Cruise Ship Books

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I’ve discovered some of my favorite authors while perusing the books other passengers have left behind in shipboard libraries. While cruising in Alaska, I discovered Michael Frayn and couldn’t stop until I had devoured all of his novels and then looked around hungrily for more.

Spies is perhaps my favorite. A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village, where he tries to make grownup sense of things that happened there so many years ago, while he and his boyhood friend hid in the privet bush pretending to be spies. The dual perspective of middle age and childhood, as well as the contrast between the WWII setting and the “present” of 30 years later makes the book particularly evocative, and the mystery of what actually happened drives the story.

Frayn’s books often present a tone of detachment and loss, as expressed in these opening lines from A Landing in the Sun:

On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.

These hands, and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room.

The separation of the action performed by his hands from his intentional, sentient will is also reminiscent of the book-burning fireman, Montag, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: “Montag . . . glanced to his hands to see what new thing they had done.” Both authors use synecdoche effectively to suggest the protagonist’s looming split with authority and his attempt to regain control over his life.

A pungent aroma sparks a memory from a man’s childhood during World War II and compels him to return to his childhood village.

It was on a cruise ship traveling around Australia and New Zealand that I discovered the historical novelist Tracy Chevalier. Her Girl With a Pearl Earring, in which she creates a compelling and poignant backstory for the supposed model of Vermeer’s famous painting, had recently been made into the film that launched Scarlett Johansson to stardom; but the book that hooked me was Fallen Angels, a name that refers to the memorial stones in a local graveyard but also to the fallen characters within the story. Beginning at the end of the Queen Victoria’s reign, the book’s multiple storylines focus on husbands and wives, friends and lovers, ruling class and servant class, and a gravedigger’s son.

From the moment I entered Chevalier’s world of shifting narrative perspectives set in turn-of-the-century England, I didn’t want to leave. I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century. Similarly, while viewing Manhattan from across the river in one of the books I review here, a character observes, “You wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s how I felt while reading many of the books I’ve mentioned in this review — I wanted to approach the end, but never quite arrive there.

This past month I was cruising the western Mediterranean when I discovered Rules of Civility by the talented author Amor Towles, whose fresh metaphors and unexpected developments delighted and surprised me. I had barely finished reading it when, craving more of his elegantly crafted sentences and trusting his storytelling skills, I downloaded his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, to my Kindle for the long flight home from Europe.

I felt a profound sense of loss as I read the final page and reentered the 21st century.

The title Rules of Civility refers to George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation, a dog-eared copy of which is discovered by the narrator, Katey Kontent, on the bedside table of the central character, Tinker Grey. Towles’ book is a novel of manners set in 1938 Manhattan and framed by a 1966 photography exhibition. As the book opens, a middle-aged Katey spies two candid photographs taken of her long-lost friend Tinker at the beginning and the end of 1938. This chance sighting becomes the catalyst for her recollection of that year, a year that became a turning point in her life as she navigated between boarding houses and mansions, trust-fund kids and dockworkers, the upper West side and the lower East side, in her journey to define who she would become.

Katey begins 1938 living in a women’s boardinghouse and working in a steno pool. She and her roommate, Eve Ross, meet the posh and elegant Tinker Grey at a restaurant on New Year’s Eve, and he becomes the direct and indirect catalyst for everything else that happens that year.

Like the original “novels of manners,” set in manor houses and often populated by governesses or impoverished heiresses who make satirical observations about the ruling class, Rules of Civility contains biting, cogent cultural commentary. Katey is paid well as a secretary, but when she decides to move on to a job in the literary world, she must accept a huge cut in pay. She wryly observes, “A secretary exchanges her labor for a living wage. But an assistant comes from a fine home, attends Smith College, and lands her positions when her mother happens to be seated beside the publisher in chief at a dinner party.” I worked under an executive director who landed her position in the same way, and it was just as galling. Katey also notes, after guests at a dinner party heap praises upon the hostess at the end of a fine meal, “This was a social nicety that seemed more prevalent the higher you climbed the social ladder and the less your hostess cooked.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer.

Katey is a philosopher by nature, and her thoughts begin to resonate with the reader. As she looks back on 1938, she recalls, “To have even one year when you’re presented with choices that can alter your circumstances, your character, your course . . . shouldn’t come without a price. I have no doubt [my choices] were the right choices for me. And at the same time, I know that right choices by definition are the means by which life crystallizes loss.”

