Citizen Snowden

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Thanks to the generosity of a very thoughtful husband, I had the opportunity to attend the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City with my figure skating daughter. Before we could enter any venue or even walk around the grounds outside the venues, we had to pass through metal detectors and bag checks. You probably don’t find that news particularly surprising or appalling; a dozen years later, we take it for granted that our bags will be checked before entering any arena, terminal, school, or public building. But at the time this was brand new. It angered me that strangers were looking through my purse and personal belongings every time I entered the area. The Marines provided aerial and radar surveillance of the event, and we learned later that all email and text communications were intercepted by the FBI and NSA, supposedly for a period of six months surrounding the event. This was the opportunity for the folks at Homeland Security to try out all their new toys and gadgets, and they reveled in it.

Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides.

The 2002 Olympics became a gateway moment for justifying indiscriminate snooping in the name of national security. I couldn’t help but remember that experience while watching Citizenfour, the documentary based on interviews last year with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. Snowden was an employee of Booz Allen Hamilton, a company that provides technology and security services to civilian and government agencies, when he became alarmed by the scope of surveillance being conducted by the NSA. He decided to take the story public by stealing top-security documents and sharing them with two journalists of his choosing: documentarian Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald of the London Guardian.

Snowden has been called a patriot, a traitor, a dissident, a thief, a whistleblower, and even an accessory to the murder of those whose covers he blew when he revealed the contents of sensitive security documents. As I watched the film, all I could think of was the courage it took for this 29-year-old man to sacrifice his home, his family, and his relationships to warn you and me that Big Brother is watching and recording everything we say and write.

Poitras was nominated for an Academy Award for her 2006 documentary My Country, My Country. Being selected by Snowden to tell his story was quite a coup. However, while the story is certainly important, I was not impressed with her filmmaking. Basically we watch Snowden talking in a Hong Kong hotel room, and we see clips of Glenn Greenwald being interviewed on the cable news networks after his stories were published in theGuardian. Most of this we have seen before, and Snowden is in complete control of the interviews; Poitras does what he tells her to do and says what he wants her to hear. We never see her onscreen, but she enters the documentary through elaborate typing of their email conversations recreated with white Courier on a black screen.

Poitras doesn’t do any digging for this documentary, and she doesn’t reveal anything beyond what Snowden wants to say to the camera. She doesn’t tell us what was in the documents Snowden stole and made public, and she doesn’t interview anyone about the harm those revelations may have caused. She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas because of an automated misinterpretation of something they’ve written in an email. She didn’t interview Snowden’s colleagues or parents or his longtime girlfriend, although she knew who and where the girlfriend was. Perhaps Poitras was worried about being charged under the Espionage Act herself, or perhaps it was just shoddy journalism; regardless, I found the documentary one-sided, incomplete, and full of the kind of technical jargon that suggests Snowden is either really really smart, or really really knows how to snow his audience. (Occasionally I felt as though I were listening to a Truther explain how Building Seven came down . . .)

Despite the gravity of the topic, Citizenfour is strangely unsatisfying and lacking in suspense. Yet there was plenty of suspense to be had: US authorities were trying desperately to find Snowden and extradite him here, before he could finish his interviews and secure asylum in another country; and undercover agents were scrambling to find safety as the contents of his documents were revealed.

She didn’t seek out individuals whose lives have been affected by indiscriminate surveillance — people, for example, who have been put on “watch lists” or denied travel visas.

According to Snowden, the NSA engages in sweeping, indiscriminate collection of all telephone and email transmissions and then uses automated language analysis programs to search for suspicious conversations or Google searches. The NSA was tapping directly into search engines such as Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and others and making assumptions based on reports generated by automated analysis. (Think about this the next time you search to find out the schedule of Viola Davis’ new hit TV show, “How to Get Away with Murder.”)

Poitras includes some footage of congressional hearings about NSA snooping. Several other NSA employees turned whistleblower at the same time as Snowden, including William Binney, who sat down with documentarian Tricia Owen, just days before the Snowden story broke, for the short film Before Snowden: Behind the Curtain, which premiered at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July. Poitras also filmed a training meeting conducted by Jacob Appelbaum of Occupy Wall Street as background for Citizenfour. Watching Appelbaum explain to Occupiers how to avoid surveillance as they planned their sit-ins and protests, I thought of Voltaire’s famous line, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — and to say it without being surveilled.

Citizenfour is important as a piece of history, but it is not a good documentary. Snowden is a complex character whose actions and story required more journalistic rigor than Poitras provides. She had a powerfully significant story dropped into her lap, but she let Snowden call all the shots. Patriot? Traitor? Martyr? Simple thief? We may never know the truth. Joseph Gordon-Leavitt is set to play Snowden in a biopic next year, and that film will of course have a point of view, determined by the bias of the filmmaker. Laura Poitras was the only one who had primary access to the actual source, and she blew it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Citizenfour," directed by Laura Poitras. Praxis Films, 2014, 114 minutes.



