Point Counterpoint

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Dinesh D’Souza is a debater beyond compare. I have watched him debate at least a dozen times, and he is simply brilliant in the way he sets up his opponent, recognizes the opponent’s position, and then systematically takes it apart and refutes it. Once when he was debating Christopher Hitchens on the value of religion, Hitchens called D’Souza’s bluff by not making his own case, thereby giving D’Souza nothing to tear apart. Undaunted, D’Souza first told the audience what Hitchens should have said about the bad things that have happened in the name of religion, and then went ahead with his own side of the debate, never missing a beat and managing to stay within his time limit to boot.

I thought about those debating skills while watching D’Souza’s new movie, America: Imagine a World Without Her. The film begins with an imagined reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle in which Washington dies and America never comes into existence. What might the world look like without the American philosophy? He then switches into devil’s advocate, listing five significant areas in which Americans should feel deep shame:

  1. Theft of lands from Native Americans, and genocide against them
  2. Theft of the American Southwest from Mexico
  3. Theft of life and labor from African-Americans
  4. Theft of resources from around the world through war and expansionism
  5. Theft of profits from consumers through capitalism (“You didn’t create that business — someone else built those roads, educated those employees, etc.”)

Watching this part of the film, especially as the first three points were elaborated, I nodded my head in agreement and disgust. These were terrible events that blot our nation’s history. How would D’Souza debate his way out of this one, I wondered?

D’Souza then steps back to give context and historical background to these situations. He does not denigrate or trivialize the suffering of the people involved, but he widens the story to give a broader perspective. By the time he is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history. In fact, our pride is restored for the good that we have accomplished, despite our slowness sometimes in getting there. Quoting both Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln, he calls the equal rights vouchsafed in the Declaration of Independence a “promissory note” that took decades — nay, two centuries — to pay off, and indeed is still a promissory note in some instances.

By the time D’Souza is finished we feel humbled by the bad things, but no longer shamed by our history.

I was especially pleased that D’Souza included a segment on Madam C.J. Walker, the first black American woman to become a millionaire. Walker made her million manufacturing and selling cosmetics and pomades for African-Americans. She started as a cotton picker, worked her way up to cook, and saved her money to start her business. She is a true entrepreneurial hero who is often overlooked in the history books, I think, because she doesn’t fit the cult of victimhood ascribed to blacks and women, and because she made it on her own through entrepreneurship, not through political activism. I only know about her because her mansion is a mile from my house. (It survived the Roosevelt wealth tax devastation by serving as a tax-exempt old folks home for several decades, but is now a private residence again.) Now, thanks to D’Souza’s movie, others will know about this American entrepreneurial hero.

I would have been happy if the film had ended there, but then D’Souza turns to his opponents in this debate, such people as Boston University professor Howard Zinn, whose 1980 book A People’s History of the United States 1492–Present has influenced many political activists; and Saul Alinsky, whoseRules for Radicals heavily influenced such politicians and “community organizers” as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Like a good debater, D’Souza defuses the ammunition his detractors might use against him, the business about his recent run-in with the law, by addressing it head-on instead of giving his opponents an opportunity to whisper about it or suggest that he is hiding something. He admits that what he did was wrong (he reimbursed two friends who donated to another friend’s campaign in order to circumvent campaign contribution limits established by law — a law, by the way, that many people consider a violation of First Amendment right to free speech.) D’Souza frames his admission within the context of selective prosecution (some would call it political persecution) in retaliation for his previous film, 2016: Obama’s America.

America: Imagine a World without Her opened this week to coincide with the Fourth of July. It is an impressive piece of filmmaking, not only for its well-structured arguments but for its production qualities. Producer Gerald Molen, who won an Oscar as producer of Schindler’s List, is the man behind the magic. The film is also a featured selection at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival as part of FreedomFest at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas next week (information about FilmLovers Passes is at anthemfilmfestival.com).


Editor's Note: Review of "America: Imagine a World Without Her," directed by Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan. Lionsgate, 2014, 103 minutes.



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Ain’t That a Shame?

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“You’d be like heaven to touch, I want to hold you so much.” Is there a more perfect lyric in the world, one reviewer asks. The lyrics of the Four Seasons expressed all the yearning of unrequited love. I can still remember the party where my adolescent heart was stirred while that song played in my mind. “Can’t take my eyes off of you,” I hummed softly, but his eyes adored someone else. Oh what a night — the music of our youth stays with us and has the power to evoke long-dormant memories and emotions.

That’s one reason that Jersey Boys (like Mamma Mia) has had such a long and successful run on Broadway, playing to people who often sing along (to the annoyance of the person in the next seat). The Four Seasons were the “other” ’60s sound — not rock and roll and not Motown but simple, true lyrics sung in clear, clean harmonies with that strong countertenor of Frankie Valli set in just the right key for female teenyboppers. I learned how to sing harmony with the Four Seasons. They were a sound you could play in front of your parents.

Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally.

Their personal lives were another story, however — normalized at the time but recently placed in another light by the Broadway musical and now the film. As represented by the movie, the boys from Jersey — Tommy, Nicky, Joe, and Frankie (Bob was from a nicer background) — were little more than hoodlums, knocking over delivery trucks and breaking into jewelry stores when they were supposed to be in the library. They knew the beat cops by name, and for some of them the local detention facility was like a revolving door, as the characters gleefully admit in the film. Of course, this is the way it’s remembered by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, executive producers of the film; Tommy, Nicky, and Joey might remember it quite differently.

“There were three ways out of the neighborhood,” Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) tells the audience. “Join the army, join the mob, or become famous.” The first two could get you killed, so singing was the ticket out. Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally. Their photos are set in a double frame and stand like a shrine of hope on the living room shelf of Frankie’s childhood home.

The first half of the film focuses on the boys’ backgrounds and their slow rise to fame through seedy nightclubs and bowling alley bars. Waiting over an hour for the first familiar song to appear in this film heightens the drama at its unveiling. I was tapping my foot impatiently. But when it finally arrives it reminds us of how sublime their harmonies were, and how simple their lyrics: “She-e-e-rry, Sherry baby, She-e-erry, Sherry baby. She-eh-eh-eh-eh-erry baby. Sherry baby. Sherry, won’t you come out tonight?” Sheesh! How did that ever make it to the radio? Yet it topped the charts and was followed by hit after hit that told our stories in song.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage.

The lyrics of the songs tell the story in the film too, although it all works better in the stage musical, where the production numbers are showcased. Instead of using the lyrics to carry the story forward as most musicals do, Eastwood inserts them almost like a sidebar to the story he prefers to tell. In the film the songs often play in the background, and often while the characters are speaking, so the effect is lessened.