Sudden changes in tone or circumstance — in this case, from the bright optimism of making right decisions to the mournful grief of cutting oneself off from other options — permeate the book and provide elegant twists that would create envy in the heart of a mystery writer. Consider the span of emotion in moments like these: “I tore the letter into a thousand pieces and hurled them at the spot on the wall where a fireplace should have been. Then I carefully considered what I should wear.” And: “Something fell from my jawbone to the back of my hand. It was a teardrop of all things. So I slapped him.” And this cautionary reflection: “In moments of high emotion — whether they’re triggered by anger or envy, humiliation or resentment — if the next thing you’re going to say makes you feel better, then it’s probably the wrong thing to say.”

Katey wants everything to be neat and orderly and open. As a secretary, she “suture[s] split infinitives and hoist[s] dangling modifiers,” and she wants life to be as simple as that, with rules that allow no ambiguities and people who are who they say they are. But soon she realizes that “it’s a bit of a cliché to refer to someone as a chameleon, a person who can change his colors from environment to environment. In fact . . . there are tens of thousands of butterflies, men and women like Eve with two dramatically different colorings — one which serves to attract and the other which serves to camouflage — and which can be switched at the instant with a flit of the wings.” Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Katey is not well-bred, but she is well-read, and her running references to such books as Walden, Great Expectations, Washington’s Rules of Civility, Agatha Christie novels, and others add depth to the story. I especially like the way she combines insights from Thoreau and Christie to deliver this:

In the pages of Agatha Christie’s books men and women, whatever their ages, whatever their caste, are ultimately brought face-to-face with a destiny that suits them. . . . For the most part, in the course of our daily lives we abide the abundant evidence that no such universal justice exists. Like a cart horse, we plod along the cobblestones dragging our heads down and our blinders in place, waiting patiently for the next cube of sugar. But there are certain times when chance suddenly provides the justice that Agatha Christie promises.

We all have turning point moments in our lives — moments that occur during the years when we’re deciding who we will be and making decisions so profound that they change our course completely and irrevocably. They often seem insignificant at the time, and the people who influence us most profoundly move on from our lives. Although we may never see them again, we think of them frequently. I have one such friend from my childhood who moved on from my life when we were 11, yet much of who I am today comes from the experiences I shared with her during the three profound years we spent together, just as Michael Frayn’s narrator in Spies is forever influenced by the events he experienced with his childhood chum.

Katey herself is a chameleon, adapting to her different environments by adjusting her clothing until she decides which environment will become her natural habitat.

Towles suggests the importance of these so-called minor characters when Katey begins reading a Hemingway novel from the middle rather than the beginning: “Without the early chapters, all the incidents became sketches and all the dialogue innuendo. Bit characters stood on equal footing with the central subjects and positively bludgeoned them with disinterested common sense. The protagonists didn’t fight back. They seemed relieved to be freed from the tyranny of their tale. It made me want to read all of Hemingway’s books this way.”

And Katey learns to read life that way too — paying more heed to the side characters who influence us unexpectedly. Eventually she discovers that “when some incident sheds a favorable light on an old and absent friend, that’s about as good a gift as chance intends to offer.” Reading Rules of Civility gave me cause to reflect on many an old and absent friend, and that’s one of the many good gifts of this book.


Editor's Note: Reviews of "Spies," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2002, 261 pages; "A Landing on the Sun," by Michael Frayn. Picador, 2003, 272 pages; and "Rules of Civility," by Amor Towles. Penguin Books, 2011, 338 pages.



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War from the Individual Perspective

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It’s a sunny blue-sky day in a charming French provincial town, when propaganda leaflets start raining down from the sky. Three soldiers walk into the foreground until the camera rests on the handsome young face of one of them, the story’s eventual protagonist (Fionn Whitehead). He spies a hose coiled next to a house and falls to his knees, upending the coil so the standing water drips into his mouth. I can taste the stagnant warmth of the water even as I feel its wet relief on his parched throat. The day may be sunny, but it’s far from bucolic.

Shots ring out and the men begin running toward a fence, joined by other soldiers equally determined to escape the Germans. One by one they’re picked off by the bullets. Only our unnamed and unvoiced hero makes it over the fence. My heart races with empathic panic and I think of how desperately he needs that helmet he took off to drink the water. How can I be so invested so quickly in the life of a character who is virtually unknown? I realize that the tension in my heart is being controlled by the tension of the music and the pace of the action, as it will be controlled throughout this movie.

Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed?

I went to Dunkirk expecting to learn about the strategic significance of the battle that was waged there, when nearly 400,000 Allied troops were stranded near the beaches of France, waiting either for reinforcement or evacuation. Much has been written about the decision of German leaders not to press forward to annihilate the Allied troops, and British leaders’ hesitation to send a full barrage of support. It is considered the greatest defeat and the greatest triumph of the Second World War. I’ll be on the beaches of Dunkirk and Normandy next month, and I thought that watching this movie would enhance my appreciation of visiting the site.

But that’s not what the movie is about.

If you didn’t already know what happened at Dunkirk, the movie might make you think it was a minor skirmish involving a handful of soldiers, a couple of fighter planes, a few queues of Brits lined up to wait (unsuccessfully) for the next transport ship, and a single fishing boat crossing the channel to rescue them all, with a few random German bombers and snipers causing unexpected havoc along the way. We’re aware of the crowds of soldiers on the beach and the boats in the water, but they don’t have the vast impact of the same scene in films such as Atonement (2007); they seem almost like set dressing. And the French soldiers who kept the Germans at bay have no place in this film. In fact, the only French soldier in Dunkirk is portrayed as something of a coward.

Instead, this film focuses on our unnamed soldier and the inexplicable randomness of survival. Why does he survive when the other six soldiers fleeing the town are shot? Why does he survive when hundreds of soldiers awaiting rescue on the beach around him are killed by strafing or blown up by bombs? Why does he survive while those “fortunate enough” to board the rescue boats are lost? Director Christopher Nolan deliberately cast young unknown actors to emphasize the youth and inexperience of the soldiers at Dunkirk and the senseless serendipity of who survives and who does not.

The score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer.

Meanwhile, Captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) of a small fishing vessel hurries across the channel with a boatload of life vests, teamed only with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and a family friend, George (Barry Koeghan). Dawson seems a sad sack of a man, but his small stature belies his strong character; he is determined to get those boys home. His character is loosely based on Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller, a Titanic survivor who at Dunkirk rescued 55 soldiers in his personal yacht, the Sundowner, when he was 66. (Dawson’s boat is called the Moonstone.) Rounding out the rescue team are two pilots, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden), whose job is to take down the German planes that are targeting the rescue ships, and two officers, Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) and Colonel Winnant (James D’Arcy), who are overseeing the evacuation in France.

The film is impressionistic in that each of these groups is representative of a larger whole, and the story is neither chronological nor complete. You’ll be confused by the juxtaposition of seemingly simultaneous scenes set in daylight and dark until you realize that one of the scenes is a flashback. Nolan explained that the alteration of time was necessary in order to bring the three storylines together, one taking a week (on the beach) one taking a day (on the ocean) and one taking an hour (in the air). In sum, Dunkirk provides an impression of the battle rather than a chronological history, and the sooner you realize that, the easier it is to follow the movie.

Dunkirk doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect.

Contributing significantly to the film’s success is its quiet, relentlessly rising musical motif based thematically on Elgar’s “Nimrod” and scored by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer used a pocket watch that Nolan sent to him as an instrument in the orchestration to create the underlying pulse that subconsciously controls the viewer’s heartbeat, while Elgar’s theme and Zimmer’s use of cellos at the limits of their normal pitch creates a sense of anxiety. They also incorporated a technique called the “Shepard Tone,” which is a kind of musical version of M.C. Escher’s never-ending staircase that gives the impression of a never-ending rise in pitch. All of this leads to the continuous, unresolved tension. The resulting score is not melodic in the usual sense, but it pervades the film and invades the viewer. The Shepard Tone is also mirrored visually in Nolan’s juxtaposition of the three storylines (shore, sea, and air), in which one is always beginning, one is always climaxing, and a third is always ending.

Dunkirk is not a typical war movie. It doesn’t have the flying limbs, disemboweled torsos, and spurting blood we’ve come to expect after the gruesome realism Spielberg introduced in the opening scene in Saving Private Ryan 23 years ago. It’s a quiet film about individual courage, cowardice, suspicion, randomness, and the unrelenting desire for home.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dunkirk," directed by Christopher Nolan. Warner Brothers, 2017, 106 minutes.



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Music Hath Charms

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“What is the soundtrack of your life?”