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The Worm that Walked

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A nightcrawler is the news media’s version of an ambulance chaser. Armed with a video camera and a police scanner, these freelance pseudo-photojournalists rush to the scene of horrific crimes or accidents with the hope of being the first to film the most sensational stories and send them off to the highest bidding newsroom. On a good night they can make a few hundred bucks. On a great night, they can make a few thousand.

Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is down on his luck and looking for a job when he happens on an accident scene where he watches a nightcrawler (Bill Paxton) film a story and then negotiate a deal. Soon he has a camera and a police scanner of his own. He hires Rick, a homeless young man (Riz Ahmed), to ride shotgun, call out directions from the GPS and then stay with the car so Bloom doesn’t have to waste time parking it when he gets to the scene. He develops a knack not only for getting to the scene first, but for framing the shots and even, occasionally, staging the scene for more dramatic effect. The line between news and art soon becomes blurred as Bloom becomes more and more driven to “get the shot.”

With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy.

Nina Romina (Rene Russo) is the late night news director for the early morning show on the lowest-rated news show in town. She is desperate for crime exclusives that will bring more viewers to her network. When Bloom brings her some particularly salacious footage and negotiates for a price, she reacts to the breaking story in the way an addict reacts when she’s in need of a hit. She will do anything to get Bloom’s footage on her show. Anything.

While this inside look at the seedy underworld of freelance videography is fascinating, the real draw of this film is Bloom himself. With the blank detachment and enigmatic smile of a true sociopath, Bloom is uber polite, uber calm, and uber creepy. He’s a nightcrawler of a baser sort — the kind that might be lurking under a rock. He has a strong sense of right and wrong, but it’s his own sense of what is right — and you’d better not wrong him. At one point Rick observes, “You don’t understand people.” Bloom responds with his polite smile, “It isn’t that I don’t understand people. I don’t like them.” This detachment prevents Bloom from feeling the squeamishness normal people feel at the sight of blood, gore, and tragedy, and drives him to get better and better shots — the kind of shots normal people feel repelled by and drawn to at the same time.

In last year’s Prisoners, when he played Detective Loki, a policeman helping a father (Hugh Jackman) find two kidnapped girls,Gyllenhaal gave us a hint of the kind of work he is capable of producing. Through subtle means — excessive blinking, unexplained tattoos, sideways glances — he suggested that his character might have a past that made him unbalanced. With Lou Bloom Gyllenhaal has created a character devoid of compassion yet oh-so-polite and driven by his own sense of correctness. Gyllenhaal lost 30 pounds for the role, not just because he thought his character should look gaunt, but because he wanted his character to look hungry. It worked.

This is writer-director Dan Gilroy’s first film, and it’s a winner. His car chases are some of the best I’ve ever seen, especially one thrilling shot that begins on the back license plate, pans around the side of the car, and ends up on the front license plate, all at race-car speeds. Gilroy’s brother Tony is known for his own spectacular car chases in the Bourne films, but Dan brings something so much stronger to the screen than just action and thrill rides. His characters are deep, dark, and dangerous in ways that have nothing to do with weapons or fists. Lou Bloom is a character you will remember for a long time. He might even remind you of someone you know — uber calm, uber polite, and uber creepy.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nightcrawler," directed by Dan Gilroy. Open Road Films, 2014, 117 minutes.



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Okies in Outer Space

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After last year’s Gravity introduced technological advances that led to cinematic magic on the screen, I couldn’t wait to see Interstellar, this year’s much-heralded space flick. Helmed by master action director Christopher Nolan and with a cast led by last year’s Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway and Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain, it had every reason to be, well, stellar. That it has taken me two weeks to write this review might give you a hint as to my reaction.

Interstellar is set in a not-so-dystopian future when the military industrial complex has been disbanded, machines and computers are no longer being manufactured, the space program has been closed for refusing to drop bombs, and textbooks proclaim that the lunar landing was a hoax. Anarchy has not led to chaos, however. No dictator enforces tyrannical rule, nor have marauding gangs taken over à la Mad Max. Neighbors play baseball, farmers plant corn, and life seems idyllic — except for the fact that corn is the only crop that will still grow, and gigantic clouds of dirt rivaling those of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s regularly blow through town. Yet no one on earth seems remotely aware of the impending extinction or even has the gumption to move to another part of the country. At least the Okies packed the rocking chair on top of the truck and moved to California to find better fields and opportunities.

I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance. But that part of the film is short-lived.

