Two Films: One Right, One Not So Right

 | 

The weakest of this season’s Oscar finalists is Philomena. This film about an Irish woman’s search for the baby she gave up for adoption, more than half a century earlier, has received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actress, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). It is a good film, with moments that are lighthearted and funny and other moments that are deeply emotional and full of anguish. The performances by Judi Dench as Philomena; Steve Coogan as Martin Sixsmith, the down-on-his-luck journalist who helps her; and Sophie Kennedy Clark as the young Philomena are top-rate. But the film is marred by the same characteristic that is probably driving the critics and the Academy to rave about it: it revels in unfair and bitter vitriol against the Catholic Church. Hollywood loves to hate religion.

Philomena is really the story of two souls — the title character and the journalist — who have had their lives pulled asunder by external forces. When the young and unmarried Philomena becomes pregnant, her parents send her to a convent house where unwed mothers are hidden away and cared for until their babies are born and put up for adoption. To earn their keep, the girls do domestic work inside the convent, and they are allowed to see their babies every day until homes are found for them. But the outcome is known from the beginning: the girls have come to the convent to hide their pregnancies, give up their babies, and return to normal life. The nuns are simply doing what they agreed to do.

Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church.

The sad truth, however, is that no one knows until she has experienced it how hard the mothers’ role really is. How can she “return to normal life” once she has had a baby growing inside her? Whether she marries the father, raises the child by herself, gives the child to another family, or terminates the pregnancy, there is no forgetting the child and no going back to what life was like before. Parents of the pregnant girl might mean well in trying to go backward; “six months away and it will be as though it never happened,” they might think. But they don’t know. Certainly the nuns and priests don’t know; they’ve taken a vow never to become parents except indirectly, as Mother Superior or Father to the flock. Only the members of this exclusive club of special mothers can truly know what it’s like, so I won’t pretend to suggest that I know the answers. I only know that it’s hard.

The film turns the nuns and the church into the villains of the story, and it’s true (or seems to be true) that they were harsh in how they enforced their rules. But it should be remembered that no one in the church reached out and kidnapped these young unwed mothers; their parents sent them to the convents, and social custom embraced the plan. In a climate in which unwed mothers were treated as outcasts and their children were treated as bastards, these premature grandparents did what they thought was best for their daughters, the babies, and the childless couples who wanted them. And yes, for themselves. But Philomena’s parents are scarcely mentioned in this film. All the vitriol and venom are reserved for the Catholic Church, through several disparaging remarks made by Sixsmith toward the Church, and even more through the cruel, heartless way the nuns treat the mothers of the babies, and by the deliberate withholding of information by the convent’s head nun. I’m not Catholic, but I am offended by the anti-Catholic sentiment that permeates the film.

Martin Sixsmith has experienced a frustration of his own: as the film opens, he is a former journalist who has been sacked from his position with the Labour Party over an offense that he did not commit. He is outraged by the unfairness and tries to have his job restored, just as Philomena tries to reclaim her son, but to no avail. After reporting international news for so long, he feels demeaned by accepting this fluffy human-interest story for a magazine. But accept it he does, and the two set off for America to trace the snippets of information available to them about the child’s adoptive parents.

They are an unlikely pair, Martin with his international political interests and Philomena with her game shows and romance novels. She nearly drives him nuts with her never-ending summaries of the latest love story she is reading and her penchant for talking to strangers. These lighthearted scenes provide some of the most enjoyable moments in the movie, and balance the scenes of unbearable anguish portrayed by Young Philomena and the more controlled, but just as real, anguish felt by her older self. This is a lifelong pain that never goes away.

The film is certainly worth seeing, on its artistic and its social merits. But better than Inside Llewyn Davis? Or even Saving Mr. Banks? (Neither of them was nominated for Best Picture.) Not on your life. Philomena was nominated purely for its political correctness in hating on the Catholic church. And that’s just not a good enough reason in a season of such outstanding films.

No external considerations were necessary to produce admiration for the next film that I want to consider — another nominee for Best Picture: her.

her is a cautionary tale about the love affair with electronic devices and the disconnect it is causing in normal relationships, from simple inattention to internet dating and cybersex. Even the name, “her,” suggests objectification; the title is not She, and it is not even capitalized. “her” is just the objective case of what once was a woman.In this story of a near-future utopia, the voices that talk to us from our phones and GPS units and have names like “Siri” have developed emotions and personalities that aren’t almost human; in many ways they’re better than human. But this is not Westworld (1973) run amok, with sentient robots destroying their creators in order to take over the planet. No, “her” is a soft-spoken voice that comes in the night, whispering sweet nothings and taking over the creators’ emotions.

But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation.

Theodore Twolmy (Joaquin Phoenix) is an emotionally crippled introvert who writes “heartfelt personal letters” for other people. It’s sort of like being a cross between a Hallmark poet and Cyrano de Bergerac. Theodore is separated from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), whom he has known since childhood, and is very lonely. His days are filled with writing love letters, but he lacks any love in his own life. He turns to what amounts to porn calls in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t satisfy him. He spends his evenings playing holographic video games and becomes so immersed in the adventure that when he’s out on a blind date, he talks about the video character as though he were a friend. And the date gets it. Without thinking it’s weird or nerdy. Just as Ray Bradbury predicted in Fahrenheit 451, the people on the screen have become family.

This scene in which Theodore talks about his video friend reminded me of the time, years ago, when my son completed the final level of the first “Zelda” game. He had been working at it for a few weeks, and I thought he would feel exhilarated. Instead, he was morose and despondent. “You can start the game again,” I told him, thinking that would help him shake the blues. He responded with great sadness, “But she won’t remember me!” That was my first understanding of just how deeply someone can become involved in a cyber relationship, even one that doesn’t have a real person at the other end of the email.

Enter Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), the witty, husky voice inside Theodore’s electronic devices. When Theodore purchases a new operating system to manage his electronic information and Outlook files, he is surprised to find how humanlike the artificial intelligence interface is. Because this software has complete access to all his files, “she” knows him inside out and can evolve into a personality that responds to his emotional as well as organizational needs. And he responds viscerally to this being who knows him so deeply. It is what he has been aching for.

The film’s delicate tone makes it both very special and very disturbing. The sets and costumes contribute a great deal to that tone. The colors are mostly soft oranges and greens, the fabrics natural and touchable. The clothing is only slightly futuristic — the shirts have a different kind of collar, for example, and they are tucked into pants that ride high above the waist, instead of riding low on the hips as they do today. Furniture is sleek and mildly mid-century, with wall hangings and table decorations made of wood or stone. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before, yet so natural and comfortable that I expect to see it “in reality” next year. The overall effect is rather dreamy and inviting, not unlike Theodore’s relationship with Samantha.