The huge theater where I saw the movie held exactly four viewers at the 7:15 show on opening night. Four Fans for the Four Seasons. Sigh. With the popularity of the Broadway musical (and Clint Eastwood as the producer and director) the film had a disappointing turnout for its opening day. But there’s the rub: Clint Eastwood. Who would have thought this talented octogenarian director known for his spare direction and raw drama would turn to the Broadway musical genre this late in his career? Oh wait — he already did, and it was a disaster. Eastwood starred as the singing prospector who shares a wife (Jean Seberg) with his partner (Lee Marvin, who has purchased her from a polygamous Mormon) in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1969), a movie based very loosely on the 1951 play that ran for only 289 performances. Eastwood was ridiculous in that film, and he brings no genuine experience to the filming of this musical. He also uses actors with no genuine experience on screen, intensifying the problem.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage. With only one familiar face — Christopher Walken as mob boss Gyp DeCarlo, who acts as a kindly godfather to the Jersey boys — there is no name other than Eastwood’s to attract film audiences. The four who play the Seasons are actually pretty good, (Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi, Erich Bergen as composer Bob Gaudio, and Tony-award-winner John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli), but they aren’t, well, they aren’t seasoned. Renee Marino, who plays Frankie’s wife Mary onstage and in the film, is simply annoying with her exaggerated movements and wild outbursts of emotion. I actually went home and looked up her background, expecting to learn that she is Eastwood’s newest girlfriend, but she isn’t. (Remember those godawful movies from the ’70s and ’80s when Sondra Locke was his main squeeze? They were every which way but right.) The most interesting actor is Joseph Russo, also a newcomer, and only because he plays Joe Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci. He’s credited in the movie with bringing Bob Gaudio into the group, back when Pesci was just another kid from New Jersey. Eventually Tommy DeVito went to work with Pesci, and Pesci took Tommy’s name for his character in Goodfellas.

The problem is that acting for the screen is quite different from acting for a live audience. A movie screen is 70 feet wide, making the actor much larger than life. The flick of an eyebrow or twitch of a finger can relay emotion and communicate thoughts. Stage actors, on the other hand, must play to the balcony. Their actions are broad, even in tender moments. When Mary leans across a diner table with her butt in the air and her lips pouting forward as a come-on to the inexperienced Frankie, it works for the stage but is comical and unrealistic for the screen. And Eastwood should know, because he is the master of unspoken communication. In interviews Marino gushes about how relaxed and easy-going Eastwood was on set, but she needed direction. Desperately. “I need you, baby, to warm the lonely nights” can be said without words and bring tears to the eyes. Keep it simple, and keep it real. As Frankie says to Bob Gaudio about the arrangement of a new song, “If you goose it up too much it gets cheesy.”

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore

Overall Jersey Boys is a good film that provides interesting background about the music industry. Touring and recording isn’t all glitz and glamour; it’s mostly packing and repacking, eating in diners, staying in nondescript hotel rooms where you aren’t sure which direction is the bathroom in the middle of the night, missing family events, and in the end getting screwed over by unscrupulous money managers. It’s tough. But the film doesn’t give us much perspective about the Four Seasons and the time period in which they wrote. They were the clean-cut lounge singers who made hit after hit side by side with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. They held their own during the tumultuous ’60s, just singing about love: “Who loves you? Who loves you pretty baby?” They paved the way for a whole new sound in the ’70s when they added a brass orchestra.

Despite the hardships of the touring life, that wonderful music makes it all worthwhile. When asked to describe the best part of being the Four Seasons, Frankie responds simply, “When it was just us four guys singing under a street light.” Anyone who sings knows that feeling. It’s the joy of making music together.

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore at the end of the Broadway musical. Wisely Eastwood used the recordings of the original Four Seasons for the closing credits instead of the voices of the actors who play them in the movie. The difference is profound. Valli had such a glorious bell-like quality to his falsetto, while Young’s is simply false. He tries hard, but the effort shows. In the first hour of the film, when people react to his voice as he is “discovered,” it’s almost puzzling. What’s so great about this nasally voice with the slight rasp that makes you want to clear your throat? In the closing minutes of this film, listening to the original Four Seasons, it all makes sense.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jersey Boys," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 134 foot-tapping minutes.



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Action Plus Gravitas

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Tight shot on the face of a man sleeping. His eye snaps open, and it is yesterday morning — again. He rises, and the day unfolds exactly as it did the day before. No one else knows that the day is being repeated, but he remembers, and he reacts. Each time he learns the best way to react in order to get where he wants to be. With eternity to learn and an infinite number of do-overs until he gets it right, the man develops skills, enhances relationships, and eventually gets the girl.

Groundhog Day (1993) is one of my favorite movies, but that’s not the film I am reviewing here. Edge of Tomorrow relies on the same premise of a neverending loop in which a man wakes up day after day in the same place, facing the same dilemma, surrounded by the same people doing and saying the same things. But he changes and grows with each repeated day.

As the film opens, an alien force has invaded Europe, burrowed underground, and started spreading across the continent toward England, China, and Russia. Enter Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a media specialist with the Army who started in ROTC and rose to the rank of Major through office successes; he has never trained for combat, and he has no intention of going to war. When commanded to go to the front lines of a beach invasion in Normandy, he bolts. When next we see him he is handcuffed, stripped of his rank, and forced to join J Squad on the day they are going to invade France. He has no training with weaponry, doesn’t even know how to disengage the safety, and buckles under the weight of his heavy armor.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight, since he usually plays the tough guy who is cool as a cucumber under pressure. Of course, before long he is using his repetition of days to build up his skills and learn how to fight so that he can save the world. It’s an impossible mission, but someone has to do it. Helping him is Lt. Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a war hero known as the Angel of Verdun because she almost single-handedly vanquished the alien enemy in a previous battle. That’s because Rita has also experienced repetition of days and used her repeated experience to anticipate the enemy’s moves. Together she and Cage fight to reach the source of the alien force and destroy it.

The story line is reminiscent of a video game in which the player adopts a character on the screen and fights through several different levels to accomplish a goal. Each time the player “dies” he has to start over, and each time he plays, he gets a little further in the game by remembering where the booby traps are. Often players work together, telling each other which tunnel or path is safe and which one has a lurking danger. Cage and Rita work together in this way, remembering what happened the “previous day” and moving further each time toward their goal. When Cage says to Rita at one point, “We’ve never made it this far before,” it sounds exactly like my munchkins playing Mario together.

It is an unusual treat to see Cruise playing a terrified coward who doesn’t know how to fight.