A few souls do remember the old days. Cooper (McConaughey), a farmer who used to be a pilot, wistfully laments to his children, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Tom (Timothee Chalamet), “There was a time when we were explorers and pioneers. Now we’re just caretakers.” When Murphy’s teacher calls Coop to task for telling Murphy that the moon landing really did happen, Coop rightly asserts his authority as a father to teach her what he knows to be true. Freedom of thought, if not intellectual honesty, seems reasonably alive and well in the future, according to this film. As I settled in to watch it unfold, I anticipated a satisfying conflict between authority and autonomy, science and ignorance.

But that part of the film is short-lived. Through pseudo-supernatural means, Coop and Murph are led to an underground research lab where former NASA rocket scientists have been working on a project to discover a compatible planet in outer space. They hope to transport the remnant of humankind there. Within hours Cooper is pressed into service as the only pilot capable of flying the rocket, and a couple of days later he is blasting off. Tearfully he hugs his children goodbye, knowing that, because of the effects of traveling beyond the speed of light, he is likely to be much younger than they are when he returns. Murphy is understandably despondent and refuses to say goodbye even as Coop drives away.

Murphy’s refusal to talk to her father is the only dramatic conflict we encounter inthe first half of this nearly three-hour film. No one is hoarding or looting, and everyone seems calm. “The last to starve will be the first to suffocate,” someone shrugs about their future, but no one seems to be in a panic about it. They aren’t even motivated to move to a less dusty area where the climate might still be conducive to agriculture. Without dramatic conflict, the film has about as much tension as a science documentary.

That all changes in the second half of the film, when our space travelers encounter catastrophic forces of nature, mortal combat with crazed enemies, devastating rocket explosions, split-second rescues, and a time-travel sequence that, while implausible, is inventive, suspenseful, and exciting. For the last hour of the film I was right where I wanted to be, on the edge of my seat. But it took way too long to get there.

Ultimately Interstellar is more about an irrational father-daughter dynamic than it is about space travel or saving the world. It suffers from serious plot holes, unresolved character discrepancies, and weak dramatic conflict. The special effects are pretty special, and the second half makes the film worth seeing once. But I wouldn’t want to sit through the first half twice.


Editor's Note: Review of "Interstellar," directed by Christopher Nolan. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 169 minutes at well below the speed of light.



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Putting the Art in “Art Film”

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What We Talk about When We Talk about Love (1981) is one of Raymond Carver’s most significant short stories. Four characters — two couples — sit around a kitchen table talking about — well, talking about love, in all its manifestations, but never actually communicating what they mean in a way that the others can understand.

Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence) stars Michael Keaton as Riggan Thomson, an aging actor best known for his cinematic superhero alter ego, Birdman. The film could just as easily be titled How We Act When We Act as Though We Aren’t Acting. It’s a forgivably self-indulgent self-study of the art of acting, portrayed by some of the least celebritized actors in the business.

Like many celebrity movie stars today, Thomson is trying to shake off his stardom by treading the boards of Broadway. He has been pigeonholed by his fans as the Birdman and is trying to escape the character that seems to have taken up residency inside his brain. The Birdman talks to him in a voice that is strangely reminiscent of Batman, and seems to give Thomson kinetic powers. Thomson’s daughter in the film (Emma Stone) is often on the ledge of the rooftop, and Thomson is often on the edge of sanity. He sees and hears things that aren’t there, does things he doesn’t do — or does he? We really don’t know.

It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

Keaton portrayed Batman in two Tim Burton films almost a quarter of a century ago, so it’s easy to make a connection between him and the character he plays in this film. Keaton is a fine but reclusive actor, choosing his projects carefully, and mostly choosing not to work. Yet he has said in interviews that Riggan Thomson is the least like him of any character he has played — and he has played a lot of unusual characters, including Batman, Beetlejuice, and the Multiplicity clones.

The film is set in the St. James Theater on 44th Street, where Thomson is writing, directing, and starring in a “serious” Broadway play based on the Carver story. Art imitates life imitates art as characters break character within the play and actors occasionally break character within the film, making the audience intently aware of the difficulty of both filmmaking and playmaking.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanted to film this movie in the way a play is made — live, uninterrupted, all in one take, mistakes and all. After discussing the project with stage and film director Mike Nichols, he realized he would need to settle for several long takes of 15 minutes or more rather than one two-hour take, and it was a good compromise. The camera work is stylized and unsettling without calling undue attention to itself. Instead, it recalls the unsettled and stylized state of Riggan Thomson’s fragile mind. For example, the camera climbs the walls to get from a sidewalk shot to a rooftop shot, preparing the viewer to accept Thomson’s ability to reinhabit the Birdman’s power of flight — for real. Or as real as acting can be. At one point the camera just sits in a hallway, waiting for Keaton’s character to come into view. Perhaps Inarritu intended it this way. Perhaps Keaton was late for his entrance. Either way, Inarritu left it as is, instead of editing it out. It is unnerving and suspenseful and anything but dead air. At other times your jaw will simply drop, wondering how they did it.

