat little plot twists and hair-raising anticipation of terror. Skillful pacing is essential to the horror genre; we need to be confused, soothed, startled, thrown off course, cajoled, fooled, and soothed some more until we are terrorized by the tantalizing anticipation of the monstrously unthinkable event — even if that event never occurs. Maybe especially if it never occurs.

Too many horror films rely on blood and guts to elicit screams, but a brilliant director can deliver the shivers within a PG-13 rating. In 10 Cloverfield Lane, first-time director Dan Trachtenberg does all of this brilliantly.

As the film opens, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is packing hastily, tossing belongings into a bag and grabbing necessities with a deft hand. The scene is filmed as a series of close, panicky shots that create suspense even where there is none; we learn that she has simply decided to leave her fiancé Ben (Bradley Cooper). The last thing we see in the apartment is a close up of her keys and her engagement ring, and then she drives away into the night. Misdirection. In a horror film, it gets you every time.

We need to be confused, soothed, startled, thrown off course, cajoled, fooled, and soothed some more until we are terrorized by the tantalizing anticipation of the monstrously unthinkable event.

It happens again at a dark, secluded filling station. Is someone lurking in the shadows? Is someone following her? I won’t tell. But the tension heightens merely from the anticipation that someone lurking in the shadows. Somehow (I won’t tell you that either) Michelle wakes up in a strange room with an IV needle in her arm, a bloody scrape on her forehead, a brace supporting her injured knee — and a chain attaching her leg to the wall. It’s Misery all over again, we think, only Michelle is the “writer,” and Howard (John Goodman) is the good Samaritan arriving with a plate of scrambled eggs, a fresh bandage, and a petulant, “You need to show me some appreciation!” à la Kathy Bates. Sometimes borrowed creepiness is even creepier.

Howard tells Michelle that Armageddon has occurred, but they are safely secured in his underground survival bunker. He explains that he rescued her from an accident just before the blast happened. But then, why is she chained to the wall? And why does he keep locking the door? And why won’t he let her go to the bathroom without him in the room?

Michelle isn’t the only young visitor in this strange menagerie. Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr.) — yes, Emmett! Could any name be spookier in a horror movie? — sports a broken arm and a scraggly beard that suggests he may have been down here for a while — or it could just be a fashion statement. We don’t know. But Emmett seems to believe Howard’s story.

But then, why is she chained to the wall? And why does he keep locking the door?

The set is closed and claustrophobic, just three people locked in a bunker playing a mutual game of cat-and-mouse as they wait out the fallout up above, while also waiting out each other’s mistrust down below. Adding to the creepiness is the cheeriness of Howard’s bunker, with its 1950s furniture in the living area, pine cabinets in the kitchen area, fake sunflowers on the table, jukebox in the corner, and board games on the shelf. The vivid colors create a bizarre fairytale effect, almost like the gingerbread house that trapped Hansel and Gretel by baiting them with food.

If you’re feeling claustrophobic from watching too many weeks of that creepy, freaky bully suffering from a perennially bad hair day, roaring epithets at his uninvited critics, then turn off the television, leave the campaign news behind, and go see John Goodman as a creepy, freaky bully suffering from a perennially bad hair day roaring epithets at his unhappy guests. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a winner.


Editor's Note: Review of "10 Cloverfield Lane," directed by Dan Trachtenberg. Bad Robot, 2016, 103 minutes.



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The Olympics and Liberty

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I’m often asked what makes a film “libertarian.” Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority? Many libertarian films do contain those features. But my favorites are those in which a protagonist achieves a goal or overcomes obstacles without turning to the government to fix things.

Two such films are in theaters now, and both are based on true stories about Olympic athletes who achieved their goals in spite of government interference, not because of government aid. Race tells the Jesse Owens story, and Eddie the Eagle tells the Michael Edwards story. Both are worth seeing.

Race is the perfect title for this film that focuses on both racing and racism. Owens was one of the most famous athletes of the 20th century. Historian Richard Crepeau (who spoke at FreedomFest last year) described the 1935 college track meet at Ann Arbor in which Owens, in the space of 45 minutes, set three world records and tied a fourth as “the most impressive athletic achievement since 1850.” Nevertheless, Owens (Stephan James) is not welcome at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Adolf Hitler (Adrian Zwicker) intends to use “his” Olympics as a propaganda piece to highlight the physical superiority of the Aryan race, and he does not want any blacks or Jews to spoil his plan. He hires filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl (Carice van Houten) to document the glorious event.

The film reveals the backstage negotiations between Olympic Committee representative Avery Brundage (Jeremy Irons) and the German organizing committee at which Brundage insisted on assurances that Jews and blacks would be allowed to compete. Brundage’s insistence is somewhat hypocritical, considering the treatment Owens and other black athletes were enduring at home, but he was successful in forestalling a threatened American boycott of the Games.