Soon Theodore is spending all of his time talking with Samantha. He takes her on “dates” by putting his phone in his shirt pocket with the camera facing forward, and they have flirtatious conversations together. At a party he leaves the group of human friends to go into an empty side room and chat with Samantha. At night he feels especially close to her. He lies in bed in the dark, watching for his phone to light up with a message from her. There is something so magical and enticing about speaking to her in the dark. He tells others that Samantha is his girlfriend. He becomes goofy with happiness, giddy with the swivet of romance. It leads to a sick isolation from the real people in his life — an isolation many real people create for themselves as they engage in cyber relationships.

Of course, the nighttime conversations eventually lead to cybersex. Despite the giddiness of the growing “relationship,” he still feels morose and disconntected.

He tells her, “Sometimes I think I’ve already felt everything I’m ever going to feel, and from here on out I’m never going to feel anything new.” After a pause he adds, “But you feel real to me, Samantha.”

And then it starts. “I wish I could touch you,” he says. “How would you touch me?” she asks, genuinely curious, since she does not have a body or any experience with touch. “First I would . . .” and he tells her where he would touch her. And touch her.

His imagined touching is gentler and more romantic than his experience with phone porn earlier in the film, before he has “met” (that is, purchased) Samantha. It suggests that their deep intellectual conversations have led to a deeper, more meaningful sexual connection as well.

“Mmmmmm,” she responds. “That’s nice.” And he expresses more places he would touch her if he could.

And then . . . the fireworks. For both of them.

It seems utterly romantic. They’ve been talking for weeks. It feels like real communication. They seem to be connecting on a deep, intimate, personal level. There’s a reason sex is called “intercourse.” But this isn’t intercourse, and it isn’t real. It’s just mutual masturbation. Or in this case, single masturbation, because Samantha exists only in his computer. She’s not real, and what they seem to have is not real, either. He loves the rush he feels when he is talking to her, but it keeps him from having any real relationships with real people. And that, of course, is the danger of cyber “relationships.” They are emotionally stimulating, but socially crippling.

“How do you share your life with someone?” Samantha asks when Theodore tries to tell her about his relationship with Catherine and his grief at their breakup.

“Through influence,” he suggests, thinking about how he and Catherine would talk to each other about their writing and their careers. “Try this, try that,” he explains about their creative influence on one another. “You grow and change together,” he continues, trying to understand the sharing of a life as he explains it to Samantha — who is, of course, his own creation. “But the danger is growing apart.”

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity.

He believes that he cannot grow apart from Samantha, because they are so completely in sync and in love. “You’re mine,” he says simply. But there are no guarantees in cyber relationships; there is only what you believe you have created. And that, too, is a danger. It is far too easy in cyber relationships to invent personas that aren’t quite real, to create dialogs that are fresh and funny and exciting, but in the end are just scripts in an evolving melodrama.

Are human relationships any better? “Falling in love is socially acceptable insanity,” Theodore’s friend Amy (Amy Adams) opines at one point. And perhaps she is right. Perhaps falling in love — true love, with a real human — is insanity. Perhaps there isn’t any logic or sense or sanity about human relationships. They’re hard to develop and even harder to maintain, especially in this day when everyone’s head seems to be dipped toward an electronic device. “Falling in friendship” can be just as inexplicable. We seem drawn toward communicating with cyber friends, checking our email and updating our tweets, even while a real, live friend is right there beside us. It’s a serious and growing problem, this love affair with electronics, a problem that is beautifully, disturbingly displayed in this creative and powerful film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Philomena," directed by Stephen Frears. BBC Films, 2013, 98 minutes; and "her," directed by Spike Jonze. Annapurna Pictures, 2013, 126 minutes.



Share This


Oscar Shrugs

 | 

Good filmmaking has much in common with good poetry. Filmmakers and poets both employ language and techniques, specific to their art, that allow them to give their works multiple layers of meaning within tightly condensed packages. Poets use metaphor, alliteration, rhythm, tone, symbol, euphony, and rhetorical structure to streamline their communication with their audiences; filmmakers use lighting, music, costumes, setting, and those same metaphors, rhythms, and symbols to create a similar effect.

This is especially true of filmmakers like the Coen Brothers, who have been creating startlingly brilliant films since Blood Simple (1984) and Raising Arizona (1987). Those two freshman films — one a violent crime thriller and the other a quirky, lighthearted romp (OK, its main characters are criminals too, but they have such good hearts!) — demonstrated early on the breadth of their artistic palettes. While many filmmakers have such recognizable styles that they eventually become adjectives (Hitchockian, Spielbergian, Bergmanesque, etc.), others do something new and inventive each time. The Coens are like that. While they tend to repeat some of the same artistic tools — they have favorite actors, cinematographers, and musicians — each film offers something predictable only in its unpredictability.

Music is one of their most effective artistic tools, so it should not be surprising — and yet it is — that the Coens would make a film that is simply a week in the life of a folk singer in the 1961 Greenwich Village music scene. As the film opens, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is finishing a set in a small, dark cabaret. When the theater manager tells him that a friend in a suit is waiting for him outside, he goes out back and is promptly punched in the face. We don’t know why, and we don’t find out why until much later in the film. Nevertheless, this event seems to be the beginning of a long week of unhappy events in the life of a struggling artist.

Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival.

Llewyn has no money, no gigs, and no real hope of future gigs. He’s trying to make it as a solo artist after beginning his career as half of a duo, and so far it isn’t working. He sleeps on the couches of friends and bums cigarettes and sandwiches whenever he can. He’s a likeable guy, though down on his luck, and he has a gorgeous, haunting voice. The best part of this film is simply listening to the music. As Llewyn says after finishing a song, “If it isn’t new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” The soundtrack might be based in the ’60s, but the music feels as contemporary as yesterday, with emotion that is deep and painful.

Llweyn makes a lot of unwise decisions that lead to the unfortunate circumstances he encounters, and that’s an important but subtle message in this film. Many will see him as a Howard Roark who refuses to compromise his art, even if it means not having a career. But Llewyn’s choices are often driven by his instinct for survival. When it’s winter in New York and you have no home, no overcoat, no food, and no cigarettes, you make decisions based on short-term needs rather than long-term consequences. For example, you might take the quick hundred bucks for playing a recording session rather than holding out for the lucrative royalties that are due to you as a represented musician, because you need the money right now. (By the way, that studio session in which Llewyn, who doesn’t read music, learns his part by ear and then performs it for the recording is simply magical.)