In the Carver story, light plays a significant but subtle role; the room is light while the four friends are talking, but light gradually leaves the room as it becomes apparent that they will not be able to articulate sufficiently what love is. They can talk about love; they can feel it individually when it happens; they can share stories that seem to express it, but they can’t explain or define it for someone else. They talk about stories and examples that seem to prove what love is, but they discover that language is insufficient to express what they mean. In the film, music seems to take the place of light. The film’s soundtrack alternates between lush symphonies by Mahler, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff and a cacophonous interpretive jazz drum piece created brilliantly by Antonio Sanchez. The music is one of the best components of the film, conveying the changing moods of the character as he soars and frets, yet insufficient for expressing what Thomson is really experiencing.

Birdman is not a mainstream film. It’s not even a standard indie film. If you’re looking for an absorbing plot or wacky entertainment, this isn’t it. But it’s a fascinating piece of art and well worth watching.

How do you act when you act as though you aren’t acting?


Editor's Note: Review of "Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Innocence)," directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. Twentieth Century Fox, 2014, 159 minutes.



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You Be the Judge

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I like a character-driven film even more than a film with a good plot. Happily for viewers, The Judge offers both: it's a satisfying courtroom whodunit encased in a family drama portrayed by two powerhouse actors who convey the complex, competitive, and often painful relationship between a father and a son.

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is one of those clever, conniving, cutthroat attorneys who put lawyers at the bottom of the list of most-trusted occupations. When he asks for a continuation on a difficult case because his mother has died, the prosecutor asks cynically, "How many times has your mother died this year?"

The truth is, only once. Hank's mother has indeed died, and he leaves immediately, alone, to attend her funeral. He has not visited his family since leaving home after high school.

Hank's father, Joseph (Robert Duvall) is the film’s title judge. He approaches the law in a way opposite to his son’s — not as a game to be manipulated but as a protective force to be honored and upheld.

Hank's first stop when he arrives in town is his father's courtroom, where he sits in the gallery unnoticed to watch his father at work adjudicating a case. Clearly he admires and has been shaped by his father. He even followed in his father's career path.

Downey and Duvall are giants of nuance; we read more in their eyes than we hear from their lips.

Nevertheless, when Hank shows up for the funeral, Joseph can barely contain his disdain, and Hank can barely control his eagerness to get away. We learn that Hank hasn't been home in 20 years, yet he had stayed in contact with his mother (by phone) and was close enough to confide in her the most intimate part of his life — his failing marriage. Why? What happened? Of course we blame the harsh, domineering father. But when Joseph is arrested for a hit-and-run that occurs on the night after the funeral, Hank jumps from the first-class seat in which he is preparing to fly out of town and rushes to oversee the judge's defense.

Hank hates his father bitterly, yet he clearly admires him, loves him, and can't stand the thought of him going to prison. As other details about Hank's childhood emerge we realize that something has happened between them that was so deeply scarring that neither of them has been able to address it directly. It holds them together even as it drives them apart.

Director David Dobkin reveals all of this to us in flashes and snippets — not all at once, because the characters themselves can't face it all at once, and he wants us to feel their aversion. He wants us to feel how hard it is for them to talk about it or even to remember it.

A film like this could easily devolve into sentimental drivel, but it does not, largely because of the skills of its actors. Downey and Duvall are giants of nuance; we read more in their eyes than we hear from their lips. Jeremy Strong as the mentally disabled brother Dale and Vincent D'Onofrio as the older brother Glen who remained in the small hometown to hold the family together while Hank went on to defense attorney glory also deliver powerful performances.

At almost 2 1/2 hours, The Judge is a bit long, but if you have father-child issues of your own that deal with judging and being judged (and who doesn't?), you will find this film an absorbing and compelling opportunity for reflection and catharsis.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Judge," directed by David Dobkin. Team Downey, 2014, 141 minutes.



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The Film You’ve Been Hearing About

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Normally I go to a movie theater with a pen in my hand and a notebook in my lap. Yes, it requires me to break away from the universe created on the screen, but it’s a small price to pay on behalf of my readers. Ten minutes into Gone Girl, however, I put both away and settled back for the ride. Don’t even bother to fasten your seat belt — you’ll want to feel every twist and turn.

It’s a beautiful sunny morning when Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) arrives at The Bar with a board game under his arm and begins bantering with the barmaid Margo (Carrie Coon), who turns out to be his twin sister. Soon Nick’s phone rings. It’s his neighbor, and he rushes home. His cat is outside. The door is ajar. The glass coffee table is upturned and shattered. There’s a speck of blood on the range hood. And Amy, his wife — his girl — is gone.