Shedrick “B,” an inmate presenter at the TEDx Sing Sing I helped organize a few years ago, asked that question of the audience of 100 or so civilians and inmates. He went on to explain that music has the power to transport him back to certain moments in his life: holding hands with his first girlfriend, ice skating at Rockefeller Center, Christmas Eve with his family, being booked for the crime that landed him in prison. When he hears the songs he remembers, he returns to those moments, good and bad.

With the invention of the MP3 player and iPhone, music could indeed become the soundtrack of our lives. Suddenly we had instant access to thousands of songs that used to be piled in a shoebox or stored in the wrong jewel case in a closet back home. And with music-streaming platforms like Pandora, we have access to thousands more songs that we haven’t even purchased. We can listen to music when we’re walking, driving, biking, talking, waiting, even sleeping. When I go hiking, the station I select — sometimes upbeat ’60s, sometimes a mellow Coldplay, sometimes classical or Broadway or hymns — controls my mood and thus my experience. It was inevitable that a movie would take that ubiquity and turn it into a giant of a movie. That movie is Baby Driver.

Baby isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta.

Other films have toyed with the concept; Woody Allen is known for the jazz pieces he selects for his soundtracks. Music stands out in Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014). Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), the protagonist in Guardians of the Galaxy (also 2014), listens to an ’80s mix tape his mother made for him as he gathers the energy to save the universe. The soundtrack was the best part of Guardians, and fans couldn’t wait to hear the selections for Guardians Vol. 2. Even calling it “Volume 2,” like an album, instead of “Part 2,” like a movie, acknowledges the importance of the music as a main ingredient of the franchise’s popularity.

But music isn’t just the soundtrack of Baby Driver; it’s the driving force. Baby (Ansel Elgort) can’t function unless his earbuds are delivering exactly the right playlist of high-octane music to his brain, even when his life depends on getting the hell out of there now. Baby is the highly skilled getaway driver for the mastermind, called Doc (Kevin Spacey), behind a series of bank and post office heists. He isn’t just skilled; he’s a veritable savant, and we barely hang onto our seats as he hightails the robbers through the streets of Atlanta while dodging cars, cops, and bullets. The music is perfectly synchronized with the actions and gestures of the characters, even when they’re sitting around a table having a conversation. It all creates the sense that we’re watching a choreographed concert as much as a movie.

Despite his childlike name, Baby is cooler than cool. No matter how many times he loses his sunglasses (or someone takes them) he has another pair in his pocket to replace them. He carries multiple iPods loaded with music for any occasion, and he doesn’t flinch when his life is endangered. When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

Director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) heightens the fun with unexpected edits and background details. As Baby leaps through the streets to a chorus of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” the word “Yeah” is seen spray-painted on three successive trees, exactly in time to the music. In the window of the bank that’s being robbed, we see a poster advertising college loans — a kind of bank robbery itself, and a life sentence for many students who get in over their heads. When Baby is at a laundromat, the clothes cycling around in the dryer become a 45 record spinning us into the next scene. Baby uses sign language to communicate with his rheumy-eyed foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) who looks blind, not deaf.

When he isn’t driving like a stunt man, he’s running through streets and leaping over benches and stairs like a parkour expert.

We soon learn that Baby isn’t really a bad guy at heart. He’s gentle and thoughtful with Joseph. He’s in love with a sweet young waitress (Lily James), who is just as anxious to blow this town and start a new life as he is. But he owes a debt to Doc, the cool and sadistic mastermind, and he has to do one last job to be free of the debt. If you know anything at all about film scripts, you know that the words “one last job” can be deadly.

So Baby is enlisted for one last heist, driving Doc’s newly organized team (John Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Elza Gonzalez); as expected, things begin to go deliciously, suspensefully wrong. Baby takes a few wrong turns and a few right ones as he tries to extricate himself from Doc’s employ while protecting the two people he loves — and always with exactly the right music and the right pair of sunglasses to motivate him for the job. In my opinion the film jumps the shark toward the end, when a glaring red haze demonizes a particular character and culminates in the virtual fires of hell, but I can forgive that over-the-top indulgence. The entire film is over the top, and that’s what’s keeping it at the top of the box office. Baby Driver is a winner from the word “Go.”




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Trust the Beauty, or Risk the Beast?