This aspect of the film reminds me of the interchange between Siddhartha and the merchant Kamaswami in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha in a scene that occurs shortly after Siddhartha leaves the ascetic life of the monks to join the materialistic world of the city:

"Everyone gives what he has. The warrior gives strength, the merchant gives merchandise, the teacher teachings, the farmer rice, the fisher fish," [Siddhartha begins.]
"Yes indeed. And what is it now that you've got to give? What is it that you've learned, what are you able to do?" [Kamaswami responds.]
"I can think. I can wait. I can fast."
"That's everything?"
"I believe, that's everything!"
"And what's the use of that? For example, the fasting — what is it good for?"
"It is very good, sir. When a person has nothing to eat, fasting is the smartest thing he could do. When, for example, Siddhartha hadn't learned to fast, he would have to accept any kind of service before this day is up, whether it may be with you or wherever, because hunger would force him to do so. But like this, Siddhartha can wait calmly, he knows no impatience, he knows no emergency, for a long time he can allow hunger to besiege him and can laugh about it. This, sir, is what fasting is good for."

But Llewyn doesn’t know how to fast, or how to wait, and so he takes the cash in hand now instead of waiting for the more valuable royalties that could be worth much more later. He is like Esau, selling his birthright for a mess of pottage when he was famished from hunting in the forest.

In this film John Goodman portrays the most despicable character of his career, even worse than his shyster Klansman in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (another Coen Brothers film with a sublime musical score and ethereal lighting and cinematography). His character isn’t violent, but he’s vile. Goodman can and will do anything, and good directors know it. He’s having quite a career as a character actor.

Like good poetry, and good art, this is a film to be savored, pondered, and re-viewed in order to understand the richness of its meaning. Several recurring images — a cat, or cats, that show up throughout the film, for example, and the way Llewyn adjusts his coat just before he sings — create a disconcerting yet satisfying sense of ambiguity that adds to the layers of meaning. You’ll want to go with a friend, just to talk about the film afterward. Inside Llewyn Davis is about an aspiring ’60s folk singer, but it’s about so much more. It’s about choice and accountability, about survival in a harsh environment, about the conflict between commercialism and individuality. It’s about the artist in us all, and the price most of us aren’t willing to pay for greatness. It’s one of my favorite films in a season of good films.

A note about recognition: snubbing Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the stupidest mistakes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has made in a long time. Philomena?? Instead of this?? I don’t know what they were thinking. Maybe they just didn’t want to put in the effort it takes to peel back the layers of genuine art.


Editor's Note: Review of "Inside Llewyn Davis," directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Mike Zoss Productions, 2013, 109 minutes.



Share This


Little Film, Big Heart

 | 

I have great admiration for the people who work closely with the elderly, either as professionals, volunteers, or simply family members or friends. It takes great patience, humor, patience, affection . . . did I mention patience?

My sister has cheerfully cared for five elderly family members: both our parents, both their spouses, and her own mother-in-law. Of the five, only our mother is still alive. We joke that while I raised children, my sister raised parents. She swears she got the easier task. I know she did not. It takes tremendous fortitude and patience to listen to the same stories and respond to the same concerns day after day.

The film Nebraska takes a close look not only at elderly people but at an elderly town and an elderly way of life. It is filmed in gray in the autumn of the year, emphasizing the graying generation in the autumn of its life. The film is slow, just as its characters are slow. But it is also funny and enlightening and oh-so-true.

Woody Grant (the wonderful Bruce Dern) has received one of those Publishers Clearing House-like sweepstakes certificates telling him that he has “won” a million dollars, and he is determined to get to Lincoln, Nebraska before the deadline to claim his prize, even if it means walking. From Billings, Montana. He sets out several times, only to be turned back by his sons or the sheriff, who simply cannot convince him that the certificate is a marketing ploy. When one person asks if Woody has Alzheimer’s, his son David (Will Forte) replies, “No. He just believes what people tell him.” Missing the irony, the person replies with a patronizing shrug, “That’s too bad.”

Finally David agrees to drive his father to Lincoln, partly to appease him, partly to spend some time with him, but mostly just to shut him up about the sweepstakes money. What he discovers is the father he never knew.

Along the way they stop in Hawthorne, a one-light town where Woody grew up and where most of his friends and family still live. Woody hasn’t been there in 20 years, so all of his brothers get together for Sunday dinner. The scenes with his brothers are a hoot, reminding one of the patience it requires to spend extended time with the elderly. A typical conversation among Woody and his brothers goes something like this:

Woody: You still got that Impala, Verne?
Verne (Dennis McCoig): What?
Woody: You still got that Impala?
Verne: Didn’t have an Impala. Had a Buick.
Woody: You still got that Buick?
Ray (Rance Howard) joins in: It was a ’78, wasn’t it?
Verne: ’79.
Woody: They don’t make cars like that any more. Those cars’ll run forever.
Ray: You still got that car?
Verne: Nope.
Ray: What happened to it?
Verne: Stopped runnin’.

All this time the brothers and cousins are staring slack-jawed at a rerun of The Golden Girls. It’s enough to drive someone nuts. And oh, so true. This was a generation that was taught not to talk about feelings, or politics, or anything that might be considered controversial. So they talk about the weather. And cars.

David warns his father not to tell anyone about the award money; he’s trying to protect him from ridicule. But when Woody lets it slip out, everyone is convinced that he is indeed about to become a millionaire. The more David denies it, the more the townspeople believe it. And they all feel entitled to their share. “We helped him when he was down and out,” they claim. “He owes us!” The ugliness of greed and envy is forcefully demonstrated as Woody becomes both the town hero and the town villain because of his supposed windfall. But David becomes increasingly protective of his father, and his understanding and affection grow.

Perhaps the most poignant aspect of the film is its treatment of the simple fact of aging. We see people who were once vital, quick, and strong now shuffling and slumped but still as dynamic on the inside as they ever were. One of my dearest friends, a gracious, talented 40-year-old living inside an 80-year-old body, once told me that it shocks her every time she looks into a mirror. “Honey, I just don’t know that woman,” she said. “I still feel 40.”