Gone Girl is a “whodunit” in the tradition of the best classic murder mysteries but with a modern twist that keeps the audience guessing all the way to the end. Not only do we not know who done it; we don’t even know the answer to “done what?” Amy (Rosamund Pike) is gone, and someone has mopped up a pile of her blood from the kitchen floor. But without a body, homicide detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) can’t make an arrest. Meanwhile, there’s a boatload of possible suspects in the vicinity, including Nick’s mentally unstable father (Leonard Kelly-Young), Amy’s overachieving parents (Rand Elliot and Lisa Banes), Amy’s spurned former boyfriends (Neil Patrick Harris and Boyd Holbrook), the neighbor down the street who claims to be Amy’s best friend (Casey Wilson), and even Nick’s oh-so-close twin, Margo.

Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

Dark, good-looking, and lantern-jawed, Ben Affleck was obviously cast for his striking resemblance to Scott Peterson, who was tried in the media (and then in court) for the murder of his pregnant wife, Laci, after she went missing on Christmas Eve, 2002. In both the movie and the Peterson case, a wandering pet alerted neighbors that something was amiss. In both, the husband was alone on the water when his wife went missing. In both, the parents of the missing woman supported their son-in-law (until the girlfriend showed up). And in both, the cable news networks made it their lead story every night.

In many ways this story is an indictment of the “trial by media” that has become a regular staple in the daily diet of the news. Simply put, sensationalism sells. “We all know” that JonBenét Ramsey was killed by her father. Unless it was her uptight mother. Or her creepy stepbrother. (Choose a team.) Ed Smart was a prime media suspect in the disappearance of his daughter, Elizabeth, until she was found, alive, nine months later. (To his credit, Sean Hannity came to believe Smart’s story and gave him plenty of competing air time.) Casey Anthony was acquitted of the murder of her little girl, but “everyone knows” she did it; we reviewed the evidence night after night on cable, even before her trial began. Amanda Knox, a college student studying in Italy, was convicted of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, in part because she was seen kissing her boyfriend and sitting on his lap while waiting to be interviewed by the local police. She just didn’t look distraught enough. And “we all know” what that means.

But we also know what a camera can do in the blink of a lens. Someone snaps a candid photo from across the room while you are in the middle of saying a word or while you are squinting into the sun, and you look angry or sullen or goofy. Someone stands next to you for a photo or a selfie, and you automatically smile, no matter what you are feeling inside. You see a friend across the room, and you smile as you wave hello, even if the occasion is as somber as a funeral or a trial. It’s automatic, even when you’re upset. Someone says, “Smile,” and you do. You just do. And Greta Van Susteren takes it upon herself to broadcast that photo and give it an entire backstory.

The beauty of Gone Girl is that you just don’t know which of the snapshots to believe, or what is going to happen next. It’s a thrill ride of epic proportions, and I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying another word.

Unfasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a gloriously bumpy ride.


Editor's Note: Review of "Gone Girl," directed by David Fincher. Regency Enterprise-Pacific Standard, 2014, 149 minutes.



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From Books to Film

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Liam Neeson has made a name for himself in the last few years as the Old Geezer of action heroes in movies known for their simple plots, video-game action, and one-word titles such as Taken, Unknown,and Non-Stop. . . . Regular readers of Liberty know that I’m rather taken with the Taken films, regardless of their simplicity.

But Neeson is more than just a rugged face with a powerful punch; he’s a classically trained actor with more than a dozen major awards and two dozen major nominations, so it’s nice to see him back in a role that allows him to flex his acting muscles again. A Walk Among the Tombstones is a cool, atmospheric crime drama based on a series of novels written by Lawrence Block that feature former-cop-turned-private-investigator Matt Scudder. Scudder is also a former-drunk-turned-recovering-alcoholic.

In Walk, Scudder (Neeson) is the privatest of private eyes; he doesn’t have a license and operates outside the law. He is driven by a mixture of justice and revenge, garnished with a twist of guilt over a tragedy that occurred while he was a cop. This combination can become a dangerous cocktail. Like Mel Gibson’s character in the Lethal Weapon series, Scudder doesn’t have a strong survival instinct. In some ways, in fact, he sees death as a welcome escape — and this adds to the tension in the film. Contributing to the tension are the unexpected and jarring juxtapositions of beauty and horror that lift the quality of the filmmaking and enhance the viewers’ expectations. Especially effective is the way the AA 12-Step affirmations are used at a significant point in the film.

Initially Scudder rejects the job of tracking down the ruthless pervs who have kidnapped and then gruesomely murdered the wife of wealthy drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens). He knows Kenny just wants the pleasure of killing them slowly — and gruesomely — and he doesn’t want to be a part of that. But he is drawn into the case when he realizes that the men might be serial killers who will strike again. The film then becomes a race to find the killers and stop them.

Scudder doesn’t have a strong survival instinct. In some ways he sees death as a welcome escape.

