Marooned on Mars


The final story in Ray Bradbury’s collection The Martian Chronicles is called “The Million Year Picnic.” In it, an American family escapes the nuclear destruction of the earth and lands on Mars, where the father tells his children, “Tomorrow you will see the Martians.” The next day he takes them on a picnic near an ancient canal, where they look into the water and see their own reflections. Simply by moving there and colonizing, they have become Martians. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) makes a similar point when he is stranded on Mars in Ridley Scott’s The Martian: “They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially colonized it. So, technically, I colonized Mars.”

The Martian is a tense, intelligent, and engaging story about an astronaut who is left for dead when his fellow crew members are forced to make an emergency launch to escape a destructive sandstorm. Knocked out rather than killed, he regains consciousness and discovers that he is utterly alone on the planet. Solar panels can provide him with renewable energy, oxygen, heat, and air pressure. But the next mission to Mars isn’t due for another five years, and he has enough food to last just 400 days. What can he do?

As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome.

There is something fascinating about this storyline of being marooned or abandoned and left entirely to one’s own devices, whether the protagonist be Robinson Crusoe on his desert island; The 33 (2015) workers, trapped in a Chilean copper mine; Tom Hanks, Cast Away (2000) in the Pacific; the Apollo 13 (1995) crew, trapped in their capsule; Sandra Bullock, lost in space (Gravity, 2013);or even Macaulay Culkin, left Home Alone (1990), just to name a few. These films allow us to consider what we would do in such a situation. Could we survive?

I well remember the time I was left behind at a gas station at the age of ten on the way to a family camping trip. I had been riding in the camper of the pickup truck while my parents and sister rode in the cab. I had stepped out of the camper to tell my mother I was going to the bathroom, but before I could knock on her window, my father shoved the transmission into gear and started driving away. I didn’t know where we were, where we were going, or how I would contact my parents after they left without me. I was even more afraid of strangers than I was of being lost. It would be at least 300 miles before they stopped again for gas, and even then, they might not look into the camper until nighttime, and how would they find me after that? All of this went through my mind in a flash. Then I leapt onto the rear bumper of the truck as it eased past me and clung tightly to the handle of the camper.

I was hidden from sight by the trailer we were pulling behind us. No one would see me there, and if I jumped off or lost my balance, I would be crushed by the trailer. As we approached the freeway and began to pick up speed, I realized I had only one chance for a safe outcome. I managed to pry open the door of the camper, squeeze through the narrow opening, and collapse onto the floor, pulling the door shut behind me. Instead of being frightened by the experience, I was exhilarated by my successful maneuver and problem-solving skills. I could do anything! My only regret was that no one saw my amazing feat.

One of the reasons we enjoy movies like The Martian is that they allow us to participate with the protagonist in solving the problem of survival. Rather than curl up and wait to die, à la Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away (honestly — five years on a tropical island and he’s still living in a cave, talking to a volleyball? He hasn’t even made a shelter or a hammock?), Watney assesses his supplies and figures out how to survive until the next mission arrives. A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does. He makes the difficult decision to cut up some of his precious potatoes for seed, knowing that his only chance for survival is to grow more food. He figures out how to make water, how to extend his battery life, how to deal with the brutally freezing temperatures.

He also keeps a witty video journal, through which he seems to speak directly to the audience. This allows us to remain intensely engaged in what he is doing and avoids the problem encountered in Robert Redford’s 2013 castaway film All is Lost, where perhaps three sentences are uttered in the entire dreary film. Welike Watney’s upbeat attitude, his irreverent sense of humor, his physical and mental prowess, and his relentless determination to survive. We try to anticipate his next move.

A botanist and an engineer, he exults, “I’m going to science the shit out of this!” And he does.

The visual effects are stunning. Many of them would not have been possible even three years ago, before the innovations created for Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (2013). The techniques used to create weightlessness as the astronauts slither through the space station are especially impressive; we simply forget that they aren’t really weightless. The unfamiliar landscape — the red desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan, where the outdoor scenes were filmed — is a bit reminiscent of a futuristic Monument Valley. It contributes to the western-hero sensibility while creating a feeling that we really are on Mars. I’m not sure the science works in the dramatic ending, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief. The Martian is smart, entertaining, and manages to work without a single antagonist — nary a nasty businessman or greedy bureaucrat can be found. If that’s what our future holds, I’m all for it.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Martian," directed by Ridley Scott. Scott Free Productions, 20th Century Fox, 2015, 142 minutes.

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From Compton to Congress


There are very few movies I would describe as explicitly “libertarian," but as unlikely as it may seem, F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton is high on that list.

The film interweaves the stories of legendary hip hop artists Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) and chronicles their rise out of violence and poverty to fame and fortune as the groundbreaking gangsta rap group, NWA ("Niggaz Wit Attitude"). This is not, as you might imagine, a film for children or even most teens. It depicts a life experience steeped in drugs, gang violence, and police brutality in one of the poorest, most dangerous parts of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Against this backdrop, three teenagers looking for a way out created one of the biggest entertainment acts of the last three decades, and irrevocably changed the face of the record industry.

At its heart, Straight Outta Compton is a great entrepreneur story, but more in the tradition of The Godfather than Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Nearly all of the business dealings that occur throughout the film are built on threats and violence, and certainly not what libertarians would endorse. But contrary to what a lot of people might assume given NWA's music, there is no glorification of gangs or gang culture in the film. In fact, a major theme is the drive to escape violence, even though it swirls around every character in the movie.

Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.