This video-game reference does not trivialize the film; it simply gives the viewer something more to ponder about metaphysics, the nature of life, and what you might do if you could see into the future and learn from your mistakes. A do-over once in a while could make all the difference.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Director Doug Liman has remembered and learned from the past. While Edge of Tomorrow borrows heavily from the concept of Groundhog Day, it is not doomed in any way. Moreover, Liman brings to this project a strong history in action films from his work directing the Bourne series. Edge of Tomorrow is fresh, exciting, and compelling. The references to the storming of Normandy give it a sense of gravitas missing from most modern action films (it was even released on June 6, to coincide with the anniversary of the invasion). The threat of a lurking menace that spreads unseen and underground until it has become unstoppable and can enter one’s mind gives the audience a sense of personal investment while suggesting that the enemy is a thought or philosophy, not an army. Even the solution for stopping the enemy — that is, getting inside the enemy’s mind and understanding his perspective — is also a powerful lesson for modern warfare. Edge of Tomorrow works on every level.


Editor's Note: Review of "Edge of Tomorrow," directed by Doug Liman. Warner Brothers, 2014, 113 minutes.



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Memories of War

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Last month I visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum in Chiran, Japan, a small town characterized by cherry-lined streets and what remains of a centuries-old Samurai village. The museum is a moving tribute to the 1,000 or so young men who were ordered to give their lives for god and country (the emperor was considered divine) by flying their planes directly into American targets in the Pacific during the final months of World War II. Chiran was the departure point for most of those flights.

The museum contains photographs of all the men, along with the letters many of them wrote to their families on the eve of their death. These pilots were little more than boys, most of them aged 17–28, some of them photographed playing with puppies as they posed, smiling, in front of their planes. In their letters they urged their mothers to be proud, their sisters to be comforted, their girlfriends to move on without them, and their children to be brave. One man wrote, “I am sorry that Papa will not be able to play horsey with you any more.” Another’s girlfriend leapt from a bridge to her death after she read his letter, and yet another’s wife drowned herself and her children before his flight so he could die without regret. Several of these young pilots were Koreans conscripted into the service against their will. None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death. I felt nothing but sadness for these young boys.

Two weeks later I was in Oahu, where over 200 Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor in the early morning of December 7, 1941, killing 2,400 Americans, wounding another thousand, and crippling the American fleet. The attack brought America into war in the Pacific. One cannot visit the Pearl Harbor Memorial without feeling profound sadness for the loss of life that day and in the four years that were to come. Yet, having just visited the Kamikaze Peace Museum, I could not hate the men who flew the bombers into Pearl Harbor. The words of Edwin Starr resonated in my mind: “War: What Is It Good For?”

Perhaps it is good for peace. But at what price? I thought of this as I watched The Railway Man, based on the memoirs of a British soldier, Eric Lomax (Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine) who was captured by the Japanese during World War II, forced to help build the railway through Thailand that was immortalized by the Oscar-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and tortured by his captors when he built a radio receiver inside their prison. The title of the film has dual meanings; not only does Lomax help build the railroad through Thailand, but from his youth he has had an obsession for trains and has always memorized details about train schedules, train depots, and the towns that surround train stations. In context, the title also suggests a metaphor for the bridges that are eventually built, through arduous effort, between Lomax and others, including his wife Patti.

None felt he had a choice; living with the loss of honor would be much more painful than any fear of death.

As the film opens, Lomax (Firth) is a middle-aged man who meets a pretty nurse, Patti (Nicole Kidman), on a train. He immediately falls in love with her. (The film implies that this is a first marriage for the shy and socially inept Lomax, but the real Eric Lomax was already married at the time he met Patti. He married Agnes just three weeks after returning from the war, and then divorced her just a few months after meeting Patti on the train. This, and the rest of the story, suggests to me that he returned from the war safe, but not sound.) Eric notes morosely, “Wherever there are men, there’s been war,” and Patti replies with a gentle smile, “And wherever there’s been a war, there’s been a nurse like me to put them back together.”

This introduces the key to their relationship. The war has officially ended 35 years earlier, but it still rages in Lomax’s mind. He will need the kind and patient wisdom of a nurse to help put him back together again. His struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder is skillfully portrayed when ordinary events trigger painful memories that transport him immediately to his jungle experiences as a POW. For example, the sound of the shower triggers terrifying memories of the water torture he endured at the hands of his brutal captors. The unexpected intrusion of these scenes demonstrates the unending aftermath of war and the difficulty of controlling its horrifying memories.

Wise casting adds to the pathos of this fine film. Much of what I know about World War II has been shaped by the films I’ve seen, and most of those were populated by actors well into their 30s and 40s. But in this film Young Eric (Jeremy Irvine) and his comrades are played by slender boys in their early 20s who can’t even grow a stubble of beard after four days aboard a prison train. They are closer to the tender ages of the soldiers they are portraying, and this increases the pathos of the story and our admiration for the strength and resolve of these boys who are thrust into manhood, much like the kamikaze pilots, before they even know what war is.

The Railway Man is a character-driven film that demonstrates the choices we have, even when it seems we have no choices at all. Jesus demonstrated the power of choice when he said, “If a man requires of you his coat, give him your cloak also” and, “If a man smites you, turn the other cheek.” He wasn’t telling his followers to give up and give in, but to take charge and move on, by invoking the right to choose one’s attitude when it seems that the freedom to choose one’s actions is gone. This film demonstrates that same transformative power of choice.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Railway Man," directed by Jonathan Teplitzky. Weinstein Company, 2014, 116 minutes.



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It’s Smart, It’s Exciting, It’s Fun

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The specific details of a superhero movie plot seldom really matter; all we usually need to know is that an evil superpower, sporting a foreign accent, is out to destroy the world as we know it, and it is up to the superhero not only to protect the community from destruction but also to preserve our way of life. Dozens of superheroes have been created in comic-book land, and all of them have been sharing time on the silver screen for the past decade or more, with half a dozen of their adventures released this year alone. So far audiences are flocking to theaters with the same enthusiasm that kept our grandfathers heading to the local cinema every Saturday afternoon to see the latest installment of Buck Rogers.

These films tend to reflect the fears and values of whatever may be the current culture, which is one of the reasons for their lasting popularity. We see our worst fears in the threats posed by the enemies, and our hopes and fears in the characters of the heroes. But lately those heroes have been somewhat reluctant and unsure of their roles as heroes, and the people they have sworn to protect have been less trusting and appreciative — they complain about collateral damage and even question the heroes’ loyalty. In an era of relativism and situational ethics, a full-on hero with overwhelming power seems hard to support.

The Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions.

This month it’s Captain America’s turn to save the day. Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon in 1941, Captain America (alter ego: Steve Rogers) is a WWII fighter pilot who is transformed from a 5’4” wimp to a 6’2” muscle man through a scientific experiment intended to create an army of super warriors. He ends up being cryogenically frozen and is thawed out in modern times. Part of his appeal is his guileless naiveté, especially as he reacts to modern technology and mores. He uses his virtually indestructible shield to fight for truth, justice, and the American way (okay, that’s the other superhero, but their morals are virtually the same). I like Captain America’s shield — it signifies that his stance is defensive, not aggressive.