In the books Scudder works closely with police detective Joe Durkin, and the movie role of Durkin was originally cast with Ruth Wilson as a female Joe. But director Scott Frank decided that Scudder’s character is more realistic as a brooding loner, so Joe Durkin was cut from the story line — after Wilson had already been filmed in many of the scenes! (That these scenes aren’t even missed is a tribute to the film’s editor.) Elaine, Scudder’s call-girl girlfriend in the novels, is conspicuously absent as well. Instead, Scudder interacts with a homeless, tech savvy, African-American teenager named TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley) who serves to soften Scudder in the eyes of the audience while emphasizing the lack of family connection in Scudder’s life. Cutting the two once-prominent characters was a smart move for the movie, despite their integral part in the novel series.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is a throwback to the heyday of gritty crime movies. I almost expected to see Popeye Doyle show up for a car chase under the elevated train. The acting is superb at every level. Dan Stevens is especially good as Kenny Kristo, the grieving and vengeful husband; his intense, icy eyes glare up under heavy brows in every scene, convincing us that he is capable of anything. Astro (who was discovered as a young rapper on The X Factor a couple of years ago) is also effective as the homeless kid with the optimistic outlook and poignant determination. And it’s always good to see Liam Neeson step out of his one-word, one-tone, one-dimensional action romps to remind us that he’s still an A-list actor.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Walk Among the Tombstones," directed by Scott Frank (2014). Cross Creek Pictures, 2014, 114 minutes.



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Listen Up, Groupmates

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The Giver is a new film based on the popular young adult novel by Lois Lowry (1993) about a community in which choice and individuality have been eliminated in an attempt to eradicate unhappiness. The community is characterized by sameness; houses are all the same, husbands and wives are assigned to each other, and one boy child and one girl child are assigned to each family unit. Occupations are assigned for life by the community elders when children turn 12, thus eliminating the “agony” of deciding for oneself what career or avocation to pursue. Lowry has written over 30 books for young adults and has reaped numerous awards for them. She has a gift for evocative language and for creating characters and settings that draw the reader into her worlds. The Giver addresses important issues about choice and accountability, joy and despair, family and friendship, community and individuality.

To demonstrate the Otherness of herseemingly familiar, yet imaginary community, Lowry creates Orwellian terms such as “newchildren” for babies and “groupmates” for friends. Children are grouped by their birth years as Fours or Eights or Tens. When Elevens become Twelves, they are assigned their occupations at a community celebration also characterized by the “Release to Elsewhere” of the older members of the community. This hint of a glorious retirement is actually a euphemism for euthanasia. As the film opens, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is explaining in a voiceover narration what his community is like. “Differences aren’t allowed,” he tells the audience. “No popularity, no fame, no losers.”

The story is reminiscent of Ayn Rand’s novella, Anthem(1938), in which the first-person singular pronoun has been outlawed, names have become numbers, children grow up in dormitories, and occupations are assigned for life. But The Giver immediately contradicts itself, because Jonas is riding bikes and joking happily with his two best friends, Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) while other children can also be seen chatting happily in groups of twos or threes. Popularity might be frowned upon in this community, but unlike in Anthem, there doesn’t seem to be any tyrannical enforcement of the rules or atmosphere of oppression.

No history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation.

In the next scene, Jonas and Fiona are visiting Jonas’s father (Alexander Skarsgard) in the birthing center where he has been assigned as a nurturer. They compete jovially as they weigh two newborns to see which one’s baby is larger.Fiona’s weighs an ounce more than Jonas’s. Father says, “Thank goodness they aren’t identical! That makes this much easier,” as he takes the newchild who is an ounce lighter to be “released to elsewhere.” Oops! Loser. Evidently it pays to be stronger and heavier in this society of sameness. Similarly, in the assignment ceremony that follows, the elders assign Jonas and his groupmates (who are 16 in the film, not 12, as in the novel) to their occupations by reference to thetalents and differences they have exhibited, not by random selection to confirm their sameness. Fiona and Asher are delighted with their assignments as nurturer and drone pilot, respectively. Jonas is honored to discover that he will be a Receiver of Memories, the first Receiver to be discovered in many years. This is very different from the assignment ceremony of Anthem’s Equality 7-2521, who longs to be a Scholar but is assigned instead to be a street cleaner. I understand the point the film is trying to make about lack of choice, but these contradictions so early in the film are jarring and reduce the sense of drama or conflict.

The purpose of a Receiver is to retain all the memories of the past, including the emotions that accompanied them. In a way the Receiver is a Christ figure, taking upon himself the pains, but also the joys, of the world. Jonas is assigned to learn his role from the current Receiver (Jeff Bridges) who will now be the Giver. He transfers his memories to Jonas telepathically, and Jonas experiences the joy, pain, and wonder of activities that happened in a life without sameness. Only the Receiver has this knowledge; no history is taught in the community, and those in town know only the events they have experienced for themselves in their own generation. Citizens are also given daily injections to prevent emotional highs or lows or any kind of passion. (One wonders why the elders would want a Receiver to remember the history that they deem dangerous, and I think it would have made more sense if The Giver had been an outcast hiding in the woods, waiting for someone with “the gift” to help him restore freedom and choice. But that’s where we simply need to suspend our disbelief and go with the story.)