One of the most powerful moments for me was seeing the direct parallel that the film draws between police brutality against Rodney King and the LA Riots in 1992, and the brutality and coercion with which business "deals" were conducted as relationships fell apart among Ice Cube, Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor). The culture of violence from the streets of Los Angeles spilled over into every other part of these guys' lives, even while they were all working to leave the dangers of that life behind. The film makes it abundantly clear that this wasn't what any of them wanted and they weren’t proud of it.

More importantly, however, Straight Outta Compton contains one of the most powerful defenses of free speech that I have ever seen in cinema.

As I grew up with a love of music and entertainment in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I remember a lot of people talking about the events depicted in the film. But I was a bit too young and, as a white kid in rural Nebraska, too disconnected from the gangsta rap scene blowing up around the country to fully appreciate it at the time. The thug image cultivated by NWA and its successors was a huge source of consternation for authority figures. Nightly news warned parents of the pernicious influence gangsta rap had on America's innocent children.

But the history that a lot of people have forgotten was that NWA rose to prominence at the fever pitch of a new censorship movement that started with outrage over sexually explicit lyrical content in pop music such as Prince's "Purple Rain" and the supposedly "Satanic" lyrics of heavy metal.

The congressional hearings make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun.

In 1985, a group of four "Washington Wives" — Tipper Gore, wife of Senator and later Vice President Al Gore; Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker; Pam Howar, wife of Washington realtor Raymond Howar; and Sally Nevius, wife of former Washington City Council Chairman John Nevius — created an organization called the Parents Music Resource Center ostensibly to persuade the music industry to "voluntarily" adopt a ratings standard that would protect children from hearing what these women called "porn rock." These influential ladies convinced the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to convene a hearing to discuss the issue on September 19, 1985. Even though his own wife founded the PMRC, then-Senator Al Gore features prominently as a speaker in these hearings, instead of recusing himself as he obviously should have done, given the blatant conflict of interest.

The full hearings are completely maddening to listen to, but they are worth watching or reading because they make it crystal clear that the Washington Wives' claims of simply wanting the industry to adopt their proposal really came at the point of a gun. At the time, my own state's Senator from Nebraska, Jim Exon, had an exchange with Frank Zappa that perfectly makes the point:

Sen. Exon: "This is one senator that might be interested in legislation and/or regulation. To some extent recognizing the problems with free rider expression and my previously expressed views that I don't believe I should be telling other people what they have to listen to, but I really believe that the suggestions made by the original panel for some kind of arrangement for voluntarily policing this in the music industry is the correct way to go. So if it'll help you out in your testimony, I might join Senator Hollings and others in some kind of legislation and/or regulation unless the free market system — both the producers and you, as the performers — see fit to clean up your act."

Frank Zappa: "Ok, thank you. . . . Ok, so that's hardly voluntary."

Quite so. Similar to the Motion Picture Production Code (Hays Code) in 1930 and the Comics Code Authority in 1954, these ratings systems and the so-called "voluntary" censorship instituted by industry groups have often come as a direct result of threats from the government.

So just a few years later in 1989, when NWA and gangsta rap gained popularity, the old "seduction of the innocent" fears were already a major issue in American politics. In 1990, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) adopted a "Parental Advisory" labeling system to warn parents of explicit or otherwise unsavory lyrical content, in no small part because of the music being released by NWA, Ruthless Records, and Lench Mob Records. But parental advisory warnings weren't enough for a lot of people in America, and throughout the film, we see activists smashing records, protesters picketing concerts, the federal government issuing threats, and even police officers in Detroit specifically dictating to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.

NWA played it anyway and they were arrested.

What follows in the film is a press conference sequence that contains one of the most rousing defenses of free speech I've seen in a film in a very long time. Ice Cube explains that the lyrics to their music were not endorsing gangs or gang violence. Instead, he defends NWA's words as "a reflection of our reality" and asserts that no one has the right to control what they write, say, or perform.

Police officers in Detroit specifically dictated to the band that they wouldn't be allowed to play their hit "Fuck Tha Police" on the grounds that it could incite a riot.

Technically speaking, the cinematography by Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Black Swan) is gorgeous to look at throughout. And with Ice Cube's own son playing his character, the casting is shockingly spot on, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Where the film suffers a little is in editing the stories of the three main protagonists together. While several clear themes and character arcs stretch across the whole movie, there are also a few disconnected scenes that don't entirely matter to the story — although one such scene involving Dr. Dre is one of the most emotional moments of the movie. The biggest problem is that once the band starts to split up and the guys go their separate ways, it's not always totally clear whose story the film is really telling.

But ultimately, Straight Outta Compton is a fantastic movie where violence and gang life ultimately give way to legitimate business and freedom of expression with a surprising amount of heart, drama, humor, and a ton of great music.

Editor's Note: Review of "Straight Outta Compton," directed by F. Gary Gray. Circle of Confusion / Cube Vision / Legendary Pictures, 2015, 147 minutes.

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Still a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird


As a professor of English literature I’ve heard more than one colleague comment wryly that the only legitimate purpose of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that it introduces the character of Huck Finn. The same could be said of Harper Lee’s newly published novel Go Set a Watchman; its only legitimate purpose is that it introduces the characters of Scout and Atticus Finch, the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

The new book takes place nearly two decades later than the first, when the 26-year-old Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch, now living in New York, returns to Maycomb, Alabama, for a two-week visit with her family. There she reminisces about childhood adventures with her brother Jem and friends Henry and Dill. The adult Jean Louise views her family and neighbors through more cosmopolitan eyes and finds them severely wanting, particularly in their attitudes toward civil rights and racial equality.