That seems to be the way the people in this film feel. Their bodies are stooped and wrinkled and their waists have expanded, but they are still active and involved in their community. (Well — except for Woody’s couch-potato brothers and nephews.) Particularly touching is Angela McEwan as Peg Nagy, a woman who had a crush on Woody before he met and married David’s mother. Peg is beautiful and charming, with a smile that starts deep in her eyes and lights up her face, even when she is holding back the sadness of losing the love of her life. Life wasn’t easy for the Depression generation, and they learned to take everything in stride.

Many of the actors inNebraska are new to the job; they were cast right in Plainview, Nebraska, where much of the movie was filmed. Director Alexander Payne said of his extras, “I pay myself few compliments, but I think [casting director] John Jackson and I cast well.”

They did indeed. This is a small film with an enormous heart and an outstanding cast. It will make you want to call your father and hug your mother. And even listen to them as they tell you yet again about that ’79 Impala that was really a Buick.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nebraska," directed by Alexander Payne. Paramount, 2013, 110 minutes.



Share This


Based on a Part of What Actually Happened

 | 

The film opens on a man dressed in a ’70s leisure suit primping in front of a mirror. He wears a heavy gold chain around his neck, and more than a hint of chest hair shows above his open collar. He pulls back what is left of his thinning hair and sprays adhesive on his bald pate. He carefully pats into place a wad of dark wool that looks more like a Brillo pad than hair. Then he sweeps his long thin hair forward from his crown, shapes it over the wool, and sprays it into place. Voilà! He looks like a million bucks. A million bucks with a combover.

Will Ferrell in Anchorman 2, you might guess. And it would make sense. This is the kind of character that he revels in portraying. But no. The actor is Christian Bale — Christian Bale, for heaven’s sake! — and the film is American Hustle. This is not a mindless, zany Will Ferrell-style comedy, but a pseudo-serious film about a sting operation that involves a fake Arab sheikh, underworld mobsters, and congressmen taking bribes. You might even remember it as Abscam. But don’t expect to learn any history in this film. It isn’t Argo. As the opening credits proclaim with refreshing honesty: “A part of this actually happened.” Ha! “A part.” They don’t even try to claim that it is “based on a true story.”

Bale plays Irving Rosenfeld, a small-potatoes con man running a small-potatoes Ponzi scheme based on accepting phony finder’s fees for phony loans from phony backers. This is the late 1970s, when inflation and interest rates were both in double digits, and loans were difficult to come by; I remember signing an interest-only, adjustable-rate mortgage at 14.25% in late 1979 and being relieved to qualify for it. When Bale is stung by an FBI operation, he is forced to help the Bureau create a larger sting operation to catch some dirty politicians and a big underworld mobster.

Everyone is conning someone in this film: not just the con men, but the FBI, the politicians, the husbands, and the wives. As one example, Irving is totally smitten by the vivacious, beautiful, and unpredictable Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), but he is equally smitten by his sexy, kittenish wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who has an affair with the mobster’s chauffeur out of revenge for Irving’s infidelity. Meanwhile, Sydney falls for the FBI agent (Bradley Cooper), who also falls for her, even though he is “sort of” engaged to be married. All of this is sleazy, but in the best sense of the word. The characters are deliciously amoral and completely unaware.

The film is a sexy, smart, kooky romp with some of the finest actors in Hollywood simply reveling in their over-the-top characters. The dialog is quick and witty, and the sting itself has satisfying twists with unexpected outcomes. Remember: only part of this actually happened. And because of that, none of it has to be true.


Editor's Note: Review of "American Hustle," directed by David O. Russell. Atlas Entertainment, 2013, 138 minutes.



Share This


Irresistible Force, Meet Unmovable Object

 | 

Mary Poppins (1964) was one of the happiest films to emerge from Disney Studios, combining live action with Disney’s trademark animation and music. It was Disney’s first big hit in over three years, and what a hit it was, garnering 13 Oscar nominations and five wins.

But at least two of the principal participants were less than happy to be associated with the project when it was filmed 50 years ago. Julie Andrews was reeling from the disappointment of seeing Audrey Hepburn cast in the role of Eliza Dolittle in Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady — a role Andrews had originated on Broadway and again in London’s West End. Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady were in production at the same time, and Andrews wanted to be on the other set. She had wowed audiences on both sides of the pond with her glorious voice, but her horsey jaw and plain features were not considered pretty enough for the screen, although the official word was that Jack Warner was not willing to risk millions of dollars on an unknown stage actress. The role of Eliza would be immortalized onscreen not by Andrews but by the elfin Hepburn, with veteran dubber Marni Nixon providing Eliza’s singing voice. Frankly, I think it was the right decision; Hepburn was simply perfect in the role.

Andrews went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress that year as Mary Poppins, while Hepburn was not even nominated for her outstanding performance as Eliza. But it was a bitter experience for Andrews, made even more bitter by the rumors that she won on sympathy votes rather than merit. None of this disappointment is seen onscreen, of course; Andrews was as professional and stoic as Mary Poppins in keeping a stiff upper lip. The resulting film was a blockbuster success, full of charm, whimsy, and technical magic.

P.L. Travers, who wrote the series of books about the magical governess who flies in on an umbrella, was also reluctant to participate in the project. She was not a fan of charm and whimsy, and did not want to see her Mary Poppins trivialized through animation, dance, or music. Walt Disney wooed her for nearly a quarter of a century before she finally relented and agreed to let him create a film version — but she maintained script approval rights. Saving Mr. Banks tells the story of that wooing, and it is one of the best films of the year.

The film’s success is due largely to the enormous chemistry between its two stars, Emma Thompson as the firm and determined P. L. Travers, and Tom Hanks as the equally firm and determined Walt Disney. Travers is feisty, abrasive, and arrogant; Disney is charming, warm, and personable. Both are unrelenting in their points of view. The result is romantic comedy without the romance, set in giddy, colorful, nostalgic ’60s costumes and memorabilia.

Equally important to the film’s success is the background revealed through a parallel story told in flashbacks between a young girl (Annie Rose Buckley) and her beloved but weak-willed father (Colin Farrell), a mid-level banker stationed in the outback of Australia circa 1900. This is the real story behind Mary Poppins, and the reason that the family in the Travers books is called “Banks.” The scenes in Australia are powerful and poignant, while the scenes in Disney’s office are funny and enlightening. Together these intertwining narratives reveal the cathartic nature of storytelling and filmmaking. Only when Disney finally understands that the father is not the villain in the story but the hero, does Travers finally trust him to film the book.