Director Phillip Noyce has strong visual instincts and uses color to good advantage. Much of The Giver is filmed in black and white to indicate the sameness in the community, with splashes of impressionistic color to indicate freedom of thought and full color for the memories the Giver shares with Jonas. A few allusions give the film added gravitas as well; for example, Jonas tells us in the beginning that they are “protected by the border” from what they perceive as the evils of the outside worlda reminiscence of Plato’s Cave. At another point Jonas gives Fiona an apple and tells her that using it in a certain way will allow her to gain knowledge and feel forbidden passion. He places it in her hand with great ceremony, rather like Eve urging Adam to eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, in order to experience the new knowledge and passion that she has discovered.

Through techniques such as these, The Giver tries very hard to be a great film. Its themes about the importance of choice and individuality are themselvesprofoundly important. Jeff Bridges was so impressed by the book that he purchased the movie rights shortly after it was published, expecting to film it with his father (Lloyd Bridges) as the Giver. Rumor has it that he and his family (brother Beau is also an actor) filmed a home movie version of the book in their garage several years ago. Bridges waited 20 years to make the commercial production, and parts of it are quite effective and well done. I enjoyed the novel, and wanted very much to love this film. But like so many works that are philosophically important, The Giver doesn’t translate well to film. Some books just need to remain as books.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Giver," directed by Phillip Noyce. As Is Productions, 2014, 97 minutes.



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Don’t Label — Just Do

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Americans are frustrated.

We all know it, and to prove it, we captured it on film.

Our documentary, 100 Signatures, follows the story of the "All Day Breakfast Party" campaign for Congress while exploring the challenges that independent and third-party candidates face while seeking office. The film explores the obstacles of a "two-party system" and the tools necessary to succeed in it. While producing the film, we spent a lot of time speaking with citizens. From coast to coast, north to south, the majority of people we spoke with say their concerns are not being represented in Washington DC.

Ballot Access News editor and founder Richard Winger said it best, "We aren't solving our problems in this country."

In an age of IRS scandals, NSA spying, and threats to our country's safety and economic security, the average voter is now expert at identifying the problems. In today's economy, trouble seems in excess supply, with an unmet demand for answers. Solutions, after all, take work — real grit.

We showed our own grit (or at least, endurance) with the half-decade of interviews we conducted for our film. Then, when we’d finished it, we started a new conversation about third parties and ballot access. But that's just one issue. What about all the others plaguing the state of liberty?

We were thinking about that when we went to Las Vegas for this year’s FreedomFest. We were there to exhibit our work in the Anthem Film Festival. But we found that it’s at FreedomFest that the thinkers and the doers convene.

The libertarian FreedomFest offers a refreshing break from the usual political rhetoric: real and workable solutions to improve the state of healthcare, education, the economy, and national security with presenters qualified and brave enough to innovate necessary changes. We learned that libertarians are united in a fearless desire to make the US better for all of us.

And talk about representation — we had the chance to meet people from many different ideological positions within the general “libertarian” category. There is actually something for everyone within the group that wants liberty for all. Certainly there is a lot of disagreement, not to mention eccentricity, within that group. But while it's easy to label our challenges, we must be careful not to label and discount the source of solutions.

There's a weird dichotomy in American culture today. Stereotyping is a sin, but if you ask ten Democrats to define a Republican, you're likely to get the same answer, and vice versa. There's a sports team mentality among the supporters of "Team Blue" and "Team Red." After FreedomFest, however, we can say for sure that it's impossible to stereotype libertarians. Maybe that's because instead of clamoring to become a political caricature, they're busy working — building businesses and supporting fair ideals.

Yes, Americans are frustrated today. That's why, as we tried to express in our film, it's important to empower citizens to consider alternatives at the polls and seek their right to run for office. But that’s also why the range of solutions offered by real, working people, real problem-solvers, must never be restricted by stereotypes.




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Recreating the Unique

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“Show business is two parts. There’s the show part, and there’s the business part.”
— James Brown

In Get on Up, James Brown (Chadwick Boseman) demonstrates that he is the master of both. A showman so passionate about his music that he becomes known as the Godfather of Soul, he is also a businessman savvy enough to figure out that the profits in the music business goes to the people who control the gate, not to the ones playing the music onstage. Brown figures out how to be in charge of both.