Watchman's detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene.

According to interviews with her current publisher at HarperCollins, Lee wrote this manuscript in the 1950s, when she was in her twenties, and although it takes place after the events in TKAM, it was actually written several years earlier. Lee’s agent submitted it to publishers, and in 1957 Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, picked it up. However, Hohoff recognized that the book wasn’t ready for publication and that the flashback scenes were far more compelling than the main narrative. She recommended that Lee rewrite the book using six-year-old Scout as the narrator. Better advice was never given to a first-time author. Hohoff worked closely with her, guiding her through several versions until, three years later, Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird was published. It has been read and reread by admiring fans for over 50 years.

Meanwhile, Watchman had been sitting in a secure area of Lee’s Alabama home, attached to the original manuscript of TKAM, since at least 1964, but was uncovered only recently by Lee’s attorney — conveniently after Lee suffered a stroke that left her virtually deaf and blind, and just three months after Lee’s sister and executor had passed away. Permission was secured from Lee to publish the book, but controversy swirls about the question of whether the privacy-seeking author, who always maintained that she would never write a sequel, was competent to understand what she was being asked.

So what about the book itself? Is it good enough to sell out an initial run of two million copies and sit atop the bestseller list, which is what it has been doing?

Sadly, no. On so many levels! It just isn’t very well written. Its detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene to experience it in the way Scout would eventually do in TKAM. The book is didactic and preachy, full of long philosophical harangues between characters but without the episodic storytelling that would make TKAM’s lessons so bittersweet and lasting. Watchman is a valuable first draft, but Lee needed to mature and grow as an author.

As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge.

The themes of Watchman are certainly timely. Scout talks about white privilege (yes, she uses that term) when she confronts lifelong friend Hank Clinton about some of his compromising actions. She doesn’t see that privilege in herself, just as African-Americans today complain that whites don’t see it in themselves. But Hank, whose family is considered “trash,” tells her, “I’ve never had some of the things you take for granted and I never will. . . . You can parade around town in your dungarees with your shirttail out and barefooted if you want to. Maycomb says, ‘That’s the Finch in her, that’s just Her Way. . . . But let Henry Clinton show any signs of deviatin’ from the norm and Maycomb says not ‘That’s the Clinton in him,’ but ‘That’s the trash in him.’ . . . You are permitted a sweet luxury I am not. You can shout to high heaven, I cannot” (231–34).

More importantly, Watchman destroys the reputation of one of the most beloved civil rights heroes in American literature. As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge and the lesson to be learned — for Hank to be right when he said of Atticus, “He joined . . . to find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks. . . . A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them” (229–30). Lee does give a faint nod to the revolutionary battle cry, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” when Uncle Jack explains, “People don’t agree with the Klan, but they certainly don’t try to prevent them from puttin’ on sheets and making fools of themselves in public” (267). But this does not take away the bitter taste of hearing Atticus Finch saying, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia? . . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to fully share in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?  . . . You’d have Negroes in every county office. . . . Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” How can these words come from the mouth of the man who defended Tom Robinson so eloquently and taught his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird?

I don’t believe they could. As Harper Lee took the advice of her original publisher and returned to her manuscript, she came to know her characters better. I don’t think she quite knew them when she began writing. She had a sense of them, but she only knew them from their dialogue, not from their hearts. Her title, Go Set a Watchman, comes from a passage in Isaiah suggesting that Israel needed a moral compass. In her early twenties, Lee thought that she, through her character Jean Louise, was that moral compass. She even called herself “Scout,” the one who blazes a trail through the wilderness.

Many authors did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed.

But Hohoff recognized something more significant in a short flashback scene, where Jean Louise reminisces about Atticus defending a one-armed black man against a rape charge brought by a white woman. That was the real story. As Lee struggled through the editing process with Hohoff, she finally discovered that the moral compass was Atticus all along. Scout’s liberality came not as resistance to her father’s bigotry and paternalism, but from following her father’s example. Ironically, the younger Harper Lee in her twenties drew the old Atticus Finch through the eyes of a woman rebelling against patriarchy. But the slightly older Harper Lee, in her thirties, writing through the narration of a six-year-old girl, understood the father character with a maturity that allowed her to draw him exactly right.

Foreseeing their deaths, authors have often instructed their servants or their heirs to destroy their unfinished manuscripts. Adam Smith, Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and even Virgil are among them. We lament the loss of some treasured works (others, such as the Aeneid, were saved), but perhaps the authors usually knew best — they did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed. If Harper Lee had the mental capacity to realize what has happened to her beloved Atticus, I’m sure she would be ready to throw all two million copies of this printing into the fire. Already possessing more millions of dollars than she could possibly spend in the time she has left, she has been betrayed by the desire of her attorney, her agent, and her publisher to make money — a lot of it. They have discovered a new golden goose, but they have finally killed the mockingbird.

Editor's Note: Review of "Go Set a Watchman," by Harper Lee. HarperCollins, 2015, 278 pages.

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Doing Your Own Stunts


In a film season marked — or marred — by sequels, remakes, and television upgrades, two films characterized by old-fashioned filmmaking provide the most fun to be had in a movie theater this summer. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation puts the superheroes to shame, with thrilling action sequences, snappy dialogue, satisfying storytelling, and palpable rapport among the cast members. Add to this director Christopher McQuarrie’s decision to have Tom Cruise perform most of his own stunts (and Cruise’s obvious glee in performing them) and you have easily the best big film of the summer.