As The Winter Soldier opens, nothing is going right for the Avenger team led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Captain America (Chris Evans). Police, government agencies, and even agents of SHIELD (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division, the organization that oversees and deploys the superheroes) are attacking them and treating them as national enemies. The Captain and former Russian spy Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), aka the Black Widow, have become Public Enemies number 1 and 2, but they don’t know why. They spend the rest of the movie trying to clear their names and save the world, without any help from the government they have sworn to uphold.

While the specific plot isn’t particularly important in these movies, motivation usually is. Why do the characters do what they do? Meaningful dialogue inserted between the action scenes reveals the values of both good guys and bad guys, and away we go, rooting for the guy who is going to save us once again.

I’m happy to report that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, lives up to its potential. As a libertarian, I can agree with most of the values it projects. First, politicians, government agencies, and the military industrial complex are the untrustworthy bad guys in this film, and for once there isn’t an evil businessperson or industrialist in sight. Additionally, the Avengers share conversations praising freedom and choice, and they reject blind obedience in favor of making their own decisions. For example, The Falcon (Anthony Mackie) aka Sam Wilson, tells Steve about his buddy being shot down in the war, and then says, “I had a real hard time finding a reason for being over there after that.” Captain America admits, “I want to do what’s right, but I’m not sure what that is anymore.” Like Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, he is ready to think for himself and determine his own morality. (Compare that philosophy to Peter Parker [Spider-Man] being told by his wise Uncle Ben that responsibility is more important than individual choice in Spider-Man 2, followed by Uncle Ben’s death when Peter chooses “selfishness” over responsibility.)

Meanwhile, the Secretary of State (Robert Redford — yes, Robert Redford! He said his grandchildren like the franchise, so he wanted to do the film for them) says cynically of a particular problem, “It’s nothing some earmarks can’t fix.”

The mastermind behind the assault on freedom (I won’t tell you who it is, except that it’s someone involved in government) justifies his destructive plan by saying, “To build a better world sometimes means tearing down the old one” and opining that “humanity cannot be trusted with its own freedom. If you take it from them, they will resist, so they have be given a reason to give it up willingly.” Another one adds, “Humanity is finally ready to sacrifice its freedom for security,” echoing Ben Franklin’s warning. These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course. Such tactics are as old as Machiavelli. Yet nothing could feel more current. I’m happy to see young audiences eating this up.

Captain America first appeared on film in 1944, at the height of WWII. He has never been as popular as Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man. A made-for-TV movie aired in 1979, and a dismal version (with a 3.2 rating) was made in 1990. However, the latest incarnation, with Chris Evans as the wimp-turned-military powerhouse, has been highly successful, with three films released in the past four years: two self-titled films (Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011, and this one) as well as one ensemble outing (The Avengers, 2012).

These power-hungry leaders boast of having manufactured crises to create conditions in which people willingly give up freedom. This isn’t new, of course.

One of the things I like about the Avengers is that they aren’t born with innate super powers à la Superman or X-Men; for the most part their powers come from innovation, technology, and physical training. They’re gritty and real, and they bruise and bleed. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo were determined to make this movie as real as possible too, so they returned to live action stunts whenever they could instead of relying on CGI and green screen projection. Yes, they use stunt doubles when necessary, but, as Anthony Mackie (the Falcon) reported in praise of the Russos, “if they could build it [a set piece], they built it. If we [the actors] could do it [a difficult maneuver], we did it. . . . That’s why the movie looks so great.” Many of the action scenes are beautifully choreographed and often look more like dancing than fighting, especially when Captain America’s shield is ricocheting between him and a gigantic fighter plane.

Of course, the film has its share of corniness too. When you’re a hero named Captain America, you’re expected to be a rah-rah, apple-pie American, and Captain America is. He even drives a Chevy, the all-American car. So does Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who brags about his SUV with a straight face as though it’s a high-end luxury vehicle. In fact, all the SHIELD operatives drive Chevys, as do many of the ordinary commuters on the street. That’s because another concept that’s as American as apple pie is advertising. Product placement permeates the film, but most of the time it’s subtly and artfully done. Captain America wears an Under Armour t-shirt (which is pretty ironic when you think about it — under armor beneath a super-hero uniform), and the Falcon, whose superpower is a set of mechanized wings that let him fly, sports a small and subtle Nike swoosh on his after-hours attire. (Nike — the winged goddess, get it?)

Captain America is a hit, and for all the right reasons. The dialogue is intelligent, the humor is ironic, the action sequences are exciting, and the heroes are fighting for individual freedom. It even contains a theme of redemption. And for once, the bad guys aren’t businessmen. Ya gotta love it.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo. Sony Pictures, 2014, 136 minutes.




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The Road to Potential

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How I hate the word “potential”! While acknowledging innate abilities with faint praise, it reeks of withering disappointment, talents wasted, opportunities lost.

Transcendence is a film with tremendous potential.

It begins with a talented cast of discriminating actors that includes Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Cillian Murphy, Morgan Freeman, and Paul Bettany. (OK, scratch Morgan Freeman from the list of “discriminating actors.” Freeman is a fine actor, but he has become as ubiquitous as Michael Caine.) Add a postapocalyptic setting, an army of zombified robotic post-humans, a love story that transcends death, and the time-honored “collision between mankind and technology.” Mix in some dialogue about challenging authority and questioning the meaning of life, and create a metaphor suggesting the thirst for power in the form of the World Wide Web. It seems like the perfect formula for an exciting sci-fi thriller.

Yet Transcendence barely gets off the ground. The story, about terrorists who attack the world’s computer hubs simultaneously in order to stop the Internet, should be powerfully engaging, but it lacks any building of tension or suspense. Instead it is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is a computer programmer working on ways to heal the planet through nanotechnology. When terrorists attack his computer lab and infect him with deadly radiation poison, his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and his research partner Max (Paul Bettany) convince him to let them upload his consciousness onto a hard drive that will allow his sentient self to continue to live within the machine. It’s an interesting concept that ought to cause one to reflect on what makes us human: is it the physical body of flesh and bones that can move and act? Or is it the non-physical collection of memories, thoughts, and personality? Many people have had their heads cryogenically frozen after death, in hopes that someday their minds can be restored within a synthetic body and they can regain life. But that isn’t what this movie is about.

“Transcendence” is a dull, slow-moving behemoth emitting loud, unexpected bursts of explosive violence.