What makes a film “libertarian”? Does it need to be set in a dystopian totalitarian future? Must the protagonist be fighting a government bureaucracy or authority?

Owens faces similar pressure from the NAACP, as he is warned that he ought to boycott the Games to protest racism in Germany. Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order. This is as it should be. What good would it have done if Owens had stayed home to protest German policy? Would it have made any difference? Would anyone even have noticed? I felt the same way when President Carter made the opposite decision in 1980 and forced American athletes to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. What good did it do to destroy the dreams of hundreds of American athletes who had trained their whole lives to compete in a tournament that comes along only once every four years? Did it help anyone in Afghanistan? Did it hurt all those Russian athletes who took home more medals because the Americans weren’t there? I think not.

In the movie, Owens also faces the pressure of athletic celebrity, and Stephan James skillfully portrays the ambition and the temptations of a small-town boy chasing big-time dreams. He is anchored in his pursuits by his college coach Larry Snyder (Jason Sudeikis) and his girlfriend Ruth (Shanice Banton), who would become his wife and partner until the day he died in 1980. As with most sports films, the outcome of the contest is known from the beginning. The real story is how the hero gets there, and how he conducts himself along the way. Owens was a hero worthy of the title.

Eddie the Eagle tells the story of an Olympic hero of a different sort — one who is remembered for his tenacity rather than his innate skill. Michael Edwards (played by Taron Egerton as an adult and by brothers Tommy Costello, Jr. at 10 years old and Jack Costello at 15) simply dreams of being an Olympian; he doesn’t care what sport. His mother (Jo Hartley) nurtures that dream, giving him a special biscuit tin to hold his medals and praising his accomplishments, even if it’s just holding his breath for 58 seconds. Ironically, Eddie is motivated by a picture of Jesse Owens in a book about the Olympics. By contrast, Eddie’s father (Keith Allen) is a pragmatist, encouraging Eddie to give up his silly dreams and become a plasterer like him. His father isn’t a bad man; he just wants to protect his son from disappointment and financial waste. Fortunately for Eddie, he has the kind of optimistic personality that simply doesn’t hear criticism.

Owens feels the weight of his race as he considers the conflict, but in the end he delivers the most resounding protest of all, winning four gold medals and derailing Hitler’s plan in short order.

Eddie settles on skiing as his sport and manages to qualify for the British Olympic team, but the Committee cuts him because he “isn’t Olympic material.” Read: you don’t dress well or look right and you’re rather clumsy. Undaunted, Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping. If he can compete in an international event and land on his feet, he can qualify for the Calgary Olympics. This is the same year that the Jamaican bobsled team slipped through the same loophole — a loophole that was quickly closed before the following season. Now athletes must compete internationally and place in the top 30% of finishers in order to qualify. But in 1988, if you could find a sport that few people in your country competed in, you could literally “make the team.”

With his father’s van and his mother’s savings, Eddie takes off for the training slopes in Germany. There he tackles the jumps, crashes on his landings, and tackles the jumps again. When he lands the 15-meter jump successfully, he moves on to the 40 and the 70, crashing more than he lands. Low camera angles during the jumps create the sensation of height and speed, providing a rush of adrenaline for the audience. Frequent shots of Eddie tumbling after a crash emphasize just how risky this beautiful sport is. We admire Eddie’s persistence, even as we cringe at his crashes. He believes in himself, no matter what.

Eventually he meets up with Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman), a chain-smoking, hard-drinking slope groomer who looks incredibly lean and buff for an alcoholic. Peary turns out to be a former ski jumper who lost his chance for Olympic glory by not taking his training seriously. This, of course, sets us up for the perfect sports metaphor movie: unskilled amateur with indomitable heart meets innately talented athlete who threw it all away, and both find redemption while training for the Games.

Eddie turns to ski jumping because — well, because no one else in Britain competes in ski jumping.

It’s a great story about overcoming obstacles, sticking with a goal, and ignoring the naysayers. It demonstrates the power of a mother’s encouragement, and the possibility that even a poor, farsighted boy from a working-class neighborhood can achieve his dreams — if he doesn’t kill himself practicing for it.

All this allows us to forgive the fact that the movie mostly isn’t true. Yes, Michael Edwards did compete in the Calgary Olympics. He did set a British record for ski-jumping, despite coming in dead last in both events, simply because, as the only British jumper, his was the only British record. His exuberance and joy just for participating in the Olympics led to his being the only individual athlete referred to specifically in the closing speech that year (“some of us even soared like an eagle”). But Bronson Peary never existed, and Michael Edwards actually trained with US coaches at Lake Placid, albeit with limited funds that caused him to use ill-fitting equipment. But that wouldn’t have given us such a feel-good story.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Race," directed by Stephen Hopkins. Forecast Pictures, 2016, 134 minutes; and "Eddie the Eagle," directed by Dexter Fletcher. Pinewood Studios, 2016, 106 minutes.



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