Once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

This is the fifth in the Mission: Impossible series, each with a different director and each creating its own ambience. The original MI (1996) was dark and foreboding, while this one, although it has its share of menace and torture, is more lighthearted and campy, thanks in large part to the presence of Benji Dunn (comedian Simon Pegg), the techno geek who has been pulled reluctantly into field service in the last three films.

As this story opens, the Impossible Missions Force is being absorbed by the CIA for wreaking havoc around the world while trying to save it, and all IMF agents have been called in. MI fans will get a kick out of references to capers in earlier films as CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) makes his case before a congressional committee. However, Ethan (Cruise) is hot on the trail of The Syndicate, the ghostly supervillain organization that dogs him in every episode, and he refuses to come in. Yes, once again Ethan is abandoned by his government while on assignment and left to save the world (and his own skin) by himself while trying to figure out whom he can trust.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again.

His biggest quandary comes from beautiful and mysterious double agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) who helps him in one scene and tries to kill him in the next. Is she a double agent or a triple agent? Or a quadruple agent? We don’t know, and that keeps us engaged. Her name gives us a clue — has she indeed made a pact with the devil? A Swedish beauty who looks a lot like Ingrid Bergman and channels Bergman’s cool charm, Ferguson plays the role flawlessly, with just the right mix of passion, pathos, and power.

What makes this film sing, however, is the joy of watching true filmmaking again, with stunts that are performed by the actors themselves, not by stunt doubles, and not by computer geeks in post-production. Yes, that really is Tom Cruise hanging sideways from the door of an Airbus A400 M, sans parachute or wires, while it flies at full speed as much as 5,000 feet from the ground. Yes, that’s him again speeding recklessly through narrow streets and down the steep steps of a foreign town while being chased by bad guys with guns. That’s him again, leaning so far into the curve from his high-speed motorcycle on a winding mountain road that his knee nearly skims the pavement. It’s so refreshing to see his face in these exciting scenes, instead of the telltale hat that actors usually don that signals “Here comes the stunt double” in most action films. It has been almost 20 years since the first MI episode, but Cruise still has it.

Add to all of this the soaring score of Puccini’s Turandot mixed with Lalo Schifrin‘s iconic Mission Impossible theme, and you have the perfect summer popcorn flick.

Another film that shines as much for its filmmaking as for its storytelling is Mad Max: Fury Road, which premiered in late spring and is still in theaters. It is easily my favorite film of the year so far. OK, the characters aren’t nuanced, the storyline is one unending chase scene, and the dialogue is almost nonexistent. Still, it’s the craziest, wildest, most badass thrill ride to come to a theater since — well, since Mad Max: Road Warrior premiered in 1981.

What you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre.

I reviewed Road Warrior for Liberty in March, after seeing a special screening of a remastered version hosted by director George Miller at the gigantic Paramount Theater at SXSW. I pointed out some of the characteristics that made RW so unusual, including its linear filming strategy (Miller filmed each scene in order, from beginning to end), crazy S&M costuming, and souped-up classic cars, live stunts that produced eye-popping heart-in-the-mouth gasps from the audience, and an implied but unstated mythology and backstory for the characters. The story couldn’t be simpler: a lone hero travels through a dystopian future searching for fuel, food, and survival while avoiding marauding bands of violent scavengers. He encounters a community of people who need his help. Will this humanize him, or will he continue on his isolated journey to nowhere?

I wondered: could a new version filmed more than 30 years later using CGI special effects and modern action-movie expectations possibly measure up to the live-action craziness of the original film?

Not to worry. Miller chose to eschew CGI and stay true to his original film process, including a heavily storyboarded linear film schedule, multiple homages to the original film and characters, and live action stunts, even in the most harrowing chase scenes. He did use a few computerized magic tricks, but they were reserved for things like changing Charlize Theron’s arm into a prosthetic device and air brushing the stunt rigging out of scenes. For the most part, what you see on screen is real — and it’s breathtaking. It’s also totally bizarre, with wild characters swooping down on their victims by means of giant flexible poles, drivers spraying their mouths with chrome war paint, and a crazy electric guitarist riding on the front of the lead truck like a revolutionary drummer boy, spewing heavy metal and fiery flames all at once. The music inFury Road isn’t classic opera, à la MI’s Turandot, but its thundering soundtrack blares an anthem nonetheless.

Granted, Fury Road isn’t for everyone. I wouldn’t take my mother. Heck, I wouldn’t even take my husband. But for pure, nonstop thrills with an undercurrent of resonant mythology and a libertarian hero just looking out for himself, Fury Road can’t be beat.

Editor's Note: Reviews of "Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation," directed by Christopher McQuarrie. Bad Robot Films, 2015, 131 minutes; and "Mad Max: Fury Road," directed by George Miller. Village Roadshow Pictures, 2015, 120 minutes.

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The Thrill Is Back


The Gift is a gift to film lovers who have been yearning for a good old-fashioned psychological thriller. It’s set in an airy mid-century modern house with way too many picture windows and all the attendant spookiness that comes from knowing someone could be out there, looking in. The music creates mounting tension that convinces us — repeatedly — that something scary is about to happen, while the editing provides just the right balance between slow, tantalizing buildup of a scene and explosive delivery of the shocking payoff. First-time director and screenwriter Joel Edgerton, whose brother Nash Edgerton directed the Matrix series, did his homework in preparing for this film, and it has paid off with a first-class thriller.