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While flipping through the channels I recently came across the 2004 remake of The Flight of the Phoenix. It led to the obvious question: why remake a perfect movie?

Sure, the original (1966) was filmed in black and white, but so was Citizen Kane. I frankly think the black and white cinematography contributed to the bleakness of the landscape and the hopelessness of the crash survivors. The remake is contrived and uninspiring, with no redeeming value beyond its color film. Why mess with perfection?

I asked myself the same question this week while watching two recent remakes of classic films that coincidentally share a theme: Beauty and the Beast and King Kong.

The updated story gave Kong a more sympathetic personality as the lovesick beast, but the script doesn’t wear well, especially the airheaded lines written for the female lead.

Do we really need another version of King Kong? Perhaps it was useful to remake the original 1933 black and white version that starred Fay Wray as the beautiful actress Ann Darrow who tames the heart of the beast. Masterpiece though it was for its time, its stop-action animation is laughably jerky for modern viewers. A makeover with modern special effects made it more accessible to the common audience, although film aficionados believe the original’s distance from verisimilitude helps to make it mythic.

The 1976 version with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange updated the script as well as the special effects, trading the film director for an oil magnate (Charles Grodin) and the Empire State Building for the World Trade Center. The updated story gave Kong a more sympathetic personality as the lovesick beast, but the script doesn’t wear well, especially the airheaded lines written for Lange’s character, the actress Dwan.

The 2005 version with Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow and Jack Black as the director Carl Denham was spectacular, improving upon the technical quality of the film (and the acting) while returning to the original 1933 setting, the original storyline, and the original climax atop the Empire State Building. Watts was especially luminous in the role of the ingénue “whose beauty killed the beast,” and her tenderly flirtatious scene with Kong in Central Park, where so many romantic comedies have been filmed, was poignant and lovely.

This aspect of the film gives it a slightly libertarian tone, but for the most part it’s pretty standard prehistoric monster fare.

That should have become the definitive update of King Kong; there was no need for another. But here we are with Kong: Skull Island, and a quite different story. In each of the earlier versions, King Kong is captured, transported out of his wilderness habitat, and put on display as an entertainment spectacle, with an awe-inspiring chase scene culminating atop the world’s tallest building. By contrast, the latest version takes place entirely on Skull Island, where the hapless protagonist is not an entertainment impresario but a geologist and monster hunter who has enlisted the US Army as a protective escort. The girl (Brie Larsen) is a photographer, not an ingénue; the antagonist (Samuel L. Jackson) is a colonel, not an oil magnate; and Kong is not a lovesick tyrant but a benevolent king who has been risking his own life and safety to protect his subjects — the other creatures who inhabit the island — from a colony of evil underground lizards. Instead of trying to capture Kong and take him to civilization, these explorers and their escorts are trying to escape the island. The movie is often reminiscent of Jurassic Park with its numerous “Eww!”-inspiring deaths in the jaws of prehistoric creatures munching humans like appetizers.

While the 1976 King Kong asked us to view women as airheads and petroleum corporations as villains, Kong: Skull Island invites us to contemplate important political and social questions. What business does the US military — or scientists and anthropologists, for that matter — have going into other lands, guns a-blazing? How can we tell the good guys from the bad guys in a culture that’s foreign to us? Who should shoulder the blame when we get it wrong? How can we best transform enemies into allies? When is it right to defy authority? This aspect of the film gives it a slightly libertarian tone, but for the most part it’s pretty standard prehistoric monster fare.

Another new film based on the beauty and the beast dichotomy is, well, Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s live-action remake of its 1991 cartoon that was the first animated film to be nominated by the Academy for Best Picture in the feature film division — it’s that good. The score for both films, written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, is sublime. I’ve heard the title ballad, sung wistfully in the original film by Angela Lansbury, hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and the opening strains never fail to elicit a nostalgic tear. It is a perfect film.

So why remake the animated Beauty and the Beast? As it happens, this “perfect film” was a remake too. Jean Cocteau’s 1946 live action film is a magical fairy tale less known to American audiences because it is French. The story is more true to Madame La Prince de Beaumont’s book, in which a father asks his three daughters what they would like him to bring them when he goes into town. The two older girls ask for jewels and dresses, but the youngest wants only a rose. This later becomes significant, because the beast, whose spell can only be broken by true love, realizes that a girl who loves nature instead of material goods could see past his ugliness and recognize the goodness inside him.