The plan works, and Will speaks from the computer screen after his death. However, Max immediately and inexplicably regrets having uploaded Will to the machine, so he joins forces with the terrorists (who also join forces with the government — it’s hard to keep all the factions and their motivations straight) to stop Will from doing what he was uploaded to do. Meanwhile, Evelyn joins forces with Will and together they build a solar power grid in an isolated Nevada desert to give Will enough juice to mingle with every scintilla of the Internet.

Yes, this makes Will omniscient, omnipresent, and all-powerful. And that’s a definition of God, right? Will is treated like God’s evil twin, set on sucking up all the power in the universe (there’s that metaphor of the power grid.) But he doesn’t do anything evil. He doesn’t steal power from others; he creates his own from the sun — and he pays the Nevada residents a good wage to work for him. He doesn’t kill anyone, destroy anything, or even growl menacingly. In fact, he uses his power to refine his work in nanotechnology, and soon he is able to heal the blind, make the lame walk, and restore life to those who have been killed. (In case you hadn’t noticed, this is godlike too.) As they are healed, his new followers become like him — imbued with the Internet and able to communicate with Will through his spirit — that is, the Cloud.

This storyline has the potential for being eerie and scary, à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers; but Will’s followers don’t do anything wrong either, and they aren’t at all zombie-like. They are just humans who once were disabled and now can see, walk, lift, run, hear, and produce. How is that different from living with a pacemaker or a titanium hip, and carrying around a smart phone that keeps one constantly connected to the Internet? Nevertheless, the government is determined to take them out, simply because they are now created in Will’s image and have the ability to communicate worldwide.

All of this has the potential for philosophical discussion, but I had to use all my creativity as a literature professor to reach the potential message I’ve described here. The message is beyond subtle — so subtle, in fact, that I think it went over the director’s own head. I’m not sure what he intended to suggest, except possibly that the collision between mankind and technology is usually good for a studio green light. I doubt that he was even aware of the potential metaphor or deeper meaning of the film he created.

Ah. There’s that word again. “Potential.” A film that had transcendent potential is instead fraught with withering disappointment, wasted talent, and lost opportunities. Insomniacs will love it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Transcendence," directed by Wally Pfister. Alcon Entertainment, 2014, 119 minutes.



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Noah Sails Where No Rock Ever Sailed Before

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Myth has been defined as “a story, often employing superhuman figures and supernatural events, that attempts to explain something about the world and that expresses some important value or belief of a culture or society” (Howard Canaan, Tales of Magic from around the World). Myths have simple plots with few specific details; their meaning can evolve over time to represent changing cultural values. This is what director Darren Aronofsky has done with his epic new film, Noah — he has created a myth like that.

Audiences who want to see the biblical story of Noah will be disappointed. Judeo-Christian believers, indeed, will be offended and outraged by the laughable inaccuracies in this movie, from the biblical point of view. (Believers will know they’re in trouble when they see the film begin with the words, “In the beginning there was nothing.”) Darren Aronofsky has rewritten a new myth, for modern times. It is no longer the story of a prophet who was chosen by God to build an ark and repopulate the earth after everyone else drowns. The conflict is no longer between God and Satan but between humans and Rock People (representing Earth — but more below). Rock People communicate with a Creator, but humans do not communicate with God. The purpose of religion is not to forge a relationship between God and people but to protect the earth and the animals. “If anything happens to one of these creatures, it will be lost forever,” Noah warns his sons, but he has no similar concern for humanity. As Noah walks among the wicked community that is about to be destroyed by the flood, he observes many gruesome acts, but the pinnacle of their depravity is presented as they cleave animal carcasses for cooking. Methuselah explains, “Men will be punished for what they have done to this world,” not for what they have done to one another. Noah is a modern myth that represents the hegemonic values of today.

Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah.

Maybe it was because I had just seen the new Mr. Peabody and Sherman movie, but Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fractured Fairy Tales kept coming to mind while I was watching Noah. Aronofsky fractures the Bible, combining snippets from several biblical stories and pretending that they all happened to Noah, including Eve’s attraction to the serpent, Cain’s murder of his brother Abel, Elisha’s army of angels, and Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. It’s the most bizarre concoction, yet I’m sure that many gullible filmgoers went home saying, “Wow! I didn’t know Noah almost killed his granddaughters!” You see, in order to understand Rocky’s Fractured Fairy Tales, you had to know that Sleeping Beauty did not eat a poisoned apple.

And here’s another thing you probably wouldn’t know was in the Bible if you didn’t see this movie: God did not create humans — some crazy giant Rock People did. These Rock People look like piles of boulders until they pull themselves together, Transformer-like, and start stomping around the earth. They have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God. They create an eerie static hum whenever they’re close by, and they strike fear into the hearts of men. Except the hearts of the ones they like.

According to the Book of Aronofsky, these Rock People came from outer space as meteors of light and got stuck in the muck of primordial creation. They made humans out of the dust of the earth, and as the film opens they’re really mad at themselves for doing it because humans really suck. But you already know that, if you’ve been reading the newspapers lately.

See, it turns out that animals are “the innocents” and “man broke the world.” Eve’s real treachery wasn’t curiosity or disobedience or a desire for wisdom; it was that she brought children to the earth and allowed her descendants to wreak havoc there. Now Noah’s wife wants to do the same! But Father Noah Knows Best. He is determined to put all the animal pairs onto the ark and save only his three sons, his post-menopausal wife (Jennifer Connelly), and one barren girl (Emma Watson) so that humans cannot repopulate the earth and ruin it again. His job is simply to keep the animals safe until the flood subsides, and then quietly let humans become extinct.

It probably doesn’t surprise you that in this movie, Noah never communicates with God, or vice versa. So where does he get the idea of building the ark? From the dregs of a psychotropic tea given to him by Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins). Methuselah, by the way, has supernatural powers, but when he uses them to cause a wonderful and necessary miracle, Noah gets pretty ticked off and starts grabbing for daggers. Actually, there is very little to set Noah apart from the wickedness around him. He wields an ax and a bludgeon with the best of them, and he can be pretty heartless.

Despite the assertion that “in the beginning there was nothing,” there are deists in the movie. They just aren’t the prophets. The Rock People talk directly to a Creator, and so does Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone), the leader of the wicked nomads and a descendant of Cain, who killed his brother Abel and was forced to bear a mark on his forehead as the first murderer. Tubal-cain doesn’t actually appear in the biblical story of Noah, but Aronofsky throws him in, probably because he became a blacksmith (Genesis 4:22) and is credited by many scriptorians with inventing weapons of war. While Noah is drinking the psychedelic Kool-Aid, Tubal-cain is calling out to God, “Speak to me! I am a man, made in your image. I am like you — I give life and I take it away. Why will you not converse with me?” Meanwhile, the priesthood that has been passed from Adam to Methuselah to Noah is embodied in the skin of the serpent that tempted Eve in the Garden. This is no mere fracture of the tale; Aronofsky delights in making the godly evil and evil godly.