As the story opens, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have just moved back to Simon’s hometown after having lived in Chicago for several years. We have the sense that they are starting over, but we don’t know why, or from what. While shopping for furnishings for their new home, Simon is approached by an acquaintance from high school whom he does not recognize, but who seems to remember him quite well. Soon “Gordo” (played by director Edgerton) is dropping by the house unexpectedly, always bearing gifts — a bottle of wine, decorative fish for the koi pond, speakers for the entertainment center — and always when Simon isn’t home. Gordon is nice, but he’s kind of creepy too. Something about the eyes. Simon wants to extinguish the rekindling friendship, but Robyn believes Gordo is harmless. He’s just socially inept, and trying too hard. Soon strange things begin to happen, and Robyn feels terrorized in her home while Simon is at work.

The Gift could just as easily have been called “The Secret,” for each of the principal characters is harboring a secret that could provide a clue to the motives behind the frightening events, and thus the true nature of what is happening in this small community. Contemporary issues introduced by these secrets raise the film above the level of a mere evening’s entertainment, providing food for thought and conversation long after the film has ended.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Gift," directed by Joel Edgerton. Blue-Tongue Films, 2015, 108 minutes.

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Aged, Yet Immortal


In a summer dominated, as usual, by the return of superheroes bursting onto the screen in all their 3D glory, a quieter, more cerebral superhero has also graced the cinema. Mr. Holmes follows the fabled Sherlock (Ian McKellen), now 93 years old, to his retirement cottage by the sea, where he cares for a hive of bees and is cared for by a housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker), who idolizes the famed detective. I use the word “graced” deliberately, for this is a graceful, elegant story beautifully filmed by Tobias A. Schliessler and worthy of honoring the supersleuth’s memory.

I use the word “memory” deliberately as well, because this is a story that focuses on the failing memory of a man known almost entirely for his mental prowess. Holmes approaches the onset of Alzheimer’s the way an athlete might approach the loss of his physical ability — with determination to maintain his skills and delay the inevitable decline. He methodically keeps track of his memory lapses and open-mindedly searches for cures, traveling as far as Japan for an herb he thinks will help. He is also hounded by the memory of his final case, one that involved a man and his wife — a case that Holmes is certain did not end the way his sidekick, Dr. Watson, recorded it. Holmesstruggles not only to remember how it concluded but also why it is so important to him. Roger becomes his new sidekick, helping with the bees and watching for evidence of his hero’s former greatness.

The bees provide a background to the story proceeding in the forefront. Holmes talks to Roger frequently about the bees — about the drones and the workers and the queen they protect. But ultimately it is the keeping that matters. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked God when confronted with the mystery ofhis brother Abel’s whereabouts. Are we responsible for the choices others make, when those choices are driven by choices of our own? In this film, the answer seems to be yes — agonizingly, exquisitely, and elegantly yes.

Editor's Note: Review of "Mr. Holmes," directed by Bill Condon. BBC Films, 2015, 104 minutes.

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Boswell Gets His Due


What is Enlightenment? The title of Immanuel Kant’s most famous essay asks that question. Kant suggests that the historical Enlightenment was mankind’s release from his self-incurred tutelage, an intellectual awakening that opened up new freedoms by challenging implanted prejudices and ingrained presuppositions. “Sapere aude!” Kant declared. “Dare to be wise!”

Tradition maintains that the Enlightenment was an 18th-century social and cultural phenomenon emanating from Paris salons, an Age of Reason that championed the primacy of the individual, the individual’s competence to pursue knowledge through rational and empirical methods, though skepticism and the scientific method. Discourse, debate, experimentation, and economic liberalism would liberate society from the shackles of superstition and dogma and enable unlimited progress and technological innovation, offering fresh insights into the universal laws that governed not only the natural world but also human relations. They would also enable individual people to attain fresh insights into themselves.

Boswell was a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul.

Robert Zaretsky, a history professor at the University of Houston and the author of Boswell’s Enlightenment, spares us tiresome critiques or defenses of the Enlightenment by Foucault and Habermas and their progeny. He begins his biography of James Boswell, the great 18th-century biographer, with a historiographical essay on the trends and trajectories of the pertinent scholarship. He points out that the Enlightenment may have begun earlier than people once believed, and in England rather than France. He mentions Jonathan Israel’s suggestion that we look to Spinoza and company, not Voltaire and company, to understand the Enlightenment, and that too much work has focused on the influence of affluent thinkers, excluding lower-class proselytizers who spread the message of liberty with a fearsome frankness and fervor. And he maintains that Scotland was the ideational epicenter of Enlightenment. Boswell was a Scot.

All of this is academic backdrop and illustrative posturing, a setting of the stage for Zaretsky’s subject, Boswell, a lawyer and man of letters with an impressive pedigree and a nervous disposition, a garrulous charmer with Bacchanalian tendencies, and a fussy hypochondriac raised Calvinist and forever anxious, perhaps obsessive, about the uncertain state of his eternal soul. He marveled at public executions, which he attended regularly. He also had daddy issues, always trying to please his unpleased father, Lord Auchinleck, who instructed his son to pursue the law rather than the theater and thespians. When word arrived that his son had been sharing his private journals with the public, Lord Auchinleck threatened to disown the young James.

Astounded by the beauty and splendor of Rome and entranced by Catholicism, Boswell was never able to untangle the disparate religious influences (all of them Christian) that he picked up during his travels. He was equally unable to suppress eros and consequently caught sexual diseases as a frog catches flies.

Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon.