Determined to play the Apollo and produce an album that can capture the electricity of the live performance, he tells his skeptical manager Ben Bart (Dan Ackroyd), “I’ll put up the money. I’ll take the risk.” He uses the power of radio to promote his concerts and records. Payola — the practice of paying deejays to play and promote a record — is illegal, but advertising a live concert is not. “They’ll play my records, and then they’ll tell people where they can hear me play,” he explains enthusiastically to Bart in the film. And the deejays do. Live at the Apollo becomes Brown’s first breakout album.

Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

By all accounts, James Brown (1933–2006) did not have an easy life. Born during the Depression in a small South Carolina town, he was abandoned by both his parents and lived, at least for a while, in his aunt’s brothel. He spent time in prison during his youth and again as an adult. His official biography is somewhat sketchy, with different stories told by different biographers and people who knew him. Brown himself, with his little-boy perspective of the grown-up actions going on around him, probably didn’t understand what was really true. Consequently, the traditional biopic with a typical beginning (childhood), middle (the struggle to get started), and end (the ultimate successes and defeats) simply would not work for this film. Instead, director Tate Taylor presents the story almost as triggered memories. The film jumps around from scene to scene and decade to decade. It begins in 1988 with an almost psychotic Brown brandishing a rifle at room full of strangers, then quickly changes to a 1964 Brown preparing to share the stage with the Rolling Stones, and changes just as quickly to a little-boy Brown (Jamarion and Jordan Scott) playing tag with his mother in 1939. Then it’s back again to the ’60s and a USO show in Vietnam and then to the ’50s and back to his father brandishing a rifle at his mother. For a while it seems dizzyingly unfocused and uncontrolled.

Midway through the film, however, as the band is practicing for a performance in New Orleans, a saxophonist complains about how the drum section comes in during the song’s arrangement. Shouldn’t it start with the downbeat? he suggests. Brown asks him, “Does it sound right? Does it feel right?” The musician nods. “Well if it sounds right and it feels right, then it is right,” Brown declares. Music wasn’t about rules to the untrained ear of James Brown; it was about passion and about sounding right.

To reinforce his point, Brown taps on a snare and asks, “What’s that?” “A drum,” the musician responds. “And what’s that?” Brown asks, pointing to a bass. “A guitar,” the puzzled musician replies. “No, that’s a drum, “ Brown corrects him. “And what’s that?” he asks, pointing to a saxophone, “and that,” pointing to the piano. “A drum?” the musician replies. “That’s right. It’s all drums.”

Every sound anchors the music. Every sound provides a foundational beat. You could highlight them separately — first the guitar, then the brass, then thedrums — and you might be able to hear each part more clearly, but it wouldn’t have the same power as Brown’s arrangement does. It wouldn’t sound right. It wouldn’t feel right.

First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats.

The scenes in the film are arranged with a similar foundation. They don’t necessarily make sense by themselves, and they may or may not be factually true. But they’re all story, just as the instruments are all drums. When experienced as a whole, the scenes sound right, and they feel right.

One of the more unsettling scenes of the film occurs in the week after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Bart encourages Brown to cancel their concert in Boston, but Brown insists on keeping the date. The tension between the mostly black audience, right on the edge of rioting, and the mostly white police officers, right on the edge of using their billy clubs, is eerily like the situation in Ferguson this week. As audience members climb onto the stage to dance next to Brown, chaos looms and the police ready themselves for action. Brown’s calm reaction made me think of the way George Banks (James Stewart) reacts to the bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life. First he tells the cops to let them come on up, onto the stage. He gives them what they think they want. Then he slowly calms them down and convinces them to go back to their seats, reminding them, “Everyone wants to see the show. Come on now, let’s represent. Let’s show them.” And they do.

Chadwick Boseman is making quite a career for himself by playing inspirational black men. His portrayal of Jackie Robinson in last year’s 42 was phenomenal (see my review in Liberty). He portrays Indianapolis Colts cornerback Vontae Mack in Draft Day later this year. Boseman succeeds in such films because he pays attention to the nuances. In 42 it was the way his fingers danced as he prepared to steal a base. In Get on Up the magic is again in his hands as he captures the way Brown held his at an angle when he walked. His feet pivot and glide across the floor as he dances onstage in Brown’s signature mashed potato, and he bounces easily into Brown’s signature splits. His raspy voice and lazy diction sometimes make it difficult to understand what he’s saying, but that too was Brown’s style. I hope Boseman gets a chance to create an original character in a romantic comedy or an action film, next.

Get on Up is not as good as Ray (with Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, 2004) or Walk the Line (Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash, 2005). I don’t think it quite captures the influence Brown had on the music industry over six decades, and it leaves a lot of stories unfinished. But it is a good film that is worth the price of a theater ticket.


Editor's Note: Review of "Get on Up," directed by Tate Taylor, executive-produced by Mick Jagger. Imagine Entertainment / Jagged Films, 2014, 139 minutes.



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