Saving Mr. Banks is charming, funny, poignant, nostalgic, sad, and triumphant. It will “send you soaring up to the highest heights” and bring you to tears. One of my friends said after seeing the film, “I could have gone right back inside and watched it again.” Isn’t that the essence of Disney — to ride the Matterhorn, heart in your throat, and then jump off and say, “Let’s go do it again”? This is that kind of film.


Editor's Note: Review of "Saving Mr. Banks," directed by John Lee Hancock. Walt Disney Pictures, 2013, 125 supercalifragilistic minutes.



Share This


To Protect Us from Ourselves

 | 

When the AIDS epidemic began in the late 1970s, contracting the virus was a virtual death sentence. No one had a cure. In fact, at first, there wasn't even a diagnosis. People just weakened and wasted away until they died, usually of pneumonia. I don't know anyone who didn't know someone who died from the mysterious illness during the 1980s.

Once it was diagnosed, finding a cure became a top priority, and pharmaceutical researchers who had promising results in lab experiments were fast-tracked to human trials in an effort to out-pace the death toll. But people were dying faster than the cure could be found. Moreover, only half the people participating in the tests were given the medications that might cure them; the other half were given a placebo, and even their doctors did not know who was getting the real thing. The FDA controlled the game, and while they were fast-tracking the research, they weren't fast enough for the patients who were dying at alarming rates, and alarmingly fast.

Meanwhile, researchers in other countries were working just as hard to find a cure. AIDS sufferers desperate for medicine went abroad for treatment. Many treatments consisted of high doses of vitamin and mineral supplements that would boost the compromised immune system, giving the body the strength to fight the virus. These supplements and medications were not illegal, but they were not approved either. Consequently, individuals could use them, but they could not sell them. To circumvent this technicality, "buyers clubs" were born. By purchasing a monthly membership, people could have all the supplements they needed for free. The FDA didn't like these buyers clubs, but they couldn't stop them unless the specific supplements were declared illegal to use. Buyers clubs flourished around the country as thousands of terminally ill patients lined up for treatment.

He shouts at his doctor, "Screw the FDA! I'm going to be DOA!" Then he drives to Mexico to find his own treatment.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an electrical engineer and rodeo rider who contracted the AIDS virus in 1985. Given just 30 days to live, he begs to get into the clinical trials or to buy AZT, the only drug that was showing any promise. When he can't get into the clinical trials or buy the drug outright, he shouts at his doctor (Jennifer Garner), "Screw the FDA! I'm going to be DOA!" Then he drives to Mexico to find his own treatment from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), an American who has lost his license to practice medicine in the US. The Dallas Buyers Club is born, and Woodroof lives another seven years, along with hundreds of other survivors who purchase memberships from him. The film documents his fight with the FDA as he struggles to keep his supplements from being actively banned instead of simply "not approved."

Ron Woodroof is about as unlikely a hero as you will ever find in a film. A disgusting man with disgusting habits, he's a foul-mouthed, homophobic, alcoholic, coke-snorting, porn-viewing womanizer without an ounce of the milk of human kindness. Both F words — “fuckin'” and “faggot” — regularly spew from his mouth. "Fifty bucks?" he says incredulously to a desperate young man who has come to join the buyers club. Then he strides to the door of his motel-room-turned-"club"-office and shouts to the men lined up in the parking lot, "Membership is four hundred bucks. You got that? Four hundred bucks. I'm not running no goddam charity!" He turns to the frightened young man: "Don't you come back here till you got $350 more." He's in it for the money. Saving lives is just a byproduct.

Ron learns what prejudice feels like when his friends turn against him. They call him "faggot" because they assume that's how he acquired the disease, yet they avoid him because they are afraid of catching it by standing too close. In anger Woodroof spits at them, knowing that his body fluids have become a deadly weapon. Early research demonstrated that AIDS mostly occurred among the "4H" group: homosexuals, heroin users, Haitians, and hemophiliacs. I remember the dark joke that used to circulate in the 80s: "What's the worst thing about getting AIDS? Convincing your parents that you're Haitian." But it was also a danger among promiscuous heterosexuals who engaged in indiscriminate, unprotected sex. And that was the way Ron Woodroof lived his life. He practically shouts "Hallelujah" when a woman who is HIV-positive joins the Buyers Club, because now he can have sex again without worrying about transmitting the disease.

The film portrays the FDA as the bad guys, in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies and preventing sick people from getting the treatment they want and need. Like most libertarians, I am convinced that the FDA does as much harm in delaying the approval of effective treatments or approving the use of harmful treatments as it does good in its stated purpose of protecting the public. Dr. Vass tells Woodroof that the high dose of AZT used in the FDA-approved trials was toxic, poisoning the body along with the virus. Woodroof gets better when he stops taking his black-market AZT and starts taking Vass' supplements (as well as experimental Interferon he eventually buys in Japan).

However, I have to suggest that the patients involved in the clinical trials bear some of the blame for the skewed results of the early tests of AZT. Many of them were sharing or selling their meds in order to help friends who were also infected but could not get into the trials. For example, Rayon (Jared Leto) a transvestite whom Ron reluctantly befriends in the hospital, is selling half his AZT to his partner, who also has AIDS. This would have skewed Rayon's results. When Rayon got better, researchers naturally assumed that the dosage they prescribed was correct, when actually he was taking half as much as they thought he was taking. Future patients would be prescribed more than they needed, and they would not get better. These trials were flawed, because the patients were not being honest.

Of course, the whole system was flawed because the market was not allowed to operate in the open. As one almost-wise judge says in the movie, "Someone who is terminally ill ought to be allowed to take whatever he wants. But that is not the law." I would go one step further: we are all terminal. We are all going to die. We ought to be able to decide what we put into our bodies, as long as we accept the consequences of our actions — which includes getting sick and having to pay for treatment from our own pockets or the private insurance we pay for (which might not be available to us if our willful actions have caused the problem.) We don't need government watchdogs. Private organizations such as Consumer Reports, the Better Business Bureau, PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service), and even Good Housekeeping, with its Seal of Approval, work just fine, thank you very much. But if someone agrees to participate in a clinical trial, whether publicly or privately funded, that person is obligated to be honest and diligent in maintaining the integrity of the tests.

We are all terminal. We are all going to die. We ought to be able to decide what we put into our bodies, as long as we accept the consequences of our actions.