Geography and culture shaped Boswell’s ideas and personality and frame Zaretsky’s narrative. “With the European continent to one side, Edinburgh to the other,” Zaretsky intones, “James Boswell stood above what seemed the one and the same phenomenon: the Enlightenment.” This remark is both figurative and literal, concluding Zaretsky’s account of Boswell’s climbing of Arthur’s Seat, a summit overlooking Edinburgh, and his triumphant shout, “Voltaire, Rousseau, immortal names!”

Immortal names indeed. But would Boswell himself achieve immortality? Boswell achieved fame for his biography of Samuel Johnson, the poet, critic, essayist, and wit — who except for one chapter is oddly ancillary to Zaretsky’s narrative. Although the Life of Johnson is always considered one of the most important books in the language, Boswell himself has been relegated to the second or third tier of the British literary canon and treated, poor chap, as a celebrity-seeking minor figure who specialized in the life of a major figure. If Dr. Johnson is Batman, Boswell is a hobnobbing, flattering Robin.

Boswell’s friends have fared better — countrymen and mentors such as Adam Smith and David Hume, for instance, and the continental luminaries Voltaire and Rousseau. But there are many interesting relationships here. To cite only one: Thérèse Levasseur, Rousseau’s wife or mistress (a topic of debate), became Boswell’s lover as he accompanied her from Paris to England. The unsuspecting Rousseau, exiled in England, waited eagerly for her arrival, while a more astute Hume, who was Rousseau’s host, recognized matters for what they were.

Zaretsky believes Boswell was an exceptional talent, notwithstanding his weaknesses, and certainly worthy of our attention. Glossing several periods of Boswell’s life but closely examining his grand tour of the Continent (1763–1765), Zaretsky elevates Boswell’s station, repairs Boswell’s literary reputation, and corrects a longstanding underestimation, calling attention to his complicated and curious relationship to the Enlightenment, a movement or milieu that engulfed him without necessarily defining him.

The title of the book assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s large claims for his subject might seem belied by the author’s professedly modest goal: “to place Boswell’s tour of the Continent, and situate the churn of his mind, against the intellectual and political backdrop of the Enlightenment.” To this end, Zaretsky remarks, “James Boswell and the Enlightenment are as complex as the coils of wynds and streets forming the old town of Edinburgh.” And so they are, as Zaretsky makes manifest in ten digestible chapters bristling with the animated, ambulatory prose of the old style of literary and historical criticism, the kind that English professors disdain but educated readers enjoy and appreciate.

Zaretsky marshals his evidence from Boswell’s meticulously detailed missives and journals, piecing together a fluid tale of adventure (meetings with the exiled libertine John Wilkes, evenings with prostitutes, debauchery across Europe, and lots of drinking) and resultant misadventure (aimlessness, dishonor, bouts of gonorrhea and depression, and religious angst). Zaretsky portrays Boswell as a habitual performer, a genteel, polite, and proud socialite who judged himself as he imagined others to have judged him. He suffered from melancholy and the clap, among other things, but he also cultivated a gentlemanly air and pursued knowledge for its own sake. The title of the book, Boswell’s Enlightenment, assumes plural meaning: Boswell attained a self-enlightenment that reflected the ethos and ethic of his era.

Zaretsky’s book matters because Boswell matters, and, in Zaretsky’s words, “Boswell matters not because his mind was as original or creative as the men and women he pursued, but because his struggle to make sense of his life, to bend his person to certain philosophical ends, appeals to our own needs and sensibilities.” We see ourselves in Boswell, in his alternating states of faith and doubt, devotion and reason. He, like so many of us, sought to improve himself daily but could never live up to his own expectations. He’s likeable because he’s fallible, a pious sinner who did right in the name of wrong and wrong in the name of right, but without any ill intent. A neurotic, rotten mess, he couldn’t control his libido and didn’t learn from his mistakes. But he could write like the wind, and we’re better off because he did. He knew all of us, strangely, without having known us. God help us, we’re all like him in some way.

Editor's Note: Review of "Boswell’s Enlightenment," by Robert Zaretsky. The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2015, 269 pages.

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Divining the Truth about War


The scene opens on a man, Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe), traversing the hot arid plain of Australia’s Outback. The camera looks down from above, almost as if it were the face of God. He carries two small metal rods in front of him, holding them gently and respectfully, as he might hold the reins of a pair of fine horses, giving them their head. Suddenly the rods cross. X marks the spot. He throws down his tools and begins to dig.

It is backbreaking work. We know from the change in his clothing that it takes many days. But he never gives up. He knows the water is down there; the rods told him so. He just has to keep digging. And sure enough, the water finally begins to gush. He exults at the sky as the water reaches his face, almost as a baptism. He has found water in the midst of a vast desert, just by trusting his gift for divination.

Arriving home, he finds his wife Lizzie (Jacqueline McKenzie) busy cleaning the boots of one of their sons. “They’re waiting for their story,” she tells him, nodding toward the bedroom of their three boys. “Not tonight,” he pleads. “I’m bone tired.” But she insists. “It’s their favorite part of the day.” The camera stays on her as we hear him read a magical tale from the Arabian Nights. The camera peers over his shoulder at the story’s illustration, then pans out.

How could you send all your sons off to fight a war half a world away? For what? For honor? For nothing.

But the beds are empty. There are no blankets on the striped ticking of the mattresses. These boys have been gone for a long time. They fought at Gallipoli. “May you outlive your children” may sound like a blessing, but it is the greatest curse any parent can know.