The Rock People have multiple arms and glowing eyes and thundering voices à la Optimus Prime and are a whole lot more exciting than the voice of God.

Sure, I get it: Hollywood doesn’t like references to God (approving ones, anyway). And yes, I know the difference between Sunday School and the Cineplex; I wasn’t expecting a sermon. But why make a movie about Noah if you are going to leave out the driving force behind the story? It’s like making Clash of the Titans without Zeus or Poseidon. Why not just make a movie about Rock Giants that duke it out with brutal nomads while one family escapes in a boat with a bunch of animals? Let those of us who know how to read leave the theater saying, “Wow, did you catch those references to Noah?” instead of “Man, did he ever get that wrong!”

What drew Aronofsky to the story of Noah in the first place? I suspect it was the same characteristics that have kept myths alive for centuries. Archetypal characters, iconic conflicts, and simple truths about human nature resonate with us. One does not have to be religious to experience the resonance of biblical stories, nor should religious people be offended that I categorize biblical stories as myth. Contrary to popular opinion, “myth” does not mean “a lie,” or “a story that is not true.” Myths express “not historical or factual truth, but inner or spiritual truth. They are the shared stories that express insights about human nature, human society, or the natural world” (Canaan). Myths are so profound that they transcend the need to be factual. In fact, they can even transcend Hollywood’s need to be cynical.

Despite my criticism of the first two hours of this film, I found the conclusion profoundly satisfying. After all the fracturing and twisting and pushing away from humanity, Aronofsky ends with a cathartic moment of transformation and hope. It probably isn’t worth the two-hour journey to get there, and it’s totally out of whack with the source material. But Aronofsky creates a lovely scene of redemption at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Noah," directed by Darren Aronofsky. Paramount Pictures, 2014, 138 minutes.



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TSA Training Film

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Liberty’s readers know that I’m a fan of Liam Neeson’s middle-aged reincarnation as an action hero. His romps through thrillers with such single-word titles as Taken and Unknown, beating up bad guys half his age as he struggles to rescue his family (a common theme in his action films). This is cinematic escapism at its best.

At first this classically trained Shakespearean actor, who earned an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his powerfully moving performance as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List, was embarrassed by the success of Taken. He admits that he agreed to take on the role simply for the opportunity to spend three months in Paris (and, I suppose, for the $5,000,000 fee he was reportedly paid), but he expected the film to go straight to video, he says, where no one would see it. Nevertheless, he has embraced his new role as an action hero, and enjoys resurrecting the skills he learned as a professional boxer in Dublin, many years ago, for these beat-’em-up films.

In Non-Stop Neeson again gets to growl menacing lines and land knock-out punches as he chases the bad guys, this time while flying on a jet between New York and London. But this time it was a lot harder for me to enjoy the ride.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, an air marshal who springs into action when he receives a text message from someone on the plane threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes until $150 million is transferred to a numbered bank account. Who is the culprit? And how can he be stopped?

Marks doesn’t know who the bad guy is, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination.

Marks storms through the plane, grabbing anyone who looks suspicious and slinging the suspects around the plane. He stops at nothing (get it? non-stop?) in his determination to stop the killer. He snatches cell phones from breast pockets, rummages through carry-on bags, breaks one passenger’s nose and another passenger’s arm and another passenger’s neck. He shoots guns and thrusts knives and shoves food carts.

This is classic Neeson action-hero schtick, and I usually love it. But I have a problem with it in Non-Stop: these passengers aren’t bad guys. Well, one of them is. But Marks doesn’t know who, so he treats every single passenger as the hijacker and murderer. This is the TSA run amok with self-righteous determination. It doesn’t matter who might be hurt or even killed, so long as the air marshal gets his man. I actually cheered when the passengers finally mustered enough gumption to smack Marks in the head with a fire extinguisher, even though he was just “doing his duty” and “protecting” them.

Also uncomfortably along for the ride are Julianne Moore as the air marshal’s seatmate and Lupita Nyong’o as a flight attendant. Both are downright silly in their hand-wringing. I’m sure that if director Jaume Collet-Serra had known Nyong’o was going to be awarded an Oscar for her role in in Twelve Years a Slave and conducting a media blitz the very week his film was released, he would have given her a few more lines. Instead she is virtually hidden in the background. I rather imagine she is relieved that this film didn’t open in January, while the Academy members were still voting . . .

Even the denouement of Non-Stop is disappointing. I won’t tell you who did it, but it really doesn’t matter. The reaction is more of an “oh . . .” than an “Aha!” That’s because the story is set up like an Agatha Christie mystery in which every last suspect could plausibly be guilty. Whoops — I guess that’s exactly what the TSA wants us to think, isn’t it?

Non-Stop is a disappointment in every way. If this had been Neeson’s first foray into the action thriller genre, it would indeed have ended up going directly to video. I don’t even recommend it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Non-Stop," directed by Jaume Collet-Serra. StudioCanal, 2014, 106 minutes.



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Will Wins, Won’t Wins, Should Wins

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Hollywood produced some stellar films this year, and the Academy’s new policy of nominating up to ten films for Best Picture allows more of them to be recognized. Oddly, they decided to nominate only nine this time, leaving out such excellent films as Blue Jasmine, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Prisoners, but I’m impressed with all the films that were selected (even Philomena, for the acting, if not for the political stance). Two thirds of the Best Picture nominees are based on true stories this year, including Dallas Buyers Club, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Twelve Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street, andPhilomena. All but one of the Best Picture nominees have already been reviewed in this magazine. Below I give you my top picks in the major categories for who ought to win, as well as my expectation for who is likely to win.

Best Picture

American Hustle. For ensemble work, this film is the best. The actors revel in their parts, embracing the ’70s oeuvre both in the film and offscreen in their interviews as though it were this year’s best-themed costume party. The story, loosely based on the government’s inept sting operation called ABSCAM, is great fun. Probably too much fun, in fact; this isn’t the kind of film that wins the Oscar.

The Wolf of Wall Street is another ensemble piece with a better chance of winning, because of its portrayal of a businessman completely devoid of any scruples. Scorsese had to edit out several scenes to avoid a deadly NC-17 rating, but he still pushed the envelope further than it has ever been pushed before. It is self-indulgent in every way, from its actors to its source material to its profanity (nearly 600 F-bombs) to its length (just under three hours). Some call it amazing; others call it boring. Great art often finds critics at both extremes.

Twelve Years a Slave is the film that Academy voters will feel obligated to vote for, even if they liked other films better.