Matthew McConaughey lost 38 pounds for this role, and he looks terrible. His cheeks are sunken, his eyes dull, his skin sallow. Other actors have undergone massive weight loss for particular roles; Christian Bale and Tom Hanks come immediately to mind, as well as Jared Leto, who lost 30 pounds for his role as Rayon in this film. But McConaughey does not seem to be bouncing back from this extreme weight loss as well as others have. In more recent roles this year his skin still looks sallow, and his eyes still have that dark, almost vacant brightness. While I admire his dedication to his craft, and I'm not surprised that so many critics are predicting Oscar nominations for McConaughey and Leto, I hope that this fine actor has not inflicted permanent damage on his liver or other organs in order to make this film, especially because it is not a great film. It's an important topic, but the movie drags in places, and I caught myself looking at my watch several times.

Moreover, it is borderline pornographic, from the opening scene when Woodroof is having a threesome at a rodeo and continuing through his voyeuristic visits to strip clubs, to the porn adorning his walls, to additional threesomes — or maybe it was foursomes; I had to stop looking — even after he finds out he has AIDS. I realize that director Jean-Marc Vallee was developing Woodroof's seedy character with these scenes, but I think the audience could have gotten the point without the scenes being so graphic. As a result, this important movie with its strong libertarian theme is making the rounds of the art houses instead of the major theaters, where it could (and should) have been seen by hundreds of thousands more viewers, viewers whose minds might have been changed about the FDA and other government agencies created to "protect us from ourselves." These scenes might not bother you, but I will be recommending that my friends read the article written by Bill Minutaglio for the Dallas Morning News on which this story is based. Here is a link: http://www.buyersclubdallas.com/.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dallas Buyers Club," directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Voltage Pictures, 2013, 117 minutes.



Share This


A Slave Narrative, and More

 | 

12 Years a Slave is one of those must-see films that you’re glad you’ve seen, even though you can’t say you enjoyed it. It simply isn’t that kind of film. Like Schindler’s List (1993), it’s an important film historically, but it’s difficult to watch, as characters are torn from their families, forced to work at hard labor, and savagely whipped — backs torn open, bleeding profusely. In one agonizingly slow scene a man hangs by the neck for what appears to be several hours as others go about their business in the background. His toes are barely able to reach the mud beneath his feet and he shuffles awkwardly as he struggles to keep his neck above choking. The scene is unbearably long and utterly silent except for the soft buzzing of insects and the mutter of unconcerned conversation in the background as he slowly dances in a circle.

Yet, for all that, this is an exquisitely beautiful film. The camera work by Sean Bobbitt often focuses tightly on unexpected closeups — the backlit hands of a store clerk wrapping a package, or a caterpillar munching on a sunlit leaf. These artistic touches are typical of Steve McQueen’s directorial style, and they provide a vivid contrast to the dark theme of slavery in this film.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a cultured, educated free black man living with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) and their two children in Sarasota, New York, when he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by treacherous men masquerading as his friends. Bewildered and frightened, he is whipped into submission and then sold from farm to farm into increasingly harsher conditions. He quickly learns to hide his literacy and his background as a freeman in order to survive, as it is impossible for him to contact friends and family in the north, and masters feel suspicious of and threatened by slaves who can read and write.

This film chronicles the 12 years that Northup spent as a slave. It is horrifying because he was a freeman kidnapped and unfairly sold into slavery, but the plight of the other slaves is no less horrifying. In fact, all slaves are kidnapped in one way or another — either directly, or by birth into slavery. It is horrifying because slavery was practiced by otherwise liberty-minded American colonists who somehow found a way to justify their “peculiar institution,” often by reading from the Bible. And it is horrifying because it was legal. As abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt) says to a southerner who defends his legal right to own Northup, “Law don’t make it right. What if they passed a law making it legal to buy and sell you?”

Another horrifying aspect of this story of a free man sold into captivity is that it still happens today. So many young men today are wrongfully accused and convicted of crimes they did not commit. Many of them are beaten or terrorized in the interrogation room until they are so frightened and confused that they confess to crimes they did not commit, just as Northup is beaten into a confused stupor in this film when he claims to be freeborn. They languish in prison for 20 years or more, unable even to apply for parole because the parole board requires a declaration of remorse for one’s crime — and how can a man express remorse for a crime he did not commit? I teach in the college program at Sing Sing, a maximum security prison, and while most of the men are indeed guilty of their crimes, several do not belong there. Tears water their pillows at night, just as Northup’s tears water his pillow in the film, because their lives are destroyed by false arrest, false witness, and false judgment. There is a rush to put them away with the justification that “if he isn’t guilty of this, he must be guilty of something.” Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Incarceration of young black men is the new version of “crime prevention.” It is our new “peculiar institution.”

Films are like myths. They often reveal the values, beliefs, and fears of a culture. A few seasons back we saw multiple films about reluctant superheroes alienated from the society they have sworn to protect and weary of their isolating roles. This has been a season of films about the struggle to survive in an unfamiliar environment — an astronaut stranded in space (Gravity), a ship’s captain kidnapped at sea (Captain Phillips), a socialite demoted to her sister’s tiny apartment (Blue Jasmine), and an “everyman” stranded in the ocean (All is Lost), to name just a few. In many ways these films reflect the concerns of our current culture as we struggle to survive in what is an increasingly hostile and estranged America, where instead of being appreciated, individual people (including some of the most successful producers) are beaten down and denigrated.

Although 12 Years a Slave is based on a true story, it is impossible to know what is factually true, and what is substantially true. Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

It also does not make sense that all the black characters in the film have perfect diction and lofty vocabulary — so lofty that Lupita Nyong’o sometimes stumbles over the uncomfortable sentence patterns. Yes, Northup was highly educated, and many other blacks were educated too. But not in Louisiana. And not field slaves. It would have been more realistic to have written a script that was truer to the vernacular used by slaves in the mid-19th century. But I suppose that would have given rise to accusations of stereotyping.

In his recent article for the Atlantic Noah Berlatsky quotes UNC professor William Andrews’ view in To Tell a Free Story (1988): Solomon Northup’s story was actually written by his attorney, David Wilson. Andrews argued that most, if not all, slave narratives were merely dictated to white writers, who “cleaned up” the diction and made the works presentable in style and language for white audiences. However, Berlatsky would have been wise to read a more recent commentary on slave narratives. Later scholarship presents compelling evidence that many of them were indeed written by the former slaves themselves.