Moments like this abound in Russell Crowe’s The Water Diviner, his first film as a director and a stunning piece of work. It is a film so filled with passion and pathos, elegant cinematography and quotable lines, that you just know — this is the film Crowe has held in his heart through all the years of making other people’s films. It is his paean to the Aussies and Kiwis who joined the ANZAC forces to fight the Turks during World War I while simultaneously offering a heartbreaking protest against war. As we watch him send his fine sons off to war in a flashback scene, calling out to the oldest, “Keep your brothers safe!”, we can’t help of Wilfred Owen’s ironic and contemptuous poem about the sufferings of soldiers in WWI: “Dulce et Decorum Est” — “Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.” No, it is neither sweet nor fitting. It is horrifying. How could you send all your sons off to fight a war half a world away? For what? For honor? For nothing.

“You can find water, but you can’t find your own sons,” Lizzie accuses Connor wretchedly, and so he heads off to Gallipoli to find his sons’ bodies and bring them home. Along the way he stays at the inn of a woman (Olga Kurylenko) whose Turkish husband was killed in the war and meets the Turkish commander (Yilmaz Erdogan) who oversaw the ANZAC defeat at Gallipoli — his sons’ defeat — and has now returned to help the victors find and bury their dead. One Turk says to a British soldier, when asked what he did before the war, “I was an architect.” The Brit replies, “I was a civil engineer.” Enmity turns to respect as they come to know each other, and aThomas Hardy poem comes to mind — “The Man He Killed”:

Had he and I but met
     By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
     Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
     And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
     And killed him in his place.

I shot him dead because —
     Because he was my foe,
Just so: my foe of course he was;
     That's clear enough; although

He thought he'd 'list, perhaps,
     Off-hand like — just as I —
Was out of work — had sold his traps —
     No other reason why.

Yes; quaint and curious war is!
     You shoot a fellow down
You'd treat if met where any bar is,
     Or help to half-a-crown.

Despite the excruciating sadness of its subject, The Water Diviner is one of the most beautiful films I have seen in recent years. The powerful love of a father for his sons is demonstrated in the flashbacks and mingles with the terrible guilt he feels as he realizes what he has unwittingly done to them by proudly sending them off to war. The cinematography is lush and creative, the music poignant, and the script is so carefully crafted that it reminds me of an Oscar Wilde play, full of pithy, quotable truths. This a film you will be glad you saw.

Editor's Note: Review of "The Water Diviner," directed by Russell Crowe. Hopscotch Features, Fear of God Films, 2015, 111 minutes.

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Clash of the Superheroes


Two films opened this week with similar topics and settings but with vastly different stories and film styles. Both deal with AI (artificial intelligence). Both employ the Internet to give their AIs omniscience. Both are set in Norway, of all places. Both create metaphors for the “peacekeeping” NSA. But one is yet another mindnumbing blockbuster installment in the neverending Avengers series, while the other, Ex Machina, is a thoughtful, intelligent, well-acted suspense thriller.

I don’t know whether I’m the one getting old or the Avengers franchise is, but I’ve had enough of computer-generated hammers, shields, swords, tanks, and building parts barreling toward my face in an attempt to wow the 3D audiences in the theater next door. Give me a story — a story that I care about — please! In Avengers: Age of Ultron, once again an evil superpower is set on destroying and/or enslaving the human race, and once again our band of heroic mutants, endowed with special powers, must save the day. Between battles, the crew gives us some clever patter and barroom shenanigans, but even the charm of their personal squabbles is starting to wear thin.

So of course, Hollywood had to turn Tony Stark's entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

Others have been raving on Facebook and fan pages about the new Avengers, and I confess that I took a little nap part way through my viewing (okay, I was asleep for about an hour), so I went back two days later in order to see what I missed and write this review. Sadly, I hadn’t missed much — just another slew of building parts (and a whole city!) barreling toward my head. I think those who are raving about the movie on Facebook might be trying to convince themselves that their continued hero-worship is deserved. Or maybe they’re just Stark raving mad. (Stark. Tony. Iron Man? Oh, never mind.)

In this installment Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the unwitting bad guy who, through his greed and desire for personal advantage, unleashes Ultron, an AI of enormous size and strength who has managed to download all the information from the internet into his memory. (Ultron was originally designed as a peacekeeping program, so there it is — the NSA!) Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) is my favorite Avenger because his superpower is not a mutation or a weapon; it’s his brain. He uses it to solve problems, such as building a prosthetic body suit when his heart fails. He’s a successful entrepreneur, too, and a lot of fans are starting to admire that about him. So of course, Hollywood had to turn his entrepreneurship into greed and demonstrate what happens when heroes look out for themselves instead of sharing with the group.

You really don’t need to know anything else about the story. Heroes get beat up. Humans fall off bridges. Robots get shot. Robots get up again. Humans change sides. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) fall in love. (Say what?) Tony’s sidekick Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) is wisely away on business throughout this episode. I give this film a 2 for entertainment and an 8 for snoozability. But it’s going to make a mint in box office sales.

Ex Machina is another story entirely. First, it has a story. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a brilliant-but-nerdy computer programmer (aren’t they all?) who works at the world’s largest internet company. As the film opens, the company’s reclusive founder and president, Nathan (Oscar Isaacs), has sponsored a competition for one lucky team member to participate with him in a secret project. That lucky team member is Caleb. Soon he is whisked away to Nathan’s mountain retreat somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (but filmed in Norway; the Norwegians must be offering some attractive benefits to filmmakers right now).