I’ve heard the title ballad, sung wistfully in the original film by Angela Lansbury, hundreds of times over the past 25 years, and the opening strains never fail to elicit a nostalgic tear.

Cocteau alludes to several fairy tales in his film: Belle is the Cinderella who must clean while her sisters play; she’s the Snow White who can see into a magic mirror; her bedroom in the Beast’s castle is a garden like Georgina’s boudoir in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” Instead of animated special effects, Cocteau uses creative costuming to suggest that humans have been transformed into furnishings, and his lack of explanation adds to the magical effect. But this is a grownup fairy tale, not geared toward children. It’s sensuous and seductive. Leaving Belle’s room, the Beast drags his hand lingeringly across the exposed breast of a statue. Belle, lying on her bed, caresses the mirror on which she sees the Beast’s face. Cocteau’s direction is deliberately unrealistic and balletic, adding to the otherworldly effect. It is a beautiful, magical film, made all the more magical by the ambiguous ending — has the spell been broken and are they going to live happily ever after in his kingdom, or have they died and gone to heaven? The hissing swans in the stream where Belle finds the Beast near death suggest the latter; in mythology, swans and rivers are a symbol of “crossing over” to death.

During the past 30 years, Disney Studios successfully adapted many of the best-loved animated stories, including B&B, for the musical stage. Now they’re in the midst of adapting 20 of those animated films to live-action format. Perhaps the studio heads foresee a time when animation won’t be as appealing to children; perhaps they simply realize that releasing a new version of an old favorite is guaranteed box office gold. Indeed, the new B&B earned $357 million worldwide in its first weekend alone, and it doesn’t show signs of slowing down as mothers who were little girls a generation ago flock to the theater with their broods for a sweet spoonful of nostalgia.

So — is it really that good? Half a billion dollars worth of good? The music is just as wonderful, and a new song written for the Beast when Belle leaves him to rescue her father provides a deeper character development for him. The supporting characters who have been turned into household furnishings by the witch’s spell are richly drawn and charmingly voiced by such seasoned actors as Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, and Audra McDonald. But as the voices of household furnishings, they aren’t actually live action, are they? They’re simply animated in a different way. And it works wonderfully, especially when the furnishings return to their human forms and we recognize them with the same spark of joy as if they were departed relatives returning from the dead.

Watson has an unhealthy, unnatural thinness about her that always makes me want to give her a cookie or two.

However, Belle (Emma Watson) is a disappointment in many ways. Known for her role as Hermione in the eight Harry Potter movies, Watson is believable as an asexual bookworm but not as the buxom beauty who could capture the interest of the town’s lecherous and superficial Gaston (Luke Evans). Watson has an unhealthy, unnatural thinness about her that always makes me want to give her a cookie or two. Anorexia simply isn’t a good look for the most beautiful girl in town. By contrast, Brie Larsen, who plays the beast’s love interest in Kong: Skull Island, has a natural, healthy, unaffected beauty that would have been perfect for Belle — the girl whose very name means “beautiful.” Surely in all of Hollywood, with a film budget of $160 million, the casting director could have found a more believable actress to carry this film. Or maybe anorexia is a good look in Hollywood these days?

Watson’s singing voice is weak, and her speaking voice is cloyingly irritating with its contrived and officious accent. (I suspect she needed elocution lessons when she was cast to play Hermione, and was too young to make it feel natural.) For the Harry Potter movies the haughty, artificial accent works — Hermione is a schoolgirl trying to be noticed in a boys’ world, and her bookish intelligence successfully counterbalances her waiflike stature. By contrast, Belle’s most significant character trait is her independence — her refusal to bend to society’s expectations. The artificial accent belies that determination to be true to herself.

To return to my original question: this may not be a “tale as old as time,” but it is a tale as old as film — the story about whether to trust the beauty of a classic film or risk the beast of a remake. Had I never seen the originals, I would probably have loved both these films. Kong is an exciting adventure with well-drawn characters, and the music of B&B soars, despite the weakness of Belle. Perhaps each generation needs its own version of the classics, updated to reflect the social concerns of the day: the feminism of the ’70s, the corporate greed of the ’90s, the military overreach of today. Cocteau’sB&B, made at the end of WWII, alludes to the bestiality of war and the humanizing effect of a woman’s influence: the Beast’s hands smoke when he kills his prey, but the narrator assures us, “A young maiden has the power to tame the beast in a man.”