The Academy usually votes for “important” films, which gives The Dallas Buyers Club a better chance of winning than either Wolf or Hustle. The film has a great libertarian theme and remarkable acting by Matthew McConaughey as the man who provided a life-sustaining cocktail of supplements to AIDS patients during the beginning of the crisis, and by Jared Leto, who portrays a transvestite patient. Both of them are nominated for their roles.

Gravity is my top choice for best picture. This film, about a scientist-cum-astronaut who becomes lost in space and has to find her way back to earth, is one of the best survival films ever made. It is taut and gripping throughout, with a protagonist who relies on her wits and her courage to survive. It is also a technological and cinematic masterpiece, the kind of film that will be talked about in film classes for decades.

Nevertheless, I think Gravity will lose to Twelve Years a Slave, another visual masterpiece whose subject matter, slavery, is considered more powerful and more important than a science-fiction adventure. It’s a good film, but a hard film to watch and unnecessarily divisive. But it’s the film that Academy voters feel obligated to vote for, even though they liked other films better — or so I’ve heard.

Best Director

Martin Scorsese was barely out of film school at NYU when he agreed to drive up to the Catskills to help film a music gig for a friend. The gig turned out to be Woodstock, and the documentary won the Oscar for Best Documentary in1970. Scorsese brings that same unbridled decadence and passion to The Wolf of Wall Street, virtually wallowing in sex, drugs and profanity throughout the film. Returning to his documentary roots, he encouraged his actors to delve into their characters and then set them loose to create their own scenes. The result is an outrageous montage of the characters’ voracious, insatiable appetites and a metaphor for capitalist greed — always a popular target in Hollywood. If he hadn’t recently won for The Departed (2006) he would be considered a sympathetic front runner this year, simply for his body of work. But he doesn’t have a chance this year against Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón.

Alfonso Cuarón’s vision for Gravity required unparalleled patience and determination, not only in the way he directed his protagonist (Sandra Bullock) but also in the way he figured out how to bring his vision to the screen. Once he knew what was needed, he waited over a year for the technology to be created and built. Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space. It’s brilliant.

Nevertheless, the gravity of Twelve Years a Slave is likely to outweigh Gravity in both of the top categories. Steve McQueen is also a visionary director who imagines the shot before he creates it rather than giving his actors their head and letting them lead the way. But some of his camera work in TYS is exquisitely framed and executed, from his lighting to his camera angles to the timing of his shots. One particularly long shot in which a character who has been lynched struggles to stay on tiptoe in order to avoid strangulation is utterly silent and agonizingly long. It is more powerful than other scenes of brutal, bloody whipping. Cuarón ought to win, but McQueen probably will.

Best Actor

My pick for best actor wasn’t nominated this year, but I have to give him a shout-out anyway. Jake Gyllenhaal’s nuanced performance as the detective in Prisoners was simply superb. He created a backstory for his character through unspoken gestures and reactions entirely of his own design, from his character’s nervous blink to his unexplained tattoo to the enigmatic look on his face at the end of the film that leaves us wondering whether he is going to rescue the man in the underground box — or not. We know that he is the prisoner of his own undescribed background, simply through his body language and what is left unsaid. But Oscar seldom rewards the nuanced performance. (I happen to think Johnny Depp’s most outstanding performance is John Dillinger in Public Enemy, but he will be most remembered for his outlandish performances as Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, and the unfortunate Tonto.)

Cuarón put the magic into imagination and simply wowed his audiences with the beauty and terror of outer space.

All five nominees this year gave outstanding performances. Christian Bale (American Hustle) and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) lost all sense of themselves as they fell headlong into their roles as raunchy, despicable rascals. Matt McConaughey’s character (Dallas Buyers Club) is raunchy too, but he’s not despicable, he’s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in Nebraska, and that’s a shame, because Dern’s portrayal of a man losing his sense of reality, even though he is more grounded and determined than the “sane” people who surround him, is remarkable. Dern spent a lifetime portraying supporting roles, mostly as sinister villains, and he did it well. This was the part he has waited to play, and he does it subly and brilliantly. But Oscar doesn’t reward subtle, nuanced performances (see Gyllenhaal, above). Dern will have to be satisfied that it’s an honor just to be nominated.

Ejiofor’s character will win for Best Actor. I say his character will win, because his performance isn’t anything special, but how can you vote against a man who spent twelve years as a slave? But McConaghey just might pull this one out. He deserves it not only for DBC, but for his body of work this year, including his short but memorable chest-thumping role in the beginning of American Hustle, and his remarkable performance as the title character in the indie film Mud. McConaughey has come a long way from his Dirk Brink adventure roles and rom-com roots. Expect to see a lot of chest-thumping from anyone who wins an Oscar for AH. Nevertheless, I’m expecting a clean sweep for TYS.

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett, Cate Blanchett! She is my hands-down favorite for her refined befuddlement in a Chanel jacket. Say what you want about Woody Allen’s personal life; the man knows how to assemble a cast and elicit exactly the right performance from it. Blanchett should win for Best Actress, and Sally Hawkins should win Best Supporting Actress for her role as the unrefined, practical, down-to-earth sister. Yes, Sandra Bullock is astounding in her virtually solo performance in Gravity. She creates and maintains a believable tension throughout the film. To see just how difficult that is, take a look at Robert Redford’s failed attempt to pull off the same feat as a castaway in this year’s All Is Lost, or even Tom Hanks in Cast Away; Hanks had to invent a secondary character, Wilson the Volleyball, to allow the audience inside his character’s thoughts, and his isolation on the island is bookended by Acts One and Three, on land with other people. Still, I think Blanchett’s performance outdistances Bullock’s.

Meryl Streep is probably the best film actress of her lifetime, and her role as a matriarch suffering from mouth cancer in August: Osage County is a tour de force. But the film itself is flawed. The dialogue is sharp and witty and biting, as one would expect from a film that is adapted from an award-winning stage play. But its strength is also its weaknesses. Stage and film are two different genres. The former requires broad movements and loud delivery to reach the back of the theater; metaphors like “stomping the boards,” “hamming it up,” and “chewing the scenery” all arose from stage acting — and for good reasons. By contrast, film actors must rein in their performances, because they are seen on screens 80 feet wide and 40 feet tall. A glance to the left, a lifted eyebrow, a shudder or a twitch can communicate information that would be lost in live theater. Osage is a story that needs to be shouted as family members gather around the table and air a lifetime of gripes. It works on stage but not on film. Streep’s performance is top notch; she stops at nothing as the ugly, angry matriarch. But it’s just too much for the screen.

The Academy seldom rewards subtle, nuanced performances.