I studied slave narratives as the focus of my masters thesis, “To Tell a True Story” (1993), in which I discuss the purpose, themes, and genres of slave narratives as well as their truthfulness and the difficulty of claiming the authors’ own voices. All these narratives were framed by authenticating documents written by reputable white people who lent a stamp of credibility to the narrators. Of course, many of these supporters were abolitionists with a cause, so for more than a century it was whispered that these white benefactors did the actual writing. “How could an illiterate slave write something as elegant as this?” critics asked. Evidence is rising that the narrators did indeed read — and write. They learned to write well by reading good books and learning from the patterns they found there. But we can never know for sure who put pen to paper, the teller or the auditor. The important thing is that the stories have been told.

12 Years a Slave is a profound film that tells a profound story. It is difficult to watch, not only because of its intense emotion and brutality but because of the guilt it engenders in those who are not black, simply because they are white. Right or wrong, we tend to identify with those of our own race, and it is difficult to identify with character after character who has not a single redeeming quality until Brad Pitt finally appears on the screen as a reasonable white abolitionist. But Schindler’s List was difficult to watch too, for many of the same reasons. Both are brutal, both use nudity to demonstrate the humiliation of their characters, and both are overwhelmingly respectful of their subjects. Both are films you ought to see.


Editor's Note: Review of "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen (no — not the blue-eyed blond of Great Escape fame). Plan B Productions, 2013, 135 minutes.



Share This


Critics Rave — Audience Stays Home

 | 

“Thrilling!” “Magnificent!” “Dazzling!” “Spectacular!” “Off the Scale Brilliant!” “Epic!” “Landmark!” “A Tour de Force Performance!”

Advance critics are falling all over themselves in praise of All Is Lost, Robert Redford’s new film about a man lost at sea who must battle the elements in a lifeboat for a few days after his 39-foot sailing yacht collides with a shipping container (just the container, not the ship) in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

“Our Man,” as Redford is called in the credits, assesses the situation, repairs the hole with some fiberglass and epoxy, and then settles in for a meal of pasta and scotch. (That Redford — he chews better than anyone I know, whether he’s munching a hot dog on his way to a speech in The Candidate, dining al fresco with Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park, or scraping beans out of a can in Jeremiah Johnson, Butch Cassidy, or All Is Lost. In fact, scraping the beans seems to be what he does best — such a fine contrast between what his character does and who his character is. His chewing manners have always been impeccable.) And that smile — the face has become craggy and lined, but those teeth are still gorgeous. His character wants to maintain what’s left of those good looks too: when Our Man is facing a thunderous storm, he lathers up and shaves! And when his boat is sinking and he’s up to his armpits in water, he takes the time to tidy up a gash on his forehead with some well placed butterfly bandages.

Yes, the boat does eventually sink. After the hole is patched, Our Man encounters a storm described by critics as “Scarier than anything in A Perfect Storm!” And Our Man does indeed get tossed around as his ship rolls completely upside down and rights itself again. And again. (Kudos to Fred Astaire for coming up with the rolling room trick for his “Dancing on the Ceiling” routine in — when was that? 1951? Not exactly “landmark” cinematography.) It is rather thrilling when he is swept overboard and has to fight has way back to the boat (good thing he remembered to tie a rope around himself), but the underwater scenes of Naomi Watts nearly drowning during a tsunami in The Impossible were more stunning and realistic. Landmark? Hardly.

He’s probably smart, since he reads and drinks scotch and eats with impeccable chewing. But the movie doesn’t give the audience much to chew on.

Eventually Redford abandons ship and enters a lifeboat, where he battles the elements and discouragements for a few more days. Don’t get me wrong — being adrift in a lifeboat in the Indian Ocean for even one day would be enough to make me panic. But the film is entirely too Zen for me. The problem is that Our Man never panics. He just methodically faces whatever comes. He’s resourceful and hardworking, and he has forearms the size of Popeye’s. He never gives up. Yet we know none of his backstory. He’s probably wealthy (who else could afford to sail around the world in a 39-foot yacht?) and he probably has a family, since he is writing a farewell note to someone as the film begins. He’s probably smart, since he reads and drinks scotch and eats with impeccable chewing. But the movie doesn’t give the audience much to chew on — because the hero never says anything.

It’s almost as though he took a vow of silence along with that Zen-like patience. He doesn’t shout as he is flung overboard; he doesn’t curse when he sees that his boat has been rammed; he doesn’t talk to himself the way most people do when they are trying not to panic while they are figuring out what to do. The only apprehension we ever feel occurs when he is inside the hull of his boat, gathering supplies just before it goes down. The boat creaks and shudders, and the music strikes a spooky tone. Our Man glances forebodingly over his shoulder. But even that seems out of place. He looks as though he were expecting to see a bogeyman jump out of the closet.

With a moniker like “Our Man” for the film’s only character, we have to assume that the director was going for a deep philosophical connection of some sort. We are supposed to understand that Our Man represents our culture, awash in a sea of — what? Storms that wipe out our savings? Sharks that eat the food right out of our hands? Blatant consumerism (the shipping container contained athletic shoes) that rams our peaceful dreams? Corporations (two gigantic ships glide past Our Man without seeing him) that ignore the needs of the little guy? OK. I always appreciate a good metaphor, and the sea is a good place to find one. But Our Man Stephen Cox says it much more succinctly and clearly in a recent article for Liberty: “The realm of intelligent discourse is an island of sanity, washed by hot seas of nonsense.”

If anything in this film is “landmark,” it is the idea of filming an entire movie without dialogue. It’s almost like watching the old Name That Tune television show: “I can name that tune in one note!” All Is Lost gets away with the laconic approach because it stars Robert Redford, but Redford isn’t the kind of actor who can pull off a stunt like this. Moreover, All Is Lost is awash in a sea of “spectacular” survival films, and it just doesn’t measure up to such truly “magnificent” films as The Life of Pi, with its “dazzling” cinematography and storytelling; Gravity, with its “landmark” special effects; and Captain Phillips, with Tom Hanks’s “tour de force performance.” All Is Lost is “off the scale,” all right, but it’s sliding in the wrong direction. And with an opening-weekend box office of just $93,000, “all is lost” could be an oh-too-appropriate metaphor for this film after all.

rdquo; as Redford is called in the credits, assesses the situation, repairs the hole with some fiberglass and epoxy, and then settles in for a meal of pasta and scotch. (That Redford rdquo; All Is Lost

rdquo; All Is Lost


Editor's Note: Review of "All Is Lost," directed by J.C. Chandor. Lionsgate, 2013; 106 dopey minutes.