Cocteau opens his Beauty and the Beast with the statement, “Children believe what we tell them. They have complete faith in us.” Moviemakers wield that same kind of mythic power. Perhaps that’s why I prefer the classics among films: they speak to a mythology and social discourse that were current in my youth, and continue to resonate for me today.


Editor's Note: Review of "Kong: Skull Island," directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Legendary Entertainment, Warner Brothers, 2017, 118 minutes; and "Beauty and the Beast," directed by Bill Condon. Disney Studios, 2017, 129 minutes.



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Up from Stereotypes

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What’s the best genre to demonstrate the horrors of slavery? A horror film, of course! I’m not a big fan of horror movies; I avoid slasher films at all costs. But once in a while one comes along that transcends the usual cheap thrills of the genre. Get Out is one of them. A psychological thriller that makes a powerful social commentary, it will be remembered — and studied — for years to come.

Get Out, the debut film of writer-director Jordan Peele, is sly, eerie, suspenseful, funny, well-acted, and only gruesome in short spurts (pun intended) toward the end. Best of all, it transcends the formula of the genre by providing an underlying social message with subtle allusions and literary artistry. You will continue to think about the film’s nuanced references as you discuss the movie with other viewers. And you will want to talk about it, I’m sure! As just one example, watch for the significance of a black man picking cotton.

A psychological thriller that makes a powerful social commentary, "Get Out" will be remembered — and studied — for years to come.

The story begins late at night, as a young black man (Lakeith Stanfield) walks down a tree-lined street in an upper-class neighborhood. The background music is reminiscent of the soundtrack for Deliverance, but with a distinct gospel flair that, combined with the moss-covered trees, creates a hint of voodoo and heightens our sense that something bad is about to happen to the man. When a classy white Beemer pulls over to check him out, a look of anxiety comes over his face, and I was reminded of James Baldwin describing in an essay the “thunk, thunk, thunk” of the car door locks whenever a black walks down an unfamiliar street. (See my review of the James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro.) I also thought of Trayvon Martin’s death as he walked through a predominately white neighborhood where he didn’t seem to “belong.” The young man is indeed snatched, and we don’t learn his fate until much later in the film.

Meanwhile, the scene changes to a daylight apartment where Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are preparing to spend the weekend with Rose’s parents Missy (Catherine Keener) and Dean (Bradley Whitford) at their woodsy estate. Chris is concerned because Rose has not yet told her parents that Chris is black, but she reassures him that they aren’t racist by saying, “My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!” Sure enough, that’s one of the first things Dean says to Chris when they meet.

Guests at a lawn party that weekend make similar remarks that appear to be prompted by Chris’s race. One guest tells him, “Tiger Woods is my favorite golfer.” Another asks Chris what sport he plays. A middle-aged woman fondles his bicep as she speculates suggestively on Rose’s good fortune in the bedroom. Everyone is kind and welcoming, yet they blurt out comments that focus on Chris’s race rather than asking about his job or his interests. I winced, thinking of times when I, too, have looked for common ground by making a comment based on race or country of origin. Chris is a photographer, by the way. Not very stereotypical! This is one small scene, but it becomes important later on — and not in the way that the audience expects.

Chris is concerned because Rose has not yet told her parents that Chris is black, but she reassures him that they aren’t racist by saying, “My father would have voted for Obama a third time if he could have!”

Nothing is quite as it appears, of course. The creepily smiling black servants seem to have come straight from jobs in Stepford, and the neighbors appear as strange in their ordinariness as the demonic neighbors in Rosemary’s Baby. The cast of characters includes such iconic tropes as a mad scientist, a hypnotic psychologist, and a blind man with the gift of inner sight. The soundtrack is also powerful, controlling the audience’s emotions as all good horror soundtracks do. You’ll have a rousing good time figuring out whom to trust, whom to fear, and what’s going on in the basement of this stylish psychological thriller.

Produced with a budget of just $4.5 million, Get Out brought in over $80 million in its first two weeks. It makes me happy to see a first-time writer and director enjoy such well-deserved success. Get out this weekend and see Get Out!


Editor's Note: Review of "Get Out," directed by Jordan Peele. Blumhouse Productions, 2017, 104 minutes.



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What Matters — Choice and Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Out of the Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Hidden Messages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Often the argument against change is


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



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A Monster Calls, a Lion Roars Back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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Look Twice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



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