Dame Judi Dench, Britain’s version of Meryl Streep, also puts in a remarkably witty, funny, and sympathetic performance, as the title character searching for the baby she gave up for adoption in Philomena. But it’s what we’ve come to expect from Dench. Next to such a strong set of contenders this year, she should reserve a table next to Bruce Dern for the after party. It truly is an honor to be nominated.

Amy Adams is another outstanding actress who, like Streep and Dench, can perform just about any role. I love her body of work. And she loved showing off her literal body with the plunging necklines her character wears in American Hustle (and she gleefully continued to wear in interviews promoting the film). But AH is an ensemble film in which each individual performance is less than the sum of its parts. It’s another argument for adding Best Ensemble as an Academy category.

Blanchett’s strongest competitor comes, again, from the cast of TYS. But the producers decided to list Lupita Nyong’o as a supporting actress, despite the fact that she has the longest and most important female role in the film. Blanchett is in the clear. I hope she breaks out that Chanel jacket to wear to the awards.

Best Supporting Actor

Barkhad Abdi is stunning as the leader of a gang of pirates who board a cargo ship and kidnap the captain for ransom. His performance is so believable that I had to keep reminding myself that he was not really a Somali pirate. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this is his cinematic debut. He’s my pick for Best Supporting Actor.

But Jared Leto is going to win, for his tough and touching portrayal of a transgender prostitute in DBC. And he deserves it. This is one year when we just need extra trophies.

Michael Fassbender as the despicable slave owner in TYS; Jonah Hill as the despicable penny-stockbroker in TWWS; and Bradley Cooper as the despicable FBI agent in AH will just have to join that table with the un-despicable Dench and Dern. None of them has a prayer of a chance.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman has to be mentioned here as well. I suspect that if he had died two weeks earlier, he would have been nominated for his supporting role in The Master. This talented, versatile actor will be missed, and he will be highlighted in a tribute Sunday night.

Best Supporting Actress

Sally Hawkins is my top pick for her role as the practical, forgiving, down-to-earth single mom who has every reason to feel bitterness toward her sister Jasmine, whose husband swindled them out of their life savings. She is lively and funny and wonderful in this role. But she doesn’t have a chance.

Neither has Jennifer Lawrence, despite her sleazy, slinky, shady performance as the wife of the Christian Bale’s two-bit con man in AH. She has two strikes against her: first, she won an Oscar last year for playing a similar role; and second, no one has a chance this year against Lupita Nyong’o.

Julia Roberts is the weakest of the group. Expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance.

Like Javier Bardem, who stole the 2008 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor from Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild) by entering the supporting actor category instead of the leading actor category, Lupita Nyong’o belongs in the leading actress category. She is the central female character in the story. I have another criticism of her nomination, and that is, quite simply and directly, her acting. She seems very uncomfortable with the words she is asked to say. She recites her lines as though from memory, not from her heart; they don’t flow naturally from her mouth. Nevertheless, she will be lifted by the gravitas of the film, and is sure to win the Oscar.

Julia Roberts should not even have been nominated. Yes, she gets to yell and swear and pull Meryl Streep’s hair. But expressing anger does not make an Oscar-worthy performance. Hers is the weakest of the group. Jennifer Squibb as the insensitive, vulgar-mouthed wife of Bruce Dern in Nebraska is nominated largely for the novelty of hearing an old woman swear and lift up her skirts and talk about sex in public. It’s not an Oscar-worthy performance either. These two actresses should studiously avoid the Dench-Dern table.

So there you have it: my picks, and my expectations. The real winner this year will probably be host Ellen Degeneres whose flippant humor and kind demeanor will set everyone at ease during what is usually a tense, exciting, and ultimately disappointing evening for most of the attendees. It is an honor to be nominated, but everyone wants to win, and 80% of the hopefuls will be going home as losers. Ellen might help them go out with a smile.

rsquo;s a hero, and a hero who has an emotional epiphany. Chiwetel Ejiofor as the man kidnapped into slavery also plays a hero in a community that trumps even the AIDS population for sympathy. That leaves Bruce Dern out in the cold in




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Hoffman Dies, War on Drugs Revives

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On February 2, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a movie actor, died with a needle in his arm in his home in New York City. To me, his death from a heroin overdose was regrettable, and regrettable in the same way in which deaths from the effects of overeating and overdrinking are regrettable. I felt no extra stirring of dramatic emotion.

In this, obviously, I am very unlike my fellow Americans. To the celebrities who flocked to his funeral, and the larger mobs who flocked to the websites and “news” sources mourning his death, his way of leaving this world appears to have ennobled him, given him, somehow, the rank of tragic hero. People who had never heard of him, or (like me) had heard of him and even liked his performances on screen but never considered his name as something to be remembered, suddenly found that their worlds were poorer because of Hoffman’s drug-related death. Policemen, working with a dedication rarely seen in cases of actual mayhem and murder, identified and arrested four people whom they suspected of possible responsibility for his death.

Responsibility? This is like arresting the employees of a fast-food restaurant because an obese patron died from the effects of his last Big Mac. Did anyone say “double standard”? Did anyone say “human sacrifice”? No. You heard it here first.

Granted, the Demonic Four may not be deacons of the church and pillars of the community. They may be disgusting members of the criminal class. (Or they may be wholly innocent.) But who created that criminal class? Who put the profit in illicit drugs? Who put “illicit” in drugs, and keeps it there?

Legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime.

The answer is: the same kind of people who are beating their breasts over Hoffman’s death. It is these people — and they appear to be the majority of Americans, made snazzier by the presence among them of loquacious celebrities and soi-disant humanitarians — who create the illicit profit, and the correspondingly illicit drama, of heroin, cocaine, and all the other “hard” illegal drugs. They profess themselves to be so concerned about the fate of, say, wealthy actors that in retribution they are willing to spread the plague of crime, gangs, violence, and the corruption of the profit-seeking young across the continent, despoiling whole cities in a mad attempt to realize their dream of a Drug-Free America.

For a century, America has been waging war against drugs. According to CNN, heroin is now selling at $10 a unit on the streets of Philadelphia. If this, unlike other CNN reports, is actually true, then I say good, because the lower the price, the lower the real crime rate. Real crimes are crimes of fraud and violence, the kind of crimes that you create when you practice prohibition.

The solution is obvious: legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime. Some people who don’t use drugs will then be able to use them. Maybe they’ll use them only on weekends. Maybe they’ll become addicted (like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who got that way despite the fact that hard drugs are illegal). Libertarians should not pretend that these bad effects won’t happen. But call me heartless — this is a small price to pay for the enormous heartlessness of the War on Drugs.

And the really horrible thing is that I’m not saying anything new. Everybody knows these facts. Everybody is capable of making these deductions. If you somehow manage to avoid making them, don’t tell me how much you mourn the death of people like Philip Seymour Hoffman. You have a lot more to regret than that.




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