Nathan is nothing like the stereotypical bespectacled computer geek. He is ruggedly handsome and hip, lifts weights, boogies down with the cook, and likes to throw back a few brews while hanging out with Caleb in his in-home bar. He’s friendly and cool, yet his eyes betray an air of sinister cynicism as he jokes about his projects. Caleb’s task is to perform a Turing test on a breakthrough robot imbued with humanlike intelligence and emotions. Named for computer inventor Alan Turing (see my review of The Imitation Game, based on Turing’s work to break the Nazi code), a Turing test decides whether a computer is interacting in ways that are indistinguishable from a human. Can it recognize idiomatic expressions, body language, and other nuances, for example? Can it create jokes, express sincere compassion, know fear or love?

He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA.

Soon Caleb is introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a beautiful robotic creature with whom he has conversations each day. He grows more and more convinced that she passes the Turing test — she not only recognizes sophisticated nuances in language, but she demonstrates human emotions. A game of cat-and-mouse develops among those residing in the house — but who is the cat, and who are the mice?

The title is a reference to a dramatic technique employed by the Greek playwrights called deus ex machina:“the god descends in a machine.” Ancient audiences learned the moral of a story when a god swooped down from Mt. Olympus (literally inside a machine operated by stage hands) to rescue the poor mortal protagonist who was incapable of rescuing himself. (Remember that plays in ancient times were sponsored and paid for by church and state.) Nathan tells Caleb, “It used to be God watching us. Now it’s the Cloud.” He has uploaded to Ava’s memory all the data on the internet — all the conversations, photos, texts, emails, websites, documents, Wikipedia entries, everything. In a sense she has become the Cloud, the god, the NSA. And yet she acts and feels and reacts as a young woman would, because that’s all stored in her memory.

First-time director Alex Garland imbues his film with rich allusions to poetry, art, mythology, and film. For example, in the Bible, Eve (Ava) is the first woman, Nathan is the prophet who chastises David for seducing Bathsheba, and Caleb is an Israelite spy who scouts the Promised Land for Moses. References to Prometheus abound, as do references to Star Trek, a series that was also richly grounded in mythology. Nathan has several priceless works of art casually displayed in his secret hideaway, including a Jackson Pollock and Gustav Klimt’s painting of Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein, sister of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose work on thinking and consciousness is central to AI development and whose “Blue Book” is referenced in Nathan’s company name, Blue Book. Very subtle, and very cool when you get it. Describing Pollock’s creative process, Nathan tells Caleb, “It was ‘engaged’ art. It wasn’t deliberate, and it wasn’t random.” In a way he is describing God: not random, and not controlling, but engaged.

Recognizing these allusions is not necessary to enjoying the film. In fact, it would probably reduce one’s enjoyment of the film if you spent your time looking for them. But allusion is part of our shared consciousness, and when used subtly, as Garland does, it enriches our experience without our being fully aware of it. Joss Whedon and the other directors of superhero blockbusters would do well to get their heads out of the comic books and read something that has lasted for centuries.

Editor's Note: Review of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," directed by Joss Whedon. Marvel Studios/ Walt Disney, 2015. 141 minutes; and "Ex Machina," directed by Alex Garland. Universal, 108 minutes, 2015.

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And the Winner Is — The Story!


McFarland USA is not a great movie, but it is a great story. The pacing is slow, and at 129 minutes, the picture is justtoo long. The acting is average, and the casting, with men as old as 30 playing characters under 16, is often jarring, especially when a 30-year-old actor is romancing a 15-year-old girl. But the story, about a rag-tag cross-country team of mostly immigrant students who make it to the California state championships, grabs your heart midway through and keeps you engaged till the end.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who has lost three teaching positions in three different states because of his inability to control his temper. He ends up in McFarland, an agricultural community of immigrant farmworkers and one of the poorest communities in California, because it is virtually at the end of the road. He wants nothing more than to put in his time while finding a better position somewhere else. When a local merchant recommends that he plant a tree in his yard that will provide shade in five years, White responds, “I won’t be here that long.”

They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies.

Then he notices some students running from school to their homes or work in the fields after school, and he realizes that they have what it takes to succeed in cross country. “No one can endure pain the way you can,” he reminds the team during a pre-tournament pep talk. “No one else out there gets up at 4 a.m. to work in the fields and then goes to school and then to practice. No one else can endure heat and thirst the way you can. Don’t let them intimidate you.” Coach White knows the pain they are able to endure, because he has joined them in the fields to pick cabbage, and it was the most physically demanding work he has ever done. He admires these young men on his team who are often marginalized and face ridicule and derision when they compete at other schools.

According to interviews, the real Jim White did not move from job to job until he hit rock bottom in McFarland; he chose to teach at McFarland High School because he wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, and he figured a small school would be the best place to do that. It was his first and only teaching job, and he definitely succeeded in his goal of making a difference. All of his original team members went to college or the military and went back to McFarland and became leaders in the community. One did some time in prison, but returned to work in McFarland after serving his sentence. The pattern has continued with subsequent team members, many of whom have graduated from college and found employment serving communities like theirs.

That’s why I said that McFarland USA is a great story, even if it isn’t a great movie. These boys and their families work hard, produce much, and pay their own way. They are living the American dream in an area and style of life that most people would describe as a nightmare: doing backbreaking labor in the searing heat of triple-digit temperatures, living in tiny houses, and counting their pennies. But they do it so their children can have a better life. Seeing the actual men striding alongside the actors who portray them during the closing credits is one of the best moments in the film.

Editor's Note: Review of "McFarland USA," directed by Niki Caro. Disney Studios, 2015, 129 minutes.

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