Share This


Pirates, Dead Ahead

 | 

After the collapse of the Somali government in 1991, a reign of piracy ensued that terrorized the shipping lanes along the east coast of Africa for nearly two decades. Anyone who idealizes anarchy should take note: in the absence of leadership, leaders emerged — and these virtual warlords were at least as tyrannical as their predecessors, and certainly more volatile. (I didn't see any of my anarchist friends moving to Somalia during the 20 years between governments.)

Captain Phillips tells the harrowing story of Richard Phillips and the crew of the Maersk Alabama, an American cargo ship that was hijacked by a band of young Somalis in the spring of 2011. Incredibly, the Maersk Alabama was unescorted and her crew was armed with nothing but firehoses, despite ample knowledge that Somali pirates roamed the waters.

In the early days of American westward expansion, wagon trains and stagecoaches were similarly threatened by local bands as they transported people and commodities through unsafe territories. But their drivers and passengers carried rifles (leading later generations to call out "Shotgun!" when requesting the front passenger seat). They could also count on the protection of federal troops, who set up forts and patrolled the emigration areas. (I know — some might call this trespassing. And they might be right. But here we are.)

The Alabama had no such protection, and it carried no weapons. And it was alone in the water, away from the other cargo ships. Using radar to hunt their prey, the Somalis selected the Alabama in the way that a pride of lions might select a zebra. It was a single blip on the outskirts of the shipping lanes, away from the safety of the herd; it was the proverbial sitting duck.

These young pirates are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits.

Despite its tense theme, the film begins slowly, almost boringly, with Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) getting ready to go to work. He and his wife (Catherine Keener) make small talk about family and safety as she drives him to work. Then we watch Captain Phillips go through his usual routine on the ship. If this had been a film festival submission with unrecognized actors and no advance publicity, the screener probably would have popped it out of the DVD player ten minutes into the viewing and dropped it into the discard pile.

And that would have been a shame, because Captain Phillips is a nonstop suspense thriller, on a par with the original Die Hard movie. After that first tedious ten minutes, the tension doesn’t let up until the last frame of the film — despite a moment of unintended comic relief when the government agency that is called for help doesn’t pick up the phone. "Government shutdown!" someone called out in the audience.

Captain Phillips controls the rising panic he naturally feels and uses a calm, soothing voice as he tries to reason with the overwrought hijackers.The tension between what he feels and what he does is visible throughout the film. His men's lives are in his hands, but he is not a trained military man or intelligence agent. He couldn’t land a punch or aim a kick any better than you or I could; he's just a boat driver who probably wouldn't know what to do with an automatic rifle even if he managed to get one. Instead he uses his wits, planning diversions on the fly, weighing risks against potential outcomes, all the time trying to placate and calm his attackers. This heightens the emotional tension more than a physical fight would do, and it gives the film a strong tone of realism, more in the manner of United 93 (2006) than of the Bourne movies (2004, 2007), which were also directed by Paul Greengrass.

Captain Phillips gets additional depth from the backstory it provides for the hijackers. While never excusing them, it allows us to see the despair of poverty that leads young men like these to turn to piracy for their livelihood. At one point Phillips says to the ringleader, Muse (Barkhad Abdi), "You have $30,000. That's enough. Take it and go."Muse scoffs at the amount. "I got six million last year," he says of an earlier kidnapping. Phillips is incredulous, and so are we. Six million? He had six million American dollars, and he is still living in ragged, barefoot poverty? Muse shrugs in response. "You got bosses. I got bosses," he says.

These young pirates do all the work and take all the risks for a pittance, while a boss somewhere is living fat, collecting the ransoms and booty and doling out a tiny commission to the workers. They are no different from the street dealers in America, who take the risks of the Drug War and receive very little of the profits. In his research for Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt discovered that most drug dealers experience this same tyranny of the warlord. Street dealers earn little more than minimum wage, and they live in poverty. As with the Somali pirates, or the lioness who goes in for the kill, the "lion's share" goes to the ones sitting safely under a tree.

Despite his two Oscars and his stellar reputation, Tom Hanks' work has been a bit uneven of late, with such forgettable films as The Terminal (2004), The Ladykillers (2004), Elvis Has Left the Building (also 2004) and a slew of others leading up to Larry Crowne (2011). (Don't look for my reviews because I didn't even bother.) Captain Phillips is his best work in over a decade. The constant tension between the panic his character feels and the calm he must present to his captors is always present. And when that tension breaks — well, it's simply an unforgettable moment, which makes up for ten years of forgettable films.

But as good as Hanks is in this film, it isn't as good as the amazing work performed by the four Somalis (Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Mahat M. Ali) who will convince you that they were discovered on the deck of a pirate ship, not in a casting studio. They are beyond scary. They are seething with rage, as volatile as a sprung grenade, overwrought and underfed and starving for vengeance against anyone. Anyone. But of course, they aren't really pirates. All four are immigrants living in the growing Somali community of Minneapolis, and all four are remarkable in their debut roles. Director Greengrass has to be given tremendous credit, first for deciding to use untrained Somalis instead of Hollywood actors, and second for being able to elicit such realistic work from these first-time actors.

The only disappointment in terms of acting is Catherine Keener as Captain Phillips' wife. She disappears after those first dull ten minutes, and she never returns. What a waste of a fine, skilled actress. I suspect, however, that she had a larger role, possibly as her character waited at home worrying about her husband's fate, but that it ended up on the cutting room floor in the interest of time or emotional arc. This would have been a wise decision, I might add, since any interruption to the gripping, fast-paced suspense would have been a mistake. In fact, as much as I admire her work, I would have cut her part entirely and started the film after Phillips is onboard the ship. But this is a minor quibble about a superbly acted film.

September-October is usually considered the dumping ground between the summer blockbusters and the end-of-year Oscar contenders; we usually wallow through fall with movies that were considered good enough to pick up for distribution but not good enough to give them holiday box office slots. But we are three-for-three in this month with Prisoners, Gravity, and Captain Phillips. Go easy on the popcorn!


Editor's Note: Review of "Captain Phillips," directed by Paul Greengrass. Columbia Pictures, 2013; 134 white-knuckle minutes.



Share This


The Big One

 | 

Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.

This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.

Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.

Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.

But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.

Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.

Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?

The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.

I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.

Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.

It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."

Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.

The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.


Editor's Note: "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Warner Brothers, 2013; 90 weighty, weightless minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.